As Traditional Roles Shift, Smart Production Companies Adapt

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A great idea is nothing without inspired execution. Right now, that's pretty much the only given in a world in which how and where ideas are produced have become two of the core issues in brand creativity. In Ad Age circles, Anheuser-Busch's plans to form an in-house production company probably overshadowed the news that commercial-production outfit Radical Media launched a division, Radical Thinking, to centralize its growing entertainment efforts outside of the spot realm. But both developments say something about the future of production-and maybe advertising in general.

For any film or video undertaking, the importance of real directing talent and production expertise can't be overstated. But there are many factors threatening the continued health of the commercial-production model as we know it: the rise of viral and web video, which in the early stages has had a decidedly lo-fi aesthetic; the growing importance of games and other interactive experiences that demand a range of talent beyond filmmaking; the emergence of a generation of multitasking directors who are as adept on the desktop as they are behind the camera; and the universal money crunch that seems to portend more in-house agency production. That last element is already happening. Jeff Goodby says his San Francisco shop is bringing "more of this production inside. It's like an art school. We have animators, filmmakers, photographers, designers, type designers all inside the company now."

But don't start mourning production companies yet. The best ones offer some compelling thinking-and-doing skills in terms of brands.

Radical is one of the few spot-production companies that's become an unequivocal early adopter in the branded-content and long-form space, with bona fide content successes such as the Nike/Wieden & Kennedy "Battlegrounds" series; the Axe/ Bartle Bogle Hegarty "Gamekillers"; and one of the most underrated big ideas of the last few years, the automotive VOD channel DriverTV. With the Radical Thinking arm, partners Jon Kamen and Frank Scherma have formalized their ideation, production and distribution activities and brought aboard TV and film veteran Bob Friedman to head the unit. Radical has long acted as a partner to agencies with content aspirations and will now, says Friedman, plumb ancillary media opportunities in existing projects and bring to life some of the ideas that bubble up from the company's own multi-disciplined talent pool.

Other production companies -- such as Smuggler, Hungry Man and Chelsea Pictures with its Campfire unit -- have also gone about expanding their identities. "We are in the business of making things happen a little more as opposed to pitching an agency for pre-packaged projects," says Patrick Milling Smith, an executive producer at Smuggler, which recently helped bring about DDB's TV show "Schooled" for Office Max.

"Fundamentally, I doubt that our best companies and industry leaders will still consider their core business to be that of a production company," says DDB Director-Branded Production David Rolfe. "And agencies will start to see their biz shifting to the point that it will challenge the moniker 'ad agency.'" Rolfe and others posit that agencies and production companies, or at least their disciplines, will converge at an accelerated rate in the coming years.

But Goodby offers the most likely scenario: "Their job is going to be more exhausting -- as mine is -- because they're going to have to have more unique stuff."

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Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Creativity magazine and AdCritic.com. E-mail your big ideas to her at tiezzi@crain.com.
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