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.
To kick the series off, LBB's Addison Capper chatted with Sandra Nam, director of creative production at Squarespace, a business that boasts one of the most awarded and highly performing in-house creative agencies. Sandra's team makes and produces all the brand and product design work that comes out of the company, including annual Super Bowl spots with well-known creators in Hollywood, music, fashion, design, art and more.
LBB> What lasting impact has the experience of the pandemic had on how you and your agency / brand think about and approach production?
Sandra> After a year of remote production, we are very proud to say that with the right tools, determination and lots of improvisation, we’ve made some pretty amazing work — even some of our best. We’ve definitely had longer days and nights, with work and life mixing more than before and lots of Zoom fatigue but our eyes have been opened to what’s possible in this remote world we had to wade through.
In the beginning, we relied on post vendors we’ve worked with in the past since we had a built-in relationship and trust but as the year went on, we got to work with a slew of new vendors based on referrals from directors or artists we worked with. It was as if the world was opening up to us and location wasn’t a factor anymore (although time zones were). For live action shoots especially, we’ve learned how to trust the people on the ground, monitor and give feedback remotely (albeit frustrating at times), and rethink how many people need to be at shoots in person. We now know we can produce in more places, in more ways, with more people than we previously thought. All that to say though, we can’t wait to do productions in person again. We miss being on set and being able to collaborate in person because it’s just not the same through screens. Yes, we can wear PJs and sit on the couch but the hours seem endless.
LBB> What limitations do you now have to work with on a regular basis? What do you think will be temporary and which may stay with us for the foreseeable future?
Sandra> There’s definitely a lack of problem solving and magic that happens when you’re all in a room together, able to read each other’s body language and vocalise your ideas more naturally. I’ve also never appreciated craft service more — feeding yourself while waking up at 3am through a 14-hour shoot day is much trickier than I thought it would be.
What will stay with us is the knowledge and trust that working remotely sometimes can bring more focused time and energy to projects with a better work/life balance. I hope the cleanliness practices on set will stay as well, but I can’t wait to be in-person again.
LBB> How has the pandemic affected the demand for different production skills from production companies and directing talent?
Sandra> We’ve always paid a lot of attention to who the line producer assigned to shoot is, but with remote shooting, their client service and communication skills became paramount since they were the life line to set. So it became critical that I spend time with EPs on the phone vetting line producers and walking through the best practices that have worked for us and what hasn’t. In terms of directors, it once again depended on the line producer, but most directors ended up being more available and collaborative for pre-production. And for shoot days, we generally ended up getting more facetime with them than sitting in a video village. The only bad experience we ran into was bad WiFi on-location in Kiev. That was really frustrating because we had no idea what was being shot! So WiFi is a critical factor for these times.
LBB> Would you agree we are seeing somewhat of a craft renaissance with film production? Such as more people shooting on celluloid film, using hand-drawn animation, etc...
Sandra> I didn’t realise this nostalgia was happening across the industry but yes, we did lean into some nostalgic techniques in the last year. For the ‘Launch It’ Anthem spot, we agreed with Ian Pons Jewell to shoot and finish the films in 4:3 (full frame) and treat the footage through a ‘film bath’ in post, which was nod to old space launch footage. For our Super Bowl spot featuring Dolly Parton
, we shot anamorphic, added titles in the beginning and finished it with a more saturated colour because Damien Chazelle wanted a modern homage to old Hollywood musicals. And lastly, we made a series of videos for our Knicks partnership about three Knicks alumni who became entrepreneurs called ‘The Crossover
’. We ended up using three different animation houses to create a different look and feel for each player, depending on their stories.
LBB> Do you think the quality of the craft is important to cut through in 2021 and beyond?
Sandra> An ad has to make sense - that’s number one. At Squarespace, we obsess about craft because it’s in the DNA of our brand. We want to help you create a beautiful online presence because we value design and aesthetics, so we make our ads as tasteful as possible because that’s what our product promises to do for our customers. The goal is always to crack a great idea, but for us, we always go the extra mile to make our work beautiful.
LBB> There are so many models for the way production is organised in the advertising industry - what set-ups have you found to be the most successful and why?
Sandra> Having worked brand-side at Google and Squarespace, I think success is dependent on where and how production sits within the org structure and how important creative is to the company or brand. Our production team is successful because we sit within the creative team, and our CCO reports directly to our founder and CEO, Anthony Casalena. Anthony was at the helm of all our early work and has amazing taste and appreciation for the craft. We’re lucky that we work for a company that has design and aesthetics at the core of everything we do. We really feel the support of the leaders of the company and know our work is recognised.
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?
Sandra> Being a brand-side HOP is very different from being a HOP in an agency. You need more skills and abilities to educate and advertise within the company what production is and does. It’s more explaining and reporting. You have to have more patience when you cross-collaborate with other departments because they don’t know how creative things are made and why and how much. Lastly, things change fast. My role and responsibilities have changed and iterated pretty much every year so you have to keep up and adapt to what the company or team needs.
LBB> Can you speak a bit more to how your current role at a brand is different to working in production at an agency?
Sandra> This role has been different in a few ways - less red tape to get creative approved and I would say it’s been generous with creative challenges. I came in thinking I was going to grow a production department so we could shoot more videos and photography in our in-house studio space, but it immediately became producing everything in-house. That means on one hand we’re producing huge broadcast campaigns and global OOH campaigns, to Instagram and in-house product shoots, to updating our brand font and designing internal company swag. This job, more than others, has tapped into all the production knowledge I’ve gathered over the years — from traditional to digital to product — and I also still get to produce. I feel like I’ve found my ‘home’ because I really do love and appreciate design and craft in my personal life so it’s been nice to seamlessly merge that with work. I told myself before taking the job that I wanted to solve creative problems every day and get more stories out into the world, and it’s definitely fulfilled that goal in spades.
LBB> How important is it to you that you have a diverse range of directors bid on a job?
Sandra> It’s incredibly important. And what’s unique about right now is that on a global level, we’ve experienced a pandemic and seismic shifts in thinking about equality and opportunity. We’ve all put a mirror up to ask ourselves what we can do. My goal this year is to institute more rules and guidelines to make sure we’re more representative and inclusive in all aspects of producing work, not just with directors. We plan to update all our bidding and awarding criteria internally, and have already been more selective about the customers we reach out to and work with.
LBB> What’s your own pathway to production? When you started out, what sort of work were you producing and what lessons have stayed with you in that time?
Sandra> I found production by being an account person. That was my first job in advertising and after seeing the whole process from pitch to delivery, I wanted to be closer to the creative. I started out as a project manager at Fallon in Minneapolis and worked on all traditional advertising — TV, print, radio, OOH. I decided after a few years that I wanted to learn digital, so I pursued that and became what they called an integrated producer. That brought me to NYC where I worked on Nike at R/GA, HBO at BBDO, and viral videos at Droga5. After that, I went brand side to Google for seven years and now, I’ve been at Squarespace for four years.
The lesson I took from my early years is that you have to take risks to get what you want. There was a time where I was very comfortable and hesitant to ask for more out of my job and responsibilities. But because of a personal event in my life, I started to think you only live once and maybe I should be more ambitious and go for what I want. I decided to jump into roles I didn’t know how to do but put me more in the driver seat. I feel that I survived that time by answering some questions with “I don’t know but I’ll figure it out and get right back to you!” So that’s what stayed with me — don’t be afraid to produce new things, trust your instincts and no matter what, you’ll figure it out.
LBB> What would your advice be for the next generation of producers?
Sandra> Learn what it means to produce creative-first — catch yourself when you want to say ‘no’ and figure out how you can make it a ‘yes’. Respect how hard it is to come up with creative ideas on demand and be a good partner to creatives. Be curious and hungry to be in the know and have your finger on the pulse. I always think producers are the coolest people I know so be culturally relevant and involved. Bring all of yourself to your work and focus on helping creatives and creative ideas.
LBB> Finally, can you tell us one thing you believe we are certain to have in store for the future of production
Sandra> Hand sanitiser I hope? I think what this time has shown us is that we can think twice before jumping on planes and feel the need to be everywhere at once. I don’t think we’ll forget the balance that can be achieved with a bit of software and the choice to contribute remotely. But I know for certain that once it’s safe, I will be giving out lots of hugs and high fives because nothing has been more unsatisfying than wrapping a production alone behind a computer!