How to Write for Television (When You Have Never Written for Television)

If you want to concept TV commercials, you’ve got to start with premises. Do not write scripts. Let me explain…

Forever ago, I did a summer internship at GSD&M in Austin, Texas. I was in between semesters at the VCU Adcenter (before it was the Brandcenter), and I was excited not only to be at an agency that had been all over the award annuals, but to be partnered with a classmate of mine who was a fantastic art director. It was going to be a very good summer.

That first week, we were given a chance to write TV commercials for Chili’s. Yes, the Chili’s of Baby Back Rib fame. Our first year in school, we had worked on lots of print campaigns, but had never worked on TV. (This is before digital was even a thing. Web banners weren’t even a thing. Like I said, this was forever ago.)

So we sat down and spent days concepting. We came up with a story about an Amish boy. We had another one about a kung fu master and his disciples. We had one shot from the point of view of a bird. And we crafted each script in detail. We argued over dialogue for hours. I thought the Amish boy should say, “Yea, verily,” because it sounded funny and biblical. My art director thought he should say, “Even so, mother,” because it made more sense. This went on for days.

Finally, we brought five or six scripts in to our creative director. Who killed them all. Welcome to advertising.

So we came up with five or six more scripts. And we agonized over dialogue and descriptions. Again, we showed them to our creative director. Nothing.

We were feeling disappointed and a little bit of pressure because we knew that the interns VCU sent to this agency the year before had actually produced a commercial for Pennzoil. That’s insane. Summer interns producing a TV commercial? But it happened. And we wanted it to happen for us, too.

But it never did. We had a fun summer. But we produced nothing. (To be fair, the idea that interns would produce anything other than spec work is a little unrealistic. But we didn’t know that.)

On the last day of our internship, our creative director gave us an evaluation. And we were shocked to hear that it wasn’t so hot. He said we came in with five or six scripts a week. According to him, the team that had produced the Pennzoil spot last year came in with 100 ideas the day after they were briefed. Maybe 100 was an exaggeration. But it was certainly more than five.

It took me the better part of my career to learn that there is a difference between writing premises and writing scripts.

A premise is a short two to three sentence blurb about what the spot’s about.

A script is a crafted document that tells you exactly what happens in the commercial.

A premise is loose.

A script is tight.

You can write 100 premises in a day.

It might take you an entire afternoon to write a decent script.

A premise is something you jot down as a potential idea.

A script is an idea you begin to craft.

So if you have the chance to write TV scripts. Don’t just start writing TV scripts. That’s like crafting the body copy for a marker comp. Start with a premise. And then come up with another. And another. And another.


Jumping to Execution

In the last year or so, I’ve seen a major increase in the polished case study videos that students do. Pretty professional case studies, for events and programs and guerilla stunts that never happened (though you wouldn’t know it from the slick comps and videos). I do plenty of these in my job. They’re a pain in the ass to do. So when I see students who can crank them out, part of me thinks “Yes! We should hire this person so I don’t have to make these damn things anymore.” But usually I think “Nice case study. Too bad the idea’s not that good.”

This past quarter, after a student presented his first round ideas with full-on comps in a seven-page deck, I asked him, “How long did it take you to build that deck?” Thinking I was complimenting his skills, he smiled and said, “Not very long. Like an hour and a half.” To which I said, “That’s an hour and a half you could have spent coming up with better ideas.”

I have given this advice over and over, and each year I feel like I’m shouting it into a stronger, louder wind of technology and “paperless” schools: DO NOT CONCEPT ON A COMPUTER.

If you don’t want to kill trees, awesome. Reuse the back sides of paper. One of my former instructors, a creative Jedi who really loves trees, Jelly Helm, suggests cutting your reused sheets of paper into quarters. However you do it, write your ideas down. Headlines too. Write them. With a pen or pencil or marker. On paper. Your brain works differently when you do this. You’re less likely to edit your ideas when you have to turn the pencil around and actually erase something. And that’s good–you shouldn’t be editing at the beginning. Just coming up with ideas, writing them down, and sticking them up on the wall. Lots of them. Like 100 or more. Then, and only then, pick your best and refine them. Make them better. Generate more.

When you jump to the computer, you’re skipping to execution. You’re cheating yourself out of the most important part of the project. You’re skimping on the idea. And you might end up with a nice looking video or well-executed comp, but if the idea’s not awesome, it doesn’t matter.

Threadless by Jake Nickell

I have a book recommendation for you: might be the perfect example of how to launch a dot-com company in the post dot-com bust era. It was founded on a simple idea and a strong community—the idea of an “ongoing t-shirt design competition” in which the winning designs, selected by the community, would be produced. It also allows for community input—people can comment on submissions, make suggestions for improvement, etc. And the profits are shared between the company and the winning designers.

This book tells that story, from the early days in which the founders of Threadless were just a couple of design students, through the current state of the company, with a global following, 80 employees and a bricks and mortar store. But as Seth Godin puts it in his short description of Threadless, “This is not about t-shirts.” To him, it’s about an attitude, “about being willing to fail and relishing the idea of being different…If you page through this book, you’ll see example after example of love, art and joy…but not a lot of fear.”

In addition to capturing the Threadless history and philosophy, the book is a retrospective of some of the best designs, along with stories behind those. And this is where I find the most inspiration—flipping through and seeing all of the brilliant concepts.

I have an assignment that I like to give students in my advertising class once they have figured out how to do ads: Now make a t-shirt for your brand. Because beyond conveying a message, a t-shirt has to be something that people want to wear. Something they love enough to want to wear as a part of what identifies them. That’s a hard thing to do. But page after page in this book, I see dozens of examples of t-shirt designs that make me laugh, smile, or that I’d like to wear. And that’s inspiring.