Production Line: Finding Your Passion with Mike Hasinoff
Mike Hasinoff is currently an executive producer at Droga5 New York and was recently named Agency Producer of the Year by Ad Age's Creativity Awards. At Droga5, he has worked on a variety of accounts—from Nordstrom and Equinox to COVERGIRL, UNIQLO and more. For the past two years, he's been overseeing all of the agency's work for Facebook (now Meta) and lululemon.
In his free time, he's helping director Natalie Rae with her feature documentary DAUGHTERS, which is being produced independently and is in edit and due to be completed for a hopeful festival debut in 2022.
His work has been honoured at Cannes Lions, the One Show, Ciclope, D&AD, LIAA, the Clios and AICP, and he's even had spots featured on TBS’ 'World’s Funniest Commercials' (back when that was a thing).
LBB> What lasting impact has the experience of the pandemic had on how you and your agency think about and approach production?
Mike> I’ve produced some of the best work of my career in the last 21 months, most of it remotely. The restrictions of the pandemic also brought about increased creativity and, at its best, remote production enabled a deeper collaboration with our production partners and clients.
With my first two remote shoots in 2020, production logistics and safety considerations didn’t allow our agency team or clients to stream into the shoots. While this led to a bit of nervousness and meant more consistent, thoughtful conversations to interrogate our production approach and desired shot lists during prep, it also necessitated greater trust in our directors and production teams. With that added freedom, our director partners not only brought their magic, but also overshot and provided us with way more high-quality footage than we would have had if we’d been slowing them down sitting on Zoom. As we’ve slowly been getting back to in-person productions, it’s been very important for me to keep this learning close and continue to be a guardian, preserving this space for our directors and other close collaborators and having confidence in their abilities.
Also, the move to working from home—or working from anywhere—is a seismic shift for the industry, and the pandemic made everyone take a step back and think about what’s most important to them, their priorities, etc. I spent most of the past year as a digital nomad, and those experiences made me both a better producer and a better human. Not commuting to an office every day enabled me to put that time toward previously neglected areas of my life. As the world starts to reopen, I don’t see people being content with things going back to the way they were. Too many openings were created that gave a glimmer of what’s possible, and too much time has passed.
LBB> Aside from Covid-19, what have been the most disruptive forces to hit agency production in the past few years?
Mike> The social reckoning of Black Lives Matter last year and the industry changes it spurred are so welcome and long overdue. Diversity and inclusivity in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and disability have been personally important for years, so I love that pushing this has become more of a widely adopted mandate across the industry.
Working closely with prominent LGBTQ+ filmmakers Matt Lambert, David Wilson and Andrew Thomas Huang on a number of big projects has been incredibly inspiring for me. For years, they were three of fewer than a handful of successful queer directors. Now that the aperture has finally opened to others, it’s important to keep moving the needle forward. But it’s not just who’s behind the camera on a shoot; it’s also having diverse crews and ensuring that social minorities are visible in front of the camera too - and not just with certain campaigns and initiatives. For an underrepresented group, being accurately reflected in the media is a powerful reminder that your experience and story are just as valid as anyone else’s, in a society that is often saying otherwise. But accurate representation doesn’t have to come at the cost of engaging content.
In the summer, we launched a massive campaign for Facebook to celebrate skateboarding’s first time at the Olympics and produced a series of four films for the platform and for three of their apps. Of our seven directors across the four films, six came from underrepresented backgrounds, as did almost all of our protagonists. To launch such a massive campaign at such a major high-visibility media moment is a huge sign of progress.
I attended the shoot for the Longboard Family film that FKA Twigs directed for this campaign. While I love the film and how it’s crafted (everything from Twigs’ direction, to Stuart Winecoff’s gorgeous cinematography, to Twigs’ suggestion of the Brent Faiyaz track and Robin Hannibal’s added strings arrangement to Mike Tyus and Joy Brown’s choreography, to the fluidity of Mikkel EG Neilsen’s edit and Ballad’s subtle but immersive sound design), what I’m most proud of is how we made it. Not to say we didn’t have production challenges to work through at stages, but the experience of being on set with Twigs and the Object & Animal team was pure joy. There was an energy created with this fully diverse and exceptionally talented team of underrepresented collaborators, both behind and in front of the camera, which was unlike anything I’d experienced before. This was a fully safe space where no one was asked to mute themselves in any way, and that energy translated to the visual poetry that ended up in the film. This is now the benchmark for how I approach every job moving forward.
LBB> A good producer should be able to produce for any medium, from film to events to digital. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why/why not?
Mike> What makes a good producer good is their ability to identify and tell a compelling story. Storytelling spans all mediums, so knowing how to identify the medium that will tell the best story for that content speaks more to someone's ability than simply being able to produce for any medium, for the sake of the medium.
Also, I’m a firm believer that producers should follow what interests them most and not be forced to work in mediums that don’t give them that spark of excitement. That will never lead to the best work. It’s good to develop a general understanding of other mediums, but if you’re really trying to master a discipline, focus is important.
LBB> And leading on from that, when it comes to building up your team at the agency, what’s your view on the balance of specialists vs generalists?
Mike> I’m all for supporting and nurturing producers to pursue the mediums that interest them most. An agency needs specialists. On the other hand, it’s also important for producers to challenge themselves. My background is film, and I’ll always come back to film, but I’ve dabbled in stills, digital and experiential production. My last project before leaving Vancouver was a very forward-thinking iPad app for an art exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Ultimately, the artists killed the app before release because the digital experience we were creating was so cool and innovative, they worried it would lessen the impact their actual physical pieces had on patrons. But for me, the opportunity to work with global best-in-class production partner UNIT9 on something that could have been groundbreaking for art apps was massively thrilling. At that stage in my career, I loved the chance to learn something new and scary. But was I as good a producer on the project as a digital producer at the top of their game would have been? Probably not.
LBB> What’s your own pathway to production? When you started out, what sort of work were you producing and what lessons have stayed with you in that time?
Mike> One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me as a child was the encouragement to find and follow my passion. In university, I’ll never forget my dad telling me, “I don’t care what you do for a living, as long as you figure out a way to support yourself.” I had started in pre-med because I got a science scholarship and that was the path I thought I should be on, but I hated it. I always loved movies and used to spend entire weekends as a teenager watching music videos on MuchMusic, Canada’s version of MTV. In my second year, I stayed in science to keep my scholarship but took no science classes. I filled my calendar with anything that interested me, including film studies. I fell in love with film history and theory and fully immersed myself in every Film and Media Studies course available to me.
I ended up doing a second Commerce degree after graduating with my BA, hoping I could bypass the production assistant years and get into the film industry on the business side, then move into a more creative role. I did an unpaid internship at TBWA\Vancouver as part of my Marketing co-op program and fell immediately into a junior producer role. Following Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, I made it my mission to put in the time and try to master this discipline in less than 10 years.
Vancouver is a tiny blip in the global advertising industry, but I was incredibly lucky to be mentored by very generous producers and to partner with some of the best creatives in Canada. Because our budgets were so tiny, even by Canadian standards, we had to think very strategically about how to find partners who were up for the challenge of making things with what seemed like tape and paper clips. I used to spend evenings and weekends going through director reels of Scandinavian and South American production companies, trying to find talent who hadn’t yet been signed in Canada or the US. Working in an environment where you never have enough budget to do something properly, you learn who your true production allies are—those producers who are also creatively driven and who might just be crazy enough to live on the edge with you for a little while, trying to figure out how to bring something to life and make it look like it cost way more than it did.
My time in Vancouver taught me to critically evaluate what a potential partner can bring to a project, and how obsessing over each little detail of craft can elevate the work at every stage of production.
LBB> There are so many models for the way production is organised in the advertising industry - what set-ups have you found to be the most successful and why?
Mike> For me personally, the European model of production where directors have ownership of the edit and are actively involved in all details of craft through delivery is far superior to the typical North American model, where most directors are largely forced out or asked to be less engaged after the shoot.
Maybe because of my passion for filmmaking and years in university spent studying the great film auteurs, I’ve always had the utmost respect for my directors and what they bring to a project beyond the shoot. Also, working mostly alone on a production island in Vancouver for so many formative years, I developed my own style and didn’t realize I was deviating from those North American norms.
I’ve always worked hard to create space and partner with directors throughout an edit, carving out time for them to work with their preferred editor before our teams see any footage—regardless of what makes sense practically in the schedule—then having our teams continue to craft the edit in close collaboration. I’ve found that directors add so much when it comes to all the details of storytelling and finishing the craft. Now that I’m overseeing multiple projects and producers, I’ve formalized this process with my teams, and nothing ships without our directors guiding and approving it at each stage. It’s definitely more work for our producers, but hopefully the work we’re doing speaks for itself.
LBB> When working with a new partner or collaborator, how do you go about establishing trust?
Mike> Respect and transparency are key. I’m a big fan of talking through things on the phone and not defaulting to email and/or text, where it’s easy for words and tone to be misinterpreted when you don’t know someone well. I also think it’s very important to explain the why of where feedback is coming from. In the same way we can’t properly figure out solutions to client feedback if we don’t understand the root of where it’s coming from, it’s impossible for our creative partners to realize their fullest potential if we’re simply sending copied and pasted to-do lists of feedback.
LBB> What are your thoughts on the involvement of procurement in production?
Mike> I welcome the opportunity to interrogate our production approach and what that means from a cost perspective. We work hard to partner with our clients to align on and inspire the ambitions of great work. In return, our clients place a lot of trust in our production teams, so my experience is that these conversations have never been detrimental to our executions.
LBB> When it comes to educating producers how does your agency like to approach this? (I know we’re always hearing about how much easier it is to educate or train oneself on tech etc, but what areas do you think producers can benefit from more directed or structured training?)
Mike> At Droga5, training for our young producers involves a combination of structured classroom-type learning, close mentorship and on-the-job sink-or-swim experiences. Doing your research and studying great work and the people who made it is as important as being in the field seeing the soft skills of production at work. You also need to learn how to live with that constant fear of impending doom, and learn to trust that you and your partners can figure out solutions to whatever might come up. One of the most exciting things about producing is the constant learning. I still learn something with every job, which I pledge to myself to never do again. And at this stage in my career, I get massive satisfaction witnessing that point where everything just clicks for a young producer and all the knowledge you tried to instill in them falls into place in their mind and instincts.
LBB> What new skills have you had to add to the team as a result of the pandemic?
Mike> The restrictions and constant proactive scenario planning demanded by the pandemic have strengthened the natural agility and flexibility that is inherent in all great producers. They’ve also fostered better, more trusting communication and collaboration.
LBB> Should production have a seat in the c-suite - and why?
Mike> Production is the fourth agency pillar, alongside creative, account and strategy. Great work doesn’t come into the world without the careful planning and execution involved in shaping and elevating ideas from the beginning.
LBB> Clients’ thirst for content seems to be unquenchable - and they need content that’s fast and responsive! What’s the key to creating LOTS of stuff at SPEED - without sacrificing production values? Is it even possible?
Mike> As producers, we can mobilize resources and figure out solutions and work flows to preserve craft under the pressure of speed when needed, but it shouldn’t be the norm. Content for the sake of content doesn’t make any sense in this cluttered marketplace. If you want your work to cut through the noise and make an impact, it needs to have a purpose, which is where great, well-crafted storytelling comes in.
LBB> To what extent is production strategic - traditionally it’s the part that comes at the ‘end’ of the agency process, but it seems in many cases production is a valuable voice to have right up top - what are your thoughts/experiences of this?
Mike> Having production be part of a briefing and having it help creative development to both inspire teams and ensure feasibility is a given. But great work doesn’t just happen from great scripts. There is an art to curating a project and shepherding it through execution, or guiding a project through client needs and the creative process. With this comes many layers of internal and external personalities and, of course, with that, politics. This requires a delicate hand and very strategic maneuvering. I’m a huge fan of Survivor, and I liken seeing a project achieve its fullest potential to surviving to the end of that game. At every stage, someone is trying to vote you out, but it’s up to the producer to navigate those waters and preserve what makes the original idea so special.
LBB> What’s the most exciting thing about working in production right now?
Mike> I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling, but the openings created by the pandemic and the social reckoning spurred by Black Lives Matter movements resulted in a major reprioritization of what’s important to me in many aspects of how I live my life, including the day-to-day of how I work in production. Not that I was oblivious and had my head in the clouds before, but I now approach each job and my role within the agency with a higher level of awareness and accountability for the positive changes I can make within the industry. I feel driven by a greater purpose to authentically pursue greater progress for other underrepresented groups, which is hugely empowering. This includes the types of production partners and crews we engage, giving access and opportunities to other minority groups, shifting the representation we see on-screen and educating young producers coming up in the industry. Simply making great films alone as the goal isn’t enough. How we make the work is as important to me as what we’re making.
LBB> And what advice would you give to an aspiring agency producer?
Mike> Find your passion, then put your head down and do the work it takes to master a skill. Do your research. Ask lots of questions, but listen too. Learn how to read a room and when to speak. Be patient. Success doesn’t happen overnight, but if you work hard, opportunities will find you. There will always be ups and downs, but everything is a building block for the next thing.
If you’re focused on and committed to learning your craft, there will come a time when everything just clicks. The constant fear of failure and being found out will be replaced by a quietly growing confidence in your intuition and abilities. Not to seem reckless, but I now approach every job like it’s my last. It’s taken many years to get to this headspace, but this shift in mindset has liberated and emboldened me into the most fulfilling and greatest collaborations—and best work—of my career.