The Martin Agency's Steve Humble On Getting Along
What’s your outlook for the production industry in general for 2010? And where do you see production going at The Martin agency as you gain more experience with your integrated model?
I’m excited. I think there are huge opportunities for everyone in production. Ultimately, a thirty-second commercial isn’t going anywhere. I think there’s more with the way consumers view things now—it’s them deciding what they want to watch, them pulling it in, not us pushing it on them. When you have that kind of model, good storytelling and compelling commercials become more important than ever. So I’m excited about the opportunities, because clients can’t afford to put out bad advertising, since people aren’t going to accept it, and it’s not going to work. I feel like there are lots more opportunities for great work out there, and for smart people who can provide that. We’ve found that people are more than willing to watch advertising that’s entertaining.
What does BrandFirst Entertainment do?
BrandFirst Entertainment is in the business of continually finding, inventing and bringing branded content and experiential marketing ideas to clients of The Martin Agency that work within the unified advertising platform.
What’s changed the most about how The Martin Agency produces TV work since you started here?
We were more of a print shop then. Our print department was three times the size of the broadcast department at the time; broadcast was a total of eight people when I started. Back then, we produced print work for every client at the agency, while we did broadcast for just some of them. We had Saab back then, but they were only doing two or three spots a year. So I think the biggest shift is that we’ve definitely become a TV agency, and clients come to us for the TV work that we do.
Also, how the departments are run is different. A year ago we integrated all the production groups into a single group called Integrated Production and Design. It encompasses print, digital producers, an in-house studio and an in-house editorial facility that handles work for broadcast and everything else.
Are you in charge of all of that?
I’m in charge of all that, but I have group heads that manage the day-to-day of the various groups. I also manage a small group called BrandFirst Entertainment, which is our branded content group.
How do you function between departments and between disciplines? What happens when there’s a job in the agency that has multiple deliverables for different media platforms? What’s the approach?
It’s interesting. Going into this, I was very clear that I don’t know everything and we were going to try things that may or may not work. We were aware of how other agencies were structured in integrated departments, but we needed something that worked well for us. That’s how we built it; we asked, ‘What’s going to work best for us?’ And the first thing we did was brought our print producers down and had them comingled in the broadcast department. Then we moved digital producers down here in broadcast as well. So all of the producers are sitting together and working kind of side-by-side. In some cases, I even have producers from different disciplines working in the same offices, which we did on purpose.
How’s everyone getting along?
Everyone’s getting along great. The hope is that we slowly cross train people, but it’s a slow process. We just can’t throw an art producer on a broadcast job and tell them, ‘go figure it out.’ We can’t have our clients pay for our learning curve. But on some projects, we’ll have a broadcast producer and someone else go along, and the client isn’t paying for that person to watch and learn. It’s easier to say, well, we have some animatics to do, let’s have an art producer work on them. We produce the animatics in-house, so our print producers are now producing them, which is a little different then producing print ads. They’re doing some of these functions at a low risk level, as well as doing it right here in the building, where they have people they can turn to if they have questions.
On bigger jobs, we often have broadcast leading the show. Typically, on a job where you have all these assets we have to go out and capture—broadcast, print, digital, etc.—broadcast is the biggest and most expensive part of it. So the broadcast producers get the ball rolling, and everyone works with them to make sure all the pieces are getting worked out. The goal was, instead of having three or four producers working on a project, let’s get it down to one or two. Because ultimately, even on some of these big projects where we have print and digital and broadcast, it’s hard for one producer to handle it all, especially with varying timelines, because that’s what makes integration hardest. Usually print ads have to be to the publications so much earlier then a broadcast spot has to be delivered to a network.
That can lead to lots of conflicts on deadlines, right?
It’s the biggest issue in integration, to be honest with you. It’s more about production schedules and deadlines than anything else. Timelines dictate that the prints have to be produced earlier, or the broadcast isn’t ready or the client hasn’t approved it—for example, they’ve approved the print but not the script—so it’s the timelines that get in the way of the truly integrating the production process.
How do you manage this multifaceted work flow?
The individual producers are managing their individual timelines. Right now I have Marge Connelly, who helps me run the broadcast department, keeping track of who’s working on what, and she also manages art producers. And now the digital producers report to me as well, because I want to get that up and running well at the agency. What a digital producer does when they’re building a website is not just capturing assets for a banner ad or a web film, which a broadcast producer can do. It requires an expertise that a broadcast producer can’t just jump in and know. That’s going to take time, and ultimately no matter how far we get on cross-training, there are still going to be specialists. There are going to be broadcast producers that will not learn how to do websites, which is fine—we don’t need everyone to do everything. What we need is people on the edges that can fill one or two other roles; that’s where the agency can really benefit by using people most effectively. And again, we can reduce the number of producers on various projects—we can bring a four-person team hopefully to a two-person team.
Seems you can’t turn on the TV these days in the US without seeing a Martin Agency spot for GEICO or Walmart. How do you handle this volume?
The way we have it structured is that we have five executives in broadcast. One of the executive producers manages Walmart, for which we have a dedicated team. It’s run by Bret Alexander, with two senior producers on Walmart, five assistant producers and ten to fifteen producers. So Walmart is sort of its own dedicated team, due to the amount of production they do, the time frame, the scale, etc. Even though we have dedicated producers for them, I think everyone in the department has done a Walmart spot at one point or another because there’s so much work. When they’re peaking production-wise, there’s so much going on that we have more people pitch in.
The other four executive producers here divide up different accounts, but every account has a dedicated assistant producer. So the assistant producer understands how GEICO does their shipping, how they manage casting, everything. It’s a function that we’ve really grown, and I look to develop them into producers, because they understand the back end of every client, and each client is different in how they handle things. With the assistant producers-based knowledge on how the shipping is done, on estimates, how long it takes to get invoices paid, etc., another producer can come in and not need to know all these details, because the assistant producer does. They can focus on making the work as good as it can be with the best people. The assistant producers of Walmart, for example, have a deep understanding of the back end of the account.
How does this impact how you work with production companies? On some of these bigger assignments, do you try and combine jobs into packages?
We definitely do. We always look for ways to be efficient and smart in what we do for them, and a lot of times if you see four or five spots shot by one director it’s usually similar spots from one campaign. I think we do a good job being cost efficient, and sometimes what we’ll do is work with one company and do a big, multi-spot job using several of their directors at one time.
How does your department work with outside digital agencies in the case of clients that you share?
I think it’s good. Again, it’s different with each client and each digital shop. I think we try hard—it’s always about what’s in the client’s best interest. Sharing information and assets is important. We handle Discover Card, which has a different digital AOR, and we work really well with them. Same with RGA and Walmart, although we haven’t done a lot of sharing of assets, mainly because of schedules. But there’s a lot of dialog—we know what each other is doing. At the end we really do what’s in the client’s best interest.
Now that you are in charge of producing all these multi-platform assets for clients, what’s happening in terms of cutting up the pie when it comes to budgets? Now that funds to produce content is being divided up, what impact is it having on your vendors?
Obviously, everyone is looking for the most value for every dollar they spend; from media on down. For me, it’s always been about not trying to find the least expensive options but the smartest options for what you’re doing. For example, if your task at hand is a bunch of viral videos, you don’t need the same kind of post production tweaking you might need for a HD commercial running on a network, because you won’t see it on the web. It comes down to what we’re trying to do with each job. If it’s a commercial running in multiple places and on multiple platforms, you still need to spend to make it look consistent and to meet clients’ expectations.
But it is harder. Once the market gets to a certain level, with the economy, it’s not going back to where it used to be. Once clients get used to paying 25 percent markup, we’re not going back to 28 percent. And I think everyone is looking for smarter options, and the question is always, what else? Beyond the commercial we are shooting, what else can we be doing beyond that?
You mentioned you have in-house editorial capabilities. Do you do any in-house production as well, such as for web videos?
We actually just built out our facility. We’ve had four edit suites, and we’ve built a green screen stage. We haven’t done a whole lot of shooting, but we’ll be doing more of it. The purpose of this stage was to give the opportunity to shoot for banner ads. Also, Walmart’s in store network, Studio Squared, is based here at the agency. Lots of production is going on, and we do a lot of editorial work for them as well.
Does this in-house work pose any kind of threat to outside production and editorial companies you’ve worked with over the years?
I don’t think so. If we do ten percent of the agency’s work, we’re going to be busier than we know what to do with. For us, we’re looking for opportunities for people to stay here in Richmond more. Being in a market like this, we traditionally haven’t done production here; we’ll do a voiceover or a mix, but we haven’t done significant production or editorial. Our creative teams are on the road for two weeks for a shoot, then you’ve got two to three weeks to edit and finish. It’s a long time to be away from your families. With the amount of production we do now, especially with Walmart and GEICO and some of our bigger clients, we just needed to give our folks the option to work locally.
Where do you see the future going for The Martin Agency?
The goal is to continue to grow our knowledge across the board. We’re confident that the amount of digital work continues to grow. We’ve got some really smart digital producers who add tons of value when working with a creative team. We have multiple development teams here at the agency, so we do both in-house and out of house development work, depending on what we have going on and what’s best for the client. I know clients always want the best of the best, but I feel the value an agency can bring when they have that all under one roof is amazing. The thinking, all the people in the same room, all the briefing and production—you really can’t create more value and effectiveness for clients than this. I’m hopeful we’ll see more digital work going to traditional agencies, and that agencies will be able to add value all around.