Delivery Sessions: Interviews with Great PMs Neil Carter, Head of Production at Freedman International
The longevity of Neil Carter’s career in production puts even Mac computers to shame. And while the digital world may have come a long way since then, Neil’s passion for problem solving and knack for technology allowed his expertise to evolve right along with it.
So that brings us to today, where Neil is “currently getting the job done and making it happen on time and budget…” according to the About section of his LinkedIn. And as the Head of Production at Freedman International, a global, 360 production agency, we know that’s certainly true; which is why we asked Neil to share his expert opinion on what really makes a great production leader and how to help your team thrive in the most challenging situations.
Tell us about your background and experiences that led you to your role as Head of Production at Freedman International?
“I’ve been in the business more years than I even care to remember. Even before Mac was ever a thing — there were many different ways of getting things out there. Over time, I worked through the technology myself — whether it was hardware or software. I was always self-taught on the job and very hands-on. I wouldn’t ask other people how to do things; I would learn how to do it myself.
And that even includes inside the break room. “You go from making tea and sweeping floors, then about seven years later, you’re designing network infrastructure and internet servers, and being a cameraman, an editor and everything else,” Neil laughed. “I’ve played almost every role there is to play within the studio, and during this time, you get used to the industry and see how it works. It’s not always the most stable, but if you keep at it, you end up at a great job at a great company, which I’m fortunate enough to have now.”
What are some of the skills that you believe are necessary to excel in production at a 360 agency?
Neil believes that life in the production fast lane isn’t something you can just fall into with any background — as many of you will undeniably agree. “The skills for production are so wide and varied, which come from experience within it (remember, the sweeping and tea-making spiel). You need to fully understand how a 360-agency and the clients tick, and how the project managers work. You need to have a grasp on all the different moving parts at any given time of any given day because they’re always different — no client wants things exactly the same as another. The challenge is establishing the right processes but also being able to bend them somewhat whenever you need to.”
Neil also advises that successful production managers double as great problem solvers — while reflecting on a few fires he already had to put out earlier that day. “You have to be able to think differently; outside of the box in any given specific situation.” And the pandemic provided a perfect example of the Freedman team putting this in action. “There was enough experience within our company for us to see what was coming, so we would have a couple of meetings a week dedicated to solely ‘what if’ scenarios. We dedicated a lot of time — in a short amount of time — to figuring out how to make things work, and then we were testing it out on the fly.”
So, when it comes down to it, Neil says the best skill you can really have at this stage is experience. “You need to know what the technology can do for you, and what you can do for your people. Being a problem solver is one aspect, but you also need to plan for everything — always thinking worst case scenario because in the case of the pandemic, we had to use it. And we’ve done really well with it, acquiring even more new clients despite the circumstances.”
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges that production teams are facing today, especially now as a result of the pandemic?
“I think the biggest challenge right now is still delivering a premium product to your client,” Neil explained, “in a way that they don’t even recognize that you’re not in the office. It’s important that they see a continuation of the same service and business they’re used to. And so far, I think we’ve become even more agile and creative since being home. We’re sitting alongside other people — family, flatmates, etc. — who are doing other jobs and seeing how they handle different situations, which you can apply to your own. My wife is in insurance, which is a very technical business, and I’m finding a lot of how she handles certain things very interesting. You can absorb bigger insights into how the world works and ways of doing things based on other people’s experiences.
“At the same time, you want to make sure your people have the right environment. We had office equipment delivered to people’s homes; we bought chairs, larger screens, etc. to give them a decent place to work. We’ve had a lot of online trivia together and morning coffee every day at 11am, all of which relates to and elevates morale too. That’s one of the hardest things — a lot of people are younger, living with older relatives, so it can be scary. It’s important to make sure you touch base often, and try to take as many problems off of them as you can. Because if the people doing the work aren’t happy, then you’ve got nothing. You’ve got to take care of them.”
As an international agency, how do you make the process more efficient, especially when working across multiple time zones?
This is something Neil says has always been a little tricky, but their team has always gone above and beyond to make it work. “We’re based in London, and most of our work is done here, but we have offices in NY and Sydney, so there are always projects coming in from different parts of the world. We make sure there’s always someone online at any point of the day in case our clients or team members need us.
“And recently, our team is scattered even further as a result of the pandemic. I have a guy who’s gone home to Brazil to be with his family, so now I have an extension of our production studio in Brazil on the East Coast to help with our NY office. I also have team members in India now who have helped with our Sydney location.
“Everything going on has made us more flexible and time efficient. That could mean hopping on a call at 2pm for an account manager here, but 11pm for production in Sydney to make sure the information is passed along. We also all work on one or two platforms that are linked up, so there’s always live and up-to-date information going into it no matter where you are. It’s getting easier, and honestly, the world is getting smaller.”
What are a few strategies you use to bring out the best in your people/teams and keep motivation high on a project?
“When you have these different meetings — especially with the younger members of the team, who seem to be a little more affected with what’s going on — you always want to start it and leave it on a high note.” Neil explained. “You have to make sure you listen a little harder, and as managers, we have to take on a little more of people’s personal problems, particularly now that offices have become kitchen and dining room tables. And you definitely need a sense of humor. You have to take it with you everywhere.”
What types of projects are you most excited to work on, and why?
Is it really any surprise here that Neil’s favorite type of projects are the ones that challenge him the most? “I think the best types of projects are the most difficult ones that require you to take a step back and think harder,” Neil explained. “I’ve led projects and shoots for big brand names, but they’re completed so quickly at times. It’s the really challenging ones — the ones no one else wants to do — where the more you put into it, the more you learn. I can lean on my experience to get through it, and once you do crack it, everyone loves you. Without these types of challenges, you don’t grow as a person or company.”
What does the future of production look like and how can we prepare for it?
It’s hard to predict the future when so much is changing even as Neil speaks, but there are positive trends that he feels are developing as a result of these new obstacles. “It’s crazy, this week is even so different from last week — we don’t know where the world is taking us at the moment, but business in general is certainly getting more collaborative and innovative. The growth pattern will continue to be a little weird, but it’s still growth! Even through lock down, our systems have been improved and continue to do so, as we’ve been able to merge processes and information to make things smoother and better for everyone.
“I’ve also noticed people much more flexible and considerate because we all know it’s hard to work alone from home. People have been more understanding of one another and give more time to get the information they need. But it’s up to the leaders to set an example and provide this type of support. Our employees are the future of the company, and if you don’t teach them these things now, when will you? We’re growing and we’re learning, and things are getting easier.”