Virtual Production in association withThe Immortal Awards

The Big Picture: Reckitt Embraces Virtual Production at Scale

London, UK
Following a successful pilot with Havas and BETC, Reckitt is to embrace the emerging production tech at scale, writes LBB’s Laura Swinton
Reckitt has revealed a pioneering drive to move the majority of its marketing production projects to virtual production. The multinational consumer goods company behind hygiene, health and nutrition brands like Dettol, Durex, Enfamil and Finish, has made the decision after a successful pilot in France. 

For those unfamiliar with the term, virtual production is an emerging technology that puts live actors against CG backgrounds, using a vast LED background known as a ‘volume’. It allows filmmakers to transport the cast to new locations – or even planets – at the click of a button, without the need for elaborate costly set builds or travel to multiple locations. It hit the headlines when Disney used the technology for its flagship Star Wars streaming series The Mandalorian. While the advertising and marketing sector has been, on the whole, slow to fully embrace virtual production, Reckitt’s move represents a major step forward in the industry.

From a corporate perspective virtual production allows Reckitt to meet several major marketing challenges in one swoop – the need for more assets, the need for greater creativity and the need to lower budgets. 

“For me this is a pivotal moment,” said vice president for marketing operations and capabilities Becky Verano. “Our objective now is to get to a global scale and to produce more than 80% of our production volume in this way in the future.”

The Business Case for Virtual Production

The move to virtual production is rooted in Reckitt’s desire to transform its marketing setup to be more cost efficient and future ready – while also boosting creativity. They worked with global production investment specialists Murphy Cobb Associates (MCA) to identify opportunities and tools to help them achieve those goals.

Becky explains: “A lot of FMCG companies are working out: should we bring production expertise in-house? We believe the scope for efficiencies and synergies is huge.” 

As part of that journey with MCA, the company brought a team of production experts in-house, including recruiting BBDO Germany’s Steffen Gentis as global production director.

Steffen came up with virtual production as a large-scale solution that would enable the company to approach production more efficiently, by bundling productions, without sacrificing creativity.  ”The efficiencies of virtual production” argues Steffen, “are greatest when it’s used strategically and at scale.”

An Ambitious Pilot

Virtual production appeared, on paper, to be the answer to Reckitt’s needs - but to get global buy-in across the organisation, they needed to prove it for real. And so they decided to partner with Havas to run a pilot in France.

“It was all very theoretical… It’s one thing to put together a PowerPoint. It’s another thing to get something to leap off a slide into reality. And implementation is always the hardest part of it,” says Annie Lazarevski, global production director at Havas, who says that they soon decided on a ‘big meaty pilot’ in France where they could test and learn.

The creatives at Havas agency BETC Paris are known for their exacting standards, and so they represented the ultimate test of virtual production as a creative tool. Moreover, BETC agency producer Tanguy Dairaine already had experience of virtual production thanks to working on Citroën – the automotive sector has been one of the early adopters of the emerging tech.

OTO Film in Poland was brought on board to produce the campaigns. According to CEO and founder Jacek Kulczycki, he and his team had experience of bundling traditional productions and of shooting virtually – but this was the first time they’d been brought together. And the experience, he says, was revelatory. 

“This bundle was completely different because the creatives had all the freedom they wanted, and we were the tools, the craftsman, to help them to achieve the best possible result,” enthuses Jacek.

Ultimately, the pilot challenged preconceptions within the agency and client. 

“I initially believed that using virtual studios were purely for cost saving purposes,” said Stephanie Smith, global client partner at Havas, “Now having seen it with my own eyes, I realise the big creative potential this has. I thought it would limit creativity, but I now believe this will expand it.”

No Compromise on Creative

Elliot Harris, global executive creative director and creative partner at Havas, had no such preconceptions. “Quite the opposite. I think virtual productions will give creativity a chance to breathe again, to see more of what’s possible and the ability to tell stories that we may not have thought about yet.”
Benoit Buco, marketing director, France and Benelux for Hygiene at Reckitt, said the creative team immediately saw the seemingly limitless possibilities the tech presents and were like a ‘kid in a playground’. “They started to see creativity from a completely different angle.”

With Reckitt’s household products no longer visually limited to bathrooms and kitchens for practicality’s sake, there’s now a sense of endless possibilities. In the pilot, for example, a family was shrunk down to size, paddling through a giant, eerie drain with all the atmosphere of a Hollywood blockbuster.

“If I want to do laundry on the International Space Station, I can,” jokes Annie.

In terms of craft, Jacek says the lack of a green screen made a big difference for the actors’ performance. “They can look around to the LED wall and immediately see what we are shooting… It's amazing because they can act according to the set.”

For seasoned producers, the ability to reduce the unpredictability of filmmaking is also a boon.

“When you're making a film, it’s often a series of compromises because you have time limitations, and you're working with people, or working with animals, or with kids - you're working with situations that you cannot always completely control,” says Steffen. “The additional precision and control that we have in the virtual studio through being able to freeze time is a dream.”

Hidden Benefits

According to Jacek, there was another unexpected upside – safety and controlled working hours. 

“For the crew, the production was completely different because we started shooting at 8am and finished at 5pm. That was a very healthy production,” he says.

The pilot also revealed one other significant benefit - a dramatic reduction in the production’s carbon footprint, due to much less travelling. 

“Production on location is the heaviest [in terms of carbon] that needs to be impacted. For me, this is the sustainable future,” concludes Becky.

The Secret Ingredient: Trust 

Every truly innovative project requires a leap into the unknown - and to pull that off you need trust. Havas Worldwide has been an agency partner of Reckitt for just over two decades, and the Reckitt team say that the depth of understanding and mutual faith makes a huge difference.

“We know each other,” reflects Benoit. As a result, he said Reckitt engaged Havas on the idea very early in the process, to maintain trust and transparency and identify any challenges right away. He says the move has paid off: “Going forward, now once we know exactly what the benefits of this production model are, you cannot go back.”

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