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Asylum vs Leo Burnett London: Where Do You Stand?

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.

Shifting Perspective

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.

Power Play?

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.

Posted on 31 August 2012 |

85 thoughts on “Asylum vs Leo Burnett London: Where Do You Stand?

  1. This situation as stated in the initial post, represents much larger implication in the management creation and protection of intellectual capital. couth or uncouth, concepts and corporate processes that are engaged when initiating a project are subsurface. lets construed the problem. imagine it was the invention of electricity. a smaller inventor discovers the potential difference between atoms they discover how to demonstrate the concept. a company pays them for research and development to the eureka catalyst and then they bring in there men to consume the knowledge cut off any “nonessentials” and optimize it themselves. what it represents fundamentally is basics of business. talent is cheap get the little guys to spark (proof of concept) and the larger machine to isolate and magnify the idea. This is a mode of ad agencies. I would be 1. Saddened that the larger agency didn’t reach out to the smaller agency as a form of diplomacy. Or at least maintain industry integrity. 2. the client is naive there solution is myopic because they do not recognize the value of the design process. they may be gaining small measure, with the success of a new project but true innovation. conceptual evolution comes from the initial creator. stick to inventor and you will get innovation again and again. consume the inventor and you will only have a piece that leads to a dead end. 3. The smaller agency has the opportunity to take this and create a piece that opens this dialog. that flips the consumption of the smaller man into a philanthropic statement about the values of staying small.

    the bigger man may win the short battles but value and innovation is inherent of the explorers. the improvisation of less and the constraints that encourage really moving work.

  2. Beautifully said Brandon.

    This issue is far greater than one man’s (company’s) loss of pride over a job.

    It’s a matter of respect. It’s a matter of ethics. It is an example of one man’s (company’s) greed & how it affects the rest of the world (industry).

    It is no longer just about Asylum. It’s about ever hard working, talented individual who slaves and hopes only to be passed by for the next bigger thing.

    It really is sad. It really is underestimated by the agency, still now. Would they care if it had been kept internally? Hell no. Do they even care now? Only a tiny bit.

    So, we’ve said our point but can we create a change???

  3. Asylum Films could stick one in Leo Burnett London by selling their original production as stock footage to the big footage sellers like ITN Source to completely devalue Leo Burnett’s reshoot of their work.

    Probably the only way they’d get some justice for this and recoup some value for their work.

  4. A classic example that hard work does NOT pay off. But with all seriousness this a typical problem that any person that has worked in the industry for a couple of years have experience in some degree.
    LBL is obviously unethical, but this how the old agencies (and most the new ones) operate. It’s a buddy system and if you doubt look around and see how many directors do 75% of what you see on TV, NOT many. Are they more talented than most other director? Of course not. They have a name and a reputation than it becomes a brand that is purchase at a tag price more than anything, like hunting trophies to be exhibited among executives. I forgot to mention that there’s always a little payback too, agencies promise this production companies and directors reps the project, in return they get treated like kings, and this IS a crucial part of the production process.
    Anyways, I didn’t mean to rant. All I meant to say is: never trust an ad agency.

  5. I think regardless of the obvious fact – ‘this is just how agencies operate’ – it does NOTHING for the creative industry for this attitude to stick. That’s the point. That’s what really a blogger should start writing about: ‘the bigger picture’.

    The ad world has seen smaller budgets and like TV companies have to outsource a certain amount of production work, why can’t agencies be made to do the same and use a wider ranger of sources to produce work. It really should be an obligation to keep this industry alive. As always, the fat get fatter and the needy go unnoticed, otherwise.

    It’s not as if we are talking about sub-standard work from young creatives… I understand agencies need good standard to win jobs and impress the clients etc. For £4k I think Asylum were made to practically become slaves for the benefit of Leo, which ultimately led to them winning a big budget job. It’s just plain awful, not just rude. They would not have won this job without Asylum and regardless of the agency coming up with idea, the treatment of the film is quite obviously the work of the original director, Ben Falk.

    It was regurgitation in it’s highest form… a spewing of a greedy McDonald’s.

    People have said: What about if Asylum had kept this quiet? Why didn’t they?

    My answer to this: 1) It was a ballsy move, one which I hope they get supported with by agencies not being arrogant enough not work with them. They had a lot to lose, so people that think this was a PR stunt or something then thought would benefit them, are naive. It was a stand for young creativity, hard work and dedication being mistreated. If they had kept quiet, they would not be so infamous but they probably would be working more. 2) Leo B would have not dealt with this had it not gone public, they would have chuckled and got on with their day. 3) No important discussions would be made within the industry on the current state of play and Leo would be merely going along treating other such companies the same.

    So, we’re now all talking about the larger situation on such matters in the industry. But taking this situation from Asylum vs. Leo B, this is a wider issue about the big guys supporting young talent.

    If big agencies do not support young talent, what hope is there for this industry? Something should be in place to support projects under £20k. The biggest reasons that agencies don’t work with small companies is down to them not having a budget to spoil them rotten on the shoots. That really is it. The bigger the production company, the merrier the perks. The hardworking goldfish are just there for the hell of it, because believe it or not they are trying to do what they love and pay their bills. Should they not deserve a real shot at doing what they do best? I think so.

    I really hope some wider debate continues on the subject of a lack of support for young talent in the industry. How can we at least attempt to do better?

  6. my suggestion would be that one agency stands up and creates some sort of campaign to support young production companies and young talent… i actually think they might win a job or two for doing this and all it would take is a mock-up department. i hope someone does this… and if you do, don’t worry! i won’t write you an open letter for making this happen. ;)

  7. Who knows what their real reason of going with another company was. Maybe they had another do the gig with more hopes of future projects. Maybe they had a less than harmonious relationship with someone at asylum.

    Maybe they chose the other company because the bosses shared coke straws at rave.

    They must of had some reason that is why they made the decision they did. I could understand, how often do we buy energizer brand batteries instead of ralphs generic? knowing they both essentially will achieve the task at hand and may have no difference in quality.

    as an artist myself I feel for asylum, Leo Burnett should have been Men about it instead of sneaky. But as I hear from my corporate friend in broadcast sales it is brutal out there this thing happens every week to him.

  8. Pretty standard unfortunately.

    One aspect to the client – agency – talent/vendor relationship thats a bummer is just how little the client cares about who is working on their projects. I’m not sure they’re capable of discerning between talent but they can’t do a worse job than the agencies. Between flat out bad decisions and cronyism, I’m not sure client’s choices would be worse.
    The agencies that have in-house production and post allow people to work on client projects that they wouldn’t work with in a million years were they at an outside vendor. But because they’re employed and cheap, they work on huge big dollar projects. Client is in the dark.

    The one thing an agency has to do is keep the vendors away from the clients. Once they get together, replacing the usually shitty creative won’t be a problem.

  9. And this is the UK! Where businesses still operate with some degree of moral fibre. You should see some of the below-the-belt action going on in other countries. It´s sickening. And unfortunately I don´t see an easy solution for this kind of unethical climate. As long as the current model of commercial production holds this might be the reality. Let us hope for better days and let us hold steady in our principles. Even if change comes by the time we are all retired and only benefits the newer crops of creatives. Never give up.

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