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Journalist at The Drum

Commercial production

Growing up fast

When The Drum published its focus on commercial production last year, the habits of clients and the way their marketing mixes were evolving from the days when TV dominated their spending was the hot topic among the industry’s producers. The consensus from people in the industry, quite as you would expect, was that the major benefactor of this migration of money was the internet – with clients’ interest in film for the web and virals, in particular, approaching their zenith.

While, as anticipated from the way it quickened clients’ pulses then, the fast moving world of digital media may well set the pace for advertisers today, it is still trusty television, according to many producers, that continues to set the agenda when it comes to marketing budgets.

“We will always be a high end commercials production company, whether the work is through our Manchester or London offices,” says The Mob’s managing director, John Brocklehurst, staunchly. “Commercials are vital in marketing – people love to watch television. Most people I know don’t click on links when they are on the web, and pop ups are just annoying.” He adds that The Mob does produce online and interactive projects – as it has recently for agencies Love, Iris and AKQA – but only if they have “very creative ideas” behind them.

If anything, perhaps there is a prevailing mood now that while there is still a buzz from clients about video content for the web, attitudes towards online film have matured and expectations about how far budgets can be spread are becoming more realistic.

“In terms of what you’d call commercials then, for us, TV still outweighs online by a mile,” says The Gate Films’ Steve Byrne. “However, unlike three or four years ago, it’s rare we get sent TV commercials that were swiftly changed to ‘virals’ when there wasn’t the budget. Everyone’s thinking has matured a hell of a lot. For example, we’re currently helping to develop two game orientated destination films, an online drama and shifting an entire exclusive line from stills to interactive film.”

To help handle these diverse, modern projects – and to work with clients with digital ambitions but perhaps lacking the experience to visualise them – Byrne enlisted a specialist digital producer two years ago whose experience, he claims, has proved “invaluable”. Now, Byrne says agencies without digital at their core look to his production team a lot more for input in both production and delivery of commercial films online.

But George Barr, of Green Room Films, says there is a still a lingering misnomer that it does not cost any extra to produce additional content for the web. “It’s a black art,” he says wryly. “But a piece of film is a piece of film – whether it’s for television or the internet. What we see now is that almost every commercial we make – regardless of its media channel – ends up being put online by clients anyway.”

Snobbery

The notion that a good commercial is a good commercial regardless of where it is broadcast is a maxim by which all producers seem to abide. Despite often comparatively tiny budgets compared to big screen or TV ads, there is no snobbery evident from producers towards the web, just the acknowledgement that the industry has had to adapt to the ever-evolving needs of clients.

PSA Films’s Ben Swift admits production teams have to “multi-skill and think creatively about delivering the project on brief and yet also on budget,” if it is a commercial for the web. And “because every eyeball and click-through is completely measurable, you need to know how to make an engaging, effective film that maintains the audience’s attention right up to the call to action.”

Swift adds that because of the economies of scale available production teams can be expected to up the work rate. “Shooting three or four films in one day is not unusual,” he says, “so precision timing and attention to detail are everything.”

He insists, though, that the possibilities of online film, when not chastened by budget constraints, is only limited by the imagination of creatives. “A ‘web commercial’ could easily be anything from a game, to an animation about health and safety issues for a client’s intranet, or a catwalk fashion show that allows you to click and buy the clothes being worn. Each has its own set of challenges, and working closely with the programmers on interactive elements is vital from the outset of any project.”

Another advocate of the potential of online film is Expose’s Ian Watson, who is buoyant about the possibilities the web can offer – so long as commercials are underpinned by strong ideas. “Take for example, the first use of technology as can be seen in the new Ronaldo Manchester United Nike ad,” he says. “Ronaldo takes off his strip and fans can click on ‘hot spots’ to buy his kit – shirt, shorts, socks – interactively. But the film is still a good, well directed ad. A story with humour and pace as well as being well framed.

”Watson says there is a growing trend among clients working with Expose for content that can be used across more than the traditional 30-second television slot; agencies have asked to pool production budgets into one pot, he explains, for commercials to cover TV, online, mobile and instore POS. “At storyboard stage at present is a job for a client who requires to advertise cider to drinkers. They’ve sponsored music festivals in the past and now require a true base 30 second TV ad. Then, this will be used on mobile devices at festivals. The idea is all about choosing friends but not family. So, after the ad, extra footage will be shot to give a ‘tailored’ connection amongst friends.”

Convergence

What this exemplifies, according to Richard Wallwork, of post-production house 422, is that clients have embraced marketing agencies’ insatiable thirst for the idea of ‘convergence’. He says: “Among the more forward thinking agencies, convergence is actually happening now. What you are actually providing is assets for various uses.

“We always did cinema ads that would then derive television ads. But increasingly clients will want a different cut for the web – which, quite often, they might even host on a unique microsite – edited perhaps, with a different end frame graphic, for instance. There’s a smartness about the way things are shot, but also the understanding from clients about tailoring the cut of the film to suit the audience depending on the media.

"With the potential to knot disparate media together, we are already seeing “bolder and more direct links” between, for instance, TV ads and the web, according to Micky MacPherson, producer at Plum Films. He says, “A prime example of this route is the Army Recruitment campaign – the audience watches the film to a certain point and then is encouraged to log onto the website to get the final message, and complete the films.”

In the midst of economic gloom and with the web offering more measurability for clients about what their spend is delivering than ever before, MacPherson admits there is now “more pressure on all parties” in terms of expectations and delivery. “At last count, I believe that around 91 percent of marketers indicated that online is in their current strategy, and 50 percent of this figure have suggested that this approach will be in place for the next few years at least,” he says. “In the same way that DRTV is a results-based format, web-based ads are even more capable of producing statistics in terms of hits and follow-through. Thankfully, that level of statistical analysis falls outwith our remit – the web experts produce the hard facts and figures! However, as producers it’s very definitely our remit to pin down and execute the creative.”

Nostalgia

But Simon Mallinson, managing director/producer at Mallinson Television Productions (MTP), insists clients have always expected ‘measurability and accountability’. He says, “Old people are inclined to stand around in bars bemoaning that it’s not the way it used to be. But if you ever hear yourself saying this, it’s probably time to bail. Nostalgia distorts memory.

“Don’t forget TV is online now as well. The computer screen and the TV are both watched in my house – there are ads on both but the TV is on more,” Mallinson adds, before joking that he does worry when his kids fast forward through the ads: “I always insist on rewinding and making them watch them twice to teach them a lesson.”

But even Mallinson admits there are a few ads he can’t even bring himself to watch, “I always fast forward through any ads that we’ve pitched for and not made because they annoy me,” he deadpans. While the commercial production business might be evolving all the time, this is surely one sentiment that will endure among producers regardless of the way media changes with new technology.

In all seriousness, Mallinson is quick to stress that although more content is now being made for the web – and though TV is still top of most clients’ marketing mix, it isn’t now the be all and end all – the reduced budgets bring lots of “exciting” opportunities.

“The fact that people have to choose to send the work on means that the focus is not so much on the detail as the sum of the parts,” he says. “Is it funny enough? Is it interesting enough? These are good disciplines not to lose sight of when working on big budget TV projects.”

Not only is it a lesson in how to spread resources, he claims, but also time management, as the process is much quicker than old school shoots. “...10 minutes to light something: you have to be more resourceful in after effects rather than by paying a director of photography £2,000 a day. It’s a great learning curve for younger people who get the opportunity because the budget’s smaller. The similarities are probably more significant than the differences – good casting, good acting, good editing, good writing are still the qualities that make great work.”

Blurred

But while the rapid developments in the way commercial content is delivered is clearly having an impact on the way production teams work and the requirements that are expected of them, the lines between media platforms and the capabilities of commercial producers are perhaps becoming blurred in other ways, too.

That is the opinion, at least, of industry veteran Joe Mahoney, the managing director of online network ProductionBase. Having previously held senior management roles at the BBC and Channel 4, he claims the nature of a commercial producer’s role is less set in stone than ever before.

“ProductionBase is placed between both clients and freelancers in the TV and film industries and we have the view from both sides. Recently, we started to notice production teams from non TV backgrounds establishing themselves on the TV scene – a few years ago, that would have been impossible. The thought of a team with no previous qualifications even considering a TV job would have been ludicrous. Not anymore however.

“A project I was closely involved in for Channel 4, an animated and live action sketch show, Modern Toss, got commissioned for TV and suddenly the creators found themselves heavily involved in a TV production with no previous experience to draw upon. It was a very successful marriage of two mediums and the people behind it adapted to this change fantastically well.

“Times are changing and so are the clearly defined roles we had in the past. The new era is a diverse one and you need to be a jack of all ‘mediums’ to survive.”

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