Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year, so much has changed in the world of digital production. Collaboration requires distance, work days often never end, and communication is more important than ever. But for The Martin Agency, these challenges have only created all new opportunities to flourish, thanks to unwavering discipline, creative diligence, and a caring culture.
We sat down with Kim Zaninovich, VP Executive Producer at The Martin Agency, to hear about the challenges PMs and digital producers are facing in today’s production, and how their team has not only adjusted, but taken their creative thinking to a whole new level.
Tell us about your background and experiences leading you to your role as VP Executive Producer at The Martin Agency?
While working in theatrical film promotion and publicity for Fox Searchlight pictures back in the day, Kim was actually building the perfect foundation for a successful career in digital production. “It really gave me a great base for creating projects because we were working with film makers and talent who had such a high-level of expectation around organization, communication, and service that’s just standard in the industry,” Kim shared.
And the process of marketing films is actually a lot more similar to building brands than you’d think. “Each film release is like bringing a new brand into the world–each with different content and audience and ways it will be scrutinized. It was really fun because every time, there was a completely new subject and demo to learn about which became really great training for what grew into production for me.”
Her next role was an almost-too-perfect next step, working in digital production for a company that made websites for movies. “What we were trying to do in those early days was recreate the experience of that film–how a site felt to a user on their computer was close to how a trailer would feel to the audience in a theater. In the days of Flash, everything was moving and animated, using music and sound effects which made it so much fun as we were recreating these worlds — especially with genres like horror or comedy.”
Eventually, the companies she was working on branched into brand work, allowing her to work with big names like Coca Cola, Nike, Apple, and get introduced into the type of flow she would experience regularly as VP Executive Producer at The Martin Agency. “I lead a very fun and talented group of digital producers who are constantly trying to break the boundaries of what technology can do and how it can tell compelling stories in a way that’s relevant to how we use tech now. Today, everything we do is based on the computer we keep in our pocket, so our challenge bringing really great, rich brand experiences to users through a canvas that, in some ways, is more limited than before.”
What skills do you think you have which have helped you become such a great production leader?
“I really love hearing people’s stories. I think that being able to really listen; not just for content, but for nuance, has served me really well,” Kimberly shared. “I’m super curious, and when you’re listening from a place of sincere curiosity, you understand what the client needs and the creative team needs and see the opportunities to bring it all together.”
And for a digital producer, that’s what it’s all about. “The small details of a project that makes things easier, more vibrant. If we’re paying attention to the details, it allows other people to be grander in their thinking and not be mired in the super specifics. If we can give our partners the chance to think big, so they don’t have to worry about the minutiae we can find a pretty perfect balance.”
How Do You Make Your Production Process More Efficient?
Comparing the digital production process to planning a wedding may seem odd, but with experience in both, Kim has found a lot of aspects of her past side hustle that have helped her maintain efficiency with her production teams. “When planning a wedding, you have to do this thing where you’re thinking about the event by every single beat; from the moment someone parks their car, or the moment they walk into the room — what are they experiencing? How are you creating something magical?
“I think of production in the same way. I try to anticipate all of the places where there’s room for trouble or likely to be conflict, where there’s a place to really bloom and let the project become all the things it can be. I think of the beats of a project in all the same ways you think of the beats of an event. There are timelines, budgets, and high emotions just like in a creative job.”
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges that PMs face in agencies today, especially now as a result of the pandemic?
For a lot of people, working from home was a real shock to the system, especially those used to such collaborative experiences, in-person on a daily basis. That was the case for a lot of producers during COVID-19, but Kim’s team was quick to adjust.
“We really have such incredible PMs who are super disciplined so they were very good at keeping things structured and moving. And as digital producers, we’re always producing content from our laptops, working with other time zones and countries, so our team really didn’t skip a beat because they’re so used to everything happening via their laptops.
“I do think all of our teams have had to fully trust technology in a new way. For our content producers, certain logistics which are typically physical touch points throughout the process — like casting and wardrobe — became a different puzzle to solve. But they worked out the best ways to use digital tools and got their creative teams and clients comfortable with the process. Even simple things like using Slack to ask questions and communicate more quickly has made us more efficient.”
For their production leaders, there was a whole new legal side to these different workflows. “They’ve had to keep crews and teams as safe as possible, ensuring they are protected and feel comfortable with the work and their environment. There have been workarounds made to shoot and edit in a way that doesn’t look like people are alone with a camera — even if they basically are.
“We recently did a spot for a large retailer where we had an artist create a portrait using clothing on a white cyc in a studio over a time lapse, which is totally appropriate for the concept. It just so happened that it was also the safest way to shoot in the world of COVID. There have been so many interesting ways our creative and executive teams have pivoted, using the discipline and rigor we’ve always had and embracing a trust in using our technology in all-new ways.”
How do you promote wellness and positive across your teams, in-office and remote?
As a huge topic of conversation for the agency from day one, The Martin Agency has been very active in creating an environment where people continue to feel supported. “What we’re seeing with everyone working from home is that the implicit boundaries that you have in the office are no longer there,” Kimberly explained. “Instead of seeing someone has left for the day and thinking oh, this can wait until tomorrow, we find ourselves sending and receiving texts, quick pings, or emails at all hours. We’re slamming more work into one day than we might have in the office.”
So, the agency didn’t hesitate to take certain steps to help their team not only adjust, but continue to thrive, while protecting this work-life balance. “Immediately, our agency created a special job number specifically dedicated to taking time to yourself however you need to. Since billable time is so important, people can block out that time specifically to step away, destress, and recover.
“We’ve also added unexpected days off, allowing employees to unplug and take a full day to themselves, as well as a designated “no meetings” hour from 12-1pm every day so everyone can have time to themselves to work independently or take a break.”
There have also been a few things done which Kim says have really been a reflection of the kindness of their leadership — like handwritten notes from the executive committee to each team member. And on Mother’s Day, each mom had flowers brought right to their door, while the fathers received a special gift on their day too. “There’s really a focus on keeping our internal connection strong, so we have fairly frequent all-company zoom gatherings, while each team is encouraged to do their own things as well. Our digital producers have a Thirsty Thursday happy hour, simply to hang out and gab about anything going on not related to work.”
What does the future of production look like and how do you think we can better prepare for that?
Despite the challenges the entire industry is facing and a belief that things will never be the same, Kim is confident that these limitations will only drive new innovations and stories that bring new joy in the future. “Whenever there’s been a disruption in production flow — whether it was actor or writer strikes — we’ll find a way to adapt, just like we always have. Right now, there’s enough creative brain power out there to ensure that great stories will continue to be told and there will be more beautiful ways to tell them.
“These types of once-in-a-lifetime challenges push our creativity to a place we never would have gone without a challenge, or box around us. We’re at that time right now where creativity has to reign, and it will be the one thing that brings us true joy. Production will be forever changed.”