A commercial production is the meeting point between a wide range of philosophies, personalities and entities in the marketing and advertising universe. The best end product --funny, engaging, beloved and talked-about TV ads -- are the result of a lightning-in-a-bottle moment. A group of folks are thrown together for a relatively short period of time and tasked with creating something meaningful, effective and compelling. As I reflect on years of directing commercials and to a lesser extent, music videos, there are five fundamental truths about making commercials that all marketers and ad execs should keep in mind.
Ideas can always be value-engineered. Let the director find the most effective way to execute the commercial idea creatively while staying within budget. Every single choice they make impacts the bottom line. Some executives tend to knee-jerk towards 'cutting' line items down to make the budget work. That may be a recipe for disaster, resulting in the spot falling flat or just missing the mark. I always try to get a sense of the rough budgetary limitations early on. This way I can search for streamlined choices which maximize effectiveness of the idea and save on costs in one stroke. I want to find those creative choices which can help the budget work while simultaneously positively impacting the idea's effectiveness … and the client's results. One example that comes to mind of this in action is the now iconic "The Most Interesting Man in the World" spots for Dos Equis, which include budget-conscious, but successful, table-side imparting of wisdom from the character that are as memorable and effective as the more expensive flashback montage commercials in the same series. That's value engineering, my friends!
Point of view is everything. It takes a ton of contemplation and focus to drill down good creative and find the most effective point of view. Often times, the point of view determines whether the idea lives or dies on screen, or whether it's funny or not. Audiences are sophisticated in ways they don't even realize. They have acute sensors and are hyper sensitive to point of view and the rules of comedy. They immediately know when something works and when it doesn't, even if they don't know why. Can you imagine, for example, those frenetic, campy, tongue-in-cheek and wildly popular Old Spice commercials being approached any other way? Me either.
Sweat the small stuff. Every choice a director makes can affect the audience's perceptions about the brand's values such as casting, colors, context the brand is in, and the tone of the message. A good director is your guardian and ambassador for the brand and the communication. So, please remember, that seemingly small requests made by your director deserve the same attention and consideration as the big ones. This came up in a recent spot I did for Cape Cod Potato Chips featuring computer-generated seagulls performing the Flock of Seagulls hit "I Ran" on a beach. I was adamant about having the gulls behave like real seagulls and not humans that look like gulls. This single creative directive flowed into every choice I made. I resisted letting the birds 'fold back' their feathers like fingers to strum the guitars or having them be super cool rock stars. Probably the most effective of these decisions was not giving the drummer any drumsticks, instead having him peck at the kit, and making the singer play the keyboard with his little bird feet. This choice opened up a window to better breathe personality into the entire spot.
Creative choices can be black-and-white decisions. Many like to say that creative choices are "gray areas" and that they can be done a thousand different ways.
I don't agree. There is a "good" way to interpret an idea so that it flies and a "bad" way to interpret an idea so that it falls flat, with just a little wiggle room around those choices. The key is the ability to analyze which creative choice is the best and to understand "why" in the context of artistic taste, brand values, message and budget simultaneously. Ask your director to share the reasons behind the creative choices with you so you can see, in black and white, whether you are on the path to a successful spot. The "Safe Happens" Volkswagen commercials featured in-car perspective of people having normal conversations cut short by sudden crashes, showing them safely standing next to the totaled vehicle after the crash. The decision to shoot the impact from inside the car effectively communicated the can-happen-to-you-at-any-moment message better than any outside-the-car perspective could have. A brilliant choice.
You can only effectively communicate one thing at a time. Determine what the most unique value proposition is of the particular brand or product and put that front and center in a creative way that resonates. If the audience walks away with one meaningful message about you, that 's a big win! So let's pick that one thing and communicate it in a way that allows the audience to invite it in, accept it, and willingly remember it. Who knows, they might even share it! Look at most car commercials. Trucks and automobiles have a big laundry list of features that could be highlighted. The best spots go with just one, be it roomy, affordable, luxurious, sporty, gas-efficient, comfortable, hi-tech, safe, practical, tough, family-friendly, reliable, or in the case of the 2012 Honda CR-V launch commercial, fun. That spot featured Matthew Broderick reprising his Ferris Bueller role for a fun-filled day off in his CR-V, and went viral after it aired to garner 16 million YouTube views. It stayed on message without mentioning a single other aspect of the car, even in the two-and-half minute online version.
What these come down to is understanding the role of the director in the overall process. If you let us know where you want to go, trust us to get the audience there, and provide reasonable resources to do so, then you can expect a successful journey.