We continue our conversations with agency producers and heads of production by catching up with Patrick Cahill, joint head of production at Havas London to find out what direction things are moving in from his perspective - and what agency production fundamentals remain unchanged despite the flux of the times we live in. He began at a small Hamburg production company in the ‘90s before moving to the agency side, where he’s since worked at Grabarz & Partner and adam&eveDDB before ending up in his current role.
Patrick talks draws on his experience over the decades and drills down into the detail about which projects require which type of producer, running a production department during a pandemic and why good projects involve talking about production much earlier.
LBB> What lasting impact has the experience of the pandemic had on how you and your team at Havas London think about and approach production?
Patrick> The pandemic has made agencies acutely aware of how much they depend on their producers. This sounds like a given, but production has often been rendered a bit of an afterthought within the creative process. When clients slammed on the breaks in April 2020 while carefully considering whether to spend money on production, all eyes turned on us. Subsequently, we became involved in campaign development much earlier in the process, and we found ourselves having conversations with the client, procurement and legal way ahead of moving into the production stage.
The production-related Covid restrictions required a new way of thinking that came with a lot of added rigor, scrutiny, and tons of new paperwork. Shoots had to be planned much more carefully, giving everyone involved more time to consider their actions and decisions. While it’s arguably more legwork, it is having a massively positive effect on the way we work together – and these new ways of working have forced players from all sides of the production industry to come to the table and work together more closely than ever before. Competitors have become collaborators.
Another positive side effect of the unpredictability of the pandemic is that timings have become more flexible, and therefore often more achievable and realistic – it’s certainly not all doom and gloom. Hopefully we will hold on to a lot of these learnings once restrictions are lifted.
LBB> Aside from Covid-19, what have been the most disruptive forces to hit agency production in the past few years?
Patrick> The number of disciplines and deliverables that are constantly being added to the workflow have disrupted the production process considerably. The channel mix is ever-changing and so are the theories around the ideal length or perfect structure of an ‘ad’ – whichever format it takes. The content strategy often seems to evolve concurrently with the production process, which makes projects more difficult to plan and budget for in advance. Gone are the days when we knew exactly what we were delivering at the time of briefing – but this is where the pandemic-necessitated flexibility has been a real positive. Collectively – as agencies, clients and production partners – we’ve shown we can pivot remarkably well and remarkably quickly when we need to. Long may that continue.
LBB> ‘A good producer should be able to produce for any medium, from film to events to digital.’ Do you agree or disagree?
Patrick> I don’t agree with this as a singular view – the reality is much more nuanced and fully depends on your agency and the client’s requirements. For me, it’s horses for courses – casting the right person for the job at hand. And that could be a specialist, a generalist, or both. On a large integrated campaign, for instance, you will need a team of both specialists and generalists working together and complementing each other. It is impossible to be a master of all trades.
What is exciting is that a lot of the next-generation producers coming through right now are ‘preditor’ [producer/editor] and maker-types – and they will absolutely add another different dimension to the team.
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?
Patrick> As an agency that produces quite a lot of TV, I have a lot of film specialists that form the backbone of the team. These guys are supplemented with younger producers, most of whom have a more eclectic, varied skillset. I have, for instance, just hired someone at assistant level who has already produced music videos and podcasts, has a night-time radio show and shoots and edits her own content. That is a really exciting kind of person to have around.
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?
Patrick> I started at a small production company in Hamburg in the late ‘90s where I mainly produced animation projects, music promos and cheap-as-chips TV ads for record companies. My three biggest take-outs of these early years were:
1) Your black book is your most prized asset.
2) You can generally make anything work – but if you don’t have time or money, it will most likely turn out a bit shit.
3) It’s not just you – EVERYONE is winging it, at least in their own heads.
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?
Patrick> The fundamentals are still the same – we still fight a lot of the same battles, stereotypes and clichés – but the job has become more complex and a lot more operational. Because of this, heads of production very rarely have time to produce themselves these days. On top of looking after my team and managing their workload, I supervise most jobs, monitor resourcing and department recovery, I’m involved in fee discussions and industry initiatives around DE&I and production sustainability. I often talk to my peers about the fact that we don’t get to produce anymore, but then we remind each other that we’re actually co-producing everything rather than not producing anything. That’s an important distinction!
And on a slightly more general – but important – point: my first CEO used to say that his aim was to run the agency with the lowest “arsehole-per-square-metre” ratio. I think this ratio has come down considerably across the board since I started in the industry, so that’s…good, I guess?
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?
Patrick> I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution; agencies work so differently, and clients’ requirements are ever-changing. Ideally, the production department’s structure would mimic the overall agency set up. If your agency is run more traditionally, then trying to forge an integrated production team may not work for everyone. If the agency as a whole is run in a more progressive, hybrid manner, then your production team’s structure should ideally complement that. Production doesn’t exist in a bubble – it’s all interlinked.
A lot of agencies have gone back and forth on the idea of integrated production, but often without definition or purpose. I firmly believe that where the client requires the agency to work in an integrated and more agile way, the account should be serviced by an integrated team made up of a creative, suit, strategy and producer, working closely together. True integration can only be achieved if it’s inter-departmental and silo-defying.
LBB> When it comes to educating producers how does your agency like to approach this?
Patrick> We have a mentoring scheme in our department and generally have our assistants and juniors shadow the more experienced producers. We try to give everyone as varied a diet as possible, rather than pigeon-holing people. This is one aspect of the pandemic that’s been particularly tough – a lot of ‘training’ happens by osmosis and observation, particularly in such a hands-on role as producer, and for large chunks of the past 12 months that hasn’t been particularly viable. You find ways around it, of course, but nothing beats getting your hands dirty.
LBB> What new skills have you had to add to the team as a result of the pandemic?
Patrick> We have all become amateur legal counsels and health and safety professionals. Safe to say it’s been one hell of a learning curve for everyone.
LBB> Should production have a seat in the c-suite - and why?
Patrick> Absolutely – we should be seen as an equal partner in any agency construct and need to have representation at the highest level. It should go without saying, but production needs to be involved from the get-go in order to avoid disappointment further down the line. The role of the producer often becomes that of the burster of bubbles, which can be almost entirely attributed to our often-late involvement in the process.
LBB> What’s the most exciting thing about working in production right now?
Patrick> Rather morbidly, overcoming the production challenges that the pandemic has thrown at us feels quite exhilarating. It’s the journey into uncharted territory that gets us producers most excited and awakens the pioneering spirit within. We are, at heart, problem solvers – and there have been a lot of problems to solve!
Looking ahead, another interesting development is that a lot of companies have reinvented themselves, or at least started to, since the beginning of the pandemic. It will be fascinating to follow these transformations – it’s going to be an ongoing process. I also hope that post-pandemic advertising will learn how to be genuinely disruptive again, and that brands and agencies will be bold enough to come up with snackable branded entertainment that doesn’t simply plagiarize the work of social media influencers and makers.
LBB> And what advice would you give to an aspiring agency producer?
Patrick> If there’s a pandemic, take a sabbatical.