From a one-woman show to the biggest service production company in the UK, LS Productions has been on quite some trajectory over the past decade. And, spend some time with the company’s force-of-nature founder, Marie Owen, and you’ll soon discover just why this energetic company is going stratospheric.
Location Scotland, as it was originally known, was started from Marie’s kitchen table. She figured she could help her photographer husband organise and produce shoots in Scotland – and soon found that there was a real hunger among international fashion brands and highbrow magazines for the country’s diverse and dramatic landscape. In recent years, the company has added moving image (commercials, TV shows, music video and online content) to its impressive repertoire and has expanded its focus from Scotland to the whole of the UK and beyond. A growing appetite for shooting film content alongside stills shoots means that the film side of the business has grown strongly.
This week they revealed a big rebrand, changing their name to LS Productions, and opened a presence in London (they’ve also got an office in New York), bringing their on-point style (you don’t do shoots for Karl Lagerfeld or Vanity Fair without developing a sense of cool), friendly disposition and production know-how to the world. LBB’s Laura Swinton (editor and resident Scot) caught up with Marie in her Edinburgh HQ to find out more about LS Productions and its incredible journey.
LBB> LS was founded in 2006 and so it is nearly ten years old. When you founded it, what was your vision for it? Did you anticipate it would become anything like the set up that it is today?
MO> This isn’t what I anticipated at all. I really was thinking ‘maybe I could get a few jobs in Scotland for my husband and help him organise stuff’. That was the basis of it, and in order to do that I had to show some nice locations on the website.
It became clear within the first year and a half that there was a real opportunity to build a business and I thought ‘I can do this’. I think if I had set out with a much more ambitious plan it would have put me off and I might have thought that I wouldn’t have been able to it; it might have scared me. So, it was nice to start in a really flexible way.
LBB> Since meeting you and talking to you, it’s made me look at Scotland differently. Has the experience of running LS made you look at Scotland differently now you’re looking at it through the eyes of producers or photographers or location scouts?
MO> Definitely. Obviously time has gone on and we’ve been thinking much more broadly about what Scotland has to offer. We recently shot Florence and the Machine on a remote island in the Western Isles. We had to get a tiny little boat there and there were no cars, so we had to push everything by wheel barrow. It wasn’t that far away but it looked interesting and a bit weird.
And then on the other hand there’s Edinburgh, it’s a historic, picturesque, beautiful city with so much going on – we just had the Festival recently too. Even without the Festival it’s such a vibrant city and there’s such a range of places that can be reached within a 40 minute drive. Some countries just don’t have that. It’s quite condensed.
I’ve always, by default, got my eye out, looking for locations. I’ll see something and think ‘who knew that was happening in Scotland? We must go and look at is as a team’. We’re really aware of how lucky we are.
A winding highlands road...
LBB> You’ve gone about pushing and growing the business in quite a smart way. I know there are a lot of people working in the creative industries who might like the idea of setting up on their own but feel quite intimidated about the prospect. What advice would you give to anybody who’s in that position?
MO> I would go against what I said right at the beginning! You should have an idea about what you think you can do and commercially you need to understand if you’ll be able to make money out of it. That’s not the main aim of it though. You’re going to have to put a lot of hard, unpaid work into it but what you get back is the flexibility to be your own boss, to make decisions and have that control and input.
But I do think you should start with a plan, even if it’s a long term vision about what you want to achieve, and set some personal and professional goals about what you’re prepared to do and not prepared to do. Then you need to think about your criteria for your team – eventually you need great people to do great things for your business, people who do things better than you can.
For example, culture is really important as is how you treat people. There’s no point getting a producer in who is really good at production but treats everyone like shit. You might get a great job done but then if it goes against your values of building a great place to work, is it worth it? In my mind it’s about creating a broad picture of what you want to achieve, and how, and why and doing little building blocks to help you get there. I do a lot more strategic planning now and I know it’s good to know where you’d like to head.
LBB> When you started out, you’d never run a business before? How did you go about educating yourself about that side of things?
MO> No one knows it all! A useful experience that I’ve had as the business has grown is working on different parts of the business. When you start a business on your own there’s only you for quite a long period. You answer the phones, make sure there’s milk, update the website… At the beginning I was doing production as well, which meant I was driving the van, picking up clients from the airport and even making the sandwiches sometimes. It’s changed hugely since then, of course, but because of that I can connect with the different departments. I know the pressures they’re under and can connect with that.
Out of the office I’ve managed to find a good group of fellow business owners which was, for me, the business degree that I never did. I’ve learned and been challenged in so many ways. I’ve been through my own course of learning!
LBB> Now LS Productions has a full time staff of 15 and I know that you handle quite a bit in-house – why was that the right approach to take?
MO> Investing in people has always been at the forefront of our minds at LS Productions. A lot of agencies don’t work in that way, they don’t employ so many people internally, but for me the quality of service we provide is down to the quality of people we have and the team as a whole.
I think that’s what I’ve been quite good at – finding great people and letting them get on with the job! Joking aside, it came down to common sense.
The marketing department is in-house because it became obvious that we needed to do that to get more coverage, more business, more enquiries. You can take that to a certain level yourself but you know you’re only going to get a certain return unless you have someone on board who is dedicated to it.
LBB> You were an air stewardess for nine years – what skills or experiences did you gain from that period that have helped you on your journey with LS?
MO> I thoroughly enjoyed it for nine years and had a great laugh. I left when I had children and I was really unsure what skills I’d gained that I’d be able to put on my CV to get another job… but then I started Location Scotland so I didn’t need to do that.
I think it makes you think on your feet. When you’re in the air with 150 people and someone’s shouting at you, you can’t run away. Sometimes there were serious situations like medical emergencies, and that makes you learn to stand on your own two feet and not to be frightened of things. Be nice to people and generally they’ll be nice to you back. It’s a lot of common sense stuff but I think working for a big corporate company, as I did, made me think about whether they were working for their staff, whether we felt like we could contribute to where they were going as a company and, seriously, it’s fed into how I try to run the company. I don’t have an answer to everything but I’ve realised that by bringing in more great people, they are just full of brilliant ideas. They’re at the forefront of what we do. They’re the ones getting client feedback, they’re out on the road talking to people, they’re seeing opportunities.
LBB> Location Scotland is now LS Productions – what was the thinking behind the rebrand?
MO> There have always been people who thought that we were part of the government or something to do with Visit Scotland. It wasn’t too important at the beginning because we were quite small but it’s become a bit more difficult with people thinking that we’re a quango or something.
As the business has grown, we’ve started to do more TV stuff and we’ve also started to do work outside of Scotland – so the name ‘Location Scotland’ doesn’t really fit with that. The idea behind the brand is that we’re proud of Scotland, our head office is here and it will always be at the heart of the company but why not open up to other places that are also good and give our clients the variety. That’s really the thinking behind it.
LBB> Following on from that, you’ve got an office in New York and have just opened a presence in London, and many of your clients are international. How do you see LS growing internationally?
MO> I think in the first instance there’s an opportunity to grow bigger in the UK as a whole. We’re currently building on our Scottish database and we’ll always be evolving that and finding new locations, but we’re also building our wider UK database.
And in terms of growing internationally, it’s about working along the same principles but working with partners across the world. I think half the battle with production is finding someone you can trust and rely on. Working with good partners means that clients who we’ve built up a relationship with don’t have to keep going to various agencies.
One of our first target markets might be somewhere in the Caribbean. The complete opposite of Scotland! It means that clients who shoot with us for their Autumn/Winter campaigns would be able to work with us for Spring/Summer. It cuts out a lot of headaches and red tape, lack of trust or lack of knowledge of an area as we’ll be able to oversee the whole thing for them. That’s where I see us growing internationally over the next couple of years. It’s about us identifying the right partners, who can work with us and who will deliver the same high level production with the same high level values that we do in the UK.
LBB> The clients you’ve worked with span fashion brands and editorial, advertising and music videos… Have you noticed much of a difference between the advertising crowd and the fashion crowd – other than one lot might be better dressed?
MO> That could be argued! In general they get along like anyone else – they want to know that you’ll keep it nice for them. Yes, you have to take your soy oaty milk out on set, or your chai latte as part of your production kit; it’s just par for the course. But, to be honest, we do that for a film shoot as well. In the main people are really nice – you get the occasional oddity but in the main whether they’re on the fashion side or the film side they know what they want to achieve.
LBB> As a production company working with really high end fashion clients, or with really spontaneous photographers or directors, sometimes you can be faced with some really unusual requests on set. Any strange ones?
MO> I think in general our job is to solve problems: make plans and solve problems. Anything you’re put on the spot with, you have to be able to say ‘of course!’ Maybe someone’s come with flip flops and it’s pouring with rain and you need to get wellies. Maybe they ask for sugar-free Red Bull and you’re in the middle of nowhere and you have to go on a 30 mile round trip to find it. But we always bend over backwards to make people feel looked after and cared for. Of course we also know that there’s a line where it affects the budget, but we can help people out. As producers, you have to have a plan B and C.
We were on a shoot and they mentioned they’d quite like some chickens. The approach is ‘can we deliver these 40 chickens by tomorrow or not?’ and we see what we can do – and we’re quite switched on about how to achieve these things. Maybe someone’s said ‘oh a horse would be nice’, and we’ve got contacts who can help us out with all sorts of weird and wonderful things… but we’re not magicians!
LBB> Which recent LS projects have you particularly loved and why?
MO> I know this is such a cheesy thing to say but I’m proud of the team whatever they do, whether it’s a big glamorous shoot or not. Even small matter-of-fact shoots have their challenges. Generally someone from this office goes out with a wider team and they come back and tell me what was good, what the client was like. And then you see what comes out of it and you’re dead proud of your team.
I guess when it’s a more famous shoot… we recently did a really lovely spread in Harper’s Bazaar and we just had the magazine delivered. It’s a large format magazine and it was so beautiful. The colouring of the pictures, with what the model’s wearing and the landscape, just looks incredible. It is stunning. That really was a tiny shoot with a small budget but we really are so proud of it because it looks beautiful. We know that it’s good PR and great for our company because it means we get to work with amazing people and do amazing work. We’ve worked with Vanity Fair and Karl Lagerfeld and Jason Bell, that’s quite outstanding. It’s a ‘unique life event’ really to collaborate with these people and see how they work.
We did an O2 TV commercial which was a big project. It was with a production company that we’d worked on for some smaller projects and they came back to us for that and gave us a lot more responsibility, which showed how much they trusted us.
The recent Florence and the Machine video was really nice. It was shot beautifully. There are loads of them. Russian Vogue was a great one because it didn’t look anything like Scotland!
But then we’ve done catalogue shoots that have been great – people see these catalogues and they don’t know that we’ve been involved or that they were shot in Scotland. People spend two or three weeks here and come away with something nice and we feel dead lucky to do them.
LBB> Vogue Russia is a mind-blowing one personally. It’s shot on a beach that I know really well and I would never in a million years thought of it as a location for an American desert-themed shoot and, looking at the images, I can barely recognise it.
MO> I think that’s what we do. Amy heads up the location department; it’s quite a new division and she’s not been here a year yet, but what she’s doing is to build up a concise, well thought-out database that’s marketed to its best. People who don’t know a lot about Scotland – and even those that do – might not automatically think of these things or realise just how much you can do here. It’s like you said, you know that beach and yet you wouldn’t have thought about it in that light. If we can pick out these beautiful things then someone who might not have thought about shooting in Scotland might think, ‘oh, I can see that there are options’. If we can build that up in the next year or so, hopefully we can inspire more people to come and shoot in the UK.
Arizona... or a Scottish beach?
LBB> So, for anyone who hasn’t thought about shooting in Scotland (or the UK, more generally), give us your pitch!
MO> The thing about Scotland is that it’s small and compact but has such a variety of landscapes and locations that you can access quickly. In a couple of days you can cover so many different kinds of landscapes and looks and feels. From an inspiration and creative point of view, that’s often what you don’t get from bigger countries because you have to travel much further and spend a lot more money to do that. That can often have a big impact on their budget or the time available to do what they need to do – which is take great pictures or make great content.
Modern Scottish architecture...
I love the different kinds of architecture. There’s a lot of modern houses that no one knows about, but you can mix that in with the iconic mountains and tartan and heather that people assume are here (although they often don’t know to what extent they are available here). I’ve been in meetings in London where people have said they didn’t realise the mountains were that big! They had just come back from shooting a commercial in New Zealand, which they could have easily shot in Scotland.
I have to educate people on what’s available just up the road from them. It’s the same with Wales. A lot of people aren’t aware what’s really on offer there and it’s up to me to help broaden their minds.
The other thing people bring up is the weather, but… the weather is the weather. It’s the UK. It’s not quite as settled or as warm as some places but on the other hand it really isn’t a constant rainstorm either! Most of our clients are coming here for something that has atmosphere and feeling – they’re not coming here for Barbados sunshine, but we’re not selling that!
LBB> The Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe has just finished – the biggest arts festival in the world! I could imagine that a smart producer could time a shoot to coincide with a trip to Edinburgh… What’s it like being in the middle of all that?
MO> It’s mental! If you go up and immerse yourself in it instead of rushing about trying to get to meetings and actually enjoy it it’s a great experience. There are people from all over the world. It feels like there’s a real mix of tourists in winter and summer, but at festival time people are thronging all over the place. There are so many different venues, from community halls to massive theatres, and everyone is mingling and you think ‘this is incredible’. You’ve got the Botanic Gardens, the Scott Monument and it’s so picturesque but it’s also alive, it’s electric. From mid-morning to the middle of the night there’s something going on – although when you’re working it can be hard to find time to go to anything! We’re really lucky here.
LBB> And outside of work, what do you get up to, what inspires you?
MO> I live on the outskirts of Edinburgh, about seven miles away, and I like getting out of town even though I feel really fortunate to work in town. There are places like Pease Bay outside of town, which are great if you want to clear your head and I love the sea. So many people, when they come to Edinburgh, have no idea how close it is to the sea.
Obviously, I couldn’t live near Edinburgh without wanting to socialise a lot, so I love getting out and about with my pals. I obviously like spending time with my kids, and running is another big thing but I’ve broken a bone in my foot so I can’t run and it’s pissing me off!
LBB> Who are your creative heroes and why?
MO> I don’t really hero worship anyone – although the other night I was watching a TV show about Morrissey and I thought I really admire him. A lot of people hate him, but I really like him because he just says it like it is. He’s got opinions on things that not everyone agrees with, but he’s happy with that. He doesn’t give a shit. I think it’s a bit selfish and I wouldn’t want to be like that but I admire him for it.
I have a bit of a soft spot for the photographer Alasdair McLellan. I love how he’s kept hold of his Northern roots. He’s done a few books that are great. My husband and I have a bit of a thing for his work.