Stem Creative has released the first three episodes of its six-part satirical web series called Agency, just a few short months after the creators came up with the idea. And the result is a humorous look at the trials and tribulations of the advertising industry through the eyes of three “hapless but genuine and enthusiastic marketing wannabes” at a small creative marketing agency in Wellington.
Last week StopPress caught up with the three creators of the series: Stem founder and actor in the series Ben Forman, fellow actor and writer Glen Puklowski and writer-director Judah Finnigan.
Puklowski said the idea for Agency was spawned while the three sat around a notepad brainstorming one day, and ended up drawing a bunch of penises.
“We have our own production company that does a lot of work for clients making videos, so we have been developing all our skills and storyboarding and editing, and we were like ‘the ultimate goal is to make our own content so it’s time to apply all the things we’ve learned and write our own brief for the first time’. And so we just sat down with a pen and a pad and drew some penises, literally.”
He said the three eventually moved on from drawing genitalia and decided to create six episodes drawn from their own experiences, which happened to be the marketing business.
“Good stories come from tension and there is always tension between the creative industry and clients. Everybody is trying to jostle to get their needs met … We’re all thrown into this game and it’s fun but it turns us all into jerks every once and a while, so we are trying to lay on that.”
The series, which features episodes around ten-minutes long, incorporates familiar settings, Puklowski says, such as the annual company Christmas party, job interviews and performance reviews.
When we spoke with Forman a few months back, he said it was somewhere between Mad Men and The Office. And he says the show’s target market was “Urban yo pros” before adding that “…this might be the web series that appeals to the older audience. I don’t’ think there’s many out there that appeal to older viewers in New Zealand.”
A Stem Creative release describes the characters: “Tom [Forman] is the energetic and obliviously optimistic CEO. Summer [Samantha Reed] is the floaty, enigmatic creative-type. Duncan [Puklowski] is the uptight, awkward accounts man. Together, they make up a hapless but totally genuine team whose trials and triumphs should resonate with anyone who’s ever taken notice of the absurdity of the corporate world.”
Judah Finnigan, the quieter of the three, who Forman and Puklowski heaped praise on during our interview, wrote most of the script for the series, despite having the least experience and insight into the advertising industry. He also edited the video content alongside Forman, despite having no previous editing experience.
“Glen and Ben told me they were accurate and I based it on basic human politics. So I think it kind of translates to any industry, that sort of tension and conflict that’s in the series.”
However, Finnigan said one of his favourite revelations during pre-production was Puklowski’s secret acting ability.
“We needed somebody to play the role of Duncan and Glen humbly offered [saying] ‘Oh I’m not that good but I’ll play the part if we can’t find anybody’ and then we asked how he was so good and he said he had a degree in theatre … But really he was this brilliant Thespian with years of experience and he didn’t tell us.”
Forman (whilst cracking up) also said he was baffled: “We were like, 'What!' Why did you only tell us this now?'”
This all went well until Puklowski lost a tooth after filming the pilot, which he claimed was lost cage fighting, but Finnigan reassured him it added to his character.
“It makes you look more pathetic.”
The three also said Finnigan’s partner Olivia Shanks, who was producer on the series, picked up a bunch different roles, including costume designer and “…every other role of pre-production… she filled about ten peoples’ roles really,” Forman says.
Forman’s wife Kat Lintott also put in lots of time and effort acting as the “…strategic marketing PR person,” says Puklowski.
Forman said the three decided early on in the piece that they didn’t want to be tied down by any funding body that might inhibit their creative direction.
"We wanted to have some freedom but we also wanted to give some of our clients the opportunity to get on board with what we were doing.”
This led to some strategic thinking as to which brands would sponsor them, align with their cause and benefit from being associated with it.
“We are trying to play into the rise of branded entertainment," says Puklowski. "How people are using their marketing budgets to create entertainment for their target market and just put their name at the end. They’re just happy to be associated with something rad. So we’re trying to explore that.”
And despite what could be seen as an obvious use of product placement, Puklowski said people don’t really mind, “…when you put an advertisement in the middle of an episode, [viewers] are like, ‘That’s what paid for my content’”.
Some of the sponsors included: Film Convert, Hashbang, Rubber Monkey, Wellington Airport, Eightyone, StopPress, Geeks on Wheels, Flight Coffee, Chow, Tuatara, Parrotdog, Foxton Fizz and others.
The three also managed to crowdfund for their project on PledgeMe, raising their target of $10,000 (it posted the pilot to whet appetites). Lintott said the project ended up costing about “$20,000 in cash and then we had a lot of contra help to get through.”
Though the series was shot with high quality gear (Forman is a self-confessed gadget addict) and would be easily transferable to television, Forman said the web is where he sees the future of content.
“We’d be happy to see it go over to Netflix or something like that. But I don’t think the standard 1, 2, or 3 is the goal for us.”
Puklowski pointed out that the release of their web-series coincides with the launch of a number of SVOD platforms in New Zealand. “…Netflix, Lightbox and Neon [are] all competing with each other and naturally one of them might want to pick up local content and maybe they could latch on to us. We’ve got a production studio right here full of gear and talented cinematographers and producers.”
In regard to the next step for the three, Finnigan said if they create another season they would want the same sort of foundation to explore and take into different places.
“I think the main objective of the show is to see if we could pull it off and make something we are proud of and is relevant to us… This was really just [us] trying to see if we could push something out the gate and I think we’ve been pretty successful.”
However, their first objective is getting people watching it, Puklowski says.
“We’ve still got that challenge ahead of distribution. That’s the next step”. And Forman says this will partly be done through their relationship with sponsors.
“They are going to push it out through their channels with photos or stills or grabs. And obviously we’ll push it out through our own channels.”
Check out the first three episodes on asiansea.co.nz (so named because “we couldn’t get the [agency.co.nz] domain name"). The next three episodes are set to launch on Sunday 10 May.
Benjamin Forman as Tom
Samantha Reed as Summer
Glen Puklowski as Duncan
Directed by Judah Finnigan
Produced by Olivia Shanks
Written by Judah Finnigan & Glen Puklowski
Cinematography by Matt Henley
Sound by Joel Anscombe-Smith
Camera Assistance by Frida Elmstrom Ekstramd
Lighting by Michael Engelbrecht & Dan Harris
Hair and Make-up by Maia Renner
Edited by Judah Finnigan & Benjamin Forman
Sound Mixing by Chris Ward
Title Design by Phyo Thu
Sponsorship Management by Kat Lintott
Social Media by Cam Bisley