KS: This week I've been in conversation with Monica Benson, an executive producer at LAUNDRY, a creative agency known for its excellent motion graphics, animation, and design work. Monica has over fifteen years of experience in advertising production, having worked with a number of creative agencies to provide content for hundreds of major brands. I wanted to interview Monica because beyond her extensive experience, she has something even harder to attain–profound likability.
And that's not me being cute (though I am objectively adorable). Likability is a skill and a gift that people offer in varying measures. It's one way to promote trust in the workplace, which is critical to sustaining a team. Monica happens to have bags and bags of that likability-gift on tap.
First off, thank you for making time to answer some of my questions.
MB: Anything for you my queen J
KS: Ha! Okay, I accept! So Monica, what opportunities did you pursue to get into the industry?
MB: My first advertising job came by way of answering a receptionist posting on Craigslist! I was an 18-year-old kid in LA with a high school GED and looking for any kind of job in a relatively creative field. I had no clue what a “commercial production company” was, but it sounded pretty cool and I didn't need a degree.
KS: I think a lot of people get into advertising indirectly, perhaps to support another dream. But in time, they develop a real love for aspects of the work.
MB: What’s funny to me is that if I’d known as a kid what an advertising career was, I think I would have gone to ad school. I’m fascinated by the opportunities that advertising allows us to create art for influence (hopefully for good). I love the process. I love being around creatives. We have brilliant minds in this business. And while I’m not necessarily “a creative”, I feel even in my position I can contribute, and help be a catalyst for creativity. That’s really special.
KS: Oh, you're totally a creative contributor in your own right! It's a really demanding career. What keeps you engaged in it now?
MB: The industry can be a drag sometimes too, am I right? (I know I’m not the only one who occasionally dreams of an alt hermit life.) But in the last few years, and especially over the pandemic, I’ve found my passion comes from my connections with people – whether it’s my teammates or my clients – I’m really energized by the chance to help people grow, how to build networks and teams and culture. That feels more important than ever in the WFH world we're living in.
KS: Yeah, it can actually be a really supportive place. When I started, I had a very poor lay of the land. I didn't understand the workspace. I was a fish out of water, coming from illustration gigs in my little home studio, then arriving in these super slick professional offices with mysterious conventions. I remember thinking, am I allowed to eat the food? What taboos should I be aware of?
Once a PA said, "If you have any questions, email the director." But I had no idea who that was! People weren't introduced with job titles and I lacked the experience to surmise that information. I realized early on that people assume freelancers know these things, but I really didn't know any of it. I just knew how to draw. It was an awkward few years!
Over time I found really supportive people–like you–who made me feel comfortable in the industry. Did you feel welcomed by the people you worked with when you started out?
MB: I count myself really lucky. My very first production company, Gartner, instilled the importance of company culture and providing a support network to its staff. They welcomed me into their family, were the strongest advocates for my growth and taught me the ins and outs of the industry. I try to provide that same attention at Laundry whenever possible.
KS: What are some practical, basic tips you can give someone, assuming they really don't know what they're getting into?
MB: While I think it helped that I was young, eager, and started from the bottom, I know that “onboarding” is a rare luxury for new employees – whether staff or freelance. I've experienced some unpleasant first days where it felt like there was no one there to lend a hand. Just walking into a production company or creative studio can be intimidating for folks starting out! And I can’t even imagine what it’s like for newcomers working remotely.
Whether it’s your first day in a full time position or just another freelance gig of many, here are some basics for successful entry into just about any new work situation:
- Communication is everything. Ask questions often and don’t be afraid to let people know that you’re new to a situation and need a walkthrough. We live in a world of assumptions, so you’d be surprised how many people will offer help when they realize it’s needed.
- Do some research. This requires extra work on your part, but it pays off. Check the studio’s website, watch the reel of your director or creative, checked LinkedIn profiles, etc. Information is everything and can reveal valuable things!
- Find an ally. If you have a support network to lean on, it’ll always be an easier go.
- Don’t take it personally. An age old mantra, but perhaps the most important.
KS: Yes, ask so many questions and take a deep breath every two minutes! My success can be attributed to a lethal charm offensive combined with an inquisitive nature. The work can get overwhelming and I think as a result it's easy for people to become defensive. Feeling prepared is a great panacea for nerves.
How it Works
KS: Let's take a look into the black box! How is a commercial project structured? Can you give an example of the life cycle of a commercial?
MB: Traditionally a brand has a contract with an agency partner, or agency of record, to carry out their advertising needs. The agency is responsible for the initial creative conception (strategy, art direction, copywriting) and the execution is carried out by a series of live action, design/animation, VFX, audio and finishing partners. They’re usually coming to us with a set of storyboards or scripts that need a live action director or, for animation-only projects, a creative director.
Every now and then a client may have an existing relationship with a director or production company, and simply “single bid” the project with them, but it’s more typical for agencies to reach out to multiple vendors, or to “triple bid” the work. Production companies have sales reps around the country who help connect agencies with their roster of directors.
As part of the bidding process a director’s treatment is usually requested, which contains a written brief outlining the director’s desired execution, visual references, storyboards and styleframes. Depending on the project, a company may have several weeks to do a treatment, but often it’s just a couple days over a weekend and sometimes we’re competing against 2 if not 3 other directors!
Ultimately after submitting a treatment and bid, someone’s going to win the job. If we're lucky, it’s us! Depending on the creative, production timelines can take anywhere from a handful of weeks to over a year to go from award to air date – but 2-4 months is typical. And of course budgets vary just as wildly, especially when the media buy and talent payments are factored in.
Formal production prep then commences, and depending on the creative a commercial will flow through live action production, animation, post, audio and finishing before being delivered for distribution.
KS: I think people are surprised by how much advertising costs. Blockbusters allocate around 60 million or more. But when you see all that goes into it, it makes more sense. Raised in a liberal bastion, I'd expected more of an evil cabal running everything. I was disappointed, yet heartened, to find that's not really the case. Most of the time there's a room full of normal people brainstorming creative solutions. There's a lot of individual voices, not a homogenized vision from on high. That was pretty eye opening for me. You peek into the machine and it's just people, and I love that.
The Sea Change
KS: There are often values I (and many others) don't align with, yet still actively promote. The most obvious being unsustainable consumerism. But there's not a big, sexy, machiavellian propaganda scheme we're bolstering. It's just the age old, boots on the ground, carnival barking propaganda we do.
MB: We're all seeing the toll that consumerism and social media has on the world, especially on today’s kids. Advertising has a long history of racial disparities – marketers spend their dollars on a select few and the majority of our ads are still created by those who are white and male.
I do feel like there’s been a massive sea change since I started out fifteen years ago. It was expensive, elite and exclusive back then. But digital film technology, smartphones and even our much-maligned social media have really lowered the barrier of entry into this industry. Filmmaker-quality creative tools are so much easier for students and up and comers to get their hands on. That’s not to say we don’t have a lot of work to do in terms of closing the gap.
I like to think clients are beginning to have a change of perspective, though we need to keep pushing our clients to do better. And our clients aside, there are so many people in the advertising industry working hard to make progress, and using our megaphones for good. Our colleagues are making a stand for women, for BIPOC, for democracy. That momentum keeps me hopeful!
KS: Totally! I agree. It's unfortunate that only ~11% of creative directors are women (also absurd because they control the largest share of consumer spending). But I DO see change there, and in racial parity. I also see how the people that make up creative agencies are, more often than not, pushing progress forward one pixel at a time!
Thank you so much for your wonderful work and thoughtful answers. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
MB: Closing in on two years of pandemic, I continue to be awed and inspired by the ways our industry adapts. That I can have teammates from around the world coming together, while remote, to move (advertising) mountains is crazy! But there are incredible people out there making it happen every day. Like you Kiva! So thanks for having me.
KS: It's absolutely my pleasure! You can see the incredible work of Monica and the rest of the team at LAUNDRY by visiting https://www.laundrymat.tv