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"I Like to Give Partners All the Trust They Need to Do Their Job"

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Kevin Larson, studio director and executive producer at Union on disruptions in production, balancing specialists and generalists and being plugged into the production community

"I Like to Give Partners All the Trust They Need to Do Their Job"

Kevin Larson describes himself as a brand builder and storyteller who works in advertising and production. As studio director / EP at independent creative & performance marketing agency Union, he leads production for all creative content and shepherds collaboration among inside and outside talent and their brands.

Kevin’s background is in directing and producing commercials. He was previously a content creative director at Resource/Ammirati, an agency that was acquired by IBM, and his portfolio contains work for Purina, Gillette Venus, Bush’s Beans, Mountain Dew, White Castle, Sherwin Williams, Shaw Floors, and Volvo Trucks.


Q> Aside from Covid-19, what have been the most disruptive forces to hit agency production in the past few years?

Kevin> Traditional vs. digital has been turned on its head. I remember a few years ago when a production may have had some assets converted for various social media platforms as an afterthought. Now, even when shooting our high-end broadcast spots, we have guides on our monitors to think through framing vertical, square, etc. We’re also doing alt takes for specific social assets. Sometimes, it’s a completely new script. This has been a way we take full advantage of the day and deliver a lot of extra value to our clients. 


Q> A good producer should be able to produce for any medium, from film to events to digital. Do you agree or disagree with this statement?

Kevin> Producers are problem solvers who keep endless things moving that have a lot of dependencies on one another. They help make the complex look simple. They are the glue between all the craftsmen, the process, the collaboration, and help set the culture. While the job is independent of the medium and many operate agnostically, I do respect those who home in on just one medium and become extremely specialised.


Q> And leading on from that, when it comes to building up your team at the agency, what’s your view on the balance of specialists vs generalists?

Kevin> When it comes to my in-house team, I like everyone to have major and minor areas of focus. That might sound like having generalists, but it is a careful balance between having specialists and generalists. Then, the name of the game is finding a group of people who complement each other, so we can accomplish lots of different types of projects. It lets us be both broad and deep in all the things we do most often for our clients. For super-specific crafts like 3D character design, simulations and rigging, we rely on a network of freelancers to help us up our game on highly specialised tasks.  


Q> 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?

Kevin> I knew what I wanted to do from the time I was in middle school. I would take my dad’s Hi8 camera and shoot little silly films with my friends and edit them. As I continued to dive in, I continued to fall more in love with telling stories and all the different crafts involved. Through high school and college, I began to get plugged into the production community and started going on shoots as a shadow, and eventually as a PA. From there, I stayed hungry and kept learning and eventually landed in the agency world on an in-house production team. In that role, I was able to sharpen my skills and wear many hats from DP, editor, VFX artist, first AD, director, and producer. Some of the lessons that have stayed with me along the way:

  • It takes a village. This popular phrase is a humbling one. It’s a reminder that it takes a lot of different people and talents coming together to make something truly great. 
  • Hire well and get out of the way. As you scale to bigger and better things, you need to be comfortable with trusting people to execute the director’s vision. This is about giving people enough latitude in their roles to bring new ideas and plus-ups to the table. I’ve seen this methodology pay dividends over the years in taking content to the next level.
  • Have fun. It’s easy in the stress of a production with 50 things going on at once to forget you get paid to make videos. I like to remind myself of that a lot. You’re working in a field many people wouldn’t even dream of. Don’t forget to enjoy the process and not to take it too seriously.


Q> When working with a new partner or collaborator, how do you go about establishing trust?

Kevin> In key roles like a director, first AD, DP, or line producer, there can be a bit of a courting process ahead of awarding them a job. Sometimes, this looks like drinks or lunch to talk shop before we even get into a specific project. For folks who are not local, we’ll usually do a quick meet and greet on Zoom to gauge their interest and personality. Creating trust with someone who is new is tough, but it’s often a leap of faith that needs to be taken based on their book of work and references. I like to give partners all the trust they need to do their job until I’m given a good reason not to. So far, that approach has rarely let me down. 

 

Q> Has the pandemic accelerated this conversation at all, in your opinion? 

Kevin> Just like flying for in-person meetings will likely be heavily reduced post-pandemic, production will never be the same. We have figured out how to shoot with fewer people and become way more efficient with shooting more concepts closer to our office in Charlotte, NC. We had two big productions in our own backyard that we normally would have taken to LA or Atlanta. We found we could reduce flights, costs and Covid risk by just flying in a couple heavy hitters. 


Q> How have you approached integrating data with production workflows and processes? And, generally, how has data and the fact that we have constant live feedback on content performance changed production?

Kevin> Union is an independent creative and performance marketing agency. Everything we do is fuelled by data. We optimise our content to generate the most impact toward our campaign’s goals. In practice, that looks like analysing data from our current or past campaigns and having our strategy department derive insights that will sharpen new content to perform better. We also update existing content based on the metrics from campaigns we are running. This is where the magic happens. Having all these services under one roof, we’re able to have quick feedback loops and stay ahead of the competition.  


Q> Clients’ thirst for content seems to be unquenchable - and they need content that’s fast and responsive! What’s the key to creating LOTS of stuff at SPEED - without sacrificing production values? Is it even possible? 

Kevin> We thrive at creating content at speed. The key is building nimble teams of people you trust. It also comes with practice, very careful planning, and knowing how to maximise a day. We work to simplify our footprint, setups, and footage reviews. To accomplish this, we have to know what we need for our client, know when we’ve got it, and move on. 

 

Q> And what advice would you give to an aspiring agency producer?

Kevin> Learn as much about as many of the crafts of production as possible. Don’t be afraid to pick up a camera, learn DaVinci, After Effects or Cinema4D. Take on pet projects with friends. I strongly recommend doing 48-Hour Film Festivals. These can help accelerate learning by allowing you to wear many hats on a small production team with a rapid timeline. I strongly recommend being a production assistant for a season. If you are a junior at an agency, see if you can PA a production or pick up side gigs on the weekend with local production companies. This can get you exposure to much bigger jobs sooner, so you can learn how they operate. 

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UNION, Thu, 16 Dec 2021 09:39:23 GMT