"At Merman, the Range of Things That You Might Encounter are Broader Than Most Places"
Merman's Siobhan Murphy and Spencer Dodd are joint executive producers and managing directors. Here, they sit down to chat about life at Merman and how their industry experience has led them to where they are today.
Q> Hi Spencer and Siobhan. You’ve both been in the industry for a while. Tell us more about your experience to get to where you are today. Has it been an industry you’ve always worked in or did you come to it from another area?
Spencer> Production is all I’ve ever known since leaving university at the age of 22, so I guess I’ve been in and around advertising for the best part of 30 years now.
I left Manchester in 1994/5 with hopes and aspirations of getting into film and TV production. I didn’t really know anyone in the industry at the time so started out by writing over a hundred letters to every production company I could find. I think I got a couple of “thanks but no thanks” responses and two interviews, one of which was for a role as the production assistant on Match of The Day. Following on from that though I did come to hear about a job going at an advertising agency in Soho Square, BST BDDP, and started a job there shortly after as a general runner setting up meeting rooms, running errands, picking up and dropping off production company reels and masters which at that time were all on bulky U-Matic tapes and digi betas.
It was a great introduction into advertising and taught me a lot about the process and the internal workings of an agency, who everyone was and what they did and how to navigate my way around Soho.
Siobhan> I first started as a runner at Spidercom Films back in the early 90’s which spawned some great talent in those days. I worked closely alongside Guy Ritchie, even featuring in his short, ‘The Hard Case’, which was the prequel to ‘Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels’ - you can imagine how much fun we had!
This opportunity to get involved in music videos set me on that path for a long time to come, culminating in a partnership running my own production company ‘Cops and Robbers’ on Newburgh Street. It was the best of times until the music video world imploded and I found myself bankrupt and fearful to leave the house for 3 months, as I felt like such a failure.
Finally I managed to strike a deal with Therapy Films, run by the talented Malcolm Venville and Mark Denton who took me in alongside several of my music video directors who had waited for me and had faith in my next move, which was pretty incredible and wonderfully loyal of them at the time.
Q> What was your first role in the production world and how did this experience influence how you and how you grew your career?
Spencer> After a short stint at BST BDDP I heard about a job going as a runner at a production company. I applied and was successful so my first job in a production company was at Geoffrey Seymour Films. Geoffrey was an iconic and legendary figure within the advertising industry.
He was a larger than life character but it would be fair to say at the tail end of his career at the time. He’d written and overseen some of the most iconic spots ever made and the names that came in and out of that door on a daily basis were like a roll call of advertising royalty. However his transition into directing and running a production company was less successful and the company fell on hard times. After an 18 month stint I was made redundant and shortly after the company folded.
Looking back now, my time at Geoffrey Seymour Films taught me everything I needed to know about commercials production … what it takes to bring a script in, what it takes to win a job and ultimately what it takes to produce that job; it taught me valuable lessons in how to communicate with a range of personalities whilst instilling in me a strong work ethic. It ignited in me a drive and determination to succeed, built up a strong sense of resilience and at the same time an understanding of the importance of patience as well as the ability to adapt.
Siobhan> Following my stint (two years) at Therapy Films, I had grasped more about the commercials world but still had to be dragged kicking and screaming into that side of the business as I felt intimidated by it.
I quickly realised it was much the same as music videos except people were actually more considerate and did get back to you when you pitched, rather than leaving you hanging!
Following this, I joined a small production company in Soho to really cut my teeth in the advertising world and was mentored by someone special, Mandy Boyter, who gave me the confidence to trust my instincts on talent and use my social skills to bring in the work!
Q> Do you think the advertising world has changed much during your career? In which way?
Spencer> Inevitably over the course of 30 years things will evolve and change; sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
I didn’t work in advertising in the 80s but I had an amazing window into that world working for the likes of Geoffrey. I think Geoffrey’s cigar habit at the time was greater than my salary and if you add the red wine and lunches to that it was probably double / triple that. There’s certainly less money around now which can impact upon your ability to produce something effectively and the degree to which a director is able to experiment and explore options through the process; but I’d say that what money there is available is probably used more effectively.
Siobhan> I agree with Spencer. I missed out on the supposedly ‘glory days of advertising’ when there was a vast amount of money around but cutting my teeth in music videos has always helped me in that way, as if the project is a creative one, you can generally find a way to make it work. I feel we are a lot more ‘can do’ and less arrogant about what you ‘can do’ - the grafters survive.
Spencer> Not all the characteristics of and personalities associated with the “good old times” were positive and recent efforts to encourage greater diversity, equality, sustainability, best working practices and an understanding of mental health within the industry are much needed and to be encouraged. Ultimately a broader range of ideas emanating from a more diverse range of people and reference points leads to more exciting and surprising ideas and executions. And people work at their best when they are part of a culture that nurtures and encourages, instilling confidence rather than fear.
Q> Merman’s had a great year and signed some brilliant talent given the circumstances. How has it been for you?
Spencer> I’m sure it’s part of the rhetoric that most company MDs will trot out but it really has been an exceptional year for Merman. I guess we were in a period of transition / growth and so our propensity to move forwards was far greater than many other, more established companies but it’s been a fantastic year especially when you consider the circumstances. We’ve signed Guy Manwaring, Martin Krejci, Declan Lowney, Ben Liam Jones, Michel & Nico, Fred Scott, Billy Pols to name a few, complimenting an already impressive roster of directors. Not only have we signed them though they are all working and contributing to the overall quality of work we are producing.
Siobhan> As Spencer says, it has been exceptional of late and our partnership is one I seriously value. I think we do compliment one another, with our different characteristics, Spencer with his level headed aplomb and me with my passion and excitement for projects - it's a good balance and I believe our directors truly see that. I feel we are just getting started and the talent we have signed over the past year or so is incredibly rewarding but we need to work very hard to find more diverse talent and ultimately nurture from the ground up. There just isn’t enough to go round so we are very conscious about finding new faces and really striving hard to develop that. We are lucky in the sense that we may find that via Merman TV - as they also feed us new talent they are looking at in long form but it is a long process developing those directors as well in short form.
Meanwhile the TV / Film department goes from strength to strength having produced Motherland, This Way Up, Frayed, Frank Of Ireland, Herself, Shining Vale and There She Goes.
Q> Merman has some amazing directors on their roster. How do you go about sourcing for new talent?
Spencer> There’s no hard and fast rule to it and of course your needs change over time which prompts you to look in different places and in different ways.
Scouring for new young talent it might be a case of looking at the best directors emerging from music videos / TV / film school. Equally it might be someone that contacts you out of the blue looking for representation. It might be a case of seeing something on TV / at the cinema that captures your attention and contacting them / their agent. More established talent tends to be by way of an introduction through a third party or a relationship you’ve established over time that doesn’t really bear fruit until your needs are aligned.
Young or old though it tends to be an instinctive decision based upon how the work makes you feel and whether ultimately you feel there’s a market for you to be able to sell their work in. Going beyond that there needs to be a degree of chemistry between the individuals … shared beliefs, goals and work ethics that tend to bring out the best in each other and are ascertained over a series of meetings.
Siobhan> We also share intel with Merman TV and Mermade (our smaller company who work in short form online content) - they are great sources for us. We are speaking to several directors right now that we have met via them and it really does open up new and exciting talent having that integral arm of Merman’s foundations.
Spencer> What I would say is that whatever your ambitions, Merman is one of the best places to be able to realise those whether that’s long form, short form or somewhere in between.
Siobhan> Yes, MJ is a shining example of a director who started in commercials but is now in TV working on shows such as Emmy award-winning Ted Lasso with Declan Lowney. We also have another project getting underway with him. The long form side of things feels like a very positive aspect to what we offer as a company potentially.
Q> You’re both Joint MDs/Eps with a very busy roster. How do you both divide your time and directors?
Siobhan> It is an interesting one. Due to the pandemic, there haven’t been many productions overseas so we may have fisticuffs over who gets to go on those jobs!
Generally speaking we tend to work with the directors we know the best but there is always a crossover and we also have equal relationships with some, if not most of them, so it generally comes down to timing on jobs and who is doing what. It is hard when one of us is on holiday. We are such a small team, you really do notice the hole but we all need a break sometimes!
Spencer> Everyone has a million things to do and not enough time in which to do them but having done the job on my own for a number of years elsewhere I can’t tell you how much easier it makes it having two of you sharing the workload and to bounce ideas off of.
Overall I think we compliment each other well and have our own strengths (Shiv having come from a sales and marketing background and I having come from a production background) that the directors can lean on at any given time. I can’t say that we divide up the roster as such and I think it’s nice for us to be able to forge relationships with each and everyone at the company. Of course certain directors may have a historical relationship with an individual that means in the first instance they may feel more comfortable communicating with one of us rather than the other, but over time that tends to be less the case.
There are jobs that we agree one of us is better suited to but more often than not it comes down to timing, who has what on their desk and who has the capacity to be able to take on the project alongside existing commitments.
Q> Which recent productions from Merman have been most memorable and why?
Siobhan> Aldi Easter this year stands out for me as it was such a fun job with an incredible team working on it and the irrepressible Vaughan Arnell directing his chops off.
It was like a music video commercial rolled into one ‘I Like It Like That’ bunnies, eggs, mariachi bands, just a torrent of energy and extravaganza. Working with Vaughan again over the past year, having previously worked together at Moxie PIctures has been wonderful for me on a personal level. He just brings so much passion to every project and his level of detail and input is beyond impressive. It was also one of the first big shoots I had done since the first lockdown and it was JOYOUS! Von Adams was on the decks ' actual playback’ but it felt like he was Djing... and the vibe was amazing. We only had McCann Manchester including Dave Price on zoom but it literally felt like they were there with us in Black Island Studios as Vaughan creates such energy and inclusiveness on set.
Spencer> William Hill stands out for me. After a year of restrictions it was nice to see something land on your desk that had some scale and creative ambition. The intention from the outset was to look forward to a time when we could all be reunited, rather than backwards reminding people of the restrictions we were living under and had been inhibited by over the previous 12 months. Whilst we were still living with restrictions we didn’t want that to come across and feel evident within the film.
The challenge then of course is trying to win the job and putting together a production framework to realise that ambition; but it was a subject matter that Michel, Nico, Luke and I all had a strong affinity for. I think ultimately that passion and enthusiasm for the project as well as the production plan we put together is what won the job for us, beating off some stiff competition.
It was a logistically challenging job to realise with the sheer number of cast and locations there were to source, approve and schedule amidst Covid restrictions but our enthusiasm was matched equally by the entire crew from start to finish and it was a thoroughly pleasurable experience. We all relished and thrived on that challenge. I loved it.
I think it came out well and is a fair reflection of what we all set out to achieve from the start.
Q> What do you think makes a ‘Merman’ (ie 'oooo he’d be great at Merman!')?
Siobhan> I think we started out being seen as and perhaps setting our stable out as much more comedy based due to the foundation of the company having Sharon at the helm. I am happy that has changed as we want to represent a broad range of unique talent and not just one genre. It is important for us to have a strong foothold in an array of creativity, be that comedy, visual, narrative story-telling and also documentary.
Spencer> Merman has a particularly strong brand identity that perhaps from the outset emanated from Sharon, Clelia and the work that they were doing. Over time this has come to be more broadly defined by its hard work, it’s collaborative approach, its sense of humour and the quality of its output. There really is a sense of belonging and taking pride in what you do that exists and that we try to instil within the company. Going back to the point that I made earlier though when assessing whether someone is likely to thrive within that environment it tends to be an instinctive decision based upon personalities, shared beliefs, goals and work ethics that might bring out the best in one another and are ascertained over a series of meetings.
Q> Executive Producers always have the best stories. What’s the hairiest / most insane situation you’ve found yourself in? Legal of course…
Spencer> I couldn’t possibly say without having to kill you. Besides, they are too numerous to mention.
Siobhan> Havana. Security guards. One severed artery. I’ll leave it there..
Q> What’s next for Merman?
Spencer> I think, if not anything else, the last 18 months has taught us that it’s hard to predict what the future might bring. Whatever that might be though we’ll find a solution, move forwards and in fact thrive.
What I love about production is that at any given moment a new script can land on your desk, taking you on the most unexpected of journeys challenging you to research, explore, find a production solution to and film pretty much anything. At Merman the range of things that you might encounter are broader than most places I think.
Overall though I would like to think that we’ll consolidate upon what we’ve achieved these past 12 months and build upon that.
Siobhan> Sourcing diverse talent and building on the roster we have developed in the past couple of years. Cross-pollinating more across our TV, Branded and Mermade divisions.
Oh, and our five year anniversary party next year. BIG.