We explore the first steps of a lean, keen, creative machine.
Image from Georgi Banks-Davies' recent American Garden commercial, Let's Savour Life.
Commercial budgets are never big enough. That’s a fundamental law of physics, and you’ll never hear a Producer say otherwise. That said, it’s pretty obvious that the advertising production industry is not in a financial golden age right now.
Luke Jacobs is no creaky old fart, but he’s been in the industry just long enough to remember a period of comparatively halcyon days. “I cut my teeth back in the days where you’d shoot £300,000 commercials in London with a top director and then maybe some stuff on the side,” he remembers. “It seemed very glamorous – everyone buying expensive cars and houses.”
That was when he started as a Runner in the mid to late 90s. Now Managing Director of FRIEND, he also has the time he spent producing at Rokkit and Stink in between to thank for letting him work on some truly lavish jobs that ran into the millions.
It was also during those pre-recession days that he learned the potential that those kinds of numbers hold and he still yearns to work on those really huge jobs. “What happened to the event ads?” he asks, puzzled. “In this age of social, if you spend like £1 million on some amazing project like the old Guinness commercials it’ll get shared.”
But Luke’s not living in a fantasy world. Budgets have shrunk significantly in recent years and he’s is all too aware. In the autumn of 2011 he started FRIEND – a production company that he would have to build from the ground up. And he built it to fit this new landscape.
He’s quick to point out that big budgets aren’t dead. There’s still a lot of money being pumped into some top-level projects, he observes, but new companies like FRIEND don’t usually get to go anywhere near those jobs. The top companies with the star directors hoover those scripts up. The problem is that the mid-level productions are where the financial bite has been felt, and this is where a FRIEND-sized company wants to work.
Another main consideration when Luke was setting up was the distribution of power in the industry. “I think someone put the clients in control over the past three years,” he says. “They’re not making decisions on more ambitious scripts or even, at the lower end, signing off something a bit risky that could be interesting. Recently things have been very focus-grouped and client-led, rather than agencies doing what they do best and saying ‘this is what’s going to work.’”
Owing to these factors, mid-level production companies have had to make compromises on what’s important to them. The exciting, creative scripts weren’t coming in as often, but established companies had bills to pay and employees to support, so they were forced to work with what they were given.
This wasn’t a solution Luke was prepared to try when starting his new venture. As a producer who loves great filmmaking, you can see why he didn’t want to be grinding away on scripts that would end up as, at best, polished turds.
Keeping it lean
FRIEND’s set up is designed to create financial breathing space so that they can stay creative while times are tough. “Everything we did was to keep costs as low as possible,” says Luke. To achieve this, he built a tight, flexible team of only five full-time staff, made their home in relatively cheap space and made use of freelancers to pick up any slack. “You don’t have to do that many projects and that means you can concentrate on things that are a bit more creative,” he says. “Although you’ve got smaller margins you’ve still got a business that works.”
And with technology simplifying so many jobs, it’s possible to run a production company on a skeleton crew. The way we work now, Luke explains, we live in a world where accounts are outsourced and freelance producers are available. You don’t even need so many runners. “When I was a runner I had to drop tapes off at agencies, then when I came back I made everyone tea and answered phones,” he says. “You don’t need that shit anymore. The phone doesn’t ring that much because people are emailing, texting or ringing someone’s mobile. You don’t need to drop showreels off – you just send them as links. You can make your own tea.”
Running a thrifty production company fits Luke’s ideology. He’s not in it for the money, which is lucky because getting filthy rich off production is no longer a thing. “I think when people started production companies ten years ago it was because they thought if they got it right they could coin it in,” he suggests, “whereas now I think if you love the industry you set up a production company and the money’s secondary.”
In Luke’s opinion, as long as overheads are covered and everyone gets paid their dues, FRIEND’s focus is doing the best creative work. Georgi Banks-Davies, a director who’s been on their roster since the start, can vouch for that. “It definitely feels like it’s about filmmakers and not so much about making money,” she says. “When I’m on an ad with them it’s not about bringing it in and making X amount on the budget. It’s about bringing it in right. And as long as everyone’s getting paid, that’s what matters. The vibe is: as long as it’s a viable business, let’s put the creativity first.”
With so many existing companies struggling to make ends meet, it’s natural that many have been forced into to doing less interesting work in order to pay the bills, so FRIEND’s uncompromising focus on creativity over money is either brave or stupid. Georgi doesn’t see any other way they could have done it. “In the climate right now, the only way you stick out is to be creative,” she says.
Directors are people too
This philosophy translates into how FRIEND see their directors, i.e. as people – not commodities. Luke insists there was no shopping list when they were building the roster. Rather than working out what sort of commercials were covered by the collection of directors he had, Luke went for something a little more touchy-feely and signed them on the basis of their creative vision.
If Luke and Georgi are to be believed, the directors are of a similar mindset. They’re not about making stacks of cash, so they’d rather work on creatively fulfilling projects than racking up shoot days on uninspiring stuff. Georgi recalls working on a big kids spot once. “The agency were happy. Everything was great,” she says. “But it was interesting because we sat down afterwards and said ‘that’s cool. Now do we want to make loads of money or do I do what I want to do as a filmmaker?’” They decided not to put a perfectly good spot on her reel because Georgi didn’t want to be typecast as a kids director. “They figure out exactly what you want to do, how you want to be, and they help you to make that work,” she says.
And when you see ratio of music videos to commercials on their reel it shows. Refreshingly, FRIEND believe in and support promo work. “We don’t make any money on videos,” admits Luke, but for him that’s no reason to avoid them. “It’s a great playground for trying out ideas, and they’re also director-led in an industry where nowadays so much is circumscribed by what the client wants or the agency are trying to dumb down.”
As they approach their second birthday, FRIEND have made an impressive impact on the industry. It was hard at first, Luke remembers, as the trust he’d gained over years working at Rokkit didn’t transfer quite as well as he’d hoped. “It was a real start from scratch,” he says. But they’ve got to the stage now where the repeat business is coming in and they have a reputation of their own.
That reputation comes from their dogged dedication to creativity, Georgi is sure. In fact, one thing she’s noticed it manifesting itself as is an aura of cool. “I think it’s getting this vibe as maybe being a little bit hip,” she ponders. “I exclude myself from this wholeheartedly, but they’ve got some directors who are clearly incredible, out there and when they approach something it’s really different.”
Of course, you can’t try to be cool, and the minute you use the c-word to refer to yourself the illusion is broken, so Luke admits to no such thing, but their output speaks for itself. After just over a year in existence they picked up two Music Video Awards and they’ve followed that with gongs from D&AD and even a Cannes Lion.
They’re on their way, but they haven’t arrived yet, as Luke’s willing to admit. “We’re still waiting for that commercial that we really think is a fantastic project that’s gone global and everyone’s looking at,” he says. He’s ambitious about FRIEND growing over the coming years, but would rather that growth is in status than in size. As much as he respects the big players, he doesn’t want his boutique company to become a behemoth.
Luke’s proud that, as a young company FRIEND has got that start-up edge. “It’s exciting to feel like you’re in a new company,” he says. “I don’t want to lose that vibe because it keeps you on your toes. That’s what we’re trying to bottle and work off the back of.” FRIEND want to stay forever young while their reel grows. And if they manage that, they’re destined to be quite a force.