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How Two Ex-Disney Creatives Are Taking A Startup Approach to Marketing

by Lauren Zyber, Purpose Jobs

It started as a risky and laborious stop-motion film project on the stages of Disney. Years later and thousands of miles from the studios of L.A., Greg Shewchuk and Mike Ambs have started their next venture in Ann Arbor: A2 Creative Labs. 

Founded in 2023, A2 Creative Labs is a creative studio helping brands with content, design, branding, identity, digital marketing and website production. Whether they’re working with tech startups, local small businesses or VC firms, one thing is always true: it’s all about the story. 

Behind the Scenes of Blank, A Vinylmation Love Story. All images courtesy of Greg Shewchuk and Mike Ambs

Story As Strategy

Perhaps it comes from their background working together at a Disney offshoot. In the world of entertainment, the best stories make the biggest impact. 

“On a fundamental level, humans organize information through stories,” says Greg. “It’s about cognitive resonance, worldbuilding, and engaging with people on an emotional level. That’s what makes an impact.”

And in an age where everyone is creating content, and the media industry is full of noise, Greg and Mike have placed their bet on standing out with powerful stories.

Greg and Mike’s story mapping

That’s exactly why Greg and Mike use stories in a strategic way primarily with filmmaking, unlike other marketing agencies that focus heavily on data. 

That’s not to say A2 Creative Labs doesn’t care about data and technology. In fact, they use tech to enhance their storytelling abilities as much as possible.

Creative Labs: Where Stories & Tech Connect

Whether it’s with emergent animation technology, utilizing new camera technology, or new platforms for content distribution, tech is ingrained in the everyday work at A2 Creative Labs. The team likes finding opportunities to be future forward and experiment with new technologies, like virtual production, and immersive and mixed media. 

“We want to go beyond being data-driven and bring in the more emotionally resonant aspects,” says Greg. “It’s the sort of the yin and yang of those two elements that I think make us really move forward. It’s an exciting world to be in right now with this interesting combination of storytellers and new tech.”

Storyboarding for Disney’s Blank

One of the biggest shake ups in the creative marketing world right now is artificial intelligence. Some have fully embraced it, using ChatGPT and the likes to auto create content, and others have railed against the technology and the complications that come with it. (For example, one of the biggest aspects of SAG-AFTRA strikes and contract negotiations is AI and the ability to create without creators.)

“We’re not AI-first but we are well aware of it,” says Greg. “It’s a powerful tool set, but that’s just it: a tool. We’re really open-minded and there’s some AI technology that I’m interested in right now, like motion capture, which is very laborious by hand. But in the end, we don’t want to lose that human element.”

Video editing for Disney’s Blank

As Greg and Mike build out their business, this is what’s exciting to them: finding the balance between being data driven and crafting an authentic, humanized voice for brands. 

“We really want to connect with people,” says Mike. And that goes back to authentic and powerful storytelling—in an innovative way. 

“We thrive on discovery, finding new and cutting-edge ways to solve old problems. We want to push the boundaries in that way,” says Mike. “That’s always been how Greg and I like to do things. We want to stand out, take risks, put our voice in it, no matter the project. We’re not afraid to take a risk.”

It’s a mindset that harkens back to their time at Disney, when a small team of creatives spent hundreds of hours developing a risky pilot that eventually worked. From that experience, Mike and Greg form a deep sense of trust, emotional connectivity, and respect for each other as artists. Stop motion is intensive, laborious, and tedious work. At a time when Disney was checking boxes, Greg and Mike were putting in the time, effort, and innovation to do something new. 

And it worked. Their team went on to develop a silent, feature-length film with a multi-million dollar budget, and partnership between Disney and Google.

It’s exactly this type of risk-taking that Greg and Mike bring to their studio to push the envelope, stand out, and create something new. It’s a startup mindset of disruption, and looking at problems through new lenses as true entrepreneurs.

Building in Ann Arbor

After that arm of Disney was reorganized, Mike, who is originally from Michigan, and Greg, who had lived in Ann Arbor previously, both found themselves moving back and settling in Ann Arbor for separate family reasons.  When they discovered that they were both in town, they knew it was time to team up again.  

One of the first people Greg met in Ann Arbor was Phil Santer, Senior Vice President and Chief of Staff for Ann Arbor SPARK. Since then, A2 Creative Labs has been a part of the SPARK network, getting connected to startups and community events. 

“Ann Arbor SPARK really helped us feel like we were a part of this momentum happening in Ann Arbor,” says Greg. 

Over the last decade, Ann Arbor has grown as a tech hub, spurred by billion-dollar exits of Duo Security and Llamasoft. With efforts from community organizations like Ann Arbor SPARK, entrepreneurship development at the University of Michigan, and a tech talent pool that is only getting bigger and better, Ann Arbor is one of the best tech hubs in the Midwest. 

“Ann Arbor really lives up to its promise of inclusivity,” Greg says. “Business is naturally competitive, but there is a sense of camaraderie here, and potential for collaboration.”

Plus, having friends in the area has certainly helped. Greg’s friendship with Dug Song (the founder of Duo Security and a leader in the growth of Michigan tech hubs) goes back to the ‘90s, when the two would skateboard together, write zines, and live in the subculture of Ann Arbor. Now, Greg feels like he’s a part of a startup subculture. 

“There’s a lot of great energy here,” he says. “It feels like the place to be, and there’s a lot of opportunity and support.”

To learn more about A2 Creative Labs, check out their website or follow them on Instagram