Droga5 New York’s co-head of content production tells LBB why he loves collaborating with other creatives, the challenges facing production today, and the project that was a “baptism by fire”
Pulse Films predicts that the changes the industry is going through now will define the future of production, a thought that's the driving force behind this exclusive interview series on Little Black Book. Covering four key themes, the series will investigate how the pandemic has affected production and the shape of things to come.
Next in the series is Ruben Mercadal, co-head of content production at Droga5 New York. Ruben has years of experience working across longform TV, ads, feature films, both on the production and post-production sides. Having always wanted to join the world of production, Ruben was driven by the sense of excitement he got from watching a behind-the-scenes programme about Star Wars, pursuing the passion at university. He’s worked with some of the industry’s biggest names, like Vaughan Arnell, David Droga and Frank Budgen.
Ruben cites the multi-award winning ‘The Truth is Worth It’ campaign for The New York Times, plus ‘Man Who Walked Around the World', and ‘Unfinished Business’ for Henessy - as career highlights to date.
LBB caught up with Ruben to learn more about his career journey, his thoughts on the characteristics of a great producer, and how to continue making great ads for multiple platforms without compromising on quality.
LBB> Can you tell us how you got into the industry and the role you have today?
Ruben> I always wanted to work in production. As a teenager, I thought I wanted to be a Steadicam operator after watching a Star Wars ‘making of’ programme. Film shoots seemed so exciting, and I figured that’s what I would somehow try to pursue.
While studying for my master’s degree in Film and Television, I tried to get as much practical work experience as possible during the holidays. The UK market was really tough to break into, but I had some lucky breaks and worked on three independent feature films as well as various TV shows - working entry level as a PA, director’s assistant, or researcher. After graduating in Scotland, I moved back to London and freelanced for a while, working on shoots as well as in post-production, in places like The Mill and Rushes.
Then I went to work at Godman, which had been set up by the legendary Jo Godman (RIP), the godmother of production, who had just left RSA Films to set up her own production company. I was lucky enough to work with director Vaughan Arnell, who I loved and who was making some of the best music videos for George Michael, Spice Girls, Robbie Williams, nd All Saints. It was a period in time when record labels were spending healthy budgets to make great videos. I learned so much from Vaughan; he is such an inspiring director.
Working at Godman opened the door to working at many other places. Vaughan was also directing a lot of top-tier ad campaigns, and that was really my introduction to advertising, as well as working with the wonderful director Patricia Murphy.
After having worked on the production company and post-production sides, I was curious to understand what the ad agency’s role was in the advertising process, so I moved as a young associate producer to Saatchi & Saatchi London while David Droga was CCO. Within 18 months, David transformed the agency so that it won Agency of the Year at the Cannes Lions.
I loved being involved in the whole 360-degree production process, as well as understanding the communication and strategic needs of a brand from beginning to end - something you are not exposed to on the production company side. Since then, I have worked at many agencies such as BBH London, and currently head up the film and content department at Droga5 in New York. My time spent working on both the post-production and production company side across different mediums has been invaluable to me, and it benefited my agency role in many ways.
LBB> In your view, why is the role of a producer such an important one?
Ruben> A producer is critical to ensuring the success of any client brief and all their advertising campaigns and productions. The most successful productions are those where the production department is in lockstep with strategy, creative and account management from the strategic briefing stage onwards - something that doesn’t happen at every agency but is certainly the best model for success.
This is something I learned from working with David Droga at my first agency. He always wanted the producer in the room when presenting a first cut or a director's treatment. He asked for the producer’s opinion early on. And that respect around production trickled down to the whole creative department and the rest of the agency, in terms of how production had to be lockstep with the other key departments.
LBB> What differentiates a good producer from a not-so-good one? Is it an innate skill or one that can be learned?
Ruben> The core components of production can technically be taught - elements such as the film shoot process, budgeting, business affairs and so forth. But essentially, these are just the building blocks of any production process that should always be watertight. The best creative producers I have seen over the years are those who have a curiosity about the world and a passion for filmmaking, culture, production and craft, even if they haven’t harnessed it in a branded content space.
The team I try to develop and nurture always follows the industry best practices we have in place to ensure we run our productions successfully. Beyond that, there is a certain intangible x-factor that can’t be taught, but it has to do with a laser-focused ability to creatively bring a project to life from beginning to end, through craft and production, while knowing that you can make a great impact and difference on the quality and success of any campaign.
LBB> You were the executive producer on the award-winning ‘The Truth Is Worth It’ films from The New York Times. It was created during a very specific cultural and political moment. What was it like to work on that campaign?
Ruben> I’ve been very fortunate to work with some incredible creatives and clients throughout my career, and The New York Times team has been a part of that journey. From a production standpoint on The New York Times, we always ensure that what we capture is real and authentic and not created through movie magic, which makes for a fantastic framework of reference.
“The Truth Is Worth It” films started as an edit prototype that we built in-house, which led to our clients green-lighting the project. From there, we asked a couple of directors to pitch on it, and it was a fantastic experience working with our directors (Martin + Lindsay at Furlined) and all our production partners to bring it to life.
LBB> Thinking about the landscape of the industry today, what are the main challenges for producers?
Ruben> The way content is consumed on social media and smartphones versus traditional TV and the change in the media-buying landscape in terms of the 360 ecosystem of deliverables we make for our clients are among the biggest changes for producers in the last 10 years.
In the past, clients would perhaps make a few TV, print and radio ads as part of their primary delivery channels. Now, producers have to think about the whole journey of touchpoints that clients require for their audience, often for the same budget as before. The challenge is how to make the same impactful work without compromising the quality and standards of the production. The best producers thrive in this environment, looking at how we reskin the production approach as we consider nimble and agile ways of working and collaborating with the next generation of production partners to maintain the quality control our creatives and clients expect.
LBB> Besides the obvious, how did the pandemic affect production?
Ruben> Personally, I think it's a testament to the brilliance of our entire worldwide production community that everyone embraced the restrictions early on and implemented working solutions for all our clients, which were tangible and produced effective results. We had to completely rethink how we produced campaigns from beginning to end, pressure testing new ways of working with a lot of trial and error, including navigating fully remote shoots in both local environments and far-flung countries, as well as operating a fully remote post-production pipeline at a time when Covid vaccines weren’t yet available.
I think the pandemic also brought production closer to strategy, account management and creative in that, as a department, we were leading the charge on how to successfully and safely execute whole productions with a lot of uncertainty in place, as clients and the rest of the agency looked early on to production for solutions.
We have made some fantastic work during this time, a lot of it fully remote, such as Born in Quarantine for Meta and Hennessy’s Unfinished Business. Sending directors out to shoot for us with no supervision would have been unheard of pre-Covid. The first time we fully saw the footage on both of the above-mentioned projects was when each director presented their director's cut to us—which is also a testament to the trust we have with our partners.
Solidarity both internally and with our production partners has led to great success for all involved. I am glad that producers and creatives are now back out on shoots with directors, building up those working relationships, but I certainly think there are some learnings from the pandemic we won’t put aside, like going back to pre-pandemic sizes of video villages, which put a lot of pressure on production companies and crews and isn’t environmentally sustainable.
LBB> You’ve worked across feature films, longform TV, music videos and, of course, ads. How is production changing across the different forms, what are the main similarities and differences?
Ruben> The core elements of any production or shoot are essentially the same - the process and particular nuances of the production are tailored to the needs of the end execution, whether that’s a music video, commercial or film. The turnaround time on music videos is generally shorter because those budgets are smaller, whereas a feature film will have a longer schedule and bigger budget. Working on a music video or feature film is similar in many ways to working on a branded content film. There are executives from a film studio, or a record label commissioner or artist management team for a music video, which is comparable to marketing clients for advertising work.
LBB> You’ve worked on productions across the globe - which countries and projects stand out most in your memory?
Ruben> I love working with new directors, which is an exciting part of being a producer— working with wonderful directors like Elena Petitti di Roreto on Hennessy. I also think our global production community is incredible. The world-class standard of crews, the diligent and professional way in which they always conduct themselves and their passion for representing their country in the best possible manner have always been amazing to watch, whether shooting domestically or abroad.
I am very fortunate that I have been able to travel the globe with my productions. Countries like South Africa, Spain, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Argentina and Uruguay were regular locations I shot in, as well as locations around Asia and North America. The first project I produced abroad after being promoted is definitely one I won’t forget. Shooting a breakfast cereal commercial that required beautiful wheat fields while in the middle of an extensive flood in Prague, with an evacuated city and our spot’s steam train repurposed by the Czech government to distribute goods across the county was definitely a baptism of fire. We had so many challenges to deal with, and somehow we got through them.
Working on Axe was also an amazing experience as a producer, along with epic shoots in Argentina with Tom Kuntz and collaborating with director Tim Godsall in Barcelona. Shooting various celebrities, like Aretha Franklin for an Oscars campaign with Smuggler, also stand out in my mind. But some of my fondest memories are those where the whole team sweated blood and tears and on a really tough small budget campaign, and we all came through the other side with a strong bond.
LBB> Which is the project from your career that you’re most proud of?
Ruben> That's a tough question. I am really proud of all the New York Times and Hennessy work we have made at Droga5 New York. Working with Derek Cianfrance on Hennessy was a very special experience. We filmed the campaign with Radioaktive Films in Ukraine, which was amazing.
Other special memories include the Johnnie Walker Man Who Walked Around the World film that I produced. And working with the late and incredible director Frank Budgen was an experience that I will never forget. We worked with David Droga and Frank on a charity campaign that I don’t think has lost any of its impact after all these years.
LBB> Where do you find inspiration and motivation?
Ruben> Inspiration for me can come from anywhere — from random things like going on a run to walking down the street to reading, culture, talking to people or travelling the world. Motivation-wise, I’m passionate about making impactful work for clients and nurturing our team of producers at Droga5.
LBB> What’s the best part of working as a producer?
Ruben> Being a producer means you get to work in an industry with incredibly talented people, from clients to agency colleagues to our wider production community, and every project is completely different from the last. How many people can say they have a job where they get to collaborate with some of the best talent from around the world? Also, with the ever changing landscape and evolution of technology, as a producer you are constantly learning and evolving, which makes for a very fulfilling career. But it’s really the advertising community and its people that make it such a unique and wonderful industry.