Executive director of content production at TBWA\Media Arts Lab on cracking the code with Apple
As executive director of content production at TBWA\Media Arts Lab, Brian O’Rourke creates multi-screen experiences that build emotional connections with audiences. His production roots run deep, including work at TV stations and production companies before his tenure on the ad agency production-side. Along the way his work has garnered many awards including many Cannes Lion Grands Prix & Emmy nominations. He served on the Board of Governors for the TV Academy for five years and was nominated as Agency Producer of the Year by AdAge in 2020. When not solving production riddles, he can be found on a field coaching youth rugby.
We’re ecstatic to get his views on production for Apple and his craft in general.
LBB> What lasting impact has the experience of the pandemic had on how you and your agency think about and approach production?
Brian> Time will ultimately tell, but it’s pretty amazing what has been accomplished remotely. Technology and teamwork aligned as the pandemic pushed us out of our comfort zone. True producers have ‘get-it-done’ in their DNA. However, during the pandemic, the road to bringing ideas to life has been extremely narrow with a sea of ‘nos’ surrounding us. And somehow, despite all that, some great work was produced.
Our mantra - no amount of post-production can make up for a lack of pre-production - has never been more appropriate. The conversations, input and planning with the client, agency and production partners, happens early and often. But that pre-production phase went beyond our traditional approach. Agency producers and creatives worked more closely together than ever to design ideas for manufacturability. And with every victory, the ideas and the executions were able to get more complex.
If we can produce in these circumstances, we can do anything. The one thing I know is that we will emerge as even better makers than we were prior to Covid-19.
LBB> Aside from Covid-19, what have been the most disruptive forces to hit agency production in the past few years?
Brian> I think every sector of our business leads to a disruptive force.
Glut of media – With all the nooks and crannies that content/advertising lives in, it’s easy to be overwhelmed and freeze in a catatonic state when trying to determine the best way forward. Many times, clients decide to produce work just to check a box. That stretches their budgets and timelines. Ultimately, the final output lacks true craft and has not been designed for success.
Strategy – Strategy is sacrifice. When the swirl of creative development hits us, we return to this mantra. In this day and age, this approach can’t just pertain to the up-stream positioning or creative brief. It must be applied to content and the production approach. Content strategy is something every producer must practice.
Good, fast, cheap – Clients want all three nowadays. That’s not possible. Solution? See strategy comments above.
Competition – Everyone is angling for the work. It seems people are willing to do the impossible. But we’ve found that if it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably not. We’re trying to approach production resources as partners versus vendors. Production is tough enough these days, we all face the same problems. Let’s work to find equal solutions.
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?
Brian> I truly believe in the dark arts of production. By the name alone, a producer is responsible for bringing an idea to life (no matter what the shape of that idea). How many people can really do that? How many ideas have died on the vine without an enabler? My many years of production have substantiated that if you have a head, heart, hope and a phone, you can make magic.
I find it odd when the industry or even producers themselves feel the need to put an adjective on their efforts (i.e. – integrated producer, social producer, etc.). That semantic describer limits the power and influence of an idea executer. Producers don’t need to talk in fancy words, they need to do. If they deliver an integrated campaign, they are legit. If they move the idea across their desk and call themselves an integrated producer, they are part of the problem.
Granted, there are many times when the work requires a specialist to deliver a certain discipline. For example, our MAL producers that specialise in delivering print & OOH have to be experts in their specific craft. They have to post highly confidential images immediately at a launch moment, across the globe, simultaneously. It’s an insane task with a ton of pressure. And happens many times a year. Their focus on print craft is essential but they are still facing the same essential issues and hurdles any producer faces.
LBB> You’ve touched upon this but what’s your view on the balance of specialists vs generalists?
Brian> The generalist versus specialist question is one that will forever be constant in our business. The balance is based on the workload and opportunities.
Most producers today need to be generalists since we’re faced with many different shapes of work. It’s an exciting time to be a producer as things change quickly. If you’re not up for that challenge, you’ll lose out on the next big opportunity.
However, when brands spend more money in certain mediums, specialists are often necessary to elevate the level of craft. If the work warrants it, having experts bringing ideas to life will be more efficient and a safer bet than stretching a generalist.
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?
Brian> My first job in production was at the age of 14, working at a local cable access TV station in the SF bay area. We’d do remote shoots of high school/college sports and studio talk shows. Then I convinced them to let me produce a TV series called Modern Madness. It blended music videos, comedy and political commentary. We had a lot of fun in those days and broke a lot of equipment ‘experimenting’.
After high school, I double majored at Loyola Marymount University in TV Production & English. Throughout my time in school and after, I worked at many different places – an ABC affiliate producing live news, a few commercial production companies, some post houses, etc. Then I hopped to the ad agency side, taking a job as an in-house editor at a medium-sized agency called Kresser\Craig. I loved the pace of advertising and soon was a ‘preditor’ (producer/editor). As agencies do, Kresser\Craig merged with other agencies. After a few years, I became the head of production in a battlefield promotion, touching all aspects of the business. From there I went on to lead production at WongDoody which was a small, creative powerhouse at the time. We did some great work on shoestring budgets and caffeine. Then when Chiat\Day reached out to me, I had to go.
I’ve had many great years at Chiat, bringing iconic work to life – commercials, documentaries, TV shows, experiential events, digital experiences. When the legendary Richard O’Neal retired, I became the director of production. Four years later, I was asked to lead production at Chiat’s sister agency, Media Arts Lab, as well. Eventually the global opportunities of Apple led me to commit solely to their brand via MAL. And that’s where I’m at now. Been a good ride so far.
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?)
Brian> I’d say a lot has changed and a lot remains the same.
The pace has definitely gotten faster. We don’t wait for film to be developed and can turn around a dozen edit revisions in an afternoon. When I started, getting work done was like landing a balloon. Now it’s like landing a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier in stormy seas. Also, the deliverables used to be straight-forward. It was either a print ad, a radio spot, a TV commercial or a billboard. Now, we create multi-faceted work that spans many platforms and technologies. It’s more complicated and, thus, a constant learning experience versus pure management. With these changes, production actually has more of a creative voice. How we bring an idea to life can be as important as the idea itself.
But simple production truths still remain. I remember when I started in advertising, my head of production said, “When the audience sees the work you produce they’ll either think it’s good or that it sucks but they won’t know what the budget was or the time it took.” That power of craft is still true. And on that note (even though we constantly challenge this rule) the fact still remains that we only get to choose two of the following on a project: good, fast, cheap.
Also, production is still a team sport. Behind all great work is a passionate group of individuals who push for greatness. That, blended with the trust and respect of their fellow artisans, leads to the iconic work we all strive for.
LBB> When working with a new partner or collaborator, how do you go about establishing trust?
Brian> Trust is key to great work. In advertising it starts with the client and agency relationship. If trust exists at that level, the end product is going to be infinitely better. Then how we approach maker collaboration is important. We would much rather work with ‘production partners’ than ‘vendors’. That means finding folks who care about the work as much as we do. We focus on the core idea – the ‘north star’. If we all know the final destination, we can collaborate in our different ways to get there. Once partners crack the Apple code with us, we often work with them on many different projects.
LBB> When it comes to educating producers how does MAL like to approach this?
Brian> The education of producers is critical. Nowadays it seems we never have the time or capacity to teach. I’ve talked to many people in the production world who have lamented this fact.
The nature of the work we do for Apple comes with a high level of complexity, from the security protocol to the high-level of pressure for greatness. It takes a while to really ‘learn’ production in general, but our added process can exacerbate things.
While we’ve hired many people from outside our building, we really do like to advance the group within our walls. The coordinator position is the entry-level. We try to get them familiar with all aspects of the agency and production flow, giving them more of a structured training. When they become assistant producers, we provide mentorship from other EPs, senior producers and producers. They are deeply involved in the work - attending shoots, edits, meetings. As they grow, we push them into deeper water and encourage them to swim. I learned a lot by just doing, so we try to put them in a place where they can learn through experience.
We try to strike a balance of giving producers autonomy, but still being there for support. Holding debrief meetings after projects are completed helps define their approach. And every year, each person on the senior producer staff is evaluated at how they have guided the rest of the team.
Even still, oftentimes I wake up at night and ask myself, “Are we putting enough emphasis on education?”
LBB> What new skills have you had to add to the team as a result of the pandemic?
Brian> I would say patience. Good producers are like sharks, they need to be constantly moving. During the pandemic, projects tend to stop and start. It’s like a three-year-old discovering the light switch - it’s on, it’s off, it’s on, it’s off. Then once the work is officially going, it still feels like we’re running a marathon through peanut butter.
So, they have added more patience… and web-based video tools.
LBB> What’s the most exciting thing about working in production right now?
LBB> And what advice would you give to an aspiring agency producer?
Brian> Invest in bitcoin. And when/if that doesn’t work, immerse yourself in all aspects of production. The more you know, the more opportunities you will have in this exciting time. Work hard. Learn as much as you can. Be passionate. And make sure you have fun.