Production Line in association withComcast Technology Solutions

Production Line: Steve Emmens on How Tech and Data is Changing Agency Production

Advertising Agency
Toronto, Canada
Juniper Park\TBWA and Bolt Content’s Steve Emmens on the evolving role of agency production, as data-driven workflows, technology and strategic thinking become increasingly important
Production is the ad industry’s combustion chamber, where ideas become reality. It’s also the place where the broader forces changing the industry - technology and data and shifting business models and proliferating platforms, to name a few – come up against the business of making work that… works.

So there’s no better time to talk to agency producers and heads of production as in many ways they have the best grasp of both the theory and the practicality of how the advertising industry is changing.

We caught up with Steve Emmens, Managing Director of Integrated Production at Juniper Park\TBWA and Bolt Content, in Canada to find out about how things are progressing in production – and what surprising ideas and ideals stay the same. He joined the industry as an in-house editor at J. Walter Thompson, in 1990, at a time when agency production was rigidly siloed. These days, teams have to tackle a growing range of possible outputs and have to be ready to leap into the unknown if a project demands it.

Steve talks about his own journey and gets granular about the impact of data, discusses the tech that is exciting him and shares some insight and advice for aspiring producers.

LBB> What lasting impact has the experience of the pandemic had on how you and the team at Juniper Park\TBWA and Bolt Content think about and approach production?

Steve> I am very proud of the way our agency responded to the pandemic through compassion, resilience, and gratitude. In many ways we have become a stronger agency; our relationships with each other and our clients have strengthened. And this is largely due to our ability to adapt our processes and incorporate new approaches.

Our approach to production fundamentally changed during the pandemic. The circumstances opened our eyes to new ways of working and making commercials. Shooting commercials remotely was huge learning experience for us all. To ensure safety we had to organize drop offs of sterilized production equipment to actors’ homes, then we had to find an efficient way to navigate through the technology and remote platforms - my home office looked like mission control for a majority of 2020. At first, we simplified the creative knowing that we couldn’t put actors in close proximity to each other, but that became a challenge when we had to produce a large commercial with multiple actors driving in cars together. We had to cast actors living in the same bubble across the entire country. 

Don’t get me wrong, working through the pandemic has its challenges – but we work in a creative industry – we’re built to think outside the box and will always find a way through ingenuity, collaboration, and teamwork. We are excited about these new opportunities and what they will bring to our industry and clients in the future.

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

Steve> The disruptive force has been the ever-changing technology, managing the decreasing budgets, and the need for more and more assets. I remember not too long ago, when producers complained about having to create two versions of a spot – one for standard definition (SD), and one for high definition (HD). 

These days – it’s not unheard of to create 48 versions from a single 30 second commercial. We went above and beyond that for Nissan last year, creating 150+ videos to launch the new 2021 Rogue.

LBB> ‘A good producer should be able to produce for any medium, from film to events to digital’. Do you agree or disagree?

Steve> I agree with this statement – we have been moving into integration for some time now. The role of a producer has changed. We need makers, producers who can wear many hats: shoot a tv commercial, build a website, manage a print campaign, design and build an art installation, create a content series, web banners, build an app, execute an experiential campaign, and so on.

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?

Steve> When I joined Juniper Park\TBWA in late 2019 as the head of production, I was lucky that there was already an incredible team in place here. People who embody our collective’s mantra of Disruption and are willing to take creative chances, adapt to change, and produce great work. Last year, we hired a specialist in content creation, Nadia Dunn. Nadia is our Executive Producer at Bolt, our in-house content division where we specialize in small to medium content creation. To be honest, balance is key. After all, working at an agency involves getting your hands dirty by working on variety of different projects with different elements at different times – we need the flexibility to source a specialist when required.

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?

Steve> My pathway to production was through post-production – I was the in-house editor at J. Walter Thompson 32 years ago. I started as a production coordinator working on U.S. Adapts for many years – I remember my first commercial was for Mattel: Ski Fun Barbie with Midge and Ken! I shadowed Lesley Parrot, who is an icon in this business, helping her with the day-to-day production needs, pre-production books, talent contracts, faxing – yes, that thing! I learned the ropes from Lesley.

I was patient and slowly worked my way up the ladder, surrounding myself with brilliant creatives and talented producers along the way. I also have an amazing mentor in my life who cared about my successes and my failures. I still speak to him on a regular basis. It’s important to have advocates in this business.

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 changes  - and what surprising things have stayed the same?

Steve> Interesting question. What hasn’t changed is the passion for brilliant creative work. What has changed is that the industry is less tolerant of egotistical and difficult people. We used to say “yeah, they’re talented, but they’re brutal to work with”. Not anymore.

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?

Steve> The traditional way of organising production departments was in silos – broadcast, content, digital, studio, print, etc. These departments now need to integrate and feed into each other, so they should be together geographically if possible. The clients and creatives should feel the synergy, energy, and excitement of a production department.

LBB> When working with a new partner or collaborator, how do you go about establishing trust?

Steve> When a partnership works it’s because of trust in each other’s abilities. It takes time to build trust in a relationship. I'm a very straight-forward person, a “what you see is what you get” type. I don’t like drama and I don’t play games. I find that being transparent allows other people to feel that they can cut to the chase as well. No sugar coating, just honesty. That's what builds trust.

LBB> What are your thoughts on the involvement of procurement in production?

Steve> I certainly appreciate the need for procurement in production. We recognize that our clients work with many agencies on multiple brands and they need someone on their team with production experience to vet the numbers and streamline the production process and identify areas of opportunity. This is seen as a best practice for most clients. I appreciate that we have a great relationship with our client’s procurement and production consultants. In fact, we work very closely with them on securing negotiated rates and vetting vendors – they are an important part of the team.

LBB> When it comes to educating producers, how does your agency like to approach this?

Steve> We are educating and integrating our producers the ‘old-fashioned’ way with mentorship programs and shadowing. I can certainly see the benefit for more structured training when possible, especially tech, but finding the time can be challenging. Tacit knowledge is important, and you can only gain it through experience. In my opinion, there’s nothing like on the job training.

LBB> What new skills have you had to add to the team as a result of the pandemic?

Steve> Risk management has always been a part of a producer’s job – we have to deal with insurance companies, weather days, postponements, and cancellations. COVID has added a heightened risk associated with every production – we now need COVID coordinators and plans to protect the safety of our employees, talent, clients, and crew. In many ways we have become pseudo medical experts, insurance specialists, and lawyers. These are all new dynamics we have learned to manage.

LBB> Should production have a seat in the C-suite?

Steve> I think production should have a seat at every organisation’s table. Producers have been given more and more responsibility in recent years to generate revenue, integrate departments, and make sound upper management decisions that affect the agency. It doesn’t have to be the c-suite per se, but having leads involved in larger organisational conversations is crucial.

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?

Steve> The integration of data has had an impact throughout the production workflow. The days of developing one core idea to serve a mass audience are quickly leaving us as we shift to using data to design our production around multiple sub-segments. This means right from the start we design our production knowing there will be more executions tailored to resonate at the individual customer level. This adds a layer of complexity to our production schedules in terms of both shoot schedules as well as integration with dynamic creative optimisation partners. An example of this in practice is our recent work with Nissan Canada.  We identified eight key sub-segments and designed our entire production schedule around creating content around these targets. The end result was over 150 pieces of individual content designed to resonate with them at a personalised level. 

This impacts the upfront planning schedule as well, as we know we will be optimising campaigns in market pending on how our sub-segments are interacting with them.  We don’t wait for post-campaign analysis to tell us what worked or didn’t work – we have entered the campaign with planned A/B tests and optimisation strategies in place.

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… and is that even possible?

Steve> We are capable of maintaining the quality of our content while keeping up with the demands and speed to market, but the entire production, including the creative itself and process, need to be strategic going in. This could mean a complete non-traditional approach to shooting, how we use talent, or a simple location change that can make the difference. The speed comes from being prepared and having a solid plan.

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 and experiences of this?

Steve> Our producers are engaged right up top at the client briefing stage. We work closely with creatives, strategy, and account teams to frame the production parameters so we can stay on budget and meet the client’s deadlines. Being signatory to ACTRA, UDA, and SAG – we have to comply with all union rules and regulations. Therefore, we need to be strategic in the way we design our commercials to protect the budget and integrity of the creative idea.

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

Steve> New technology is always exciting and keeps producers on their toes – we are constantly learning new ways to create and produce content. We use algorithms to analyse and discern consumer behaviour through automated video platforms to create content that is scalable, customisable, and quick to market. They are quickly becoming an essential and seamless part of the content process which is exciting.

I’m also intrigued by hologram technology and where it will take us in the future. Last Fall, our CEO Jill Nykoliation used hologram technology to beam Mind Architect Peter Crone into a Young President’s Organization (YPO) event in Toronto from LA. Jill interviewed Peter live on stage as if he was actually there in person. Very cool.

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

Steve> Get into an agency somehow, some way. Start at the bottom if you have to. Be patient – this job takes time and flight hours. Surround yourself with the arts, music, film, theatre, and tech – be open to anything that might be of value down the road. Try and find a mentor who can help you, teach you, guide you. Don’t be afraid to ask lots questions. Have an opinion. Be honest. Be kind – always. Good luck.

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