What Do Production Companies Do?

October 27, 2016 /

By Laurence Green

An Agency's View

They build brands.

I’m a creative agency leader, though I took the road less travelled. I’m an account planner turned leader, a rare species. (Account men like to lead. Especially the account men who are men: it’s in their genes. And so most creative agency leaders spring disproportionately from their ranks.)

And because planners get involved at the front end of the creative development process, skip the messy middle bit and re-engage at the back end, I’m probably one of the least well-placed people in adland to answer the question, “What do production companies do?”

Sure, I’ve been the strategic midwife as several great ideas have been born… but rarely seen them through to the production sharp end. I didn’t go to the Skoda ‘Cake’ shoot. I didn’t go on the Cadbury ‘Gorilla’ production journey. I didn’t spend a few days in sun-drenched San Francisco on the Sony ‘Balls’ shoot. (I know, I know.)

Then again, maybe that distance means I am one of the better-placed people in adland to offer a perspective on what production companies do. Because while I don’t know what you technically do, I do know what you actually do.

“In the factory we make cosmetics. In the stores we sell hope.”

Charles Revlon’s famous dictum still pops up reliably in planning Powerpoint. Legendary marketing professor Theodore Levitt’s variant, “People don’t want a quarter inch drill, they want a quarter inch hole”, runs it close in service of much the same point: that results are the things to work back from, and not necessarily products and features. They remind us to wear a consumer hat when we think about what we do, of what market we’re really in.

For all the recent fog in our world, I believe creative agencies are not in ‘the advertising market’ – or, worse, the content business – but rather the time-honoured business of building clients’ brands (and thus profits).

A stronger brand is our clients’ ‘quarter inch hole’, the outcome they seek, since brands deliver not just short-term sales spikes when they advertise but a flow of future revenues as our partiality to them endures.

It’s a truth that has echoed down the post-industrial ages. Indeed, over a hundred years ago, John Stuart, then Chairman of Quaker Oats, reasoned: “If this business were to be split up, I would be glad to take the brands, trademarks and goodwill and you could have all the bricks and mortar - and I would fare better than you.” He’s been proved right ever since, as even the sceptics have been won over by branded companies’ superior returns and valuations (Deutsche Bank the latest to board the brand gravy train.)

And because short-form film is our best friend when we go about building our clients’ brands (counter to rumour, TV remains the pre-eminent brandbuilding medium, this thanks to its unparalleled reach and ability to stir the emotions, the wellspring of brand goodwill) I believe commercial production companies remain critical running mates for agencies in that endeavour.

So what do production companies do? The same as creative agencies: they don’t make adverts, they build brands.

Perhaps you think I am being too generous? That as a planner I should be more circumspect about the value production adds compared to the mighty contribution of the strategist? Value the message more than the messenger? I think not.

The best planners inspect not just their results but others’ also, and so see the effectiveness contribution that great film makes. And the evidence is actually becoming more pronounced, not less, that great ideas given brilliant expression massively outperform less distinctive or engaging work.

(As L’Oreal might say, here’s the science bit.)

No lesser body than the world’s leading marketing science practice, Australia’s Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, has recently proposed that the most effective advertising copy works between ten and even twenty times harder than the least effective. 

Our very own IPA’s peerless Databank proves it is fame and emotional appeal - typically the fruits of what we shorthand as ‘creativity’ - that drive that superior return on an advertiser’s hard-earned cash.

And better work doesn’t just drive higher purchase intent. It also impacts on the price people are prepared to pay for your product (and, in time, on the price they actually pay).

According to Ameritest, one of North America’s biggest pre-testing companies (no, really), a pool of 11 different Tylenol commercials not only demonstrated significant differences in claimed purchase intent for this relatively prosaic product, but an 18% swing in price expectation also.

The authors of that report conclude: “What is interesting is that it is not just the rational features and benefits being communicated that drives price expectations. In fact, the rational statements that the message was important or that the viewer learned something new are less strongly correlated to price expectations than the statements that address the emotional component of the advertising. Having an involving story and ads that are worth telling friends about boost price perceptions. A commercial that is boring and ordinary will cost you.”

This, then, is what production companies do. They expertly realise creative visions that - in the words of Richard Flintham, my running mate for 18 years - “could still be shit” in order to create superior advertising effects and stronger brands for our clients.

I may of course have overstated my ignorance of the modus operandi of the production company earlier.

I know that Chris Palmer and Gorgeous employed the skills of the Royal College of Icing (seriously, who knew?) to build a replica Fabia from marzipan, liquorice, jelly, Cadbury’s Flakes and Lyle’s Golden Syrup before the studio lights melted it all.

I know that Juan Cabral and Blink undertook what by anyone else’s standards was an insane pre-production expedition to find exactly the right gorilla suit.

And I know that Nikolai Fuglsig and MJZ were buying up pretty much every coloured ball they could lay their hands on in the days before the ‘Balls’ shoot in a steadfast refusal to add more in post.

These are the production stories that reach even the planner’s desk. But they are not in themselves the point.

Gorgeous made a commercial that endeared a problematic brand to millions, moved Julie Andrews’ estate to release ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ for commercial use for the first time (the night before we played out as it happens; squeaky bum time) and was even named Autocar’s Ad of the Year.

Juan and Blink combined to make British advertising‘s first mass market viral, a commercial that is still being talked about and spoofed today, and which resurrected Phil Collins’ ailing career (sorry about that).

Nikolai and MJZ broke the very mould everyone else was working to. Uploaded by onlookers to Flikr as the cameras turned, ‘Balls’ turned advertising into event, arguably the first commercial to properly mine the then nascent social media.

More importantly, of course, Skoda enjoyed record sales for a relatively incremental model; brand leader Cadbury sales spiked an improbable 9%; and Sony had to take their commercial off air while they built another factory to satisfy demand.

It wasn’t the messages we sent from the manufacturer that created those effects, it was the impression we created on their behalf in our audience’s heads and hearts. Impressions (lasting ones, as it happens) that sprung ambiguously from brave ideas, shared visions and ambitious execution.

The best production companies keep agencies and their clients honest because they work unapologetically back from the audience rather than forward from the brief. In doing so, they help advertisers to the disproportionate effects that many of them crave and that all of them should.


Laurence Green is a Founding Partner at 101.

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