The Case Against Cost Controllers

Like double agents, cost controllers are drab, colourless, unimaginative individuals. They move among the shadows of the production, chipping away here, niggling there, but never really making any substantive difference, persnickety bickering about the cost of coffees and bottled water. They annoy the Agencies and Production Houses alike; many think they’re a general nuisance to the overall production process.

In an effort to give these unpopular individuals a much-needed make over, our American cousins changed their title. They started by calling them business managers, I imagine in an effort to bring them more into line with what they believed was the old fashion bank manager, a person they perceived to be a much respected member of the small local community. Unwittingly they had unfortunately not taken into consideration bank managers were actually one of the more hated people in the community because they knock back loans and bounce checks. Just because you haven’t the money, or can’t afford the loan. Woops!!!!

So what to do about these unwanted, and unloved interlopers?

Well unfortunately we all have to deal with bank managers. However you don’t have to deal with cost controllers. Or do we?

Let’s go back to basics. You go to great lengths choosing your advertising agency. You write briefs, hold pitches, review creative presentations, and hold numerous meetings. Sometime you even employ consultants to assist in making the correct decision. Why?

Because you are looking for a partner who will add value to your marketing process.

So why do marketers seek to employ ‘cost controllers’? Perhaps they don’t trust their agency. Perhaps their agencies don’t have the expertise to handle all their production needs. Perhaps international policy dictated the appointment. If any of these points are close to the truth then what you really need is someone you can trust and who will add positive value to your team. Someone with actual hands on production experience. What you really need is a Production Consultant not a Cost Controller. This is the big difference between a proper Production Consultant and a simple Cost Controller. Most Cost Controllers have worked in an Advertising Agency, a PR consultancy, or indeed been on the client side as a brand manager/ marketing manager.

So what is a Production Consultant?

A production consultant is somebody who has had hands on experience making television commercials. Agencies will say they’ve made plenty of television commercials, however there is a big difference between supervising a production and actually shooting one. It’s a bit like being the Defense Minister of Australia. You are in control of the army, who actually fight the war, as the Defense Minister you don’t engage in any physical hand-to-hand combat, (that is unless you count Cabinet Room meetings).

Well might you ask, why doesn’t my agency employ such people?

The simple answer is they can’t afford one. The average agency doesn’t produce enough television commercials to warrant the expense of such a specialised person. So effectively they have a TV production department to do a plethora of many different tasks. Of course they will deny this vehemently.  But I guarantee, if you asked the average person in your agencies television production department if they have ever looked through the lens of a camera as a director of photography, directed a commercial, or indeed produced a commercial where management of the budget would physically affect their own personal wealth if they made a mistake. I’ll guarantee that few if any have ever been in this situation.

This is not to say that they do not provide a valuable service to an agency and client. They’re charged with managing the creative resources of the agency, co-ordinating the account service department and client expectations. They are responsible for the orderly passage of the production through the agency systems and regulatory requirements, and then dispatch the final product to the TV station.

All of this of course is vital, but it does not make them qualified to advise the client on the right people to bring a creative vision to life.

In fact there is possibly a strong case, to suggest that since they have not ever been at the broken bottle end of a production, they are not necessarily the right people to make such a weighty recommendation. I realize that this may not sit comfortably with certain heads of TV or Creative Directors. However the true role of the production consultant is to work for and on the half of their client, not for the agency. Naturally they should also be respectful and take into consideration the agency’s views. But an impartial proper production consultant must keep in mind that it is the client’s film, and not theirs, or the agencies. After all it is the client who’s paying the bills. And it is the client who is responsible for the sales of the product that is being advertised.

A famous client once said, “If you want art buy a painting”. It was David Ogilvy who said “if it doesn’t sell it isn’t creative.”

A production consultant’s real role is to work with both the client and the agency; using their knowledge gained through years of hands-on production experience. They should offer insights into areas where they see potential difficulties that could cause major problems both legally and technically. They should work with young teams, to give them knowledge and experience and courage to become an important participant in the overall creative process.  They should be a foil to both parties, championing the correct rather than the convenient solution. They should offer advice and answer questions even though they may not be the answers everyone wants to hear. But the most important duty is to remain true to the obligations they gave in the beginning of their engagement.

I believe that in this way, in this brave new world, real production consultants have something significant to offer both client and agencies.  Whenever I am accused of being a cost controller I simply take the view that the person making the accusation doesn’t really understand the true nature of the production business.

By Michael D J Canavan (founding Partner BBS Australia Pty Ltd Production Consultants)


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