The invisible art of producing

Making the space for making great work

Producers! If you’re working at an agency, you’ve probably come across them. You may even have a love/hate relationship with them, and/or wonder what the hell their purpose is.

When I joined Ueno as the second-ever producer a few months ago, I asked myself: What does it mean to be a producer here, an agency led by designers and developers? What value should I be bringing to both our clients and our team?

Answering this is crucial and timely, as producers are fairly new to Ueno. And I know all too well about the typical qualms designers and developers have with producer archetypes: Middle-Man Producer, Client Pleasing Producer, Party Pooping Producer, Redundant Producer, and worst of all, Clueless Producer.

Luckily, the way Ueno works internally has prevented me from falling into some traps that could have made me one of the above. Here, if you’re not in design or development, your role is to support those who are. That means that my main role is to remove obstacles before they get in our way, look down the road and organize, simplify, and reduce noise, so the rest of the team can stay focused on their work. Lorne Michaels put it perfectly:

“Producing is like an invisible art. If you’re any good at it, you leave no fingerprints.”

The way Ueno works with clients has also helped ground me. They’re our partners, not our taskmasters; we get to know them as human beings, we eat together, talk about our families and our weekends. “Dropping the veil” on what goes on within our walls has been both a terrifying and refreshing exercise for me. Briefs are ever-changing, projects turn on a dime, clients hop in and enjoy the ride, and hire us because we don’t go up “on a mountain” for weeks and come down pretending to have solved all their problems. We’re in this together with our clients, in a way that I’ve not felt before.

This way of working neatly prevents producers from becoming Middle-Man Producer, Client Pleasing Producer, Party Pooping Producer, and all the rest, because almost everyone on our team is exposed to project realities and challenges at the same level as I am. (Although I still have to be a party pooper from time to time. That’s just in my DNA.)

Imposters!

Still, the imposter syndrome is real! As a producer I push no pixels and have no code repos to share. What am I doing with all my time? What am I bringing to the table?

On a foundational level, I like to think that being a great producer is about Getting Shit Done. Obviously a good chunk of the day is spent on project documentation and sending endless emails. But being tactical all the time doesn’t make friends, and is only half of the equation. It’s important to remember that we’re asking humans to hurdle design and development challenges day after day with grace and tenacity. To reinvent what’s beautiful and what’s possible is a task in and of itself. Any obstacle, no matter how small — contract term, meeting conflict, hunger pang — should be anticipated and dealt with with care.

So, I’ve focused on being

  • Get Shit Done Producer

while also being

  • Loving Caring Producer

Loving your team and your clients means doing all of the things that clients don’t pay for so that your team can execute better on the things that clients do pay for. Showing up early with pastries, staying late to send a file, running an errand, remembering a birthday, rewarding a job well done, being a shoulder to cry on, or even transforming into a punching bag when necessary. All these small things add up and fill in the space that simply “Getting Shit Done” doesn’t cover.

A mentor of mine once said, “You are here to take out the trash, literally and figuratively.” I don’t take out the literal trash at Ueno, but what he said still holds true. When you clear out the trash (whatever can distract your team from the task at hand) there’s plenty of breathing room to make great things. Producing and Operations aren’t the sexiest parts of an agency. They may not directly result in beautiful case studies or awards on the shelf — Gantt Chart of the Year, anyone? But in a way they have our invisible fingerprints all over them, by way of happy teammates, satisfied clients, a growing business, and a whole lot of shit getting done in a loving environment.