The 2009 Production Roundtable

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Participants: Mike Aaron, head of production, Mother; Nathy Aviram, co-executive director of content production, Y&R/N.Y.; Sam Baerwald, head of production, 72andsunny; Andy Bhatt, executive director of production, Atmosphere BBDO; Fredrik Carlstrom, CEO, Great Works America; John Doris, senior producer, Saatchi & Saatchi, New York; Clair Grupp, director of integrated production, JWT/N.Y.; Carey Head, executive producer, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners; Julian Katz, executive producer, BBH/N.Y.; Diane Jackson, executive director of integrated production, DDB, Chicago; Niki Polyocan, senior producer, Wieden Kennedy, N.Y.; Jonathan Shipman, EVP/director of production, McCann-Erickson/N.Y. , Rick Webb, co-founder and COO, The Barbarian Group (Photography by Chris Cassidy)

Diane Jackson of DDB, Chicago
Diane Jackson of DDB, Chicago
Creativity: I just wanted to mention to John [Doris] that "Dog House" is now the most viewed spot on Adcritic, ever.

John Doris: It has been doing really well. We created this site called "The Doghouse," where you could put boyfriends or husbands into the doghouse. Brian Buckley shot film for it, and it's gone viral. In turn it's gotten a lot of traffic to the JC Penney website. I don't know how you track a viral when it goes to so many different kinds of places and sites. But we have certainly gotten a huge number of hits.

Creativity: Tracking for digital work, has that stuff become a part of your job—those in digital and those in traditional?

Jonathan Shipman: I think it's becoming more a part of what our responsibility is, to be educated, so that we can talk clients through the benefits and what it means to be successful.

Rick Webb: It's become a big part of your job, because basically there is no real answer. So you have to sit down with your client at the beginning and ask them what they would perceive as being successful. They're paying you to do something. And it's not necessarily to get one million visitors. But if it is, then that's your success metric. Defining those [things] up front and agreeing on what would mean it's successful has actually become a whole process up front now.

Fredrik Carlstrom: The other thing that is really interesting is that the traditional model is to make an ad and then measure how many people came to our web site. For Absolut, we don't give a shit if they go to the site because we can't sell anything there anyway. Our goal is for people to spend time with Absolut, the brand, on Creativity or Gawker.

Diane Jackson: I found that being able to offer the clients diagnostics on usage and what's driving people to their sites has enabled us to get clients who maybe would not necessarily invest in that media to try it.

Jonathan S.: So the tracking and the experimentation, how is that affecting their perception of budget? Because it's an "experiment, [so] we're not going to spend what we could spend on broadcast."

Diane: We're trying to educate them that it isn't bargain bucket to do digital. And fortunately, DDB has such a strong partnership with Tribal DDB, who have developed major digital initiatives, so it's actually quite easy for us to showcase great work and use that as the driving force to get other clients to try the model.

Fredrik: But that is the challenge, though. If your model is we'll create a spot and then we'll buy the air time to show it, it's easy to say, "You can spend one million dollars, and x amount of people will see it." It doesn't necessarily work that way for us.

Niki Polyocan: How does it work for you guys? How do you set things up?

Fredrik Carlstrom of Great Works
Fredrik Carlstrom of Great Works
Fredrik: For us, it's more about the conversation. How many comments? How many headlines? And then the campaign gets a rating—equivalency numbers. We got this amount of contact, and that would cost x to purchase. We did this thing a couple weeks ago for Absolut—the next day it was written up in a few places and that was worth $100,000 or something. So we could show the client, "Hey, this morning we paid for the thing we did yesterday and we haven't even launched it yet."

Rick: The metrics always end up being sort of this white herring, there are things you can measure and there are things you can't measure. And those don't necessarily align to the importance. People focus on the things you can measure to the detriment of the things that are most important.

John D.: That's the most exciting thing about this integrated work, it really does put the emphasis on the creative and the idea. It has to stand out.

Jonathan S.: But how's that different from broadcast?

Goodby's Carey Head
Goodby's Carey Head
Rick: On a broadcast spot, you're buying media, so you know how many impressions, quote unquote, you're getting. Whereas if you're doing online without a media buy, you don't know that number. I think the numbers become a big distraction, in a way.

Julian Katz: Yeah, you can spend a hundred million dollars and put "Saved by Zero" on air to everyone's amazing annoyance. But no one is going to seek that out and actually intend to be exposed to that. (Laughter)

Creativity: But Jonathan's question, how is it different from broadcast, is maybe a bigger philosophical question for all of you in your jobs. How has all this stuff changed the way you're working?

Clair Grupp: No matter if you're doing a TV spot or something for the web, it means that you're bringing in the right talent to create the right partnerships. We work in teams at JWT, so there are experts doing different things but everybody's contributing to that process. I think now it's just about creating new kinds of relationships with people. Not just with the director, but also the networks, talent agencies, etc.

Andy Bhatt of Atmosphere BBDO
Andy Bhatt of Atmosphere BBDO
Nathy Aviram: The job hasn't changed, really. We're still just producing. It's still storytelling. You've got to figure out where your resources are. They're just different now.

Jonathan S.: I took over the department with one vision of what it meant to be an "integrated department." You'd have a a broadcast producer and also a digital person. I don't think that was the right model. What I'd like to be able to see is an integrated producer who's capable of working in all fields.

Clair : And eventually that may be the case. We're all sharing assets, right? There's no reason why they shouldn't be able to figure out the best approach together as a team.

Carey Head: That's a good point. The distinction for integration for me is really the sharing of assets. In digital, there are so many things—containers, microsites, installations, longform, shortform—that skillset is very different than I think it is for broadcast.

Saatchi's John Doris
Saatchi's John Doris
Rick: It's already hard enough to find somebody that can produce a software platform versus a banner versus long form content. The problem is really staffing—people out there that can do all of those things and broadcast? There are 12 of them. (Laughter) You can't scale up a department on a model where everybody can do everything. It's just not realistic.

Andy Bhatt: And you can't have one or even a set of like two or three producers handling the whole thing at the same time, right? So it's almost like you're going to need special assistants who have those skills. Then you can take people and put them on different things.

Mike Aaron: And it's just not interactive. We're also looking at a huge developing side which is experiential. Live events are a growing part of our business, as well. But what is that? It's the ability to facilitate to make these things happen, which is about the quality of interaction.

Diane: We've created a structure whereby the EP is a true partner with the GCD. They're involved in the initial client agency brief. And more often than not, we're inviting Tribal into the room as well. All the EPs are assigned to a specific piece of work, and that's great for client relationships.

Nathy: Producing to me is making sure that the final product is going to be the best it can be. It's knowing all those people, bringing them together, but it's also understanding the story and making sure it's told the best way.

McCann's Jonathan Shipman
McCann's Jonathan Shipman
Rick: But when you have projects where 25 people are working on the same website after two years, production becomes a very, very different sort of thing. Like the notion of the campaign is going away. A brand that's managing itself well on the web is going to have 30 or 40 people doing a myriad of initiatives through a year.

Creativity: Rick, can you give us a snapshot of your production setup?

Rick: We were going for the one man, one ranger approach. Like everybody was skilled in all forms of digital marketing. And that is philosophically how we still are. But with retainer clients and year-long engagements, you need a very different producer from someone doing online content or a video game. It's about slow and methodical, maintaining this analysis and going the distance. So the department has sort of filtered into different specialists, whether we wanted it to or not. There's no education for this which is annoying. The industry as a whole has never endeavored to train people for what we do. Like it's our biggest problem and we almost never do anything about it. It's really kind of maddening.

Jonathan S.: I feel like I have a successful department when people are being picked up. I feel that part of my responsibility is about training people and managing people's careers, so that they become valuable—not just to my agency, not just to my department, but to the industry. We owe it to them.

Diane: If you as the head of the department are creating opportunities for them and investing in them and training them, the chances are they'll stay.

Rick: That's our goal, to keep the work challenging enough that they never leave. And pay them enough.

Julian Katz of BBH
Julian Katz of BBH
Andy: It's really strange when you look at the interactive space. There are a lot of project managers that are involved in software development. And those people are great at what they do. The problem is, how do you get those people to work in a creative environment?

Rick: It's an interesting point about the project manager stuff. It works sometimes, but some of them are just hopeless on the creative. And the soul of the project gets to be a problem. I know a lot of our projects involve a producer and the PM, which just seems so ridiculous.

Niki: Does that work out? Are clients paying for that?

Rick: Yeah, they requested it in the past.

Fredrik: But on that note, do you feel that there's little understanding of what the production cost is going to be [on the client side]?

Rick: We can sort of persona out our clients. You can tell pretty quickly what level you need to deal with them.

Jonathan S.: Part of it, too, is educating them. The more you educate them, he more information you give them, the more trusting they become.

Rick: Before, we all knew we were making a spot. You didn't have to convince everybody this is what we're going to do. Now it's like you're choosing to make a unique thing every time. Might be a game or a new software. You have to go get buy-in from 15 different parts of the organization now. And the producer has to manage that whole thing.

Creativity: What are the budget implications, given what you said earlier about the campaign going away?

Mike Aaron of Mother
Mike Aaron of Mother
Rick: With clients that are doing it right, you set up this plan, and you make sure it's staffed appropriately for the whole year. But of our 70 clients, that happens with two. On smaller things, you pretty much do it for free. On larger ones where it's going to impact the whole organization, say you're doing a green initiative for some big Fortune 500 company, we make a phase and we just charge 50 grand to get everybody on board and figure it all out. But half the time, they don't want to pay for that.

Sam Baerwald: I cannot for the life of me, for the most part, before I sign an estimate, get a client to commit to, Yes, this is every medium that I want to participate in. So dealing with unions and things like that is really difficult. That's the biggest challenge in educating clients budget-wise. It's more about talent. They're unionized.

Jonathan S.: So you're saying you're getting your budget signed off before you know what the medium is going to be?

Sam: Sure. It happens often. Luckily, I'm at a smaller agency, that I just say okay, well, we have to do a buyout with all my talent. My music needs to be bought out in perpetuity for 15 years.

Jonathan S.: So if you're buying stuff out, how is that affecting where you're producing? Are you producing this for the States?

Sam: My agency is not a signatory to SAG. So I can escape that a little bit.

Rick Webb, The Barbarian Group
Rick Webb, The Barbarian Group
Rick: It's like we're going to take a guy and you're going to put him into something like Norelco "Shave Everywhere." You have to go non-union, even if you didn't want to. There are crazy implications for talent that are happening right now that they're way behind on.

Fredrik: One of the biggest challenges our industry is facing as a whole is clients having so many more agencies. Absolut has TBWA, and we're their digital agency of record. I see that as the biggest challenge for the clients. How do you incentivize TBWA and Great Works to work nice together? It's not always 100 percent guaranteed.

Carey: There's interesting fallout coming from that, too—the inclusion of interactive production with cost consultants. On our end, it's been very new to us, because a lot of what we're doing hasn't been done before. The budgets aren't necessarily set. And what they save with us negotiating back and forth is so trivial compared to what they spend for it.

Rick: You're shaving, you're not saving anything. The cost consultant problem is pretty rough, for you guys, especially. [The Barbarian Group] is my company, so I can just railroad the cost consultant. And if the client walks, I take responsibility. But you can't empower a producer to do that.

Diane: The ones that I deal with at DDB, the earlier I get them involved and make them feel part of the team, the better. The ones that I send the budget to the night before at midnight and the prepro at 9 a.m., those jobs are the ones that suffer the most. I have found that there's a better outcome by making them feel part of the team.

Y&R/N.Y.'s Nathy Aviram
Y&R/N.Y.'s Nathy Aviram
Creativity: What percentage of clients use cost consultants?

Carey: Five years ago? None in digital, but now it's getting on towards probably 25 percent. Ultimately it speaks to the big picture—more money is being funneled into interactive. So I guess it's a necessary evil. I'm curious, with the broadcast folks, other than educating, how you get around it. Ultimately, do you ever see the quality of the work suffering? You know, like they're telling you certain projects will not be possible.

Jonathan S.: For us, almost every project we've ever done, we've always been able to sell the director we want, not the bid. You know, not the number. Or it was usually a combination of the best treatment and a good price.

Rick: That's a totally different process, though. Telling a marketing cost consultant you want to use David Fincher is totally different than telling an IT cost consultant you want to use North Kingdom or Eric Natzke.

Creativity: Is high end interactive production becoming cost prohibitive?

Rick: I think it's analogous to the beginning of the digital effects period when people started spending more on digital effects, and at first $10,000 was a lot, and it went up, and now people spend millions on it.

Julian: Well, screens are getting better. People have better capabilities on their machines. I think production value has to go up, but I think that probably costs would have to go up accordingly to some extent.

Rick: Yeah, that whole period where you could say online was cheaper to produce is pretty much over.

Creativity: Just to get the depressing topics out of the way, what are you expecting for next year?

Nathy: The budgets have gone down for next year, but the scope of work hasn't gone down. The clients are still expecting the same amount of work for less money. But if the creative is good, then we're going to be calling in favors and we're still going to do the same amount of work.

Mike: There's a real potential that time-wise things are going to be compressed significantly and people are going to be more responsive or try to be quicker to market with what that new brand message is.

Clair: I think more of what we're doing is going to go in-house, it's happening already. If we can do more of the production aspects in-house, there's an opportunity to balance that out if we don't have the resources.

John D.: Yeah, and then the problem comes down to the talent, who you can attract. Are creatives are going to be happy going downstairs?

Jonathan S.: It's scary what happened the last two weeks, editing facilities shutting down, and whoever wasn't available to you is starting to become available. There's going to be all kinds of talent available to do things.

Niki Polyocan of W K/N.Y.
Niki Polyocan of W K/N.Y.
Mike: Referring to these resources in-house, I think that's probably the biggest thing that agencies can benefit from. [They give you] the ability to be nimble and responsive—"I have a great idea for a campaign. I risk underselling it if I don't have it in X form, so I need to convert that into something else."

Jonathan S.: Is anybody feeling like as scary as this year is going to be, this is the year where it should be about experimenting, about pushing the envelope? Or are clients saying, "We've got to be safe."

Sam: Clients are getting really risky in what they're buying, like the concept. But then signing on the dotted line, there's that hesitancy. We get all the way through creative development, and literally I have to award the job tomorrow, otherwise you're not going to make your air date.

Nathy: I think this is the year that it's going to be about experimenting, selling ideas to the client and maybe sharing in [the profits]. We're actually setting up that way—not working off the traditional brief method anymore and setting up some teams that are just coming up with ideas that we can go out and sell.

Rick: For us when a client experiments, it's dealing with these broader, newer marketing trends, like do I deal with consumer-generated media or video games? I think the economy will impact that a little bit, but this fear that all marketers have that they have to figure this stuff out will offset the dip. So I think that sort of experimentation will keep going on this year.

Creativity: Niki, you've worked with some great clients at Wieden. What's your perception been of them?

Niki: I think that it varies from client to client. [Clients] as big as Nike or Coke are really divided and there are some of those things we were talking about, but in the case of Old Spice, that was a really unique situation where they came to us with an experiment, and we didn't have to test anything. We kind of make the rules, and I think it's paid off. I'm not sure how much deodorant they're selling, but I think the work is getting attention. In New York it's a little bit different; ESPN is kind of a unique client in that way.

Clair: We did something for Kimberly-Clark, and in the last year we were able to completely turn that around and do some award-winning type work and now that's given us an opportunity to do even more, so now we're going into all kinds of exploration with shows and what not.

Diane: We did that in San Francisco with Clorox. It's a tough category to do innovative work. The "Reverse Graffiti" campaign was hugely successful.

Creativity: The output of the ad industry in 2008—was it a good year?

Diane: I thought there were some real breakthroughs in different areas for different clients. Even though the economy is going to hit us pretty hard next year, I think it's really an exciting time to force people to explore uncharted territories. I was really encouraged this year.

Rick: I was, too. This was the year it felt like [interactive] was a big part of it, and all types of agencies and clients were doing it competently and interestingly. It really felt like the [industry] grew up in that way.

Fredrik: It was like a lot of start-ups back in the '90s and this idea of, like, "in the future we'll be able to do things on the phone" finally happened.

Nathy: It felt to me like the first year where really strong creatives started moving into different fields as well.

Rick: It was a year that didn't feel broadcast-driven. Everything was going in all different directions, and it was cool.

Carey: I think this was the year too, for integrated campaigns. Not just integrated TV or websites, like everything—the emphasis was on everything to be as high quality as possible. The expectation was great.

Diane: Well, we had a spot, "Swear Jar," that never ran on TV, yet it won an Emmy, which is television arts. So, yeah, it was a great year.

Andy: I think there a lot of strides that have been made, but instead of having the idea be some spot, it's like what is the big idea, what is the concept, and then you extrapolate that as necessary.

Creativity: Heading into the home stretch, if you could just band together, what do you think should change next year or any time ?

Sam: An HD standard in network broadcast.

Rick: The rights with SAG and crews and talent and licensing. It's crazy how messed up that is online, to the point where we just avoid it all.

JWT/N.Y.'s Clair Grupp
JWT/N.Y.'s Clair Grupp
Julian: I think our contracts with clients are ridiculous. The traditional structure that most of us are probably still laboring under is this work-for-hire creative model. All that agencies have left is the creative and the ideas, and they're completely undervalued, the way they get paid. We don't get media commissions anymore, and we're getting more and more pinched, and we need to find new ways to value it.

Diane: I think that's going to be a big topic in '09. If we're forced to be more innovative in terms of making our clients' money stretch further, as we partner with production companies and charge them to make money go further, who owns the rights to those things?

Jonathan S.: Process—you have to go through levels of clients. And we go through levels of people within the agency to approve something. We keep doing these so-called favors, which aren't favors anymore. It's the cost of production now. Where we have an opportunity to negotiate is how we as agencies work with our suppliers, so it's not as cost prohibitive, so there are savings that everybody can see and it's still a money-making proposition. That's the one area where I feel like as producers we should have some kind of role, we should make some kind of true headway.

Fredrik: A huge problem in the advertising industry as a whole is that we're not [saying] this idea is worth a lot of money . But if we can't charge for ideas, then you have to charge on the production side, and then you have to mark up.

Rick: We charge for ideas. There's nothing standing in your way of doing what you're saying. Ten percent of our work is just thinking about ideas. Twenty percent of our revenue, is just sit around thinking, deliver the ideas, charge them 50 grand. It works. Do it.

Diane: The most worrying thing is as budgets get tighter for producers the fun and the freedom to fail, the experimentation that fuels creative thinking is going to be diminished. I think the only way you push boundaries in creative endeavors is knowing that you have the freedom to fail.

Mike: And I think that's where some of our internal resources really come into play. If you have a robust ability to sort of take on some of these projects yourself internally, there's your playground.

Carey: Natzke did this this really cool presentation on the element of play and just like how that fuels you creatively, how it fuels you at work. It's crucial and critical for all of us to not be so mired down like, holy shit, it's got to be out the door in time, on budget.

Diane: That for me is my main focus as a manager next year. It's absolutely crucial that I keep my team inspired and fueled.
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