How to avoid the six most dangerous words in advertising production
Updated: May 6
Today a successful company must be communicating to their audience with greater frequency and across more platforms than ever before. The budgets and schedules are tighter than ever and the deliverables are constantly expanding. Being creatively nimble and efficient on ways to maximize time and money without sacrificing quality is an essential trait for production companies to survive in this landscape. Lots of planning, tweaking, testing and re-imagining go into figuring out how to shoot schedules once thought to impossible (like 26 completely different vignettes in two days with photo).
As a producer I’m always on the lookout for obstacles on the horizon. Pre-production is basically imagining every possible way something could go wrong and simultaneously doing everything in your power to steer things to exceed even the highest expectations. If my job is done well, the shoot day can be far less stressful than the last few days of prep leading up to it. The one thing I can never completely plan for is the agency and/or client’s reactions throughout the day. No matter how lock step everyone was at the pre-production meeting, inevitably there will be creative decisions still to be made on set. This will not affect that meticulously planned out schedule IF there is a strong creative vision AND deep knowledge of the brand. Without both of those components, things can veer off course very quickly and those six dreaded words start to creep on set “Can We Do It Both Ways?”
It is such a simple question and seemingly as harmless as one loose little thread on a sweater. Obviously there are situations in which it makes perfect sense to cover something multiple ways, if it’s an isolated action and can be done faster than the conversation about whether or not to do it, just get it done.
The problem is rarely does that question only affect one scene. This question can unravel the continuity of previously filmed footage and force you into covering both ways for several more shots still to come just to accommodate both options rather than making a decision about the right option. Worse yet, once the first “both ways” suggestion is accepted, it quickly becomes the default answer for every question thereafter: all of the above! Why make the single best version of the spot when we can make every version of it and let someone else make the decision?
The price of “both ways” usually comes later that afternoon when you either have to to cut shots or do less takes or go into overtime to make up for all the added shots that “both ways” brings. Where you once allotted thirty minutes of performance to nail the big payoff scene; now that becomes 10 minutes on each Version-A, Alt-B and Just In Case-C. Two of which will never make the cut, but they will rob the one that does make the cut of that other 20 minutes needed to get that perfect take. Perhaps Weezer said it best, “if you want to destroy my sweater, pull this thread as I walk away”
There is always a best option. However, making a decision has consequences and the fear of potentially making the wrong decision can overshadow the opportunity to build a reputation for making the right decisions. Where are Don Drapers who are paid handsomely to have that vision of the best path? Agencies have increasingly assigned more and more people to figure out the client’s perfect recipe, not because it is more effective but because it is more billable. You can charge more for ten cooks than one chef but when it comes time to make the stew- it’s going to be ten people trying very hard not to make it too spicy, too salty or too sweet and what comes out is just bland. I promise that you’ve never seen a great, memorable story shot this way. No truly great movie, show, song, painting or even recipe has ever functioned this way. However, a LOT of pretty bad movies have been made by catering to the loudest person in the focus group rather than trust the Director.
My first priority on any shoot is to find a decision maker and avoid the death of a thousand cuts that is “both ways”. Sometimes that person will reveal himself or herself early in the process. Sometimes they aren’t seen until shoot day. Occasionally they are actually 1000’s of miles away from the shoot getting sent photos from the ten people that were flown to the shoot (apparently for the sole purpose of sending photos NOT making decisions). When the agency operates from panic rather than relying on their preparation, experience and instinct; then the chances of making our schedule gets smaller and smaller and the chances of making something truly original disappear.
So, how can we avoid this? Simple, get actual decision makers involved in the process as early as possible and empower the people on set to execute the vision that was laid out. If you're not there to make a decision, then you're just dead weight; slowing down the process and padding to the bill.
Having decision makers from every discipline (creative, production, post) will ensure that you unearth more potential obstacles and creative questions in advance then you can make informed decisions on those questions. Without decisions, that sweater will soon become just a ball of yarn.