Production Line: The Many Hats of Nik Traxler
Nik Traxler's experience in traditional and interactive production provides The Distillery Project’s clients with a truly integrated perspective on how to bring work to life. Like The Distillery Project’s other founders, Nik is also a Leo Burnett alumni, however, his natural curiosity led him on a tour of duty at companies and agencies of all shapes and sizes. These include Google Creative Lab, Wieden+Kennedy, Y&R New York, Sid Lee, Johannes Leonardo, and The Martin Agency. Along the way, he’s worked with Nike, ESPN, Discover Card, Walmart, LG, and Heineken.
LBB> What lasting impact has the experience of the pandemic had on how you and your agency think about and approach production?
Nik> It’s no question that Covid-19 has fundamentally changed the way production is able to function. Technology has given us the freedom and flexibility to keep projects moving forward, regardless of who is in attendance. By either allowing participation in shoots, virtually, or by taking a hybrid approach and cutting down on the number of people in the room, we’ve found that production is not beholden to the same constraints we had just a few years ago. However, as beneficial as technology has been in keeping production alive, the downsides to such a heavy reliance have been magnified throughout the pandemic. I think we all took for granted how beneficial it is to simply be in the same room as our teams. Having that easy, seamless communication is crucial for our producers. And you lose a lot of that sensorial experience that helps bring the idea to life for our clients. If I had it my way, virtual talent callbacks would disappear… forever.
LBB> Aside from Covid-19, what have been the most disruptive forces to hit agency production in the past few years?
Nik> Every year comes with changes and our clients are always trying to reach a more diverse audience. This past year, we noticed that a lot of our clients were more willing to try new social platforms, like TikTok. Diversification of social channels has been a huge driver the number of assets that we are expected to deliver. Each social platform has unique requirements, which has dramatically increased our output. Even from just a few years back, there’s been a shift in aspect ratios and an increase in the number of versions needed. This has significantly affected the number of deliverables we need to produce.
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?
Nik> I 100% agree with this, with one exception - while I agree that a good producer should be able to produce for any medium, I also think every producer has a passion, and it’s that passion that gives them an edge. Whether it’s for film, events, or digital, they were drawn to that specific discipline because they have passion for that specific medium. And I think that’s especially important to remember when building out a team. If your billings/department will allow it, use it to your advantage vs pushing someone to do something just because of a business need. I think most good producers can, and should be able to, produce anything. But I think most, if not all would say they are better when they are focused and really working in the medium they have that passion for.
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?
Nik> Because I oversee a production team at a small agency, I tend to focus on what our clients’ needs are and build around that. We mostly have video-heavy clients, so my focus has been on producers who really love video production. That being said, if digital or event productions arise, we’d first evaluate it internally, see if we feel that we can take it on, and if not, we’d find a freelance specialist to help get us over the finish line.
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?
Nik> I started working in production as a PA on a news crew van in Boston, MA. It was with WLVI TV, and although I knew I wanted to work in production, I hated the news. Shortly after, I moved to Chicago and landed a job in the production department for a small, Hispanic agency. At the time, I still had virtually no idea how an ad agency worked. After getting my footing, I was fortunate to move over to Leo Burnett and learn from a bigger agency before packing up and moving to both the East and West coasts.
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?)
Nik> I think the main difference is being forced to be more in the trenches. Some days I’m focusing on managerial work, like our budgets, project workflow, my production team’s bandwidth, client relationships, and even consulting clients on their own production demands. But there are also days where I’m out on set holding lights for our in-house cinematographer, helping book travel, locking down crew or rent gear, or even helping produce a job with an outside production company because our team’s bandwidth is maxed out. I wear more hats than ever before.
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?
Nik> I think the most successful production departments are the ones that are built to truly fit the organisation’s needs, as well as to the organisation’s clients’ needs. No disrespect to larger agencies, because I learned a ton from them and cut my teeth at many of them. But having worked at both large and small shops, I do a lot of head scratching, and question why some of those departments were staffed the way they were. More importantly, I’m in awe that clients would be willing to pay for that sort of headcount on their business, especially these days.
LBB> When working with a new partner or collaborator, how do you go about establishing trust?
Nik> Just be open and honest. About the agency, the client, and their processes. And I like to give clients as much insight as I can about our creative team, how they work, what their expectations are, and what it’s like working with them. So far, it’s worked out ok
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?
Nik> It’s incredibly important to me. I’m an adopted Korean American, and I think the Asian community is extremely underrepresented in our industry, for both men and women. I really think it’s a shame that there aren’t more minority directors, across the spectrum of race, that are more of the “go-to’s” for agencies. All that said, I’m also someone that believes that the most qualified person should get the gig – I couldn’t choose a director over another purely based on ethnicity or whether they’re male or female. I just don’t believe that that’s the right barometer when it comes to producing work for our agency and our clients. At TDP, we do our very best to evaluate our directors purely based on the work we sell, the budget, and who we think our client will gravitate towards. We’re blessed that a lot of TDP’s clients are production savvy and take great interest in the production partners we bring on board.
My last thought on diversity is that I have been intentional and taken this into account when building out my own department at TDP. I’m incredibly proud of the fact that our very first full-time producer is a Hispanic female. Our next hire was our head of business affairs, who is also female, but further along in her career and could have potentially experienced ageism at other shops. I truly value people who have more experience than I do and feel that I can always learn something from them. Our department of seven is split down the middle with three females and four males, two of which are minorities.
LBB> Speaking of casting, what is your approach to this side of a production? How do you work with directors to ensure a fair and fruitful process?
Nik> It depends on the job and the script. A lot of times, our scripts call for family moments, or people who are experts in their field, like construction, farming, etc…
We always try to cast real families, or people with real credentials. We’re lucky that we are a non-union agency, which allows us to be a bit more unorthodox when it comes to finding talent. We’re constantly ensuring our cast is diverse both in age range, ethnicity, and even body type. And diversity has become increasingly important to our clients as well, making our jobs even easier.
LBB> Has the pandemic accelerated the conversation around sustainable production at all, in your opinion? (ie, the number of people on set, less people flying around the world, etc.)?
Nik> The pandemic just gave us more flexibility than we already had. The ability to divide and conquer has been a positive, especially in the sense that we can output more and push our teams further. But of course, it hasn’t come without its challenges, mostly the speed in which we’re able to turn over work, which is quite aggressive. The one thing that our clients all buy into is that while Zoom does allow you to attend shoots without having to travel, there are a lot of things that happen around the fringes during a production that are invaluable. Those moments can’t be replaced by Zoom. The sidebar conversations after a callback, going over boards in person, having that chemistry between the agency and director, it all matters, and I believe it has an impact on the work. We’re very fortunate that our clients not only understand that POV, but actively support it.
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?
Nik> Diversity is, and will continue to be, of huge importance for both TDP and our clients. We’ve always been mindful about ensuring that our cast and crew are truly reflective of the world we live in. And we’ve noticed our clients are becoming more in-tune to creating more diverse and sustainable work.
LBB> What are your thoughts on the involvement of procurement in production?
Nik> I find that the more you’re able to have an open and honest dialogue with the procurement officer, upfront, the better the process becomes. Especially if the producers can take some extra time to help educate the procurement officer and showcase what goes on during the production. It just ensures that everyone is on the same page and makes for a smoother process overall. I find it really challenging when everything is done over email, and all you’re talking about are numbers without any context or reference.
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?)
Nik> I tend to mentor the producers by putting them on the front lines, while staying involved on the day-to-day correspondences. We move quickly and it’s important to me that our producers have real production experience from the start. I don’t chime in on the job or override our producers, but if something’s gone wrong, I’ll stay behind the scenes and pull them aside to call out certain learning moments.
LBB> Should production have a seat in the c-suite - and why?
Nik> I think so. I also think it depends on the agency and the structure. I’d argue that my job has just as much to do with operations, legal / risk assessment as it does with the production and finding ways to bring our work to life. What agency doesn’t want that on their leadership team? TDP recognised that as a huge benefit early on, which is why we have production represented in our leadership group.
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?
Nik> Yes, it’s possible, but you need a lot of stars to align to make it work well. We built an internal content team that is specific to our clients’ needs. This group focuses more on quick-churn video content. And to keep up with the increasing demands we have multiple approaches to editing - there are times when we’ll edit in house or farm it outside and do a hybrid production. We’ve been fortunate in that our clients’ have been extremely supportive of my team. I make it a point to remind our clients that when they go out of house, for projects that allow it, the result is that you’re able to bring on specialists, whose job is to solely focus on a specific production craft for that job. With as much content needs as there are these days, it feels like there’s enough work to go around.
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?
Nik> I like it when production is brought in at the beginning of the creative development phase. At TDP, we often offer opinions about what the trends in production are, what work is being done, who is up to what, etc. I like that we can play a part behind the scenes before our clients buy off on a concept, and ultimately, I think it makes for a better working process.
LBB> What’s the most exciting thing about working in production right now?
Nik> The fact that it’s always changing. I like that production is a constantly evolving thing with no two days alike. It’s a job that challenges us in new ways, daily. I suppose that’s why I chose this job for a living.
LBB> And what advice would you give to an aspiring agency producer?
Nik> Never be afraid to wash the windows. Everyone wants the big shot, but the best producer is the one who is willing to go above and beyond on any project, to do whatever it takes to make sure our creative team is happy and our clients are happy. If that means being stuck in the trenches doing the grunt work, do it with as much enthusiasm as you would bring to a big global production. You’ll go far.