Production Line: Staying One Step Ahead with Phil Robinson
Phil Robinson is Third Street’s head of digital and was recently promoted to partner.
Phil began as a content producer, then progressed to account manager and director of relationship marketing before heading up Third Street’s digital department. His skills include account management, social media (strategy and implementation), analytics, SEO, competitive analysis, brand development, event marketing, and creative thinking.
He has a knack for connecting dots, creating solutions, and a relentless drive to leave things better than he found them, and has been an instrumental part of the shop’s collective growth. His ascension to partner is a direct reflection of his value within its virtual walls—and the value he adds to clients’ success.
LBB> What lasting impact has the experience of the pandemic had on how you and your agency think about and approach production?
Phil> We had a production in March of 2020, which was kind of in the thick of Covid having shut things down. We had to rethink the entire process of production, and some of that resulted in what became new best practices. One specific example of that came in collaboration with a production partner we work with, JDM. They had a DIT build a custom software platform that created a ‘virtual video village.’ It was set up in such a way that live feeds of actual camera footage was delivered virtually and in real time, where our team and the client could video chat, mark selects, and give further direction completely off site. This in turn limited the amount of people needed on the actual set.
Even after restrictions on production due to Covid loosened up over time, we still implement this ‘virtual video village’ to this day on essentially every shoot we have. We realise people are busy, and with a large number of them working from home or remote in some shape or form, it just makes sense. Having a virtual option in place allows for more eyes, and fewer people, and it has really put us in a better position for success. And there’s no doubting that when everyone has a monitor just like the director, things run more smoothly.
Covid not only helped us implement new practices in our productions, but we also found ourselves becoming craftier and more creative with fewer people on set. We had to acknowledge the new reality that budgets were smaller due to declining business or complete pause, and we had to force ourselves to find efficiencies and remove all the bloat from the production process. As they often say, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and with lower budgets and fewer people, we were able to get creative and find these efficiencies and develop new processes—some of which I’m confident will stick around long after Covid. It really boils down to the fact that a lot of the time, you can do things smarter and even better for less, making production more available and frequent for brands of all sizes.
LBB> Aside from Covid-19, what have been the most disruptive forces to hit agency production in the past few years?
Phil> My mind immediately goes to technology—the way media is consumed, the proliferation and fragmentation of media, how people are consuming content. And across all those platforms, the way that it is being monetised is changing, too. There are so many disparate places you can run advertising now, and that means when you go into a production, you have to know: “Alright, we’re going to cut a :30, a :15, and once we have what we need for that, we’re out.”
Another significant change has come forward related to social platforms and the kind of creatives who works there. With social, being able to activate strong content marketing is now an absolute imperative. And when you think about production, whether that be video, digital, event, etc. – creating for content marketing is entirely different from how you would approach production for traditional brand campaigns.
All the different types of ads and ad placements have made production much trickier—and I think one of the hardest aspects to solve for production is wrapping set with what you need for all the different ad placements creative will likely be running on. I think the incredibly short-form video placements tend to trip up agencies and brands when it comes to how they are accounted for in the production process. So many brands have really missed the mark on the YouTube bumper ad: it is six seconds, and it is non-skippable. From a media perspective, it is efficient as shit and cost effective. The challenge is crafting a cohesive, impactful brand message that has the same power as a longer video—and doing that as a :06.
We see all the time brands taking a :30 and attempting to cram it into a :06, and it falls apart immediately. For us, that’s meant that when we go into production as a full-service agency, we tailor our work to reflect the full extent of how and where our content will be utilised. We’re all under one roof, so we know what creative is doing. We know what production is doing, we know what media is doing. So, if we know a six-second YouTube bumper ad is going to be part of the media buy when we’re in the production phase, and the creative phase, we think of it, so it becomes this holistic, symbiotic relationship. And there, you can figure out how you get your campaign into an impactful six-second spot.
That is just one example—a lot of different platforms continue to come out with new ad units. And there are also a lot of new platforms popping up. A few years ago, TikTok advertising did not exist. That proliferation of media in the digital space is a real disrupter for production.
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?
Phil> I disagree. I don't think that's required. It brings me back to the ‘jack of all trades, master of none,’ right? Like, hey, there are those unicorns out there who can absolutely kill it from a production standpoint, across all platforms, all mediums. But I do not for a second think that if somebody is an amazing film producer, and they’re not really that good with event production, that they’re not a good producer. That’s unfair, and somewhat of an asinine line of thinking, in my opinion.
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?
Phil> My personal preference is to have a little bit of both. And that also really depends on the role, too. For example, when you get into the world of post-production, in particular, it’s hard to find somebody who is an expert at audio engineering, special effects, motion graphics, editing, sound engineering, and more, all in one package.
Are those people out there? Absolutely. And, you know, they’d be a welcome part of any team. But you also have to think about it from the perspective of bandwidth in your workflow. I may have one person who’s really good at all these things, but that does not change the number of hours that exists in any given day. And so sometimes, depending on what your workload is, what kind of projects you have coming in, what your pipeline looks like, it can actually be much more efficient to find specialists in different areas of production, rather than bringing on a bunch of generalists. Now this is painting with a very broad brush, but from my perspective, generalists tend to not be as skilled within a specific discipline as a specialist is in that given discipline. It is sort of a business-management issue more than anything, truly understanding what is the most effective and efficient way to structure your team based on your clients, needs, and workflow.
It could be generalists. It could be specialists. A lot of times, I think the combination of the two really work. But I also believe that if you are bringing in enough work, it makes sense to start specialising in the various stages of a given workflow.
Am I a specialist or a generalist? A generalist, I suppose? There are a few things I’m rather good at, but I have my hands in way too many pots to not say I am a generalist.
LBB> Don't you think that the smaller the agency, the more important it is to have the most talented generalists around? And as you grow, you can afford to have specialists?
Phil> I think you are exactly right, especially if we are talking about a full-service agency. If you view yourself as an agency that is going to do more than just one or two specific things as you are getting started, then it’s absolutely the case that generalists are mandatory. You also have to look at the personality of the person because that typically comes with increased stress. For me personally, I can’t necessarily sit down and say, “OK, today I’m going to work on this one thing and only focus on it for the whole day.” Every day, hour, and minute is up for grabs in this industry, and I often find myself having no choice but to move my attention as priorities shift real time. There is almost a required combination of having the skill sets, and then the tenacity of piss and vinegar to bounce all over the place like a pinball as you are getting started as a small shop.
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? Leaving as is as this is your story.
Phil> I guess my career in advertising started on the weekends. I would mow the lawn and clean the office of a local marketing shop in my hometown. And not long after that, at 13 or 14, I was editing for them. Like good old nonlinear editing: Setting inputs and outputs—all that good stuff. I started going out on some productions and it was on a very, very small scale. Work like local car dealership commercials. It was always a small crew. I was like a grip/PA, whatever, I did all the unfun jobs. But it was a real learning experience for me that gave me an opportunity at an early age to see how production works.
There are a couple of lessons that I learned early and still view as important to me today as I did when I first started out. The first one is an obvious one: planning. Do your work up front. The pre-production makes or breaks the production. You are organised, you are planned out, you have everything sorted and accounted for. You know your people, your gear, your locations, your talent, the lighting. All those things are so critical. When a production goes off the rails, nine times out of 10 you could look back and say, “Well, if we had planned this better, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Obviously, you cannot predict the future and account for everything. Back when I was a kid doing this, I learned very quickly that if you’re on set with clients, they’re watching you, and if it’s obvious you haven’t thought something through, it’s a real bad spot to be in. The client would particularly frown upon bad preparation because I was already fighting a bit of an uphill battle being, you know, in their eyes, a kid doing this production. So planning, I think, is critical.
And the other thing I would say I learned is, stay calm and treat people like people. Productions have so many moving parts. It is very easy to go into an incredibly left-brained, impersonal, tactical, functional, mechanical mindset because you’re always short on time and always running behind on your day. And sometimes a cold, robotic persona rubs the client, your crew, or your talent the wrong way. And that can really side track a production. So, taking a moment to take a breath, stay calm, and treat people like people can go a long way to having successful production.
LBB> If you compare your role to the role of the heads of TV/heads of production when you first joined the industry, what do you think are the most striking or interesting changes (and what surprising things have stayed the same?)
Phil> The way we organise is a very small but skilled set of in-house production talent. And then, what we feel our best-in-class production partners do to fill in the gaps. We do some things entirely in house; that’s often just dependent on what the ask or the budget is. But building a network of people you can reach out to so we can be as big as we need to at any given point in time keeps overhead low and keeps us from having to do a lot of work we don’t want to do to keep the lights on and mouths fed. But it also allows us to really refine who we’re working with, get to know them almost as if we work together every single day. And sort of set things up in that nature where a production has a certain scale. We’ve got a very refined Rolodex of who we bring in on a given project for a specific need.
LBB> When working with a new partner or collaborator, how do you go about establishing trust?
Phil> When we’re working with a new partner, I try to determine whether these people truly want to do this project or not. Like, are they invested? And not just do they want the money; do they want to do this project? Obviously, money plays a part—it goes a long way to establishing trust for me because, you know, when somebody’s got skin in the game, I think they’re a lot more likely to do right by you. I think it’s easy to find yourself in a situation where you have a partner that’s not quite up to snuff in terms of where you would want them to be. But when people like what they’re doing, they do a better job.
LBB> How important is it to you there is diversity across all partners on a production? Do you have any measures to promote diversity when it comes to production?
Phil> I think diversity is critical and important everywhere—across everything. And that goes for production of any type: digital production, like web development. And when you get into that world, it’s the boys’ club.
It’s something that’s on us, to make sure our crews are diverse. The people leading productions need to actively make sure this is reflected in our crews. And, honestly, productions always seem to go better when there is diversity; there are people who look different and talk differently and think differently, and we are raised differently, and that raises the level of our work.
Diversity is part of our evaluation criteria in hiring. And, you know, being a Chicago-based agency, the tax credit provided by Chicago for productions is a very enticing proposition to shoot in Chicago, and part of the application for that tax credit has diversity, minimum requirements on the production crew. If the productions are a large enough size, which most of them are, one of the ways we ensure diversity on our production crews is by making it clear upfront that we’ll be applying for the tax credit for production in Chicago. And there are diversity requirements associated with applying for that tax credit. So, I guess the government, Chicago or the Illinois film office did good there.
They make it very easy and make you very aware of what you need to be doing. We were already doing it, so for us it’s a win-win. The good news is the truth is on our side; it’s a financial incentive and something we believe in.
LBB> What conversations are you having with clients about issues such as diversity and sustainability? Is it something that clients are invested in or more that agencies need to take the lead on?
Phil> If we’re talking about video production, I’m not old enough to know exactly when it changed and how significant the change was. For me, it has always been sort of the standard default that there was inclusivity or diversity. And obviously, as marketers and advertisers, you must talk about things clinically. When you talk about a brand’s target demo, sometimes they are Caucasian males, right? That’s who buys this product, and that is just what it is. But outside of those circumstances, where a product or service isn’t for a specific demo, diversity is just expected to be included. It’s not like anyone is expecting, like, a ticker tape parade because somebody decided to cast someone other than white people.
I don’t sit here and pretend that this isn’t an issue, that there aren’t brands, agencies, areas of the country where this is absolutely awful and terrible, just sort of given in day-to-day life. But, you know, for me, at least personally, I’ve always been in a place where the productions we’re working on and the clients we’re working with—diversity is just kind of the default. It’s just part of our culture and how we roll.
LBB> When it comes to educating producers how does your agency like to approach this?
Phil> I think the big key to how you educate a producer is not forgetting about the why. It is so easy to get tunnel vision on the what: What are we doing? What are we shooting? How are we shooting it? You lose the why.
Creative can be this very high-minded, ethereal, intangible state of feelings and emotions and sentiments and all those things. Production can get very tactical, like, tell me what I got to put together for the shot schedule, we’ve got to state our day, right, etc., What I found is when you want to educate a producer on a given brand or project, it’s extremely helpful to take a second to go back to where the campaign and the concept come from. Often, that’s all the way back to that very first pitch—just words on a page. Kind of what you do when you think of an idea and fill in the backstory. Because while production will still be production and still very tactical, I think in terms of how they’re approaching things, this certainly does sink in. And if a producer is moving forward with that background of why, not just what, you always end up with a better product.
LBB> How have you approached integrating data with production workflows and processes? And, generally, how has data and the fact that we have constant live feedback on content performance changed production?
Phil> I would say, in some ways good, some ways bad, I think. On the bad side of it—and this is something that I think exists in all facets of life—is a customer of short attention spans, this need for immediacy. “What’s the benefit and can I get it right now, as opposed to playing the long game?” And so, when you have real-time data, you can launch a campaign this morning and get instant feedback, “I don’t like what I’m seeing!” and have marketers saying, “We need to rethink this.” And it can just get ridiculous. What if the concept is more of a slow burn? Something that takes a little time to get traction? People have to resist the urge to have a knee-jerk reaction when it could end up being absolutely the wrong one.
On the good side, there are many aspects. And this is where I think you really get into digital production and media. Attribution used to be really hard, right? Like, I put this billboard up. How many people went to my website because they saw that billboard? I don’t know. I can put a vanity phone number on, but, like, how can I really tell what’s happening? Or, I could run a 30-second spot on one of the three big networks as a national buy. What would that do for me? Sales are going up, so I must have done something right, but what’s it really mean? With digital advertising and the data that comes with it, you can make much more informed decisions.
But again, you have to resist the urge to kill something because the data doesn’t look great. I have this conversation all the time around display advertising. Everyone wants to look at how high the clickthrough rates are, but I often say, “How many times did somebody click on your cable buy or your outdoor ad?” One of my favourite sayings is you can’t manage what you can’t measure. You definitely bring that data to the forefront: It gives you an ability to measure what you’re doing. And then manage production accordingly and make informed decisions. Data becomes information, information becomes insights, and then you form your production strategy based on that.
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?
Phil> A lot of stuff is speed without sacrificing production—clients really value that. That’s a tricky one. One of the things that we’ve done, and had success with, is mapping things out—thinking through the strategy and the planning thoroughly. What we do a lot of the time is form a template—whether we’re talking about a piece of video content, or a social post, or whatever it is. You don’t want to be known as the cookie-cutter template people, but sometimes the demands for content are coming fast and furious, and there’s really no other way to approach it.
You can’t do all this unique, custom, intensive production within the client’s budget. So, if you create that template, you can find a way to do a lot in one big shoot and find different ways to put it into that template in a way that each piece feels unique and inspired. It really reduces the bandwidth requirements on the production side.
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?
Phil> Yes, production is absolutely strategic. I think having production involved early in the process can avoid a lot of headaches to be had later. If you’ve ever worked with a developer who is trying to build a website from a designer who has no front-end design experience, you’ll know what I’m talking about; it can be painful. Having production involved upfront, even if they’re not the ones who come up with the creative ideas, can help you avoid the pitfalls you can see your way into, whether that’s with strategy of visual concept or whatever the case may be. They’re the people who will know whether or not the idea is even feasible. So, before you go sell it to the client, check with production to make sure it’s something that can be done.
LBB> What’s the most exciting thing about working in production right now?
Phil> It feels like we’re in a place where in some ways there are more rules than ever and in other ways there are fewer rules. I think you really have to make sure your creative message is on point and not offensive. That said, with technology evolving, it seems like you can come up with a new solution to nearly any production challenge. I find that really exciting. Doing something new for the first time is fun, and the opportunity is right there.
LBB> And what advice would you give to an aspiring agency producer?
Phil> Spend time shadowing every single job on a production crew. Understand the people you work with, what their job is, and what they do because once you get to the point that you have that 30,000-foot view and see all the moving parts, it gets a lot easier. Don't be a can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees kind of person. Understand who you’re working with and the right way to move those pieces around the board to find yourself in a successful production. The best way to do that is to really get to know what they do. And then you’ll have that understanding and empathy that will allow you to be a better producer.