Not all producers created equal
I’m lucky enough to have been in contact with a diverse number of producers over the years, or worked in diverse roles myself, and I can see some distinct differences in the way producers work based on their specific background. It is so important to understand the nuances of each and the weaknesses in your own experience to best work with others.
So, here’s a run down of the strengths and weaknesses of all kinds of producers from my perspective. For those that think a producer is a producer, perhaps some insights here will be of value too. Of course not everyone fits neatly into a box, but this is an overview of sorts – much like a horoscope for producers. I also consider the ultimate future producer.
When we fail to respect differences we can act in ways that don’t serve the job and don’t serve the wider creative community, but most of all we don’t see that there are solutions for every budget if we are stuck in one way of working. I believe we need to check in with our own behaviour at times and see what perspective we’re bringing to it that affects what we expect of others, how we deal with others, and how we communicate what it is we need. With the best understanding we better serve the job or as I say, we better ‘work for the idea’.
An agency producer needs to have an understanding of all types of projects from the very tiny to the massive, from radio to corporate communication, online to TV. They are particularly good at knowing what is NOT included in the budget as much as what IS to be included in your budget because of working with high demand clients and big dollars across the board. There are some that simply do what is asked of them, but there are many that have a real understanding that what they provide logistically on a job has a direct impact on the creative result. I feel they’re the most versatile at moving successfully to other parts of the industry.
They’re very immersed in the creative although have a clear understanding that when it comes to the idea and creative result that it is a creative director’s responsibility. Generally it is a given they drive each stage of the job and are very hands on with the actual work. Anything that touches on a production execution is their territory – that’s including what formats to film, whether you use green screen or not, choice of 3D or 2D, and how the money is spent. When it comes to ensuring client expectations, budget restrictions, scheduling conditions, production values are all to expectation it is their responsibility. They are awesome at understanding that a deadline is immovable and think about any and all possible solutions to achieve the desired result at any cost.
Most of all the agency producer acts with the best interests of a client in mind and protects the client from the self interests of all the other suppliers. They consider the wider business objectives in all decisions and recommendations. It is a unique skillset.
Producer Watch Outs: Sometimes the agency producer needs to watch their ego. They are used to having the whole town trying to sell to them, and there is often an inflated sense of self-importance. They need to stay open and keep in touch with who is out there and what they are capable of rather than falling into the tried and true because it is easier. They need to respect what it takes for others to deliver what they do and to ensure suppliers are not abused by expecting too much of the completed project to be done before the project is awarded. Others can see you as too bossy because they don’t share the ‘Must Do’ attitude that you have.
Tips For Dealing With Them: They’re so overloaded these days as financial pressure on agencies is more massive than ever. Going direct to their creative team or to their clients can get them off side. Find ways to support them and you will become invaluable. Don’t expect the old days of lunches and group reel screenings as no one has time for that. Make it easy for them to know what you do in 7 seconds flat. Understand that your level of expertise isn’t needed to be amazing at their job. Remember that the project is ultimately theirs and you are simply supporting them to deliver what their client expects. If you want creative freedom then go make a short film or a feature. Saying ‘no’ gets up their nose – they believe (know) that there is always a way and expect you to help them no matter what the cost (in fact sometimes you can put a cost on the inconvenience and they’ll find the cash). I see room for conflict when they shift into post production or VFX, as the VFX supervisor typically deals in production executions, and if those expectations are not made clear an agency producer can be stepping on toes or can feel creatively limited. An agency producer makes a great film company producer, however, as they are well versed in what it takes to wrangle the agency and their client and to anticipate their needs. To fill the gaps in knowledge they can simply hire a great line producer or production manager. Have clear terms of trading – if you’re not clear they’ll ask for the world and will feel entitled to it. Put some extra resources in your budget to support them well and to respond quickly – allow for a night shift, overtime, additional revisions, client meetings in suite and having their team sit and babysit every step of the job if necessary. They’ll expect to be waited on with food, drinks, services and without delay (mainly because they are so busy they don’t have time otherwise to scratch themselves!).
The post producer, in my experience, has a tendency to be more down to earth. They are there to serve and to do what is asked of them. In my experience they are less likely to be pro-active and offer solutions that the client really needs, and sometimes this comes from the fact that they don’t actually really know what that is, unless they have agency experience. They simply take a booking and make sure it is effectively executed as briefed. A post producer is fantastic at getting every element of a project together to ensure that the day in the edit or post suite is the most effective it can be. In some ways their existence is new in the scheme of things and has become a need based on less experienced agency and film company producers coming into the industry over the last decade as well as an increase in complexity with technology and data management.
Producer Watch Outs: Be careful that you understand how much your client knows about the process and ensure that they are treated respectfully. Treating everyone with the understanding that they don’t know what you do is disrespectful and other times it means you assume things that don’t get done or when you need them. Having some standard processes helps them understand the nuances of your business and your expectations. Treat revisions and changes with more tolerance – there is a very solid chain of command and there is no way that certain changes can be anticipated and not all levels of authority can be involved up front. Just review their approval process up front and work with that, and have clear boundaries on what is included in your price and what is not. Remember to support the agency producer on a job level as much as you can and don’t just expect them to be able to sell you by your reel. A written treatment or explanation of how you will execute the job sometimes is enough. Don’t assume that your clients know when to stop asking for changes – they’ll ask until it hurts if you don’t have clear expectations up front. When dealing with international clients there are different levels of expectation around rounds of revisions and how to say ‘no’ so be very clear up front. If you are just taking bookings and shuffling schedules the producers that hire you wont see any value in you charging for your time but if you are properly managing the whole process and adding value to your clients and the artists your fees are justifiable. Make sure you are actually producing rather than being a facilities person.
Tips For Dealing With Them: Conflict can come up when an agency producer, perhaps experienced in post production, wants to manage all this themselves at their own pace, and finds the post producer stepping in their turf and demanding. Depending on the way the project is budgeted and paid for it can impact on the way the two work together. Some tolerance and understanding of both worlds can make this a better experience for both. The agency or film company are often not aware of how much a job going over in time can affect their whole schedule and which teams or artists are designated to certain projects. A lack of respect for this can create chaos for your own project but also the next client’s project scheduled around yours. The arrival of new digital workflows has made their role so important to keep a job on track on many levels now, and many don’t quite understand the impact of this due to ignorance. Lack of clarity about workflow in a business can be chaotic to everyone, especially to the client (agency, film company or advertiser). Ultimately what work comes out of their business is the responsibility of the people that hire them – so check all their work rather than trusting them completely.
Much like the post producer, the VFX producer has a much deeper and technical understanding of the visual effects and post workflow process but an even deeper level again. In my experience the VFX producer is a certain kind of skill and they don’t easily transcend into other roles. They tend to work well in features or commercials but in a support role to an Executive Producer (EP) in each. Their role is more about ensuring all artists are getting what they need when they need it and the feedback from clients is documented and shared – more so than managing the client or administering the bigger issues on the job. An EP in VFX is more like an agency producer with deep VFX experience. They are typically able to handle a volume of work and to immerse in a deep level of detail on a project. Where an EP or agency producer is a big picture thinker, a VFX producer is more detail and task oriented.
Producer Watch Outs: Don’t assume you would make a good agency producer or EP just because you have a technical understanding of the process. There’s a whole level of administration and client management that needs to be learned. Transition from this role to an agency producer would be difficult and you can be judgmental about agency and film company producers because they don’t have the technical knowledge you do. Trust me – they have skills you don’t know exist. Be careful that you learn when to say ‘no’ or to advise clients in advance when things will start to cost money. Telling them after the fact or sending that bill for actuals is a big ‘no-no’ for the film company or agency producer in commercials. Be proactive at chasing what you need and don’t give up at the first call – you have email, telephone – mobile and landline, an assistant or other staff to chase before simply holding work, cancelling or missing the client’s deadline.
Tips For Dealing With Them: Sometimes they forget the bigger picture so will need to be reminded of why certain tasks are being done. Respect that they have a deep level of control over a very big team and that your last minute changes do affect the efficiency of their work and the quality of work the team puts out. The flow of work relies on certain approvals and client assets at pre-agreed times. If artists are sitting around waiting this cost still goes on their job (your job too) and may impact the next project. Don’t go awol just when they need you – at least give some forewarning of when you expect to deliver what they need even if you can’t confirm so they can help keep the juggling balls in the air. Going awol or withholding communication is downright rude if you do so knowingly, or simply plain ignorant. Time booked ahead on your job and not used becomes a cost to the job whether there is anything to show for it or not, so keep them in the loop if you want to get the best work through or to maximise your budget.
The Promo Producer is usually a mix of creative (ideas too), production and sometimes even an editor all wrapped up into the one role. They can have skills as a director, art director, after effects or graphic designer, and are great all-rounders. They work with fast pipelines to get things done and are great independent workers. They tend to work in TV channels or small businesses (one man/woman band). They understand the balance of budgets and the impact on creativity well. There are varying levels of experience and authority and some move into a solely creative role in larger networks and some into an EP role.
Producer Watch Outs: They can expect a lot for not a lot of money and can also expect open ended revisions without boundaries, or at least different boundaries than those in advertising or a typical film company. If they are not good at communicating what they need they can see the boundaries of a VFX or post supplier as controlling and hard work. Don’t forget that on larger projects you are no longer a one man/woman band and need to communicate well – keep everyone informed at each stage, make sure your briefing is accurate and ensure that all expectations creatively and logistically are clear. Not everyone else is multi-talented so be sure you understand the process your suppliers are using and who will be doing each task so you are best able to communicate with them at the right times.
Tips For Dealing With Them: Hiring a promo producer into other producer roles can create conflict when they are not aware of the creative responsibility of others in the chain and likewise they may feel creatively stifled when they are no longer ‘hands on’ in the process. They can be intolerant of additional time and costs from the many hands needed in larger projects. They often think they could easily do certain tasks themselves and don’t want to let go. Often they think that their way is the only way and don’t easily transition to directing others without taking it over themselves (which can disempower others and stop them from learning and growing). Like any producer that has grown up in a certain discipline they have seen one way of working and think that’s the only one available to them. They can think the world revolves around them because they’ve had such an independent existence in the past and their work has only affected a small number of people. Working with larger teams can be chaotic if they are not clearly communicating, not communicating at important milestones and not giving enough advance notice of changes. Put some extra resources in your project, despite budget pressure, so that there is room for flexibility in the schedule, last minute changes in content or delays.
FILM COMPANY PRODUCER
A film company producer steps a fine line between the agency that hires them and the creative aspirations of the director that they represent. Every job they work on is how they are judged for securing the next, and so the production values of the project is incredibly important to them – perhaps exaggerated more than for others. Their director’s showreel is the means they are judged and hired, so it is very possessively defended by many. This is a brilliant skill when it is aligned with the agency and client that hires them but when it is not aligned it can be cause for friction. A film company producer (as well as others) is generally paid by the number of shoot days which can become an influence on how many days are deemed necessary to produce the work at times and therefore the ultimate cost of the job. A good film company producer is skilful at managing the agency and their client and ensuring that what is promised creatively is delivered, and also protects the integrity of the production despite the influence of drip feed changes through the project.
Producer Watch Outs: They can be overly focused on production values that suits their own showreel rather than what is required for the individual project. They can be stuck on one standard way of working because it is a known convention rather than being innovative based on the needs of the script or client. They can be quick to accuse the agency and their client and agency for damaging their reputation if they are stuck on one way to do things. They can be stuck on a payment model if they move to another part of the industry – moving to daily, weekly or project rates are unfamiliar. Depending on what type of business you move into or communicate with there may be different expectations about workflow & production quality. They can be quick to discount in order to get the job in the door – particularly if they judge their ability by the showreel alone. They can also be focused on just getting the job done without consideration of the wider client or business needs – in some ways this is a useful skill, but needs to be kept in check. Film companies can exploit your time by not paying you for marketing, sales or quoting. Many only pay you if you get a job in the door but a retainer and some profit share would make it more worthwhile. For those that are really responsive to their clients they can also forget their own brand and own ‘look’ in the process and really suffer from becoming too generalised and can become invisible.
Tips For Dealing With Them: Be careful that they understand that everyone working on a project that is time-based is a direct cost to the project – without this you can go bankrupt. Your external charges are not the only cost to a job. A cost-per-chair calculation needs to be established and their understanding of the ‘bottom line’ needs to be clear. Given many are not paid until the job is confirmed can mean that film companies attract a certain level of experience when it comes to producing lesser known directors and directors that don’t work very often, so be careful that you are getting what you need for the project. They will want to promote the work that they have done in order to get their next project and if you are not supportive of this by making way for it and to assist with approval it can cause conflict.
Video productions tend to be what we know as a corporate communication or lower budget retail work. These days there is more cross-over as digital content has increased a need for longer form and more economical content. These producers are fantastic at working fast, keeping a simple shoot structure together, keeping out of politics and just doing what is needed, they do what is asked of them (often without question) providing it fits within the budget, and tend to be able to think on their feet to solve problems at any level – whether that be for the script, the direction, the camera work, sound or any aspect either creative or technical. They’re great all-rounders.
Producer Watch Outs: They can be intolerant of anyone wanting to add creative touches and think they are excessive and wasting time or slowing up the whole job. They see any creative embellishment or production quality as an excess that doesn’t support the communication – or at least their boundary of tolerance is much lower than for other producers. When moving onto larger projects they can forget to budget for valuable necessary tasks. If moving into agency producing you’ll need to be more understanding of a bigger production and longer workflow and ensure the right people communicate at the right time. No last minute work here! Every step of a production with certain creative expectations needs to be fully planned in detail and can take many weeks compared to the many days they are used to. The difference in creative quality however is often very tangible once they are shown another way. They need to learn that a certain production quality at times is crucial to communicate the value of a brand.
Tips For Dealing With Them: Check that all talent, music, image copyright and other limitations are clearly communicated to the client and their understanding of any special conditions is made clear. Encourage asking questions to explain what is NOT covered in the budget as much as what IS covered. They’re more used to working on what IS in the job and just getting it done than in worrying about ongoing issues such as talent or royalty rollovers in the future. These tasks are usually managed by an agency producer, so if working directly with a video producer be sure you ask for clarity on all rights and usage. Be sure you also seek an understanding of the production values you are paying for by requesting examples of other projects or references. Be sure to communicate your own expectations and ensure they budget for these in advance.
EVENT CONTENT PRODUCER
This type of producer is probably quite close to an agency producer mixed with a bit of a post and video producer. A different kind of hybrid depending on the type of industry that they specialise in – some in fashion may be more like a video producer and some in major international events may have more of a design/VFX background. Again, a very multi-talented lot. They’re very savvy when it comes to technical aspects of unusual shapes and sizes of deliverables and have a good understanding of multiple screen content and how to maximise the experience from a participants’ perspective. Often it will be a full sensory experience and not just straight video and audio on the one file.
Producer Watch Outs: Whilst they have many skills across the industry and can move into other areas quite well they can be unaware of the some aspects outside their own experience and need to be open minded to learn the nuances of that industry and the clients. They can be of the mindset that the work is temporary and therefore don’t spend adequate time and focus when the project needs to be long lasting and multi-platform. The production values can be limited.
Tips For Dealing With Them: Keep a check on the production quality and refer to other reference material wherever possible. Question their regular suppliers to be sure they are able to provide a quality product at the level that the brand needs and expects, and that it can sustain a long term use including at least 2 years of rollovers. Communicate well any client expectations and approval processes. Break each deliverable up into key milestones and make approvals at each step clearly defined to avoid the open ended circle of revisions and changes – particularly on projects that go longer than what they are used to.
LINE PRODUCER (Sometimes a Production Manager)
Usually a line producer is a very capable producer of video content and works with many of the different types of producers we have explored above with the variation that they work in the background with little client contact. They get the job done under instruction from the lead producer or executive producer. This enables the lead producer to handle many more projects at once and be sure that the jobs are managed effectively.
Producer Watch Outs: Sometimes a line producer can minimize the importance of a specialist who understands the nuances of client management. It is much more complex than simply doing what is asked for.
Tips For Working With them: Be clear on when client communication is acceptable and have clear boundaries established. Ideally keep them for logistics and technical issues only and any client management left to the lead producer. The worst situation is inconsistencies that make it difficult for the client to know who to talk to. Ensure all parties are clear on the types of conversations acceptable for each role.
THE FUTURE PRODUCER
I see value in a multi-talented producer for content production that can shift from one discipline to the next or to call on skills used in one sector of the business and to bring it into another to be more effective, to produce better work and to meet budget demands. Where we get stuck in just one way of working and don’t know how to communicate to others across the industry we also limit the potential of the work.
The big daily challenge for any producer (and also for creatives), is to get us out of our own stuck groove of workflow and be able to think more innovatively. We need to be more understanding and respectful of the work that others do and take responsibility for the role we play in what we see as other’s faults. We need to be fully immersed in the creative product at every step of the way with respect to the creative department’s authority – we need to own the creative outcome as much as they do.
Ultimately, if others are behaving a certain way then we need to look at what we are doing that could create that and take ownership of the whole process – be proactive at ensuring everyone gets what they need. Every moment of mis-match or conflict takes away from the ultimate creative result in some way, so the better we are all aligned the better that magic that supports the best possible work. I feel that this ‘magic’ starts with an understanding of the role of a producer and how their experience affects the way they work. This understanding of others as much as an understanding of ourself is key.
P.S. RELATED PRODUCERS:
PRINT PRODUCER (Sometimes called a Production Manager)
A specialist producer who works exclusively with anything that goes to print. Generally they are divided into two different kinds of producer – one is often called an Art Buyer and works for either an advertising agency, a print company or a photography business and they’re responsible for all the preparation and organization that gets the photography done. They may negotiate fees, research and prepare for a shoot or even search for stock footage. The second print producer is one who takes the project from the existing elements and organizes the pre-press work and the printing. Sometimes, when a project involves both TV and photography the one producer can work across both platforms although it isn’t always recommended.
Producer Watch Outs: Even if you are an experienced art buyer or producer on another platform the specialist print process requires such technical and complex understanding of the printing process, paper stocks, how to assess and work with certain suppliers, a producer is unlikely to be able to work across platforms.
Tips For Working With Them: Be sure that you have a full understanding of the type of print producer they are and that you have a clear idea of their specialty and experience. Those that are art buyers may not be across the printing process adequately.
DIGITAL PRODUCER (Sometimes called a Project Manager)
Another very specialized role for web production including websites, banners, social media integration, e-newsletters and anything digital. As with video content producers and print production this is a highly specialized role. There is a myriad of complex software, technical knowledge, user requirements, trends, social media apps and platforms, and all in a fast changing climate. It is unusual for a producer to have a deep enough understanding of print, web and digital to transverse from one to the other platform effectively.
Producer Watch Outs: Being project managers there are skills that are shared across media, but it is fool-hardy to take on a project in an area you are not expert. Mistakes are costly in all platforms. It may be that your role crosses over into account management tasks across platforms, however ensure you call on a specialist producer to quote, schedule and to drive the project.
Tips For Working With Them: Web producers can misunderstand the depth of experience to deliver quality video content and meet the client’s objectives, and can be tempted to use a supplier that is not quite right for the task. Ensure an independent producer competitively bids your job and works with the budget and the creative execution to get what you and your client needs. Their fees will be justifiable – perhaps essential. Digital businesses new to content production can under-estimate the importance of specialist producers and scrimp on their fees and pay deeply in overspending, mistakes, poor content, poor brand positioning, poor negotiation, flawed contracts, poor weather management to name a few.