Bossing It in association withLBB Pro

General Mills’ Mike Churchill on Jumping the Fence from Agency Production to Client Side

Production Company
Kyiv, Ukraine
With more brands recruiting production experts, Mike Churchill talks to LBB’s Laura Swinton about his role guiding marketers and agencies through production
PEP Group is a proud supporter of LBB. Over the upcoming months, as part of the sponsorship of LBB’s Bossing It channel, we will be spending time with some of the personalities at the forefront of the global production industry today.

As businesses’ demands for content grows - and platforms proliferate - there’s never been a greater need for a more strategic approach to production. It’s not only about making stuff, but making sure the stuff you make falls in line with a business’s objectives whether that’s on sustainability, inclusion or whether it’s about bringing the content and communications closer to commerce and experience. 

And that means more producers making the move from the agency and production company world into these corporate environments.

One such producer is Mike Churchill, a producer to his bones, who has worked on everything from TV news to agency production. Now an EP at General Mills, he finds himself part of a team that works flexibly to help the company maximise its production while also acting as a guide and bridge between the marketing teams and their agencies. Here he talks to Laura Swinton about his fascinating role and talks about the transition into the corporate landscape, which is full of insight for any producer thinking about making the leap. 

LBB> Before joining General Mills, you had a pretty comprehensive production career - can you talk us through that?

Mike> I came up through the ranks of production. I started as a child actor. I worked in radio, I worked in TV news, I worked for E! Entertainment. So, I worked in a lot of different positions, from being on air and then behind the scenes. I started as a PA and worked my way up the crew as an AD, I did some directing and then went to line producing, then from line producing to agency producing then from agency to client. And somewhere in between all of that I used to do freelance stuff for ESPN, Fox Sports, ABC, NBC, and talk shows and Dr. Phil because I have a news background.

LBB> And what brought you to the client side?

Mike> I’ve had a crazy, random career and I’ve been very fortunate with it too. I love the camaraderie of production, but coming up on the production side you always thought that the clients were evil, and that they wanted to kill our creative, that they didn’t understand… What changed it for me is at the last agency I was at, we had a client who actually had someone that was in my [current] role. I felt how beneficial it was to have him in that role. With all the other brands I supported, I was always retraining somebody who had done one photoshoot and thought they knew everything about production. They were coming in, trying to make it the next Scorcese film and meanwhile they had a small, little bubblegum budget. 

I think, going through the trials and tribulations of production, having somebody in this role to be a tour guide or mediator and to really advocate for us, really opened my eyes. 

And when this opportunity came up I was like, ‘well you know the hard thing about advertising is that everybody ages out at some point. There aren’t old people in the ad world. The agency I was at, I was doing 70 plus hour work weeks, I was travelling 60% of the year. Funerals, weddings, birthday parties - I had no work-life balance and I decided to start prioritising my life a little bit more, because I’ve always been kind of a workaholic.

LBB> And now you’ve moved to General Mills, how have you found it and how would you describe your role?

Mike> I’ve been with General Mills about three years now and I love my job. It is so much fun. I get to do all of the fun parts of production, but I don’t have the challenges of being at an agency. And then, coming through as a line producer, crucially, I can talk the talk. I can help them out when they have obstacles. I’m able to actually partner with my producers, to always be problem solving and collaborating. 

Coming in with my background, I’ve been in the trenches and I know how shitty it can be at times. It’s good to be able to make life a little bit easier. Especially with people who don’t have a production background. I’m able to help translate and mediate and set realistic goals for everybody, setting our agencies up for success from the very beginning. It’s really fun to me, because as a producer I think we all like to collaborate, find the right people, put them together and watch the machine work. 

LBB> And how have you found the shift from the agency production world, which has a real camaraderie to the client side?

Mike> I’m lucky that my company’s always been great about that. However, there was a transition period when I was coming from the agency and production world to the corporate world, where you’ve got to be a little bit more polished and a little bit more reserved. There’s a lot of cultural differences with a brand and learning some of the other aspects of how to navigate a corporate structure is challenging. When you come from a freelance background and an agency background, we’re production people and production has a culture and community that is very different. That’s something I’ve actually worked really hard at trying to get better at. 

One thing I’ve been trying to find out is other people that are in my role at other companies. I want to start a networking thing for all of us so we can lean into each other. Not to trade company secrets but feeling like, ‘I’ve been trying to navigate this idea through my company, how do I do that? Have you been successful?’ This type of thing could be really, really helpful because I have all my producer friends on the agency side, and they’re great resources, but none of them have done my role and there aren’t a whole lot of us in this role... yet. I believe more companies will be adding these roles.

LBB> While production has, in the past, been seen as just the end of a funnel now, given the demand for volume and diversity and number of different panels, it seems that the skills and importance of the producer are being recognised...

Mike> Producers come from a very traditional community. I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years. When I started, the agency producers were broadcast producers, very traditional TV producers. As I got more into it, broadcast producers became integrated producers. There are a lot of fancy terms now: content producers, digital producers. At my agency, we were super agile - if something came in and it needed a producer, we did it. That’s what I loved: the diverse range of projects. One day I’d be producing a multimillion dollar spot and the next I’d be producing an activation or experiential thing. 

I was the producer that creatives would come to and say “I’ve got this idea, what do you think?” I’d be like, “as far as I know, that’s never been done. Our client doesn’t have enough money to ever do this. The timeline sounds almost impossible. Yeah, sign me up.” I love the idea of being the first to do something even though every time I agree to it I hate myself because of all the learning curves and hard work and extra hours. But it’s what makes our job fun.

If you think about it, a producer’s job is to take an intangible object and make it tangible. If we’re lucky, along the way we do some really cool creative work and in the end, hopefully we sell some product. More importantly, maybe we’ve created something that can have an emotional impact on the viewer, or there might even be a message that changes their lives. 

LBB> So how would you describe your role? It sounds like it’s a mix of in-house producing as well as working with external partners? 

Mike> It’s a hybrid, so my role is that I oversee a large group of our brands. We do have our agency partners who do a lot of our work. I will step in as agency producer or line producer too sometimes, so I still get to produce. We do have an internal department that does some production. We have a couple of different departments that will do that type of stuff too, depending on the project sometimes our marketing team will work directly with them. 

LBB> You mentioned that in your past job, one client had a production specialist who was responsible for educating their company and guiding them through productions. Do you now do a lot of work with the marketing teams and wider company to educate them about production?

Mike> In my role, I not only support and manage our agency from a production perspective, I also support all of our marketing and brand teams. So, if they come to me and say they’ve got a meeting for a commercial they’re creating, they can ask me what they need to know or if I know the best way to get something done. 

The best way for them to set us up for success is to involve us really early in the process, even before we write up a brief for the agency. I will work with my marketing teams and work with them on the production process, do a preliminary production schedule and set those realistic expectations. What kind of spot are we thinking? What do we want to achieve? What’s our strategy and our message behind it? When I know that, I will then want to know what they want to capture. And if it needs one or two shooting days, that means I know roughly what sort of budget we’ll need.

By doing that I’m helping them see all the stuff they don’t care about. But if they don’t set it up from the very beginning, they’re going to make it really challenging for the agency to deliver what they need to for the strategy. Through that whole process, I’ll be working with them and sitting by my marketing team’s sides. And when we get into the production, I can ask them things like, “how’s the product integration? What do we know about the colour correct for the hero packaging? How’s the product going to show here? Are there any specifics we need to cover about this?” I start asking all these different production questions that, a lot of times, people don’t ask until you’re on set that day, and then that slows your shooting down and that gets frustrating for everybody. 

I will even work with my producers through the entire production and post and manage my team, and that way we’re allowed time to do things. They might ask something, I might say, if we give them this feedback there’s no way they’re going to be able to do that within our timeline and budget, but here’s a compromise. What if we did this? Would it address the strategy or feedback you’re getting internally? Then we can stay on timeline and budget.

And since I come from that background, I can speak in an educated way on it, I can explain what’s going on. Like any producer, we always have our count out – I know I can’t promise one thing until we hear from the production company, for example. We support both sides of our marketing department and the agency and production partners, but also cross-functionally across the organisation as a whole. There are a lot of other parts of the company where they might want to make or create something, or they may want to repurpose something that we did. They reach out to us for all of that and we are the first point of production contact for anyone in the company.

LBB> That’s really smart - how long has General Mills been working this way?

Mike> General Mills have been doing this for quite a while and they expanded our department a few years back. Part of the reason I decided to go there was the vision my boss has for the department: it’s really great. We have four EPs, we have a full time business affairs person. My boss has done an amazing job building the team. We’re all subject matter experts in different areas of production. One of my colleagues comes from a really intense photography background, I’m used to moving pictures. I can reach out to her if I’m doing a big photo shoot, or if she’s working on motion she can reach out to me. And one of the other guys comes from a post production background so it’s a collaborative team. There is not a problem that we have had that we haven’t been able to solve yet.

LBB> And with the push into live streaming on platforms like YouTube and TikTok, your experience in news must come in handy!

Mike> It does and the agency I was at, we were always pushing to create as much content as possible. I understand the implications of being in the trenches like that and I know how I can work with my agency. I can ask them to think about how something might work on another platform, even if we don’t have the media buy for it right now. We can shoot it while we’re shooting other stuff and we’ll always have it to edit later. It means we have content to keep reaching into. In our role we’re always finding suggestions about ways to maximise our shooting and create as much content because you’re right, everybody wants more content for less money and less time right now. So you’ve got to create really agile production approaches to achieve that.

I feel very fortunate that I’ve worked in TV news and all these other things because some things might be more like a news shoot, others more like a traditional commercial and others like a reality show. We’ll carve the production approach to match the strategy, the creative.

LBB> What production developments are really exciting you?

Mike> At the heart of it, I’m just a production nerd. I really love the technology. I love the innovation of our industry. Just when you think you’re caught up, somebody creates a new camera platform or a new robotic arm, and the opportunities that you have with it just blows your mind. 

There’s also so many interesting things going on through Covid. The foundation of it is that before this we never did remote productions. Ever. For two reasons. We didn’t have the platforms, or if we did they didn’t do it very well. The other thing is, well the last thing we want is somebody patching in remotely and multitasking through it all, but then as soon as we had no choice they evolved the current platforms and created all these new platforms to do it really well. The industry evolved and in just 30 or 60 days studios had full remote capabilities and had everything up and running. That’s really cool.