By now you’ve probably read Asylum Films’ open letter to Leo Burnett London, in which the production company accuses the agency of “reshooting” a job that Asylum had already completed for them. An excerpt:
[The newer spot] is essentially our piece of work reshot and redone with a bigger budget. Not only the concept, but lighting, the feel and shot selection are almost identical.
At no point were we consulted on this or even told about it happening as a courtesy, and certainly not asked about our ability to create this new version. We feel hugely aggrieved by the situation. It is hard for smaller companies to make the transition into doing work with bigger agencies, but we feel we have the experience and showreel to do so.
Leo Burnett London responded on their blog, citing “misinformation”:
We came up with the idea and the long, and highly-detailed, script for an ‘internal’ film to be played at the annual gala dinner held by Ronald McDonald House Charities. Obviously, there was a very small budget given that it was only going to be watched by a few hundred people. This meant we could only approach production companies at the cheaper end of the spectrum. Asylum’s Ben Falk did a great job for us. As a consequence, our RMHC client took the decision to invest a larger production budget to re-make the film with higher production values so that it could be aired on public media (cinema, if you’re interested). The higher production budget meant that the creative team could now interest production companies beyond the cheaper end of the spectrum.
Ouch. Leo Burnett London is basically saying that Asylum did such a good job (for the money) that they justified the client spending more money and going with a more expensive (read: higher end) production company.
Of course, the whole reason that Asylum knocked themselves out on the project (presumably losing money on it) was so they could get repeat business and be Leo Burnett’s go-to prodco for bigger and better projects.
From one perspective, you could argue that Asylum misjudged the opportunity. They saw it as an entry point to bigger budget work, when it fact it was only a one-off gig. They rolled the dice and lost. Them’s the breaks.
From another angle, you could argue that while Leo Burnett London wrote the script, Asylum was responsible for the look of the project, and the right thing to do would have been to at least give them a shot at the bigger budget version. Of course, as LBL points out on their blog, they own the entire concept and both of its executions. Asylum’s hurt doesn’t come from business contracts, though; it comes from what they feel are ethical obligations.
And there’s the rub: Agencies are often justified — from a purely business point-of-view — in doing what they did with Asylum. But when they carry out their actions with impunity, they can come across as bullies.
The agency/vendor relationship is a strange one. Agencies have the ultimate power, insofar as they write the checks and manage the client. Yet vendors have power, too: the power of creation. Many agencies have attempted to cobble together in-house prodcos and studios, and nearly all of them have failed. It’s harder than it looks to run a studio, especially from within a massive corporation owned by an even larger holding company with thousands of shareholders.
So vendors are needed by agencies and vice versa. The difference? There are, in the eyes of agencies, countless vendors to choose from. They’re interchangeable. Expendable, even. That’s as true at “cheaper end of the spectrum” as it is at the expensive end.
The price for Asylum’s protest is yet to be determined, but you can be sure Leo Burnett London won’t suffer much from it.
What do you think?
There’s much, much more to be said on this general topic. What’s your take?
Make sure to read both Asylum and Leo Burnett London’s statements before commenting.