Production veteran Pat Murphy discusses why cutting costs needn’t mean curbing creative
With 30 years of production experience in roles spanning agency, brand and distribution, Pat Murphy was the last person who thought he’d support the work of “cost consultancy” in the production process. But over the past 11 years he has created a company that has been consulting on advertising production for some of the world’s best performing, most creatively esteemed brands and agencies.
When agencies think of “cost consultants”, it tends to send a shudder down their spine. With a team populated by former Heads of TV, Digital and Print, in dozens of markets, MCA (Murphy Cobb Associates) have spent over a decade trying, with some success, to change that reaction.
Unlike traditional consultants, they are equally passionate about the creative outcome as they are about getting the budgets into a better place for their clients. This is proven by the roll call of world famous and creatively awarded advertising MCA has consulted on since its foundation, including Cadbury “Gorilla”, T-Mobile “Flashmob” and IKEA “Beds”, to name only three of many.
To find out, more, we sat down with Pat Murphy to discuss the model at MCA and discover whether it really is possible for agencies and cost consultants to get along.
LBB> So what do you think people’s perceptions of cost consultancy actually is?
PM> Well firstly, I don’t think of ourselves as “cost consultants”, that really does conjure up a negative image. It’s about taking a budget and getting the ‘biggest bang for the buck’. Any efficiency that we have made can be reinvested back into media, onscreen, or in a way that makes the advertising work harder.
There are two groups of people in the business that encounter so-called cost consultants. The first is, of course, advertisers and the second is their agencies. From an agency perspective, I feel cost consultants are often seen as a ‘thorn in the side’ of producers and creative directors. Certainly when I was working on the agency side, I hated it. Of course, no one wants someone to come in and tell them how to do their jobs. Agencies who embrace our involvement realise that they can strengthen their client relationship through improved process, better transparency, and an external validation of their production design.
Advertisers on the other hand have always tended to embrace the role of the production consultant. At the end of the day, they want to save money and, historically, agencies have had a reputation of mismanaging that money. I don’t think it has got any better either as many of the agencies have lost many of their most experienced producers.
That’s why I think now that ‘cost control’ in the traditional sense is dead. It’s not just about nit-picking the budget. That only has limited value. Certainly in our business it is more about getting involved in guiding and helping both sides to make sure an investment is spent wisely and productively.
LBB> Why do you think cost consultancy is more relevant now than ever before?
PM> Over the years, agencies have cut costs due to dwindling budgets. Unfortunately, this means they haven’t wanted to spend as much as they used to in areas like production departments. We are seeing fewer experienced people in production roles and a severe lack of training (if any). Tell me how many agencies are turning out the next Frances Royle or Mark Hanrahan??
In my view, cutting costs in that area for an agency is a false economy. If a client can’t have a great experienced producer at their agency, it is absolute necessity for them to have a good, experienced production adviser to ensure that every penny of their budget is being put to good use in the most effective way. And even better have both.
LBB> So why do you see yourselves as production investment managers as opposed to cost consultants?
PM> Procurement talk about working and non-working spend, and production falls into the latter category. It’s baffling for me to understand this. If you make a shit commercial then your working spend in media is wasted too. As my partner Adam Kirby always says – “there’s no point getting more people to see a less good ad”. It's a totally false economy. A great piece of advertising will build business, and focusing the spend in the right areas of production that influence effectiveness, as an investment is, I think, just a smarter approach – spend the right amount in the right way.
Having experienced cost consultants from when I was a client and also at the agency, I realised that there was a huge difference between them all. Some behave just like auditors, some just get involved at budget stage, and some take percentage from the savings they make. And some consultants are led by people who have never even produced an ad. In my view they have zero credibility.
Our main focus is, and always has been, to not only look at the budget, but also by being involved early enough before all the big decisions have been made, and to ask all the right questions. If we can add huge value to the production design, and logistics over and above just the pure numbers, then as one of my clients said to me recently ‘you help me sleep at night’.
LBB> But if you are cutting cost, are you not inevitably cutting quality?
PM> No. We are not cutting costs. In many cases we are just getting the numbers back to where they should have been in the first place, and frankly many agency producers can’t even read a production company budget so it falls on our shoulders to do so.
There is, of course, a bottom line – you have to accept that a certain creative idea will take a certain amount of money to shoot and post to best effect. And that’s fine – we will always support the agency to get to the right number. But I’m afraid that too many agencies take the opposite view that ANY reduction to the budget is bound to make the film worse…and that’s just not true.
Quality and budget level are not inevitably interlinked. You don’t need to spend a huge amount of money to deliver a great ad. Why then do some of the markets that have smaller budgets use that budget constraint to create great, simpler ideas? Scandinavia, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa.
There is nothing better than a simple idea, executed brilliantly.
The hard part of what we do is finding the balance of cost and creativity. We do significant internal training so our teams know how to engage with both the marketers and agency in a consistent way.
Interestingly, many of our team have had limited exposure to clients as they were in the role of the producer, so it takes time to get them to realise that clients are not aliens who speak a different language (although it may seem like that at times), but genuinely grateful people who have a difficult job to do.
I had a real lightbulb moment when I was at P&G. One of my bosses once said to me that where production is concerned I shouldn’t be thinking only about the money but about the creative power of the agency. If I could help them to produce work that was even just 1% more effective, the increase in business results could mean that entire cost of production would be covered. Wow, so that has completely driven my behaviour as a production specialist, and our approach as a company on our client business.
LBB> Surely if you are coming into the process at the budget stage there is little left to do besides ‘remove line items’?
PM> Historically, this is where cost consultants have been brought in and, you’re right, at this point there’s little option but try to remove items from the budget that have already been decided. This is a damaging way to cut cost. It’s not only detrimental to the creative but to the relationship between client and agency.
When I was on the agency side, it was easy just to leave contingency in the budget for the cost consultant to remove later down the line. Sadly, the only party that didn’t benefit from this was the client. That’s why I set up MCA. There had to be a better way.
I knew that to benefit a production we’d have to be involved much earlier in the process as a collaborative 3rd partner in the process, from brief to on-air and beyond. However, once this becomes seamless then the amount of cost savings are negligible because of our input early on. Not always great for our procurement colleagues but better for marketing.
LBB> How easy is it to source the relevant, experienced talent to consult on production in this way?
PM> Sourcing the right talent for the job is one of the biggest challenges we come up against. Not only does each market globally have culturally specific needs, each consultant needs to know production inside out. They also need to have great client rapport, great written communication skills, and be able to break down a budget in forensic detail. Ultimately they have to be someone who is totally respected in their field. Ideally, they have both production and agency experience and really those people tend to be ex-heads of TV, Digital and Print. They make up the majority of our consultants at MCA but they’re by no means easy to find!
It’s much harder to find great consultants to work with us than to find new clients. Yes we have done so in over 35 markets, and not just in the predictable ones like China and Brasil, but in places like Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Colombia anywhere our clients need our support.
LBB> With such experienced production people working around the world, what insights can you draw that other cost consultants can’t?
PM> With a team that is passionate about production, we do regular knowledge sharing sessions. We’ll ask the experts in each field to run these sessions and they will advise on everything from digital to TV, talent sourcing, music and post production.
These sessions are shared amongst our team and our global network. Having this network around the world is invaluable and we convene regularly to update each other of the movements in each market. We also create a production index once a year that allows us to see what the cost of production is across the globe.
LBB> How would you like agencies and clients to perceive cost consultancy?
PM> When I was Head of TV, I hated cost consultants and I still do. I don’t think that either advertisers or agencies should be falling in love with cost consultancy, particularly if its run using an antiquated model that doesn’t benefit anyone. Finding a production advisory who can help optimise the budget that’s on the table, getting best use of their money, rather than areas which might cut corners.
If I could, I would create a whole new category and maybe call it Production Spend Optimisers or Production Investment Managers. I would like to think that agencies who work with us realise the value we bring, respect us for our role in the team and tap into us as well occasionally as we have huge amounts of data, and benchmarks from around the world.