SVP, head of integrated production at Momentum, NA on the challenges of producing for virtual and live events, gaming experiences and a whole host more
Melissa Hamilton has been working in marketing technology for over 15 years, leading the charge in taking creative concepts into reality both online and in person for a number of different industries and clients around the world. Her work has paralleled the exponential impact technology has had on our lives and client’s brands – allowing her to produce cutting-edge and complex physical and virtual experiences in the tech space in conjunction with more ‘traditional’ media, platforms, systems and websites.
There are few people better suited to contribute to Production Line, our dedicated space for agency producers to discuss the trends impacting the production of content for brands and the challenges of producing across so many platforms.
LBB> What lasting impact has the experience of the pandemic had on how you and your agency think about and approach production?
Melissa> I've seen the lines of production expertise blur over the course of the last 20 years in marketing and advertising, specifically when it comes to the evolution of digital production. But as those lines have blurred, nothing prepared us for this unique year where events stopped and in-person video/film production was forbidden. Now producers of all varieties have to dig deep and flex our creative-logistic muscles to sort through how to best contribute and do great work within these restrictions.
At Momentum, we have three distinct ‘production’ arms that are ultimately responsible for tech, events and content, and we very quickly began to uncover the hidden talents and experience of our team members as we explored the best ways to execute brand new ideas from remote locations. We produced live streams from XR stages via a variety of distribution channels, as well as complex streaming events that used esports integrations in broadcast-quality Twitch streams.
This type of execution layering requires all of our producers - no matter what their specialty - to think differently, to help our clients better understand the options and to work together across teams to be successful. During our hybrid events and the several shoots we were able to do in-person, we adhered to stringent Covid protocols and pushed everyone on our teams to focus on safety and delivering great events. These included drive-in movies and drone shows for Walmart, an XR shoot for Alicia Keys’s new album with American Express and an in-stadium shoot for Super Bowl LV with Verizon. Many of my counterparts in content and live events were just amazing, sorting through the challenges and staying focused on delivery.
At first we thought that all of our producers would need to become more versatile across all mediums, but we found that the individual expertise of those who came from more traditional channels like broadcast, website development and remote video shoots became incredibly important subject matter experts. Those who didn’t succumb to thinking “I don’t understand this tech and digital stuff” found new ways to deliver great work by embracing this new opportunity for online engagement and finding ways to apply their smarts to the digital-virtual puzzle.
LBB> Aside from Covid-19, what have been the most disruptive forces to hit agency production in the past few years?
Melissa> Our challenge has been managing our ever-growing list of deliverables and helping all the parties involved to connect the dots between agencies, creative friends and clients. Between growth and innovation leaps, the challenge for Momentum Production has been to help everyone keep up with ‘HOW’ to pull off this variety of ideas and needs on time and in budget. In addition, it’s been a challenge to not only deliver on the multitude of campaign needs, but to help everyone UNDERSTAND the needs of some of these new mediums by relating them to more traditional mediums. We’re building in Fortnite, layering in live streams and pulling off virtual events, but maintaining our premium services and offering by leveraging our in-house expertise in architectural design, broadcast and live events. In the past, we helped folks understand the relationship between email marketing and direct mail; now we’re comparing traditional media to new technologies like AR, VR, voice and physical computing. As we grow into these new technologies (and new ways to engage our audiences), we’re leaning on our experiences and past principles as we layer on new processes, creative challenges and deliverables.
LBB> A good producer should be able to produce for any medium, from film to events to digital. Do you agree?
Melissa> I fundamentally disagree. While I do believe that there are similarities and support the idea that ‘we all want to achieve the same goal, we just use different words’, there is subject matter expertise that truly makes the difference in the final product. While a good producer would most certainly fight her way through any project, being a great researcher and connector of different talents requires more nuanced thinking of the final deliverable. One cannot coordinate a digital project without knowledge of the right questions to ask (and when to ask them), and an understanding of the more detailed, domain-specific needs that will ensure that everything goes right. But as we all know, everything will not always go right, so it’s even more important that a producer be knowledgeable of what to do when there is a problem. My content friends focus on licensing rights and shoot logistics, while our event producers deal with in-crowd management and emergencies, and tech production covers data protection and privacy. These are not subjects that everyone can know all at once. We have a healthy respect and understanding between production teams at Momentum that ‘we don’t want each other’s jobs’, and it’s often the intra-departmental problem solving when things go wrong that reveals this need for specialists.
I’ve worked in both traditional advertising as well as experiential marketing, and I’m always surprised by the resourcefulness of my colleagues in production, and the tricks they apply from their respective disciplines. And to suppose that one person can ‘do it all’ devalues that lived, professional experience - the producer’s bag of tricks - and while I’ve been around for some time, I always learn something new on every project.
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?
Melissa> I do think it’s a delicate balance. Within tech departments alone I’ve been involved in several discussions and decisions on whether or not to outsource or build in-house. There’s an ever-present ‘pendulum swing’ within agencies on when to invest in talent or in-house capabilities and when to look outside. And MANY times I’ve seen the struggles with both options: when the team is too specialised, how can we ensure there’s enough of the ‘right’ work in the pipeline at all times? If we staff too many generalists, are we constantly outsourcing specific production needs and not able to keep the team profitable? The same goes for agency product development - the question is always ‘build or buy’.
At Momentum, we most certainly have dabbled in retaining more specialists, especially in technology. As we bounced from banner development to database design, game engines to AR dev kits, we’ve delivered work in a wide spectrum of tech. But from a producer-only point of view, I feel we’ve done our best work in the categories of live events, pre-recorded content and tech. And within those categories, we’ve stuck to a fairly general talent pool. In order to best identify the talent mix we need, I think it’s essential to understand the make-up and profitability of our client deliverables. I’m constantly working with finance, operations and business leadership to evaluate the team. This collaboration is essential to support proper allocations, career growth (learn a new specialty), recruiting and inter-departmental assignments. Also, with advanced analytics applied to operations, we’re also starting to see where we can gain efficiencies and where more specialisation makes sense. I’m excited to see how we can continue to be creative in production in assembling teams of specialists, while at the same time service the wide variety of projects that are vital to our client relationships and profitability.
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 began as an intern in 2000 doing a tour of many of the different departments at a traditional agency known for their TV/radio/print as well as direct mail, but the ‘Online Media’ department was run by a few women not much older than myself, and was where the agency had the most work for me to do. It’s with this department that I learned HOW the internet worked - banners, tracking, serving, web development, email clients. We all had to learn and learn fast in order to even pretend to offer this service to some of our biggest clients. Since then, I’ve been through many titles, but all with the focus on bridging the gap between the strategy and theory of ‘the information superhighway’ (yes, that was in decks way back then), and how the agency could actually build and deliver digital experiences that were compelling, professional and measurable.
I moved from media to analytics, to business leadership and, finally, to production - all with a focus on what it takes to DO the work, not just talk about it. It was when I came to Momentum that my exposure to bigger opportunities really took off. By not being tied to ad campaigns, but instead engaging with experiences, I was suddenly learning about a variety of applications, mobile development, promotion, VR, AR, web production, sensors and embedded computing, AI, robotics, gaming and so much more. There hasn’t been a ‘typical day’ since, but I think what strikes me the most is how each new project both evolves my understanding of HOW to do the work as much as adds to it. The principles of what we’ve done before can contribute to what we all think is ‘brand new’ and foreign. As we continue to see more and more innovations and opportunities in the digital space, I consistently challenge my team and colleagues to really deconstruct ‘the new’' and think practically about how we'll get it done. This collaboration not only creates a great deal of understanding on how to best mould a medium to the story you want to tell, but it also unlocks collective insight and, frankly, the teamwork that’s so necessary to getting it done.
My favourite moments in the past 10 years have been the ‘aha’ moments we all have while creating something new, and the power we have to push the work to really deliver something exciting. That all comes from building upon what you know and your experiences - and, in particular, we have tenure on our team that is unmatched in many other agencies and departments. That’s a testament to the variety of work and experience allowing us to connect those dots and build on what we’ve done before.
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?)
Melissa> This is a really interesting question, especially from my vantage point in tech. In my experience, each new medium has to ‘fight’ for legitimacy, recognition and understanding. I remember a creative director once saying, ‘I just wish this internet banner stuff would go away’, making it clear he would rather be on a TV shoot. And even 15–20 years later, that attitude hasn’t changed a whole lot; some mediums will always get the lion’s share of excitement and attention. So any ‘head of production’ is doing a balancing act, making sure that all mediums, departments and deliverables are being taken into consideration and given the proper attention.
When it all comes down to ‘the most striking’ change I’ve witnessed, it has to be our timelines and bandwidth. Time to delivery has accelerated to such breakneck speed that we are delivering work that once took three–four months in just three–four weeks (and sometimes even more quickly). In turn, with advances in software and automation, we’re taking on more work than we ever have before. The pandemic has exacerbated this trend as well; we know folks are home, without having to commute, and everyone’s online more than ever before. We are delivering so much more work in such short amounts of time that any head of production is constantly juggling process, fairness, changes and the ever-rising expectations of our peers and clients.
But the one thing that’s stayed the same is the goal to deliver great work we can all be proud of, on time and within budget. That no matter what changes and challenges come our way, we all can find success and deliver awesome work.
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?
Melissa> I still maintain the autonomy and specialisation one finds with different departments works the best. It goes back to the question of generalists versus specialists. We are all working toward the same endpoint and must be doing it together, but our collective specialities are what makes our work so great.
LBB> When working with a new partner or collaborator, how do you go about establishing trust?
Melissa> It has to start with an honest and open dialogue about the realities of the project, the client’s business goals and the team’s strengths. I am a firm believer in the power of positive negotiations, and that belief has helped me so much in my career - be open, collaborative, seek out opportunities for growth, find multiple solutions and ways to win together. I’ve seen so many production relationships fail due to starting off on the wrong foot - a focus on value engineering the idea, or even accusations or ‘outside group’ communication that can never result in good work. I’ve found that positive, open, agile and collaborative partners always create a positive outcome, and therefore trust. And when these qualities and processes are all there - good communication, organisation, solution-oriented thinking, an understanding of and willingness to work within scopes/budgets - the process creates trust.
LBB> What are your thoughts on the involvement of procurement in production?
Melissa> This one is tough. I appreciate the role that procurement plays in an attempt to level the playing field, to ensure proper comparison in a multi-bid scenario, and in maintaining, ultimately, an ‘outsider view’ into the work, scope and budget. But we still work in a creative industry, and both art and science go into the work that we do. Art is VERY hard to measure, and whether you’re in procurement, IT or finance, it’s vital to understand the creative work that agencies do and account for those ‘intangibles’' that come with art. And while pragmatism is the also-vital reverse side of that coin, we all need to see both sides when we evaluate procurement decisions.
LBB> When it comes to educating producers how does your agency like to approach this?
Melissa> We pay careful attention to a few key things when training, and one big subject is agency processes and procedures. Whether it be timeline development or RFP writing, these can easily be outlined in text, training materials, documents and systems. Getting a good handle on this set of knowledge requires that a new hire be trained by colleagues from several different departments. This helps not only with the material, but also getting to know the agency. Next, there is the matter of the types of deliverables we are responsible for versus other departments. Mastery of applying those processes to a certain set of deliverables happens through professional experience and, especially in tech, we see new deliverables surface all the time. This means learning the steps and players in anything from banners to websites, robotics and projection mapping. There are a number of processes involved in each, and learning by doing or shadowing various stakeholders can work best at this stage. Finally, in experiential, there’s nothing comparable to ‘going on site’ to really experience the full breadth and impact of the work that we do. Some of our best training happens when experiencing the excitement of opening the doors, or the stresses of problem solving on-site and on the fly.
LBB> What new skills have you had to add to the team as a result of the pandemic?
Melissa> While we’ve worked in the realm of virtual events and streaming in the past, we’ve never before been in the position where virtual is the ONLY way to deliver an event. We’ve dug deep into video conferencing platforms, how to build out new virtual environments, how to run both live and pre-recorded events, and what’s involved in creating experiences only found in online realities. Our global company focused too on revitalising the webinar platforms, by building our own using 3D technologies and space called VXi. Finally, we’ve been digging deep into gaming, finding new ways to bring brands into the fold. It has been an exciting time to be in tech, but also to work with Momentum’s other departments who have also discovered that their past experiences apply perfectly to our new remote world.
And I would be remiss in not mentioning the hard work and efforts that so many in our production departments have accomplished in establishing pandemic protocols, ways to shoot safely and training for emergency situations on-site. Our event teams have really driven our agency to new levels of excellence in just taking the delivery of our work in a safe and studied manner seriously.
LBB> Should production have a seat in the C-suite?
Melissa> Yes. There is a great deal of success that can be directly attributed to the execution of the work in equal measure to the idea itself. In a truly equal and collaborative agency, the storytellers and story makers are working hand-in-hand to deliver work that both resonates with the target audience and also positively impacts the bottom line of the organisation. This can only happen when precedent is set at the highest levels.
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?
Melissa> I think there are two facets to this. There are inward-looking data implications to production that must be taken into account in order to gain delivery efficiencies, time and scope tracking, and the assets themselves. Then there are data implications from external performance metrics that inform the work - all of the programmatic advertising and AI-driven serving models are examples of this. Both are important, and both require sophisticated data infrastructures to be built, solid organisational data at the ready, and the consistent tracking and optimisation of assets. The thing I struggle most with is that this type of rules-based serving methodology and multivariate delivery isn’t something new; it’s been around for a while. To pull this off successfully requires a lot of pre-planning, a volume of assets, and a willingness to pivot quickly to react to audience response. Again, this isn’t new, but now the sophistication of the algorithms and the speed with which the technologies can make decisions is forcing us to think in new ways and ultimately find ways to streamline our processes to keep up.
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?
Melissa> It can’t all be perfect. Quite often, we belabour the details when putting the work out there and testing the audience’s response would be more advantageous. Especially in digital advertising, where the lifespan of the work is often very short, it’s key to get the work out the door quickly by reducing indecisiveness (and rounds of feedback), and committing to flexibility when the metrics come back.
Another component that’s the antithesis of speed are the complex and multi-layered approval processes we’re seeing become even more common. When we can commit to the team all providing feedback on planned review/approval dates, the faster we can go live.
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?
Melissa> Another aspect to this question is on the ‘key learnings’' front. There are both program success metrics as well as operational success, especially in experiential. We frequently capture both in order to be smarter for the next event and feed results back into the creative thinking. Whether it’s how a content capture could’ve been smarter to get all the assets needed across deliverables, or how a certain design performed in situ with the general public in attendance, there are many opportunities to use the insights from production to feed our creative ideas. How you do something or make something should always build on the knowledge that’s come before, and this experience is essential when building out a creative concept.
LBB> What’s the most exciting thing about working in production right now?
Melissa> Right now we’re having a blast building out a virtual stadium in Fortnite, a project that was really brought on by the pandemic and the lack of in-person attendees at the traditional Super Bowl Live. It’s taken a unique team of creators to pull it off - young talent who can produce in such a unique space, coupled with our designers who are rooted in experiential and architectural design, all listening to creative tech specialised in game mechanics... it has been nothing but fun! To me, that’s the exciting thing in production: we’re putting new teams of makers together that normally wouldn't have worked together before, and then watching the magic happen. I think we’ll continue to see this more and more, as new forms of marketing emerge and storytelling begins to expand beyond what we’ve traditionally seen.
LBB> And what advice would you give to an aspiring agency producer?
Melissa> I always say the biggest thing is to keep learning and be open to applying your organisational skills in new ways. Producers are always going to be problem-solvers and organised thinkers who can see how the puzzle fits together and the path to get there, but the exciting and fun parts are when you are presented with a new idea and you learn what it takes to deliver from different collaborators and partners. There often isn’t a written playbook in marketing production, and when we try, we often break it quickly with a new idea.
Be curious, be accepting and be willing to learn - that’s what’s going to make the great producers of the future. Have a creative opinion and contribute to the ideas. Everyone at an agency has the opportunity to be creative. All too often we’re looking for a laundry list of skills or experience, when it’s really the application of some of those skills to new ideas.