Written by James Peak on Oct 27, 2010. Posted in Interviews

Interview: Dominic Delaney of Dab Hand

The newest digital production company in London could not be without the oldest media of all - the printed page - to inform its strategies. Dominic Delaney’s Dab Hand Media is in a new generation of international commercials production companies informed by 25 years of production experience, some of the most iconic figures in British and European advertising history and two very special books.

Delaney left an enviable senior position at @radical.media, the production company voted Best Production Company In The World at Cannes - and with the highest turnover in London - to set up his own. This was at the beginning of 2007, just as the recession was starting. The recession hit advertising media hard, but this didn’t stop Delaney choosing to specialise in advertising production.

“I had had ten years at Radical Media, under my mentor John Kamen, who is an amazing man. But we had gone as far as we could go and I needed a fresh challenge. I wanted to go it alone with my own company and it has worked so far. In fact we are still one of the newest companies in town, as no one has been lunatic enough to follow us.”

Dab Hand Media now has offices in New York and Prague, and a client list that includes Aviva, Smirnoff, Sony, Avis, Kelloggs and McDonalds. It also represents Calle Astrand and Joe Wright, among other award-winning directors, and has a stills photography arm. How did Dominic get his own start in the business?

“I was made redundant from my job as an air courier and got a job at Rushes in Soho as a runner. I freelanced on the studio floor and work was plentiful. I did a huge amount and eventually got friendly with Patricia Murphy and Tony Kaye. Tony was a real mentor to me and I learnt an incredible amount from him as he shot a stream of iconic commercials in the late 1980s to early 90s for British Rail, Abbey National, Dunlop and Real Coal Fires. It was a formative experience like no other.”

Dominic had been assisting producing for Tony Kaye Films for a while when he got a late-night phone call from the Director: “He said: ‘I’m making Patricia a full-time Director. She needs a full-time Producer and it’s you!’”

After an 18-month spell in Italy, where he learnt Italian and produced even more ads, Dominic was enticed back to the UK to work with Mike Figgis and Mike Newell at The Producers, where he was Head of Commercials. Then it was on to @radical.media, where they won the Cannes Lions Palm D’Or for ‘Best Production Company In The World - 1998’, and again in 2000.

“John Kamen, who set up @radical.media, approached me in 1995 to set up the London office of @radical. He made me read a book called Going Digital which offered such amazing insights into how the advertising landscape was going to change. This book was so ahead of its time. It talked of brands, Video on Demand and the ‘screening out’ of TV adverts. It predicted TiVO, which made people really worried. It meant scrapping the TV ad break. People were saying that TV ads were dead. We decided to go upscale and aim to make everything talked about. We built our agency off the back of this book. We capitalised and we were in the right place for clients like Nike, Levi’s and Pepsi-Cola.”

In 2007, Dab Hand Media came to be and Delaney attributes the immediate and profound success of his business to embracing the digital revolution, convergence and the ways it has changed advertising.

“We do TV ads, but that’s not our sole reason for being. A lot of companies still say “we just do 30-second TV spots”, but you can’t afford to say that anymore. The bottom line is that commercial production companies have to do all kinds of content or they won’t survive.”

Hard messages like this came to Delaney through a second book, Madison & Vine, by Scott Donaton, about how and why advertising and entertainment are converging.

“It’s a brilliant, far-sighted book that is never off my desk. It says so much about branded content and how we cannot ignore the economics of the situation. In my view, these two books - Madison & Vine and Going Digital - are the most pivotal reads of the last 20 years for advertising people.”

Dab Hand Media decided to avoid tethering itself as specialist in any one type of media, refusing to go after pitches that called for ‘a 30-second ad spot’, or ‘some viral content’:

“Instead we pitched ourselves as content producers in whatever shape or form to partner the agencies. We wanted to take the hierarchy out of the old ad relationships. Client to agency, agency to production company. So we threw thousands of ideas out there to broaden clients’ horizons about the sort of content they can do.”

This must have been a labour-intensive way of proceeding, especially for a new company?

“No! We sweat the assets we already have. We have immensely talented people on our books who traditionally would come to a project after it’d been pitched and won. Directors and Producers rewrite stuff for agencies in the form of treatments all the time, but we get them involved at a conception stage and their input works wonders.”

Delaney's strategies will need to be constantly rethought if he is to stay ahead of the pack.

“Most agencies are embracing new working models now. Some are setting up their own in-house production units, many of which are not ultra convincing. Clients are constantly knocking us up for new branded content ideas. I would say the new area we need to crack is making long form content that can be branded elegantly. I have to admit that after the digital rollercoaster of the last few years, the 30-second TV ad is still there and still bearing fruit. It is still the mainstay of the advertising production business.”

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