Leo Q & A

The new age of ad creation, Q&A with EVP, Head of Production Mike Davidson

2020 was a difficult year, but rife with opportunity for innovation. Through this challenging time, Mike Davidson found new means to drive incredible production while prioritizing building a more diverse talent pipeline.

When Mike Davidson joined Leo Burnett as EVP, Head of Production a year ago, he came in with a vision: a diverse, modern production group inside of a storied creative agency. Yet, he had no idea what 2020 had in store.

The traditional production process changed as creative briefings were hosted online and directors collaborated from kitchens and makeshift offices. Amid all these challenges, a critical change was being called for in the industry – the people advertisers reached needed to be seen on and behind the camera.

For Mike, this turbulence was a chance for the innovation he had wanted – even if it was not in the way that he planned. From adapting to all-virtual experiences to a more concentrated focus on discovering and partnering with diverse production partners, Mike contributed to the agency’s ability to produce top-notch work in a challenging year. Here, he reflects on production during the pandemic and how lessons learned will change the future of advertising:

1. You’ve been at Leo Burnett for a little over a year (and what a year it was) – what has been a highlight of your first year as EVP, Head of Production?

I think what I’m most proud of is taking on the opportunity and the challenge to join forces with a lot of new leaders at Leo Burnett in what feels like a real moment of change and evolution in the way we work. This year, I restructured the production department and simplified our model to open up the way that we resource and provide opportunities to producers in a more flexible, efficient way. We’ve created additional opportunity for some new leadership in production, special talents who I’m really excited to see grow in the agency.

2. Your first year was a complicated one – the COVID-19 pandemic changed so much about how we all work. What are some of the many adaptations you’ve made in your work? What technologies have you used in order to implement these changes?

I think becoming all-virtual in the blink of an eye allowed us to come to every creative conversation with fresh eyes and a renewed sense of research and discovery, no matter what we were making. It completely leveled the playing field and now no experience is necessary to produce great work, because nobody has produced work this way before. From just a talent standpoint, that’s opened up more opportunities for forward-thinking minds, which has been really exciting. Even in our most traditional spaces, we’re trying to take a fresh look at what’s possible — both from a technology standpoint, and from a health and safety standpoint. We’re really digging in deep at the start of the creative process.

It has been really interesting to see how quickly we’ve adapted to all-virtual experiences. I’m really proud of some of the early things that we did like with Coors Light Clone Machine, and Country Time Littlest Bailout for example; helping brands that can’t be very active in real-world experiential spaces and giving their consumers those same, rich, one-to-one moments in virtual environments. We can still give them positive brand experiences in the absence of being at a music festival or a sporting event.

I think production minds have maybe been more adaptable during the pandemic just because of the “figure it out” nature of what we do. It’s really been interesting to see the many different talents at Leo Burnett in the production department rise to the occasion and figure out how to not only get work made, but get great work made.

3. Which of these adaptations do you think will remain in the industry once COVID is behind us?

What I hope carries over is how we take a fresh look at every idea—not falling back on the expected. I think the connectivity we’ve experienced while working from home has sped up our decision making by helping us focus on what’s actually necessary within the process.

When you’re not doing it the same way over and over again, you have a chance to create something that’s new and fresh and hopefully, more impactful out in the world.

4. You have made so many innovative changes to Leo Burnett since joining. Was this a result of production challenges from COVID-19 or did you always have some of these changes in mind before joining the agency?

I came with this vision. I’ve known Liz (Taylor, Global CCO) for a long time and when we reconnected on her hopes and dreams for Leo Burnett, I shared what I had been doing, and my thoughts on a modern production group inside of a creative agency.

In the early days of the pandemic, we were trying to figure out how to get through the day and to transition from the different phases of COVID production. There was a lot of, stock photography sad piano track kind of content and “we’re in it with you,” brand messaging. Then we moved into: we know we can do it now, how do we do it better? We’ve expanded back out into making things beyond just traditional film and really looking for those deeper content experiences. So it’s been fun to see how our experience and our work has been able to evolve and take shape, even inside of the pandemic.

5. Considering the shifts in production and you being new to the agency, what was the process like of building trust in the creative process between production and client partners?

It makes a difference when you are engaged upfront in the creative process and present at the briefing stage and attached to your creative team as a resource and as a partner. When you get to the execution phase, you know the work intimately, you’ve played a role in shaping it, and as a byproduct of that, you fight harder for it. You work harder to get it to maintain its integrity. It’s also no secret, we have to work harder to sell in big ideas market. Especially during the pandemic, marketing dollars are scarce and to get big, ambitious, creatively risky work made, it takes cooperation from all spokes in the wheel from start to finish.

6. What were some things you learned while producing during a pandemic and what was your biggest takeaway?

To ask the questions, to have the conversations that you never thought you had to have before. That’s a general piece of advice that I give to all producers. We’re now in a space where no two productions are the same, outside of the pre-pandemic more traditional way of doing things. Literally the rules of the game — whether it’s from a technology standpoint, or a COVID protocol — they’re changing daily. I’m encouraging more open, transparent, proactive conversation around the things that we just don’t know. We’re in a world where we’ve never controlled less about our environment, so it’s certainly a world where we’re ready to discover things that would’ve never crossed our minds before.

7. What drew you to Leo Burnett? What makes Leo Burnett stand apart as an agency, in terms of production?

Earlier in my career, I worked at a couple different agencies in Chicago, and Leo Burnett has always been the iconic agency, the big fish in this big pond. The chance to come to a place with such a foundation and a rich history and try to play whatever small role I can in evolving the agency and impact the creative product here — I think it was just an awesome challenge to take on. To get to partner with such amazingly talented people working with iconic brands and to try and elevate them into spaces that the world cares about. What more do you need?

8. We also saw a renewed focus on diversity and inclusion in 2020. How have you executed on a commitment to using diverse production partners? Why is it so important to have diversity within production?

Our renewed focus on a more diverse and inclusive production environment is something that I’m really excited to be a part of. From changing the face of our production department to collaborating with artists and makers we wouldn’t have discovered previously— we’ll continue to focus on making work that’s more reflective of the world that we’re speaking to.

We have formally partnered as an agency with the Free the Work organization, which is a nonprofit platform designed to spotlight underrepresented communities of makers, from editors, directors, composers, all aspects of production. We have committed to including at least one option from the Free to Work platform within every triple bid production scenario. Through that commitment, we’re tracking, reporting and measuring ourselves more rigorously than we ever have before. So we can start to take a look at how we’re actually doing. We’re trying to identify areas of weakness and spaces that we need to celebrate to get closer to what’s actually happening on the ground that supports our overall mission.

9. Everyone is very focused on cultural fluency right now. Are there aspects of production that are going to become prerequisites for a brand to show up well, and relevantly and resonantly in culture?

Production has a responsibility to do the homework on who’s out there, discover talent that hasn’t yet been discovered and find talent that isn’t as represented in the mainstream industry. We’re simply trying harder, and we’re going to work in a more focused way to bring more new talent and diversity into the equation.

We need to be truly committed to the belief that the more authentic we are the more authentic and culturally impactful our work is on the other end.