The case for connecting creativity and production

Is it time for creatives to get more hands-on with digital production?

I’ve always found it frustrating when ad agency creatives hastily exit the room with a sneer when ‘it’s time to talk about money’, writes James Britton. Having shared their idea, they leave the producer to address the apparently dull subject of how much it will cost, and what it will take to deliver. It sums up a broken process where creative ideas are born and sold in isolation of production understanding. So much time and money is wasted on developing ideas that will never make it out the door.

There’s been lots of talk about the need for a shift in the traditional advertising agency model, and I’m arguing for a change in culture where creatives start to understand more about digital production. The tools are changing and technology presents a seemingly never-ending stream of new channels and platforms to deliver ideas. These days it’s pretty much impossible to detach the process of creativity from production.

The budget tends to translate directly to the resources available to deliver an idea, so to be dismissive of understanding costs seems absurd. If the idea involves technology then you need to be partly knowledgeable about how it will work, how long it will take, and (gasp) much it will cost. If you’re a demanding perfectionist, what better way to ensure (at least subjective) perfection by assuming control over more aspects of the production? You must be observant, and endlessly thoughtful of how things will actually get made. In almost every field within the arts, the creative visionary will have a deep understanding of the tools they use and will have the strongest of opinions on the production process and how money is spent. Kubrick is perhaps a grand example, but he remains the go-to reference for a creative visionary whose success was only possible because of his fanatical understanding of the production process. Even in the early days he considered himself ‘the whole crew’.

Budgets are getting smaller and less flexible, and schedules are getting shorter. Smart companies are adopting a lean, iterative approach to creative development and production, but this process demands that questions of cost vs value (and convenience vs quality) be asked frequently throughout the project, with the creative execution adapting over time. Often decisions about the execution can be made long in advance if the person with the idea has an understanding of production, i.e. what is and isn’t going to be possible within the ‘scope’ of a project.

It’s a positive loop: if the person with the idea understands how it will be made, it saves time and money, which means there’s more time and money to deliver the idea.

I’m also not a fan of the ‘digital creative’ title which has become more commonplace. This to me seems like an odd distinction to make in 2016. We’re approaching a time when individual roles are blurring into one, beyond the so-called ‘T-shaped’ individual towards confident all-rounders. Fearless talent is forming the next creative wave. This new generation are not only coming up with ideas, they have production know-how and a problem solving outlook, and will happily coalesce to make ideas happen.

One of the biggest joys of working with creatives who are interested in the digital production process is that everyone starts to develop a shared vocabulary. This puts your team at an advantage, as everyone can talk broadly but confidently about what is and isn’t possible based on available technology and resources (read: budget). For the last few years I’ve been working as part of a small group in partnership with the APA (Advertising Producers Association), with the aim of standardising a prescriptive framework for digital production. Inroads have been made, but even arriving at tacit best practice has been a challenge. The educational aspects inevitably still put emphasis on producers learning the basics, opposed to creatives — arguably skipping the positive loop I describe above. As an important aside, the producer should also be recognised as having a creative role in advertising. I don’t necessarily mean chiming-in with ideas at every given opportunity, but in cinema and music for example, the producer’s fingerprint is noticeable in the creative output. An excellent producer should be able to solve problems to deliver a project, but also have soft skills that can draw artistry out of a team. A producer impacts performance and performance impacts output.

So the creative and production processes need to come closer together. There needs to be more collaboration in solving production challenges as part of the creative process. If we can get the balance right, then more money will be saved, less time will be wasted, and more great ideas will see the light of day.

James Britton is a Managing Partner at Stinkdigital. This article originally appeared in Creative Review on February 4th, 2016. Illustration credit: Leillo