In our upcoming IHALC Benchmarking Survey, in-house agencies have told us that their number one priority is to raise the creative standard of their work. One of the most important ways to enable that is to look at production strategy.
The creative production landscape has rapidly changed. Today’s marketing output is dominated by a combination of always-on content and high volume, multi-format digital assets. Big creative ideas can be anything from a TV show, a new product, an event – even a moment in culture. Coupled with the speed and scale with which technologies are evolving, new creative and production possibilities are emerging all the time.
So it’s no surprise that brands are struggling with the creation and delivery of their marketing content and that, arguably, production is the one discipline that is under the most pressure to evolve to match the speed of change. It’s a major reason why in-house agencies are on the rise and why businesses are investing more in their in-house set-ups, moving them away from the historical ‘service provider’ to be more of a ‘creative and strategic partner’.
But what we are hearing is that IHAs often do not have the planning, people and processes in place to enable them to produce better work.
The shift to a ‘production first’ mentality means that production is no longer something to be considered only at the delivery stage. Instead, it has a role throughout the creative and marketing process, from preparing the in-house agency to be able to deliver on its remit, to understanding what will be needed for creating the work it is expected to do, making the work itself and, finally, delivering that work in all the myriad formats needed to serve the business.
The most successful in-house agencies are a partnership between marketing, creative operations and creative leadership. They are a collaboration between the needs of the business and the creative ambitions of the brand. Agreeing what those ambitions are will dictate the work the agency makes, the partners it collaborates with, and the budget needed from the business to do it.
An agency’s production strategy is a response to the business’s annual marketing plan. It requires an understanding of the volumes and types of work needed in order to hit agreed metrics, and the cadence of how work goes live.
Many in-house agencies are moving on from simply making and adapting assets. Content now means constant origination on a large scale, with each project requiring a different approach to execution.
This is why it’s so important at the start of the year to define the type of work the agency will do and separate it into different tiers. Typically, Tier 1 is work that requires creative origination from brief, Tier 2 is work that involves activating and executing work within existing creative concept/guidelines and Tier 3 is work that involves adapting or amending existing creative assets with new copy/sizes. Defining the tiers around the creative approach, rather than budget, will provide clarity on who is needed in the process (you probably won’t want a Creative Director spending time on Tier 3 work, for example) and how the work will be made – budgets can then be set accordingly.
When defining the right creative approach for each tier, economies of scale should be considered. What work can you template? What technology is there that you can work with? CGI can be cheaper than photography, for example, particularly if you have lots of content that changes on a consistent basis. And AI and ChatGTP will have a big part to play when it comes to copywriting and publishing on a large scale.
This process will help to clarify what outside support is needed.
Some partners will be short-term and you will work with them on a project-by-project basis depending on creative needs/production boundaries or global reach. However some will be part of your longer-term partner strategy.
Once you’ve looked at your marketing ecosystem holistically, and you know what kind of work you want to make and what partners you are going to work with, you can get into what and who you need to actually create the work.
One of the challenges in-house agencies face is finding the balance between fixed full-time employees and freelancers. The pressure to keep head count down can cause havoc when you’re trying to build the right team. This is particularly the case when it comes to a production team because of the diverse nature of the output; from digital, to film, experiential and everything in between – most in-house agencies are producing 360 output without the 360 production skills needed to create such a vast array of output. So where do you invest in permanent staff and where do you hire in from outside?
And what is the difference between project management and integrated production? The best way to think about this is to consider what your particular business needs. If you manage large projects that are quite similar, which follow one process and where the priority is organising lots of people to key deadlines, project management is probably best for you. However the shift to always on, multi-format production has meant that the role of project manager has evolved from leading and facilitating a project, to informing and shaping outcomes. As technologies change dynamically, new creative possibilities are emerging all the time. Empowered production experts can bring that knowledge into the ideation phase, opening up creative routes that might never otherwise have been conceived.
The shape and skillset of this role has evolved with the times. Think of them as a conductor in an orchestra. They need to know how to play in the right skills at the right time to ensure that your project has what it needs to succeed.
Get this role right in your full-time team and you can use the ‘fix vs flex’ model to your advantage, casting production experts to specific briefs at the right place within the process to ensure that the quality and breadth of what you need in creative development, whether that be storytelling, UX, design or partnerships, is captured and nurtured in creative development, ready to be made.
There are two parts to making – ‘production’ (capturing) and ‘post-production’ (crafting). They work closely together throughout the making process but they are not the same thing.
Depending on the kind of work you make, production still largely involves collaborating with a third party (director, photographer or production company) whereas post-production may either be handled by an in-house studio or, more commonly, an external provider.
What you build here with fixed talent and what you ‘rent and flex’ will be entirely dependent on the cadence and quantity of what you want to make on an annual basis, as well as the variety of work. There are benefits to both and the trick is to build with fixed talent where you need consistency and continuity, where you can create efficiencies with retained knowledge and take advantage of economies of scale. Then ‘rent and flex’ based on the creative requirement for the best creative execution.
One additional benefit of using a third party for an in-house agency is that you can also take advantage of their payment terms. A lot of in-house agencies find it hard to access good talent as either their payment terms are not favourable or the vetting process through procurement and HR takes too long and does not work at the speed and agility that production does. Using a third party is an effective way to get around this.
The final stage in the process and one of the most complex to get right. A production strategy needs to consider how to deploy DCO (dynamic creative optimisation) and, increasingly, automation to achieve maximum efficiency and deliver the right assets, in the right markets at the right time. Many in-house agencies also use offshoring, often delivered via a third party specialist, to respond to the demands of ‘always-on’ global brands. Or, as with Pepsico, they may have a separate ‘studio’ operation handling high volume work while the main IHA concentrates on creative, higher Tier campaigns. And increasingly we are seeing brands setting up ‘content factory’ style operations, such as Ikea’s Ingka Content Factory, covered recently by Creative Review.
How do all these options complement each other to help your brand achieve its goals?
As in-house agencies – and marketing itself – evolve, production is at the heart of fulfilling creative ambition and business needs.
Highly effective creative operations leaders provide the connective tissue between marketing, creative, execution and delivery. What do we want to make, who will make it and how, where does it go and when: a great production strategy helps answer all these vital questions. It helps make better creative work and helps creative work better.
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