Could This Be the Moment for In-House Production?

The documentary film Art & Copy begins by describing the radical step taken by Bill Bernbach in the late ’50s of merging the art and copy departments, forming the creative teams that became the basis for advertising creativity for the next 50 years. Could we now be at the beginning of another revolution? Should agencies consider the radical step of adding directors to their creative departments? At least one agency, Mother, New York, thinks so.

We’ve moved from a world where 30 seconds of content costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce, to a digital space where distribution allows for unlimited amounts of content. The economics of production will no longer work unless the business model lowers costs significantly while retaining sufficient quality. Until now, technical complexity, expense and a dearth of directing talent prevented agencies from offering effective in-house production. Now, with film schools disgorging talented film and video makers by the thousands and with inexpensive hardware and software available off the shelf, those barriers to entry have vanished. 

As many have noted, the TV spot, which for so long had been the central component of most large, national campaigns, is now just one part of a larger, more complex mix of traditional and digital disciplines. Producing video for the digital space does not provide the same level of comfort and predictability as found in the typical 30-second TV production. Agencies begging production companies to work for free or to “develop some young director’s reel” was never a sustainable business model, and the strains of the current economy have exacerbated that issue to the breaking point.

As micro budgets become the norm, agencies will come to appreciate how low-cost, in-house production enhances their creative product. The tight feedback loops that the Internet offers will enable creatives to develop and refine these low-cost concepts without the pressures of the meter ticking on a typical six-figure, production company TV shoot.

The constant beta state of the digital world will enable agency creatives to develop ideas, both large and small. It’s one thing to have to discard an ineffective $750,000 spot; it’s altogether another for an agency and client to develop a series of micro-budgeted spots and videos that may evolve into a precisely targeted, multi-million dollar, traditional campaign.

This is not to suggest that the typical A-list director is doomed to extinction. Neither is the B-list grinder who churns out packaged-goods spots. As long as such DVR-proof events as the Emmys, the Oscars and the National Football League are around, directors working through production companies will continue to turn out traditional broadcast and cable spots.

What production companies lose in no longer struggling to produce such razor-thin margined projects, they will gain back as agencies become talent incubators for tomorrow’s A-list. Many of today’s top directors, such as Tom Kuntz and Brian Beletic, rose through a similar incubator environment in the promotions/graphics department at MTV in the late ’90s.

It may be necessary for agencies to restructure production departments. Most traditional agency producers do not have the skill sets required. They have functioned as buyers of production services while never having done the work to provide physical production with all its attendant risks. Directors, editors and producers will have to be nurtured, just as agency creatives have been for years. It’s possible that an entirely new breed of creative (let’s call them “predators”) — video directors who produce, shoot and edit their work as well as generate the concepts — will emerge. We’re seeing many prototypes on YouTube today.

Back to the revolution. Mother has launched Mother Productions, an in-house production division of the forward-thinking New York/London-based agency. In a press statement, Mike Aaron, a Mother producer, explained, “We simply can’t expect that every underfunded project we bring, on bent knee, to an outside production partner can be properly executed. So, as we began to look inward and self-produced a number of these projects over the past year, we found other efficiencies in the process aside from the obvious financial ones.”

In-house production is a concept that has been bandied about with varying degrees of success and controversy for decades. With agencies looking to capture new revenue, could it be that in-house production is an idea whose time has finally come? If so, the revolution may not be televised, but you’ll find it online.

Steve Shore is founder and executive producer of Public Domain. He can be reached at steve@publicdomainny.com.