The secret politics of the shoot
Politics is just the art of getting things done, but has come to mean so much more. The Moon Unit look at the push-and-pull of a commercial shoot, examining who's really in charge, the tricky question of tribes and the ultimate conundrum of how to foster good communication.
There's an old saying in production companies; "Put the client monitors close to the food and far from the set".
This perfectly illustrates a widespread but little-discussed aspect of advertising shoots: politics.
Many disagreements on an ad shoot are overt and respectful. But many are hidden. Secret.
Politics has come to mean the ruthless pursuit of power. It's come to mean lying, backstabbing, and self-promotion. But, strictly speaking, politics simply refers to the art of getting things done when people disagree about the best thing to do.
Many disagreements on an ad shoot are overt and respectful. They’re handled in a conversation or, occasionally, an argument. But many are hidden. Secret. And these types of disagreements create covert political manoeuvres. That’s because they are caused by factors too awkward or explosive to discuss openly; like the lack of clarity around who’s in charge, the competing interests of the various participants, and the tribal instincts all humans possess.
Above: Many on-set disagreements are solved respectfully and overtly. Many others are hidden.
Let’s look first at the question of who’s really in charge. Politics thrives when there’s a lack of clarity around power structures and, on a shoot, that lack of clarity is brain-blowing.
Machiavelli himself would struggle in such a game.
You’d think the director has ultimate authority over the actors, the crew and of what is filmed. But, since the director is working for the agency, the creatives have power over the director and can ask for scenes to be changed or re-shot. And since the agency is working for the client, the marketers on the shoot have power over the creatives. However, since the producers are controlling the purse-strings, they have power over everyone, because they can say “we can’t afford that” or “we’re out of time.”
Machiavelli himself would struggle in such a game.
Next, the competing interests. Theoretically, everyone is there to make the best commercial they possibly can. But the different participants have different views on what a good commercial actually is. The director argues for what will make the best film, the creatives argue for what will best serve the creative idea, the clients argue for what will be the most commercially effective, and the producers attempt to achieve all of the above, but on budget.
Above: So, who is in charge on a shoot? Depends who you ask.
Then there’s the tricky question of tribes. Humans naturally want to spend time with those similar to them. The marketing folks are outliers in terms of personality and interests, so everyone else on the shoot tries to keep them happy (and preferably distracted) but distant. Although the agency’s account service answers directly to the client so are forced to hang out with them, and can be prone to throwing everyone else under the bus to protect that relationship.
The production company producer is everyone's friend, but their real job is to keep the director (and, more importantly, the budget) on track and free from any last-minute amends.
The creatives want to make something amazing, preferably without any product shots, logos or obvious commercial value. But this can only be achieved with approval from the client, so they have to hold their noses and become buddies with them to some extent. The agency producers have a floating role but they are most at home by the creatives' side, poking fun at the client behind their back. But their side-mission is to keep an eye on the creatives and prevent them making any outrageous demands of the production company (who are the producer’s real allies) or racking up a huge hotel bill from the minibar.
The production company producer is everyone's friend, but their real job is to keep the director (and, more importantly, the budget) on track and free from any last-minute amends that risk eating into the incredibly tight spillover money for the $500 bottle of wine over dinner on the last night. The director has the most difficult job of all, from a social point of view. They need to strike a balance between having their own space while being friendly enough with the agency to form a good relationship.
Some directors don’t mind if the creatives want to sit next to them by their monitor. They think directors who ‘need space’ may be insecure or have a chip on their shoulder. They don’t buy into an ‘us against them’ mentality, considering it unproductive. On the other hand, some directors try to keep the agency as far away as possible. There are stories about directors positioning the video village on the other side of the set, so the creatives would have to walk through it to speak to them, rendering input impossible until each set-up is completed.
Above: Choosing a polo shirt can be en expensive business if the wrong people get involved.
There are other stories about the production company calling the lunch break and then filming a different version of the script while the agency is away. Many directors experience a tension between a desire to keep the creatives as close as possible and to get them as far away as possible. That’s understandable. A bad or inexperienced creative, who gives feedback or asks for changes before the director has even worked out how to make it good, is a nightmare. If the first take goes wrong (which often happens), then a lack of trust or excess of enthusiasm from the agency to suggest fixes will stop the director from fixing it.
If you want to reduce politics, it’s vital to establish open lines of communication.
The irony is that when a director wins the job, the agency thinks they’re a genius. But when they arrive on set, they’ve turned into a moron who shouldn’t be trusted to make simple decisions. Meanwhile, the marketers – because they’ve been excluded over the major decisions – try to get involved in the minor ones, and decide that the wardrobe stylist/the director/the agency need help to choose the colour of a polo shirt. If you broke down the cost of choosing that polo shirt, given the salaries involved and time spent, it would be terrifying.
The antidote to politics, of course, is trust, and trust is established via communication. If you want to reduce politics, it’s vital to establish open lines of communication. This starts at the director meetings and can continue over tech recces and production company/agency dinners, however awkward they sometimes are. Once trust and friendship has been built on all sides then, on shoot day, there is none of that client-to-agency producer-to-production company producer-to director chain of nonsense for comments.
Communication needs to be full, honest, and constant, at every stage. Directors should encourage creatives to talk on shoots rather than attempting to influence the outcome by emanating waves of passive aggression from the third row of chairs in the village.
Because when trust is lacking, politics fills the gap.