The Creativity Production A-List

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The Battle for Milkquarious
The Battle for Milkquarious

The upending, unending changes that have swept the media and marketing industry in the past few years have meant that every ad entity that operated through the last era of advertising—the TV Era—is reevaluating what they do for brands and how and with whom they are doing it. There has been no shortage of analysis in these pages and beyond (see Bob Garfield's Chaos Theory) of the nature of these changes and their implications for consumers, media companies, marketers and agencies.

Further down the food chain, the effects of the changes are distilled, creating a particular set of challenges for production companies, the entities charged with bringing a whole new range of creative ideas to life.

Through the TV years, these companies did one thing, expertly. But while the TV spot is still with us (and is, as some of the producers would argue, as important, if slightly less profitable than ever) we are in the Digital Era. And commercial production companies are dealing with the implications of that shift on a number of business and creative levels. Most directly, they are adjusting to what most say is an overall reduction in budgets for TV commercials, a decrease in the volume of spot production, drastically reduced timelines for production and a shift of resources and creative energy to digital. Digital marketing spending in North America has gone from a little over 5 percent in 2004 to a little over 14 percent in 2009 (according to Zenith), but even those numbers don't reflect the creative zeitgeist shift in the industry.

According to Matt Miller, head of the Association of Independent Commercial Producers, in the last AICP survey, members said, on average, that 29% of their business was outside of traditional commercials; the companies who currently engage in other types of film work say that by 2011 the makeup of work outside of traditional commercials will be almost 50%. And that seems conservative.

Philips Carousel
Philips Carousel

Whether or not you would argue that spot budgets are being corrected after decades of excess and production companies, like agencies, have been too slow to evolve, the reality is that it's not unusual for production companies to be doing work that has little to no financial payoff these days. Agencies, themselves squeezed by clients, are passing on the pain to their suppliers, who call in favors to get jobs done with unbending standards. Agencies leverage plum creative assignments for deep discounts on production—what exec producer can resist that potential Cannes Lion winner to build the reel of a promising director—and marketers' procurement officers enforce sometimes arbitrary cost constraints (see below for more on procurement and its related phenomena).

And so, production companies, while continuing to execute spot and other ideas within tighter constraints, are also doing the work of reevaluating and in some cases expanding or rethinking their businesses.

Because, as budgets languish and schedules are reduced, ideas are getting bigger. Creative demands are higher than ever. Not just demands to produce a product that will earn attention amid unprecedented marketing noise, but the demand to produce more iterations and extensions of that product. The "integrated campaign" has made for some interesting case study videos, but there is rarely an "integrated" budget to go along with it. Instead, production companies are typically working from one underfed spot or site budget and doing the three or four additional components within that framework.

For many production companies, the challenge is in finding new ways to produce a new quantity and type of work, which, for one thing, has implications for the kinds of directorial talent they seek for their rosters.

"The biggest difference now is the amount of content that is wanted on some jobs," says Smuggler co-founder and Executive Producer Patrick Milling-Smith. "I think the change of landscape has brought a new type of director to prominence. That director needs to be able to move fast and keep track of a large amount of content. The focus is no longer just about getting that one precious 30-second spot out."

Many commercial production companies have spawned digital divisions, often employing directors who are more versed in shooting in a different style and more conversant in end-to-end digital production, and in some cases, companies are bringing in interactive artists and back-end developers. A-List spot production company Stink launched Stink Digital in 2007 and scored a hit this year with the interactive video "Carousel" for Philips and Tribal DDB. The project, directed by Adam Berg, was awarded the Cannes Film Grand Prix this year. Global production company Sweet Shop's digital arm, Rumpus Room, recently worked with Mother London on Amplichoir, a Dell and MTV project that invited visitors to upload video of themselves singing "Lollipop" to generate the world's largest online chorus.

As lines are blurred between creative and execution, and between off and online campaign components, and as agencies themselves evolve to offer new solutions, many creatives and producers say they are looking for a real one-stop shop for an integrated campaign that has video and interactive elements. And, as traditional agencies have worked to add a digital practice and digital agencies have looked to expand their strategic and storytelling offerings, so too have some of their production counterparts evolved to round out their capabilities.

Dell's Amplichoir via The Rumpus Room
Dell's Amplichoir via The Rumpus Room

Hybrid production shop Mekanism, founded in 2000, has been one of the companies that was purpose-built with interactive production as a primary offering, along with a high level of story-based directorship. More recently, companies with roots in film have not only expanded their range of directors but also started adding hardcore interactive production talents to their rosters. Tool, a longstanding commercial company, made a decisive step toward integration recently when it signed noted programmer and game developer Jason Rohrer and Flash guru Grant Skinner. The company is also working with Google data-visualization wizard Aaron Koblin and Papervision creator Carlos Ulloa.

On the other side of the digital divide, B-Reel, a top-tier digital player that's been responsible for some of the highest profile interactive work (e.g., Doritos' Hotel 626 with Goodby), has expanded its classic production offerings with the launch of B-Reel Films.

"To me, next year will be a very interesting one for production companies," says Christian Haas, group creative director at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, an agency that's known for its digital acumen. "I think we will finally see the lines blurred between film and Flash as renowned shops like Tool seriously enter the digital space. This [has] been happening for a while (with web shops going film too, like B-Reel) but it's finally becoming an attractive proposition. More than ever, site productions include serious filmmaking. We used to always hire two shops—a film company for the shoot and a Flash company for putting it together. But this is changing. We recently worked with Tool, and they did a great job in both sides. I'm looking forward to seeing more of that."

Doritos Asylum 626
Doritos Asylum 626

All this said, if you look at a company like MJZ, you'd think that nothing had changed. The A-list spot production shop turns out a high volume of top-tier narrative, video-based creative each year, and, based on its spot work alone, was once again named Creativity's production company of the year.

Indeed some production company heads say that, for most of their work with creatively-oriented clients, budgets remain healthy. "There is just a larger degree of work," says one exec producer. "For the comedy campaigns, it's very similar to how it's ever been ... The same can be said for the big storytelling. That still requires an A-list filmmaker, and crew rates and location rates are what they are. There is little way around it. If Nike wants to do a spot, they have their own standard and are not going to make the agency squeeze everyone until the bar is low. But a great many clients though are hedging their bets and wanting lots of different pieces to try in different places."

Cold War Kids interactive video, via Tool
Cold War Kids interactive video, via Tool

But, short- or long-term, there is a mandate for production shops to evolve from a model that no longer reflects the reality of the business. has been one of the few companies that started retooling its business back when the first digital scrawlings were on the virtual wall. Going back to the post dot-com boom, the company was dedicating resources and energy toward branded content, interactive and beyond. With full design, entertainment, photography, post and digital capabilities, the shop is known for producing TV series, films ("Fog of War," "Some Kind of Monster," among others), events, websites, Broadway shows ("In the Heights," among others) and more (including, er, commercials), with agencies, with brands directly, and under its own steam. Anonymous has long been a diversified player, and Smuggler is currently developing film and theater properties.

In so doing, they are working toward the holy grail for production companies and agencies alike: achieving some degree of idea ownership.

In the end though, most producers, whether digital or film natives, say their most immediate concern is just finding and then being able to do justice to great brand work, of any kind. And to do that, most say that they need more time, more money of course would be nice, but above all, more trust. Many say that the critical creative spark is sometime being sacrificed due to the exigencies of the process now.

"It would be helpful if more clients and agencies could acknowledge the importance of production companies in the process rather than dismissing their value when they are making tough situations work," says Moxie exec producer Robert Fernandez.

if you don't experiment a bit ...

"The most serious challenge is to do good work," says Yates Buckley, technical director at digital production company Unit9. "Almost no one is really asking for greatness, because we are caught in tick box-ing long lists of requirements to ensure the reach is maximized, tracked and that security concerns and all the technical requirements are met. Oddly, many of the agencies, even the creative teams, are getting bogged down in some of this detail, and we miss some great tricks in terms of great big ideas and great executions. I think, in the end, it is likely more to do with a new kind of client that is insecure and not sure who to trust, [who] approaches the digital production more to try to make sure they have not done anything wrong rather than takes risks in doing something right. Digital has always been experimental; if you don't experiment a bit, the rewards are questionable."

Regardless of technology, says O Positive Executive Producer Ralph Laucella, "the biggest challenge is what it has always been: finding great work to really get behind. Great ideas are rarer than the media that can deliver them." Gary Rose of Go Film sums his feelings up this way: "Jeez. Can't we all just get along? Imagine if clients trusted their agencies, agencies trusted production companies, directors trusted creatives, creatives trusted directors, and cost consultants trusted anybody? We are all on the same team, have the same goals and want to create the most effective, best work possible. A little trust would go along way."

See the 2009 Creativity Production A-List here

Read what the AICP's Matt Miller has to say about sequential liability, one of the industry's most troubling issues.
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