HOW TO HOLD THE LINE ON TV AD PRODUCTION COSTS

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While those quoted in your recent article "Cost to make TV ad nears quarter-million" (AA, July 4) acknowledge that TV commercial production costs are rising out of control, none offered an in-depth explanation as to why. As advertising production cost consultants who review agency estimates and production company bids on a daily basis for our Fortune 500 clients, we have witnessed the following changes leading to higher costs in our industry:

1. Agency staffing has been severely affected as a result of many mergers and acquisitions. The pool of knowledgeable, skilled and disciplined agency broadcast professionals has dwindled due to budget cuts. Therefore, production is often left in the hands of relatively inexperienced producers who, in actuality, function only as production coordinators.

2. The general decline in the economy over the past few years had led to a reduction in ad budgets and the amount of TV commercial production. In this environment every commercial counts, and the caveat is "each spot must hit a home run." The panacea is to use "name" directors with track records and fees to match.

3. Production companies are, in turn, under enormous pressure to produce successful commercials and therefore bid extra prep time, rehearsal days and pre-light days. They employ "name" cinematographers, use huge crews who are paid day rates that no longer remotely resemble scale, and rent the biggest studio facilities, all in the hope of meeting agency and client expectations.

4. The current trend toward producing spots with an MTV "look and feel" adds to expense. Many of the storyboards we see are undefined, leaving most, if not all, creative (and therefore cost) decisions to the discretion of the director. Without prior agreement on creative strategy, individual bids represent totally different creative visions, leaving no means for accurate cost comparisons.

5. Today, the director's involvement often ends with the dailies. The editor has become the de facto creative director, without the benefit of having had any upfront creative or technical input. In fact, editing costs represent the largest dollar increase, on a percentage basis, in production. Tremendous amounts of money are now spent in "creating" commercials in the edit suite. Technological advances, specifically non-linear editing, allow for endless variations, most of which are explored while the clock ticks.

6. And, as in the past, the single most effective way to waste valuable production dollars is to rush the production process. Good production takes time, yet we see our clients (and sometimes their agencies) getting pushed to produce complex commercials in as little as three weeks start to finish. Cost-effectiveness is not even a consideration under these conditions.

7. As agencies have become more and more creatively driven, agency producers have lost their clout, and therefore their ability to leverage the best deal and contain costs. There appears to be a decided lack of senior agency management guidance throughout the process, ultimately leading to runaway costs.

Can anything be done to address these problems?

Yes, and here are some simple steps advertisers can take:

Insist on a comprehensive storyboard that will lead to a creative execution of your marketing strategy; i.e., make sure it sells your product.

Make sure each frame of the storyboard has well-defined scene objectives.

Have a pre-bid meeting to clearly define marketing, creative and production objectives and chart a strategy to achieve these goals.

Make sure that all directors to be bid are appropriate to the needs of the storyboard, are available to actually direct the production and are of equal ability and professional standing.

Have the agency shoot the storyboard you have agreed upon. Once it's in the can, they can experiment all they want.

Make sure they cut the spot according to the board you have agreed upon. It will serve as a baseline to measure any other executions they might want to show you.

And work to consolidate the approval process at both the agency and corporate levels to eliminate multiple interim changes that impact heavily upon editing costs.

The bulk of today's TV advertising is expensive, yet much of it is, in our opinion, merely derivative. There are certainly times when the high expense of production is warranted, but first there must be a focused marketing strategy and a consistent creative vision.

Mr. Glasserow is president of the GMA Group, Lebanon, N.J.

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