It’s a familiar story. Consumer demand for content is continuing to explode, putting more pressure on marketers’ budgets than ever before. The response from the production industry has been a growth in ‘creative automation’ – aimed at offering high speed, high volume assets faster and more cost-efficiently. These platform-based solutions come in a range of ‘flavours’ – from shops that bid clients’ briefs to their freelance network and vet the responses, through to fully automated solutions where the client simply posts their brief on the site, and the tech does the rest.
While these platform-based models appear to be the answer to meeting the increasing demand for content without blowing your budget, can sophisticated software really replace years of experience, unique human insight and a personal touch?
If you believe the answer is ‘yes’, then how do you know which kind of platform option is right for you and – more importantly – how (and where) do you ensure quantity AND quality in a world where consumers will simply skip if something fails to hit the mark?
As the market divides into traditional vs automated platforms, LBB approaches &FRIENDS, a company that has boldly decided not to pick sides, and instead sit right in the middle. They believe a ‘blended’ approach to production is the best way forward – combining human creative expertise, servicing and quality control, with the lightning-fast efficiencies of technology.
With a production partner mindset and their own in-house platform offering clients bespoke ‘pay-as-you-go’ teams of specialists in any global market, &FRIENDS combines personability with scalability to solve the ‘impossible triangle’ of delivering cost-efficient, premium-quality content, fast.
To gain insight on this unique approach, and find out how they’ve brought together the best of both worlds, LBB interviews executive creative director Matt Carroll and managing director Tom Maberly, who open up about how their blended model is helping both brands and creatives across the globe.
Creative director Matt Carroll and managing director Tom Maberly
LBB> You describe yourselves as a ‘blended’ platform model – what does this entail and where do you see yourself fitting within the landscape?
Matt Carroll> One of the key parts of our proposition is around adding value beyond just the content creation / production piece. We do that by working with clients to shape our creative response around their wider business objectives – rather than simply responding to the individual brief. It’s a longer term approach, which leads to deeper, more meaningful (and more productive) outcomes than the purely platform-based solutions, which tend to lack the value you get from human expertise.
We’re also very service-orientated: while our platform provides access to thousands of specialist makers around the world – enabling clients to create specialist teams wherever / whenever needed – we also have a core in-house team of ‘production concierges’ who do the heavy lifting for our clients.
I think there’s a fine line where automation leads to a drop in quality, which comes when you strip out human expertise and sensitivity. What we’ve done is define our own space – blending the best of technology and humanity at a level where we can deliver the scale and efficiency that brands need right now, but without losing quality.
Tom Maberly> To sum us up, we think and service like a specialist, but flex like a startup. Being a blended model means we're not just a production facility, we can also do the creative strategy and the concept development, all the way through to delivery. And yes, more and more production companies are offering that, but where we differ is that we will also go as far as doing full strategy and audience insight if required. It’s not often you get all this from a content production specialist.
Saying that, we're not all things to all people. We’re very much focused on the content production piece, offering end-to-end creative – along with specialists for each job, through our platform.But for us the platform is a tool rather than the whole solution – another key difference between us and the other platform-based agencies out there.
“One of the key priorities for us is being able to react super-fast and be cost-efficient – all while delivering premium quality – what used to be known as the 'impossible triangle', because the standard agency response was that you had to pick two out of those three - you couldn't have it all. What we've found, through working with partners like &FRIENDS, is that you CAN have all three – and in fact it comes as standard.” - Charlotte Faux, head of marketing, Revlon UK.
“&FRIENDS did exactly what a traditional ad agency would do but in a far more efficient way. It was only a three-month timeline from brief to play-out. I think corporates need to be more agile to keep pace with these smaller agencies,” - Stephanie Ledger, senior marketing director, Revlon UK.
LBB> What was it that triggered you to design your model this way?
Tom> This has always been part of our plan. We've deliberately designed the business to stay very agile so we'll always have a smaller, leaner core team that provides key in-house functionality – made up of very senior, experienced people who know what they're doing.
As marketers’ need for efficiency has increased, there’s a greater need for partners like us who can work in a more agile and efficient way, with a deeper understanding of our clients’ brand – their long-term ambitions and the support they need. That means that we're not just here for the one-off brief, we're in it for the long haul. That's one of the key elements of being a production partner not just a production company.
Matt> There's been this ‘out with the old, in with the new’ leap towards more automation, but what we're saying is let’s not throw the proverbial ‘baby’ out at the same time. There is a third way. It’s not about simply relying on a platform to give you bucket loads of video for your budget. You need an element in the middle to sense-check, quality control and dial in some audience understanding – particularly in a world where people are more discerning than ever about what they’ll watch and engage with.
Too often right now brands are having to choose between high quality creative that costs an arm and a leg, or high volume, scalable content that doesn’t deliver on quality. We made it our business to change the relationship between brand, agency and production company, so clients can have their cake and eat it.
Many people say you can’t have speed, affordability and high quality – you have to choose two; but we’re proving that actually you can have all three, if you're smart about how you do things and re-engineer the model as we did.
LBB> What kind of projects lend themselves to this type of model?
Matt> We're not necessarily saying that the automated approach is wrong for certain brands. If you’re a DIY brand (for example) and you're looking for very simple output that's quite standardised, then the platform model works really well.
What we're saying is that, most often, a brand needs more than just someone to make stuff. They need people who understand the audience. Otherwise, you're in danger of wasting the budget you're spending on making something that won’t land or work as well as it could have. With that in mind, the ‘publisher mindset’ piece that we apply in the middle – born from decades of working with media owners – is really really crucial.
LBB> Can you give us some examples of projects you've worked on where this model has proven highly beneficial?
Matt> The global Live the Moment’ campaign we did for Mitchum recently is a classic example because they wanted a TV spot, as well as photography and social content, in the very crowded space of live music. They’d done this previously but it hadn't really delivered in the way it should have. What we did was take the brief and interrogate it properly, saying, “Look guys, if you want to play in this space, alongside booze brands and umpteen others, then you need to have a very good reason for being there. We will help you identify what that reason is and create a notable niche.”
So we brought in some specialist Friends from our community in New York – a strategist and a comms planning team, with a deep understanding of the US market, alongside our input for the UK market, and gathered valuable audience insights that shaped the creative messaging and gave Mitchum a credible reason to play in the space. Then for the shoot in South Africa, we flew only some core personnel and leveraged our community on the ground over there to make it happen for a fraction of what it would usually cost. This project is just one example of the global / specialist proposition we have at scale, where we utilise our platform-based community of “friends” to deliver quickly and with premium quality – driven by our expert in-house core team.
Tom> And for a project that highlights the benefits of us being an extension to a brand’s team, take our work with Vodafone Smart Tech. Over the last few years we’ve created a specialist team to oversee all their product launch campaigns – including photographers, directors, specialist DoP’s, CGI experts and more – which they switch on and off when needed, rather than paying an old-fashioned retainer. Working alongside their in-house global creative director, we’ve helped them establish a signature look and feel for the brand, while simultaneously handling reversioning demands for their global markets.
A lot of the films we’re creating are being picked up and run as TV spots in Germany, Spain, and other markets, which is testament to the quality that we're able to deliver – as well as the reactivity.
“Having a team of specialists that we can pull on has been invaluable. Whether you’re working with a different writer, director or whatever, it’s really that perfect model; we couldn’t possibly do that as an in-house studio model. I think it’s important to have a blend.” - Neill Furmston, global creative director, Vodafone Smart Tech.
LBB> What would you say to any sceptics? Do you find that clients challenge you on certain aspects of your model?
Tom> We find that some brands, who have ex-agency personnel within, might question if we really do offer strategy as a production partner. And our simple answer is: yes, if you need it. Clearly we’re not here to replace the incumbent agency, but we often sit round the client / agency table to help define the creative strategy and take that into concept development and then into production.
With Mitchum, for example, they had a real need for our input as strategists – as well as the creative / production piece – so we did full audience testing and insight across a range of creative approaches, which we delivered through our Friends network. This is adding true value for our clients.
Another thing we often get asked is whether we have a roster of directors (we don’t!). Because there’s no solid rationale for this – it’s simply the model that traditional production companies created. We work with a whole list of award-winning directors, but we don’t believe in limiting ourselves – or our clients – to a roster. It fights with our core belief in ultimate flexibility, and having the best people on every project.
Matt> Some people may ask, “Aren't you just an agency under another name?” To which I would say absolutely not. The reason we exist is to change the way content gets made – thereby helping brands solve the bigger business challenges they're facing. At the end of the day, there's a hardcore commercial reason why brands are creating content – in order to sell more stuff – let's not hide from that fact. So if we can save clients budget on creative and production – while still delivering premium quality – that budget can then be used in activation and media, where it ultimately makes most difference to their business.
LBB> And lastly, as well as your business value proposition, what are some of the personal values you each bring?
Tom> In a word, collaboration. &FRIENDS was born from the idea that you do your best work when you’re surrounded by people you like and trust – who are also the best at what they do. In our experience, those friends and collaborators who you’ve been at the coal face with, will always go the extra mile, whatever it takes to deliver. It’s a philosophy we deeply believe in.
Matt> On that note we’re both very driven to make a difference to every client we work with. We like to work in a very transparent way, which isn’t really compatible with traditional agency models – something clients are increasingly aware of. There’s a lot more knowledge now around the creative process – particularly in production – and clients know that things can (and should!) be done in a more efficient way, particularly as technology has improved. Yet they aren’t seeing the benefit of this. Instead, agencies have just loaded more time into creative as a way of maintaining billings and keeping the cost model where it’s at.
So I guess the benefit for us is that we don’t have any of that baggage. Firstly we're coming from the angle of what the market actually wants, and gearing our organisation around that. We haven’t simply re-engineered a pre-existing model.