Commercial Production: A look into its past, present and future
Jason Stone of David Reviews takes a look at how commercial production has evolved in the past decade, and how it will continue to change.
Despite all the changes brought about by technology, the overwhelming majority of television commercials are still made using a model that has remained remarkably constant: once they’ve created a script, an advertising agency commissions a film production company to shoot the commercial. The input of the director is still considered the most important factor in this process and choosing the right person for the job is as critical as it’s ever been. In theory, the market conditions brought about by this working arrangement are ideal for nurturing new talent as aspiring directors can compete for the same jobs as their more established rivals, and on more or less an equal footing.
It’s not quite as simple as that, of course, but it is an astonishingly competitive realm and any director who fails to deliver will soon find themselves struggling to find work.
What impact has increased competitiveness had on directors?
Directors seem to play a greater role in each project these days and are expected to be behave engagingly in meetings with agencies and their clients. Katie Keith of Rattling Stick acknowledges that directors “need to be more collaborative with and accessible to the client directly... not just the agency”.
A television department source confirmed this: “Directors are less revered, and I mean that in a good way. They’re less aloof... and generally more approachable. There are some exceptions, but really, who wants to work with these people? Life’s too short.”
Can directors still get away with behaving badly?
The clichés about directors are rife and many people working in the advertising industry still associate the role with bad behaviour. This isn’t an entirely unjustified view and most people who make commercials admit they’ve witnessed the kind of incidents that gained directors this unenviable reputation even though they also claim that it’s an outdated image.
Richard Martin of Nice Shirt Films says directors “have to behave themselves these days if they want to work more than once” but he feels this is a double edged sword as “real auteurs are always going to be better at throwing their toys than biting their lips and we don’t want them to end up too tame”.
“It’s good for them to be house-trained, but not necessarily neutered... most directors work very hard and have to endure a fair amount of nonsense under pressure so they should be permitted to bark occasionally.”
However, a senior figure at another fi lm production company says bad behaviour has “never been acceptable” and “with significantly increased competition, a reputation for being a prima donna can be incredibly damaging as there’ll always be another director waiting in the wings”.
Does increased competition make life easier for agency producers?
Not really. There are so many directors vying for their attention that many agency producers struggle to keep up and, according to one, this can mean that agencies are more inclined to stick with people they know and trust: “There are so many directors out there that it can be confusing. This can have the effect of producers using the same old names, with the work at times suffering as a result.”
Another industry veteran feels that the diminished significance of MTV has made it harder for TV departments to unilaterally identify new talent. The buzz that surrounded exciting new pop promos once provided film production companies with a conveyor belt of new talent... but the diversification of media and the blurring of the lines between broadcast and online makes it much harder to be aware of what’s going on in the music world.
Is it hard to persuade agencies to take a chance on new directors?
Paul Rothwell of Gorgeous believes “agencies are definitely willing to take a chance” but acknowledges that the “oversupply of directors in the UK [means they] don’t really need to”.
Richard Martin agrees: “it’s perceived as less risky to opt for a director who already has something similar on their reel,” but he also feels that “the industry is and has always been obsessed with novelty.”
These contradictory criteria provide a difficult test for advertising agencies but according to Martin, “sensing the right balance of youthful exuberance and hard-won experience for a particular project is a skill which the best agency producers and creatives possess”.
For George Floyd of Academy Films it’s all about trust: “There isn’t a director on our roster that we don’t believe in. We know he/she can do it but we have to convince the agency, and they have to convince the client. Trust is probably the most important part of getting a director’s first commercial under his/her belt. The talent part goes without saying – we wouldn’t rep them if they weren’t good enough.”
Richard Packer of Outsider Films also emphasises the importance of trust and says that it informs the entire process: “an agency knows that if we’re blooding a new director that we’re going to put a really good crew around him and that he’s going to be working with a solid producer who’ll provide a safety net.”
How important is the relationship between directors’ representatives and agencies?
“I wish there was more time to sit down with reps,” says one senior agency producer wearily. Watching new work is a part of her job that she really enjoys and she knows which reps she can trust to provide her with reliable recommendations but it’s hard to keep up.
It’s a view shared by those on the other side of the equation. According to one senior production company figure: “[the conversations] between agency producers and production company producers is still where the bulk of the important business is done... the best relationships develop slowly over many years and are built on genuine stress-tested battlehardened trust.”
While film production companies recognise the value of fostering close relationships with creatives, they are aware of their limitations: creatives may “come directly to reps for director recommendations but a relationship – however close – will not guarantee a job”.
It’s a view underlined by a senior agency producer who is happy to consider any directors proposed by creatives for a particular job but makes it abundantly clear that the final decision will always be made by the TV department.
What impact have virals had on the business?
According to George Floyd: “Online work is the new music video. Until the emergence of content and low budget viral stuff, the only way a director could cut his teeth was through promos or short films. These days a new director can shoot a viral for a reputable brand... going through almost all the same processes as they would to make a traditional TV commercial – but with sod-all money.”
Despite the pitiful budgets, film production companies welcome the greater creative opportunities available on these projects. According to Katie Keith: “It has led to increasingly collaborative and creative relationships between agencies and production companies. There is a lot less scope to manoeuvre within viral production and so the need to work together as creative partners is even more pertinent.”
Does it ever make sense to do a job when there is no prospect of a profit?
If a script contains a “really great idea then you’ll always be able to find someone who’s willing to do it for nothing,” according to one film production company producer.
Despite all the complaints about the downward pressure on budgets, this is a commonly held view at production companies. While they’re always eager to make a profit, if it’s a choice between a dull project which promises a good return and an exciting project which might not make money... a lot of directors would choose the latter.
But according to one of the agency producers interviewed for this article, production companies should “be very wary of taking work in the hope that future work will come their way”.
“I’ve seen far too many production companies fall into this trap. Promises are made with good intentions but the other project has then gone elsewhere.”
What impact has the recession had on TV commercials?
No one ever feels as though they’re working in a ‘golden era’ until it has slipped into the past, and this is more true of advertising than almost any other field of creative endeavour.
So it’s not surprising that almost no one in the industry seems to feel that the general standard of commercials has improved over the past decade. One production company insider feels that “ads that won a bronze in 2003 would probably win a gold nowadays”.
Another says: “There’s no getting away from the shrinkage of budgets. I think there was a sort of gentlemen’s agreement during the downturn that productions could go ahead for less money [and that] costs would go back to something more reasonable as things improved. Shock horror – that hasn’t happened. The clients saw they could get a £500k idea made for less money and now they want that every time.”