What Do Production Companies Do?

November 5, 2016 /

By Steve Davies

The APA's View

They turn words on a page into a film.

That sounds simple, but it isn't. It certainly isn't simple to do it well - i.e. to bring the script alive in such a way as to maximise its potential impact for the advertiser.

Firstly this requires a crystal clear vision of what the film should be. I was going to say what the film should look like, but this isn't about the aesthetics of the film (though they may also be important), but what the story is and how it is told.

Secondly it requires the skill and knowledge to realise that vision. As with any creative endeavour, imagination is only a first step. After this comes the application of production expertise, and the success of this is measured by how closely the film matches the treatment, which is the physical embodiment of the production company and agency's joint vision, as signed off by the client.

By taking on a production by agreeing to make the treatment a reality, a production company provides a cast iron guarantee that the film will successfully realise that treatment, will be delivered on time and, with very limited exceptions, assumes the financial risk of it costing more than estimated or things going wrong.

In doing so, it accepts an extraordinary level of responsibility and risk, both of which would otherwise have to be assumed by the agency or client. No excuse permits a commercial to be delivered late or not to be as envisaged in the treatment. This is completely anomalous to the operating practice of almost any other industry. Imagine the building industry operating like that!

It also provides a vast range of expertise - from casting to the directing of performances, set design, wardrobe, locations, camera skills, time management, editing and visual effects. And all this against a backdrop of every minute costing money.

To do all of that, they draw on an array of different talents, from their own producers and director, to freelance crew whom they have built up relationships of trust with, and constantly manage and explain these processes to the agency, so that they can also retain an element of control as the production progresses.

A key member of the production company's team is its director, who has the principal responsibility of establishing the vision in the treatment, and a leading role as the guardian of that vision. However the role of the producer (as the person responsible for managing the production) is a creative one too. He or she is a sounding board for the director, a finder of the best solution for any scenario and often underestimated because of the heavy focus on directors.

For a film to make it from a piece of paper onto the screen might appear to be a kind of magic. However in reality it's about the detailed and forensic application of a wide range of skills and expertise, micro and macro. It's also about the fusion of the practical and the artistic. All these things take time and cost money to develop and nourish. They are integral to creating great advertising, and attempts to reduce the resources and time available to the production of the commercial will hamper the advertiser in its marketing objectives.

Look for example at the IPA’s excellent Effectiveness Awards, the biggest and best archive in the world of evidence of the best advertising in the world comparing cost to outcome. The awards are based upon a rigorous study of the payback for the advertiser from a campaign. Every Effectiveness Grand Prix winner and nearly all the winning entries each year have a commercial as a central part of that campaign. To take an example of the most recent Grand Prix winning campaign, adam&eveDDB’s campaign for Fosters, the study showed £32 of additional revenue was earned by Fosters for every £1 spent on advertising.

Fosters – or John Lewis, the winners of the previous grand prix – could have made cheaper commercials of course but they went for the best return for the best budget for the commercials required to earn that best return instead. And they were rewarded with outstanding success. Why would any advertiser – or any agency working for it – aim any lower?

In this era of cheap and effective technology, producing a commercial urgently has to be distinguished from filming something. Simply putting something on film requires none of the craft and storytelling skills described above. For that reason, it has none of the power and produces results that are not comparable.

It also has to be distinguished from ‘making something look nice’. I have often heard it said by or on behalf of an advertiser that they don't need a commercials production company because they don't need their film ‘to look glossy’. This is a fatal misunderstanding of what a production company does. It can make a commercial ‘look glossy’ if that is required but that isn’t the point of what it does.

It may seem amazing that with such a developed and successful industry for so many years, questions as basic as this one still need to be answered. However for much of the life of the advertising industry, the distinctions between storytelling and aesthetics, or craft skills and personal contacts, did not need to be made. It needs to be made in the current business environment where there is sometimes only a focus on cost, rather than value.

In purely superficial terms, the gap between 'amateur' or semi-professional filmmaking and what a production company offers is getting ever smaller because cheap film technology has never looked better. However when it comes to the real objective of advertising - to tell stories, deliver messages and change people's minds - this gap is wider now than it ever was.

Realising the script effectively creates a film that engages its intended audience. Surely that is the only sensible aim and starting point of any advertiser? Without it, even with all the planning, resources and media costs they incur in relation to their campaign, they are doomed to fall short of their marketing aims.


Steve Davies is Chief Executive at the APA.

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