The trouble with new tech is how democratising it all is
High-end audio visual chicanery is no longer the sole preserve of advertisers with the deepest pockets, says ISBA’s Bob Wootton. Easily accessible tech has democratised content creation – but is this entirely for the good?
There will always be a place for visually stunning TV ads – the sort that stay in our collective memory for generations; you know, the ones that inspire deeply sincere grown-up dinner party conversation about the hidden symbolism in the imagery, the provenance of the artistic director, the backing track that will set a new musical genre.
There is no doubt that a powerful audio-visual experience can give a tired brand a useful shot in the arm – sometimes even a shot of adrenalin straight to the heart.
I love these mega-campaigns, but by their nature they’re few and far between, and, on their own, insufficient to sustain the West End’s phalanx of high-end production companies.
But between these creative feasts, London’s creative agencies could snack on the more run-of-the-mill TV commercials. The sort that would inspire nothing more than sympathy if you admitted knowledge of their existence among sophisticated circles.
The trouble with all this new technology is how democratising it is.
Nicholas Lovell’s book The Curve – How to Make Money in the Free World reminds us of the power that once lay in the hands of gatekeepers, but is now within the gift of almost all of us.
Lovell cites broadcasters and publishers as examples of manufacturing and distribution businesses, with content attached. Take away the manufacturing (e.g. printing) and control of distribution/fulfilment (circulation, broadcast), and the means to drive profit is greatly diminished.
Too much has already been written bemoaning how paper pounds are being replaced by digital pennies. But it bears repeating that the internet has meant the production of quality content is nowhere near as cost-prohibitive as it once was. And while this has allowed creativity to flourish, it has also had a rather wilting effect on certain parts of the once certain creative supply chain.
Once upon a time, it was nigh-on impossible to create a good-quality sound recording without visiting a professional studio. Then, a couple of decades ago, we began to see the phenomenon of ‘homemade’ music conquering the charts. This was in part due to a shift in musicians’ and consumers’ tastes towards electronic material created on instruments that did not require expensive acoustic spaces in which to be recorded.
So the days of artists holing up in massive, city-centre or country manor recording studios for months on end were numbered. There is now only one serious live sound studio of scale left in Soho, for example, and most around the world are in trouble.
I’ve believed for a long time that the same thing would happen in video, and now it has. Just as would-be record producers could create music in ProTools, Logic, Cakewalk, Cubase etc on their home PCs or laptops, so budding video producers now work in software like Adobe Premiere. And boy can they create.
This causes problems for the incumbent video production industry, itself a legacy manufacturing business with some massive sunken, fixed costs. Not just high West End rents, but sophisticated image manipulation and computer-generated imagery kit. Not cheap!
Interesting that companies like Quantel, which was unsurprisingly once owned by ITV franchisee Carlton and made much of this kit in its heyday (e.g. Paintbox, Flame, Harry et al), also owned one of the biggest makers of sound mixing desks, Solid State Logic.
My videographer son Cal avers that some scenes in the recent second instalment of multi-million box office hit The Hobbit (The Desolation of Smaug) were shot on a $200 GoPro camera, not your usual megamoney Panaflex, Sony or whatever.
London creative agencies and West End production and post-companies find themselves facing change on an unprecedented scale because the great ideas they specialise in – and they can be great – have been paid for through massive production costs.
But as I’ve said, there’s a sea change afoot. How will these ideas be funded as the production costs that once funded them collapse?
Advertisers seeking audiovisual solutions are reporting that if they brief a job as ‘online display’ it will often come back at a tenth of the price of a TV commercial, but far from a tenth of the quality. More like 95%. So why would you continue to pay several hundreds of thousands when you only need to pay a few tens? The scale really focuses the mind.
You might think that tradition of paying artists different rates for different usages could help unlock the puzzle, but it doesn’t in the new democratised world. There are hardly any barriers to entry anymore.
Anybody can set themselves up as an artist, agency, editor, whatever. Even the arguments about the best talent clustering are breaking down, as we’re seeing in Shoreditch. Sure, they still all gather together physically, but no longer necessarily under company/agency flags.
The legacy system also had its roots in the scale of audiences attached to each usage. Telly paid (much) better because the audiences were in their millions (and because the artists’ union was once dominant). The distribution and accumulation curves might look rather different, but nowadays, the right material can reach vast audiences regardless of whether it is broadcast, streamed, viewed on a TV screen or a computer.
There will always be ideas that need extreme production values and inputs. As I say, I’ve always been a sucker for these. And as long as there are a few, they will be eminently distinctive and watchable, and could justify their high costs. The question is: how many of these are justified? Because it sure isn’t nearly enough to carry the high-end production industry into a prosperous future.
An object lesson in hustings (non-) behaviour
Along with most of the industry’s great and good, I attended the Ad Association’s packed, interesting and balanced half-day Lead 2014 event. The standout, from a news perspective, was the three breakout sessions at which each of the main political parties was asked about their stance towards advertising and the industry.
Voting with my head rather than my heart, I chose the red corner, where Helen Goodman, MP for Bishop Auckland and Shadow Culture Minister, represented Labour in conversation with Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian and Robert Senior of Saatchi/Fallon.
Freedland’s moderation was a bit quick for the audience because of his liberal use of double and triple negatives. This is probably a) because he’s cleverer and quicker than the rest of us and b) because it’s an age-old trick to catch an interviewee off guard.
But it was once Ms Hammond started that things took a turn for the worse. It became clear very quickly that she was neither well-briefed, nor in any way hospitable to industry’s cause.
Gambling and HFSS foods were marched straight to the executioner’s block. Nary a whiff of understanding about how important our industry is to business and the economy, nor of the difference between (entirely legal) products or services and their advertising. A high (by which I mean low) point was when it had to be pointed out to her that there were no ads in Eastenders. Oh dear.
This performance exacerbated the many extant concerns about the current Labour leader’s attitude toward business. Fifteen months out from a general election and ahead of closer European elections that, like local elections, are set to hold little favour for the main parties in power, we had expected some form of charm offensive, however insincere.
Poor old Robert didn’t get a word in. All the questions, challenges and widespread sighs – some of the most incredulous from self-declared labour supporters like Twitter’s Bruce Daisley and party member Tess Alps of Thinkbox – were directed at the Honourable Member for Bishop Auckland.
By contrast, I gather that in the blue corner incumbent Culture Minister Ed Vaizey played his usual turn and enamoured himself to his assembled crowd.
This is not about (my) political preferences, though I unashamedly grant you that they may be clear. It’s about how a party presents itself to a group of business voters – and it being our industry, a pretty influential one at that – in the run-up to what is expected to be a closely-fought battle with a highly uncertain outcome.
Unlike Labour to be so obviously asleep at the wheel; probably too busy currying votes in some provincial high street. I gather Conservative Central Office was also somewhat distracted, re-tweeting our disaffected tweets like crazy!
Bob Wootton is director of media & advertising at ISBA.