Production Essays: Roundtable discussion - Wrestling with the future

The contributors to Campaign's Insider's Guide to Production debate the new challenges facing their industry, from budgetary constraints to digital and branded content. Ann-Marie Corvin reports.

"We're planning a wrestling game with Woody Allen in it - how much would that cost exactly?"

If you're a producer on the receiving end of this request, where do you start? With agencies and marketers constantly being told that "digital" is their answer to everything, it's little wonder that production companies and post houses are getting requests that are hard to quote for, let alone realise.

The challenges posed by digital are a main talking point as our commercials production folk congregate for Campaign's inaugural production lunch to thrash out issues of the day.

As advertising takes on new forms, there also appears to be some confusion about who should be doing what, with some agencies dabbling in production because, as one luncher puts it: "They've seen kids create video and post it on the internet and think, 'well, if they can do it, then why can't I?'"

Thanks to Eurostar's financing of Shane Meadows' Somers Town, branded content is also back on the menu. However, it's been six years in coming, if you count BMW's slew of short films directed by the likes of Guy Ritchie and Ang Lee as the last successful foray into this territory. And those at the table add that, unless agencies learn to "stop applying traditional advertising conventions to the production of branded content", the medium is in danger of stalling again.

Beyond the 30-second spot

Leaving the safe, yet sexy, world of the glossy 35mm spot is understandably difficult for clients. But, as the Campaign editor, Claire Beale, starts by asking, is it also difficult for producers too? Can working on a mobile ad or a viral be as creatively fulfilling as working on a TV commercial? According to John Doris, the managing director at the production company Mustard, it depends on the idea.

"In some ways, it's a breath of fresh air - showing content on the net can give you more freedom creatively because you don't have to worry about regulators such as Clearcast," he says.

Steve Davies, the chief executive of the Advertising Producers Association, believes that the turning point has come for digital, with the FMCG giant Nestle ploughing a six-figure budget into online and seeking an agency to help with its digital strategy for Kit Kat. However, others, including Liz Smith, the managing director of the digital media production specialist Film38, say they are yet to see this kind of money filter through to production.

"While there are many more creative opportunities in digital, thanks to no longer being shackled to a 30-second ad, we are being held back by budgets - clients are not spending as much as they should considering the impact that those digital campaigns will have," Smith says.

Managing clients' expectations to fall in line with the smaller budgets is a task production companies now face. As Doris says: "We might be working with a team on a £1.2 million above-the-line ad and the same team may come to us a week later for a viral or branded campaign and we're now working on a budget of £22k - yet they expect the same facility. You don't want to limit anyone's creativity but you have to adapt to the medium and what your expectations are."

Acting as unpaid consultants is another digital gripe, and usually a result of vague briefs, or clients not really knowing what they want in the first place. The solution for the digital production specialist unit9 has been to charge a conceptual fee, for which the company spends time scoping out the client's vision and mapping out what is achievable. The unit9 managing partner and creative director, Piero Frescobaldi, explains: "We give the client a ball park and then review that ball park depending on the sign-off. Otherwise, when you start mixing animation, 3D, film and graphic design, just one change can affect everything."

Because the word "digital" is all- encompassing, the ad industry seems to have different ideas about who takes on what role and it is the producers and post-production companies who are caught in the middle of this lack of structure. There's resignation around the table that some creative agencies house "frustrated directors who think that home-made movies and digital equate to the same thing".

Danny Coster, the managing director of the post-production house Locomotion, adds that, when traditional agencies take it upon themselves to make the video, he ends up "verbally attending" the shoot. "They will call up and ask simple questions about how to shoot and track things, whether something can be rotoscoped out. We become the production company, the director, the art director ... and you're liable for anything that's gone wrong. It's quite hard work."

That's not to say that advertisers which decide to decouple the agency from the production process are any better off, as Michael Wright, the commercials and animation director from Platige Image, points out: "When production companies work directly with clients, I think they soon realise what it is that agencies actually do. They act as a buffer. It's slightly different with virals - sometimes the idea may come from a production company and you go hunting for a client. But if you go down this route, then where's the strategy? Who's looking after the brand?"

Davies adds that, usually, advertisers still need strategy, planning, accountability, measurement and creativity "all of which agencies do brilliantly".

The demise of the viral

Indeed, the lack of a brand strategy and the bypassing of agencies may have contributed to the demise of the viral, a medium which appears on the wane. "Agencies and clients aren't so keen on them," Davies admits. "There's only so much you can do with exploding heads and naked women - and a lot of stuff coming through wasn't on message or didn't fit in with overall campaigns."

In time, Davies predicts that virals will evolve and become part of much more integrated campaigns, although the term "viral" may be around for a while, even when it is essentially resembles a TV commercial on the web.

While post-producers may end up doling out unpaid advice as new platforms emerge, in some ways they are better positioned than most to benefit from advertising's digital dawn.

"It's an exciting time," Penny Verbe, the chief executive of the post outfit Smoke & Mirrors, says. "For us, it means dealing with different formats and different ways of working. We're educating clients on what is possible."

Outdoor advertising is just one new business currently making itself comfortable on the plush sofas of Soho's post-production suites as compositors and 3D artists work their magic on digital signage content.

"That's one area we're getting into," Verbe adds. "It's interesting because you're working to a different aspect ratio. Clients want something engaging - someone travelling on an escalator is only going to see it for ten seconds, so that's a challenge. We are on hand to say what might work."

Frescobaldi believes that there's also scope for digital production companies like his to work much more closely with post houses and software developers as online graphic and animation projects become more complex.

"The stuff that we used to do in Flash is dead now. The level of technology and the knowledge you need to deal with a web build is so big that jobs cannot be done by a young designer. Post comes into it because you will have to previsualise what this stuff looks like before it gets built," he says.

On the audio side, post facilities are also seeing an increase in demand for surround sound, as the price of domestic systems drops and both consumers and clients understand what it can offer. "For us, this is very exciting," Johnnie Burn, the creative director and co-owner of Wave Studios, who couldn't make the lunch, says. "Technically, we can deliver greatly increased quality but, more importantly, we are better armed to give directors what they want. Namely a more filmic mix including better use of perspective, wonderfully rich music and deep booming explosions; subtlety and then sound that really does fly around the room and perhaps make you jump."

The rise of branded content

Besides the new opportunities offered by digital, or perhaps in tandem with this growing medium, has been the re-emergence of branded content and advertiser-funded programming.

In part, this has been triggered by Somers Town, which, despite being funded by Eurostar, had only a brief reference to the train service towards the end. It was non-invasive advertising and people paid to go and see it.

Production companies are already making moves into this area, with Film38 setting up its own branded content division, Entertaining TV. "We've purposely set that up as a separate brand," Smith says, "because the key to branded content succeeding is that it's not advertising and it's not a commercial. Lots of agencies and clients are too nervous to push it far and fall back on product placement."

But according to Doris, there are some clever scripts emerging from agencies. "I read a brilliant, one-hour drama recently and there's just one scene in it near the end, which is effectively branded content for a large company. The brand is a generic product throughout the piece and only leads itself to the reveal at the end," he says.

As dessert approaches, the conversation moves on to future-gazing and the need for more of it. Helena Corvin-Swahn, a marketing consultant for Locomotion, points out the irony of an industry so caught up in pioneering new technology that it has little time contemplate what's around the corner.

"Everyone is fighting for ownership at the moment. Or bound into format wars. We should be interested in what's going to happen over the next ten years when our kids have grown up. Kids don't think in terms of formats or media - to them it's simply entertainment and information," she notes.

Ad agencies have always been better placed to map out the future in a way that the deadline-driven and reactionary production industry seems hard-pressed to do. And, as Frescobaldi points out, they've still got to pull in the money. "It's like that clip where the guy spends about 90 seconds talking to himself in the mirror going: 'No. No. No. No. No ... I'm not going to make the logo bigger.' In the next scene, the client asks: 'Can you make the logo bigger?' And the guy says: 'OK.' We're all culpable of that in the end."

- Steve Davies, chief executive, Advertising Producers Association
- Penny Verbe, chief executive, Smoke & Mirrors
- Piero Frescobaldi, managing partner and creative director, unit9
- Aaron Reynolds, senior engineer, Wave Studios
- Ann-Marie Corvin, journalist, Campaign
- John Doris, managing director, Mustard
- Chantelle De Carvalho, head of production, Film38
- Hadassah Nymark, editorial assistant, Campaign
- Belinda Grew, head of production, Smoke & Mirrors
- Lisa Spencer-Hayes, senior ad manager, Campaign
- Matt Groves, creative services director, unit9
- Liz Smith, managing director, Film38
- Suzanne Bidlake, associate editor (reports), Campaign
- Danny Coster, managing director, Locomotion
- Helena Corvin-Swahn, marketing/PR manager, Locomotion
- Michael Wright, commercials director, Platige Image
- Claire Beale, editor, Campaign