What Do Production Companies Do?

October 20, 2016 /

By Rosalind Healy

A Client's View

They create value through creativity, productivity and innovation.


During my 14 years as a marketer and product innovator in the drinks industry (on brands like Smirnoff, Guinness and Baileys) our world has changed beyond recognition. Hardly surprising, then, that we are having this debate because ‘what production companies do’ for brands is necessarily changing too. Let me first outline my own experience in its starkest terms, then I’ll attempt to go deeper to unpick a more useful level of insight.

Until three or so years ago, the spine of most annual marketing plans I worked with was the big campaign film: a high quality, high cost film asset designed to build brand fame and inspire consumers’ love. An annual blockbuster, scripted for 90 or 60 seconds then adapted to shorter formats. I was privileged to be involved in many interesting, often complex shoots with brilliant directors and producers (a challenging week filming for Guinness in rural Lagos, led by the fearless Benito Montorio and outstanding team at Blink, is worthy of mention because it taught me the lengths to which a production company will go, and the risk they take on, in pursuit of their craft).

While I don’t claim that one size fits all brands, there are common themes emerging across the industry. Fewer brands are investing in a big campaign film every year. More brands are creating versatile content that prioritises reach and consistency as much as quality. For the festive peak period in 2016, Baileys (my marketing life for my last 4 years) will produce four unique campaign films for TV / OLV and multiple pieces of digital content, for less budget than we spent on one Baileys Christmas TV ad in 2012. Even my job title has changed – to be entirely beyond my mum’s comprehension – from ‘Global Marketing Director’ to ‘Global Content Creation Director’.

Many of you may recoil at what you perceive as more symptoms of a depressing new age... The devaluation of creativity and craft? Stripping out cost at the expense of quality? Quantity over quality? An unfairly competitive landscape open to anyone with an iPhone and a few thousand Instagram followers? And who invited this bloody philistine to contribute to the debate anyway? But please bear with me; I’m optimistic that this story has a happy ending for anyone invested in making it so.

It must be tempting to imagine clients and agencies rubbing their hands at cost saving or new business opportunities. But these outcomes reflect massive shifts in our worlds too, many of them painful. The nature of business is fundamentally altering, as established conventions are torn down, big companies disrupted overnight, and new opportunities for growth created. We’ve had to let go of some myths about brands – about how they grow – which had provided a false glow of security for many years. We’ve had to look hard at ourselves, our marketing beliefs, how we spend, how we make decisions. But if there’s anything I’ve learnt, it’s that the most difficult challenges to the status quo often precipitate the most exciting vision and innovation, and unleash opportunities previously undreamt of. Those that uncover insights, evolve and adapt will thrive.

So what insights from my world might help point the way?

Firstly, framing this debate as ‘advertising production’ or ‘content creation’ (yes mum, in spite of my job title), will produce answers that are unlikely to excite. We are in the business of creating value for brands – or, rather, value for consumers that we (brands) can convert to commercial sales and profit. And what constitutes ‘value’ for people, and how they derive it, is radically evolving. It is these underlying dynamics that need to be understood, however inconvenient, if any of our industries are to secure a bright future.

I would highlight three dynamics that are, in my view, having the biggest impact on what we do. They are redefining who we need to reach to drive growth, and how we reach them effectively. At face value, these trends may be perceived as a threat to the traditional role of production companies. But dig deeper – seek to understand, not fear – and we find valuable insights that point the way forwards for brands, agencies and production companies alike. Namely, that there are many opportunities to work in partnership to: i) Keep making the business case for high quality creative outputs; ii) Increase productivity (that is, impact vs effort – not to be mistaken for cost-cutting); iii) Innovate in a new landscape of culture and entertainment.

1: The age-old marketing tenet of brand ‘love’ or ‘loyalty’ has been discredited. Who we have to reach to drive growth are many millions of people who care a lot less than we thought. However, while reach and consistency are huge priorities, the need for quality creative is greater than ever.

For years marketing was fuelled by a belief in ‘brand loyalty’, i.e. attitudinal commitment to brands. Many companies used models that described consumer loyalty along a scale, from ‘adoration’ through to ‘rejection’. Professor Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow has been most influential in slaying this sacred cow (I’d also recommend Martin Weigl’s strategic provocations). Data from virtually any category proves that, on average, about half of a company’s sales and most of its growth, come from non-frequent users. In other words, growth comes from us reaching a lot more people who care a lot less about our brands. In the grand scheme of the wonderful, terrible, inspiring, shocking, busy lives of human beings, we barely register.
So why does this matter? Because for years, we worked together to create marketing that was designed to inspire greater loyalty amongst a core base of consumers and – so the theory went – increase frequency of consumption. We prioritised ‘differentiation’ vs category competitors and wrote briefs for films to make people fall deeper in love with our brands. Now the data suggests that advertising works because of its effect on memory and so it is often consistent use of brand assets that works better than creating new ones, i.e. for the vast majority of brands, putting an expensive new ad out every year is very inefficient. Add to that the evidence that growth comes from reaching many more people (who care less), and there is an inevitable pressure to get ‘more bang for buck’ and to prioritise ‘un-sexy’ marketing that has more direct impact on sales, i.e. making your product physically easier to buy to as many people as possible.

This is the emerging reality behind many marketing decisions today but it shouldn’t depress us, for there is huge opportunity as well as risk. We need brilliant creative outputs more than ever because without interesting, provocative, beautifully executed work, what chance do we have of the millions of people who are not paying attention to not only notice our brands, but be inspired to action? As Martin Weigl puts it: “Our task is not nurturing enthusiasm but overcoming indifference”, and that requires the stuff we put into the world to be extraordinary. Adequate won’t make our brands memorable. Adequate won’t drive reach, no matter how much media we buy. Adequate won’t drive growth so it won’t get the money to be made. Good news, surely.

I admit there is a risk some budget-holders might lose sight of the relative importance of creativity in the mix as they chase numbers to get reach. So we must keep building that case together: measure the impact of our work and the difference expert decisions can make in eliciting the right response from an audience. Write the case studies and quote them. Historically, perhaps, clients have paid less attention to the science of advertising effectiveness but, as agencies pore over IPA papers in pursuit of awards, so too now do clients as we increasingly have to prove return on investment for our marketing decisions.

2: Productivity is high on client agendas. It is a mistake to see this as cost cutting at the expense of quality or overall spend. It is about marketing efficiency and effectiveness – impact vs effort. Production companies are experts here so can be vital partners.

There can be very few clients who are not under pressure to meet productivity targets. For any healthy business, this will not be a matter of reducing spend per se, but delivering efficiencies that can be reinvested to drive growth. Of course new competitive and commercial pressures have precipitated this but, really, it is only what marketers have always been tasked to do. We are entrusted to invest millions of pounds to drive sales today and build brands that will still be here a century from now. That requires both creative judgement / flair and the kind of rigour in decision making that comes from data, analytics, and a solid grasp of commercial reality. 
Production companies are uniquely placed as partners because you make that bridge on a daily basis. You are bilingual in the languages of creativity and commerciality. Help us be efficient and focus on the things that create most value. Teach us how to save time (we know we are good at wasting it) and invest more wisely, and we will have more opportunity to expose consumers to great work, and to drive more profitable growth. Also, of course, be more efficient in how you package your own services and outputs. I’m not best placed to tell you how to do that but, as a client who has run between multiple buildings approving elements of a film in production, it seems clear that opportunities exist.

3: Finally, technology and the re-framing of our competitive landscape from ‘category’ to ‘culture and entertainment’ are driving the need for fast-paced innovation in how we reach people.

In looking beyond a core set of users within a narrow category of brands, our competitive landscape radically changes. Throw in a technological revolution and all bets are off. Where we once sought to stand out amongst ‘alcoholic drinks’ or even simply ‘gins’ or ‘vodkas’, we compete in the space of culture and entertainment. Decades-old conventions in how people socialise and consume are disappearing. Holistic trends, alternative thrills (do you vape?), the blurring of boundaries between social spaces. You’d be as likely to drink in a book shop, works-space, hairdressers, parking lot or garage in many markets around the world as you would a bar and the pop-up industry is now worth £2.1 billion to the UK economy. People are still going out but are as likely to be snaring a Zubat as they are a date, or heading to a Pokéstop as they are the corner shop (150 million Americans play games, four out of five homes have gaming devices). Digital ubiquity, e-commerce and location based services allows us to make or change plans in seconds or buy anything, anywhere with a thumb-click. In South Korea, more than one in 10 people now never visit a physical shop and 50% shop only on mobile (Mintnotion).

While it is true that TV is still an essential part of any media plan (we haven’t yet found a way of delivering mass scale reach without it), breakthroughs are coming and they are less and less driven by traditional media. Mobile, in particular and not just in South Korea (*checks phone*), will command a huge proportion of the content we need to reach people. That alone will require different production capabilities in terms of design, text, graphics, interactivity, gaming and technology to grab attention while consumers are socialising or shopping. It is just the kind of content I described being produced by brands like Baileys today (indulge me for pointing out Europe’s first social soap opera, ‘When Coffee Met Baileys’ on Instagram, produced by Mother and Indy8: one small example of the new style of efficient and innovative content that has contributed to the brand delivering +11% growth in the UK this year).

So here we all are, trying to figure out at breakneck pace how to distribute, sample, sell and communicate with all of those people who could care less and whose attention is more distracted and fragmented than ever. What an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime challenge that is. I cannot envisage the day when we won’t need to produce brilliant creative content that stirs a response, and to do so efficiently. But, increasingly, we will need to execute it via more innovative, interactive formats, versatile enough to trigger a response in many and varied places, be they real (product in hand) or virtual (click to purchase). It will require a new approach to production, a re-purposing of skills and the acquisition of new ones, the ability to recognise and develop the best talent working fluidly across multiple mediums. Above all, it will reward those who embrace change with vision, pace and enthusiasm with perhaps their greatest ever achievements.


Rosalind Healy is Portfolio Marketing Director, Europe at Guinness (formerly Global Content Creation Director at Baileys).

Comments (3)

  • Great article. Thanks. If content consumption has changed then content creation needs to change too. Otherwise how can brands ensure their message is not lost in today’s content soup. Big opportunity for Prod Co’s to make the most of this change by working with brands direct.

    by Nick Hajdu on 2016 10 25

  • Wow, what an insightful read, one of great hope and inspiration!  As a former production company, we find ourselves on this new rollercoaster of a journey and it is reassuring to know that from a clients perspective, this is not in vain.

    by Benjamin Dawson on 2016 11 10

  • There are a series of banks <a >mercury pos system</a> which currently put different credit cards at people’s disposal.

    by Clarence Padilla on 2019 05 22

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