Hicham Soubra is head of creative services and production at Horizon FCB. He started out his career working at TV stations and production companies before getting into the agency world – and all of that experience has stood him in good stead for an era where production is changing up and shifting. Covid-19 has, of course, been a huge disruption, accelerating changes that have been in the works for some time. At Horizon FCB, Hicham is particularly proud of the pioneering inhouse production capabilities which he says are leading the way in the Middle East. What’s more the agency has been weaving data into its production workflows, allowing the team to create content that’s targeted and, perhaps more importantly, learn lessons in real time.
LBB> What lasting impact has the experience of the pandemic had on how you and your agency think about and approach production?
Hicham> The show must go on! Finding solutions and moving forward will always be our approach at Horizon FCB no matter what are the circumstances and challenges ahead of us. The pandemic was just another obstacle that we had to work around to get the job done. I can’t think of any major lasting impact as things are somewhat getting back to normal in the UAE, yet there has been an increase in remote productions. Clients prefer not to be on set so we now provide them with a live feed to watch the shoot remotely and give direct feedback. We even had shoots during the peak of the pandemic and the lockdown. One of which was video content series for Clorox on TikTok, where even the creative team and the director couldn’t attend the shoot. We had to improvise and the whole process was done remotely: we found our talents online, sent them a videographer to their house to shoot and we supervised the whole process via live feed. This same campaign turned out to be one of our most successful campaigns reaching more than 1.4 billion viewers on TikTok.
LBB> Aside from Covid-19, what have been the most disruptive forces to hit agency production in the past few years?
Hicham> Over the past few years there have been many disruptive forces to the industry. Lower production values, cheaper editing software, knowledge and equipment have become more accessible, etc., but disruptive isn’t always a bad thing. Most of the time it creates an opportunity that hasn’t been available before. It can be a two-sided sword. On one side, if you don’t have the know-how and the right message and the creative brains, you would end up with very low-quality production.
On the other side, you can utilise them to serve you rather than compete with you. You just simply need to adapt, adopt and evolve. Nowadays at Horizon FCB Dubai we are using these same exact ‘forces’ to our clients’ benefits. We offer fresh creative ideas and high-quality videos at a much more cost-efficient process and faster timelines, with a much more cost efficient and faster process.
LBB> When it comes to production, what would you say the UAE brings to the industry in the region?
Hicham> Being a multicultural hub, the UAE offers a wide variety of local and international talents that can shoot projects for multinational brands in state-of-the-art production facilities.
In addition, the UAE government offers constant assistance to local and foreign filmmakers to produce their films in the UAE through special commissions (Abu Dhabi Film Commission and Dubai Film and TV Commission) and media zones including Dubai Studio City, International Media Production Zone and Twofour54.
LBB> How prominent is the discussion of sustainable/green production practices within your agency and in the region generally?
Hicham> Sustainability and green production practices are hugely important to us at Horizon FCB Dubai. As an example, last June, we launched a special video with FINE, celebrating World Oceans Day while creating awareness around disposable masks and the damage they cause on our planet.
We have a long history as a network for campaigns with purpose and this year FCB was named the #1 Global Network on the Good Report for its efforts in leveraging creativity and communications to promote good causes.
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?
Hicham> Both specialists and generalists are important in our industry but when building our team, we tend to choose “mutant talents” - a hybrid between specialists and generalists. Basically, talents that specialize in more than one skill, so they provide the knowledge as well as a versified range of services. This is one of the added values we provide to our clients.
Even at an industry level, we started noticing an increase in production houses that specialize in certain categories or industries. Just as how you can find a food photographer, now there are production houses that only offer their services to restaurants for example. In my opinion, specialists are very passionate towards their work and the end result of a specialist usually surpasses one of a generalist.
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?
Hicham> My pathway in production is very diversified; I worked in TV stations and production Houses producing TV segments, video clips and TV commercials, until I moved to the agency side. When I first started I was under the impression that my job was about producing good video quality only, but as I advanced I started realizing that the message, the creative and the production process are all connected. Production even has a business angle to it, where in addition to the usual production considerations, it has to make sense financially to our clients and my agency alike.
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?)
Hicham> When I first joined the industry, agency heads of production used to rely heavily on production houses to do all sorts of jobs no matter how big or small they were. Nowadays several agencies have production capabilities inhouse. And if they still don’t, then they should!
Horizon FCB Dubai was one of the first agencies in the region to launch its own inhouse production; hired videographers, editors, animators and built its own video editing unit and recording studio. With time, we started relying less on production houses and more on our own in-house capabilities. This gives creatives the ability to closely monitor the production process from A to Z and gives me as a head of production more control over quality, timeline and budget, which results in faster deliveries of more cost-effective high-quality videos to our client.
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?)
Hicham> As you rightfully mentioned, good producers tend to prefer self-education, yet we always ensure they are up to date with the latest trends and technologies and that they have the right and latest tools and equipment to facilitate their learning and work.
In addition, Structured training could come in handy in areas that are not directly related to production to educate producers about topics that they didn’t necessarily know about, yet they’re essential in the agency/ business world, such as methods of data protection, privacy and information security. Such training is regularly conducted as part of IPG’s global training program.
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?
Hicham> 20 years ago, most video productions were typically 45-60second TV commercials and the only way to target a certain audience was by broadcasting your TVC during a specific show that was relevant to your target audience.
Today, although the TV approach is somewhat the same, digital media offered something new: DATA, which has changed the production industry forever. Now, there is a huge demand on customized and personalized content as you know exactly who’s watching what and when.
Instead of shooting a generic 45 seconds video commercial for example, we would produce different shorter (snackable) videos for the same product, however each one targeted a different segment, e.g., the businessman, the businesswoman, the athlete, the architect, etc.
Data also changed the duration and format of our videos; we used to produce only TVCs. Now we also produce content tailor made for different formats: Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TiktTok, Snapchat, etc.
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?
Hicham> This is exactly how we started our inhouse production at Horizon FCB Dubai; it was created to cater to clients’ need for high quality, cost-efficient content, in very short time. This gave us an edge over competition as we have our creatives sitting right next to the production team briefing them and supervising the work step by step, which naturally results in a shorter and affordable process.
In addition, I get involved at an early stage of certain briefs and I become part of the creative process to a certain extent. When creative and production work hand in hand you guarantee the best work quality you can achieve.
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?
Hicham> To my point exactly. As I explained in the prior question, our advantage in Horizon FCB Dubai is that creative and production work hand in hand, but obviously the actual production happens at the end. That doesn’t mean it’s less important, it’s just part of one big creative process. We work in an integrated manner, each one of us is a key piece to complete the big picture.
LBB> What’s the most exciting thing about working in production right now?
Hicham> From my point of view, digital media is the most exciting thing that has happened to production recently. You see results faster, you can optimize, and learning is also quicker.
There is always a new technology to learn, a new platform, a new medium, a new idea… and the bar is constantly raised higher. Trends in the past could last a decade, today a trend on social media is considered major if it could last for a month and this by itself makes working in production very exciting.
LBB> And what advice would you give to an aspiring agency producer?
Hicham> My advice would be ‘love it or leave it’.