The rise and rise of the agency content studio
Agencies have been investing in their own production resources (but don't call them "in-house"). Why the growth and who are the main players?
22 March 2022
Agencies often reach their creative peaks when devising new ways to boost their own profitability and appeal to clients.
One area that's really taken off recently is the launch of specialist production units and content studios. For instance, VCCP Group recently unveiled Girl&Bear, a global studio headquartered in London, offering content creation, production services and technology solutions.
But why are agencies such as VCCP launching into this space, how are they collaborating both with clients and specialist production companies, and what are the challenges they face in an already well-supplied market?
Claire Young, managing director of Girl&Bear, says that the new studio aims to address the growing complexity of production due to the sheer range of touchpoints now available, and to deliver work across "countless formats, languages, and also personalise and then deliver dynamically."
She says that this amounts to a stronger "making" process, while also being able to "humanise technology". That's delivered, she adds, through "a tech platform that can offer scale in an easy-to-use and understandable way."
This sense of practical application for clients is reflected in the positioning of agency content studios elsewhere. Clare Donald, chief production officer of Publicis Groupe UK, which operates the specialist production unit Prodigious, says: "The proximity of production professionals to the creatives and client teams means we can respond more quickly and build brand awareness within our dedicated teams."
Neil Henderson, the chief executive of St Luke's, says: "Having our own studio [named Apostle] is also about shortening the lines of communication. With an in-house animator and producer, things can happen quickly, we can deliver faster turnaround times and have more control over the content."
However, adds Clare Donald, there's also a creative imperative: "It gives creatives a chance to experiment with new ideas. We’ve built interactive experiences, enabled animation for causes we want to support and have run film competitions that develop screenwriting skills."
Neil Henderson agrees: " With fewer people involved, there is less back and forth and debate, and ultimately it can be more fun. It’s really inspiring for the company when they see others around them learning."
But are there potential downsides for clients, especially when their agency's solution is always the "in-house" studio? Girl&Bear's Claire Young says that the term "in-house" is banned at the business. She adds: "We are committed to working with the best directors, the best animators, the best maker for the job, and we recognise that might not always mean using making talent within Girl&Bear, but we’ll always use our expertise to make the project come to life."
Paul Ward, global chief executive of Havas Studios, takes a similar view that in-house is not a welcome term within the business. He says: "We aren’t arrogant enough to think we can do everything and, to be honest, we don’t want to either. We work with external production companies all of the time. We will sometimes do all of a production, sometimes we’ll co-produce it, sometimes we’ll just be the executive producer, and sometimes we’ll have nothing to do with it whatsoever, as the agency production team has gone elsewhere."
He cites an example of this model where Havas Studios in London worked recently with Havas London and Ella’s Kitchen on "Eat, Play, Love" – a film to add sensory food education to early years curriculum.
Havas Studios also collaborated with production company Great Guns to work with director Ben Brand – "an incredible director who made a beautiful film."
Tensions can be avoided with clear rules based on the principles of creativity and collaboration. Paul Ward adds: "We make decisions based on what’s best for the job, not our P&L. We’re not telling anyone that we are the only option. Apart from anything else, can you imagine Vicki Maguire [chief creative officer at Havas London] allowing this?"
Others say agency production units are a driver for creativity elsewhere. Stephen Ledger-Lomas, chief production officer at BBH London, which runs its own Black Sheep Studios division, says: "There is so much incredible emerging talent in the UK, and globally, and we are constantly meeting new directors who not only want to work on client briefs but also want to talk to us about ideas they are developing themselves."
Ledger-Thomas adds that this is because emerging creatives and directors are often "incredibly plural in their practice and native to the many social platforms". This means, he says, “that film can live on today which is very relevant to our output, but we don’t develop ideas solely in terms of formats, we think in terms of narrative, craft and quality. "
Despite this positivity agencies, and the production sector as a whole, face significant challenges. Not least budget cuts in relation to the pandemic and the rate of inflation, while ensuring that they access genuine diversity in the available talent pool.
Reflecting the importance of the talent issue, the IPA has appointed Eliot Liss, the experienced agency producer, as its head of production. A key focus for him, according to the IPA, is " raising the profile and practice of production as a discipline in order to attract, develop and reward the next generation of producers."
And securing the best talent is no easy task, according to Mark Graeme, executive producer & head of Flare Productions (part of AMV BBDO). That's due to competition elsewhere, he says: "Big studios like Amazon, Sky, Netflix, BBC, ITV are only adding to the industry. Publishers, platforms, and providers are all creating content and thus booking quality talent beyond advertising agencies."
Mark Graeme argues that this requires a "constant cycle of spotting and securing great talent and the right time to meet your specific projects. Not forgetting that if you secure the best brands, and the most creative projects, you’ll attract your unfair share of great talent."
Seen in this light, investment in specialist studio skills seems not only wise in terms of boosting agency profits, but a necessary move in attracting the best talent to provide stronger creative outcomes for advertisers.
Agency content studios
adam&eveddb - Cain & Abel
The agency launched Cain & Abel in 2013 as an in-house content division, and then merged it with sister content business, Gutenberg Global, to create Cain & Abel Worldwide in 2021. The business now works in five areas - content creation, global solutions, direct response, production and on-site services.
Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO - Flare Productions
Since 2013, Flare has focused on film content for brands. Embedded within AMV BBDO it delivers collaboration with creatives, account teams, strategists, the wider creative production offering, and directly with clients. Recent work includes Curry’s Bill Bailey ad (below) and "Cat Prison" documentary for Sheba, shortlisted at the British Arrows.
BBH London - Black Sheep Studios
Founded seven years ago, Black Sheep Studios aims to "have a different gear to respond to client requests for agile content." It was founded with the belief that BBH could provide services to reach better creativity and craft with certain briefs, but not as a director competitor to the production sector.
Havas - Havas Studios
Havas Studios launched in May 2021 as a global partnership between Havas and production agency Wellcom Worldwide. The first content studio opened in London as part of the Havas Village offering with 12 in total (across 10 markets) planned by the end of 2022. Core services cover film, audio, print, photographic and digital content production, including for retail and eCommerce platforms.
McCann Worldgroup - Craft Worldwide
Craft Worldwide is among the longer-established content and production studios, opening its doors in 2012. With more than 20 offices (including London), it has a total team of 1,200 "makers" who specialise in content creation, digital, print, broadcast and "transcreation".
Publicis Groupe UK - Prodigious
Prodigious services agencies within Publicis Groupe, including 25 in the UK, all of which use its production capabilities. Its team of 150 works across areas from digital to print, from live action film making to CGI, and from stills and illustration to editing and motion. The majority of its work comes through the Publicis Groupe agencies, but it is also working direct-to-brands with a content delivery service.
St Luke's - Apostle
Apostle is St Luke’s multimedia in-house production studio, which is staffed with a full-time editor/director and in-house animation specialists, supported by freelance production specialists. It manages content production for KP Snacks' Tyrrells crisp brand and Old Mout Cider, and has also produced content for Ocado, Very and Littlewoods.
VCCP Group - Girl&Bear
Launched in November 2021, Girl&Bear is VCCP's new content studio with a presence in eight markets, including London. It brings together 250 "makers" across eight markets with capabilities in film, audio, design, print, photographic and digital production. Girl&Bear uses a piece of proprietary software, dubbed "The Pathway", to connect people with technology, and fuel the delivery of personalised content through data.