Ten years ago, I was driven by fear to a conference on digital media in New York. The word on the street (Wardour Street, that is) was that production companies making commercials were about to be consigned to the bin bag of history - and digital media were to be the consigners.
The distinguished speakers assembled in New York would, I hoped, help me make an informed judgment on a) the future of our industry and b) my own ability to continue to pay my mortgage. Over the course of two-and-a-half days we, the attendees, were regaled with evangelical predictions of the brave new world to come, heavily laced with dire warnings directed at those who were fated to fall by the wayside. Additional support and credibility were provided by colourful graphs and charts, all of which, curiously, were presented on 35mm slides. By lunch on the third day, my worst fears were confirmed. The bright and shiny future was difficult to get into focus: it was so multi-faceted. One thing however, was clear: production companies were to be cast out from the Promised Land. Worst way, we had about 12 months to live.
Now, here's a funny thing: if you leave out the demise of production companies, there were very few predictions made at that conference that have not come true - or at least begun to come true. TiVo, viral and 3G had not entered the digital lexicon ten years ago but they were described quite accurately using the jargon of the day. One thing they did get wrong, though (apart from you know what), was the speed of change. People today tend to agree the scale and pace of change in the past decade have been astonishing. So it is strange to recall the experts back then were predicting an even speedier revolution.
Sober reflection only really kicked in with the bursting of the internet bubble. Among all the hindsight and recriminations came a dawning realisation that, contrary to Marshall McLuhan's famous dictum, the medium was not the message. Digital media are simply media. Means of transmission. A message may be modified by or adapted to a new medium but that has always been so - a TV ad is different from a press ad, even when the message is the same.
Inspiration, talent, creativity, taste and judgment all exist independent of any medium through which they may be given expression. Among the millions of people who have been excited by the possibilities of digital media, only a small percentage have the ability to produce distinctive creative outcomes. It was much the same with cave painting and it has held true for every new medium ever since. This fundamental truth somehow eluded the techno-enthusiasts of yesteryear. One important reason why the revolution was less speedy than predicted was that in the early days, all the creative work was being done by geeks and nerds whose skills lay elsewhere. The rest of us, not liking what we saw, were understandably slow to respond.
Premature obituaries for the production company were prompted by precisely the same failure to comprehend the role of creativity. While it is true that a handful of long-established and previously successful production companies have closed in the past decade, there is no evidence that any of them fell victim to the new technologies. And, of course, for every one that closed, at least one new one set up shop. Production companies, even the largest of them, are comparatively compact organisations, so they are more than usually adaptable. In London in 2005, there may be a production company that has never made a viral, but if there is, I couldn't name it. If you turn on your TV tonight you will see special effects in commercials that would have been technically impossible just a few years ago. Some may impress you; rather more will leave you unmoved (yesterday's gasp soon becomes a yawn). So, far from being blighted by the new media, production companies have embraced them. Nevertheless, adopting and adapting are secondary reasons for their survival.
The sheer quantity of messages competing for attention and the fragmentation of audiences may be familiar cliches of the digital age, but they are also real problems for those whose job it is to keep us all informed on the latest exciting developments in dog food. This generation of doomsayers claims the sheer number of TV channels, coupled with the spread of broadband, spells the end of the 30-second commercial. But the fact remains that the moving image is by far the best means known to man of selling a product or building a brand. And if your competitor makes a great commercial, your best response is to make a better one. All the rest is a media problem which, no doubt, will be solved by human ingenuity and market forces.
There is no formula for making a message more noticeable, memorable and effective. But the need for extra oomph has never been more pressing.
The only plausible resources are talent and originality. Production companies have always traded on the talents of their directors, but it is worth remembering they also provide the venue where talent assembles and co-operates - including, of course, the stars of post-production: the digital technicians. In that sense, the best production companies are centres of excellence. That is why British production companies have been in demand all over the world since way before the dawn of the digital era. It is also why it is reasonable to believe they will continue to prosper for as far into the future as anyone can claim to see.
- Caspar Delaney is an executive producer at RSA Films.