Pulse Films predicts that 2021 will be the year that defines the future of production, a thought that's the driving force behind this exclusive new 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 up in the series is Clare Donald, chief production officer for Publicis Groupe UK and British Arrows co-chair. Clare oversees production and delivery across Publicis Groupe UK agencies, including Saatchi & Saatchi, Leo Burnett and Publicis.Poke. Having worked on the production company, agency and client sides of the industry - first in filmmaking but lately in a more cross-disciplinary capacity - she has a full perspective on how production works as we move into the future.
LBB’s Alex Reeves spoke to Clare about how production can be the crucial link between different parts of communications, what everyone connected to production must do to reduce the environmental impact of the industry, and why virtual production’s potential is more profound than you might think.
LBB> You've had a really interesting career working at agencies, in production companies, feature films, even Google. How does the experience of production at Publicis Groupe UK differ from elsewhere?
Clare> Well thank you! I’ve been incredibly lucky with my career. New opportunities have always presented themselves at the right time, and I have indeed had an unusually eclectic path. The variety has been my life blood. I love discovering new things, and with every role there have been learnings.
At Publicis Groupe UK, it’s been the connection between production and data. I arrived last January as someone who has covered most areas of craft and execution. Working alongside all the practices at Groupe level (yes, the ‘e’ is intended - it’s a French thing), I’ve now connected with media specialists and data experts, and understand how production is the link to so many aspects of a comms journey. It’s been daunting at times but continues to enforce my belief that a strategic production mindset is ever more critical to this industry.
LBB> What lasting impact has the experience of the pandemic had on how you and Publicis Groupe UK think about and approach production?
Clare> There are two ways we’ve changed over the last 18 months. Firstly, the industry’s ability to adapt to remote working has been extraordinary and is well documented. The transformation for digital, print and post-production is a testament to us all. Filming has its own additional challenges which we’ve navigated valiantly, and I’m certain that our ability to do so will change how and where we create. There is no doubt that on complex jobs, having all decision makers physically present makes for better end-results. However, it’s equally clear that it’s possible to effectively produce content virtually. As scrutiny over spending increases, there will be some tough decisions about where costs are incurred. I think all producers would support money on camera rather than on non-essential flights.
And this squeeze on cost leads me to my second point. I think the pandemic has sped up a trend we’ve seen building over the last ten years. The proliferation of asset production versus the shortening time frame to produce, and the (at best) static budgets have necessitated new solutions. Whilst I would fight to defend the craft required for the top end of production, so much of what we produce requires a different approach. Personalisation at scale and optimisation of assets need technology solutions, smart digital asset management and a global platform to drive efficiency. At Publicis Groupe UK we are leaders for all of these ways of working. The two sides of my brain are equally stimulated - problem solving through tech, and creativity through the ongoing celebration of craft.
LBB> Even before the pandemic the role of the producer in agencies was evolving dramatically. What changes have you experienced and how does the role differ from that of a traditional head of TV / head of production from 10 years ago?
Clare> Yep. The role of a TV head was certainly changing a long time before the pandemic. Ten years ago, I was head of operations at Havas having been promoted from head of TV. My remit expanded to cover all digital, print and project management alongside the filmmaking that I loved.
Frankly, we were all trying to figure out the solution for digital - whether to buy a specialist agency or develop our own capability in-house etc. Even with the specialists we hired, the learning curve was steep. But it’s certain that producers were thinking beyond just TV. Every campaign had multiple deliverables. That’s just become more complex as the growth in our ability to personalise has grown exponentially. I think that the pandemic has made us embrace technology solutions more quickly than we might have done. If we can simplify things like delivery, it allows us to focus on the big idea. Without that, it’s all just mud.
LBB> Do you feel that we're going through a renaissance for craft in filmmaking? If so, why? If not, what needs to happen to bring one about?
Clare> I’m going to ‘fess up’ to plagiarism at this point. I was keen to get some specific Publicis Groupe UK examples of why craft is key but evolving and put your question to my colleagues from Saatchi & Saatchi, Leo Burnett and Publicis Poke. The amazing Colin Hickson, head of production at Publicis Poke sent me this note:
The word craft, in and of itself, comes with so much baggage. And like so much of the world of production, context is everything. As for some, those five little letters represent a calling. Or at the very least a way of life. While for others it's synonymous with everything slow, old-fashioned, and expensive. The poster child for advertising excess. Yet every day as producers, our ability to balance these opposing forces - the need for more for less and the time/cost to craft - is quintessentially what makes a great producer. And what is one of our overarching contributions to this industry.
So the idea of it having a renaissance doesn’t seem relevant. For me it’s always been there and will always be needed. The important question is surely more one about the nature of what craft looks like in this day and age. And what it means to an idea, within the context of a budget.
One thing is for certain though, as data gathering grows apace, as similar business issues are faced by our clients, and when we’re all asking the same questions... the end results become less and less distinguishable. It is the craft-folk who we will need, more than ever, to make our work stand out, engage emotionally and be recognised.
I think he’s put it beautifully, so I am going to steal his words (cheers, Col).
LBB> You're also sustainability lead for Publicis Groupe UK. There's a lot of talk around sustainable production at the moment with AdGreen and Ad Net Zero driving action. What do you feel are the most effective changes production people can make to minimise the climate impact of their work?
Clare> It should come as no surprise that the biggest carbon impact in production comes from travel and accommodation. Stats from AdGreen’s strategic partners, albert, show that in 2019, for an average hour of broadcast TV this was 49% and 16% respectively – and we expect ads to be very similar once we start measuring using AdGreen’s upcoming carbon calculator
. So clearly, the easiest way to reduce emissions is by shooting closer to home or embracing a more virtual approach.
Beyond that, we should be doing all the obvious things like recycling, eating vegan food, sharing transport to shoots and using sustainable fuel and products wherever possible. It’s all such a no-brainer. The climate disasters that we are seeing on an increasingly regular basis should kick-start us all into action. And the good news is that there does seem to be enormous support for sustainable thinking.
And beyond all of that, I’d just encourage people not to feel overwhelmed and powerless and shrug the crisis off. Every little thing makes a difference. Eat less meat, cycle more, install an eco-heating system at home… We have to acknowledge that change is needed in both our personal and professional lives, and we have to act with positivity.
LBB> Virtual production is something that has been posed as one factor in reducing production's carbon footprint. What do you find most exciting about the changes in that area?
Clare> What don’t I find exciting…? I’m slightly embarrassed by my enthusiasm for virtual production. I was cynical at first (aren’t you just doing the post-production in pre-production, and how would that save money for short-form commercial filmmaking?). But as I’ve witnessed the potential, the ever-growing stock library of locations, the high quality and realism of what can be achieved - I’m a complete convert. Of course, the sustainability angle is critical too. Quite Brilliant
(who I’m proud to say we just shot our first virtual ad with) did a simple test shooting 10 locations over two days in their LED studio. The comparable carbon impact of a traditional shoot was profound - 0.74 tonnes of CO2 versus 94.82. We’re in discussion with a number of our clients about what virtual production might mean to them from a cost and a carbon point of view, and I’m convinced that we’ll be using this technology more and more.
LBB> As an industry how can we support and mentor the next generation of directing talent? And bring in a more diverse range of people?
Clare> It’s honestly pretty shameful to me that the amazing initiatives that are rolling out across the board did not start sooner. It took the death of George Floyd and its global reaction for us to finally focus in the way we should have been doing for years. Of course there have been pockets of enlightened behaviour but I believe that the industry has now woken up.
Diversity is of course a broad term, and we need to engage with inclusivity at every level. At Publicis Groupe UK, we have various initiatives to attract new talent and open up our industry, including the Open Apprenticeship, a new industry-wide talent attraction scheme aimed to open the advertising industry up to more people from marginalised backgrounds; Saatchi Ignite, a schools outreach programme designed to inspire and inform students across the UK, and Saatchi Open, an entry-level programme engineered to ensure the agency has access to a pipeline of talent from people from low social mobility groups and ethnic minority backgrounds.
We’ve also initiated a production internship scheme, a program called Get Set (where we employ paid runners across the UK to join us on shoots, whilst covering their travel expenses). And with regards to directing talent we’ve engaged with a number of film schools to launch Protege, where we submerge young creative talent into all aspects of production in the Groupe. There are so many great initiatives from production companies too, and all Groupe agencies have a proactive policy of engaging with non-traditional talent.
LBB> Routes into the production industry are also a focus for you in your British Arrows role. What are your priorities there?
Clare> Jani Guest (my co-chair) and I have set one of our key goals for The British Arrows to support young people entering the industry. In the 2020 Awards show (March 2021) we collaborated with Quiet Storm’s Create Not Hate programme where young talent were invited to write words to our Made in Lockdown track. We’ve also done loads of work with Create Jobs (A New Direction) both in supporting their Future Creative Content Now course as well as hiring our first kickstart employee through them. We nurture close relationships with Shiny, Eric and the APA Good Karma collective who all support young people from diverse backgrounds to break into our industry. And most importantly, we have launched The Young Arrows to celebrate and showcase emerging talent across agency and craft disciplines. Three awards will be included in the Main 2021/22 Awards show, and we hope to fully launch a standalone Young Arrows awards to celebrate the best of upcoming talent across multiple categories in the second half of 2022.