CLOSE-UP: CRAFT - APA MASTERCLASS. Staff see both sides of the ad industry with APA Masterclass

Strengthening ties between the industries will improve product, Mark Sweney says.

Defining the perfect mix of ingredients necessary to produce brilliant advertising is a topic that opens endless debate. But there's no doubt the relationship between the ad agency and the production company is a critical component. A breakdown in communication between the two can damage the creative quality as well as lead to unnecessary expense.

In an effort to promote fluid relations and better understanding between agencies and production companies, therefore, the Advertising Producers Association runs an annual Masterclass that touts itself as "the course for commercials producers of the future".

"Collaboration is key. That is the main aspect we are promoting," the chief executive of the APA, Stephen Davies, says.

The course targets production assistants and agency TV department staff to help with knowledge and support beyond traditional on-the-job training.

Simon Desborough, a junior producer at the production company Loki, participated in the course that ran from January through to March and found it highly useful.

"It was really good. I'm no expert, I've only been at Loki for a year and I'm no producer but that is where I want to be. The course gives confidence. Learning on the job can mean it is sink or swim for production companies when they make someone a producer and mistakes can be expensive. When you are learning it is hard to know what you should or should not know and although everyone is told that you should ask questions, the last thing that is going to happen at a pre-production meeting is someone piping up to say 'excuse me ...'."

The Masterclass consisted of 11 sessions (eight lectures and three study groups) that ran once a week for around two hours. Agency staff are required to have completed the IPA Producers Knowledge course, while those from the production side must have proof from their employer that they have the potential to be producing ads in the next year.

Topics ranged from an opening lecture on the role of the agency producer - presented by Mark Hanrahan, the head of television at Saatchi & Saatchi - to group sessions on working through nuts-and-bolts issues such as budgeting.

Frances Royle, the head of TV at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, ran one of the tutorials and saw a lot of great talent emerging. "There was a very varied mix of people with a wide-range of experience levels. It is a great course because it dispels myths that are held on both sides."

The programme hinges on a week-long job swap that aims to give staff an insight into how the other half lives.

"The work exchange is a great way to get an understanding of the different pressures that ad agencies and production companies face," Davies says.

"Clear lines of communication are key to creating great advertising and the exchange can give great insight and also help to develop valuable personal relationships."

This all sounds hunky dory. However, Campaign had trouble tracking down anyone who actually turned up for their placement. Too busy, apparently.

For the few who did, the experience was useful, but most felt that there were limits to what could be achieved in only a week.

"I definitely came out of the placement with a good experience. Everyone was really busy and I got to sit next to one of the agency producers and also the PA to the head of television, which was great," Cindy Hanson of Bikini said. "I got to ask lots of annoying questions about the creative process and they were really good doing things such as taking me along to edits."

A familiar theme emerged from speaking to exchange placements - in every case production company and agency staff were quick to stress that they were normally extremely busy, but that it "just happened" to be a quiet week. As one student put it: "I went along and it wasn't manic, no-one was running around like a headless chicken or anything. They assured me that they do get busy."

And for some the illusion of a glamorous advertising life style was quickly shattered. "Everyone thinks the advertising side is really glamorous and relaxed but I got to learn that a lot of it is less creative, more administration," Hanson says. "I guess production people think that maybe the grass is greener. I respect agencies more now because I understand them better, but I made the right choice for me."

New for this year's course was the introduction of a take-home exam - previously, attendees received a certificate just for showing up. Davies says that he opted against a school-style examination because "we felt a sit-down exam would be contrived - in real life, projects are collaborative and you would get to go away and discuss the issues".

"The course is getting very popular and although most people work hard, there are always one or two who miss sessions or don't come along. Adding the exam is an further incentive to turn up and it rewards those who put in the effort," Davies adds.

To keep the test interesting, the exam questions use real scripts - such as one by BBH for Audi - so the students can later compare what had actually been decided as the best route to make the spots.

The marking is in progress and Davies says overall he is pleased with the work. Will he fail anyone? "There are a couple I'm not impressed with and I haven't decided what to do about those yet."

Like any course, the attendees got out of the Masterclass what they were willing to put in. Despite the already close working relationship between agencies and production companies, there is clearly a demand and need for such initiatives and the APA is continually assessing how the programme can be improved.

But it wasn't all work and no play for the class of 2003. Aside from the "graduation" party this week, some students got an unexpected extracurricular bonus out of attending. In answer to a question asking for feedback on what was the best part of the course, one student wrote: "Going dancing with Bronwen (the course administrator)."

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