Are The Unwritten Rules Being Thrown Out?

(originally published in Screen Magazine 7/11/12)

If you’re not familiar with the unwritten rules of production and how they relate to getting advertising work, don’t read the rest of this column. It seems silly to fill you in on a set of rules that are becoming obsolete. Maybe you’re better off not knowing. You know what they say. Ignorance is bliss.

If we were talking about sports it would be a different story. For example, the unwritten rules in baseball are legendary. As a matter of fact, by writing down the unwritten rules of baseball I’m pretty much breaking the rules, but what the hell. Here they are:

  1. Don’t talk about a no-hitter during a no-hitter. Don’t even think about talking about it.
  2. Don’t stare at a home run when leaving the batter’s box.
  3. When your team is winning by more than 5 runs, you shouldn’t steal a base or bunt.

Recently, Major League pitcher Cole Hamels broke an unwritten rule. He hit rookie Bryce Harper with a fastball on purpose to welcome him to the big leagues. This in itself is fine. Actually, it’s accepted as an unwritten rule. Someone had to throw at the kid. No, Cole Hamels broke the unwritten rule when he admitted that he hit the player on purpose. He broke the unwritten rule about regulating the unwritten rules. It gets very complicated.

The most accepted unwritten rule in the production community has been around for years. It has long been understood that all vendors should get their work from the advertising agency or marketing firm on record. At no point should the vendor call the client directly for work. This rule makes sense when a company or person is hired as a sub-contractor. For example, I just hired a cameraman for a three-day shoot. I expect him to be approachable, professional, and courteous to my clients. I also expect him never to contact my clients directly for work in the future. The cameraman I hired understands this unwritten rule, so I expect we will work together for many years to come.

But what if I never hired him to begin with? In that case, can we both pursue work from the same client? Can I really expect him to stay away from all my potential clients? What if my company decided to put some cameramen on the payroll, and I never engaged his services again? Is he still expected to stay away?

The answers to these questions used to be much clearer. Back in the day (about ten years ago) everyone’s role was defined. There was the client, the agency, and then the vendor. Just like the Army, we all followed the chain of command. No one seemed to challenge the workflow, because there seemed to be enough work to go around. But things have changed since then.

Four years ago, I sat next to the President of HBO for an event. He asked me directly if there was any possibilities of using the music I produced in the future. “Could it be part of a larger campaign? How would you take this to the next level?” he asked. My response was, “Isn’t that a question for your agency?” I knew the rules. I was just a music guy who did his job. My role was not to develop the ideas, I was limited to just executing them, right?

A week later I sent along an estimate for turning the :60 song into a 3:00 minute piece. The estimate also included the lead singer and actor from the video touring the world (12 cities)promoting the cause at both local high schools and nightclubs. The bid total was over one million dollars. I had just broken an unwritten rule, by presenting an idea directly to a client. But he asked me for it directly, so that made it okay, right?

A few weeks later, I attended an AICP event at the Park West in Chicago. It was a roundtable discussion about the state of the industry. The heads of the top five agencies were the speakers, along with a chief McDonald’s strategist. Wouldn’t you know it; the topic of the unwritten rules came up. The McDonald’s representative said, “I don’t care where the idea comes from. If a 15 year-old kid on YouTube has a clever idea, I’m going to take a look at it.”

Of course this didn’t sit well with the Leo Burnett representative. I stood up and asked, “What if the vendor is approached by the client directly? Doesn’t the vendor have a responsibility to his company, employees, and family to pursue that work?” The answers were mixed. One of the members of the panel walked up to me afterwards and said that if the agencies aren’t already doing editorial, audio, and graphics in house, they will be soon. He put it like this. “We’re already getting into your line of work so there’s no reason you can’t get into our end of the industry.” It was an honest assessment of the state of our industry. Whoever has the best relationship with the client will control the work.

Fast forward 4 years, and it’s easy to see the playing field has leveled even more. Of course there are still agencies of record, and I continue to respect that protocol. But there are also many more clients who are controlling their creative in house. In fact, the demand for content across so many platforms suggests that potential clients are everywhere. Or maybe I should say relationships are everywhere. Anyone, and I mean anyone, might have leads. The music producer, the graphics guy, the editor, the sound mixer, or even your dentist might have a relationship that leads to work.

My suggestion would be to pursue every possible lead. If you are aware that a potential client has a relationship with an agency or another shop, you have to determine if the risk of losing potential work from that agency is worth the reward of landing a project directly from the client. It kind of reminds me of being single. When you approach someone in a bar, you have no idea if they’re seeing someone, if they could be happier with you, etc…

The same goes for the production community in today’s world. If you’re unaware of any pre- existing client relationships, there should be no risk. So go for it. Frankly, the unwritten rules are losing ground in this economy. I’m sorry I even had to write them down. Ignorance may be bliss. But work pays the bills.