I began as a runner at The Moving Picture Company 30 years ago. Not only has Soho changed in myriad ways since then, but our production industry is virtually unrecognisable. That was an era of two-man-band production companies operating out of Soho townhouses, always with the obligatory snooker table centre stage. Advertising was the most glamorous game in town and it was growing like Topsy. It was a slower but more lucrative life. The fax had yet to be invented, much less the internet or the mobile phone. Cost controllers and procurement were a good ten years away. Directors were protected by the "closed shop" and thus, until Thatcher came along and swept such things away, the commercials production market was distortingly undersupplied. Not so today, I fear.
Now, 10 per cent of the directors available to work in London can comfortably do 90 per cent of the work. The market is horribly oversupplied. A director would once spend maybe a quarter of their year pitching and the rest actually working. Today, that statistic is roughly reversed. A director can expect to make a great deal less money than was once possible. Despite directors’ fees having risen, they are not able to do as much work as they once did and profit shares have fallen away as production companies have struggled to remain profitable.
The process of pitching has become exhaustive in the extreme. The "treatment" has gone from being a brief, considered reiteration of the first meeting or call, to a feat of research, art direction, copywriting and micro-publishing. The Advertising Producers Association reckons that the average cost of a pitch to a production company is between £2,000 and £2,500. If a decent hit rate for a director is a ratio of one in three pitches won, that’s a big cost to carry. The largest part of the job – the creative thinking and logistical problem-solving – is done at the pitch stage. Production companies are not paid for this.
By and large, an agency knows which director they want to work with from the first round of meetings. Choosing three directors to treat has always seemed reasonable even if a larger number have been approached. What if the favourite pulls out or is too expensive? What if the second comes up with a genius idea after the initial meeting? Either way, two of those directors are going to be disappointed.
Yet the deterioration of agency good manners weighs heavily on production companies. The red-button topic of 2013 for production companies is how to get good etiquette back into the pitching process. It has become commonplace for agencies to expect more than three directors to pitch on scripts. Sometimes as many as eight. Often, we subsequently find that those scripts have not been sold into the client and the treatment is, unbeknown to us, a selling tool for the agency to get the client to buy the script or that the script has not yet passed research.
Scratch any production company managing director and you will get a litany of similar stories. For example, one reputable agency had three directors treat on a script yet to be sold to the client. Fair play until you discover, which the directors didn’t, that the agency had two other scripts in circulation for the same project with three directors treating on each of those. That’s nine treatments and no real intent from the client to make anything. Up to 20 per cent of the jobs we pitch on simply vaporise.
In the US, the pitching process is more transparent. The terms of engagement are clearly stated. Number of directors (usually limited to three), who else is pitching, budget and air date. There is less obfuscation about the client’s commitment to the project or whether the ad has yet to be researched. They accept that it’s a waste of time and money for busy agency producers to be doing due diligence on more than two treatments and quotes. The favourite and the backup. And let’s face it, the one trend that has quite definitely come from the US is that both time and money are relentlessly in shorter supply. We can learn something from how they have adapted.
In the UK, the Pibs (Production and Insurance Briefing Specification) is a form that provides some of this information but seldom arrives before the pitching process is under way and is often rather economical with the truth.
My hope for the year ahead is that agencies value their TV departments more. The very real threat of decoupling is hanging over creative agencies and their inability to value and champion their TV departments undermines the validity of arguing in favour of retaining agency-side production. More training in the old-fashioned virtues of good process and production etiquette would surely pay dividendin maintaining the trust and goodwill historically enjoyed. The current paragon in this regard is Bartle Bogle Hegarty, which, under the stewardship of Davud Karbassioun, has managed to maintain solid process while sustaining creative vision. The TV department feels highly valued and integral to the substantial success of that agency.
So, the year ahead? More integrated and digital work, smaller budgets, brilliant ideas, fierce competition, the return of good manners and the gradual movement eastwards to shoot in lower-cost centres. Anyone know a good studio in Irkutsk?
James Studholme is the managing director and executive producer at Blink