Repetition as proof. Repetition as proof!

I’m not a fan of mindless formulas. But here’s one that works really well in TV (because it’s not mindless):

  1. State the premise.
  2. Show example after example that proves that premise.
  3. Show how that relates to the product.

Watch this brilliant spot by Lance Accord.

Here’s how this formula works:

  1. We understand that Molly is a brilliant inventor.
  2. Scene after scene we see proof that she’s a brilliant inventor.
  3. This is the kind of brilliance GE values and employs.

Here’s another one (full disclosure, I was the writer on this spot).

This is the formula at work with Henry:

  1. Henry stains carpets.
  2. Henry spills all kinds of things on carpets.
  3. LifeProof carpet is strong enough to stand up to someone like Henry.

Last one.

  1. Squares are boring.
  2. Squares are everywhere.
  3. The VW Beetle is anything but boring.

I’m not saying this is the only way to make a good TV spot. But it is one way. These are the things you need to keep in mind:

  1. I kind of went a little numbers crazy in this post. But the theme is repetition, so there you are.
  2. The proof can’t just be the same idea repeated over and over. There has to be something unique about each scenario. Molly has to invent cooler and more interesting things. Henry’s spills have to get more and more diabolical. Even those squares have to have a little surprise in them like the loading pallet or the sponge in the sink.
  3. The proof solidifies the strategy. These spots work because they’re strategic.
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To clocks, bad ads and good ads are identical.

In Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This! Luke Sullivan reminds us that it takes just as long to make a bad commercial as it does to make a good commercial. Whether it’s a brilliant, shining idea or a dripping wad of hair and toe jam, you’re still going to have to do storyboards for it. And present it to the client. And walk through a director through the idea. And sit through a pre-pro. And sit in video village. And edit. And revision after revision after revision.

So don’t cut corners on the idea. Make the idea solid. Because even if the client strips away your very best shots, and makes you change the music you love, and doesn’t want to pay $1 million for the celebrity voiceover, you’ll still have a strong idea.

If you spent the time to uncover it.

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.

Happy Accidents

I don’t usually post my own work on this site. But this one comes with a point, and a good cause.

About a year ago, I began doing work for Volunteers of America. They’re a 117-year-old national charity that had never advertised before.

We ended up producing print, online, outdoor, and TV for them. But my favorite spot was never scripted, never presented, never even concepted. It was just a happy accident.

While we were shooting in Los Angeles, our director wanted to get some extra footage. So he rolled down Skid Row with his camera hanging out of the van door. Then his producer ran back down the street and gave some cash to have the people he filmed sign release waivers, just in case. Some of this footage made it into our final spots.

But when we were in the editing studio we were looking at that shot, and thought it was kind of amazing. We wondered how could we share it?  So we started playing around with it. We slowed it down. Wrote some copy to serve as supers. And sampled a few demo tracks. (We ended up recording Jennifer Perryman to sing an original track.) We showed it to the client, and were lucky enough to have them approve it. Here’s the finished piece:

Gold Lion at Cannes? Nah. But does it help the client get their name out there? Yep. Am I proud to have it on my reel? Absolutely.

So be open to happy accidents. Find a way to make them work. Play with them. Get them in front or your clients and champion them. And everyone will be a little better off.

(If you’d like to donate anything to Volunteers of America, please click here. They’re amazing people who do amazing work.)

Things Portfolio School Didn’t Teach Me: Awarding A Director

The process of getting a director to shoot your TV spot, online film, long-format video, etc. isn’t something you can really teach in portfolio school. But here’s what I’ve learned over the years:
  1. After a client as okayed a script, you’ll work with a producer to find a director. Sometimes the producer works for the agency, sometimes he or she is freelance. That usually depends on the size of the agency.
  2. Typically, the producer will have some ideas of which directors will work best for your concept. But you should have some ideas, too. If it’s a dialogue-driven spot, you should look for directors who handle dialogue well. If it’s a car spot, you want someone with a proven track record of making sheet metal gorgeous. Don’t just focus on the concept. Look at the acting, lighting, film quality, and camera angles. It’s a much harder job than just saying, “That spot was cool.” I recommend keeping notes.
  3. You will usually narrow down your list to three to five directors, and then jump on the phone with them. You’ll walk them through your spot, and they’ll throw out different ideas of how they’ll treat it. This will also give you an idea of which director you think you can work best with. Again, I recommend keeping notes.
  4. After that call, you’ll receive what’s called a “director’s treatment.” It’s usually a pdf that goes through their vision. They’ll talk about casting, music, lighting, etc. I always look for directors who can take my ideas and make them better, not just regurgitate what they think I want.
  5. The producer and the account executive will submit the bid from each director to the client. As a creative, you can easily go your entire career without knowing what it costs to produce a commercial. But I’d encourage you to find out. It helps your concepting if you know that client has $2 million to spend vs. $500,000.
  6. You’ll present the director reels and estimates to the client (probably won’t present their treatments), and make your recommendation. The client will have the final say, so you should be happy with all three directors. Your second choice may be $100,000 cheaper than your first choice. Or your third choice could have a spot that the client likes more than any other. Best case scenario is having three directors you love so much, you want the client to make the decision for you.
  7. Your producer calls one director to award the job, and the other directors to deliver the bad news.

How to Choose An Actor

When you’re shooting a TV spot, you’ll see about 50 people audition for every role you’ve written. Typically, you’ll watch all of these online, and you, your partner and the director will mark the ones you like best. These actors (maybe a third of the people you originally saw) will come in for callbacks, which you’ll usually attend in person. Actor after actor will come into a small room with a camera and act out the scene for you.
I’m shooting with a director who’s very good with actors and dialogue, and I’ve learned a few things from him in callbacks that are great guidelines for choosing actors:
  1. Watch their eyes. Their eyes will give away whether or not they believe in their character and the scene. That sounds very ethereal, but when you’re watching 50 different actors audition for one role, just watch the eyes and it will become apparent who’s into it.
  2. In dialogue, watch the person who isn’t speaking. It’s easy to look at the person who’s reciting the lines you or your partner wrote. But if you look at the actor who’s supposed to be listening, you can tell if they’re invested in the other character or not.
  3. Good actors support their co-actors, bad actors automatically shift into competition. We were auditioning for the role of a father and a son building something together. The son was supposed to say, “You’re going to need a new crosscut saw.” When they start adlibbing, the best actors would simply smile and respond, “Yep. You’re right.” The bad actors would say, “There’s nothing wrong with that saw!” And then the sons would reply, “Come on, Dad! This thing’s been around since the Jefferson administration!” And then the Dad would say, “Ah, you kids don’t know quality when you see it.” Bad actors are looking to stand out, and pitting themselves against any other actor in the room is the easiest way to do that.
This isn’t the kind of thing you’ll learn in portfolio school. So tuck this away and use it when you start casting actors.


Remember, watch the eyes…

And remember, bad actors avoid competition…

How to Write a TV Script

If you need to write a TV script, do not start by writing a TV script. Start by writing a premise.
Here’s a short story to tell you what I mean:
The very first time to I sat down to write a TV script, I was an intern at GSD&M. My partner and I had no experience at all writing thirty-second scripts.
The assignment was for a restaurant, which the brief assured us was the place to go for celebrations. So we came up with one idea where a kung fu master takes his two 10-year-old students to lunch after a tournament. Realizing there’s only one jalapeno popper appetizer left on the plate, one student tries to grab it. His fellow kung fu student blocks the reach with a wax-on-wax-off move. Then he tries to take it, and the other kid uses some kung fu move to block the reach. This results in a flurry of blocks, jabs, reaching, wax-on-wax-off fist movement over the plate as their master sagely looks on. Then the two kids realize the popper is no longer on the plate, and their teacher smiles and says something like, “He who is not distracted gets the popper!”
Kind of a funny spot, we thought. Might not have been super p.c., but I would have enjoyed seeing that on TV. So my partner and I scripted it up.
And that was one of the most agonizing experiences of my internship.
We debated on whether we should open outside the restaurant, or open on one of the booths. Should the jalapeno poppers be freshly delivered to the table, or should they already be eating them? Should there be a waiter or waitress? At the end, should the teacher say, “He who is not distracted…” or “Lesson #8…” or “You have much to learn…” It took us hours to figure out that script.
But the thing is, we’d already figured out the premise. The creative director didn’t need a finished script. He wanted an idea. We gave him five scripts. But in the time it took us to script up five fully-formed scripts we could both agreed on, we could have concepted and written a hundred premises.
A premise is a five- or six-sentence description of what the spot is about, and what happens in it. Keep it loose. But keep it interesting. If it doesn’t work well as a premise, it’s probably not going to work as a script.