Working with Celebrities

Every once in awhile, depending on your agency and clients, you might have the opportunity to work with a celebrity. They might be an actor in your spot or they might be just doing some voice-over work for you. I am by no means an expert at dealing with celebrities, but I have learned a few things over the years.

1) Don’t assume anything. Until you know what they’re like, don’t make any assumptions. They may not be the same person they appear to be on TV or in the movies. Be very respectful, but not a kiss-ass. Be professional (if you’re star-struck, try to contain that). After you get to know them, they may loosen up a little, and then you can as well.

2) They’re holding the cards. It may be your concept. It may be the director’s shoot. But if the celebrity is big enough, they are in control. It’s up to your team (you, producer, director, etc.) to get what you need out of them. Years ago, I worked with a certain very young, very blonde and very bratty singer on a Coke photo shoot. She would only shoot with a photographer of her choosing. She wanted only closeups, even though our print concept called for a wide shot. And even though we picked and the client approved a wardrobe, she showed up on set with a revealing top and skin-tight pants held together (barely) on the side by leather straps. Our client was worried for his job. After all, this was a family brand. The photographer worked with her, taking close-ups and slowly working his way backwards until he had the angle we needed. We ended up using a straight-on shot without the slits in the pants showing, and I believe we did a little photoshop work to extend her top. But this was better than our alternative–telling her she needed to change her wardrobe and risking her storming off the set (this does happen). Bottom line: no matter how ridiculous, just deal with it and get the job done.

3) Respect the brand: both of them. Celebrities have brands of their own. They will usually, if they’re savvy, be protective of those brands. Ideally, they’re in your ad because your brand and their brand share something in common. But you have to be respectful of their brand as well. After all, this is their career here too. When I worked on the Beef account, I wrote and recorded 40+ radio scripts with Sam Elliott over the course of a few years. Once, he killed an entire round of scripts that I’d written. We had already produced one campaign together, and he was kind enough to hop on the phone with me so we could chat about these new scripts (usually it’s filtered through agents). In short, I hadn’t respected his brand. I’d written some scripts that were goofy and out of character for him (and, not coincidentally, the brand). At the time, I was frustrated that I had to start over, but looking back he was totally right. I ended up learning a lot from him over the years.

4) Work with the talent. Celebrities are usually famous because they are very talented at something. Not always, but usually. Sometimes it may be acting. Sometimes not. If you have to use someone in particular, try to build your concept around what they can and can’t do. If a ball player can hit a three-pointer blindfolded but can’t act his way out of a paper bag, maybe the spot shouldn’t revolve around him pulling off nuanced dialogue (or maybe the concept is about what he can’t do–see the classic spot below). And if you are playing in the area of the celeb’s expertise, let them do their thing. Get what you need, but don’t tell a singer how to sing, or an actor how to act (you wouldn’t tell Dwayne Wade how to dunk). They’re the professional. Let them do what they’re good at.

Not Closing the Loop

Years ago, I took a fiction writing class in which we looked at some rough drafts of James Joyce stories and compared them with the finals. The thing that was most striking in this exercise was that Joyce often revised his work to make it more ambiguous. He made it less clear. More open to interpretation. Which was pretty counter-intuitive.

There’s a little diagram that I draw in my class when I’m trying to explain how an ad delivers its message. I usually get semi-blank stares, but hopefully this will make sense.

Imagine all the elements of an ad, everything that carries meaning, forming a circle. So, for simplicity’s sake, lets say you have an ad with a headline, visual and tagline. Here’s your circle:

Makes sense. The loop is closed.

Now, we’ve all seen ads that explain the visual, as if the audience is too stupid to put it together for themselves. The same diagram for a see-and-say, redundant, over-explained or dumbed-down concept would look like this:

And conversely, an ad concept that’s too obtuse, where the audience can’t figure out what the hell you’re trying to say, would look like this:

That’s no good either. It’s confusing.

The thing is, going back to Joyce, that first circle, where the loop is completely closed, that’s not the best kind of ad. It doesn’t leave any room for the viewer to enter into the equation. You want the loop there, but you need to trust that your audience is smart enough to close it. It doesn’t have to be a puzzle, but there needs to be that moment of insight, of “Ah! I get it.” When that little thing clicks, little bits of pleasure fill the brain and there’s a connection to the brand. The ideal circle looks more like this:

Here are a couple examples of great ads from the last couple years. They don’t explain everything. There are layers. Like returning to a great movie, every time I watch them, I notice something different. I feel involved. I feel like my intelligence has been respected.

The first time I saw this ad (and I’ll admit I wasn’t paying much attention), I thought: “Oh, wild kids grow up and play football.” The second time, I got the story, that it was LT and Polamalu and that they’d been destined for this moment their whole lives. The third time, I started noticing subtleties, like that LT was always moving to the right and Polamalu to the left, and how it captured the personalities of the players. My mom wouldn’t get this ad. She wouldn’t know who these two guys are. But this ad isn’t for my mom. It’s for football fans. I watch it, I pick up on these things, and I feel like it’s for me. Like I’m in on it. I’m a part of the circle.

Everyone’s seen this next one. A few months ago, I was at a planning conference (peeking behind the curtain) and, as an exercise, a room full of us were asked to break down the elements of meaning in this ad. The symbols. Like you’d analyze a film in a film class. It was amazing how everyone brought their own interpretations. Balls as pixels. Brilliant color. Sharp movement. Hyper-real. Surreal. Escapism. Watching the world through a window. The whimsy of children. Even things that people read into the choice of San Francisco as a shoot location.

Some of these were definitely planned during the production. Some probably happy accidents. But what’s important is that, again, it involves the viewer. A voice-over that said, “We see the world in pixels. In beautiful, brilliant colors. Full of movement…” would have ruined this spot.

So that’s my pitch here. It’s tough to explain to clients sometimes. The safe way to go is to make sure everything is crystal clear. That’s why some clients test the shit out of commercials. And that’s why testing commercials can suck the magic right out of them. Testing is about making sure all the loops are neatly closed. But some loops should be left open.

Keep Writing


Three lessons to take away from this great spot:


  1. Music can make even a history lesson dramatic and inspiring. Learn how to use music.
  2. You don’t have to have CGI, punch-lines, scintillating dialogue, a cast of thousands or slick editing techniques to make a killer spot.
  3. Writers, yes, you have to learn to think visually. And sometimes a killer visual with the client logo is the right thing to do. But a real writer, has to write. And write as well as BBH’s Justin Moore did on this spot.

Production Rules, Part One

No matter how great a director is, the work will suffer if he doesn’t “get it.”

A couple of years ago, our team was faced with two directors on a spot. One was a cool, music-video director with one of the best production houses in the country. He was young, hip and eager. The other sounded like a slick ad-guy, saying all the right things, and buttering us up in all the expected ways.

But even though his schmoozy, unctuous over-sell made us roll our eyes, one thing was obvious: he got it. He knew what the essence of the spot was. The cool, hip guy kept talking about props and set design.

We went with the cool, hip guy, thinking we could help him get our vision. Boy, were we wrong. He obsessed about shots that had nothing to do with the story, wardrobe, and motivation for wardrobe, tiles and wall color. I want my directors to have this attention to detail. But only after they give detail to the shot that really matters.

No surprise, the spot (which I originally had a lot of heart for) was awful. The client hated it. And we ended up recutting it, removing the dialogue and replacing it with supers. All because we thought we could eventually bring him around.

I read once that Steven Spielberg wrote a treatment for the first Harry Potter movie. He deviated from J.K. Rowling’s vision in several ways, most notably by suggesting Hogwarts be an American school. And he wanted Haley Joel Osmet to play Harry Potter. I love Spielberg’s movies. He’s a brilliant director when he’s on his game. But as far as Harry Potter, he did not “get it.”