The End of Agency vs Production

Laura Cortes
Feb 17, 2016 · 6 min read

How Digital & Film Production Studios are moving towards direct client and in-house strategy and on the other side how Ad Agencies are building in-house production teams.

Two years have passed since I started working at UNIT9 — a hybrid production and innovation studio based in Shoreditch, London. In the course of these two years I had the chance to work for brands like Emirates, Samsung, 20th Century Fox, and pitch for agencies like BBDO, Saatchi & Saatchi, Wieden & Kennedy or Leo Burnett.

Our timelines and deadlines are always crazy and the pressure is high. At production companies people often complain about not having enough time to think and brainstorm, and even to question and challenge the brief.

It seems the precious time is spent on the agency side, and then — because we are at the end of the pipeline — production companies have to rush to deliver complex websites, installations, in the few months left to the launch date.

But I am sure that’s not the case — I realise the process is quite complicated, and agencies don’t go out wasting time and money. It’s a long process to sell an idea to a client, specially when talking about 6 or even 9 zeros budgets, and I can’t even begin to imagine what it takes, for example, to sell VR technology before everyone started doing it, to a brand like Ford.

So in order to remain on top of the game, and because it does require a very specific set of skills and knowledge, agencies turn to production companies to deliver digital and innovative websites, installations, apps, VR, etc.

We are asked to do things from image recognition to detect a dog’s breed, an installation using sensors and lights that react to people’s presence and sound, to a 3D Earth globe that needs to work smoothly and be interactive on mobile browser.

We set out to create the best experience providing UX, Art Direction and obviously development. The creative direction is usually overseen by the agency side, that works closely with creatives like me and a producer to manage the process on our side. When this works, we create magic.

But when the process is broken it’s our worst nightmare. I could write an entire article about things that go wrong, and how we can predict them at the RFP stage. Abstract briefs, no budget, no detailed strategy — the list goes on and on. Although these points are indicative of a disastrous to come production, some times, but very rarely they can also be a hidden gem. A chance to create something truly collaborative and from scratch with the agency creatives, or even, take the lead? That would be the dream!

However it’s not so often I have access to the first stage of ideation, direct contact with final clients/brands or input on strategy.

This is WHY agencies and production houses are moving towards a death sentence.

And now you ask: what does she know about this, with just 5 years of experience and even less in the production industry.

I read, talk, and most of all I listen.

A new report from the Society of Digital Agencies, a network for marketing professionals, found that the share of brands claiming that they don’t work with any agencies at all doubled this year, to 27 percent. The research, by eConsultancy, found that more brands are bringing creative and digital efforts in-house, bypassing agencies and working directly with production company partners.

I have heard founders, partners, heads, MD’s all saying the same. And it’s not just at UNIT9. Shoreditch it’s a very small place. So it’s our industry.

I first started noticing the change about a year ago, when a massive, corporate science institute, approached UNIT9 to pitch for the redesign, rebuild, re-everything of their website.

At first we doubted the client knew we were a production house and not an Ad Agency.

Well we were so wrong. The client knew everything, they studied us to the detail before selecting 3 companies to pitch.

They first went to FWA site to see who had more awards. Then selected 100 companies and applied a “where would you like to work” filter and asked around industry professionals to select their top places.

Out of this process, 10 companies were selected, and presented in front of the board — all they did was play the demo reel. UNIT9 was one of the selected.

Today it’s a reality — we are being approached more and more by direct clients. I have no access to exact numbers — but if I had to guess I would say about 70% of our work still comes from an agency RFP , but the other 30% is coming directly from brands, universities, institutes, etc.

On the other hand, it just takes a quick look at recruitment sites to see that places like R/GA or Huge are hiring creative technologists, UX designers, motion designers, and other “production type” professionals.

So where do we all stand. In my point of view — the void.

For now it’s still uncertain where this is all going. Places like TBWA, DDB, are not going to become full production houses in the next few years. The complex relationships held between the Ad monsters and brands prevent production houses to gain access to big picture. Campaigns are much bigger and encompass TV spots, print, media buy, and other channels that digital production companies don’t and are not interested in taking part of.

Small families like Stink, MediaMonks, UNIT9, Tool, are almost like a distant cousin who’s not invited for most parties, except the occasional wedding.

But the fact is, TV, print and media buy are becoming powerless channels comparing to Youtube, Netflix, Twitter and Facebook.

Users consume information online, on these channels, and digital production companies are specialised in creating integrated campaigns and experiences using tools provided by the same platforms.

In addition users want a personal, bespoke and intimate experience when exploring the web — the perfect example is what Google and Facebook are doing by providing personal messaging and specific results depending on the user’s behaviours/history/personal data.

Digital production tech leads and creatives are experts in understanding how to use existing API’s, open source libraries and any other type of algorithms to create engaging and social experiences.

In the end Agencies need Production studios and we need agencies. Or better, we need the professionals from both worlds to work together in a complementary process.

The ideal company would hire an account manager from the agency world to do client relationship, and a strategist who would put together a strategy plan to brief the digital creatives.

The creative team should always include two people, one from the “agency” world and one from “production” to brainstorm together and achieve the concept. UX and Art directors would be included in the brainstorm process and once the concept was shaped production would start.

One role that we are missing on the production side would be a Copywriter. Someone to work with the Strategist and Creatives to conceive the tone of voice and copy for the project.

Tech leads from production overseeing a senior/junior dev team and finally a QA team.

And finally a “Production” Producer running the show.

It’s pointless to say the diagram above is very simplified and it only applies to websites production.

Depending of the project teams should grow adding other professionals like game designers, story-boarders, motion designers, illustrators, sound designers, 3D designers, editors, product designers, and so on.

Anyway, in my view this comes to close to the dream team.

And like Claire Beale states in her article — Production companies sit at the sharp end of change — for Campaign Live:

All this leaves production companies in an interesting place. The smartest are bringing in the strategic and broad creative skills traditionally found in ad agencies, embracing the content bandwagon and actively seeking more direct client relationships. There’s a lifeline here for those canny enough to grab it. But it puts a further wedge between production and advertising creativity. And it becomes harder to see how ads like those in our feature will get made in this new future.

The article refers specifically to TV commercials, while my point of view is focusing on digital projects — but it all comes down to the same goal: delivering high quality creative ideas and production efficiency.

We all want the same, at least on a creative/production level, so the question is who is up for it, for changing the process and culture, and who is still tied to the old idea Mad Men world and will create barriers for this model to work.

I am optimistic the ones wanting collaboration are bigger in number than the control freaks and ownership fanatics and hopefully in a few years the topic will change to “remember when there were things called ad agencies and production studios?”

Laura Cortes

Written by

Immersive Storytelling and Creative Technology Director. Former Head of Digital @ Warner Brothers Records UK. Lisbon London.