Producing Quality TV Spots on a Shoestring

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BART CLEVELAND: I’ve worked with large production budgets and they’re nice because you don’t need to worry about being able to afford the things that insure a quality job. Unfortunately a small agency’s largest budget would be considered miniscule by national standards. However we cannot rationalize the quality our work just because we didn’t have the budget. We have to find a way to make it the best anyway. It can be done if you approach the problem with a little ingenuity.

Rule #1: A great idea can get you a production discount. If awards are a standard of quality to you, I have great news. The most awarded TV spot I’ve been a part of cost $3000 to produce. How did we do it? Passion, pure and simple. We found someone with a passion for the idea (it took a while) so did it for the spot, not the money. After the ad was finished we had the opportunity to syndicate it (due to the price the ownership was the agency’s not the client's) and the production company made a bundle on that little spot. It pays to have a passion for great work despite the budget.

Rule #2: Keep it simple. Great ideas don’t have to cost a lot if you know what ideas cost to produce. Teach your creative people what production costs. If they understand the basic costs of production they know their scope of possibilities within a budget. They won’t waste time on ideas with large casts or incredible special effects. I’ve learned the hard way that an idea beyond its budget is a bad idea. It’s just a brilliant thought lost to bad production quality. Few clients know how good quality happens but they can recognize the difference between good and bad. They will think their agency doesn’t know what it’s doing when they get bad quality and they will be right.

Rule #3: Get the client to spend a little more. Have you ever bought a cheap pair of shoes? They wear out in three months. Pay 25% more and you’ll be wearing your shoes for a couple of years. The same principle applies in production. I’ve seen $5000 make the difference in a spot the client loves and one where they feel disappointed. Be honest with your client. Tell them when they just don’t have the budget to do something right. We tell clients not to produce work unless they have a minimum amount that will assure quality. It’s our job to be honest not try to do the impossible. When they do find some more money we use every cent in a tangible way. Using production money to eat at fancy restaurants and stay in expensive hotels doesn’t show up on the screen. I’ll sleep in my rental car if I think it will improve my chances of having a great spot.

Rule #4: Invest Sometimes a client can’t find the extra dollars that make the difference. We’ve had that happen so we pitched in because the work would help us in other ways than paying our light bill. Great work will put you on the map. Don’t blow the opportunity. Then tell your client you’re going to use some of the payment for your services to help make the spot better. If that doesn’t show you care, nothing will.

There are many more keys to great work on small budgets. But the most important is your commitment to quality work. Your employees and your clients will join you in doing their part if you show that commitment on a daily basis.
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