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The Laws and Outlaws of Production

By Published on .

Advancing technologies, shrinking budgets and increasingly fickle audiences have changed the job of production, more than ever, into an unpredictable beast. Creativity rounded up a group of the industry's most notable vets for its second annual roundtable and, among other things, found that skillful and innovative producing isn't just about "making things work," but also about breaking rules and forging paths into unexpected territory.

Participants: Hyatt Choate, Executive Producer, BBDO/N.Y.; Brian DiLorenzo, Head of Production, Fallon/Minneapolis; Dominic Ferro, Head of Production, Lowe/N.Y.; Peter Friedman, Head of Production, McCann Erickson/N.Y.; Grant Hill, Executive Director of Production, DDB/Chicago; Steve Humble, Head of Production, The Martin Agency, Richmond; Greg Lane, Director of Broadcast Production, GSD&M, Austin; Cathy Pitegoff, Co-Head of Production, EuroRSCG/N.Y.; Chris Rossiter, Head of Production, Leo Burnett/Chicago; David Rolfe, Director of Branded Production, DDB/Chicago; Jill Rothman, Director of Production, JWT/N.Y.

Creativity: We have a few people here who are new in their jobs. Why don't we exploit that. What's the first thing you do? With everything that's happening in the industry right now, do you feel that you're coming into a new way of looking at production? What are your priorities?

Rothman and Rolfe
Rothman and Rolfe
Chris Rossiter [Newly promoted to Burnett's head of production] I don't think my point of view on production has changed in the last couple weeks (laughs). I think the agency's production department is in a good place. There are things that I want to do to move forward with the obvious emerging technologies. But in terms of the immediate, all I'm doing is restructuring based on the fact that I have to be replaced, and then just roll up my sleeves and start to look at affecting work on a greater scale in a place that's large and extremely diverse and continue to build fully integrated communications in varying forms.

Greg Lane I came into probably a completely opposite setup from Chris. Leo Burnett is known for having a great production department, very well organized, deep and wide. Same with DDB/Chicago, where I came from. People say GSD&M didn't have a production department when I arrived. That's not true at all. There are 780 employees, and there was a production department, but not in any sense of how you would recognize one. There were two senior producers, one producer, three associates, and 18 freelancers. I've been charged with building a department for them. Right now I'm trying to structure with three to four executive producers to head up three creative groups and then build a staff underneath them. It's kind of like running with the bulls underwater everyday. But one thing that surprised me, as far as emerging media, branded content, their internet work, is that GSD&M is much further down the road than I would have expected.

Dave, can you talk about your new role, director of branded production? First of all, why did you move and what does this role entail, both structurally for the agency and for you?

Dave Rolfe Structurally it's yet to be determined. I did have a curiosity about big agencies. I love the integrated model we set up at Crispin that combined what was traditionally known as broadcast producers, web producers and print producers. The question is how can that be relevant in the larger agencies because I think it's becoming more of a necessity. My position is director of branded production. Grant is the head of production and we're partnering to help build a better system for embracing alternative media projects. We're not setting up a separate department. We'll use some of the skills and the knowledge I have to work with producers and creatives to develop that internally plus develop partners on the outside to come in and push us.

Peter Friedman How close do you work with your media department?

DR We need to play catch-up. I know there are other larger agencies that are frankly, too far ahead of us in that area. We're going to get there very quickly. Ideas are media. If I had to describe Alex Bogusky, he's like a really super creative media guy. He knows that you cannot separate the media ideas from your advertising. That's a really important thing to learn. We will bring in content distribution people, whether they're in the creative department, or in the production department with the model I've talked about with Grant. I do think there's a future where creatives at the executive level are really media wise and where there's sort of an executive producer/media amalgam, because of the relationships they have and what they can bring to ideas that are happening.

Grant, would you say that there's more buy-in to this sort of thing, at the higher levels of the agency or the network?

Grant Hill Definitely at the higher levels. What's interesting is that the higher levels of people know where the agency is going, while it takes a while for others to realize and embrace that kind of vision. But I think a lot of people are on the cusp and just need a little bit of leadership. That's the unique thing about having someone like David to inspire and lead the young producers in this area.

Friedman, Choate and Ferro
Friedman, Choate and Ferro
Speaking of higher levels, an agency CEO asked this recently about production integration—how come when there's so much convergence, there are still print and TV and interactive production departments? Are we moving generally away from that or does it still make sense?

PF I'm as big a proponent as everyone else here about doing other things. At my place I'm sometimes the one leading the charge, and sometimes you bang your head against the wall, but the truth is at the end of the day the print and TV departments each have a certain P&L to maintain. The problem is we're all so busy doing our daily work just to get through the end of the year. Today it's all based on a fee basis, so everybody has to be busy because you have to bill your time. In the foreseeable future, I can't see our print and direct response getting together saying, "Hey let's all go out and make nice." It's not gonna happen.

CR But I think it'll happen naturally. If the projects themselves are demanding that everything merge together, once you have a solid enough group, with a complete enough understanding across the mediums, I think it'll eventually in most places morph into one department.

GH You need to help it structurally. When I became head of production the first thing I did was disband the production department and when I was asked to get involved in the print department, I disbanded that and had each fully integrated into the creative department. It's interesting, there really isn't a production department at DDB/Chicago, even if I'm the head of production and David is the director of branded production. We're fully integrated into the creative groups.

Brian, Fallon's done a number of branded content projects and continues to do them. How have you incorporated that into your production process?

Brian Dilorenzo It's really changed. BMW Films was sort of an initiative that was taken out of desperation with the client at the time in terms of trying to reach very specifically an audience that was getting harder to get to with normal television. After that there was a sort of realization that we should probably have different kinds of meetings. Now we're having a lot more meetings with creatives and they're looser and structured out of trying to come up with an idea on a brief. We did something recently where we needed to do something with old music videos, to see if we could license that music and get it remixed. It was happening very piecemeal because of the way the meetings started out, so we took a step back and basically said, "Why don't we go to the very large music holding companies, see how high we can shoot and hopefully interest in the project will trickle it down." Things became much more streamlined. When you really get to the core of an idea and get the right people in the room, then even though you do have sort of traditional departments, you find out things pretty quickly become more socialist and collective.

"Branded content isn't extra credit."—Dave Rolfe
DR That example of being able to go to the resource is testimony to how important it is for producers at the executive level and great creative producers to have diversified, unique resources. Also, branded content isn't extra credit. It's not something to add onto an idea once it's already halfway through production. It should be part of the package of the whole idea. At Crispin, jobs are half-produced even before they're shown to clients. The more agencies can do it at the early stages, the better, so it's included in the work as it's assigned.

Steve Humble Our issues at the Martin Agency aren't internal at all. We always present interactive and branded content ideas to clients. The point is getting clients to think bigger, do the ideas, spend the extra money. The kind of producers I look for are problem solvers. I'm researching right now how to make plastic figurines for a project in China. Medium doesn't matter. Bring it to our department and we'll figure it out.

GL Has anybody read the The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman? Isn't this sort of a microcosm of what that book is about? The blurring of the lines, trying to figure out traditional roles and the new roles? It's the wildebeest against the crocs, who's going to make it and who's not.

Peter, last year you didn't mince words about the difficulties of pushing new work through, about media and creatives coming together. Have you seen any change since then?

PF I think now when you speak about doing something that's going to break the rules, people aren't going to look at you negatively. They may be ambivalent, but they're not going to be negative. But I learned my lesson last year. You can't tiptoe through anything. We talked about it last year—no offense, but I don't care about the other silos. If I have a client that's working with us, I'm not going to worry about taking care of those people, I'm going to do it myself. I still do that but now there's a receptive audience. The client, the creative people want to get on board.

Hyatt Choate We have OMD as our media people who live somewhere else, so we're very segmented in that way where a lot of people don't cross lines. But now, with obviously the new regime we have working at the agency and David Lubars who's pushing other ideas and avenues, it's starting to happen. It's just that I think we've been the caboose.

Dominic Ferro I think in the past year we've seen the lines blurring for the larger agencies because some of us have lost business to smaller agencies, with large companies like Unilever that go to a Crispin Porter or a BBH. They didn't really care about the size of the network, they just wanted good work and I think the so-called traditional agencies are now going to be responsible for getting it done, and competing maybe internally within the parent companies.

Jill Rothman What we've been doing a lot lately is telling our clients, come to us, we can give you the ideas and execute them.

DF What we're doing right now is preparing ourselves to understand these mediums and how to get that content produced to all these different mediums and be ready for those days that we're given the opportunity.

"Clearly rulebreaking is in our immediate future if we want to be vital and relevant."—Grant Hill
GH I think you should not be compliant to the structure because I don't think you can get ahead. You have to break the rules, even hire a media person in the production department to crystallize some of this stuff instead of relying on an outside company like we do with OMD. Hearing what we're talking about today, clearly rulebreaking is in our immediate future if we want to be vital and relevant. That's true within a production department or an agency. There have been a lot of businesses and structures built around the large holding companies and even within smaller agencies. That's going to be our undoing if we don't do something about it in a very kind but strong way.

BD I would imagine that all of us have projects right now that are probably more than the traditional sort. That's also going to help this too. Combining the more senior producer with someone who's up and coming, who might have a gaming skill, or is really into music. We've tried to break things into sharing, mentoring, bringing junior people into the process because sometimes we don't have all of the producers we would like. We just try to keep different layers within the same project.

DR I honestly thought of integrated production as a survival tactic. That's the way we described it to our producers and they believe it and I think it's working.

[To Jill] Have you seen the effects at JWT of a creative leadership change?

JR Ty Montague our ECD is a great guy and we don't present work that isn't integrated. We're able to dabble in things we hadn't done before, to do web projects while we're doing TV commercials. It's really good to stretch.

DR It will be that way at DDB as well.

Cathy Pitegoff Often the smallest component of the media at this point might be the TV. The client says get off the TV already.

How are you training people that work with you to become the next executive producers, and are they moving faster through the ranks than they used to?

CR Yes, and they're gonna move faster than that. The juniors are gonna be the seniors, they come in with so much knowledge.

Can any of you speak to differences between producing for broadcast and interactive? Are there differences or is it basically the same skill?

DR Agency producers know about postproduction but you still have a postproduction producer who possibly understands it better. Some producers grow up intricately understanding postproduction and know it as well as a post producer. Similarly with web, a producer can understand web, but you still have on an execution level an interactive producer who can help you through those steps. In the end you will have gleaned enough knowledge to call yourself someone who's capable as a web producer. But I consider it the same model as a producer who subcontracts and works with postproduction.

JR We're trying to produce content now as we produce everything else. When we do TV commercials, we try to produce web films for that content, and we try to do it in an episodic fashion if the story is geared toward that, so we have content that would last a long time. Then we supply the integrated and web people with that content. Somebody's got to not only upload the different episodics, and if it's an interactive website, they need to monitor who's registering, how long they're spending on it, all those kinds of statistics.

CR We did this from day one on the Army, although we're not doing it anymore (laughter). But literally it was amazing to watch the silos–print production, web, online and what a total lack of understanding they each had for what each other did. Now, like on the work we've done for Cadillac, the "Under 5" campaign, those lines are blurred in all the right ways. You can force yourself to learn and go forward, but you can only force it by actually diving in and doing it.

Lightning round. Everybody, what's the first thing on your mind, going into the office tomorrow, being a producer or a manager of producers? It could be anything from global warming to SAG, cost consultants, whatever.

BD The increasing shortness of schedules. I always wake up and think about schedules before anything else.

CP I'm with you. It's all about time. As hard as we've pushed to make sure that schedules are coming from production, no matter what we do there are always crazy deadlines and it ultimately costs money.

PF I wake up every morning worrying about getting through the crush of work. More importantly, we have a new creative director who started a year ago with Joyce [King Thomas] and her whole mantra is "Make the work better." In production, we want to be leaders, not followers. But you need enough of the right people to make it work. My biggest fear is, with 50 jobs a month going through the department, do I have enough people who are going to be able to make the work better and support that client?

HC I think the big thing is trying to get the best people to work on the job, be it the director, the editor, and obviously time issues being part of that problem. Time and money is pressing all this stuff at the same time.

DF I agree with the schedule thing. Based on the way Lowe is structured with companies all around the world and global clients, for me it's globalization, and being required to work through other agencies in our network. With 8000 directors listed in the DGA, I feel like not only are the producers now required to know our own domestic and the European directors, but also getting jobs done for $50,000 in China.

SH I don't really worry. I'm really excited about this time in the industry for broadcast departments, for advertising agencies. I'm excited that we're all on the cusp of it and in the next three to five years we're all going to be doing different things, websites, content, video games. There really is no limit and there shouldn't be one. I wake up energized everyday.

CR To me it all boils down to being smart and being fast. Everyday we have to be a little smarter and a little faster.

GL I would second what Steve said. I get totally energized by a lot of the budgets, the turnarounds, the creative. What I do worry about is litigation. Everything is moving so fast right now, and I have so many people out there, some I haven't even met yet. I do think about that several times a day, that I'm going to end up getting busted on something that slips through the cracks.

GH Recruiting. I think that recruiting really defines a department. It's a very basic, easy thing to help you toward greatness. For instance, I met David two years ago and was very impressed with him after hearing him speak. It kind of fermented for a year and a half, I called him up and ultimately it resulted in him coming to DDB. If you can, in the craziness of trying to keep it all going, carve out enough time for recruiting, it can define not only yourself in the business, but also the agency and the production area.

JR I don't think there's been a day I've had that was anything like I'd expected the night before. It's constant surprise, constant evolving.

DR I just think about trying to fortify an exciting environment and recognize more than ever that we're moving on from being purveyors of advertising to purveyors of culture and ideas that can be more powerful than ever.

That's such a huge point, building your own brand, your own culture.

DR Big agencies are doing it, it's just that it's segmented, it's in certain pockets and that's one of the things Grant and I were talking about earlier—are we DDB or are we areas of DDB for our clients? More and more big agencies have to think of themselves as a unified group.

PF You're at a big agency now and you have a lot of clients. Do you target five or 10 accounts that are going to be receptive, and then just go after those pieces of business?

Ferro, Humble, Rossiter, Lane
Ferro, Humble, Rossiter, Lane
DR Yes, you do target and then you do hope to find leadership for a particular client that can help lead the agency. I think the question lies in how do you stimulate your overall culture? That's what I think we have to work on. The culture at Crispin was almost a cliché, and it's very hard to create, but I do think it comes down to, as a business leader, as a president or as a holding company, what do you think of these large agencies and how can this culture become more of a fertile place for everyone to believe in? Agency as a brand, that's what it is.

SH Clients who before wouldn't consider exploring alternative spaces, are now. The UPS Brown truck is in an EA Sports Nascar game. But it's all in how you sell it. This is how many people buy the video game, this is the target market, this is the segment for Nascar. You really have to define it in their business terms. They really have to see there's some ROI there.

DR I'd love to encourage people working on smaller accounts to do bigger ideas because it can attract greater attention to an agency, and I refer to an agency as a brand. It gives great momentum. It can either happen with a small client at an agency, or it can happen with a pocket of a big client.

One of the issues on the production company side, if you are doing new kinds of work, or even if you're not, is the whole budget thing. If you're thinking of an idea that goes in all these directions, is the budget for all those things or just for a spot? When the production company is recruited to do a spot and then maybe does something else, it becomes a bigger thing.

DR It's not there yet because it's not measurable, so clients can't dole out the monies to make it happen. Chuck Porter did a speech in Cannes and mentioned how instead of doing outdoor, Crispin put a mini on top of an SUV. It wasn't necessarily costly in the first place, but how do we measure the results of that? Chuck said they put a media person in the SUV and they walked around taking pictures of people taking pictures of an SUV. How often do you see people taking pictures of the outdoor? I think the more successful these ideas can become, the more it'll work out and I think that will work in favor of production companies. It takes time but it will sort itself out.

SH I think ultimately too I don't see spending increasing. Clients aren't just gonna start spending more media dollars in other areas. They're gonna say, TV is only this successful, let's spend more money on interactive. That's why we have to learn how to do those other things, or the money will go somewhere else.

PF It gets back to having the media people accessible in a meeting. Every meeting I go to upfront, early on in the process rarely is there a media person on board and rarely is there an opportunity to have a conversation with the media person if they're there, let's think about putting a Mini on an SUV. The meeting's over, everybody's gone.

SH At The Martin Agency we actually have ownership teams for every client, that involves a media person, an account person, a creative person and a lot of times a broadcast person. Those are the people who are involved with every aspect of the brand. Not at all the meetings, but in the upfront meetings, hearing what's being talked about. We meet at least quarterly, if not more often. Maybe that's the advantage of having a medium to small agency.

PF Can we talk about the impending strike? That's an issue we're going to have to deal with really soon. There's a new SAG leader who's more vigilant and more proprietary of how wonderful and important this union is. What they're talking about now is covering all the different mediums we're talking about, so the guy sitting on a Mini is going to get triple scale. It could be a complete blowout. I just wanted to get your opinion about this, if your clients have approached you. Our clients have, asking what we're going to do. And if all of us called Brazil the same week, they're two crews deep down there. We're dead. Based on the 2000 strike, the clients became privy to see how much the cost saving is on production and talent. Are any of you guys concerned and is there anything you would do differently between now and then?

CP The tradition is you let your clients know and you try to get as much work done early on in the year. That's what we've always done.

PF That doesn't work with retail. I can't shoot stuff in March for October. It's going to be a client issue. It's gonna come down to the Proctors, the big guys, being afraid of the GMs, the boycotts. There comes a point where it becomes silly and prohibitive. If it becomes that residuals now are for every medium, we're not going to be able to pay it. Clients are going to come to us asking what we're going to do about this and we've got to have an answer other than we're going to go to Brazil.

CR I'm not sure we've ever done a particularly good job on the PR end of things. I think it's still the exact same system. When these agreements were originally reached there were only three networks.

"I'm not against the union. I'm against the fact that it's an inflexible union."—Peter Friedman
PF I think they're gonna throw the contracts out and start all over again from scratch. I've heard there are 50-70 people on the board. How are you going to get all those people to agree on anything, let alone on what's right for them? The last strike was so costly for all the mom and pop shops, production companies, everybody. But it's gonna happen. I'm not against the union. I'm against the fact that it's an inflexible union.

Other hot button issues?

BD We were talking about production companies earlier and I've noticed over the past few years, they've been responding really well in terms of director choices that weren't around before, directors coming from different sorts of disciplines, graphic artists, animation work. A lot of the traditional companies are bringing people from different disciplines who think about things in different ways, who can tackle a production all the way through special effects and finishing.

DR I think it is potentially becoming like the European model, but I don't think it's director as filmmaker auteur. Their role is becoming more inclusive in terms of delivering an entire idea and the culture surrounding an idea. Bryan Buckley and Hungry Man facilitated printwork for the Mini "Counterfeit" campaign. There wasn't truly sustainable money to fund everything in that particular project, but where the work is, they will come. And that's an evolving situation that will figure itself out. I talked to [AICP president] Matt Miller about director day rates, if that could evolve into a project rate because we're not just always looking for a brilliant filmmaker, we could be looking for someone who could partner with us to deliver a whole idea. I remember talking to HSI, why don't you guys have an interactive side to help facilitate the interactive because I've got producers in Miami trying to find that.

You wonder about the sustainability of the production company model, or the commercial model with the budgets as we know it. Bob Greenberg has given speeches at the ANA and Cannes that touch on this. His company R/GA is a hybrid of an agency, an interactive company and a production company and uses what he calls "efficient production," repurposing content, young directors doing more, and so on.

DR That's a potential revenue model for agencies as well. It's uncharted territory, it's a way to get good work done and it is a revenue model in terms of need for expanded work whether it happens through the production company, or internally. But I still think in general, the role of a producer is to just bring great resources to idea. For production companies, I think this is their territory to build upon.

BD I agree. Having an idea vetted by the right person outside the original creation of the idea invariably makes it better or brings it to a more interesting place. Too much consolidation ruins the dynamic of the core creativity.

One of the things that came up last year was the editing in-house question. It caused editors a lot of consternation to read some of the comments. Is moving editing into the agency inevitable?

PF I think there will always be the creative people who will go outside and work with their favorite editors. A tremendous rash of new houses has opened up in New York this year, and there's always going to be a need for in-house to do stuff overnight or a great project without the dollars. More and more we're hearing about loan-out editors coming in. I'm not sure if that's healthy, but I think they're going to coexist. I think there's gonna be a lot of grief, but I think there will be enough work to sustain it.

DF We do it a lot. We cut all of our GM regional stuff in-house and there are a lot of talented freelancers and companies that are willing to loan out their editors, but a lot of managing directors of the editorial companies have a lot of fear about doing it.

PF If you have an editorial company and all of a sudden your top three guys are on loan-out, that can be interpreted as, there's something wrong with your brand.

BD If it's a quality project, I still think the talent will gravitate toward it, but I think it's mandatory that you have some level of in-house editorial facility. You need talented people here to be able to sell work so you can hire people from the outside. I think it's an overreaction from the AICE and it'll sort itself out. If you have experimental projects, you can't always tie up an outside editor to work on something but with relatively inexpensive equipment we can noodle in-house and you shouldn't be denied that. That's on the record.

We talked a little bit about this last year with CPB Productions. Are agencies starting production divisions to develop some longer form work, with the idea of owning what they create and creating outside the client contract?

DR Not only could it become a revenue source, it could also be designed to attract a client. But it kind of scares me when you think of it as a revenue source because that's when things get a little bit tricky, and maybe that isn't sustainable in the long term. There is going to be an ownership structure but it doesn't have to be designed as a revenue source. It can be a way of building a brand. If you work at being an idea shop, then I think entertainment agencies will come to you to help them generate content.

Given the things we've talked about, do you think that ultimately we're moving away from film?

GH I think we're moving toward everything and not away from anything.

SH The right medium for the right project.

Is it the end of the big TV spot as we know it?

GH I think TV production is going to become more disposable. It's not going to be as finely crafted. It's going to be faster, cheaper and more exciting.

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