Is the production company model broken?

Joint venture between Blink and Rogue shows how production companies are learning to adapt to a new world.

John Lewis/Waitrose: directed by Wilson through Blink
John Lewis/Waitrose: directed by Wilson through Blink

After an event last year hosted by the Advertising Producers Association, Campaign heard an agency leader remark that many of the production companies in attendance would not be in business in a few years' time. That was not the first time such a prediction has been made; it has become a refrain in adland to cast doubt on the production company model as agencies venture into their territory and the media landscape changes dramatically.  

So when two major production companies, Blink and Rogue, revealed this month that they are forming a joint venture, people took notice. Explaining the rationale behind their decision, Blink chairman James Studholme said: "In the last five years, our worlds have exploded… collaboration is inevitable."

Blink and Rogue will retain their own brands, talent rosters and management, but will combine their resources to increase opportunities for their directors and clients. In March, Rogue will move into Blink’s building on Wardour Street in London, forming one large creative production hub. (Carnage, Rogue’s spin-off specialising in automotive production, will maintain its office in London's Fitzrovia.)

As Blink and Rogue’s leadership sees it, the way forward is to bet on "excellent creative", Charlie Crompton, co-founder of Rogue, said: "We’re standing on the edge of the abyss and can only see opportunity." The two companies are positioning themselves "at the elite end of the market", according to Carnage chief executive David van der Gaag.

This does not mean that Blink and Rogue will only be producing TV and cinema ads; Studholme said his favourite work from his company last year was three-second social spots for Skittles. "There are opportunities everywhere," he added.

Where production companies continue to distinguish themselves – and it's a skill that agencies have not been able to crack in the same way – is the discovery and nurturing of talent.

"We have the expertise of managing talent. Production companies that continue to develop the best talent will thrive," van der Gaag said. "Turning any prodigy into something exceptional is incredibly satisfying, but it’s not happenstance."

Van der Gaag and Crompton recall peddling emerging director Sam Brown’s reel to sceptical agencies when he had shot only a music video for James Blunt. Now he is one of the most sought-after directors in advertising.

"Production companies and agencies are totally different. We back our talent psychologically. We’re looking for what’s three years down the line and a huge amount goes into it," Studholme said. "It’s more difficult now to develop directors from a bag of seeds, because times are more risk-averse and there is less money to make things. The rules of how you develop talent are different, but it’s the same instinct."

Blink and Rogue are hoping that the joint venture will draw in more exceptional talent from a wider array of sources. "We need to be looking out for those gems, but it’s also about a gravitational pull of a larger planet rather than two smaller planets," van der Gaag noted.

Their new hub on Wardour Street could also foster greater creativity by bringing diverse talent together, Studholme believes. He pointed to the example that Blink has already set by uniting their animation, music video and entertainment divisions under one roof. "Some of the most interesting things we’ve done here have been a result of that process," he said.

Van der Gaag said that Brown’s first reaction, upon hearing of the joint venture, was to ask: "Does that mean I get to talk to [Blink director] Dougal [Wilson] about his casting methods?"

So, as the world changes, the two former rivals have decided that "we can’t all sit in our ivory towers, holding on to our talent", van der Gaag explained. "We realised what real co-operation can bring." Agencies, too, may be able to learn from that outlook.

The industry weighs in

Katie Keith

First lady, Rattling Stick

In a time when briefs are coming from diverse and exciting sources, in all different shapes and sizes, with clients demanding innovative creative and production solutions, how could a model that in its very DNA is set up to be flexible, adaptable and nimble be broken? It’s more relevant now than ever. Working in a way that requires us to flex different muscles to craft bespoke solutions is nothing new for us but, with the landscape opening up, it's an exciting time to branch out even further.

Almost every production company evolved their offerings last year and no two companies did it the same way. Each has been developing in a direction which suits their individual culture, while maintaining a course that is still tailored to their creative ambitions, rather than creating something completely new. Our ambition remains the same: we’ll continue to make the highest standard of content with the most dynamic partners, in whatever form they take.

Ben Sharpe

Head of integrated production, Adam & Eve/DDB

We’ve been watching it happen for years; the shape of the work has changed and there has been a considerable lag as the production apparatus of agencies and production companies desperately try to keep up. The different types of formats and number of deliverables have exploded exponentially. If you work in an agency or production company and cannot (or choose not to) think in an integrated way across mediums, it’s impossible to really understand how or what to produce.

Brands all over the world are keen to work in different ways with different people and they have the luxury of choice because there are a lot of brilliant producers out there. But this all means that the production business is more complicated than ever. Production companies, agencies, even in-house teams at brands – everyone has been stepping on each other’s toes in an uncomfortable scramble to redefine their place. It takes confidence to see opportunity among the uncertainty. I’ve been fortunate to work with and be mentored by producers who are passionately entrepreneurial, ferociously creative and brave enough to be constantly reinventing themselves. Survival is embracing change, identifying your value and forging your own path. Production isn’t broken, but we can always be better.

Chris Watling

Head of production, Droga5 London

The model makes more sense than ever.

Production companies are businesses with creativity at the heart that can expand and reconfigure in any number of different ways through assembling bespoke, specialist teams – and then contract again just as quickly when needed. That’s a model that gives enviable agility, plurality and resilience, no matter what the future might bring.

The traditional mark-up model means that production companies generally only make money when they are making stuff.  While that model will continue to diversify (as they recognise and harness the long-term value of the IP they create, for example), it breeds a hustle and make-shit-happen culture that we can all learn from.

So the model is a powerful basis for the future.  

But, be they single-discipline specialists or polymathic studios, the most successful will be those that consistently remain culturally relevant. That relies on staying alert and open-minded – to new talent, new technology, new formats, new behaviour and new ways of bringing ideas to life.

Stephen Brierley

Executive producer and managing director, Park Pictures London

Capitalism and the "free market" will always evolve, particularly now with the market’s prime mover: technology. For many years, we have been advised that we must evolve to survive and that is a universal truth. In my experience, the core asset we have in the production company model is a combination of our expertise in execution, the care we take of our creative teams and the producers and production teams who enable this.

Filmmaking is a collaborative process; our function as production companies is to apply our expertise to the commercials we are commissioned to make by our partners in advertising agencies. I believe there is still a place for the classic production company making high-quality work that people are genuinely entertained by and drawn to, rather than affronted and irritated by. Now, more than ever, there are more outlets for great work and we as production companies need to be aware of and take on board those opportunities. Call me an optimistic old fart, but I do believe that the production company model isn’t dead.

Medb Riordan

Managing director, Academy

Let’s be honest, how often is this question asked? At least once every year or two. But why do we keep asking it?

Most production companies have been evolving out of the "traditional model" for a long time, in the same way advertising agencies and clients have. Nothing is broken, irreparably damaged, DEATH (and other panic words); we are adapting to the changing landscape of the work, the birth of new technologies and platforms, time frames and deliverables. The desire for content has expanded dramatically. There is an appetite for more, and while in some cases budgets are smaller and timings are tighter, the skill is to move at the right pace, with the right approach. To adapt and be adaptable. That needs to come from all sides.

I can’t say what all production companies "should do" as I don’t have a crystal ball (must get myself down the A6003 to The Crystal Barn), but what we can do is power forward in every direction, pore ourselves over this wonderful, expanding landscape. Make more, do more. Find new talent, watch what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. Pay attention. Ultimately, it’s the talent and creative that will lead the way. Now’s the time to be excited.