Production Line in association withComcast Technology Solutions

Production Line: A Transatlantic Conversation between Two “Production Humans"

Advertising Agency
London, UK
Katie Keith, global head of content at Havas Studios and head of production at Havas London discusses the job with Melissa Tifrere, head of integrated production at Havas New York and Annex88
In March this year, Havas New York and Annex88 hired celebrated producer Melissa Tifrere as head of integrated production. With a strong passion to help creatives bring their ideas to fruition, Melissa has been producing for the last 14 years. Most recently she had led compelling productions for BBDO, JOAN, Translation and 72andSunny as an independent executive producer. As senior producer at Munited/McCann, she oversaw the entire production process from beginning to end for the Microsoft account. Prior to McCann, Melissa was lead producer on BMW at KBS.

On the other side of the pond in June, Havas hired former Rattling Stick ‘First Lady’ Katie Keith as global head of content for Havas Studios, its recently-established production business, as well as head of production for Havas London. 

It’s an unconventional position, with the hybrid role spanning both production network and creative agency. The ambition from the agency was to facilitate a genuinely holistic approach to production, redefining the role, reputation, model, and creative ambition of agency production offerings. And Katie – having helmed a multi-award-winning production company for 10 years, with a previous decade spent agency-side – is the perfect woman for that job.

As both are relatively new to Havas but deeply invested in the craft of production, we thought they’d collectively have a lot to say about the making stuff end of the business. It seems we were right.

LBB> What lasting impact has the experience of the pandemic had on how you and your agency think about and approach production?

Katie> The biggest positive is that it has opened us up to new ways of working. It’s opened up the world, too, in ways we never would have thought possible. Changes that were a necessity have now become exciting creative solutions, and I don’t think we’ll ever go back to working how we were. And not just impacted on production – it’s enabled us to be quicker, smarter and more interesting in how we approach other areas like post and the edit too.

That said, you can’t run productions on Microsoft Teams. The past 18 months have exposed quite how much we need to be together. You need those serendipitous conversations, you need that constant contact, you need the magic that comes from working together at speed. You can’t replicate that energy when you’re sat alone in an attic. 

Melissa> As Katie says, it has opened up the world in the sense that you find yourself working with all these different countries that may not have been feasible before due to rushed schedules. All of a sudden – because we don’t have to get on a flight and lose three days getting to, say, Sweden – we can basically work with any director around the world pretty seamlessly. We’ve had to become a lot more nimble and flexible.  

We are missing the human interaction, and we’ve really felt the inability to creatively collaborate in person, eye-to-eye instead of via a computer screen – particularly in the edit. That first week leading up to client presentations remains critical – but the pandemic has shown us we can absolutely be more efficient. I don’t think we ever need to sit in an edit suite for two weeks straight ever again – we’ve figured out we can probably do half and half, with check-ins over Zoom, while using the time saved to get ready on other projects.  

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

Melissa> Clients have been cutting budgets, particularly in production, for a number of years – while simultaneously wanting more. That’s probably not the sexiest answer, but it’s an incredibly prevalent force – with the disruption coming from trying to figure out solutions alongside our agency partners. We’ve had to innovate to work out how to deliver everything expected of us, and more, to the same high quality, with less funds. That’s a challenge. An exciting one, but a challenge nonetheless. 

Katie> Accelerating tech advancements in equipment, channels, platforms and therefore stories and storytelling. And the brilliant by-product of that is that it has unlocked the creative industry to many people and voices that might not have found their way in before. 

Melissa> Just to elaborate on that: to have this influx of creators and creatives coming out of the likes of Instagram and TikTok is incredibly disruptive, in the best possible way. They have a voice and a platform, and it’s up to us to figure out ways to harness their creativity and incorporate them into advertising. It’s opened the creative floodgates for people who haven’t traditionally worked in the industry – indeed, people who might have previously found it closed to them – and that brings with it an entirely fresh perspective.   

Katie> One negative seems to be the value and importance of craft in terms of its relevance and its importance to an idea. I do really worry about this. You hear terms like ‘snackable content’ – snacking, by its very nature, is not good for you! Why are we trying to make content that is consumed quickly and then chucked away? We live in a world where we constantly hear, correctly, that everything is too disposable, that we throw too much away – and yet we’re happy to do that with our content. I don’t mean that every piece of work needs a six-minute extravaganza and the budget to match, but creativity should be best represented in the medium in which it will be consumed and part of our role is to lead, not follow. There’s this widening chasm between the brands and clients who really believe in brand, idea and craft, and those that don’t. You can see it in the work. 

LBB> 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?

Katie> This is a hot topic at the moment. I worry that the desire for production to fit neatly in a box – to ‘plug and play’, as Melissa puts it – and the conviction that the hybrid is the future, is leading to us turning our backs on experts. I think this conversation detracts from the wider point. The best producers have a certain mindset, certainly – and it’s nothing to do with whether you can do DCO, a banner, or a three-minute epic – it’s about how you think and how you approach production. All producers need that curiosity, hunger and drive. So, a good producer should be able to turn their hand to anything, yes – but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily always the best solution for the creative idea. Ultimately, we take the creative idea and establish how to best achieve it and that includes the production casting.

We are production humans, not production machines, so a blanket, one-size-fits-all approach won’t always get the best out of good people or attract the best talent. Some producers want to do it all and others want to excel in certain areas, and I want to work with and learn from both.

Melissa> I totally agree with Katie. A good producer, with that mindset, can go in and get anything done – because that’s just how we’re built and it’s what we do. But is it going to be done exactly right, run smoothly, and ultimately be as good as it can be if we don’t have someone who is trained or has more experience doing that type of production? I don’t think we should be moving away from having your experiential producer, your TV producer, your digital producer – you need people who specialise in their fields. But that is the direction of travel, and I fear it’s going to be a bumpy road. 

LBB> 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?

Katie>  I think it depends entirely on the creative ambition and culture of the agency, the clients and what their needs are. There’s no one direction of travel that suits all. And while every agency needs a breadth of experience, expertise and appetite, there is a desire to put models into a box that heralds the future of production. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that – and to me, the beauty of production is that there isn’t a set model. We are at an exciting time in our industry in that there is a genuine desire to work differently, and buildings full of generalists alone doesn’t feel like the most tactical or creative approach to take. 

Melissa> Creatives aren’t asked to be both art directors and writers. They work collaboratively, in a team, which I feel is an approach that’s somewhat lacking on the production side. But we can always figure it out. 

Katie> We can, but the question is ‘should we?’. I’ve scoped making shoes, taking over art galleries, and making interactive DOOH experiences – and I love learning new things all the time – but is it always the best use of the time on a project for someone to always be starting from scratch?

We need generalists, we need specialists, we need for the lines to be less defined and to work together more collaboratively across every output of production.

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?

Melissa> I started off in account management, which is a great place for a producer to begin. Some of the best producers come out of account management, because it gives you the background you need to talk to clients and understand where they’re coming from and why they’re asking for a certain thing. I feel like producers don’t always get a lot of explanation of the business factors behind decisions. Knowing ‘why’, or at least being sensitive to those factors and knowing how clients work, helps you be a lot more flexible. 

Katie> I started in account management too. I moved up to account director and was like, ‘hang on, the work’s over there!’.

Melissa> I realised the only time I really liked account management was during the production itself, so I begged my head of production – for a full year – to let me into her department. She took me in, finally, and my first account was Crayola. I was producing a lot of kids’ advertising, a lot of animatics – because that’s where everyone starts: radio and animatics. Even though it wasn’t the most exciting creatively, I had fun trying to find the best directors to make it better. My favourite part has always been finding the talent to bring a board to life and to make the idea the best it can be. 

Katie> I’ve never had a master plan. I moved into production at JWT and worked for the deputy head of production, who’s still my mentor today. Like Melissa, I was doing radio and animatics and your mini-productions, but I also assisted my deputy head of production on amazing jobs and I learned a lot during that time. And then I moved to Rattling Stick for six months, and stayed for a decade. I loved that side too, being at the coalface and working closely with the directors. 

I’m really interested in where the industry is going, and the opportunities for content (outside of ‘snackable’!). So when this opportunity came up with Havas, as part of Vivendi, I thought where better to see where I could take it? I always need to be learning and to be around really creative and great people and I have to be a little bit scared. 

Melissa> Just hitting on that: if I'm not scared, then I'm not doing something right. Or I'm going to get bored.

Katie> But when you're in production, of course, nobody knows that you're scared. 

Melissa> I always say we're like ducks. We make it look like we’re floating along above the surface, but underneath we’re furiously kicking.

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?

Katie> Come back to me in six months! Since joining, I’ve worked with three different models with a fourth in progress. I find that incredibly exciting. 

What I will say is that the APA’s established way of working is brilliant, and clients and agencies require it, and that level of expertise, structure and support. At the other extreme, you’ve got the freelance market picking up a lot of the content that is needed at a really fast pace. These ways of working are up and running, and they work, and I want to support and elevate them.

What I’m interested in is the ‘everything in-between’, and the different ways of working there – in a way that’s ethical, fair, open, and exciting. That’s also why I have the Havas Studios role – there’s a huge, untapped opportunity in the magic of that space. 

Melissa>  I’ve worked at a lot of agencies, and I’ve done my fair share of freelancing. Everywhere has their in-house production capability, for better or worse. What I loved when I first met with Katie and Paul [Ward, Global CEO of Havas Studios] was this mindset of ‘yes, we have Havas Studios, but no, we’re not forcing you to work with us’. The mindset is that people should want to work with us, on merit. We want to be good, and we want the best talent. There was this acknowledgement that we’re not going to be doing every production – indeed, that we shouldn’t be doing every production. It was a refreshingly honest conversation and approach. In some agencies, it’s forced down your throat – regardless of quality. You’re pressured to bring stuff in-house, or to work with the in-house editor, even if the creatives don’t want to. It’s a profit centre. And at Havas Studios, we don’t want to be a profit centre – we want to be a viable option to produce good creative. And to do that, we need to bring in the best talent. 

Katie>  I wouldn’t have joined if it was like that. It’s testament to Havas – and I can say this as I’m new enough to not have drunk the Kool Aid – that they’re launching Havas Studios with this model and this ethos. Paul [Ward] very simply asks ‘If not Havas Studios, why not?’. That’s what he wants to know and to learn from. It’s a ‘build it and they will come’ mindset. And we’re on the same page about there being parts of the industry that are working perfectly and ethically and fairly – why would we want to go anywhere near that? We’re about growing all the other areas of content – complementing the existing, working models by offering something different. We’re after the kind of briefs that you don’t quite know what to do with. 

LBB> Should production have a seat in the c-suite - and why?

Melissa>  Absolutely. Production is such a huge part of an agency and its creative output. It's smart strategy and creatives’ ideas written out with keyframes on paper before it gets to us – which are crucial, fundamental steps, of course, but there remains a lot of work to be done before you arrive at the finished product. If every other department, correctly, has representation at leadership level, I don’t see why production wouldn’t be included in that. It also shows ambitious and aspiring producers that there’s a place to work towards. 

Katie>  These days, brands are always in production. And we’re the ones with our ears to the ground. It doesn’t make sense to have all these conversations about the future of production and smarter ways of working without our voice in the room. We’re not just suppliers, note-takers and do-ers. This is our business – we sell ideas, and production makes those ideas. The fact Havas has created this role shows how seriously they value production.

LBB> 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? 

Katie> If you simplify the process it is. The thing that amuses me is that the rhetoric focuses on the ‘making’ process and the output needing to be completely different, and not on changing anything else in the mix. ‘We’ve got to have three rounds of this’, or ‘you’ve got to show us that’ – but if you don’t change the established ways of working, how do you expect production alone to be the solution? We’re as fast as the slowest link in the chain. It’s no more complicated than that. Everyone wants production to be faster, cheaper, better – yet the model doesn’t keep up. You can't just lay it at production’s door and expect the change to come there and there only.
Melissa> The boards need to match the ask, which a lot of the time, they…don’t. I always say we can do anything – we can pull off any board. But if the creative hasn’t been written within the time constraints and the budget, what you’re envisaging and what I’m going to give back are going to be two different things. 

As producers, our secret weapon is our Rolodex of go-to vendors and partners that we trust and we know can work quickly. It’s being able to pick up the phone and say ‘I have this, and I have two days. What can we do together?’.

Katie> It’s not a way of working that is suitable for every client and we need to be realistic about that too. There are some occasions where it’s worked brilliantly – getting creatives, production company, director and clients together early, developing as we go. It can be a hair-raising experience – decisions are needed on the spot and you have to buckle up for the ride. And it’s certainly not a model for every production or client, but there is definitely an opportunity to create content at speed which is still great.

LBB> To what extent is production strategic - traditionally it’s the part that comes at the ‘end’ of the agency process, but it seems in many cases production is a valuable voice to have right up top - what are your thoughts/experiences of this?

Katie>  Production is hugely strategic, and even more so now. I’m a big advocate of production strategy. You don’t just get a piece of creative and approach it the same way you approached the last one – it has to be bespoke. And you have to cut your cloth accordingly, to the timing and the budget but also to the creative – and I love that. I heard a wonderful saying the other day, which should really be applied to production, which was ‘learn, and then unlearn’. You learn so much from a job, and you bank it – but then you go to your next job and you approach it with a fresh pair of eyes, but armed with that background knowledge. With so many different types of content, that’s never been more important.

Melissa> It’s not plug and play at all – even though it might seem that way to other departments within the agency. Every time it’s new – there’s always something different, there’s always a new problem. It’s why I love production – nothing is ever the same twice, it’s never boring. Strategy plays a huge part in pulling off the impossible, which is basically the day job.  

Katie> Production strategy, unlike brand strategy – where you spend time nailing it and then working to that focus – is constantly evolving. It’s what I was saying earlier about production being gloriously untameable sometimes, and our job is to guide that, not stifle it. There can be a misunderstanding of production and producers; we know the industry, we know the clients and we understand their objectives, we know the work has a job to do. We’re businesspeople, as well as being creative people. 

Melissa> Being able to go directly to the decision-makers and explain your strategic approach is key – and the earlier we can cultivate that relationship, the better. We’re not there to ever say no – instead, it’s about considering different ways of approaching things to still get everyone, creatives and clients, to where they want to be.   

LBB> What’s the most exciting thing about working in production right now?

Katie>  New talent and new ways of working. By ‘new’, I don’t just mean ‘young’. I mean talent that as an industry we’ve not opened ourselves up to before.

Melissa>  I love the push to have different voices in production, and the ask for greater diversity from clients. It’s helping to open up the industry to creators that simply weren’t exposed before, who are now getting an opportunity. I love that I’m now getting to see different faces on set.

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

Melissa> Come in hungry. Bold, yet humble. 

Katie> Be a creative sponge. Constantly look for new, exciting, dynamic talent. Become an expert on interesting, surprising, talented people and where to find them. Don't just become the scheduler and the budgeter. Keep yourself culturally inspired and informed. Keep that side of you alive, because it comes into your work on a daily basis. Even if it is, on occasion, just warming up yet another Teams meeting. 

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