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Brenden Johnson on Expanding into Content

Anthony Vagnoni

DDB Sydney's Brenden Johnson is looking to explore new content forms for both his department and his agency. 

Brenden Johnson, Head of On Screen Production at DDB in Sydney, began his career back in 1984 at Leo Burnett, working his way up through print production into broadcast.  After a dozen years at the agency he went freelance, working for agencies across Australia.  He’s worked extensively in retail advertising, both producing jobs, packaging productions for clients and developing ways to streamline the production process for clients.  He rejoined Burnett in 2000 as Head of TV, working on such accounts as Subaru, Diageo and Canon. He went freelance again in early 2006, but the lure of agency work called and he joined George Patterson Y&R a year later to head up the TV department. As Head of On Screen Productions for DDB—a position he’s held for just a few months—he remains a very hands-on producer whose dual challenge is to continue to produce top flight work for such marketers as VW, McDonald’s and Unilever, while also ushering in a new era of integrated work that encompasses everything from web video to mobile communications to digital to branded content.  He spoke about where he sees the acceptance of these new forms among Australian agencies, and how he’s approaching the task of introducing new ways of working at the shop.

Your title reads “Head of On Screen Production.”  What’s the significance of the wording here?

Well, this is where it’s evolving, which is why I’ve taken on a new title.  It isn’t just the TV side we’re looking after these days—we’re looking after a whole gamut of work, and a lot of it is related to what effectively ends up on screen.  Whether that’s mobile content, internet, broadcast, or whatever.  So I think the change has happened, and a lot of agencies are starting to see that here in Australia.  It’s not just about the broadcast side of the business, but more about all the other ways to get your message across to the consumer.

There’s a perception among some Heads of Production that the use of the word ‘broadcast’ is archaic and limiting.

I’d say so. I think the general consensus here is that it is.  The position is evolving, although I must say it’s slower than I thought it would.  I thought we’d be more involved in things like branded content by now.  But it’s something that clients are requesting agencies to provide more of.  That’s where my role has changed.  We really want to try and drive those opportunities to the clients, from the agency’s point of view, and sort of take it from the top down—from the conceptual side right down to the execution.  It’s come a long way in the last ten years, especially with the ability now to view web video, but it hasn’t evolved as quickly as I thought it would.  A lot of agencies are trying new ways of reaching consumers, but there isn’t a formula yet—no one has yet found that solution that makes them say, ‘Okay, we want to stick with that.’  It continues to change.  The one thing that’s constant is that it’s no longer about getting the brand message just on your TV.

When you talk about clients wanting to be more involved in content, does that mean you have to find producers with different skills and contacts?  What does it mean for how you run the department at the agency?

These producers aren’t as traditional as they used to be.  I think it’s a case of actually getting people who have insight and experience and are interested in doing things other than shooting a 30 second commercial.  Given time, I hope to get to a point where I’ll have a selection of people on staff that I can throw certain projects at.  A lot of them already understand the interactive side of things, and some of them don’t.  It’s a matter of really getting the experience in both areas, as well as in all facets of production.

How would you break out the work the department does at DDB, in terms of how much of it is just web content and how much runs both online and on TV?

Being new here, it’s hard for me to judge.  But at this point, I’d have to say that realistically, 65 percent of what gets produced by the department is on the broadcast side, with about 15 percent on the interactive side, and the rest is what I’m trying to capture at the moment—which is really about moving us towards the branded content space.  It’s also about getting clients on board—getting them willing to invest with not only their brands, but with their time and money as well. 

Do you collaborate with Tribal DDB, DDB’s digital arm?

We have, in fact we’re doing it now.  They always have access to us, and have utilized our services, but I’m going to be driving that even more so, to get them to utilize us in every possible manner.  I’ll be working with the guys at Tribal very closely.  I think that was half the reason Matt Eastwood, our ECD, got me in here; it was to try and move people in that direction.  It’s part of my job description.  Matt wanted someone in here who not only understands production, but all the other areas as well.

When you’re working on an integrated project, do your producers work side by side with the interactive producers?

Pretty much.  Ideally one day, I’d like to have one producer from the top down who can follow a job all the way through, someone who has that full skill set. At the movement, it’s sort of an “us and them” approach.  One day it will be fully integrated, and the production department will have all the skills as the people down in Tribal.

Is it any different when you’re working with an outside digital shop?  Does it make the integration process more complicated?

It works exactly the same way.  It’s just a matter of matter of making sure you’re dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s and having everything covered. I think, as with any production, it’s all about planning.  If you’ve got all of that in place, you hope to God that everything else falls into place later down the road.

Do you expect to see more of this kind of collaboration forward?

I think so, because clients don’t always want to go to one agency to handle all aspects of a brand’s advertising.  It’s about dissecting their business and making sure certain people are taking care of certain aspects of the brand; I think that, if anything, it can give them a little bit of an edge.  Having said that, there’s also nothing wrong with having all your business at one agency.

How is the production community in Australia and New Zealand adapting to the type of changes that you and other Heads of Production are trying to instill in their departments?

I think at the moment there’s a handful that’s doing it, a handful that are talking about it and a handful that are doing nothing.  Companies like @radical.media and another shop called The Feds, they’re the ones that are educating the agencies on what can be done. They’re also willing to collaborate with agencies to try and get projects up. Certainly Radical has been doing it for the last few years. But it’s really only taken off here over the last couple of years.

Who are the other leaders in Australia and New Zealand?

There’s Exit Films in Melbourne—they have a really good pool of directors, as does Revolver Films, which has fantastic talent.  And Filmgraphics, of course. We certainly have a lot of directors and production companies in this country.

Like you said, there’s a core group that want to be on the progressive edge of this, right?

Correct.  Some are going the traditional way, and others are saying, ‘We have to change our business model and the way we do things.’  And I think that a lot of that is leading up to the fact that, for the last 10 years in Australia, we’ve had an issue with budgets.  It’s probably the same everywhere; budgets are being reduced every time we get a brief.  And this makes you have to take on a new way of working—which is not necessarily harder, but smarter.  As a result, a lot of production companies are taking on board the whole content thing, while some are just going to stick with the conventional way.

What is the biggest challenge the production community faces?  Is it how to adapt to this new way of working?

The biggest struggle is budgets.  For production companies, I think the good ones and the established ones will adapt and change as needed.  But the ones you think would be leading the way are not.  I don’t want to name names, but once you’ve got your infrastructure as a production company—your DPs, your producers and production managers—it shouldn’t be hard to adapt to what’s being requested by agencies.  I think it’s a matter of just doing it.

Has the global financial crisis had a big impact on the business in Australia?

That’s part of it.  But one of the big reasons budgets have been reduced—and they’ve been getting smaller for years—is because of the other media and marketing sectors where clients are spending their money.  Ten years ago, all we really had was print and broadcast.   Now we have all these other avenues.  And clients are trying to make that money go as far as it can, and they’ve got to dice it up for all the other ways they’re reaching consumers.  I think that’s the main reason behind the reduction in budgets. At the same time, I think that Australia in general—hand on heart here—I think agencies here have adapted well to the needs of clients when it comes to budget restraints, and that most production companies and certainly most agencies have taken it on board and tried to work in a collaborative manner to make things happen.  Hopefully it hasn’t affected the creative output of any agency.

 Chapter 1: David Rolfe...        Chapter 2: Steffen Gentis...       Chapter 3: Colin Hickson...        Chapter 4: Brenden Johnson...