Dalia Burde, founder and executive producer of the San Francisco creative production company, used lessons from her time at Goodby Silverstein & Partners and OgilvyOne, as well as on movies like Royal Tenenbaums, to set up a new type of company
Dalia Burde is the founder / executive producer of Avocados and Coconuts, a creative production company based in San Francisco.
Dalia and her team have produced documentary features, commercials, and branded content in 32 countries. Their notable clients include Google, Apple, Instagram, Facebook, Adobe, and Airbnb. The company’s short film for Nike, ‘Still KD’, featuring Kevin Durant was shortlisted for a 2017 Cannes Lions award.
As a transplant to the US from South Africa, Dalia was previously executive producer at Goodby Silverstein & Partners and senior producer at OgilvyOne Worldwide. Production, however, has always been her north star, having held various production roles on major feature films, including She’s So Lovely, starring John Travolta, Sean Penn, and Robin Wright, and Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums.
Given her background in both commercial and agency production, as well as the dual capabilities of Avocados and Coconuts, we were eager to get Dalia in the fold for Production Line. Here goes.
LBB> What lasting impact has the experience of the pandemic had on how you and your agency think about and approach production?
Dalia> We are in a profound moment, which has provided an opportunity to pull the car over to the side of the road and take an assessment. In my opinion, there is a fair amount of excess in the old model of production and this moment is giving us all a solid vantage point to recognise and possibly change this. I think what has become clear - and what will remain long after this pandemic - is the understanding of how many bodies we really need on set and who are the essential crew. This is something I have been working through for the last 10 years in an attempt to adjust the production model to fit the increasing need for content and along with it, the dwindling resources. The pandemic has allowed us the platform to say out loud: we can monitor this remotely and this person does not need to be on set.
Through this process, we also have the opportunity to ensure the essential people needed on set each day are present, supported, and justly compensated. We can make production more sustainable as a viable career option, especially during this time when there is an extreme demand for content.
LBB> Aside from Covid-19, what have been the most disruptive forces to hit agency production in the past few years?
Dalia> Traditional advertising is a thing of the past. With all of the new media platforms, there is an endless need for content. The sheer volume of content is changing everything about this business. And advertisers can no longer just pay for eyeballs; they now have to earn every set of eyes looking their way.
Avocados and Coconuts was born out of this large momentous shift that has forever altered the standard agency model: the ushering in of content being paramount to the base of any brand marketing versus the old idea of paying for views. Brands no longer need a handful of well-funded TV commercials a year, but rather, hundreds of pieces of content. And slowly, the production world is catching up to the reality and understanding that budgets need to be adjusted for this new content. However, there needs to be adjustments from both the bottom and top of the budget rung.
This new world of content, where anyone can contribute, has definitely interrupted the production world as well. Young talent are grabbing prosumer digital cameras and creating work well under the cost of production just to get their foot in the door. So now, brands have a very unrealistic idea of what it costs to create videos. This is something that also needs to be addressed.
It is paramount to shift not only where the work airs but also how you speak to a consumer and how the content is created. We have to be smart about where our clients’ dollars are spent; we can be ‘scrappy’, of course, but we don’t want to be in a race-to-the-bottom that threatens the livelihood of the trades people who make up the crew and professionally-produced work. Your director should not have to be your DP, gaffer, sound engineer, and editor. There needs to be a balance.
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?
Dalia> Is it possible to agree and disagree with this statement? From strictly an agency producer perspective, I agree. I believe a good producer's most important quality is the ability to adapt and problem solve. No two projects are ever the same and in being a strong producer, you have to embrace that core element of the work, learn fast, be flexible, and figure things out. I’ve often had to become an expert in a new subject for every project. So, in essence, a strong producer should be able to bring those skills to any medium, whether it is digital or events or anything else.
However, I think being a strong agency producer can be very different than being a strong line producer. For example, beyond the core adaptability, the best line producers also bring a wealth of experience that makes them efficient at solving crucial and fast-paced decisions and knowledgeable about how actual productions need to run. So, there is value in experience within the medium that should not be overlooked. I feel this deeper understanding can prove helpful, so hiring a producer who has spent years doing a certain type of production will inevitably be better for that medium.
LBB> And leading on from that, when it comes to building up your team at Avocados and Coconuts, what’s your view on the balance of specialists vs generalists?
Dalia> I think Avocados and Coconuts differs quite a bit from the classic agency model as we toe the line of production company and creative agency. For us, it is important to have producers with a strong line-production background and client-facing skills. Ideally, our producers have spent most of their careers in production but also have experience on the traditional agency or brand sides. While there may be some crossover in skillsets, there are also very distinct differences. It’s like having to be a great sprinter who can also run a marathon, though possibly not in record time.
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?
Dalia> My pathway was very much through your traditional production door and on-set. I started working in production at a rather young age prior to college. After many years of coming up through the ranks in production with some short ventures in the camera and art departments, I realised I was very creatively fulfilled by production. The need to constantly adapt and problem solve suited my personality type. I worked my way up to line producing after seven years of working on commercials, TV series, and larger feature films in LA and NYC.
About 14 years ago, I left New York for San Francisco. At the time, I was producing what was to become one of the first webisodes, which was a little ahead of its time. It predated YouTube and tested the waters for creating content uniquely developed for online consumption. This specific project piqued my curiosity on how the medium was changing.
When I moved to SF, I worked on the agency side at Ogilvy One, which was primarily a digital agency. It turned out to be an exciting time as it was the exact inflection point when the need for online video content was emerging. There, I was the producer who handled all video work that was digital or experimental. Through this experience, I didn’t see San Francisco-based production companies adapting to this overwhelming change in the industry; traditional commercials shot on film and consumed on TV were being replaced with digitally-shot content shown for free on the internet. I started talking to colleagues about my idea for a company that focused on solving for this new form of content.
During this time, I was offered a role at Goodby, Silverstein and Partners to build out a production department for their in-house post team. I got to work with such an incredible talent pool and really had an amazing experience. After about four years there as an executive producer, an opportunity with funding presented itself to start Avocados and Coconuts. This was my chance to approach production and content in a different way. 10 years later, we’re still going at it and I can honestly say we’re still trying to 100% solve this new production model. We’ve learned that we just have to be very fluid when it comes to the production and marketing landscape.
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?)
Dalia> When I started, we had to photocopy all of our script changes and fax out call sheets. We shot everything on film. And there was no way for a talented kid to grab a 300k film camera, shoot a short film, edit it on their laptop, and post it on an ubiquitous platform for anyone around the world to watch. We all paid to play. No email, no internet!
So, really the question is, what hasn’t changed since? It’s hard to look back and not be in awe at how much production, media, and the world has evolved and continues to do so. As a producer, it continues to be a time to analyse and adjust while maintaining an awareness that we are at the forefront of a changing world. The decisions we make as a collective will have a lasting impact on how we move forward and whether production, as a career, can survive. This may sound dramatic but I do think it is important to continually step back and look at the larger picture. We can stop this from being a race to the bottom by being smarter about the money we spend at the top end of the budget spectrum.
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?
Dalia> Our model is different from the typical agency model. Put more concisely, our set-up of putting line production at our core has worked well to streamline the process and allowed us to be more nimble and to create better work for less.
LBB> When working with a new partner or collaborator, how do you go about establishing trust?
Dalia> Trust comes from good communication. Whenever the full picture is unclear for either side, it leads to a feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’. We aim for our productions to be a true collaborative effort because, in the end, we’re all trying to create the best possible work. Transparency allows us to reiterate and reinforce the idea that we’re all playing on the same team. More specifically, being upfront about where the client’s dollars are going significantly helps to build trust.
LBB> When it comes to educating producers how does your company like to approach this?
Dalia> I prefer to train producers who come from a less-experienced role and give them time to work up the ladder and grow into a more experienced producer. Working under veteran line producers and logging the hours are an important part of the process and allow for real-life experience, as well as the understanding that they will work in a way that gels with the Avocados style of production. When it comes to hiring freelance producers, we not only check how they work and run a production but also their client-facing abilities. In the larger agency model, your line producer may not be directly communicating with the client but on a travel job with eight other people, they’re going to get cozy and need to know how to interact and work with the clients.
LBB> What new skills have you had to add to the team as a result of the pandemic?
Dalia> Remote monitoring obviously is a huge aspect of all productions during the pandemic. And with every production, we find a more streamlined approach and more options for every type of remote-monitoring scenario.
The health and safety of the whole team has become the critical aspect of each project. While this has always been of utmost importance - creating safe sets and keeping people out of physical harm’s way - now, we are also responsible for keeping anyone they live and interact with safe from an invisible risk. It has been exhausting, to say the least, but something we take incredibly seriously. If we can continue to work safely, a lot of people can continue to work, take care of their families, and pay their mortgages. It feels like our most important responsibility.
We continue to adjust, day by day, to the new bits of information that are released about the virus. I feel we’ve all had to become experts in virus testing, how each test differs, and their reliability. This is not something I would have guessed would become an important part of a producer’s resume.
Patience and gratitude also go a long way. Things will take longer, yes, but just feeling grateful to be healthy and able to continue doing the work we do. We are the luckiest people. We get to make and create every day.
LBB> Should production have a seat in the C-suite - and why?
Dalia> Most certainly. I feel the value and expertise of having the production team’s voice in the process as early as possible is often overlooked in the classic agency model. Having a say at that level will only help agencies evolve with the new changing landscape proactively rather than retroactively.
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?
Dalia> This is more like a sidebar but still relevant as it pertains to production processes. We’re developing an app called Wrap that’s currently in beta that takes real-time data and updates schedules, travel times, and call sheets, etc. While it’s not clear yet whether this will change the way we create or produce, it has definitely had a big effect on our workflow. If we can share information more easily and efficiently, I imagine that’d have an overall impact on how we make things.
The app is mainly for the pre-production and production processes. The pre-pro book, schedule, and call sheet tend to be the most important pillars for aggregating important and useful data. The pre-pro book is a rich information source, but in the old-school PDF or printed-binder format, it’s often outdated as soon as you hit ‘print’. Many companies are now using Google Slides, which is editable but still functions better on a computer.
We felt the need to get all this pertinent information into the hands of everyone on set in the most accessible way: your phone. So, we developed an app that will work on your phone or iPad. The information is not only updatable, but it also has features for real-time updating of shooting schedules, call sheets, and travel details, so as things inevitably change, hour by hour, everyone can stay informed. We wanted something like this for ourselves and it just didn’t exist. Our hope is to launch the app later this year.
LBB> As you’ve addressed, 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?
Dalia> I touched on this in some of my previous answers but I feel there’s a way to make this need for endless content more sustainable for everyone involved. However, it cannot be addressed by older modes of agency production. It is a new beast altogether and everything about the approach needs to change, but we have to ensure it is done responsibly.
It is about rebuilding the model from the ground up. You need smaller teams that are production-focused, and ideas that are conceived to be produced at the speed and budget the client expects. You also need teams that understand what’s essential for production value and what is excess. Agency producers who have a great understanding of production and have spent time in the production line will help. It’s about finding the efficiencies where they matter the most.
We also need to set the correct boundaries with our clients when it comes to endless, fast, and responsive content. There are still limits. If we start stretching beyond these limits, then we risk treading into territory that we may regret from an ethical standpoint.
We all want stuff that’s cheaper. We want our running shoes to cost less but then feel outraged when we find out our cheaper shoes are manufactured in a way that does not align with our ethics. There is a cost to production on every level and there are humans behind it all; humans who also have mortgages to pay and families to feed regardless of whether your content is on TV or on your phone.
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? Especially considering the unique setup you have at Avocados and Coconuts...
Dalia> This is at the very heart of how we differ at Avocados. We always concept with production feasibility at the top of mind and feasibility is checked throughout the creative development phase. We want to be able to make everything we ideate. It is highly valuable in producing strong work as well as delivering something the client can use. When you come up with a million dollar idea and the client has $250,000 to spend, the idea is either a watered-down version of itself or you just pulled in enormous favours, which is not a sustainable path. We feel client work should not ride heavily on tradespeople doing favours whilst the brand profits.
We believe creative development should be done with production strategy in mind that takes into account the client’s budget, timing, and communication goals.
LBB> What’s the most exciting thing about working in production right now?
Dalia> The changing media landscape. All of the things that make it tumultuous and challenging are, on the flip side, very exciting. It’s exciting to reset how work is produced and open up new avenues for work to be seen. It’s also exciting to step outside the confines of media-buy limitations and produce work that feels more valuable to both the consumer and the brand. Brands are expanding their messaging without the confines of a 30-second buy; they are open to broaching important topics and using their marketing as a way to create content that educates and addresses these issues rather than simply trying to sell product attributes.
It’s fascinating how much the world and media have changed in the last 25 years; however, in some ways, we are having the same conversations that we did almost 50 years ago about the role of media and how marketing and advertising should work in it.
I recently re-watched Good Night and Good Luck and the use of Edward R. Murrow’s famous speech as a bookend is incredible. A quote from it that is just as pertinent now to the landscape of new media and how we try to engage with consumers: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it's nothing but wires and lights in a box.”
The landscape is changing and there is a wealth of young emerging talent with access to new and exciting tools. The question becomes, “How can we, as advertisers and makers of content, use this new media to inspire and illuminate?”
LBB> And what advice would you give to an aspiring agency producer?
Dalia> As a non-traditional agency producer, I would say: learn from people you admire and respect and take your time with this process. Getting a strong foundational understanding will make you a well-rounded producer in the future, while rushing through it will simply make you feel you’re always playing catch up. And be sure to learn how to adapt and stay calm!