Why the Execution of an Idea Is More Important Than the Idea Itself

Legendary Commercial Director Joe Sedelmaier on the Power of Persistance

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Joe Sedelmaier is a control freak -- in the most productive way. When he was a kid, Joe would shoot things with his 8mm camera. "You have nothing to say, but you want to say it anyhow," the renowned TV commercial director recalled prior to his recent induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame.

When he got a 16mm camera and a tape recorder, suddenly he could do it all. "You shoot the film, you photograph it," he said. "And then you have all of the material and you cut it. And you see the process, the whole creative process from the beginning to the end. And once you have done something like this, you can't go back. I mean, my God, that's what it is all about."

When Joe started in commercials, he soon realized this was not the way it was done. "You're the director, fine. But then when you get done with the job, the agency takes that work and they find their own editor."

Joe read about comedians like Buster Keaton, "who did some brilliant stuff when he had his own studio, but then he went to work for MGM and all of a sudden everything had to be shown to the head of the lighting department or the head of cutting, whatever, the editing department."

The execution of an idea is more important than the idea itself, Joe believes. When you read that Keaton is falling off a rock, that's not funny. "But you watch Keaton do it and it works."

Joe is also not a big fan of storyboards. Joe and a rep in Chicago, Marty Bass, started Sedelmaier Film Productions, but they soon had a fundamental disagreement. Marty knew all of the agencies and agency people in town, "and that was fine -- except that was not the type of work I wanted to do," Joe said. "Because, again, the big agencies supplied you with a storyboard, and this is what you do, this is what we sold the client."

Joe's most famous commercials, the fast-talking man for FedEx and the Clara Peller "Where's the Beef?" spot for Wendy's, would never have happened if they stuck to storyboards.

When the agency Ally & Gargano suggested John Moschitta for the fast-talking man, Joe found him very young and gregarious. But Joe saw the character as one of those guys who looks straight ahead and doesn't wait for anyone. So Joe put a mustache on him to make him look a little older, put a pencil in his hand and had him look straight ahead, "and no movement, like a robot." And it worked great.

"What made that commercial funny is all the people around him trying to keep up with him," he said.

Joe used Clara Peller quite a lot as an extra before she starred in the Wendy's commercial. He spotted her when he was doing a shoot where a guy was having his hand manicured, and Joe thought his other hand should be manicured by another person. So someone ran across the street to a salon to find the other person, and in came Clara. "And she's sitting there doing her thing, and after we've done shooting, she looks up at me and says, 'How ya doin', honey?'"

"Where's the Beef?" started out as "fluffy bun." "A young couple is ordering a hamburger and they look at the big bun and say: 'That's a big bun, that's a fluffy bun,'" Joe said. "And then they lift up the lid of the bun and you see this little piece of meat. And I didn't find this funny."

Joe got them to ditch the young couple for two sweet little old ladies who picked up the fluffy bun line. Then he brought in Clara "to be the bull in the China shop." He asked her to say "Where is all the beef?" but because of her emphysema she couldn't say all that.

"What's the idea behind 'Where's the Beef?" Joe said. "Very little. … We're saying we have more meat than the other person. OK, but what made the spot work was Clara. And if some other older woman said it, forget about it. Clara made that spot and so often this is what I'm talking about -- casting, you've got to be involved in the casting."

Along with control, persistence was key to Joe's success. "It's not going to happen overnight," he said. "You got to keep pushing. And then it happens."

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