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 one end of the spectrum we have producers whose skill set parallels ACCOUNT or BUSINESS MANAGEMENT; and on the other end we have producers who are purely ARTISTS, and whose skill set, however expansive, may be limited to 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. Not to mention, understand that highly skilled creative craftsmanship often requires one engage clients at the same time one is focused on development. How do you do that when you’re staring at a screen and your back is to a room full of clients? Maybe you should turn the desk around?

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 resembled film producers as they collaborated with their directors. 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 in order to advance my career and fulfill the professional expectations I had 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 called, they often wanted to know my initial gut instinct regarding what kind musical score the ad deserved, based on a review of story boards, if only to understand how I was going to develop an estimate. I immediately understood if I could define the creative direction at this early stage, I would be in front of the project from conception to final delivery. Not in front, as assuming or usurping the role of a Creative Director, but at an advantage in the process because, as an idea’s source, I possessed a comprehensive overview of it, and therefore could have an authoritative voice  in its development.

In the early days I took these calls with our superbly talented 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).

By the way, another outcome of defining audio direction, is the potential to influence not just the sound score, 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, you are basically done with the heavy lifting. 

Elias proved a great training ground. And later, after I left the company, 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.

Either way, 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.

The bottom line: Analyze each board or rough cut that comes your way, and then 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.

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 an administrator. 

Keep in mind also, that as a producer, if your pitch goes into production –then it’s likely you have a much  easier time budgeting the project.

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.

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 identify appropriate resources, track creative development, and control of cost and schedule.

And that should almost be the first rule anyone in any kind of media production learns.

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

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