Keeping an Even Keel

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As we all know, this hasn't been the best year for the advertising industry. In the first half of the year, ad spending for all media fell 5.9 percent, compared with 2000, from $50.4 billion in to $47.5 billion, according to a recent report from CMR, an organization that researches industry expenditures. Broadcast advertising contributed significantly to this drop, with dollars on both network and spot TV spends, dropping, respectively, 2.3 percent and 14.7 percent. The numbers indicate that among those feeling it most should be the broadcast producers - the agency sentinels who are often called upon to pinpoint that fine line where effective creative meets the pocket-friendly price. But ironically, many broadcast department heads say that over the summer and into the fall season, production has been busy, even madly so. What gives?

"It's really interesting, but for me, I wasn't really aware that there was any slump," says Jennifer Golub, director of broadcast at TBWA/Chiat/Day/San Francisco. "Honestly, all of my clients are very busy producing. We're so busy that we've had to supplement the broadcast department and infuse it with some freelance producers." Jim Frame, broadcast head at Deutsch/New York, says that he even needed to add an associate producer to his already tightly run ship.

Others are on overdrive as a result of staff shortages. At DDB/New York, Celia Williams' department, which underwent staff cutbacks earlier this year, had been working steadily over the summer and expects to remain busy well into the new season, with clients Hasbro and the New York Lottery. "We've been absolutely strong on all fronts," she says. Fallon/Minneapolis' Mark Sitley says that in the past year, his department has remained typically busy, if not more so than usual, but he's been pointedly efficient with his team. "I haven't noticed a slowdown in the work, but I must admit that I haven't used any freelancers in the last nine months and pretty much put a hiring freeze on for the better part of last year, as a way to tighten the belt."

If everyone's busy, the increased number of job seekers knocking on department doors has certainly made the slump palpable. Both Frame and Sitley have fielded a lot of calls from talented people laid off from other agencies. "It's obviously a reflection of the economy, and not a reflection on them at all," Sitley says.

Clients have also pulled back their spending or have changed their strategies. John Garland, head of broadcast at J. Walter Thompson/New York, says the agency has seen some decline in production, but the downturn has not been devastating, thanks to JWT's seasoned package goods clients. "I think for the major package goods clients that have lived through recession bumps before, pretty much things go on as normal. Obviously, there's some holding back, readjusting of media spends, but at the end of the day, those products that are on the shelf need to have advertising support, so spots continue to be made or are recycled. Some of our other clients that need support their bottom lines have pulled back on their new production expenditures, at least. So we feel it, but right now it's not impacting us tremendously."

Advertisers have also been more strategic with the type of spots they choose to put out. "What I do find is fewer requests in the pipeline for a lot more new work compared to just some kind of pointed work," adds Fallon's Sitley. "That doesn't mean I have less production to do; it means that the nature of how it's being dealt with has changed. In the big economic picture, less money would be going through the agency."

hat the slowed economy has taken a toll on the industry is most obvious in the increased availability of the top production and post talent. "I have noticed that there is some terrific directorial talent available," reveals the otherwise unaffected Golub of TBWA/Chiat/Day. "There must be something going on in our industry, because I'm able to access people that generally aren't accessible." Bill Goodell, associate director of broadcast at Arnold Worldwide, has been visited regularly by production company reps, who in better times wouldn't be making the trip. "I've been seeing an increased amount of foot traffic here in Boston," he says optimistically. "If it's slow in New York, sales reps will make the trip. I saw a steady stream come up in August, so I think they're looking hard outside for work."

The stepped-up competition for agency boards is a bittersweet blessing for producers. "It's completely a buyer's market," says Y&R/New York's head of production Ken Yagoda. "That's the upside of a really ugly situation. The ugliness is obvious; you read it in the paper every day. But if there's a benefit, it's in terms of the creative work. More really, really talented people, and I mean that times three, are available at one time than we've had before. They're easier to get because there's just plain less work around. So in terms of our work and who we get to direct our work, we're in a better position than we've ever been. When it comes to delivering the best possible talent and value to our clients, this is a great point for us. I'm totally happy with the directors and production companies that we've been working with over the last four or five months. Our reel's better now than it's ever been."

Deutsch's Jim Frame says that the availability of talent hooked his agency up with Chelsea's Nicholas Barker, who recently worked on a campaign for Domino's Pizza. The agency was very familiar with the director's reel, but had not worked with him until recently. "Nicholas Barker was sort of a pleasant surprise who was available to do our job," says Frame.

Some broadcast heads say that the economic downturn has also shed light on the arguably valuable and cost-saving lessons they learned during last year's SAG strike, which prompted the industry to go outside the U.S. borders to produce work. "The Screen Actors Guild did themselves a huge disservice," notes Frame. "What they did really just opened the doors and eyes of many heads of production, clients and agencies - it's a big world out there, and you can go anywhere to shoot." Frame insists, however, that his department works outside the U.S. mainly for creative reasons. "We do some work overseas, but usually when we do, it's dictated by the location or something particular we're looking for. But I wouldn't say that we're compelled to take a job to Poland just to save money."

Others readily admit to embracing the cost-saving benefits of producing on foreign turf. "I think the strike last year forced us to learn really quickly about what's available outside the country," says David Perry, director of broadcast at Saatchi & Saatchi/New York. "And the economics of this have just made that knowledge very useful. We're doing about twice as much work out of the country as we did last year. We always knew about London, we knew about Australia, but now we know about cities like Prague, Milan, Barcelona and Buenos Aires. I'd say we're much much more sophisticated about global production capabilities. And we're doing very interesting work that we might not have done in the States, because of cultural things and how things get done differently elsewhere."

he globalization of the industry itself, as well as the increased scrutiny clients have placed on production costs, suggests that working outside the country will become less of an afterthought for agencies "A number of our bigger clients have global markets," explains JWT's Garland. "When that happens, the price of production comes under tremendous scrutiny because the other markets tend to say, `Well, why do we have to pay you for these spots that you produce in America? Why can't we produce our own spots here because we can make them more cheaply?' " Garland, who moved to the agency side after working as a producer in both Europe and the U.S., says he can't ignore the benefits of taking work outside the U.S. "Production is one of those businesses where our charge is to find the best, cost-effective solutions. As long as the cost-effective equation works, we have no problem going offshore."

Nevertheless, Garland cautions that there are important considerations to make before rushing off to other countries. "The roundabaout tends to be that you've got to travel much further. If you're doing a dialogue spot, are you going to be able to find the cast in some other part of the world that is able to carry the accent so that it will actually play in the United States? How much are the hidden costs of the extra amount of time you have to have your creative people, your production people, your account management people, and in fact the client themselves, away on the other side of the world? You have to look at it in overview."

Of course, this overview now must include a much graver issue, well beyond the looming perils of air travel itself. Saatchi's Perry notes that the tragedy of September 11 will force everyone to weigh whether or not the cost savings within the agency are ultimately worth it for the economy as a whole. "People have to evaluate the work in light of what has happened," he says. "There might be a countervailing benefit to keeping things in the U.S., compared to the financial advantage of shooting outside the country. We have to make that case to our clients."

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