I'm coming out: I want the world to know we work direct with brands

Production companies and ad agencies are now occupying each other's territory, writes the chief creative officer at Framestore

Once upon a time, we all knew our place.

Brands gave briefs to agencies that came up with amazing campaign ideas and then commissioned production vendors to turn them into a reality. Oh, what simple, clear-cut days.

But life just isn’t like that anymore. 

With networks like Engine and Oliver investigating in-house operational models, agency teams are becoming brand teams. Meanwhile, the IPA/APA furore suggests that production companies are becoming agencies and agencies are fast becoming production companies.

The silos have come crashing down quicker than the Berlin Wall and we’re left with a mess where everyone is trying to sneak a bit of everyone else’s lunch.

But, with the right mindset, it could just be a joyous mess that’s filled with opportunity.

Through fear of biting the hand that feeds it, advertising’s VFX companies have for years kept schtum about accepting briefs direct from brands that want to eschew the agency system.

But now that the system has become so fragmented, it’s time for everyone – from brands at the top of the food chain to production vendors at the bottom – to acknowledge our new reality and be more transparent. 

There are plenty of reasons why brands come directly to us. Some brands, rightly or wrongly, feel rebuffed by what they perceive as a pervasive agency superiority complex. Some realise that their agencies simply don’t understand new platforms like AR and VR. And some just want a more agile approach on tactical, production-heavy work.

The silo model is rarely healthy, whatever the industry. For advertising to escape this model, we have to reexamine the nature of the relationships that have underpinned the sector for so damned long that their relevance is becoming questionable.

Currently, agencies are the lynchpin; the centre of gravity that unites the brand with a complex network of production expertise. It’s a model that still works well for the blockbusting ‘big idea’ campaigns. But less so for the new breed of content-led marketing that’s becoming an ever more crucial part of the mix.

To shake-up the model into something that’s better suited to brands’ contemporary ‘always on’ and multiplatform needs, there has to be less sensitivity about who is speaking to who and why.

True partnerships are the key to creating campaigns in the most efficient but creative ways. And true partnerships – the ones with a value that runs deeper than a budget’s bottom line – blossom only when everyone in the entire chain respects each other’s contributions.

If we can’t adapt to this new reality, we will fall back into the same old inefficient silo model of overly-protected brand/agency relationships, where vendors cut to the bone on budgets (and, by proxy, production values) by competing for whatever crumbs are left after agencies have taken a disproportionate share of the brand’s money.  

There is, of course, one big fat elephant in the room when it comes to brands working direct with production partners. I can already hear the cries and sighs of agency folk all across town: "But where’s the long term strategy?".

If the production world wants a slice of the agency pie, they need smart agency people (and it’s why we’re frequently getting job queries from young creatives who intrinsically understand that massive change is on the horizon). But as the Pepsi shitstorm so aptly showed, there will always be a place for agencies’ A-class strategy and creativity, especially when it comes to the ‘big idea’.

The production world can’t expect to muscle in on agency territory without any repercussions.

In return for agencies making peace with the fact that production partners may occasionally work direct with brands, production and VFX companies have to accept that agencies are free to seek new revenue streams by taking production in-house.

Hell, we’ve even heard reports of some agencies taking VR in-house. Taking something that’s so completely new in-house is a bold and brave move. But I say "bring it on" because competition makes us stronger. 

Rather than fighting the new reality, let’s all ‘fess up and grow up. Instead of wasting energy defending an antiquated system, let’s embrace the fact that walls are tumbling down. That way, we can make the system work better for all of us.

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