Production Essays: Roundtable Discussion - Proving the value of production

In these recessionary times, the industry is under pressure to convince clients and their procurement departments of the value it brings to the production process.

Who'd have thought it? Michael Jackson's choreographer turns up at Campaign's roundtable discussion on a rainy London lunchtime.

A last-minute addition, La Velle Smith Jr has flown in from the Netherlands where he's working on the roll-out of the BBC Three show Move Like Michael Jackson to offer his perspective on the UK production sector.

Smith Jr doesn't skirt around the issues. From what he's seen of the UK, it is shaking off the shackles of the downturn better than his US homeland: "In the US, the business is still crawling, whereas the UK just seems to get on with things."

As befits his trade, Smith Jr is upbeat about the prospects for the year ahead: "It's like in the 30s, people wanted escapism - so the entertainment sector will do well. But whether the rest of industry can do likewise remains to be seen."

No-one around the table is pretending that 2009 was not challenging, but there are also opportunities. It's often said that there is no better time to launch a business than in a downturn, and Mercedes Crescenti, the founder of the production services business Mercedes Crescenti TV, hopes this is true. The Manchester-based outfit is bringing the benefits of lower-priced Northern suppliers to budget-conscious clients. "We only started in September, after 20 years of working for other businesses," she says. "The recession has been great for us as it encourages people to look for cheaper alternatives and we can provide that."

Directors have had a tough year, Bash Robertson, a managing partner of the production company Spank Films, who is representing the Advertising Producers Association at the lunch, says. But he adds that companies have to be optimistic for the coming year. Referencing the APA chief executive Steve Davies' essay, he says: "If you had said 12 months ago that we'd get through the year without any major production players going down, I'd have taken that."

In the current circumstances, one of the biggest problems faced by the sector is having to make the case for the value of production. Clients such as John Lewis and Marks & Spencer are lauded as brave by the panel for sticking to a quality agenda with big-budget Christmas campaigns. In John Lewis' case, this has been rewarded with a substantial upswing in business over the festive period.

By contrast, Ben Swift, the executive producer at Mercedes Crescenti TV, points to advertisers that use cheap, clips-based work and pass it off as retro: "It doesn't inspire confidence. When you look at the ad breaks, it's obvious who is spending money. Quality is a reassurance."

Campaign's editor, Claire Beale, points out that during a lunch with marketing directors, the issue of production costs was one of the most lengthily debated topics. "They feel they have been blind to it in the past," she says.

The upshot is that clients now scrutinise budgets they wouldn't have thought twice about a few years ago. Although there is sympathy for the axiom that tighter budgets encourage creativity, some around the table feel there is little fat left to trim. Production budgets have been under pressure for some years and now procurement directors are training their guns on them.

The mystery has been stripped away from production, Swift says, making it harder to hide costs: "People have camcorders and they can stick films on YouTube. The cat's out of the bag. Of course, there is a huge difference between low-end and high-end productions - you have to pay for that helicopter shot - but people are more aware of what we do. There was a huge amount of flab in budgets in the past."

Tim Page, the head of TV at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, disagrees, saying that such practices disappeared decades ago: "The whole world now expects a deal in times of recession and clients are no different."

However, the likelihood is that budgets won't increase when the economy comes out of recession, Robertson says: "Client expectations have grown because production companies have been able to achieve so much with low budgets."

Production companies have to acknowledge these new ways of working, according to Nancy O'Brien, the general manager of the audio post-production house 750: "You have to be open-minded and positive going forward. The money side of things is difficult, but if you maintain a dialogue with clients, you can make it work."

Crescenti agrees it is time to break down traditions: "We have large production companies coming to us and asking if we can do something with a certain budget and of course you can."

As painful as the recession is, it's felt that it's an opportunity for everyone to look at how they work and to create a better business model.

But new working relationships do not begin and end with cost. Nimbleness is the new requirement as clients look for a quick turnaround on what Page calls "disposable ads". "They want to change messages quicker, but you get out what you put in. Faster is not always better, but for businesses that can combine speed and agility with quality, it could be an exciting year," he says.

The evidence is that clients are more engaged with production. The world's biggest advertisers such as Procter & Gamble and Unilever are looking at rostering production companies, bringing further rigour and efficiencies to the process - and potentially sidestepping agencies.

Although such an approach would guarantee revenue to production companies, it is felt it could ultimately limit clients should a particular campaign require a style that's not represented on a restricted list. However, flexibility could be built in.

"We have been through a procurement process with a client and it can work if the marketing people and procurement talk to each other," Page says. "They were conscious of the marketing requirements and also that those requirements can change over time."

But despite the talk of relationship-building, there is agreement that procurement processes often boil down to who provided the cheapest quote.

The problem is that the potential value of great work cannot always be measured by the blunt tools available to the bean counters. "Look at Cadbury's 'gorilla', which supposedly sat on the shelf for seven months because the bigwigs at the company didn't get it," Page says.

Such campaigns jump out of a general blandness in ad breaks, but in their anxiousness to cut costs, clients could indulge in false economy. "Production is the most expensive element of the campaign after media, and you have to ask sometimes if it is really worth trying to save £5,000 on a £100,000 job if it impacts on quality," Robertson says.

Page says that although bland ads are now more common, UK output is still head and shoulders above that of most countries. As a result, outsourcing has not impacted the UK industry too much.

Another reason for loyalty to the UK sector is good old-fashioned service, according to Swift, whose approach is to view each job as an opportunity to exceed expectations: "There comes a time in any job when the client relies on your expertise to make a big decision, and they have to be confident that you are not ripping them off."

Relationships are one reason why there have not been more new entrants to the market, Robertson says: "There have been many developments, not least in digital, but production retains a status quo. It is a diluted market with an oversupply of directors, but I suspect that it's also to do with trust."

Trust between agencies and suppliers might be under strain, however, if Page's assertion that demarcation lines are breaking down is correct.

While production companies might not like the sound of agencies setting up production departments, a blurring of the lines is the new reality, he says: "There have been a lot of conversations about decoupling, but the fact is that it has always been an open market and clients have chosen to go by way of an agency. Because of the recession, it's a hot topic again and technology has made it easier to do." While agencies remain the guardians of the brand, and possess resources that are not available to production companies, such as planners, there are financial enticements to go direct.

Mark Summers, the casting director and owner of Mark Summers Management, says that audiences are more sophisticated than ever, seeing brands as part of life: "Kids want TV blended with advertising. Companies like P&G are already doing makeover shows on the web and magazines like Marie Claire are doing online reality programming that mixes in brands and looks very natural."

The impending changes to product placement regulation in the UK could be a further blow to traditional advertising formats, he says, as brands seek out new ways to get on to the consumer's radar. Summers has worked with Apple and Xbox on documentary-based films that were produced very cheaply.

Budgets are being further diverted into guerrilla techniques, he adds: "I do a lot of celebrity work and somebody can get £20,000 for holding a bottle of water. It gets the brand into all the gossip magazines they want to be in." Swift says such costs drain the production budget, which might have been better spent on an extra day's shooting.

At the other end of the market, Summers says, the need for authenticity in brand messages is driving a demand for brand ambassadors who could operate in the world of social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Social media is now on the radar of even previously staid clients, Swift agrees, but he says they do not necessarily appreciate that production values for a web viral are the same as for a TV ad.

The demise of the pop video is a further demonstration of how cash is being bled from the sector, Summers notes: "I used to do four or five a month, but now it has just gone. The big directors have to fight for work."

His point is that the promo was a valuable training ground for directors such as Spike Jonze. So where does this leave young talent? Robertson says the viral is becoming the new promo, but adds that there are already too many directors. "Eleven years ago, the budgets for promos were huge," Summers recalls. "Now they are barely worth getting out of bed for."

It doesn't stop clients asking why advertising can't be delivered on such a shoestring, though. Robertson says that despite involving themselves more with the production process, they do not necessarily understand the intricacies of what is involved.

"It's a craft," Page says, "which is one of the reasons that it can be frustrating to use TV people in advertising. They don't understand the detail."

Swift says that, compared with both the BBC and even commercial TV, there is little fat in the production sector: "I've worked in TV and have to say there were a lot of people justifying their jobs. When a client asks me what everybody does on a shoot, I'm comfortable justifying every one of them."

Turning from the here and now to future gazing, where would all this leave the industry in five years' time?

O'Brien hopes for a closer relationship between client, agencies and post-production houses: "We will be light on our feet and have trusting relationships built through being open-minded."

Robertson says there is no substitute for reliability and doing the job well, though the laws of supply and demand will always mean some will fall by the wayside. "Clients are always asking about transparency and we are delivering it. You can look at a selection of quotes and see they fall into a range," he says. "The recession has done a positive thing in a negative way."

Claire Beale, editor, Campaign
Bash Robertson, managing partner, Spank Films
Mercedes Crescenti, founder, Mercedes Crescenti TV
Mark Summers, casting director and owner, Mark Summers Management
Stuart Derrick, journalist, Campaign
La Velle Smith Jr, choreographer
Lisa Spencer-Hayes, senior ad manager, Campaign
Daniel Chester, account manager, Campaign
Suzanne Bidlake, associate editor (reports), Campaign
Tim Page, head of TV, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R
Nancy O'Brien, general manager, 750
Ben Swift, executive producer, Mercedes Crescenti TV