NEW CHALLENGES, AGING ROCK STARS & RE-DEFINING THE WORD FINAL

A few weeks back I wrote my FINAL CONFESSION. The fact that you are reading this blog would naturally lead one to believe that I misnamed my previous post.

Think of it like those classic rock 70’s bands that reunite for one FINAL tour only to hit the road again two summers later. Maybe they do it because the fans can’t get enough of the hits or maybe the money is too good or maybe the band simply doesn’t understand the definition of the word final. Now that I’ve lumped myself into the category of aging rock stars looking to squeeze out one more night of adoration, there is an actual purpose for posting yet again.

I want to first thank all of those who sent me emails, commented on the blog or “liked” my FINAL confession. I was moved by all the positive and flattering sentiments. It was humbling. Most of all it gave me much needed affirmation that blogging was a worthy endeavor. Before this discovery there was only the joy of publicly voicing my unsolicited opinions.

In all seriousness the reactions I received from “finalizing” my blog gave me insight into a professional passion I wasn’t fully aware I possessed:  articulating my opinions, expressing thought and hopefully providing guidance to the creative business community. Whatever I decide upon as my next pursuit I know it will include a continuation of this passion. 

While I explore that next perch to exercise my entrepreneurial spirit, I don’t want to miss out on all the fun.

This leads me to the answer of why I’m posting again so soon?

One of my good friends in the business is Charles Day, the founder of The Lookinglass Consultancy. He has helped numerous small, mid-size and publicly traded creative businesses solve some fascinating and industry-wide problems. He does so under a framework of unlocking what he describes as 'Profitable Creativity.' In essence the core of Charles’ work is making creative thinkers better business people and business people better creative thinkers.

It is a theme I’ve revisited throughout the course of my career and in my writings. While I continue to ponder my next chapter, Charles has generously offered to let me hang my hat alongside his at The Lookinglass for as long as I want. I'm going to take him up on that for a while.

My time with the Lookinglass may be weeks or months. But for however long I'm there, I'm excited by the chance to share what I’ve experienced over the last twenty plus years while continuing to pursue my passion of speaking my mind to the community and helping solve problems. Most of all I’m excited to collaborate with Charles.

If there is a problem we can help solve or you just want to talk, please reach me at, [email protected].

Looking forward to hearing from all of you.

 

ALL THINGS MUST PASS, THE FINAL CONFESSION

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The first time I walked into Epoch Films was in August of 1991. For those of you not good with big numbers that was over 21 years ago.

It was at the old office on 122 Hudson Street before Tribeca was “Tribeca”. The space looked like a college newspaper. It was disorganized and disheveled but had an energy that was infectious.  It was a world I’d never encounter before. It was addictive, so much so I never wanted to leave...until now.

A lot has happened in my two plus decade association with Epoch.

I learned a trade.

Met the love of my life. Married her and started a family.

Discovered what filmmaking is about and realized how much is always left to know.

Befriended amazingly talented creative quirky and hard working people.

Managed to be a part of some iconic commercials. And quite a few not so iconic ones.

Became a businessman and a partner, two things I never imagined being. 

Scaled a company to unforeseen heights while also bringing it to unexpected lows and back again.

Discovered some great directorial talent and had some great directorial talent discover me.

Made a lot of mistakes. And somehow managed to get a few things right.

Tried my best to give back to individuals and to the industry. In returned I received as much if not more than I gave.  

It was an amazing run but all great journeys must eventually come to an end. Cal Ripken had to finally sit out a game. David Chase had no more stories left to tell of “The Sopranos”.  And The Replacements never put out a record after “All Shook Down”. 

No regrets. No remorse. The good far out weighed the bad. I’m only grateful and thankful for all that I’ve been a part of. Now was the time for a new challenge whatever that may be. To end on my own terms with the comfort of knowing my DNA and legacy are firmly in tact and Epoch has a strong foundation for continued success beyond my presence. There was nothing left for me to accomplish. 

There are so many individuals who have supported me, inspired me and taught me along the way. To name them all would make this post uncomfortably long and sappier than it already is. So in the name of expediency those who have touched me you know who you are. The Staff. The Production teams. The Accounting Department. The Sales Force. The Directors. The Agencies. The Keys. The Crews. The Vendors. The Clients. The Friends. The AICP. The Competitors. Even a few Cost Consultants. It’s been an unimaginable ride one that is forever etched in my soul.

I don’t know what I’m going to do next but I’m neither old enough, financially secure enough or satisfied enough to idly stand by. I’ll resurface in some form or another, that you can count on. But for the moment I have nothing more to confess. 

Thanks for reading. The pleasure has been all mine even when it wasn’t pleasurable.

Jerry

ps - Here's my new email address. [email protected] Only the second one I've ever had. Feel free to drop me a note. I have some spare time to fill. 

 

I NEVER PLAYED THE GAME

Howard Cosell, The Adam of the modern day Sportscaster. He was controversial and universally disliked by his peers. His presence in the booth made whatever event he was covering a happening. He was obnoxious, rude and opinionated but never boring. As his importance faded he grew bitter towards his chosen industry. The favorite target of his anger is ire what he referred to as the “Jockocracy” of broadcasting.

Cosell defined “Jockocracy” as the domination of ex-athletes transitioning from their field into the booth. He understood the appeal of the network hiring them. He somewhat accepted that they had certain insight into the game. But, what he could not tolerate was not only their lack of broadcasting experience but, more so, their ability to articulately communicate the nuances of the sport. It is why he named his autobiography, “I Never Played The Game”.

COSELL
I never Directed anything unless you count my daughters upcoming Bat Mitzvah video. I don’t think it prohibits me from analyzing, critiquing or speaking about directing. I’ve been looking at reels and tracking directors careers for close to 20 years. I think it qualifies me to breakdown what it takes to succeed even if I never played the game.

If Cosell were around he’d tell you the modern ballplayers skill sets must be more varied and sharper then they were in the past. He would claim to know this better than the ballplayers themselves. It isn’t enough to just be a great talent. You need to adeptly navigate the many factors beyond the lines on the field. The same applies to Director’s today. 

Being a great filmmaker is no longer enough. If you want to compete on the talent side of the business there are other key attributes directors must continually hone.

PITCHING.

A Director must have the ability to interpret someone else’s concepts and translate those ideas into their own voice. Let’s not fool ourselves, every job is a highly competitive audition, and an arduous one at that. Effectively communicating verbally, visually and in writing is a must. A picture. An idea. A phrase. A vibe. The little things matter. But no one ever really knows for sure what tilts a pitch in a Director's favor or if at all. It’s a bit like shooting in the dark but a Director must remain undeterred, confident, and thick skinned. And, that’s the easy part.

DIRECTING.

You won the pitch. Congrats. The Director enjoys the win for about the length of time the spot they are directing. Now comes the hard part. The Director has to deliver on the treatment, the conference calls and on the promise of their reel. There are of course many factors from agency politics to production circumstances that can derail the outcome. At least in production, and on set, is where a Director feels the most at home. It's their domain. It's where they have the most say and control but that doesn't mean they can't be inviting. 

CLIENT RELATIONS.

Many directors are great pitchmen and talented filmmakers but it’s equally as important to be a good collaborator. Ten years ago there were a handful of “go to” directors. They could afford to be less than user friendly. These days there are dozens of good directors in each genre. The luxury of alienating an agency is much less of an option. They may have loved the reel, loved treatment but not the word on the street. Client Relations is about establishing a reputation beyond the work itself. It can matter especially in a competitive market. A Director needs to take advantage of every edge they can muster. 

Pitching, Directing, and Client Relations. They aren’t mutually exclusive. They are intrinsically linked.

Bad pitch. Out of the race before it began.

Great pitch. Mediocre Film. Good experience. The luster is gone. You’ve been labeled.

Great Pitch. Good film. Horrific experience. Was the pain worth the reward?

Great Pitch. Great Film. Great Experience. Star. 

All of this adds up to achieving the Director’s main objective, ELEVATE THE WORK. This is the their job. It's why they are hired. It’s why they get paid the big bucks. Elevating the work is about leading from the onset. Articulating ideas with conviction while having a firm grasp of the paramters. Carrying this passion strongly into production. Picking your battles without alienating agency and client.

Part conceptor. Part creator. Part collaborator. Directors need to be all three. Most directors know it instincitvely and never give it too much thought. Others struggle with it. And that's why Exec Producers and Reps have jobs. Sometimes it’s easier to see the little things up in the booth then when your down on the field. 

THE ECONOMICS OF TALENT MANAGEMENT

ImagesWhen a pharmaceutical company charges $3 for a pill that may only costs 3 cents to produce, they don’t justify the margin by speaking solely about the costs of marketing, distribution and demand. They mostly justify the margin based on the tens of millions of dollars they spent in research and development.

In other words, to bring that particular drug to market the pharmaceutical company needed to design it, test it, and get it approved. There are also many other drugs they invested in that didn’t prove to be successful. This is the risk they take in developing their product. And, when it hits they not only need to recoup their investment but also turn a profit. It’s called capitalism.

Of course, in the talent driven production model we are hardly making medical breakthroughs but we do make investment in product. It’s just happens our product are directors.

When a young director meets with a production company they have worked on building their own reel. Like a start-up company, they’re in the beginning stages of developing a product they believe has worth but they need help in scaling it and bringing it to market. That’s where we come in.

R&D begins when a production company first recognizes a director’s potential. If they believe this individual possesses the talents worthy of investment they make the commitment. They leverage their reputations, their relationships and their checkbook to invest in an individual’s career. In the simplest of terms this equates to time, money and resources, not an insignificant assets. 

Let’s start with reputation. A production company has built up a standing in the industry. They are a proven entity in producing work and managing their talent. Because of this Reps want to sell them, agencies seek to work with them and clients will pay for their services. This requires building an infrastructure and creating work of note. It takes years to establish.

Relationships. A production company has spent years nurturing relationships with their clients. They’ve wined them, dined them and delivered on the impossible. It’s what service businesses do to the benefit of their product. Every time we sign a contract to produce a job we put our reputation and relationship on the line not to mention risk. Nice segue into the pocketbook. 

In today’s climate we must always be prepared to put money into creative opportunities. This means investing in our reels whether it’s getting a spot for a young director, helping an establish director get to the next level or a star director maintain their status. This may result in asking for favors we need to repay, doing a job for low margins or even spending money out of pocket. If you are unwilling to make this investment chances are small of either building, attracting or keeping talent. Without investing in the work, a production company risks lessening their creative profile and ceding an advantage to the competition.

What this illustrates is that production companies are not to dissimilar from a tech firm that builds an algorithm or pharmaceutical brand that creates a drug or an automotive company that designs a new car. The only difference is that what we develop and nurture isn’t inanimate. It’s human. But does this make it any less of an investment? If anything it makes it riskier. As far as I know a Chevy never refused to be taken off the lot by a customer or decided to leave and join the new line of BMW’s.

Speaking of moving to BMW, the investment in talent isn’t exclusive to young "build" talent. It also applies to talent that was acquired talent or the established directors that stayed within your sphere. The more sought after a director becomes the larger a percentage of profits they command.The upside is a reliable revenue stream while maintaining, or increasing, a company's creative value. The downside is it decreases margins and adds potential overhead with increased exposure. Once again, its a risk and an expense.

So, when a client seeks an overseas service company to contact your director directly or an agency asks you to cut your production fee or a cost consultant calls out a line and says its the cost of doing business, remind them of the value you bring and the investment you made.

The talent and the reel they desire didn’t appear overnight. It was discovered, developed and paid for in full. And just like our clients, all we want is little return on investment. 

THE WORLD I KNOW

ImagesYou may have noticed that I like to write about the changing landscape of the commercial production industry. Thank you technology for providing blog fodder and wreaking havoc.

The power to communicate to the masses is waning while the ability to create individual dialogue is increasing. Most major brands are experts of one (TV) and novices at the other (Internet/Mobile). This has led to the consumer being frustratingly more accessible yet harder to reach.

Marketers are not the only ones navigating their way through these two worlds, so are production companies. The result has been the divide between two business models, talent driven and producer driven.

The talent driven model has altered over the last couple of decades but at its core it remains the same. It’s about The Director. Period. You can’t open a commercial production shop without creatively viable and billing talent. No matter how great a producer you are or how well connected you may be, if you don’t have the horses you can’t run in the race.

On the flip side, the producer driven model isn’t about specific talent. It’s about the model itself. A client hires this type of company to produce content inexpensively and efficiently. There services range from ideation and strategy to digital creation and distribution. And many times, it’s all of the above. The actual production and attached directorial talent may be a consideration but it’s not the determining factor.

I’m a part of the old school talent model. It is what I’ve been doing my entire career. Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to dissect the model I know best through its most important asset, The Director.

  • The investment it takes to build one
  • What happens when we do
  • The traits a director must have to compete in a competitive market
  • The arc of a director’s career
  • The role a producer or company owner plays in all of this

Why the hell am I analyzing this? Or better yet, why am I posting about it?

I don’t believe the talent driven model is ever going away. There will always be an elite group of directors that know how to take ideas on piece of paper and elevate them into engaging and inventive imagery. It’s called storytelling. It’s been around since a cro-magnon man grunted a tale around a fire and one of the tribe decided to sketch it on the cave wall. It's never going away but always evolving. How that impacts us remains somewhat cloudy.

I also want to demystify the belief that directors were born with great reels. I don’t believe clients or agencies or even cost consultants understand the contribution and risk producers take to build the reels they so covet. I think it’s important to publicly articulate the value company owners bring to the talent driven model. I’m not sure it will change things. Actually that’s not true. I am sure. It won’t.

I guess the hope is that maybe I reach one client will look at us with a clearer understanding of what we do. Or, maybe it helps someone within our community better define their value to an agency, a cost consultant or even their own talent. But mostly, I’m doing this mini series of related posts about talent because I’ve been pondering my own direction. When I sketch it out I gain some clarity. I figured if I’m going through this exercise why not share it.

You’re welcome.

I’ll start tomorrow. 

GOOD TASTE. GOOD CLIENTS. GOOD WORK.

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About 8 years ago we opened an Epoch office in London. As with many other US companies, we invested in an overseas operation to expand our creative reach. We quickly discovered the London market had as many differences to the American market as it did similarities. Or, as Winston Churchill said, "Americans and British are one people separate only by a common language". This statement applied equally to advertising. 

The divide was most clear when I attended the British Television Advertising Awards (BTAA) in our first year in business. 

The atmosphere was more celebratory than a US event while simultaneously not taking itself as seriously. It wasn't as vast in numbers yet felt like more of happening. There was also plenty of drinking only much more of it. 

The most glaring difference was that despite producing a lesser volume of work the spots were noticeably superior. It made me wonder are the Brits that much better creatively? Maybe it was because they didn't have to produce as much work? Or, was it because they drank more?

As the awards part of evening wore on I watched with jealousy as the winners were announced and the triumphant tables exploded with glee. The agency, the production company and the client all ran up in stage to accept their hardware and bask in victory.

Wait a second. The client? The client attends an awards show that's judged on creative not on effectiveness and the location isn't the South of France. Maybe the English weren't as creatively superior as I thought. Maybe they just have better clients.

That night I realize that no matter how clever the agency if the people buying the ideas don't have good taste or realize the value in quality work you'll never produce great spots. I went back to the US realizing we would always be at a creative disadvantage unless the majority of our clients priorities shifted. Or as Don Draper says, "You're a non-believer". See for yourself.

 

In the eight years since not a lot has changed from our side of the Atlantic. Our clients as a whole seem less interested in the quality of the work as a result are more fearful and distrustful. And in the case with London they don't seem to be producing as high a caliber of creative they did in the past. I'm afraid they may have adopted an American cultural import they would probably care to live without. 

TRUST ME?

RecommendMy wife, Dana, possesses many amazing qualities. One of them isn't a great sense of direction. 

Whenever we travel, even in places we've been before, she has a hard time getting her bearings. Please refrain from any helpful comments about using a GPS. They only confuse things.

Thankfully, she is well aware of her directional shortcomings. Although Dana likes to be in control of our family decisions, the navigational responsibilities have fallen firmly into my lap. 

As I've grown to accept that she's better at managing our life, she has grown to accept that I'm better at geography. We take control of our areas of strength, let go in our areas of weakness and trust that we have each others best interest at heart. Of course there are occasions where we question our defined roles, but that's bound to happen in any relationship. We acknowledge our differences and strive to work them out.

If only professional relationships operated this same way.

There always seemed to be an understanding that the agency was entrusted to make decisions on behalf of their clients or at the very least was a respected brand adviser. From my perch, as a vendor, this role has greatly deteriorated. There is no better example of this than the "Agency Recommend".  

At the risk of sounding like an old timer, back in the day The Recommend meant you were getting the job. Was it a 100% lock? Of course not, nothing is. My O's are tied for first as of this morning so even the Yankees winning the AL East in a down year for the Bosox isn't a sure thing. But, getting The Recommend was as close to a guarantee as you could get.

There was an understanding that the agency was in the best position to choose their production partners. They knew what the client wanted to achieve. They properly vetted their selections. And, they were confident in their creative approach. As a result, the agency owned the decision and gladly accepted the responsibility that went with. 

These days I'm not quite sure what The Recommend means. From what I'm told, the agency presents all bid directors accompanied by reels, treatments and any other relevant factors. The agency isn't making a recommend as much as providing data for the client to choose. Unlike in the past, the agency seems to own the responsibility but not the decision. 

For us vendors, it produces more juggling and anxiety than we'd like. It often appears to our staff, our crew and mostly to our directors that we EP's don't really have a pulse on our projects. I guess it's because we don't. Our saving grace is the belief that it all evens out. There are jobs we get that we were told we were not. And, there are jobs we did not get that we were told we were.

I feel more for the agencies than for us. It takes months to sell the work. When they finally do, they must review the vast industry talent pool and then ask their vendors to go through a fast paced and arduous bidding process. Yet, they don't have the client's confidence in making a key decision in executing their own concepts. This eroding trust discounts agency opinions and marginalizes their expertise. The Recommend today feels less like a thoroughly researched, fully vetted strategic decision and more like a game of chance. 

If this was the dynamic in my marriage I would have no idea where to go and Dana would have no idea how to get there. We would either live in dysfunction or end up divorced. I would assume that's hardly the relationship anyone would want whether a couple or a client. 

SNAPSHOTS

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