While Gemma Conway has shot all over the world, since the pandemic hit, she’s been producing and delivering ambitious projects from her living room, including features for Samsung, Peloton and Jim Beam. Priding her ability to make high-end work when faced with even the toughest of budgets and time constraints, Gemma relishes the challenge of finding creative and logistical solutions.
An award-winning executive producer, Gemma got her start when she moved from the east Midlands to London - working at BBH for nine years. While there, she spent the first three of those working in business affairs, which she says provided her with an informative background for entering the production sphere. Following her time at BBH, Gemma bought a one-way ticket to the US where she has since resided.
Over the course of her career, Gemma is proud to have worked on multiple projects for brands such as JetBlue, facebook, MINI, realtor.com, Chex, 76ers, Barclays, Google, Old El Paso, Virgin Media, KFC, British Airways, Kronenbourg, Waitrose and Vodafone. And despite these accomplishments, she won’t be done anytime soon. As Gemma puts it, she’s still excited to see where the new era of production takes her.
LBB> What lasting impact has the experience of the pandemic had on how you and your agency think about and approach production?
Gemma> Many curveballs have come our way in the last two years and the nutcase inside of me says it’s, in part, the excitement about the job, but one of the key factors for my team and I are the production partners we collaborate with. It’s always been a major consideration, but now we seek a type of commitment and trust that we weren’t necessarily seeking before. We want our director and their team to mimic the pre-pandemic production process as best as possible, which can be a challenging wrangle when we are all in different places. Our post-production partners have always been a valuable part of the team and we have relied on them heavily. Relationships are important in this industry and I’m thankful for all of our solid partners’ involvement in navigating us through these times.
LBB> Aside from covid-19, what have been the most disruptive forces to hit agency production in the past few years?
Gemma> Brands are seeking more meaningful engagements, so we’re reviewing more ambitious experiential ideas. As executive and senior producers, most of us have grown up with the digital world and understand it. However, experiential brand creative is still a new space where a lot of what we see ideated hasn’t been executed before, so we’re always researching the latest technology, workflows and potential partners. It’s an exciting platform, but one that requires more consideration and time to scope.
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? Why/why not?
Gemma> I think this comes down to the individual. I was trained in film and radio and I enjoy them the most, (yes, even radio, it’s a lost art). I have worked on experiential campaigns and produced a month-long NYC event for MINI USA, which was also one of the most challenging projects of my career. Even more recently, I created a fun print campaign with Cass Bird for Peloton, but my heart lies in film and that’s where I thrive.
A couple of my colleagues have a desire to be fully integrated and work across everything, which I support. In my opinion a great producer knows their own skill-set and knows who to call on when they don’t, and is encouraged to follow their passions without expectations.
LBB> Leading on from that, when it comes to building up your team at the agency, what’s your view on the balance of specialists versus generalists?
Gemma> Some mediums such as emerging tech absolutely require specialists, but that’s not for every brief. We recognise that if we don’t have the talent we need in-house, then we must look to find that person and the information we can’t provide ourselves. We have a diverse team of people with various skill-sets and are still growing, but it’s fair to say we don’t know everything and sometimes require a specialist’s input.
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?
Gemma> I started in business affairs which was a great springboard into the world of agency production. After three years of assisting, I was promoted to producer. Everyone has a different way in, and a lot of what it comes down to are the productions you get to work on. It’s the variety of those that will give you the broader experiences. From the script to the medium, to the internal and wider teams; every single job teaches you something new. Even after 15 years, it still does.
When I was an assistant, I was producing a lot of animation work and at some point, acknowledged I was the go-to in my department. Although I enjoyed it, I had to advocate for myself and express that I wanted to work across other techniques so I could expand my repertoire. Learning how to speak up for myself was difficult but a valuable lesson. My first solo live action gigs were for KFC and the Colonel, and I would deliver a new commercial every month. Even if a little formulaic, they were great to cut my teeth on and fun to do.
The main lesson that stayed with me was gifted from the three producers I worked for during my training. They were (and are) at the top of their game, but each had very different styles, which taught me a lot about myself. What worked for them didn’t always work for me and so I had to find my own style that felt authentic to myself. Whilst I am an amalgamation of them to a degree, I feel I have my way of getting things done.
LBB> If you compare your role to the role of the heads of TV/heads of production when you first joined the industry, what do you think are the most striking or interesting changes (and what surprising things have stayed the same?)
Gemma> On my first day at BBH back in 2005, I don’t think I quite realised how unique and fortunate I was to be amongst a female majority staffed department and a woman for a boss. It was inspiring to say the least, and a lot of these women have championed me throughout my career, which I am grateful for. I still work for the majority of female HOP, and not for any given reason, but I have always found them to be approachable and supportive. I see more of them producing their own work whilst running the department, which I think is becoming more of an assumption in that role, but as long as everyone feels they have the support they require then it works.
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?
Gemma> I’ve worked in larger departments and leaner ones, and I would say in the spirit of openness: share your knowledge and listen to what others have to say no matter their experience. The less compartmentalization we create, the better off we all are.
LBB> When working with a new partner or collaborator, how do you go about establishing trust?
Gemma> Being approachable and honest. Right from the bidding stage you can find me with most of my cards on the table. I’m keen to get a sense of how the production might go, so this phase is important. I believe in assembling the best team for each project and that really comes down to a mutual understanding and chemistry. We should all be striving for the same thing even if it’s yet to be fully established, so sharing all the information, asking lots of questions and being open will help both parties understand if it’s a good fit.
LBB> What are your thoughts on the involvement of procurement in production?
Gemma> They’ve changed over the years. It used to be a ‘them and us’ type dynamic but as you manoeuvre your way through each job you realise that most of them are on your side. If they’re not, then you’re wiser if you can understand where they’re coming from and try to forge some relationship. I once worked with a new production consultant who I was introduced to in the last few days of bidding a tricky job, and I felt a need to keep them at arm's length to get it over the line. But instead, we ended up chatting all day, every day to the extent I began including them in all of my updates. As the project progressed it was obvious that the closer I kept them, the more valuable they were at helping with the tough conversations and the client’s purse strings. At the end of the day they’re not going anywhere, and the great ones will have good points to make and I welcome good points.
LBB> When it comes to educating producers, how does your agency like to approach this? (I know we’re always hearing about how much easier it is to educate or train oneself on tech etc, but what areas do you think producers can benefit from more directed or structured training?)
Gemma> Every day really is a school day in the world of production.
I’m so grateful that I’ve had many experiences prior to the pandemic, as I’m aware that our younger squad - who are still on the earlier side of their career - are trying to widen and strengthen their skill sets remotely. As a team we hold weekly sessions where we can speak to all of our projects collectively. It’s a helpful space for all of us to understand who might need another set of eyes, ears or general hashing out of a situation or three. Our associate producers will shadow across a range of projects and different mediums to give them a wide experience, before giving them an opportunity to specialise.
Having worked in business affairs, I learned a great deal about contracts and the legal jargon. Whilst it may not be the most exciting part of the job for some, the admin and unions are important so we make sure we regularly circulate the latest contracts, addendums and protocols and discuss them collectively.
Our agency has us involved during the creative development phase which is helpful for us so we can begin scoping, especially if it is in the experiential realm. I would always rather be on the front foot than be two behind, so I am happier being brought in early even if the project dies, which they often do. This isn’t something that can be taught in a classroom, so we need to be involved early so we can educate ourselves and in turn the team.
LBB> What new skills have you had to add to the team as a result of the pandemic?
Gemma> One of the main skills I have been trying to navigate is the managing of people’s time and commitment throughout a project, given we’re barely in the same room. People aren’t consciously choosing to be absent, but I think we have (always had) a heavy workload and now that we work in a much more linear format, multitasking is much harder. I would say that has always been a key characteristic of a producer’s role and approach - champion plate spinners! Our days are often filled up with back to back meetings making session attendance run differently, which can have an impact on overall deadlines. This can then affect everyone’s personal time, which I try heavily to protect. Learning how not to be in the same room together but yielding the same high standards during ‘work hours’ is a learning curve, so we should continue to allow ourselves to work on new approaches until it works best for everyone.
LBB> Should production have a seat in the c-suite - and why?
Gemma> I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that production is the back-bone of any successful agency. Producers are the people bringing the words and ideas from a ten-plus page deck to life. From inception to shipping; if we’re involved from the get-go then we’re ballparking, researching, scheduling and developing ideas before getting into the actual scoping, bidding, awarding, prepping, casting, shooting, and finish, all whilst micromanaging everyone’s expectations and opinions (including five-year-old Tommy who reviewed the work over the weekend and has some feedback). Given we are involved in the majority of the creative process and decision making, I feel we deserve a spot, yes.
LBB> 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?
Gemma> We are extremely diligent when research phases are involved in a production, be it pre-awarding of a job or pre-shipping. If we are working with hard delivery deadlines, then it may limit our talent options, so we like to be transparent with everyone so they understand as we head into the project. If we’re due to deliver a finished, optimised film with zany timings, then we often overlap on some of the production phases. It isn’t ideal, but it is doable with the right approaches and partners. I am not sure that ‘constant live feedback on content performance’ always works in a meaningful way. We can AB (compare) test a piece of content and find the shape of a button may drive more click through than another, but none of that real-time data gives us a read on brand building work, which is less about the immediate efficacy of a single asset and more about shifting someone’s perception of a brand over the long term. That said, once we have launched any kind of asset, the post-research data comes in. Whether it tells us to alter the spot by using different end lines or completely different scenes that work much harder for the brand, we will explore those briefs the way we do any adaptation brief. We take on and factor in whatever is thrown at us.
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?
Gemma> We often say that we can do it for ‘cheap, fast or good’ and you can only pick two. However, it really depends on the budget, the creative and everyone’s expectations. In my opinion, very little can’t be achieved and where there is a will, there's a way. But ultimately, something is going to suffer if you’re trying to create multiple bespoke animations, have two weeks to deliver and a plethora of clients to factor in.
Partnering with talent who have high production values but know how to be scrappy is key. A great producer will know a smorgasbord of partners that have different skill-sets but bring the right craft and energy needed. A collective willingness to work at speed is necessary and often leads to strong decision making, but a lot of what slows us down is the amount of people in the room and the hierarchy of approvals. The more our brands can empower their teams to make decisions or allow us to get the work up the chain quicker, the more efficient the process and the speedier the delivery. Over the last couple of years, I have noticed an increase of ex-agency staff switching to brand side, which has had a positive effect in understanding this process.
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?
Gemma> A great agency will have you involved at the very start of the briefings. We never want to hinder a creative idea, but with ever shortening timelines and sometimes budgets to match, it’s important for us to flag potential obstacles that will set us back as a team and which can impact schedules and our options. Consider this simple example. It’s helpful to know if the client has a budget for a one day or four day shoot because it will certainly drive the creative team’s approach. We will of course always aim for the stars, even if it means it’s out of budget, but we’ll make sure they have an affordable option. We’re not here to highlight the negatives but instead help solve and hopefully save on team fatigue. I have worked in a variety of environments and can vouch that when we’re brought in at the last hour, it often causes grief and costs the team’s sanity.
LBB> What’s the most exciting thing about working in production right now?
Gemma> What started as a logistical nightmare is turning into stuff dreams are made of; less time in the physical office and opportunities to work with more talent. As an EP, my experience has allowed me to continue to work remotely. I look forward to getting together when possible and being on shoots in-person, but I am embracing what seems to be a world of production talent options opening up. There have been challenges, granted, but it’s a new way of working and I’m excited to see where it takes me.
LBB> And what advice would you give to an aspiring agency producer?
Gemma> Be kind to everyone and make it as much fun as possible along the way.