When will what passes for “normal” return? When will agencies be able to mount more traditional shoots? How does one make up for the missing synergy of the edit suite? And who’s missing lunch?
These were some of the questions kicked around by the six Chicago agency executives from the creative and production ranks who took part in a recent Zoom panel discussion titled “A Look Forward: Agency, Production and Post.” Hosted by AICP Midwest, the event took place on Thursday, May 14. It was co-moderated by Lisa Masseur, executive producer of Tessa Films, president of the AICP Midwest Chapter and a member of AICP’s National Board, and Craig Duncan, managing director of Cutters Studios and an AICP National Board member. Participating were Melissa Barany, executive producer, VMLY&R; Kurt Fries, chief creative officer, Dentsu Mcgarrybowen; Keith Jamerson, executive producer, DDB; Gayle McCormick, executive producer, Ogilvy; Steve Ross, head of production, Allstate; and Christine Saldanha, creative director, Burrell Communications. (To view a recording of the panel, click here.)
The conversation was a free-flowing exchange of viewpoints and insights, almost all of which focused on how agencies have been meeting client needs during this pandemic and what everyone is expecting in the short term future as businesses open and production and post starts to pick up.
A lot of this, noted Fries, will depend on the clients themselves, some of which have been devastated by the shutdowns while others have thrived. When it comes to resuming work on a broader scale, “some will lead, others will follow, but all of them are putting safety as the number one priority.”
If anything, the pandemic has proven to be “the great equalizer” in term of how everyone’s working, said Saldanha. “Clients are working the way we are, and we’re all in the same boat.” And while people may be logging in from their kitchen tables, she likened the pace to working in a newsroom: “The deadlines are different now; things have to get out like that day.”
Several panelists commented on the closer connections they’re making with clients. “We’re farther apart, but in each other’s homes, too,” said VMLY&R’s Barany. Added Fries, “When you see how people live, it can deepen your relationship.” A result is that “we’re seeing more leeway, more opportunity to try and tackle problems together.”
Generally, everyone felt that the industry is in a “crawling back” mode, as Ogilvy’s McCormick put it. It’s a slow process, she added, “and clients are understanding. Their expectations have been realistic.” That said, there will be a huge job educating them on what production may look like once it begins to return, with smaller crews, more social distancing, more sanitization, etc. Barany cited the recent publication of the AICP’s Workplace Guidelines, which she described as “thorough,” adding that there will need to be discussions as to how this will unfold in real terms.
Regarding working in post, Duncan pointed out that the swift transition to working remotely has gone better than most people expected, based on his experience at Cutters and what he’s been hearing from his peers. He asked the panel if they could see themselves going back into post facilities? The answer uniformly was yes.
“It’s been going great,” Fries said of doing post in a WFH environment, adding that the companies they’ve been working with “have made it a priority to not drop any balls or miss any deadlines. We haven’t had a hiccup.
“But I personally miss the scrum,” he continued. “I miss getting in there and hearing about this option or that option, because those things can’t happen as much virtually. It feels like we’re ordering food versus being in the kitchen. I miss the opportunity to get in there and create with people I trust and respect. As soon as it’s safe to go back in, we’ll be there.”
Burrell’s Saldanha agreed. “I’ve got cell phone numbers I never had before,” she said about swapping calls and texts with editors after hours. “But I can’t wait to be back where we’re all in the same room, because that’s what creativity and collaboration is all about. I miss going to the editing houses, and I miss lunch!”
DDB’s Jamerson chimed in too, noting that the synergy of an experienced post/agency relationship isn’t that difficult to tap into when you’ve got people who’ve worked together a lot in the past. “But I miss the discovery of postproduction, of meeting and working with new people,” he added, noting that reaching the same level of shorthand can be hard to do via Zoom. And McCormick noted that working remotely can “impact those happy accidents that can occur when you’re in the room.”
Several notable recent campaigns were dissected, with Saldanha describing her agency’s work on the COVID-19 “Black is Human” PSA featuring the Detroit Transit Authority bus driver Jason Hargrove, who posted his own warning about the virus only to succumb to it days later, while Jamerson shared details of DDB’s “America Could Use a Beer” campaign for Coors.
Duncan raised the question of how independent post companies can compete in this environment, where schedules are so rushed and budgets tight, with agency in-house departments. McCormick replied that it’s a complex issue, “but what our post partners have always offered is a diversity of talent, and that can’t be replicated. If you want an answer, just stay that course. You’re all super-service oriented, and that’s appreciated.”
Fries added that he’s not a fan of mandating that his creatives work in-house, and that in-house “has to earn it, the same as independent companies.” He went on to note that independent companies need to show what they can bring to the party, and during this pandemic “you’ve done just that.”
Masseur asked the panel if they’re seeing changes in briefs from clients, noting how “we’re all getting past the COVID nesting spots.” McCormack noted that one thing was sure: that while ideas are still what’s important, “executions are going to continue to be stripped down for a while, and clients are asking for that.”
Fries added that he’s seeing a lot more advance planning on how to approach messages. “Everything has to be looked at through the lens of today,” he noted, as conditions and prevailing moods seem to be changing quickly. Barany said that as things begin to start feeling more normal, brands will need to strike the right balance in their messaging--between how they might have communicated before and what they need to say now. “And that balance will reflect itself in the work,” she added.
Moving forward, the panel suggested that education will be needed for clients to fully understand what it will take to get work out the door. Budgets will be impacted, as will schedules, “and ROI discussions are going to factor more into this than in the past,” said Jamerson. Added Barany, “We’ve been pointing out that this is a learn-as-you-go thing,” with McCormick noting, “even our contingency plans have contingency plans!”
Summing up, Jamerson cited the sense of uncertainty that’s enveloped the world in this pandemic era, and how as a producer--one who’s always felt he knew how to solve any knotty problem that came along--he’s had to adjust how he works. “With the day to day changes that are taking place, it’s been a real shift in style. You’re always asking, ‘hey, what can we do and what can’t we do?’ It means we’re all going to have to be working much more closely with our production partners every step of the way.”
Asked to comment about the panel, Masseur said that forging closer relationships is something companies in the Midwest chapter have always placed a high value on doing. “As Keith said, clients and brands need their agency partners now more than ever.” As AICP Midwest members and associates, we’ve been helping many agencies and clients. Yes, it’s true our shoots now may be remote ones, or smaller/safer ones taking place in directors’ homes. And yes, maybe some post budgets aren’t what we hope they’d be. But we’re starting to see that states are opening up, and the ability to secure film permits will be following shortly.
“As a group, our AICP Midwest production and post companies are already helping many agencies and Brands to move forward during this time,” she continued. “And we’ll continue to be here to push work forward, to get out on sets and get back in post houses safely. We are all in this crawl back to normalcy together, and this discussion was simply the first as we continue to share our experiences and work together to help brands, and thus our economy, get back on track.”