Mars is ready to take more risks when it comes to content – but is the production industry?

Michele Oliver, Mars’ vice-president for marketing, may still cite the TV campaign (TVC) as the best way to reach her brand’s mass market, yet she’s ready to sacrifice a portion of her budget on the altar of innovation, experimentation and creative risk. Is production willing to do the same?

Oliver admits that, on the whole, she gets involved “very little in production”. Although that doesn’t mean she’s so far removed from the mechanics driving the decades-long client-agency-production spiral that she’s blind to its endurance, and the problems involved in its legacy.

High on her wish list of changes is the breakdown of back-scratching creative-director relationships, which she believes “close the industry down to development and talent”.

“[You hear] ‘these creative teams always work with this director and that’s what they always do’,” she explains. "I understand that it’s high risk, and you want to work with someone you know, however at the same time if you’re trying to create more exciting content and trying to see the world through different eyes you need to bring other directors in.”

In particular, Oliver is crying out to work with more young directors, more female directors and more directors that haven’t arrived through a nepotistic London internship scheme (a fact that won’t surprise those who have followed her career). And while she still prizes TV advertising as the golden ticket to FMCG mass penetration, she’s now ready to take a gamble when it comes to content – primarily because gaining cut-through is now less likely without risk.

“Our biggest challenge at the moment is there’s so much content, people have to want to watch it,” she says. “It’s more interesting for marketers because rather than making one massive TV ad that you could only afford every couple of years, lots of my team are involved in producing lots of content.

“But with that comes a lot of behavioural changes – like, we need to be prepared to fail quickly, and we need to try stuff that won’t work. That for me is a really exciting space.”

The new production bid

It’s particularly difficult for a client like Mars to radically alter the way it approaches content production, not least because of its size and legacy. Nick Price, the founder of Flare BBDO and its relatively young offspring, the content commissioning platform Flare Studio, refers to “muscle memory” when it comes to big brands who have spent their existence working with equally big agencies.

“When you walk through the doors of a BBDO agency, or any other traditional agency, the muscle memory of making the TVC and everything that supports that is very hard to break,” he says. “[It’s difficult to] remove that man-marking and go, ‘you know what ... we should empower that one person to make those decisions and give them permission to fail’. It’s amazing at how that is very hard to unpick.”

In fact, Flare Studio was set up as a platform by Omnicom to respond to and pre-empt the determination of clients such as Mars to break down the traditional client-agency-production rubric and launch more diverse content, faster. In theory, the platform’s bidding system allows global conglomerates to hire film students to direct their content should they so wish (although Price advises against taking such a risk in order to unearth the next “Scorsese for £500”).

What does happen, he recounts, is production houses offer up directors that the client may not have heard of or considered. Young talent that hasn’t “risen above the bar of mass awareness” also gets a shot, thus counteracting the insular “little black book” syndrome that exists between agencies and production.

Mars has recently begun working with Flare Studio on its content production and while Oliver admits that “some of it’s worked, some of it hasn’t worked”, it’s been a learning opportunity “every step of the way”. And it’s not the only big brand breaking from the traditional production nexus – fellow heritage conglomerate Pepsi has also shown a greater willingness to take risks through its partnership with Copa90.

Like Mars, the drinks brand still favours high quality, meticulously produced films. But, when it came to its latest football campaign, “Pepsi knew that rather than pushing one message, it was also better to work on the ground with separate content makers,” explains Phil Mitchelson, director of marketing at Copa90. The brand ended up with "one beautiful production" interspersed with authentic WhatsApp and Facebook Live constructs.

“It gave Pepsi a story that resonated with the fans: football fans probably watch most goals in a ripped gif off Twitter rather than on a beautiful HD TV. You can bring a lower quality of definition with a higher quality of story. People like Pepsi are diving head first into that because they recognise they get the dwell time, the watch time and the shares – all of the things that are a struggle.”

Stories vs conversations

Oliver refers to this supplementary content – which is often technically of a lower quality – as a “conversation”, as opposed to the expensive “storytelling” of a TVC. She explained that, like a conversation, if you open with a relatively thrifty £20,000 piece of content then it’s not the end of the world if the audience doesn’t respond.

“You can afford to fail,” she said, adding that the smaller budget additionally gives brands permission to take a risk on younger or less established production talent.

“From a client side, that is a massive cultural change,” she adds. “[You have to] work much more collaboratively ­– and stop these meetings where you have 87 people sat around a large desk taking it in turns to give feedback, and everyone wants a large vodka by the end of it – and just have real conversations.

“It totally changes the dynamic. The cost structure of our businesses cannot support this man-to-man marking at every single level of the agency and the client in the world we’re moving to.”

So outside of completely new platforms and operations – such as Flare Studio and Copa90 – how are the more traditional production houses coping with this client-led change? Pretty well, according to Steve Davies, chief executive of the Advertising Producers Association. “Production companies are remarkably resilient and adaptable, otherwise they wouldn’t be in the market today,” he says.

“There are concerns about in-house production, because competing with in-house means [production companies] generally lose and their IP might disappear along the way ... this is something different.”

And it would be unwise to presume that the creatives in production are against working with the “conversations” that Oliver referred to – the less expensive productions. Laura Gregory, founder and chief executive of production company Great Guns, says: “As long as it’s good content, they will love it.”

With both clients and production agencies raring to change tack when it comes content production, perhaps the only barrier standing in their way is agencies.

Oliver, Price, Mitchelson, Davies and Gregory were speaking on Flare Studio's roundtable, The Future of Content Production