TV ads produced by MTP, Speakeasy Productions and Whitenoise ProductionsWhen it comes to commercial production many Scottish creative agencies turn their backs on local suppliers in favour of London. But, as Keith Price finds out, it is not just the streets of London that are paved with gold when it comes to quality commercial production.
As an agency, it must be frustrating to see your best creative idea turn up on television looking like a cheap American infomercial.
Choosing a suitable production company to fulfil the potential of your brainchild is a tricky business. With commercials, it is about hitting a standard and making it look like you spent a fortune, so it attracts the eye of the consumer and turns your client’s rivals green with envy.
In order to reach this standard, it is important you have the right team in place, a team that must do justice to your inspired script, while bringing that little something extra to the completed piece. It is vital to have a talented director at the helm. Finding the right person for the job means travelling to London; after all, that is where the money is and, if you are the best, why wouldn’t you be in London? It has the opportunities and that is where everybody who is somebody is. Or is it?
Ten years ago, these ideals would be held by most agencies in and out of the capital, but now there is a difference of opinion. Some production companies are confident that these dark days have gone, that location has become irrelevant. Other production companies are still fighting what they believe to be a prevalent prejudice against production companies based out of town. Agencies too have different ideas; some are aware of the options outside London and believe that quality is still available, while others believe the final product is not good enough.
So, just what is the truth? Are the same advertising agencies that complain about Londoncentric clients themselves Londoncentric when it comes to getting their commercials produced? Or is it just a problem for production companies that have not yet been able to cut the mustard at the top level?
Chris Landy, art director at The Leith Agency, comments, “In my opinion, you can tell if an ad is Scottish, so if the budget permits, we will push on and go to a London-based production company. They will usually have a crew and director who are used to handling a big budget.
“That’s not to say there are not some really talented directors here in Scotland, and we regularly use Scottish production companies. It just boils down to who we think will best spend our budget.”
Is it right to assume Scottish production companies cannot handle the big budgets or is it simply a lack of confidence by those who hold the purse strings?
“Our experience is that, generally, agencies are very metrocentric; anywhere north of Potters Bar might as well be labelled ‘Here There Be Dragons’. Regional agencies are torn between establishing a clear regional identity for themselves and assuming that all that is good and fine stems from London alone,” comments Geoff Holder, managing director at Speakeasy in Edinburgh.
Scottish companies are not the only ones feeling hard done by with the supposed agency fixation with London. Howard Hesling, managing director at Leeds-based Mezzo, believes agencies may be too scared to look outside the capital.
“I think the reason people choose London production companies has a lot to do with safety issues. It comes back to the age-old, ‘nobody ever got sacked for buying IBM’ philosophy. We’ve even considered having a shop front in London, offering solutions support and highlighting the quality of the production and post-production work we can do in Leeds.”
If these attitudes do still exist, then are they unjust? Or does the work in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leeds, Manchester and other cities fall short of the offering in Soho?
Dave Moss, a producer at PSA in Manchester, believes that there is some poor production work on show. “Generally speaking, the standard outside London is not very good. That’s because there are lots of companies offering very low budget video productions to meet the demand from small regional TV advertisers.
”However, he adds, “If you leave those out of the equation and look at the live action commercials that are produced on 35mm and 16mm film, the standard is very good indeed.”
So if there is poor work being done, is it a case of a few bag eggs spoiling it for the others or is the regional argument a redundant one? Simon Mallinson of MTP explains: “If the work is poor, then that is why that company will find people going elsewhere. I believe the regional argument is just an excuse used by production companies to disguise their shortcomings.”
MTP, which owns London production company Mustard and Manchester-based Onward, has produced commercials for the Royal Bank of Scotland and Tennent’s Lager and claims to produce up to 80 per cent of the work that is done outside of London.
Mallinson adds: “I think the attitudes of not working with a production company outside of London are from 10 or 12 years ago, not now. People choose to work with interesting, creative people who will do the best job. It is a small world and location is not an issue anymore.”
So is it a lack of ambition, foresight and business know-how on the part of non-London-based production companies that is to blame for the “wrong attitude” throughout the industry?
“Some parochial production companies survive on just low budget work within their local market; others look further afield and have great ambitions in terms of both quality of product and business success,” comments Holder. “Our view is that the very best non-metropolitan production companies can certainly match or indeed exceed London’s finest.”
Matt Woodruff, director of Blackburn based Whitenoise Productions believes that attitudes are slowly changing "From our experience, clients tend to stay away from regional production as there is a fear that the finished commercial will have a regional feel. Because of companies like ourselves, aiming to rise above the general standard of regional production, clients are opening their eyes to what’s available outside of London. The tide is changing."
If this is the case then it would suggest that it is not agencies that are narrow-minded, but a few poorly run production companies.
One agency that judges production companies on their suitability for a job and not their location is McCann-Erickson Central. Creative Gary Sedghill explains: “We have become specialists in low-budget quality commercials and have found a few production companies that have served this well. The Gate in Manchester and Sound and Picturehouse in Birmingham are two we have used on recent accounts.”
He adds: “It is very difficult for production companies because they have to really prove themselves but the proof is really in the pudding; we have won awards for commercials where we used a Birmingham production company.”
There are a handful of production companies that can compete with London in terms of quality, but what about the little extras that the industry is famed for appreciating? Taking a trip to London, or New York or Paris for that matter, is one of the perks of the job, so can the other regions in the UK compete?
“The last time I visited a high-end production company in Soho, the street level smelt of piss, the premises were sinking under a tide of litter, everything was cramped, there was nowhere to park for miles and I almost got mugged on the way out,” explained Holder.
“Our quality of life and workspace is very high. The advantages of this are that staff like working here, the atmosphere helps productivity, staff turnover is reduced, running costs for staff are lower and clients love coming here.”
Fortunately, however, there are still a handful of production companies across the UK that can and do compete with the London-based companies and there are plenty of agencies and clients aware of the advantages in using companies outside of London to bring their brainchild to life.