In the early 2000s, when I switched from mainstream advertising to commercial production, the role of a producer was fairly well-defined: spot talented young directors; help them build their showreels with interesting proactive projects, music videos and shorts; and simultaneously introduce them to the best agency creatives in the market.
If the producer co-owned a production house with an established director, then the aforementioned role would almost certainly be a prerequisite.
Spike Jonze, David Fincher, Jonathan Glazer, Michel Gondry, Tarsem Singh, Spike Lee, and many more marquee commercial directors around the world - to some extent - owe their success to some really passionate and nurturing producers.
Producers like Steve Golin, Sigurjon Sighvatsson of Propaganda Films, Georges Bermann of Partizan and Jon Kamen of RadicalMedia among many others, spotted these young talents and shaped their careers.
These days, it is a lot easier to spot talent. But knowing how to shape it is an entirely different skill. That’s why agency-owned production houses - although they spot talent - are not able to replace the role of the producer. Agencies don’t have the expertise to shape talent in our business. For them it is about getting a job done. For a commercial producer, talent is his trump card.
Some of the most respected commercial production companies in the world today are owned or run by producers who swear by this value and attract the best talent because of it. This is a winning formula. But, looking at the current trajectory of the industry, this winning formula is in danger of disappearing...
Globalisation or Westernisation?
The age of the internet transformed our lives in ways we could never have imagined. For the commercial production industry, it opened us up to reach global markets with ease, allowed us to share work at the click of a button, and gave us access to endless information.
But on the flip side, the internet has also disrupted the way in which we identify and promote talent.
By the end of the first decade of this century, directors, both new and seasoned, had started using video sharing platforms like YouTube and Vimeo to showcase their work. What they probably did not realise however, was the far-reaching impact it would have on the advertising production industry - especially in emerging markets such as Asia.
Advertisers and agencies in markets like China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, especially in categories such as automobile, personal care and lifestyle, wanted to make their TVCs more aspirational and westernised. The problem was, local directors (mostly traditional storytellers), did not have the expertise to deliver on the parameters set in Europe, Australia and the US. This demand pushed many local producers to get ‘specialised’ directors from the west. More importantly, it encouraged many aspiring producers to jump on the gravy train (the collateral damage it caused has literally brought the commercial production industry to its knees).
While it benefited the advertisers and advertising agencies, it stunted the natural growth of the commercial production industry. Local young talent were left to fend for themselves. As long as advertisers were buying, producers were happy to Google the local talent out of circulation.
This hugely impacted the producer-director relationship. A once healthy, symbiotic relationship became transactional - much along the lines of many agency-client relationships we have today.
In the years that followed, an entire generation of young directors across Asia would be deprived of mentoring and nurturing. In India many such young directors opened their own shops. What it did to the local advertising production industry is a story for another day.
This trend also impacted the producer-director relationship in the west. More and more western directors started questioning the idea of single representation. They no longer wanted to put all their eggs in one basket, forcing many production houses in the west to open offices in Asia, especially China.
Representatives of these global companies had a clear agenda - promote the western roster in the east. Instead of replicating the time-tested model back home and creating opportunities for local directors, they started competing against a new breed of local producers who were often street smart, economical and better connected with local agencies and clients.
Had the global production companies attempted to nurture local producers and directors, everyone would have benefitted in the long run. The industry would have a larger roster of talent. And the commercial production industry would have become truly global.
The truth is that the advertising and commercial production industry have seldom shown farsightedness.
So when the digital deluge hit the world, it tore through our small insulated industry. Branded content production was no more our monopoly. We found ourselves caught between the big tech giants and rapidly multiplying tiny companies and Soho setups, creating a whole new video production economy.
I hardly know of anyone among my peers who isn’t feeling disoriented and lost in this environment. Be it in advertising or in advertising production.
The Key to Our Future Is In Our Past
The last few years have seen a tectonic shift in the world of advertising and marketing.
Roles and responsibilities are constantly getting redefined. Relationships between advertisers, advertising agencies and production companies are changing. New job profiles are being created. Agencies are aspiring to become quasi-production companies. Production houses are offering creative services. On top of that IT giants like Accenture and Deloitte are building verticals for content production.
So what does all this disruption mean for a commercial producer? The larger question is, what will be the role of the new generation of commercial producer?
Commercial production is a craft. It is a craft of finding unique solutions to advertising problems. It may have started as an extension of cinema but over the years it has evolved as an industry and created a strong identity for itself.
Youngsters entering our industry need to understand the very purpose of our existence. They need to know what drives our industry and what makes our craft so interesting.
Teach them how to orchestrate the ever growing pool of talents and tools. As legendary Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa said, on being asked to define his role: ‘the musicians play the music, I play the orchestra’.
It is the producer who can make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Encourage and embrace new thoughts and ideas. These youngsters have many. They will lead our industry into the future. Remember, they have taken the first step by choosing our industry. It is our responsibility to make it worth their while. That’s what great commercial producers have done over the years. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
Change is always unsettling. Especially when it happens suddenly. But while it is important for us to adapt to the new environment, we cannot and must not abandon our core values and practices that make our industry creative and fertile. Not only are these values important for our survival, but they are also crucial for the evolution of our industry as a whole.
And who is better suited than a producer to preserve these values and shepherd the flock willingly - not for gain, but to lead our industry into the future?