Laura Geagea climbed her way to Sweetshop's regional managing director post in six years having joined the production company in 2016 as an executive producer. In the past two years, Geagea served as Dubai Lynx’s Film Craft Jury President and sat on the Film Craft Juries for Spikes Asia, Adfest, AdStars, Ciclope Asia and Cannes Lions Young Director Awards. She was also selected into Campaign’s Greater China Women to Watch Class of 2022.
She sits down with Campaign Asia-Pacific to chat about production challenges in the region, welcoming more women directors, and predictions for the year ahead.
Campaign: You launched and grew the APAC/Shanghai networks from scratch. What were some challenges you faced while doing this?
It’s certainly been a very exciting journey, albeit an exhausting one. I get accused of loving my job just a little too much sometimes. I like to think of myself as a real perfectionist, so building a new company from scratch was a huge mountain to climb.
It’s great being part of Sweetshop’s global network as there are so many learnings from across the globe and an incredible support network to rely on. However, China and Asia are very different markets not only from the rest of the world but from each other too, so the learning curve for all of us has been steep, and we have had to be very adaptable to get things perfected in both markets.
Making sure that one office doesn’t get more love and attention than the other and that both offices get exactly what they need rather than a model copied off the other one was something that I stayed very focused on during the last few years as we were growing.
What have been the challenges in running a production company during the pandemic? How did Sweetshop pivot or cope during this time?
Before Covid hit, our entire business was built around flying our directors all around the world. We were not concerned where the director lived, as they would simply fly to wherever the next job was. In that respect, Covid changed our entire business model. Suddenly we needed directors on the ground for each of our local offices.
In our China and Asia offices, we had to focus our work on our locally based directors and then also freelance directors. This actually opened a whole world of opportunities to us, but also came with its challenges.
Having learned a lot from the experience, we will definitely continue to use freelancers, but we are working to increase our roster of local directors too.
That being said, it’s also wonderful to be able to invite our global directors back to Asia now. We’ve just done a job with one of our UK directors Zac Ella who was very happy to be on a plane again. We are very much hoping that the Mainland China borders will open up soon.
What has the experience been like in Shanghai, given the lockdowns?
Definitely quite a few ups and downs. The way China went about the pandemic was quite different to the rest of the world, and it was a journey to get through the last two years for everyone on the ground.
We are all looking forward to it being over and for everyone to be able to travel freely.
Remote working might be a normal mode of working in the advertising industry, but it might work a little differently for a production company. How have you incorporated remote work in the last two years?
Being a global company, we were very used to working remotely, with Zoom and Skype being our main method of communication for a number of years. However, shooting remotely has been another story… and surprisingly enough, not all bad.
No one would have believed that it could work so well, but in the end, we worked it all out seamlessly enough. It took a bit of trial and error at the very start, but very quickly, we all became very comfortable with it. We tried it all, remote directing, remote clients, remote producing, remote agency, remote everything.
We were very lucky in the sense that when things were stricter outside of China, we were able to shoot in Shanghai for a lot of our Asian and global clients and then now that things are stricter in China, we have been offering shooting overseas to our local clients as an alternative.
How do you think the pandemic has affected brand storytelling? What remains to be the same, and what would be the new elements?
The thing that will never change is that people love great stories. I feel like we all watched so much TV during Covid that we all became at-home film critics and even hungrier for good content.
This seems to have had a rub-off effect for TV commercials, too, with commercials that tell great stories with authentic characters and relationships a very popular trend right now.
So hopefully, good storytelling, good directing and, above all, craft makes a big comeback and stays top of mind for us all in the industry in the next couple of years.
Are there any production trends that have emerged as a result of the pandemic? How has advertising production changed?
I would say mostly remote shooting, which has now become a big hit. Agencies and clients have been pushed to learn to trust the remote process since Covid.
So now we often have fewer agencies/clients attending set, as they can check in remotely.
Personally, I also find it easier as a business manager to be able to be on set without being on set. I just come in and out to check in on things when I have time.
Right now, I would say, a remote system on set is a no brainer when we budget for jobs. That’s something we would never look at pre-Covid.
And all in all, it’s a really good way to keep more money on screen, rather than using it on travel and accommodation.
Although having said that…. nothing will ever beat having a nice wrap-up dinner with the whole team after a shoot.
As regional MD, what are your strategic plans for China and other Asian markets in the new year? Or What would be your top priorities in terms of management?
Finding the right people is always key, and we are in a great place with our management now as I have absolute trust in my team running both businesses in my stead.
Catherine Law is heading our Shanghai office in China, and the unstoppable Penny Woo and Jenny Crabb duo are co-running the Bangkok office that looks after Singapore and the rest of South East Asia.
We are looking to expand our director roster across China and Asia and are particularly looking forward to welcoming more female directors into our ranks.
And mostly, we want to re-focus our attention on craft. That’s a big one for us. Make good films, tell good stories and have happy clients in the process.
We also have a lot of other ideas, but I’ll keep those a secret for now, and we can check in again in a year or so to see where we’re at with all those.
Sweetshop worked with numerous brands over the past few years, telling brand stories. Which production that you would be most proud of?
So many actually…. I think every week I will tell you a different one because it’s more on my mind.
One that is very special to me and the team in Asia and China, and even globally! is Damien Shatford’s Sprite production we shot in 2022. The campaign is the biggest production we have ever done in the history of Sweetshop!
An incredible jigsaw puzzle we shot in Bangkok over 20 days and with hundreds (yes hundreds!) of deliverables. Damien and the team pulled off admirably despite the numerous Covid production, weather, and so many other challenges. Ready to do it again, I think.
Some predictions say that it could be a softer year for the global advertising industry, as advertisers could cut their budgets. As a production company regional MD, what would you think Sweetshop could prepare for maybe another challenging year ahead?
It’s already been such a challenge getting through Covid that I am being hopeful that things will get better.
There is and will definitely be a lot of brands pulling back on budgets and focusing more on the essentials, but as a production house whose reputation is built on offering that good service, great craft and strong storytelling, we will keep going about our work while adjusting where we need to and see how things evolve.
We have always been a breathing, living, evolving business, and my two cent is that continuing with that adaptability is the way to go right now.
You won the Women to Watch Great China title in 2022. How do you feel about winning this award?
I was actually in the midst of packing up my life in China, planning my engagement party, and getting the office in a good place before I left, and this just gave me that push to finish everything off perfectly before I relocated.
It almost felt like a stepping stone for the next step of my life, away from Shanghai, that had been my home for the last 15 years and, more importantly, in my new strategic role at Sweetshop, handing the baton over to my team in Shanghai and Bangkok.
So yes, winning the Women to Watch Great China title in 2022 was a unique recognition for me and for my work over the last decade. It made it feel like none of the endless late nights and countless mountains to climb went unnoticed in the end. Which is a wonderful feeling.
Women to Watch Greater China 2023 is currently open for entries. Find out more here.