Production Report: The Changing Game

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from left, cybernetic versions of Justin Wilkes, VP/Entertainment and Media,; Allison Kunzman, executive producer, Smuggler; Michael Lebowtiz, CEO/president, Big Spaceship; Mekanism CEO/head of digital Pete Caban
from left, cybernetic versions of Justin Wilkes, VP/Entertainment and Media,; Allison Kunzman, executive producer, Smuggler; Michael Lebowtiz, CEO/president, Big Spaceship; Mekanism CEO/head of digital Pete Caban
As the opportunities, spaces and screens for marketing messages multiply by the minute, the duties of the production company and the producer--on both the "traditional" and interactive side--have become more demanding and diverse. Idea and execution are linked as never before. We asked production pros from across the media spectrum where the role of production companies is today, and where it needs to go.

Participants: Mathias Appelblad, Web Director, Forsman & Bodenfors; Lars Basthholm, ECD and Rei Inamoto, Global CD, AKQA; Christine Beardsell, CD, Digitas/Third Act; Nadia Blake, Head of Broadcast, Publicis, N.Y.; Conor Brady, CD, Organic; Yates Buckley, Partner/Technical Director and Takayoshi "Kishi" Ishimoto, Partner/CD, Unit9, London; Brian Dilorenzo, EVP/Director Integrated Production, BBDO N.A.; Tom Dunlap, Director of Content, Deutsch/L.A.; Vin Farrell, Head of Production Digital Studio, Taras Wayner, ECD, R/GA; Cedric Gairard, Head of Content, 180 Amsterdam; Jason Harris, President, Mekanism; Mike Geiger, Head of Digital Production, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners; Per Hansson and Erik Norin, Web Directors, Farfar; Dan Lacivita, EP, Firstborn; Brian Latt, EP, Tool; Niklas Lindstrom, EP/Partner, B-reel; Brian Lovell, CEO, Red Interactive; James Price, CD, Transistor Studios; Patrick Milling Smith, EP/Co-founder, Smuggler; Bob Nelson, Head of Broadcast, DDB/N.Y.; Benjamin Palmer, President/CEO, The Barbarian Group; Justin Wilkes, VP/Entertainment and Media,; Brian Smego, Head of Production, Y&R/Chicago; Heather Steinberg Salkin, Associate Director of Production and Will Townsend, Group Account Director, Atmosphere BBDO; Thomas Tatufo, ECD, Tribal DDB

Digital shops—what sort of evolution have you seen in your roles over the years? What's the next step?

Niklas Lindstrom: Ever since we started B-Reel in 1999, we've tried to combine different media formats such as web, digital signage, TV, motion graphics, etc. To mix these and find new exciting ways of reaching out to the target groups, not just through the computer screen, is what we really look forward to developing further. We think the briefs from the agencies are just getting better and hopefully, soon digital work will have the same budgets as TV and then we think there can be some really interesting work done.

Benjamin Palmer: We have definitely gone from production-only to more original creative work over the last six or so years, and with most of our clients we are brought in (and paid) for a creative concepting phase before we begin production, and in some cases we are doing some brand strategy for the project, or media strategy. The latter part is an interesting evolution, and for us being project-based rather than client-based, it's been interesting building a team that can do work start to finish with some pretty deep resources in strategy and usability and technology, on top of the creative and production work that we've been doing all along.

On many jobs, interactive production companies contribute creative ideas as well. Are they being recognized fully for their contribution?

Dan LaCivita: It is always a case by case basis. We have had many instances, where we felt our work was not fully recognized, in print or at award shows. The credit "issue" really isn't anything new, but perhaps it is getting the attention it needs as of late. As companies similar to ours continue to partner with agencies, much of the work is finding the agencies that are a right fit.

Benjamin Palmer: I think in some cases production companies are being recognized and not in others. Some of it's institutionalized from the past and will go away as the industry evolves, but in general if you are a production company and you are contributing significant creative work up front, you should have a conversation up front about credit, about PR, and have that be in your contract, so it's not confusing later on. And if it's simply a production job then do it and be proud of your production—it's super hard to create a complicated interactive experience, so in some cases the execution and usability are actually the most critical aspects. Be proud of that.

Mike Geiger: I see the success of a project from a 50/50 perspective. You need a great idea, comps and art/creative direction from the agency and some excellent production skills from your vendor and sometimes creative and technical suggestions as well. One can't live without the other. Therefore giving credit where credit is deserved is just obvious to me. Collaboration of course is much more than just giving credit and I actually feel somewhat sad that so much attention is spent on this topic (probably slow day at the office). It's about the art of working as a team with mutual respect and encouragement in pushing the boundaries while having fun doing it.

What are your biggest concerns regarding the current way of doing production? Are costs for high end interactive production becoming an issue?

Rei Inamoto: Here are some concerns, rather, challenges that I see: Cost—the budgets, especially for traditional advertising, keep shrinking and clients want more for the buck they pay. In addition, the cost of talent is rising to the point of an unreasonable level. Lack of understanding—a friend of mine (who was a traditional art director) said that he thought interactive was cheap and quick. [In reality, it's] expensive and time-consuming. Many people lack a decent understanding of what it takes to do interactive work. Level of complexity—interactive production is often more complex, especially if it involves film/video. Not only do you have to shoot and do postproduction, but also you have to make it interactive. Change in the client-agency relationship—the landscape of the traditional client-agency relationship is changing and has shifted quite a bit already in the last few years. There are more players in the mix when it comes to working with a client, not just a client and an agency. Agencies need to learn to collaborate.

Brian Lovell: For us the cost of "production" would be translated to the cost of talent. Usually the more expensive the talent the more they contribute to the bottom line. So far we seem to be balanced in this area and don't have any issues.

Thomas Tatufo: Most digital agencies born out of traditional advertising agencies struggle with the same types of issues when it comes to production. There are usually too many people in the mix and there is often an unnecessary division of labor. When I really want to get something innovative created according to the original vision in a timely fashion, I form a small team of proven champions who are as comfortable leading as they are following.

Conor Brady: In the past, interactive agencies handled all of their creative and production through launch. That has definitely changed. Now, our creative is much more conceptual and strategic in its approach. As a result, our production needs are mostly around prototyping. That is how we want to sell our ideas. For us, that means having a creative department that can produce, versus a production department. What makes the work sing is what you discover in producing the prototype. We want our creatives to own that piece of the process. Where cost becomes an issue is in the finish and attention to detail for these prototypes once they go into full production. There are specialists for that and we should work with them instead of trying to own this piece ourselves. This has introduced a separate budget constraint to our clients, which is something we need to be clear about up front with them.

Heather Steinberg Salkin: As the pipe opens to allow richer content into the interactive realm, our biggest concern is coming up against unforeseen technical glitches as the industry is growing in this direction. We are constantly looking at ways to reach the same goal, so that we have a backup plan on deck to keep things moving ahead.

Will Townsend: The demand for top notch interactive production currently outstrips the supply. Also, it isn't the level playing field it was eight years ago whereby flash banners were the "best" we could all do. The increasing use of video and new technologies has driven up costs and not all brands can compete at the cutting edge.

Christine Beardsell: There are really two main concerns: cost and quality. Quality no longer is just about film versus high definition. The goal is to create a quality of content to reach and connect to the relevant audience. When it comes to cost and interactive production, there really are two extremes at play. One extreme is that you have interactive productions that require the same high-end special effects and quality that television requires. There still is a huge misconception that because the production is going to be on the web, it is going to be cheaper. In fact, the cost will most likely increase because in addition, you now need to make that content interactive! On the other extreme, you have concepts that require a streamlined cost-effective method of production. That means having people on the team who wear more that one hat. The new term "Preditor" —producer, shooter, editor— describes this new emerging group of filmmakers. This is a really exciting time to find fresh new faces that not only know how to tell great stories and make good content, but know how to find their own audience.

Agencies, are your demands on production companies getting greater as projects get more complex/diverse?

Erik Norin: The biggest problem for us when working with production companies that are used to making traditional advertising, such as linear 30-second promos, is to make them think like we do. Film for online use is usually a lot more technically complicated since you never know which way the user is going to take. It's a nightmare, but a fun one. Creating these types of non-linear films really complicates things for the filmmaker, but it's something they will probably have to get used to in the future.

Lars Bastholm: The portfolio of skill sets that anybody working in digital these days needs to have is daunting for anybody. Many projects today involve video shoots, green screen shoots, animation, 3D and more, of course, delivered as interactive non-linear assets that must work together in various user paths. So, not only do you need to know your way around all of these, you also need to have experts or access to expertise in each of these areas. As we've seen over the last couple of years, there are more and more production shops that can do beautiful design and animation. But there are still only a few that hit it out of the park every time.

Tom Dunlap: Now, TV spots are not just TV spots. The film we shoot, or rather "assets" as they are now commonly referred to, are leveraged across many different uses. So yes, we absolutely demand more from our production partners. Not only do I expect them to shoot my :30 TV spot, but now I am adding print, interactive, PR and coverage of whatever content or "viral" needs there might be. "Oh, and by the way, can we try and fit all of this into one 10-hour shoot day?"

Brian Smego: It seems that we as agencies are often times turning to production companies earlier than we used to. There is a new sort of collaboration in finding solutions to getting things done. Sometimes even looking beyond directors that are currently on their rosters we are looking for them to help us track down new talent, i.e., a director who produced a short film or a film or television writer that may have inspired an idea.

Nadia Blake: At Publicis, we are now asking production companies to do some different things for us, with mixed results. One of the current frustrations for us is that there is no consistency. The ideal situation is when we shoot web content alongside the TV spots. It would be so helpful if the production companies could partner with us to deliver this work. Some do, but others have not been excited to work with us on this. There have been times when the director does not want to be involved, but the producers have been helpful leaving us to shoot with the DP and our creative teams directing. It would be great if the production company could offer another director who could be involved and take over shooting the web and longform content of the project. On the other hand, we have found that the editorial companies we work with have been very helpful and flexible with smaller budgets, particularly when they are also cutting the TV spots.

What kind of staff/talent is important to you today ? Have your demands changed?

Niklas Lindstrom: We have actually had the exact same talent mix for the last five years—a mix of creatives (directors/designers/art directors), Flash, animators, programmers and producers. We believe in working with a good mix of multi-talented people that know both web and broadcast (film and animation) but also use specialists, like an animator that specializes in 3D character animation or a programmer that specializes in Processing. Because the ideas are getting more demanding and complex we think it's more important that everyone in the project is creative and proactive.

James Price: I think today people need to understand new technologies, and new audiences. It's not enough to be able to only communicate in one medium anymore. Fortunately the rules of communication aren't changing, just the modes. A good story is a good story online, in a book, or written on a bathroom wall. Finding people who can make that work across all media is challenging.

Patrick Milling Smith: I think taste and temperament still top our list when looking for talent. I would feel confident putting anyone at Smuggler into most new media/branded entertainment projects.With a good idea there is not a medium or style that they are not comfortable executing in. In addition, if someone has not worked in a certain medium before, there is always someone within the company whose experience we can pull from.

Justin Wilkes: Directors continue to have to think differently in this new world where we're shooting episodic TV, commercials, digital and print at the same time. But it's really in the role of the producer, as the project's flight controller from start to finish, where the greatest change has occurred. More often than not our producers are creatively and logistically collaborating with agencies, clients and networks long before a project is greenlit and a director is assigned. That puts an incredible amount of responsibility on this type of talent, and finding people with these multiple skill sets is always a challenge. Most of our top producers have been home grown within the company over the years.

Bob Nelson: We also need to strengthen the interaction between web developers and the content producers. Live-action and animation companies need to know the technical specs and the end usage deliverables of their work before they start. Components are produced differently depending on how they will be exhibited. Involving the web developer too late, the process sometimes results in costly technical revisions. Web developers need to have a presence on the set in much the same way as special effect coordinators on a live-action shoot.

How well-versed in traditional storytelling are interactive production companies? Interactive agencies, are you looking more to "traditional" shops for your jobs?

Mathias Appelblad: When it comes to storytelling most interactive production companies have quite a lot to learn. However, storytelling in the interactive world is a bit different so the gap isn't really that big. On the other hand, the traditional production companies also have a lot to learn from the interactive shops.

Taras Wayner: We do most of our production (video and CG) in-house. But we do work with live-action companies. The really good ones, like RSA, really understand the digital space. They've been able to adapt and figure out how to evolve the genius storytelling abilities of a Jake Scott and make it work digitally.

Per Hansson: (on live action production companies) Most definitely. Since we do most of the digital production ourselves, the type of production companies we are working with the most are traditional film production companies. Almost all our work involves film in one way or another these days, so we constantly need to work with people that are a lot better at shooting film than we are. Mostly, for us, projects these days require more than producing online interactivity. The ever changing digital landscape gives us the chance to shoot movies, set up live casts and more. So with the blending of online and offline I'd definitely say, "Yes!"

Mike Geiger: Since I run the digital side here at Goodby, the majority of time my department has been working with digital-specific production shops. In the past years however, more and more traditional postproduction shops have gotten well versed in the digital field and some have turned out to be very successful in the transition to—or might I say addition of—digital. At the same time we see pure digital shops which are also getting well-versed in motion graphics as well as live action and so on, be it through internal adaption or through partnerships with traditional production shops.

What more would you want of traditional production companies? Do they have a bigger role in the future of interactive advertising?

­­­ Rei Inamoto: More cost-effective/efficient ways of production. Traditional production companies tend to be very expensive. A lot of clients now just aren't willing to pay what they used to pay. And they are not in the business of keeping production companies in business. Unless production companies (and traditional agencies) adapt to a much more efficient means of working with a client, they are in trouble.

Heather Steinberg Salkin: We are constantly talking about this exact topic with many traditional production companies Most of them need to evolve their understanding of digital deliverables, with a stronger understanding of the nuances and parameters of our work. It's often hard for them to visualize the final application.

Vin Farrell: Traditional production companies must evolve in order to stay relevant. Most have director and production fees that don't align with how digital work is produced and budgeted. As the agency model adjusts to the new digital and interactive landscape, so must the production company model. If production companies want a piece of that business, they'll need to be more streamlined, flexible, and adaptable to the nature of the work required. I'm not saying the high-budget jobs won't continue to be out there but there will be less of them and a higher volume of smaller jobs.

Cedric Gairard: The winning ticket is not only a one-man show—i.e. a director, but a multidisciplinary team with a wider production experience than just advertising. As far as new media, there is not enough digital knowledge within the traditional production company. We are still too often dealing with [just] film on the web. It's time to bring more interactivity—non-linear story telling in their treatment. If you're moving ahead you'll probably need to do a soul search of your roster and look to the future with mixed media people, hybrid directors who can digest a brief and come back with alternative ways of using media to improve the story telling.

Brian DiLorenzo: In general, I've noticed a healthy influx of interactive capabilities, "one-stop shop" content makers, and other longer form talent, like episodic television directors, now being represented though commercial production companies. Then there are support services, like digital and graphic design, in-house editorial, ancillary production work. In fact, that's why we set up The Kitchen within BBDO/New York to provide us with additional talent and resources for the myriad of activities that blossom out of new media projects. Each project tends to be a slightly different model that dictates the best division of labor. There's always going to be a demand for people who know how to cast and tell a story no matter the medium. On a wish level, I'd like to see more "A" directorial talent take a greater part in online projects, even if it's not profitable now.

Brian Smego: I think that production companies will start to think about distribution with regard to digital and branded content. Agencies aren't always able to rely solely on their media partners to find placement for a long form piece. You can produce the most amazing piece of branded content, but if it isn't seen, it doesn't matter. A production company that has made inroads with various media outlets and has their "ear" is going to be an extremely valuable partner. Companies that not only produce the work, but can also help seed it and see it through will have a leg up on their competition.

Bob Nelson: For the traditional production companies, the need to broaden their thinking and their offerings is a matter of their survival. The smartest production companies adapted faster than most agencies have. They are recruiting from YouTube and Sundance in the same way some did in the past recruiting from MTV.

Interactive and traditional production companies—what sorts of new skills or talent have you added/have become a more important part of your offerings to agencies ?

Takayoshi Kishimoto: We have added the interactive director, the interactive equivalent of a TV commercials director. Interfacing with agency creatives he will be able to bridge the gap between above the line and digital.

Yates Buckley: Today we have a much larger degree of specialization of talent compared to five years ago. We are dealing with people who know how to handle interactive video and streaming problems as well as 3D Actionscript developer specialists. The roles that are the most difficult to fill are the crossover people who can take on responsibility for a job and enable communication between roles that have completely different views on a production—technical producers and creative developers that have experience with different technologies are the kind of people that are holding the jobs together.

Dan LaCivita: One area that has taken off is our live action department. In addition to video, we have been doing much more 3D work. A second area that we are building upon is our software (server-side technology) solutions. Although we are known for a lot of front end Flash work, most of the Flash applications we build have fairly complex and sophisticated content management systems powering them. We create many custom-built admin tools and CMS's for our clients. One final area of growth extends into the physical world. Our work the past few years has led to huge projects with Fila, where we worked directly with them for over a year to create a custom application and installation that can be found in their stores worldwide. The application literally scans in a customer's foot onsite, and then feeds their "foot data" to a backroom cobbler station where a sales associate creates a custom shoe based on the customer's foot contours.

Jason Harris: Mekanism was really founded on the idea of integrated production. Doing innovative interactive, short form, longform content and animation all under one roof. We have stuck with that vision, and rather then making changes, we have seen changes happening around us. Storytelling in multiple forms across channels.

Brian Latt: We have been placing a greater emphasis on hiring people who are well versed in all aspects of new media. We've actively pursued new talent with the technical knowledge and experience, such as Anders Hallberg who came on board in early 2007. His background in interactive media is substantial, and his first campaign for Tool was the integrated campaign forSprint "Waitless," which won a Bronze Cyber Lion at Cannes. Case in point.

How do you see the production company of the future? Is there a new breed of production company on the horizon?

Lars Bastholm: No, it's already here. They are called North Kingdom. No one creates awe-inspiring work as consistently as they do. Their set-up is unique, so it probably doesn't scale nor is it particularly replicable, but their ability to pull off big scale projects such as "Get The Glass" and the Coke Zero game make them absolute best in class.

Benjamin Palmer: Yes of course! As the definition of interactive marketing gets bigger there will be a lot more specialists. There are already some excellent interactive production companies that only do installations, or mobile, or 3D, or games. And there are some giant ones doing massive productions of banners. I think it will fragment and actually make it much easier for agencies to go back to being brand agents and there will be a wealth of specialists to make it easier to get good work done well by the right people. I think our setup here at Barbarian is a bit different in that we started around the time that brands started doing serious marketing online, so we've grown pretty organically as the interactive industry has grown, but someone starting a new shop today would probably do well to specialize around a useful capability and perfect that.

Conor Brady: It would be great to explore how we facilitate collaboration. Right now, we are still very much in the hands-off mindset. Meet at our studio or ours? I would love combined teams in one space where we generate and evolve on the job. We might even learn something along the way. Can you imagine the fresh ideas that could come from that level of interaction?

Budgets: has there been any progress in monetizing new media and branded entertainment projects? Where does the industry still need to figure things out?

Jason Harris: Budgets are obviously shifting to emerging media. But there is still a perception that virals cost 50k to make. Or that because it is online, the value should be less. In most cases that is the wrong thinking. Because in the digital space, you have to make something great, spend the money to do it right and invite people in.

Patrick Milling Smith: Over the past year our budgets on "new media/branded entertainment" projects have been good. I think now that it's not such a novelty practice and most clients are looking for alternative formats to engage then it comes down to the best told story and most entertaining advertisement wins the lion's share of viewers. In fact even more so in this new area, quality is necessary to actually cut through all the white noise. It's very hard to buy an audience for branded entertainment. A recent example for us was the work with eBay. They very much wanted some of their short films to be premiered at Sundance. You can't buy that. You need a client working well and trusting an agency. You need solid production, strong writing and a talented director. Good work is more often the sum of many talented parts. The work that had done really well in this arena over the past 12 months is obviously pretty well funded and has been given the time and expertise it needs to be of quality.

Eric Berkowitz: I do not believe there will be a standard budget in this new climate any time soon. It is so new to many clients and they have a hard time quantifying a ROI. Clients tend to offer up similar questions: How many people will see this ad? How many websites will it play on? Is this content too risqué for our company? The flip side of that is once a client has a "viral hit" their whole perspective changes. Agencies are combining budgets across different media so a commercial and viral piece are created simultaneously which makes the "risky"viral expense more palatable.

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