The WPP and Hogarth global head of production speaks to LBB’s Alex Reeves about how Covid highlighted practices that he already favoured, his proudest career moments, and why content should be made by those already embedded in the audience
Pulse Films predicts that the changes the industry is going through now will define the future of production, a thought that's the driving force behind this exclusive interview series on Little Black Book. Covering four key themes, the series will investigate how the pandemic has affected production and the shape of things to come.
Next in the series is Dave Rolfe, WPP and Hogarth’s global head of production, who already had an intimidating CV before taking on those roles in March 2021. Having put down roots as an independent producer in the Pacific Northwest in the ‘90s, leadership roles followed with top-tier global creative agencies, and most recently with Facebook, where he worked as head of production for global business marketing.
Prior to Facebook, Dave was global EVP, director of integrated production at BBDO for eight years. He played a central role in BBDO’s creative success, winning armfuls of gongs for work ranging from social and innovation to Super Bowl spots. Before that he was partner and global director of integrated production at CP+B for 12 years, helping them win Agency of the Decade in 2010.
In this newly created role, Dave is responsible for executing a strategy that elevates the role of production in delivering creative excellence across WPP. A central part of that is attracting and nurturing the best production talent from across the industry and building a best-in-class production community that offers integrated and innovative solutions for clients.
LBB’s Alex Reeves was keen to speak to Dave about the whirlwind few years the production industry - and his career - has had, as well as the future that those changes have laid the foundation for.
LBB> Your career has mostly been in agency production departments but then also at Facebook. How does what you're doing at WPP and Hogarth differ?
Dave> I’ve had a few roles since the pandemic struck, all quite different!
At the outset, while at BBDO, I felt invigorated to overcome the challenges when production was broadsided. New ways of sourcing were the only way out, and I’d been evangelising those methods for a while, plus, keeping morale high felt like a renewed calling. We dove in quickly with as much connectivity and virtual camaraderie as possible.
I started at Facebook while Covid was still spiralling downward, but tech-based companies were picking up speed, flexing their strengths at remote. It was a very new experience, and it took me a while, if ever, to adapt to my employer as my only client. I’d just been so trained to respond every which way, in the agency world.
That said, there was much territory to explore, and opportunities to collaborate across org, with incredibly talented people, but I found management to be challenging via remote. Though in truth — I forget this too often — a few of the projects I oversaw there were as interesting as any over the past five years or so… a global, largely hands-off creator-driven project involving matchmaking with multiple brand partners, a few cool episodic longform series emphasising marketing innovation and shopping tech, and a 100% advocacy-built campaign, via self-filmed small business owners candidly expressing support for personalised ads.
At WPP and Hogarth, I’ve been working on a modernised production model - how we work inwardly, how we collaborate outwardly, how to highlight experience builds and a technology-led system of creation. As we scale the discipline of production, how can we tie closer to creative and at the same time, help connect directly to the consumer? Production has not just been about how people watch for a long while - it also must embrace how they buy.
LBB> What lasting impact has the pandemic had on how you approach production?
Dave> Well, I’d say I’ve always embraced some of the ways production’s been reimagined since the pandemic. Whether it’s being curatorial in our partnering of our sourcing model, looking broadly at appropriation both as an ideational as well as an executional pursuit, and then perhaps radically approaching how a project is more lightly overseen, in the spirit of collaboration. We were stuck at home, after all.
That said, it dawned on me recently - wow, do I ever feel disconnected from talent. I spend more time messaging my craftspeople cronies over Insta than I have preparing to meet them on set, or in a conference room, or a project kickoff dinner. There’s no question greater IRL collaboration and the back-and-forth of the creative process needs to see us back together again. I think about kids everywhere being masked up for two years of school - and I also wonder about the net impact of the creative process being bound to a desktop.
LBB> How do you feel production and producers are perceived today? And how does that compare to other moments in your career?
Dave> Producers may need to go through a bit of a recovery period. The discipline is a magnetic one. Biz leads, ops, media, creative, tech… have all leaned into the production process and its strategising. But the core producer, there needs to be a renewed boost, if not reinvention, and it will involve more smartly making inwardly - being the cooks in the kitchen - as well as doubling down on partner-based collaboration.
I have a slide in a recent deck that has an “At its worst” vs “At its best” breakdown, for agency production… At worst we’re intermediary, procuring, inexpert, babysitters and dependent. At our best, we’re inspiring, enterprising, solutional, leading and connective!
Producers now have the opportunity to build solutions, explore talent and collaborate with greater value potential than ever. Marketing and production will seed from AI and greater mechanisation - systematising things is a very necessary challenge - but our creations in culture and in both the virtual and hybrid world will require greater ingenuity than ever.
LBB> Do you think it's fair to say we're going through a renaissance for the craft in filmmaking right now? What's fuelling/impeding that?
Dave> I can’t seem to put my finger on craft now, more than ever. Context seems to have finally landed as understood as guiding our creation process - and perhaps ‘crafted experience’ now eclipses what we’ve heralded as craft.
It’s fascinating to me, you could be on your third week of offline and then a meme of Bernie Sanders is adopted and shared around the world in an hour, or a Skittles ad from a decade ago becomes a TikTok explosion. One of my proudest, if not most bizarre moments, was when we won a Silver in Craft at Cannes for a six-second video (remember Vine?) of a rubber-band as a solution for a stripped screw. It might have been the ugliest ‘ad’ I’ve ever seen… taking a craft prize. Kudos to the prescience of that jury.
I don’t see impediments per se. I actually think it's well-understood when a creation or brand platform needs aesthetic perfection vs when a build needs to be crafted for its intersectional intent. And further, we talk about lack of time as an inhibitor, but what if our finite timeframes could more consistently be seen as a luxury? See an open window, jump through it.
LBB> What recent piece of work are you most proud of and why?
Dave> Internally, I’m very proud of the thinking provided in WPP’s effort in our Coca-Cola win. We expressed how an end-to-end model can be realised, guided by data and creative brilliance, strategically deployed and influenced globally through regional participation and activation. This was achieved through an incredible assemblage of WPP thinkers as well as partner contributions, and just as importantly, in collaboration with our client’s vision. I had never experienced a collective thinker groundswell like that.
On the outside, and far more anecdotally, I haven’t been able to get out of my head another piece of brand purpose and utility expression from Domino’s, in which they set up a fund to support the delivery needs of small restaurants around the US. But remember, it wasn’t built as a PR-only thing- it wasn’t, like, just done over Twitter - it was a national TV ad-buy, in which a pizza company (or rather, a tech-driven yummy food company) gifted its media spend toward restaurants strapped for delivery capacity. All the while, bolstering its own identity as a preeminent delivery company. That’s a useful ad.
LBB> Thinking back, is there one piece of work from your career that you're most proud of / is particularly memorable and why?
Dave> Thanks for asking! I ponder that much, as I approach 20-years as HOP— is it an IRL army of revolting teens via Truth, a King made overnight, a pervy yet responsive chicken, a lamp, a branded game in 2006, a noble fail in bud.tv, a “taste infringement” lawsuit, proving that Steve Hodges is not an antagonist, converting a retail salesforce into a ‘twelpforce,’ founding a social ecosystem for Lowe’s, a jarring experience simply called “Evan,” Monica Lewinsky as an actual client, a VR product to remind us child cancer survivors are superheroes—or just anything with Greg Hahn behind it-- let alone the dozens and dozens of brilliant producers and makers I’ve teamed with.
But I have actually answered that one the same way over the past several years (because, like graduating from high school, I still can’t believe it happened): around 2004 at CPB we had a low-budget project for “Know HIV,” in which the ask was to “paint several city blocks with graffiti, paint the streets, paint the businesses and the houses, choreograph and film it, and invite Common to host and wax poetically.” When you’ve got no money you need to solve things more yourself, you can’t expect both practical and creative vision from your partner—gotta get viability solved up front. It was solved through passionate, old-school integrated teamwork and because the city of Philadelphia is unlike any other (plus, Anders Hallberg is a contagiously optimistic genius).
LBB> What do you think are the most important things the production side of the industry needs to do to support up and coming talent and make sure clients get more diverse perspectives on their briefs?
Dave> One of my favourite things we’re building at Hogarth now ties to this. Through the vision and passion of one of our EPs, AJ Rowe, we’ve created a diversity maker initiative that predicates its approach on audience-first production. It’s called Content & Culture. We’ve worked to highlight any opportunity we can for project-work to be made via a community framework, broadly speaking - anything from a 2-million-strong ‘gay dads group’ to an AR creator network. I remember when influencer marketing kicked-off - influencer networks were built based on media capability, and then creative ideation and production were bolted on. But it can be the reverse of that too - a making approach can also leverage how it activates in media, via makers with an inherent relationship with the audience.
Content & Culture seeks to fortify Hogarth’s diverse maker offering by prioritising authenticity. Things can be made by those already circulating a community, broad or small. And if you want to find diversity, look at your audience. Our first collaborative series from this effort will release soon!
LBB> What would your advice be for the next generation of producers?
Dave> Study how the world shares, and understand that no one is really in control of the outcome of your work other than your audience - and allow that to inspire you. And secondly, perhaps don’t feel like you have to learn everything, but do study something… hard.
For instance, a new, incredible young producer just joined us at Ogilvy, Tatiana Lanier. I’d been hopeful to be reunited with her for a few years. She wouldn’t allow it, because she’s loyal and because a labyrinthine NFT project was afoot for her. I thought she’d never join… but she did. But wow, having spent the many months needed to build that project, she now leads us in the rush that is the NFT frontier.
LBB> Can you tell us one thing that you believe we are certain to have in store for the future of production?
Dave> In our business, the future of production is intricately sewn to the future of marketing. Production underpins how messaging works, interaction, culture building and the needs of e2e. It will find that its ‘hood is blown off’ given that the tools of expression will be in the hands of audience as well as creative marketers, and our audiences will directly participate in building our best experiences.
I don’t know how long I’ll need to continue to be stuck producing from this chair, but I’ll need a seatbelt.