Production Essays: Rip up the rules

Digital has brought new challenges for production companies, from rapid turnarounds to compression rates and understanding the bigger picture.

Life used to be simple: there were production companies you would use if you wanted to make a TV ad and there were a different set of production companies for a corporate video. But where do you go now when a "digital brief" falls on your desk?

Is the web, a mobile phone or a podcast above, below or through the line? What is above the line these days, anyway? And then there are digital escalator panels in the London Underground. Didn't that used to be the domain of print?

That digital brief that lands on your desk may have all the elements required for a TV commercial, but the end product is five times the length and - here comes the real sticking point - the budget you have been given for it will not even keep the sound recordist in bacon sandwiches.

The conventions for making TV ads have been established for years and everyone understands the parameters they are operating within, but we are still writing the rulebook when it comes to digital. The groundwork we are putting in place now is setting up the conventions for digital media production that we will all be operating under, years down the line.

In the meantime, everything is in a state of flux and confusion reigns.

Client companies and agencies alike don't really know what they should be budgeting for this work. Consumer habits are changing faster than most marketers can keep up with and so the days of planning budgets and strategy a year ahead cannot apply.

Many new media projects have not had sufficient content budget set aside for them so they are having to steal bits of money from budgets intended for other purposes such as web build and development. Many brands are missing opportunities to leverage their "above-the-line" campaigns in the new media space because they are not taking a truly integrated approach when initially planning campaigns.

The limits are being tested at the moment. What different cameras and technologies can be used for digital media work? How big does the crew really need to be? Who are the best directors for this medium? In some scenarios, is a director needed at all?

Agencies, client companies and production companies are learning from their mistakes in new media as much as from their successes.

New media is going to be a great leveller for the production industry; it is proving that some of the old conventions from the TV commercial world are perhaps unnecessary, and also identifying which of those conventions are valid and which should be taken into the world of digital.

One of the most exciting elements of new-media production is the opening up of some new creative opportunities. This is a place for a lot of up-and-coming young creatives to make their name. I don't think these creative opportunities are being leveraged to their full potential, though - probably because all the creative resources are still being put behind TV commercials, where the money is.

The internet is one big focus group. Customers can say what they like and what they don't like, and brands can adapt their marketing accordingly, but that requires an extremely agile marketing department and a level of fluidity when it comes to planning marketing strategy.

Brands can try things out. A failed TV commercial campaign can be a very expensive mistake, but testing the water in a small community on the web may be a risk worth taking.

The metrics and analysis that can be drawn from digital should play an important role in "credit crunch" time, when every penny spent will need to be accounted for.

The nature of new media means that, as a production company, we are faced with a different set of challenges: we have to deal with extremely rapid turnarounds, produce work for multiple formats, concern ourselves with issues such as compression rates and understand the bigger picture of how the video assets we create will be integrated into the final end product. Key to the success of a production for digital media is a fundamental understanding of how consumers are going to experience your work, whether in an interactive environment, on an iPod, on a mobile phone or via a digital panel on the Tube network.

The core skillsets that come with shooting a commercial - production management, production values, composition, lighting, editing and so on - are the same. New media have just added another layer of complexity.

Above all, we have to be extremely resourceful. Production for digital media is not really yet a viable business. We have to jump through most of the same hoops as for producing a TV ad. This includes all the expense and time that goes into pitching for work in the first place - responding to briefs and preparing budgets without any promise of work at the end of it.

That business model works for TV commercials production because, when you get a green light, the production company mark-up is sufficient in value to mitigate the upfront costs and cover the overhead required to operate in that way. With digital, where budgets are a fraction of the size, the total mark-up is much smaller.

This factor is holding this industry back from developing some really special work. And while we are waiting for marketers to come up with budgets to enable this, consumers are racing ahead in embracing new media and brands are going to have to play catch up.

Having read this, you may be asking why I set up a production company specialising in delivering on digital briefs, but I have to admit that I love it and am obsessed by it. Writing the rulebook can be fun and, at the moment, "digital" has that invigorating "anything is possible" feel about it.

- Liz Smith is the managing director of Film38.