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Vendor-produced Content

I had an interesting email conversation recently about the integration of vendor-produced content into an enterprise Digital Asset Management (DAM) system.  For the most part it was technical – focusing on the practicalities of allowing or requiring vendor access to internal systems. It did get me thinking about the overall universe of vendor issues when bringing in outside companies to develop content.  I think there are three critical areas to consider when hiring an outside company to produce content: legal, quality and creative.

Legal Issues

Legal issues are usually the earliest to come up, the least pleasant part of the process, and the least important for the final product.  Lawyers may argue with me on that point, but if the documentation is written correctly and all conditions are met as expected, the agreements will not be looked at again throughout the project.  They don’t contribute to the end result beyond insuring that deadlines are set, payment terms are agreed to, and establishing consequences if conditions are not met.  Yes, I’m oversimplifying, but from a content development view, that’s really all that can be gleaned from the legal documentation.

While everything in the legal paperwork should be as clear as possible, there are some issues I think media managers need to be particularly clear on.  The first is ownership of the products of the effort.  Who owns the draft versions, negatives, associated music, etc?  Does the vendor have a right to use all or a portion of the creative product for their own needs?  Does the purchaser have the right to re-use all or portions of the product for further projects?  I’m no expert on copyright, and at least in the photography community I know there’s a lot of debate about the ownership of work for hire.  It’s very important that these details be clearly settled and outlined in the legal documentation.

Some other legal issues the non-lawyers should consider:

  • Rights & permissions – who is responsible for clearing rights on published music, model releases, etc.?
  • Confidentiality – many enterprise communications include proprietary or confidential information; if you bring in an outside company to produce an internal finance meeting, for example, the legal documentation needs to ensure the vendor will protect the company’s private information
  • Equipment – you may want to spell out whose equipment the vendor will use for recording, editing, producing, and distribution
  • Formats – probably less complicated than other areas, but it may be worth stating specifics of the final format of the delivered products, including both video encoding/photo filetype formats and the media type (CD, hard drive, etc.) on which it will be delivered.

Quality Issues

The second area of importance when dealing with production vendors revolves around quality, which I think can be a nebulous term.  Every vendor and consumer will make claims or demands about quality, but what do they really mean by that?  No vendor with any sense at all would claim anything other than their work is “of the highest quality”; no consumer would ever ask for work that wasn’t “very high quality.” So what exactly is quality when applied to a vendor-developed project?

I think this can be broken down into two basic areas for the enterprise consumer.  1) how technically proficient is the vendor, and 2) what level of production is provided by the vendor to the finished product?  For those with a production background the first item should be fairly easy to identify; for those of us who have come from other paths, here are some basics to consider:

  • Who’s doing the shooting and editing?  A videographer or a photographer who does some video on the side (or vice versa for a photo shoot)? Someone with a lot of experience or someone’s nephew fresh out of film school?  Do they know corporate work or is this their first opportunity for it?  None of this may affect the product, but it’s important to know in advance.  Don’t be afraid to ask for resumes and samples of previous work – in fact, you should  insist on it.
  • How do those samples look to you?  Again, if you’re unfamiliar with the production process, watch the samples as you would a television program or movie.  Watch once to get a sense of their ability to tell a story, then again looking for technical skills. Does the camera pan smoothly? Do the cuts, edits, and transitions enhance the story or interfere with it ?  Does the lighting seem appropriate to the scene – not too dark, not too light?  Are the backgrounds appropriate for the piece – busy, distracting, or jarring?  In all cases, the technical aspects should appear invisible so the viewer concentrates on the message – unless of course you want the technical to be front and center to the piece.
  • They’re familiar with the latest advances in equipment and software.  They don’t need to be running the Canon EOS C300 (just announced yesterday) or the latest release of Final Cut, Avid, Vegas, etc., but they should be current with their equipment.  If you’re not sure what to look for, take a few minutes to review the online shops selling equipment (B&H Photo is usually a safe bet) to get a sense of where things are at in the market.
  • Do they understand output formats?  Some video production people know a lot about creating and editing video, but next to nothing about delivering it to viewers. Your streaming environment may be unique to your needs, and it’s important that the vendor can meet those needs.  If you expect a master copy with limited compression, you don’t want someone offering you a highly compressed WMV only.  Likewise if you need multiple bitrate copies, they should know the difference and provide what you need.

Creative Issues

The last area of concern is probably the most variable of the three, and that’s the creative side. Generally speaking corporate videos don’t want to look like cheap local TV commercials (you know the ones I mean – wooden actors, usually the owners, speaking like robots about how much they can save you), but they probably don’t want to look like Hollywood blockbusters either.  There’s obviously a lot of room in between those two extremes, and it’s important for vendor and customer to agree before the project formally begins on what the end result will look like.

This won’t matter a lot when the vendor is brought in to record and/or broadcast a live meeting – for the most part they just need to make sure the right subject is captured, that switching happens as planned, and the signals are delivered correctly.  It’s the studio/location shoots where a formally conceived video project that require a lot of planning and discussion about the tone, style, and final product need to happen. If you’ve hired the production company because you just don’t have the staffing, you will obviously be able to lay out for the company exactly what you want.

If, however, you don’t feel comfortable laying out the creative vision on your own, here are some things to consider:

  • Know your company and its culture. If you’re in a button-down, formal corporate environment (never mind the casual dress code), your executives will want that reflected in the video production.  If you’re in a very casual environment, the video will need that tone instead.
  • Know your performers.  If you’re hiring actors, it’s more a matter of picking people that reflect the message and have whatever “look” you’d like to see – assuming they know their craft.  But a lot of corporate pieces involve shooting real employees and executives, and it’s important to know how those people perform best.  One exec is great sitting down one-on-one, and the other may need an audience to deliver a strong performance; as best you can, tailor the creative vision of the piece to those strengths.
  • Get your message across crystal clear.  Long before the production company is hired, you should know what you want to say.  Spend plenty of time on the script or key messages so that everyone agrees to what you’re trying to get across.
  • Equally important is that those messages are not lost in the course of production.  It’s all well and good to have an artiste create a brilliant, award-winning edit of a Coppolla-esque video, but if your message gets lost in the process it doesn’t do what you needed.
  • Match your vision to the powers that be.  Make sure everyone is on board with the direction of the piece – especially those who will sign off on it – before putting scenes to SD card.

Vendors are an extremely powerful tool for a corporate studio, but it’s a relationship that needs to be planned, managed, and monitored to have the most impact for the cost.  Hiring a vendor requires a commitment of resources – usually a significant amount of money – and it’s critical that the consumer understand the landscape before tackling a project.

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