Umair Kazi, Partner, Ishtehari, on the ever-changing dynamics of digital production.
We were recently invited to pitch for a new brand of an existing client. The brief had the usual suspects: customer targeting, gap identification, revolutionary product, yadda, yadda, yadda. Like all pitches, there was an emphasis on 360-degree message penetration, but the key deliverable was the humble TVC. So far, so good. We cooked up a relevant strategy and prepared a treatment for what would become the centrepiece of our campaign: a ‘sticky’ commercial.
A week into the process, like all agencies, I called our client to ask for a two-day extension, because of a conflicting shoot we were occupied with. In an email response, our clients granted my request but added a shocker in the last line: “Also, to update you, we are now planning on producing a DVC instead of a TVC.” Oh crap, I thought. That changes everything. We will have to rethink the whole thing. But why, the client would unquestionably ask. TV or digital, both are just mediums. What difference does it make to the brand’s strategic messaging or the creative big idea?
Digital production: A different kind of beast
It makes a world of difference. This is not based on textbook analysis, but on hard lessons learnt on ground realities. A decade ago, I was naïve enough to bet a fellow strategic planner that TV was going to die at the hands of social video by 2020. We etched our bet on the trunk of a palm tree in our former agency’s garden, deciding to come back, 3-Idiots-style and announce the winner. Since then, we both moved on to open our own agencies, but I am glad he didn’t hold me up to it. Traditional TV advertising is still going strong and digital video is not replacing it, but rather creating its own specific ecosystem. Digital production is a strange, challenging and ruthless part of our industry and it is causing a lot of pain to a lot of people. It is built for a medium that has changed the rules and we have no choice but to fall in line to accept its rules, nuances and expectations. It routinely chews us up and spits us out, a fact that TV-based legacy brands and ad agencies have difficulty navigating.
Digital is cheaper: Jury’s still out
Everyone is supposed to change their tone and expectations in terms of money when you mention the word ‘digital’. Suddenly, the production is supposed to be significantly cheaper because “digital hee toh hai yaar; this is not a big budget TVC campaign.” I can understand where that point of view originates from because digital content often has a shorter shelf life than traditional media campaigns. The REDs and Arris get downgraded to HD and DSLRs, expensive sets change to ‘will-work-just-fine’ locations and big-name talent is swapped for fresh faces. Unfortunately, clients often don’t get the same memo. In my opinion, their expectations of the production quality are not quite adjusted to match the reduced financial scale of the projects. They are strong adherents of aaam ke aam, gutlion ke daam (wanting the fruit for the price of the seed) mindset. Of course, there are exceptions and we have had some wonderful clients who have kept a digital-first mindset and look at digital video for the content without getting hung up on the production values.
Breaking free of overproduction
In the same vein, digital content releases brands and agencies from the expensive clutches of traditional advertising. If Junaid Akram can use an idea and a cell phone camera to give a video more engagement than your entire 50-person shoot built atop the strategic might of a multinational agency network, then you really need to reassess your decisions in life. Do you really need Saqib Malik to shoot 500 takes of the same shot in order to create an immaculate two seconds of your 30-second ad? Probably not, especially if you will also have to drown Facebook and Google with money to force your content through annoying instream placements. The film might look perfect, but your audience hates it with a passion or worse – they just don’t care. The math simply doesn’t add up.
On a traditional media plan, media muscle is all that matters. A lacklustre message can still be made sticky by hammering it enough times. However, in the digital age, performance metrics come into play.
Learning to fail faster
This is a vital fact of the digital content economy that is difficult to accept. Some of the stuff will suck – and no, that does not mean a death sentence for the brand image. The key insight here is the audience and the sheer abundance of content they have access to. They have a short attention span and a failing memory. You are a hero one day and a has-been the next. The 15 seconds of fame are now literal. If you have any doubts, ask the chaiwala and the brands that piggybacked on him. Because of the massive volume of content available, you have no choice but to be experimental in order to stand out. And nobody wants to bet the house on an experiment. Therefore, agencies, brands and production houses need to accept the fact that some things will work better than expected and others will fall flat. We recently did a mini-series for a milk brand where half the videos gained a stellar reception and the other half got boo-ed off the internet. Like literally. We had to kill and delete some episodes because they were causing too much of a backlash. You may think this is wasteful, but it is part and parcel of digital production in this day and age. The audience is ruthless and you have to abandon some of your babies.
Business model: Content vs. production
There is a seismic shift in the way digital production is supposed to work, simply because of the way modern media vehicles are structured. On a traditional media plan, media muscle is all that matters. A lacklustre message can still be made sticky by hammering it enough times. However, in the digital age, performance metrics come into play. No matter how much spend you throw into the mix, the content will determine how well it is received, both in terms of completed views as well as engagement and click-throughs. This means that brands and agencies have to work on the content angle a lot more. One way to attempt this is to put the word ‘viral’ and ‘organic’ into the brief and the proposal enough times to give the illusion that the content will turn out to be an internet masterpiece. The other, more difficult yet ultimately more rewarding, way to go about it is to recognise the fluidity of the content landscape. This means effective writing, cognisant of ongoing pop culture and trends, balanced by a continuous connect with the brand’s strategic communication. The six-seconder YouTube restriction can be a powerful deterrent to shoddy conceptualisation. Sounds great, but most brands still don’t want to pay for that. Which is why, the entire burden of an agency’s thinking process comes down to production costs. These costs are subsequently beefed up to support the creative content development and thinking process, but it’s a roundabout way of doing this.
New tricks of the trade: Beyond video
We inherited the sacrosanct video as the key deliverable from TV days, but the truth of the matter is that the word ‘video’ itself is open to debate when it comes to digital production. It’s not just an X-minute film that needs to have virality built into it. Facebook, Instagram and YouTube rapidly experiment and expect their agency partners to quickly adapt to new offerings. Instead of the typical linear video, the production can focus on a 360/VR-enabled shoot. This changes the entire landscape, including camera rigs, set design and storytelling aspects. For that matter, the production itself can be augmented by live streaming. This means that the story, as well as the production, is open-ended and can change as per the feedback received. Think 'Choose Your Own Adventure' books but with video on steroids! We have done some experimental work in this area and it can be very challenging, albeit absolutely novel. With the rise of Instagram and Facebook stories and the eventual tying in of WhatsApp stories into the same ecosystem, agencies and production houses must realise that brands will need vertical-format video content in bite-sized duration to run on their regular social media assets. This is yet another foundational change to our long-treasured production bibles which work exclusively on a horizontal-first principle.
New players on the field
Adding fuel to the fire of structured digital content producers is the advent of independent content creators who can match production houses and even entire agencies in terms of content writing and production values. Many brands are going directly to these talented native content creators such as Mooro or Junejo, to create communication, thereby cutting monolithic agencies out of the loop. What these new players lack in terms of strategic might is more than compensated for in terms of a built-in following.
Testing the limits of digital content production: Case study
We recently concluded a particularly difficult digital production project, which will illustrate how all these parts fit into the play of digital content creation. It was a web series called On Crease With Ramiz, commissioned by HBL to create video content around PSL 4 after every match. We were given access to Ramiz Raja, everything else was improvised. Content was of supreme importance. Ramiz was doing a bunch of other shows for multiple brands, so just having his face on the videos would not suffice. The usual cricket commentary was already being done in greater volume and much better elsewhere. So our content writing team had to think of unique segments to use Raja, stay within the realms of cricket and yet, provide viral worthy yet relevant material for every match and the progress of the series; it could not be canned.
The production was tricky too. We were expected to shoot late at night, right after the match. Understandably, Raja did not have too much time to spare given the packed days that PSL is known for. The episodes then went into edit and since so much of the content was fluid, this was no small task. The first cuts were shared with the client in the small hours of the morning. Approvals would come from compliance at the brand’s head office, slightly later in the morning and the content went up around midday. It was a gruelling task and we were lucky to have production partners who were wired for this sort of ‘always-on’ work.
Then came the geography of the exercise. While most shoots can be pre-planned in terms of location, this was an event that was to shift from Dubai to Sharjah to Abu Dhabi to Lahore and then to Karachi. And as we all saw, even that route plan was subject to change. Couple this with the insane restrictions that PCB put on access to the stadium and you have an inkling of how physically challenging the project was. I am happy to report though that at the end of the day, thanks to some impressive jiujitsu by both our clients and our partners, we were able to create a stellar season of the web series. The moment of truth came from a unique metric that is the holy grail of digital productions and initiatives – shares. Although likes can be influenced by paid digital spend, shares are true indicators of the content’s acceptance with the audience. It is, in short, the one digital metric money cannot buy. We managed to hit 110,000 shares with content shot on OCWR (Optical Continuous Wave Reflectometer). It also had multiple user-generated spinoffs; organically featured on multiple aggregator and content portals, it was picked up multiple times by the TV news channels and resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of memes.
Throw out the playbook
At the risk of bragging, I have showcased our challenges and achievements with HBL’s project to illustrate the fact that despite the ever-changing environment of digital production, agencies and production houses can be successful in the digital arena. It may require throwing out the old rulebook and trying things out for the first time. It may even result in catastrophic failures. Yet, at the end of the day, digital content and its production is a changing dynamic that cannot be ignored. It needs to be attempted and the modus operandi of that attempt may change from project to project and company to company. It requires writing your own rules and hoping for the best. For some, this is scary. But it’s the only way to survive.
Umair Kazi is Partner, Ishtehari. firstname.lastname@example.org