If you’re successfully producing entertainment content—whether it’s released through a distributor or your own channels—or you’re creating powerful content for brands directly, you’re likely going to attract the attention of agencies. This is an awesome acknowledgment of leveling up your video production work and can really help the bottom line for any small or indie production company.
But be careful what you wish for. The budgets go up, but typically so does the scale of the project, the expected production values, and what it takes to navigate the process. I speak from experience, as I’ve made some of these easy mistakes during one of my first go-arounds with agency work back in the mid-2000s after a half-decade of only working with small brands directly or doing entertainment work.
To help others avoid similar missteps, here are nine things you should keep in mind to make sure your first agency collaboration is a good one.
You’re There to Serve Someone Else’s Creative
This is probably the biggest mistake a young director or editor makes. If you release your own stuff, you only answer to your team. Doing work under the supervision of a marketing director is not the same as working with an agency.
Typically, agencies come up with the creative that’s pitched to the client before a production company is ever involved. They literally have a person or multiple people with that job—usually marketing directors and creative directors. I have been incredibly fortunate to work with some really awesome creative directors who genuinely wanted some input from me as the director or editor. But the keyword is input.
When you work with an agency, you’re there to help achieve their vision and bring it to life, and if you’re in a collaborative environment, elevate it. Your job is not to make the winning creative idea. Understanding this will help you avoid at least 60% of the most common issues with agency collaboration.
Understand the End Client Isn’t Your Client
The agency that contracted you is your client. This is a really important distinction. First, understand that, typically, there’s already an existing dynamic and backstory between the client and agency. The agency may be under certain constraints or particulars that you aren’t aware of, nor do you need to be. Just understand the agency might be under a lot of pressures you can’t see.
Talk to Your Client, Not the Client
Being pleasant and cordial on sets can make things better for everyone, and nobody is saying you have to pretend to be invisible. But generally speaking, when it comes to the work, your conversations should be with your client, which is the agency. Sometimes, just purely out of happenstance, the end client might talk to you directly about something like, “Man, can we change the camera angle there? That looks weird to me.”
Directing that conversation back toward the agency is the way to go and will help build a lot of trust and confidence with your agency partner. “You know, that’s a question for [agency contact]. Let me get them.” is a really valuable phrase.
Get Sign Off on Everything
Remember, your role is to deliver and bring someone else’s vision to life. On a set, I try to get sign off on any frame before we shoot it. Simply ask, “Are you happy with what you see?” before a shot. This shows the agency it’s not going to be a creative tug-of-war and also helps reduce miscommunications, especially if it’s only the first or second time you’re working together.
Account for Agency & Client Revisions
We often have a specified number of revisions before additional editing fees started being charged to a client. For agency work, we had at least two rounds just between the agency and production company before the client even sees it, one for each stage. Remember, you’re a partner of the agency, and they have to be confident in what they are presenting to their end client.
Ask for Clearly Defined Roles in the Beginning
Small, indie production companies are used to doing almost all things themselves. So while your behavior may just be you showing off that DIY work ethic to make sure the job gets done, it could be seen as overstepping your bounds.
The best way to avoid any uncomfortable situations that come simply from miscommunications is to ask for simple and clear answers as to who is doing what as early as your bidding process. Who’s responsible for scriptwriting? Location scouting? Are you casting, or is the agency? Do you need craft services? Does that have to come out of your production budget quote, or is the agency providing it? Whose art directing the interview sets? There are no bad questions, so be sure to get the answers to everything you need.
Remember Deadlines Are Real
Besides just potentially having more focus on meeting deadlines than a small, indie production company in general, agencies may have some VERY real deadlines attached to your work. For a broadcast spot, the media buy may have already been placed or your website video could be the kick-off of a site redesign. Be sure you have a clear understanding of deadlines and expectations, and you’re confident you can meet them.
A Certain Level of Production Value Is Expected
This was a hard one to learn at first, coming from a lot of run-and-gun documentary work. “Well, that’s what they wore to the office that day” works for a documentary on the rise in Silicon Valley, but if an ad agency hires you to produce a spot about a tech company, the expectation is that wardrobe is considered and selected to flatter the talent as much as possible. If something is overexposed, they’re going to notice, and often they have the vocabulary to articulate that.
Be a Problem-Solver & Get Hired Again
Different types of agencies have different levels of experience doing production, so consequently they don’t know what they don’t know. That means they don’t see the gap of how what they wrote on paper will translate to executing production. The ability to help fix those, or better yet, address them and avoid them before the project starts will start to position you as a trusted partner for the future.
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a half-dozen creative directors multiple times in my 20-year career. As we collaborated more frequently, they showed more and more trust in me by asking for more and more creative input earlier in the production process. I’m grateful for that because collaborating is fun. If you understand your job is to first execute the vision, then collaborate, and finally elevate, you’ll be a resource any agency is happy to have.
Dan Napoli is the Head of Creative & Post-Production for Hurrdat Films. He has over 20 years of experience in the video production and film industry as a writer, director, and editor with nearly two-dozen documentaries to his credit. He also co-hosts “Yellin’ In My Ear,” a podcast centered around ‘80s & ‘90s Gen X pop culture, and “Reel Life,” where he interviews fellow documentary filmmakers about how they took their latest project from the real-life event to the film reel. His two most recent films, Best Kids In Texas and 50 Summers, are currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV.