72andSunny NYC’s director of production on the key virtues of organisation in unlocking creativity and the educational role of the producer
As the director of production for 72andSunny New York, Lora Schulson believes in making work in fast and innovative ways, while maintaining a high level of craft and creative excellence. She was early to take the pledge to Free the Bid (now Free the Work) in 2016, was the first executive sponsor of 72X (the intersectional coalition that celebrates diverse people and perspectives within 72andSunny) and continues to be committed to the ongoing fight for equal and diverse representation in the industry, through production and in the work. As a founding leader of the New York office and as a member of the executive leadership team, she helps run a thriving, culturally vibrant business and is constantly working to ensure 72andSunny's creative output is aligned with their vision.
Prior to 72andSunny, Lora was the head of content production at Wieden+Kennedy New York and co-head of content production at Y&R New York. She has produced some of the most memorable and awarded advertising of the past decade for brands; Smirnoff, Cheerios, Skittles, Apple, Southern Comfort and Nike to name a few. She has been included in The Adweek 50 of 2019, Adweek’s Creative 100 List and Business Insider’s 30 Most Creative Women in Advertising. Lora is a native New Yorker, raised in Soho. She lives in Brooklyn with her two children, her husband and a dog named Bingo.
Take a peek at her approach to and thoughts on production below.
LBB> What lasting impact has the experience of the pandemic had on how you and 72andSunny think about and approach production?
Lora> We’ve all been socialising, shopping and streaming digitally for years (especially in our industry) but the pandemic has increased this habit and impacted a broader, more multi-generational audience. It’s thrust us years ahead in terms of being comfortable living in a virtual world. How we live, play, collaborate and consume content is evolving - we see these changes across all industries. There’s a currency revolution, an evolution towards a more virtual approach to healthcare, traditional TV habits changing forever - it’s everywhere. So the kind of content we want to experience and where and how we consume it has evolved at an accelerated pace as well, thanks to the pandemic.
Producers have been thinking platform-first for years but now we’re all becoming more well-versed where people are: virtual events (how do we produce that in a compelling way?), new tech and trends (the next phase of AR, AI and who hasn’t done an NFT at this point), new platforms (how do we show up authentically in places that brands haven’t been before?).
So we’re embracing the pandemic limitations and it’s leading to new creative opportunities and, sometimes, innovation. Fashion shows and formerly live IRL events are really interesting examples of how the pandemic has changed an industry forever. Balenciaga held it’s runway show in a post-apocalyptic video game
, Gucci held a seven day film festival, Marni had a 24-hour live stream event ‘Marni-festo
’. These virtual approaches streamlined costs and delivered a much bigger / democratised audience (eg. Balenciaga spending $2-3 million on the game vs tens of millions on multiple shows). But the pandemic also brought back some old craft approaches applied in innovative ways: Loewe delivered a fashion show in a drop box
to those normally seated catwalk adjacent, delivered directly to their doorsteps (72andSunny just did this drop box for Trojan) and Moschino did its runway show with marionettes
LBB> Aside from Covid-19, what have been the most disruptive forces to hit agency production in the past few years?
Lora> The fractured media landscape changed everything, everyone knows this. In the early days of film (but not digital) production, you made the work, handed off the asset and that was that. Now, no matter what we’re making, we not only think about how to make the work better in execution, but we have to think of a platform first. We have to think about the asset for each platform – Instagram Stories has a very unique look and feel to play authentically versus what we’re making for a Facebook feed versus digital OOH, etc.
The impact of this overwhelming need for content goes beyond a long list of deliverables and shrinking budgets. How are people going to experience this? Are we making the right asset for the right place? We have to be more strategic, think in systems and not assets, and design a production plan that allows us to capture all of the right content for the different places they’re seen and experienced.
The democratisation of technology has also creatively changed the kind of content we make and see as modern, cool and authentic. Putting a 4k camera into the hands of almost everyone in the world will do that.
LBB> A good producer should be able to produce for any medium, from film to events to digital. Do you agree?
Lora> As creative producers, we’re problem solvers and we always can figure out a way to get to the answer. But to have longevity in this business, being integrated is essential. And most projects require multiple, varied deliverables, which is an opportunity to become well-versed in making all kinds of content. And at 72andSunny, we say that we’re learners, not experts. As soon as you think you’re an expert, you can become rigid in your approach. Stay open minded, always be looking for a different, better, newer way.
With our 72andSunny New York team, we are a lean crew of folks whose primary skill is making filmed content. But with every production, we will also tackle social content, still photography, live and digital activations and likely something they haven’t done in the past. The team is skilled in knowing how to get answers and solutions to making things, so they see these asks as an opportunity for their growth.
What’s also key is being fearless enough to ask questions and admit when you need help to formulate the best production plan. Every single production is going to have its own bespoke set of hurdles and solutions, so I can’t say definitively that every producer should be able to tackle every project as well or in the same way. So for those large scale specialty projects, you will need a specialist. When a project is a massive live event, complicated and highly crafted photography / illustration deliverables, print production heavy, etc., we tap into experts in those fields to either advise or run point on those projects.
LBB> You’ve touched on this there but what’s your view on the balance of specialists vs generalists?
Lora> It’s the head of production’s (HOP) job to keep the production team agile, to build flex in the system, and staff the valleys, not the peaks. It’s also the HOP’s job to know when to bring in craft experts. With less and less AORs in the industry, most agencies need to be ready to expand and contract. What’s worked for us at 72 is more generalists, who can manage varied content delivery, rather than specialists. However, if your agency specialises for example in experiential marketing, you will definitely need more specialists rather than jack-of-all-trades, as live event production does require a certain skill set and knowledge that comes with experience.
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?
Lora> I started on the production company side, with responsibility that ran the gamut from answering phones (pre-text we used phones!), sending reels, assisting the line producer when in production and PA-ing on set. Sometimes putting out the snacks on the craft service table. It’s a cliché but I learned early on to show up hungry, curious and ask a million questions. Don’t just do as you’re asked. Instead, question how everything fits together, why you’re doing something - that way you know you’ll deliver.
The first job I produced solo was for 1-800-Doctors. I was the agency producer and also had to drive the 15 pass van (I grew up in New York City and had not had a lot of driving practice). So that first job taught me that even if the work isn’t super creative, there is always an opportunity to make it better. Practice the skill of being a creative contributor.
As a senior producer, I had the opportunity to work on some career defining work (at the time) across the Mars candy brands - Skittles, Snickers, Starburst - with some advertising legends. That work taught me that the creative / craft decisions you make (from who you partner with to direct, to casting, music, film quality, approach to EFX, etc.) can make the difference between good and great work. Also, you can never have everything you want on a production, there are always going to be creative compromises. So how do you get the team to focus on what really matters to make the work great / cut through / make people feel something?
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?)
Lora> What’s Different? Maybe this is just my perception but I think the role of HOP is more client facing than I remember from my early days. Also, it’s more of an educational role than it used to be. How are we going to pull this off? How do we produce through Covid? How can we better collaborate through production? The need for content and speed has accelerated over the years but also the proliferation of low-cost technology has led lots of folks to thinking content should be faster and cheaper than it actually is. So HOPs / executive producers (EP) need to bring production strategy and guidance internally and to our clients, early and often.
What’s the same? We are still making content – just more of it, at a faster pace with a lower per asset budget. We live in a world where we have the technology to deliver on all of this, but tech is nothing without the right people to navigate it. So the HOP role still needs to build a team of the best, most creative, most flexible, most knowledgeable, most passionate people to pull off miracles and make the work even better in execution.
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?
Lora> The last five-plus years have shown that in-house production is a must-have for many of the ongoing production systems needs, not just one-offs. Also, with the desire for innovation in our output comes the need for experimentation through prototyping. So in-house allows for those table stakes to be covered as well. In-house production capabilities are a must have for any modern agency.
LBB> When working with a new partner or collaborator, how do you go about establishing trust?
Lora> Honesty and transparency. We are very clear and thorough in communicating what problem we are trying to solve on behalf of our clients. If we all have the same ambition and are equally invested in being brand stewards, as well as making the work authentic, cut through, awesome – then we are in it, together, from the start. It makes for a better and more collaborative process.
LBB> What are your thoughts on the involvement of procurement in production?
Lora> I value good partnership with procurement. They often sit within the brand’s organisation and have a POV across everything that is being made for that company, which is a vantage point we do not have. We have the same end goal, so establishing trust and a good partnership is key. Only complaint is the need to produce at an accelerated pace isn’t helped by adding layers.
LBB> When it comes to educating producers how does 72andSunny like to approach this?
Lora> Training is really important but we’re all trying to run super lean, so it seems like it’s happening in this industry, less and less. We’ve seen the most success when a junior is paired with a senior / EP. Often our projects are massive and multifaceted, so the junior producer isn’t just there to learn but to make a meaningful contribution; by managing the asset tracker, by setting up a system for all of the footage libraries, by taking on some of the smaller needs like banners or social content. They are important support and learn along the way.
Also, if we want the producer of the future to have integrated skill sets and you have those specialists in the system, set up teaching sessions and have those specialists make themselves available to the other producers learning those integrated skill sets. We look to give our producers growth in every assignment and are thoughtful about how they are assigned with that in mind.
LBB> What new skills have you had to add to the team as a result of the pandemic?
Lora> To continue to deliver at the speed that was expected pre-Covid, we’ve developed a much deeper understanding of the possibilities of collaboration and project management software for shoot and post sessions. We knew of this tech and used them occasionally, but now we’re in deep on how best to use them for success. Also, we all had to up-our-game on organisational excellence in order to make it over the finish line. And a skill we all now have - the rules and regs of shooting during a pandemic. Scary stuff but we’re now very well-versed in it and run our productions with militaristic precision.
LBB> Should production have a seat in the C-suite - and why?
Lora> Production folks are rainmakers - make-it-happen people. So I’d say it’s better for your business to have them have a hand in running the company.
Producers are the connectors and curators and having them in with your clients is positively impactful on those relationships, which again, I’d argue, is better for business. Having us there allows production and platform-first thinking to come in early and often, which avoids frustration or disappointment in the making process – which is where the rubber hits the road.
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?
Lora> Going into creative development, you need to know the budget and deliverables, so you can concept within those guardrails. Production can and should input during this phase. Concept for speed, systematise and templatise your approach, to be able to be responsive. Also, not all content needs a shoot - can you re-use previously captured assets with a new graphic overlay? Can some of the assets be graphic only? Stock only? What works best on what platform, sometimes simple is better. Not everything needs to have production value (hello Ocean Spray guy) but the brand and agency need to align on what’s most important – craft and high production or volume of content – on a limited budget, you usually can’t have both.
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?
Lora> Having a production handoff moment is an antiquated, old school mistake. Modern content making requires strategic production thinking and rigour, brought early and often. It makes the work better and brings greater efficiencies. Typically we are not just thinking about one campaign delivery but should we build a system? Is the work we’re making able to use some of our previous captured assets? Are we concepting work with the media placement in mind and how the consumer will experience it? Think about the campaign in 360 but also in three dimensions. If you want the work to be innovative and cut through, production thinking and resources will affect the creative development. Something that feels fresh and has never been done - that isn’t happening without the guidance (financial, technical, timing, craft) of production.
Keep production upstream, period. Some of our most successful and innovative work has come through the collaboration between strategy and production – two specialities that are often at opposite ends of the process.
LBB> What’s the most exciting thing about working in production right now?
Lora> New, diverse voices are being given access that hasn’t been there in the past… and are being sought after! Seeing the work through new POVs will bring more exciting and fresh approaches to production. Free The Bid in 2016 set the table for this conversation and now we are really pushing for change in more meaningful and expansive ways. And clients are demanding it, so it’s a must have.
As producers, we are always making, so we have the frequent opportunity to drive meaningful change through who we hire to make our work. I’m excited and committed to DEI production initiatives like Change the Lens and Double The Line to see more diverse representation behind our cameras, on our crews and through post production.
LBB> And what advice would you give to an aspiring agency producer?
Lora> Define your creative POV. What work do you love? In our industry sure… or even better, in culture. What tools, technology and platforms are exciting to you and how do you think we can apply these to our work for our brands? And GET ORGANISED. Creativity is key but organisation makes the space for it to thrive.