Working with the ad agency producer to make your first ad

You came up with the idea, sold it to the creative director, accounts department and the client. Approved! Go make it! Time to meet the advertising agency producer. 

If this is the first time you’re making an ad you must be incredibly excited. But nervous too. You want it to be as great as possible. But there are so many moving parts. And even though you came up with the idea, the truth is your opinion doesn’t hold as much weight as you’d like it to.

You don’t have runs on the board. You haven’t earned any trust from the client or senior people at the agency. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have an influence. Or that you can’t build trust with the wider team quickly. But to do any of this, you need the help and advice of the ad agency producer.

Table of Contents

The main characters and their roles

The advertising agency producer

Once you’re in production, the agency producer is your guide. But they’re also your policeman. They are responsible for making sure everything is done on time, on budget and to a professional standard. 

If something unexpected arises, such as a hurricane or a major injury, the agency producer will work with the production company to see how much more it will cost, find workable solutions, and present options for the client to approve.

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The creative director

The creative director is ultimately responsible for the quality of the final production, which is why every major creative decision needs to go through them.

During production, they will be managing the relationship with the client. Responding to their concerns and communicating the on-the-fly decisions that might need to be made. They will also be watching carefully that what has been promised in the pre-production meeting is being delivered.

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The director

The director has enormous pressure on them, particularly on the set. There are dozens of moving parts and the director is right at the centre of them. Of course, if you want to communicate with them during the shoot, you can. But always do it with the endorsement of the creative director, and have the ad agency producer make sure that you don’t get in their way.

A good director will take pains to communicate with the agency and client teams regularly through the day anyway.

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The production company producer

If anyone is busier than the director, it’s the production company producer. This person is the key enabler of the shoot, and does everything to clear the path for the director to do what they do best, as well as facilitate comments from the client and make sure everyone is where they need to be.

Make sure you save special thanks for this person after the production is finished, because it is their sweat and effort above any other persons that has made this production possible. 

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The Director of Photography (D.O.P)

He or she is more than a cameraperson. They’re responsible for all the lighting placements, camera movements and a lot more than you would expect. The D.O.P is the director’s right hand, and is incredibly important.

Let them do their job in peace. Address all questions about camera framing to the director, via the advertising agency producer.

The Client

There are so many different types of clients it is impossible to generalise what their purpose on the shoot is. There are nervous clients that will ask a million questions. Other clients are just thrilled to be out of the office for a few days and enjoy the catering.

Just remember, they’re paying for this party, so they should never be felt anything less than appreciated and listened to. The account person will be on the shoot as well, and they will be giving the client the bulk of the agency’s love.

The film below was a major viral hit in the early 2000’s. It is still relevant and cuts to the bone. If you want to understand the relationships between everyone making a tv campaign (and have a great laugh), this film is worth your time.

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Making your first ad with the ad agency producer

Step One: Making a Short List of Directors

The advertising agency producer will suggest some directors for your project. But you should take a look around too. Check out production company websites as well as recent award shows.

Importantly – don’t judge the director on the quality of the ideas on their showreel.

Remember that the idea is out of their control. Instead, judge directors on how well they’ve brought the opportunities they’ve had to life. Are they good working with actors? Are they visually striking? These are the questions you should be asking.

You might have a dream director you want to work with, but there will always be limitations. The ad agency producer will be your jungle guide.

Do you have enough money in your budget?

The best directors are more expensive. If this is your first project, you’re more likely to have a modest budget. So, you’ll be looking at younger, less experienced directors.

But that can be ok. As long as the director is signed with a reputable production company, you can be assured they have the support of people who know what they’re doing.

The director wants to do a great job. Because like you, they want it for their portfolio. The production company wants them to do a great job too – they want your agency to be happy so they can be considered for larger projects in the future.

Do you need a specialist?

Perhaps you’ll need someone with experience in automotive, or someone with experience making food look mouth watering. Many directors don’t want to be pigeonholed and like working across a wide variety of product categories. But there are exceptions where special skills are needed to manage the technical aspects of the shoot.

The final approval for your choice of director will the from the client, and they will usually expect to see evidence that the director has relevant work in their showreel. The client is taking a risk with an idea from an inexperienced creative team. Don’t ask them to take a risk with a director as well.

Does your agency have existing relationships?

Perhaps the advertising agency producer is encouraging you to work with a particular director from a particular production company. This could be for one of two reasons.

First, perhaps the production company did a favour to the agency on a past job and it’s time for payback. This is common. As long as the director is good, it could make sense to go along with it. 

Second, an agency producer might be encouraging you to work with a particular supplier for personal reasons. Production companies LOVE agency producers. The agency producer is the gatekeeper they need to suck up to for the big budget productions. 

Advertising agency producers are regularly taken out for nice (expensive) lunches, given Christmas presents and so on. Good agency producers don’t let the swag color their judgement. But some take it too far. If you think this is happening, it is not your fight. The best approach is to go to your creative director and, without making any accusations, go through the directors solely on their merits and finalise your short list with their blessing.

Tread so carefully. Creative directors and agency producers spend a lot of time together. If an ad agency producer takes a dislike to you, you will be outgunned. Even if you think your agency producer is a bit dodgy, do everything you can to stay on their good side

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Step Two: Getting Treatments and Appointing a Director

The agency producer will set up meetings with the chosen directors. You’ll share your scripts, and visual reference.

Each director will go away and take about a week to put together a document called a ‘treatment’. It’s a document of 10 to 20 pages that outlines the vision the director has for the production. The treatment also goes into specifics such as where they might want to shoot the ad, what sort of technology they’ll use, and so on.

The treatment is returned to the agency with the production company’s budget for their approach. 

The agency team will assess each director on a combination of their treatment, the budget and showreel. On that basis, together you’ll decide which ‘package’ will work best.

Presenting directors to your client. 

Your agency will have a recommendation. But the client might decide to go with someone else. Their money, their call.

If there is trust between the agency and client, they’ll usually go with the agency recommendation. But that doesn’t always happen. Even with the best agency / client relationships.

Which is why you must NEVER get a director to put together a treatment if you have any concerns about them whatsoever. Only put good options in front of the client, and you will always be working with a good option on the shoot.

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Step Three: Pre-Production

The rubber hits the road. Your advertising agency producer will have to call the unsuccessful directors with the bad news. As the chosen production company throw themselves immediately into organising the shoot. 

They’ll be finalising shoot dates, booking the crew, getting licences and permissions for shoot locations and so on. If you’re shooting outside your city, they will book flights, hotel rooms and transportation too.

The agency producer will be in constant contact with their opposite number at the production company. Who is the ACTUAL producer that’s responsible for making it all happen.

The relationship between the two producers is the most important relationship of all during the production. Now, as on the set, all communication with the director and production company goes through the ad agency producer. This is so they know the budget that’s been approved by the client isn’t imperilled by whatever whim the creative team has.

The advertising agency producer will be the person that will present you the shooting storyboards, wardrobe recommendations, casting options and arrange all meetings and phone calls with the director.

Sometimes the ad agency producer will come to you with a request.

Perhaps you need to write a casting brief, or provide a colour scheme for a set build. Whatever it is, get it done quickly. People at the production company are waiting for it, and they are always short of time and working late nights.

Take care to always have everything approved by the creative director before giving it to the agency producer to return to the production company.

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Step Four: The Pre-Production Meeting

It’s time. This is the final rubber-stamp before the shoot goes ahead.

You will be at the meeting, but it isn’t your meeting. This meeting is the production company’s meeting, with the explicit support of the agency producer.

The client will need to approve everything that your director’s been working on. Casting, wardrobe, locations, timings. Everything. As long as what is presented is a logical expansion of the director’s treatment, you should be fine. But remember, the client hasn’t seem anything since they approved the director and there’s a lot of new information for them to digest.

The client might have some changes. In which case, the agency producer and the production company will need to scramble. In the worst scenario, if a client is spooked by what they see, they can cancel the entire shoot. This is rare though. If the campaign has made it this far, momentum usually carries it through.

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Step Five: On Set

Before each shooting day, you’ll be given a ‘call sheet’. This is a document created by the production company that outlines the days schedule and tells everyone where they’re expected to be and when.

Once you arrive on set, you’ll be shuffled off to ‘video village’. A marquee with a live feed from the camera. You will spend many, many hours here with your creative director, the client, the account people the ad agency producer. 

You are being deliberately kept out of the way. There’s a lot to do. The director needs their own headspace to get everything done. If they need something, they will come to you.

To help keep you out of the way, the production company will do all they can to keep you sedated. You’ll be extremely well fed, offered regular coffees and made to feel comfortable. But it’s your job to stay focused.

During each shot you need to be thinking what else can be done. An alternate line. A head movement. If creatives are just sitting back in video village instead of thinking of what else can be done, they’re not doing their job.

On set, there is a rigid chain of command that must be followed.

The first person to talk to about any concerns or ideas you have is your creative director. If they agree with you, they’ll talk to the client about it. If they also agree the advertising agency producer will find the production company producer and manage the feedback between themselves and the director.

That’s the way it works. 

Nothing goes to the director without the ad agency producer knowing about it. And you don’t say anything to the wider team (especially the client) unless you’ve said it to the creative director first.

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Step Six: Post Production

The USA is the only country where quite often the director hands over the footage, shakes your hand, and leaves post-production to the agency. 

Everywhere else, the director is responsible for the finished product. They will wrestle with the edit (alongside an editor), supervise special effects, and work with the colorists, musicians and sound effect people. Of course, the agency (and sometimes the client) is brought in at every stage to offer thoughts and feedback.

If you’re in the USA and working at an agency that does it’s own editing, your ad agency producer has such an outsized influence on the project from this point. You’ve never edited a piece of film with this many moving parts. And you don’t have access to an experienced mentor such as a director to offer advice and help you through difficult times. 

The best mentor you have is the agency producer. And creative director whenever you can access them. But the advertising agency producer is the grown-up in the room that will be around the most.

So use them. Get their opinions on your work before showing progress to your creative director, and take it seriously. You should also seek out other creative mentors to help you through the process. Senior creatives that you respect, for example.

Make sure you are polite to everyone, respect deadlines, listen to good advice and you’ll be fine.

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Step Seven: It’s a Wrap

Well done! Even if you’re a little disappointed in the final result (which happens), you’ve definitely learned valuable lessons and you’ll do better next time.

Your sense of relief must be palpable.

Don’t get carried away with your victory lap (see ad below). Take some time to conduct an honest post-mortem on the project. What went well? How could you have been better prepared? Where do you need more experience and more practice?

Again, the advertising agency producer is valuable. Take her out to lunch (let’s be honest, it’s usually a ‘her’) and ask for honest feedback on your performance during the shoot process. Make yourself vulnerable. Accept their feedback in good faith, and take concrete steps to improve yourself and your processes.

Then do the same thing with your creative director.

If senior people in your agency see you have a growth mindset, and are eager to learn, you will climb the ladder in the creative department that much faster.

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Step Eight: Gratitude

Make sure you say thank-you generously and sincerely to everyone who has worked on the project. The director, the production company producer, the account people, the editor. Anyone you can think of that has contributed to the finished product deserves to be acknowledged.

If you’re comfortable, make a brief phone call with that person. If not, a sincerely worded email is great too.

You may be working with these people many times in the future. Perhaps at the agency you are at now, or perhaps somewhere else in the future. Make sure they look forward to working with you again. Respectful gratitude is always remembered. And will count in your favour in the future.

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