Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

The Elephant in the Room

Published in Sep-Oct 2021

Sami Qahar addresses the ad agency versus production house conflict.

I left advertising in 2006 in search of greener pastures, and then Pakistan in 2009, for the same reason. I came back a couple of years ago and to my surprise, a lot had changed. Some of these changes were inevitable as the world has increasingly moved online, others were more structural and (at least to me), quite unexpected.

Back in the day, agencies developed concepts and were directly involved in the production of TVCs, while on-ground production was handled by directors. The decade starting from 2010 saw the era of independent production houses producing TVCs – either through agencies or directly with clients. The agencies lost creative control and, to a large extent, their enthusiasm for producing ground-breaking TVCs.

I apologise for the sweeping statement above. However, as a neutral marketing guy who has served on all three sides – the agency, the brand and the production house – I have my reasons.

So let’s address the elephant in the room – the ad agency and production house conflict. As it stands, the agency-production house model is not even uniform across industries, let alone companies. Some companies take the concept from the ad agency and deal with the production house directly, some rely on the agency to handle the production house and some don’t even have an agency. Each model has its pros and cons, leaving a lot of unresolved issues for all parties.

Creative control remains the biggest cause of conflict between ad agencies and production houses. Once the concept reaches the production house, the first stage is the creative filter a production house places on the concept – and this can even happen before a director is hired for the project. Production houses often complain about the lack of creativity at agencies. They are often questioned on the quality of their creativity, whereas the reality is that they have minimal creative control over the concepts. Execution quality is definitely the responsibility of the production house. The conflict arises when production houses suggest changes in the concept, which ad agencies consider to be an invasion of their domain.

Ad agencies have their own perspectives. They have to face the client, they understand the brand, they have decoded the brief and have gone through multiple rounds of changes before the production house enters the picture and therefore any further changes suggested by the production house could mean going back to the drawing board and getting approvals all over again. No one in their right mind would want to recreate the wheel. As a result, a lot of creative value addition suggestions end up never being used. Some part of this is also because of a basic human trait called insecurity. A creative director may reject value addition by someone else even if it is justified, purely because of the insecurity that arises as a result of their work being challenged.

One of the most successful campaigns of the last decades was ‘Servis Shoes for Everyone’, a jingle that went viral a decade after it was first released. The most interesting thing about that jingle was that it did not exist at the concept stage, or at the time of the pre-production meeting or even at the shoot. It was composed a day before the final presentation to the client because the director and the production house did not like the VO. The jingle was first sent to the agency, where the creative director completely accepted that it made the TVC better and later the brand team approved it as well although it was not part of the original plan. The result was a hugely successful jingle and a campaign that still brings smiles to our faces. That was 12 years ago.

On the other hand, for every Servis Shoes jingle, there are dozens of ideas that are rejected by ad agencies; suggestions that never reach clients because the ad agency thinks their idea is perfect and does not require value addition. Production houses only whine among themselves and move on with their lives; their cash flow problems are a bigger worry for them, rather than taking credit for the value addition.

Cash flows are another issue. It may not appear so, but the TVC production business is a good business, albeit, too good for a lot of individuals. In an article I wrote for Aurora titled Pirates of the ad commercials in the November-December 2018 edition, I said (and I am saying it again) I am not against anyone making money; that is why we are in the business. I also believe that there may be some films that do cost Rs 20 million or more to make. However, I have a problem with paying 15 million for a film that can be produced for 10 million. There are a lot of hands involved in making TVCs and not all transactions are of a legal nature.

In an ideal world, all this should not result in regressive advertising quality but it has. We have learned a great deal about production design, cinematography and animation. We can make hi-tech ad films but compared to India we are decades behind. The same conflicts may exist there too, but they do not resort to looking for shortcuts when it comes to creative concepts. In Pakistan, the conflicts are allowed to take centre stage and the creative concepts become a by-product of these conflicts.

Yet, these conflicts are here to stay so long as the ad film production business is here. Part of it is process driven, part of it is driven by human nature, and part of it because money is the root of all evil. Processes vary from organisation to organisation and if any organisation prefers one over the other, either the agency or the production house will have their reservations. Human nature with its insecurities and egos will not change (if anything, they are bound to increase thanks to social media). Cash will always be a deadly sin. We need to learn to co-exist within these conflicts. Some agencies and production houses have found a winning formula as a result of which every agency has a favourite production house. One agency prefers a certain production house because of their value addition in creative concepts, another prefers a production house because the financial transactions are mutually beneficial and some clients will stick to their process irrespective of creativity or cost. As long as the winning formula helps brands and advertising in general, it’s all fine. If not, something has to change. Something has to give.

The winning formula? It’s called ‘Servis Shoes for Everyone.’

Sami Qahar is a marketer turned film producer.