1. Don't use the words of the song as your copy points. It's OK if the lyrics allude to the primary meaning of your spot, but if it's too see/say (and I've found this out the hard way), the spot will feel flat and won't have the sticking power you want. A little ambiguity goes a long way, and the slight friction between the original lyrics and the visuals makes the spot feel deeper somehow.
2. Lose the voiceover. It wrecks the vibe, and vibe trumps fact every time in a TV spot. Clients tend to feel otherwise. So if you have to use a VO, stick it at the end and keep it short. Good luck on this one.
3. Don't bother using the latest hit song. It looks like you're trying too hard. Besides, there are so many great songs out there that no one has ever heard of before, and the Stones don't need any more money. Or exposure. Nada Surf could probably use more of both.
4. Use "geeky" songs, or songs by bands that trucker hat-wearing hipsters in the East Village would never admit to liking. We used "Mr. Roboto," by Styx, to great effect a few years back, and more recently, a Supertramp song for the Gap. And both were used without irony. We just really liked the songs and felt they made the spots.
5. Speaking of bands no one will admit to ever liking, will someone out there please use a Yes song in a spot? No one I work with will let me, regardless of the above guidelines. They all hate Yes, but I love them, and I try to stick one of their songs in every spot I'm involved in. "Siberian Khatru" is just perfect for something, but then, come to think of it, so is "Safety Dance," by Men Without Hats. But that's just me.
6. Don't overthink it. Chances are one of the first things you put down will be perfect. Of course, convincing your client is another matter entirely. (Notice the fact that I contradict myself later on in this piece.)
7. If you don't know what song you want to use, don't ever play the client something and say, "And we're thinking of a song that feels like this." Demo love. You know the drill, I know the drill, yet we all do it. We should stop it. It's unfair to us, our clients and most of all to the music houses that are no doubt sick and tired of being asked to rip off a pop song. Nike's "Move," composed by Elias Music, is just one perfect example of an original composition that came from the composer's heart and really resonated. And I would guess that it was not what the agency originally had in mind. Which brings me to my next point.
8. Stay open until the very end. Listen to your partners and editors and directors. They're talented people, and they've made me look good many times. Mostly by not letting me use Yes.
9. Try getting artists you love to write original stuff for you. This is fun. You get to hang out with artists you admire, and they often bring great stuff to the table. Years back, I asked the trip-hop artist Ben Neill if he'd be into doing something, and now commercials scoring has spawned a whole new outlet for his music. In fact, he just came out with an album inspired by the music he wrote originally for TV commercials. I think it's his best album to date.
10. Stay away from lyrics with sex or drug references in them. Good luck with this one, too.
11. In the end, I guess the only really important rule is to pick something that moves you on a personal level. At its core, a commercial is just one entity reaching out to another entity. And I think the consumer can tell the difference between a song chosen because you love it, rather than one that just seems to fit nicely.
That's what I like to think, anyway. But what do I know. I like Yes.
Lance Jensen is creative director at Modernista! in Boston. This column appears in the July issue of Creativity.