Saturday, June 09, 2001

From Senior Producer to Creative Producer

The entertainment and advertising industries are both populated with many kinds of people possessing different skill sets, specialties and methodologies, and all of whom wear the title PRODUCER. Depending on their career development, most have learned some degree of project management skills. It would be difficult, I imagine, to actually begin producing a project without knowing how to manage time, budget, resources and personnel. But at the one end of the spectrum we have producers whose skill set parallels ACCOUNT or BUSINESS MANAGEMENT; and on the other end we have ARTISTS whose skill set is limited to the creative process.

The former excel at managing clients and sometimes process, but do not necessarily influence the client’s opinion or the compositional outcome. The latter are adept at conception and creative development, but may not fully grasp how to integrate a marketing initiative into the work, much less a brand mandate.

In my own development I sought to straddle the fence: I wanted to be more than an Account Executive or a Project Manager. The earliest and nearest role models available to me were Advertising Agency Producers. Most were a cross between a road manager and a business manager, but the ones I most admired were also the de facto Creative Directors for the projects they managed. They may not have defined either the brand message or initiated any specific commercial storyline, but they were masters at maximizing both marketing and entertainment value from any given project, and once focusing a creative strategy, assumed an executive leadership role in the subsequent production.

How was I going achieve that measure of influence for myself?

Well, as music producer, I was often the first contact from the agency for a commission. And as it happened, whenever an agency rep called, they often wanted to know my initial gut instinct regarding what kind musical score the ad deserved, if only to understand how I was going to develop an estimate. I immediately understood if I could define the creative direction at this stage, I would be in front of the project from conception to final delivery.

In the early days I took these calls with our superb Creative Director, Alexander Lasarenko, and at the time I always deferred to his expertise. But on the occasions when he wasn’t available, or perhaps when he was testing me, I would find myself alone on the call with the client and the direction was  left to my sole discretion. In the beginning I winged it, and to be honest, half the time I was frightened. And as you can imagine I didn’t always bat a hundred.

However, eventually my ear and eyes connected and I became an expert at concepting interesting creative directions –based on initial preproduction storyboard review– that both enhanced the story, and/or fulfilled the marketing solutions required by the project at hand (Later I would also develop an understanding of how to incorporate brand message into the work).

Many times a producer, composer or sound designer's first exposure to a project is when it actually arrives as rough video. On some occasions, however, the client will present you with storyboards, a graphic mock up of how the commercial will be shot. Choosing a direction for scoring is actually easier with a rough cut than with no cut, but I actually developed a preference for developing direction before any film or video was shot.

I realized that if I really wanted to get in front of the ball, I needed to define direction, and if I had the resources, deliver a temp track or synth sketches at the storyboard stage. Because by doing so I discovered I could influence not just the sound direction, but how the final commercial was going to be shot to some degree, and certainly how it was edited.

That's a lot of power for a music guy: The client may only be paying you five or ten percent of the his or her overall production budget, but by defining audio direction and delivering a temp track or sketch before the shoot, you've just put yourself in the position of influencing the entire project, and therefore every dollar spent on its development. By the time the first edit is sent your way, not only are you basically done with the heavy lifting, but the client should give you a 'director' credit, too (I wish!).

Later, after I left Elias, I had a two year string of amazing successes with another company when it seemed like every idea I pitched went straight to air without revision.

You can bet that much of that success came not just from my own contributions, but from having been fortunate to choose adept creative partners as collaborators in all those projects. There have been times in my life as an artist or producer that I struggled alone, but in those days I was surrounded by smart, world class collaborators at every turn.

One such talent was Todd Schietroma, a composer/percussionist I recruited. Todd often came to the table with a million concepts for any given storyboard. Of course, I always loved it when my own ideas were chosen for development, but we were lucky if any of us presented an idea that pulled in a high profile project.

As a producer (someone presumably in a creative leadership position), I must admit that I made my own job easier if I arrived first at defining a suitably appropriate and impressive direction, and so that's the advice I give to any producer with the same ambition I had. Analyze each board or rough cut and if you must, struggle to bend your brain in such a manner that you get in the habit of giving birth to new, inventive ideas and creative solutions for any given commission.

Because by defining the direction of a project, that decision, if its accepted, automatically makes you the authority on the subject (or it should, assuming you actually have some idea of what you're doing). The alternative is that someone else will provide you with a directive that you will merely execute and project manage. That's not such a bad thing when you work as a team, but it does make VIP client management easier when you are a creator or co-creator, and not just project manager or line producer.

Also, keep in mind that if a client likes an idea you pitch, then you –fully understanding the parameters of the pitch– should therefore easily arrive at an estimate based on that idea.

It also means that when you deliver the concept in the form of a creative brief to the Creative Department to manage its development, you will also have some idea of how development should proceed, at what rate, and how to manage your time and budget. It may not actually make you the Creative Director, but it will make you fully vested in a comprehensive creative development.

Sure, you can certainly manage a project you didn't create, but your estimates are less likely to be grounded in personal experience or interest, which makes them more difficult but not impossible to execute.

In a nutshell, being first to concept –defining direction– is one strategic way any creative producer can stay ahead of a given project. At the very least, it certainly helps one retain control of reigns.

And that should almost be the first rule anyone in advertising learns.

It's how interns become Senior Producers, for sure.

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