How do you get the right production value for your advertising?

Through our production consulting services, we have discovered when it comes to production values (the perceived quality of the production that is seen on the screen) we are dealing with an incredibly subjective assessment that is often overplayed by agencies and production companies and under-delivered in the eye of the advertiser and the consumer.

A true story

Now the following is true and I was a party to the events as they unfolded.

The moving media (television or video production) involved an actor talking direct to the camera. The agency art director thought the actor needed to wear a suit to give him an air of authority and conservative values.

The agency art director also wanted the actor to wear an Armani suit as the cut and drape of the garment would also give the actor a presence of sartorial elegance and personal wealth (both good traits that would wash off onto the product).

Now the suit was black so it was very difficult to see the cut and drape at all. But this was only discovered after the set and actor were lit at the studio on the shoot day. So there is some argument that the production value of a designer suit was misguided.

Now another interesting fact is Armani do not hire out garments so for this extra production value the suit would have to be purchased out right. So the wardrobe recommendation of the art director to improve the production values cost an extra $4,000 over a perfectly suitable rented outfit costing approximately $150. But does a couple of thousand dollars matter in the whole scheme of things?

Besides, luckily the actor chosen was exactly the same size (including leg length) as the agency art director, so the ‘worn only once’ Armani suit did not go to waste. It hangs in the art director’s wardrobe and will be worn to the next creative awards night.

But I digress. The issue is how can clients sort out what is a genuine and worthwhile production value and worth the investment and what is spin and a waste of funds.

“Not My Money”

When it comes to production costs this can become the exasperated mindset of some brand managers as they struggle with the concept of achieving the ‘right production values’ on the advice of the agency and production company while trying to reduce production costs in the face of procurement driven savings.

The problem for procurement is that savings are definitive and measurable, while production value is largely subjective. Quite often the marketing departments will be fed inflated claims regarding ‘production values’ by the agency’s client service and creative teams as a way of securing the additional production budget.

The issue is in defining what investment will increase production values and what will not.

What are production values?

Production values are the perceived value of the production investment seen on the screen in the final master. The irony is that high quality production value is most noticeable when it is missing, rather than being appreciated by anyone outside of the production industry when present.

From a commercial perspective high production values are equated with quality, professionalism and skill – all attributes desired by most brands and organisations in their advertising. But in the YouTube generation the general public also appreciate the idea or concept in the most amateur or basic production.

In fact the concepts in some of the most popular YouTube videos do not have high quality production values.

From art department to post production

Production values are associated with all aspects of production, but for the art department or post production it usually requires an increase in budget. Let’s take post production as an example. The use of a post production shot transition where the out going shot / scene slides off screen to be replaced by a sliding incoming shot / scene – quite hip in contemporary editing.

The most common shot / scene transition is a common cut, in use since the first silent movies. So what is the point of using, let’s call it, the sliding cut? The agency may tell you that the sliding cut was used in a recent popular feature film and if it is used in the advertiser’s latest television commercial or video it will show that the advertiser is up with modern and trend setting technology.

And this hallow editing effect will rub off onto your product and it will also be perceived as modern and trend setting. Now whether the shot slides on or off to the left or the right is another point that can be discussed for hours, so we will just let it slide (no pun intended) for the moment.

Now whether the hallow editing effect is real or just spin is hard to measure, so most marketers will opt for (at the agencies insistence) the production value of the sliding cut, after all the extra cost for the sliding cut is not coming out of their own pocket (although it is coming out of their budget).

The trouble is there is no way of validating if the additional cost of this editing effect is worth it. Procurement departments are used to working with hard data and measurable metrics, not subjective claims of the efficacy of an editing technique on consumer persuasion.

Unfortunately for the uninitiated it is difficult to tell the difference. While the agency or production house may insist on a particular cinematography technique, or art direction innovation, or an audio scape that requires additional investment in the production budget to deliver this improved “production value”, the question that is avoided is, are they essential to the effectiveness of the commercial communication?

Sorting hype from high quality

Here are a few signposts you may pick up that would indicate that suggested production values should be scrutinised. Excessive art department and post production special effects costs are always a good place to start.

Production conversations between the agency creative personnel and the client, that make reference to contemporary movies or music clips. I once worked with a creative director who when talking with the client refered to the project as “our little movie”. This always indicated to me that the art director’s expectations were far in excess of what would be reasonably needed.

Remember that a feature film or even a music clip for that matter are distinctly different from a commercial communication (television commercial). A movie has a complex narrative a commercial should have a simple message. As an advertiser it is important not to confuse the two.

Getting professional advice

For help with the production value black hole you really need the advice of an independent specialist who knows something about the production industry, it’s politics and what motivates all the players, and believe me altruism is not typically high on the agenda.

Of course for an independent specialist to be of any value the specialist should be engaged early in the production process. It is difficult for any production specialist, no matter how highly regarded, to have significant financial impact on a budget once the production train has left the station.

Read more on the TrinityP3’s Production Consulting Assessment, which provides a detailed evaluation of your current production operation, and recommendations to achieve optimal performance.