To close out our New Year, New Man series, we’re featuring Executive VP Managing Director of Production and Development at The Martin Agency, Steve Humble. Steve has managed and produced national broadcast campaigns for brands including Oreo, Geico, UPS and Ping. We sat down with Steve to learn about what it’s like to effectively manage one of the most influential creative broadcast teams in the US.
What attracted you to advertising opposed to another sect of production?
I actually sort of got into it by accident. I was a journalism major – I thought I was going to do TV news. Through an internship with The Oprah Winfrey Show in Chicago, I met the head of production at Leo Burnett. Before that, advertising wasn’t even really on my radar. I would think TV news based on what my background was, and I had done several internships at school on production from writing to working in post-production and editing. So… I did the internship at Oprah, met the head of production at Leo Burnett and fortunately, he offered me a job in October of my senior year. He said, “When you graduate in May, you have a job.” It was pretty incredible.
So when you first started, were you doing a little bit of everything?
Leo Burnett at the time was about 2,500 people in Chicago – in a 36 story building, the Leo Burnett building. I was one of ten junior producers that started there, so my role was really just learning the trade of being an advertising producer. I was able to work on McDonald’s right at the beginning – the junior producers were producing 10-15 second commercials for the toys kids get in their happy meals. Then, even now, Chicago has a pretty big production community, so I was doing a lot of those locally with production companies in Chicago. They kind of threw you in – I had about 6 weeks of learning and then they were like, “Alright, we’re going to start giving you stuff.” We started doing radio spots and small productions right from the get go.
This is probably like asking who your favorite child is, but what are some of your favorite campaigns you’ve worked on?
I would say the Geico Caveman campaigns; also, the UPS, “What can brown do for you?”.
Was that the campaign with the white board?
Before the white board we did a big, 3-month production in the desert with wild animals. We were all over the place – all over Southern California, all around Northern California. For the Martin Agency, it was one of our first big special effects, large budget shoots that we had ever done. It put the UPS tagline “What can brown do for you?” on the map. The whiteboard guy was the evolution of that. So that was a pretty cool campaign.
When you first started, you were probably on location quite a bit. Is that still the case now or are you more so stationed in Richmond?
I still travel some. I don’t produce too many commercials myself anymore, but I still occasionally produce stuff. I’ve got about 125 people in my group between broadcast, print, digital producers, Running With Scissors and Hue & Cry which is our post-production and animation facility at the agency. And then we have a Digital Production facility, too. So for the most part, my job is to keep all of those things running smoothly. I’ve got incredible people in my group – I’ve got great Executive Producers who divide up the client base that we have and they manage a lot of the day-to-day stuff. Unfortunately, I typically get involved when there are problems (laughs)…and try to help! And when I go to shoots now, usually I have producers working with me who are covering the shoot, and if I’m there, I’m there more for my client relationships. I’ll occasionally go to shoots for clients like Geico and Ping – clients we’ve had for years. It’s so funny though, because now, I almost don’t like going to shoots because I feel like I don’t have role. When I was producing and on set, I knew what my job was and it was really simple.
You must really trust your producers if being on set makes you feel that way.
I’ve got a great team. We’ve got a great young team, as well. We have 8 or 9 Junior Producers. We have a Junior Producer program where we hire young people who have a little bit of experience, some without any experience, and train them and grow them. And it’s great… we’ve got several Senior Producers that used to be Junior Producers. I’ve got Carrie Ayers who works for me, who is now helping me run the department, and she started off answering the phones 12 years ago.
It seems like the department in general has evolved quite a bit since you’ve been there – with Running with Scissors and Hue & Cry. How much post-production are you doing in-house now?
We’re probably doing about 15-20% of our post-production in-house. We’ve done quite a bit of animation for Oreo, one of our newer clients, Geico, and a handful of our other clients, and are expanding that group. As for the digital piece, we probably do more like 75% of our digital production in-house. So we actually capture quite bit of it. It’s very different . . . when I came here in 1999, the agency was maybe 250-300 people. The broadcast production department was 8 people. I was looking for an opportunity where I could help an agency grow. And they had done TV – they had done Saab and some other things, but they didn’t feel like they were doing it on the same scale, or on the same level as some of the big agencies in New York, LA and Chicago. So I was one of the people that they brought in to help pioneer the TV group.
In terms of your management style, how do you keep a team that large motivated and on task?
You know what, I am the opposite of a micro-manager. I’m very hands off. I feel like my most important job is hiring great people. Because if I do that, I can kind of set them in the right direction and they can go. I’ve got a great group of Executive Producers who have been in the business for a long time, and know what they’re doing, who manage different clients and oversee all of the day-to-day stuff. And they have Producers and Senior Producers who are working underneath them and going through the day-to-day stuff. Like I said, I typically don’t get involved unless there are issues. But I’m still Executive Producer on a couple of accounts – Oreo is one of the accounts I have, and Ping and a few others.
How many people typically work on a campaign of that size?
It depends – sometimes there’s more than one producer depending on how many things you’re executing, whether it’s a TV spot, a print ad, and a digital execution… you might have more than one producer. And then you’ll have a Creative Team or two, and then a Creative Director, and then Account people. The Core Team is usually 3-6 people and then there’s a bigger team around them that helps support them as well. And it’s fun! Even going out to LA and doing shoots and stuff – you’re out there as a team and you’re in the bunker together… you really forage some great friendships and relationships over the years. Joe Alexander, our Chief Creative Officer, and I have been producing work together for years. He and I are good friends, and that was foraged by being out in California – late night when things aren’t going well, weeks at a time, dreaming of problems, solving issues, thinking things out together- it’s great! I feel lucky, too. Martin is a nice little island of really smart, interesting creative people all working together. A lot of my friends are at The Martin Agency. You know, I have friends outside of Martin Agency too, but you also have that core group of people who are like-minded which is nice.
In terms of new technologies, what are you most excited about for the future of the industry?
I think mobile will be huge here in the United States. People might say, “Well it already is huge…” but I think we’ll be using it for more than just phones, using it in marketing and advertising. The technology is there – walking by a product on a shelf and having that product hit you with an offer – we just aren’t using it yet. And in Asia and other countries, it’s gotten much bigger than it is here. I think it’s definitely going to be bigger here. it’s all about figuring out how to do that in a way where consumers find it useful and not annoying. I mean, there’s no sense hitting people with offers that drive them crazy and they become annoyed. You want to give people an opportunity to buy something at a discount, or an offer on something they care about or are already kind of passionate about.
We’re hearing the term “conscious consumer” more and more – it’s definitely something we think about a lot at Ledbury in terms of keeping our message authentic. It seems like people are only going to become more conscious buyers in the future.
Yeah – and the whole idea of push and pull, the media behind TV… we’re pushing that message out onto consumers, they’re not asking for it. They’re watching a TV show – we’re interrupting their TV show to give them this message. With digital and everything else, it’s very different. People are opting in and choosing to want that messaging. They have an opportunity to pull it towards them as opposed us pushing stuff on them. There’s a lot more success when people are open to your message. Context is huge.
Producing is a huge time commitment – what is driving you to keep going and putting in all of that time? What do you really love?
Initially in my career, being involved in a TV commercial where you’re physically making it, seeing it on television and having other people respond to it was definitely a rush. And now that I’m not doing that as much and my teams are physically making it, I don’t have that same sort of emotional connection that I used to have. But now, to be honest with you, I’m getting that from building business units like Running with Scissors, Hue & Cry, and our digital production group – and also building the teams that are successful. Growing and teaching young people is pretty great, and we have a great group of teachers back at the agency as far as Executive Producers and Senior Producers – people who want to impart wisdom and knowledge on people. And my expectation is not that people will come and spend their whole career at the Martin Agency in Richmond, Virginia. A good portion of them won’t, and that’s okay. And I tell every one of them if you come here and do a great job and you tell me you want to move to New York, I’ll help you find a job. I know most of the Heads of Production in New York, and I’ll help you find a job. Not everyone is going to stay here forever and that’s fine and normal. I’ve been doing this long enough where there’s a lot of young producers out there, or maybe even not so young anymore, who are out there at other agencies in other cities who are really good at their job and it’s fun to feel like I was a part of helping grow them and teach them – that legacy.
Style File // The Executive Producer
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