Production Line: Getting It Done
Our head of production at MullenLowe Group UK talks about how Covid has changed production forever, the enduring relevance of ‘traditional’ media like radio and how to nurture production talent. *Originally published in Little Black Book
What lasting impact has the experience of the pandemic had on how you and your agency think about and approach production?
For me the biggest thing has been our ability to adapt to new ways of working at speed together with the application of new processes and technology to deliver our work. As an agency we couldn’t have handpicked a more appropriate set of pandemic clients and the production department has had to react from day one and hasn’t stopped since. Whereas in the past it was open for us to push deadlines, insist on certain ways of working or produce in tried and tested ways, at times we’ve had to put all that to one side and just “get it done”. What has become ever more obvious is the importance of collaboration, the need for a tireless “can do” spirit and real skill from our producers. We’ve leant heavily on their core skills, tested their resilience and encouraged their perseverance, whilst continuing to insist on their creativity to deliver a prolific body of work, including a global launch campaign for Lifebuoy, reactive government campaigns, a new recruitment campaign for the NHS and - using five DoPs and their families in different countries – to shoot a global campaign for Persil. As a positive result I feel the industry has developed a new-found respect for production based on what we’ve been able to achieve and how we’ve adapted to and adopted new business models, ways of working and processes.
Aside from Covid-19, what have been the most disruptive forces to hit agency production in the past few years?
Some aspects have been exacerbated by Covid-19 but certainly the constant pressure on budgets and time continues unabated. The growth of 360 campaigns across multi-channel media has increased the volume of production deliverables significantly. Client retainers seem much less common and client retention much harder to predict and rely upon which means resource and departmental forward planning becomes more challenging. Hence the increased reliance on freelancers and the ability to flex the size, and skillsets of the department becomes ever more important. Clients are much more sensitive to market response and sentiment and seemingly rapid changes in attitude and taste, resulting in a growth of production which is less planned, less forecasted and far more reactive with shorter turnaround times. In the past clients took less of an active interest in the production process. Creative was king whereas now clients are much more interested in every aspect of the process and so as a production department we have had to adapt to greater client accountability. Consumer research of creative ideas and concepts is omnipresent which comes with both challenges and benefits. Whilst important to test consumer reaction before investing in a large campaign, some of the more creative output can be extinguished before it’s given time to develop through the production. Explaining the idea to someone with a rough concept may not deliver the reaction of a finished production. We’ve also experienced an increase in stakeholders (both on the agency and client side) who take anactive interest in production. Again, incorporating the views of a wider, more diverse group can result in better productions and output but this shouldn’t come at the expense of speed, agility or creativity.
A good producer should be able to produce for any medium, from film to events to digital. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why/why not?
I agree that good producers need the core skills to adapt to any form of production. However, there are different processes in place that require experience and expertise for different mediums and I also believe that there remains a place for experience and expertise within production. So, for instance, whilst we have producers that can adapt to new and ground-breaking campaigns, whether they be experiential (such as when we were asked to create a digital art installation for the British Heart Foundation or a live streaming interactive billboard for Persil, and a launch event for Primark) an important factor remains an understanding of the complexity and experience of that discipline and that campaign. Producers rarely work in isolation and it isn’t uncommon for us to work alongside expert partners (such as events companies, model makers, digital production companies etc.) to fulfill the requirement to provide the best result.
And leading on from that, when it comes to building up your team at the agency, what’s your view on the balance of specialists vs generalists?
Due to the variety and breadth of work it’s important to have a production department with a broad skillset. This allows me to determine which set of skills are needed for each project and assign a producer accordingly. Our department is made of production specialists who have crossover skills. In my experience it continues to be important to have specialists who excel in their fields of film, stills and digital production as this is what clients expect. As campaigns increasingly demand more assets producers are, by default, upskilling in order to optimise shoot efficiencies and asset delivery. I’ve learnt that having specialists and experienced producers is vital when producing complex and challenging productions. This has never been more evident than during Covid-19 where projects have required us to navigate new and ever-changing Covid-19 protocols and increasing time pressures. That requires a certain degree of learned instinct in order to continue to optimise the creative output. Similarly delivering hundreds of digital assets (as we’ve had to do) requires specialist technical and technology know-how. I’m seeing a new breed of producers coming through the ranks who combine more traditional production skills with new technological experience and knowledge that add great value to the department in terms of what they can offer.
What’s your own pathway to production? When you started out, what sort of work were you producing and what lessons have stayed with you in that time?
I started in Television production at the BBC in documentary and entertainment before moving into advertising production. My first agency job was as a production assistant in the TV department and then trained as a producer on global clients like Mars, Fiat and social campaigns for the COI such as Drink Drive. The discipline of working with strong characters and creatively focused producers at the BBC put me in good stead for the demands of advertising creative leads. The key things that have stayed with me include pushing to find the best talent to realise the creative idea, to seek to be proactive where I can and above all to remain solution focused whilst making budgets work as hard as they can.
If you compare your role to the role of the heads of TV/heads of production when you first joined the industry, what do you think are the most striking or interesting changes (and what surprising things have stayed the same?)
The most striking change must be the different mediums we now have to produce for. When I started, we created TV, radio, print and cinema whereas now we are producing multi-channel assets on almost every job. Agency production was more defined, more hierarchical. For instance almost every senior producer had a PA. Campaign timetables and budgets were certainly more generous. In the past clients often found the production part of the campaign a mystery and so focused less on the process whereas now I often feel as though everyone is an expert film-maker. The modern day production department is considerably more client-facing. Producers are involved in many more client meetings and are engaged earlier in the process. We now also place much greater emphasis on the societal aspects of a production (such as the diversity and inclusion aspects of our casting and crew, the sustainability agenda in the context of production locations and processes etc.). Ultimately the production process hasn’t really changed. We still shoot, edit, oversee post-production and deliver production as we’ve always done, albeit using a variety of digital media, technologies and equipment. Thankfully the essential creative production process is still there. Despite the threat of a digital take over and the constant obituaries for television, radio, print etc. we are still producing a considerable amount of moving image and content for online, broadcast and radio. Covid-19 has shown us that for certain areas of society - radio, for instance - remains a key means of communication. Which is why we still produced over 300 radio commercials last year. I feel the volume of assets we are now required to produce and the constant focus on cost and doing more for less can have an impact on the overall creativity or production values of some of our output.
There are so many models for the way production is organised in the advertising industry - what set-ups have you found to be the most successful and why?
Our current model feels right to me. We’re organised as a separate main production department covering all areas of production. However, MullenLowe Group also holds a separate customer experience and digital transformation tentacle, called MullenLowe Profero, as well as having Yeti our own in-house production studio. It’s important to have specialists in these areas as they do require different disciplines. Maintaining an organized distinction allows each of us to develop our departmental specialism and ensures that whilst we work collaboratively alongside each other we are able to attract clients to one or more of the areas of focus. For instance we have digital clients separate from those for whom we produce full campaigns. If we were to incorporate these into one department I feel we’d lose the focus on our core skills and client offering.
When working with a new partner or collaborator, how do you go about establishing trust?
Transparency and honesty are key. This ensures we develop a mutual understanding of the essential issues facing both parties (as well as those of the client) and allows us to work together collaboratively. Without this it would have been impossible for us to turn round our recent government work in such tight timescales. We would not have been able to create 30”/60” TV ad campaigns from initial concept to on air in two weeks if we hadn’t established collaborative partnerships. Sending directors off to shoot solo and seeing the footage in the edit requires a huge amount of trust.
What are your thoughts on the involvement of procurement in production?
It’s understandable that the constant focus on cost and factors such as the ESG agenda increases the pressure on clients. In turn this has made them accountable for marketing spend and the performance of their agencies. We need to be competitive and sensitive to their wider concerns and supportive in their objectives. Procurement have a role to play in ensuring all of this. Good procurement teams can help navigate difficult budgets and support agency production and in my experience the more knowledgeable their production experience the more they understand the challenges we face and the more balanced they are in their approach. Overall our experiences have been positive. It’s important to collaborate and approach them as an ally. This has certainly benefitted our relationships and working processes. However in a time where speed is often of the essence the process can add delay so this needs to be factored in. Rarely is it a question simply of price and doing everything at the lowest possible cost. We’ve found during Covid-19 and having to adapt to the new ways of working that it has been helpful to have another trusted voice and the support of good procurement professionals.
When it comes to educating producers how does your agency like to approach this? (I know we’re always hearing about how much easier it is to educate or train oneself on tech etc., but what areas do you think producers can benefit from more directed or structured training?)
One of the things that attracted me to MullenLowe Group was that the agency champions learning and employee development and access to training. Producers have really benefitted from the IPA and APA production courses in obtaining a comprehensive understanding of the production process and being able to apply this to their own production skills and approach. It’s also important that as team members become more senior they receive leadership training and develop their management and presentation skills as we become more client facing. Ultimately production skills are honed and developed on the job and so it remains important that junior producers and assistant producers have the opportunity to work closely on projects and be mentored by more senior members of the team. I ensure our producers have the opportunity to work on a variety of projects that will increase their skillset, whether that be in animation or CGI production for instance, especially if there are gaps in a producer’s CV. Specialist areas of training specifically on diversity and inclusion and environmental issues (such as AdGreen training) are instrumental to the understanding of sustainable production and securing inclusive talent in front and behind the camera. We make use of our internal skillset and have internal workshops so production experts and agency teams can educate each other.
What new skills have you had to add to the team as a result of the pandemic?
By their very nature producers are problem solvers and need to exhibit a high degree of resilience. Essentially they have drawn on their existing key skills in adapting to the new challenges. They now have an understanding of Covid-19 guidelines and how to apply new and fast changing protocols at any stage of a production. We’ve all gained a much greater working knowledge in the area of Covid-19 testing. We’ve also had to develop our technological skills in the use of Zoom, QTake and other software and devices throughout the production process including the enablement of remote audio and editing sessions during lockdown.
Should production have a seat in the c-suite - and why?
I believe so. As mentioned above there has been an increased focus on production by clients which is set to continue. Clients will challenge their agencies as to ways of working, maximizing asset delivery, improving efficiencies and with regard to wider socio-political and environmental issues. A lot of this is driven by and impacts production. Hence, I believe it’s important that production plays a role in setting the strategic direction and objectives for the business. We are often one of the first to witness changing client needs or challenges and can use this experience to make a significant contribution to the c-suite as an active member.
How have you approached integrating data with production workflows and processes?
The impact on digital content has been immeasurable. For mainstream production our work is less impacted by data although, as mentioned above, research and data can give valuable strategic insights that in turn can impact the creative and production process
And, generally, how has data and the fact that we have constant live feedback on content performance changed production?
It’s another example of why the modern production department needs to ensure it remains agile and responsive. It also requires us to create a hyperbundled team to react to all areas of media at pace.
Clients’ thirst for content seems to be unquenchable - and they need content that’s fast and responsive! What’s the key to creating LOTS of stuff at SPEED - without sacrificing production values? Is it even possible?
The challenge is to develop ideas that can be produced simply and effectively whilst engaging producers and external partners who can execute with an agile and flexible approach. During Covid-19 we turned around TV commercials in two weeks, digital assets and radio in 24 hours for our government campaigns. Working at pace relies on reactive responses and the ability to make decisions promptly and decisively. It also demands flexibility from all parties involved. By using our internal designers and creators alongside our in-house production we have been able to execute multiple social and digital assets. We’ve also found it essential to build systems which enable us to deliver at pace. There are limits to what is possible and not everything can be executed well at speed but some of the work we’ve been able to produce has astounded everyone in terms of quality. We have also employed shoots which create a myriad of assets for use over time as opposed to all at once. We shot a campaign last year capturing over sixty-five deliverables that could be used and repurposed for a variety of broadcast TV, social, digital and print executions for all platforms over a period of time.
To what extent is production strategic - traditionally it’s the part that comes at the ‘end’ of the agency process, but it seems in many cases production is a valuable voice to have right up top - what are your thoughts/experiences of this?
Increasingly production is brought in much earlier in the ideas stage. This has been key during Covid-19. Production has been able to advise on shoot possibilities from a logistics, safety and time/budget perspective and what areas to avoid. Moving forward as agencies and clients look to more sustainable production and inclusion the producer will become ever more key at the early strategic stage. The producer can also inform shoot best practice to maximise asset creation and forward plan content capture. Production isn’t there to hinder the creative or strategic process but upfront discussion can help form the output and provide valuable alternative solutions.
What’s the most exciting thing about working in production right now?
For all of the dreadful and at times heart-breaking experiences of Covid-19 it has provided production with a new set of challenges and the limitations we have been faced with have encouraged creative problem solving. There has been a palpable sense of achievement on how and what we produced which I feel is unprecedented. I sense there may have been a growing sense of appreciation of the job of the producer by others within the agency and the industry which is fantastic to witness. It’s exciting to see how the changes last year will affect production moving forward and adapting to an ever changing and unpredictable landscape. I’m also seeing a whole new slew of talent coming through from directors, photographers, digital creators, boutique post houses, and animators, all who bring a freshness and energy to their approach to advertising production both on and off the screen.
And what advice would you give to an aspiring agency producer?
Production is an exciting space to be in right now with the breadth and variety of work being created. Any aspiring producer will need the ability to work under pressure, a flexible approach and an understanding of the needs of other disciplines. Always champion the creative idea and explore new and innovative creative partnerships. See every challenge as an opportunity and take time to learn from others. A sense of humour always helps.