Tag Archives: Commercials

The truth about writing commercials

TURN IT ON But don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.
TURN IT ON But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

THERE once was a time when I wrote corporate fantasies and advertising bumph with the best of them. Heck, I even won an award for one of the television commercials I wrote, and I learned a few tricks along the way which made the process easier on my artist’s soul.

Here’s my tips for writers in the advertising and corporate world …

Nobody really knows what makes some products sell

Advertising is all experimentation, and good products sell themselves, but no ad rep, account manager or spin doctor will ever admit that to a writer. Coming up with a brilliant advertising concept is more akin to creating the world’s best joke or ghost story in mixed company: it only relies on making the most people laugh (or feel afraid) at the same time, and it’s got to be so good that it makes people tell and re-tell the story to all their friends.

Word of mouth is the only effective form of marketing

And it’s a free distribution network once it’s been accessed. The key word here is: ‘word’. A creator of words is a: ‘writer’, the designer of the message, but also the least influential player in the advertising business. Work out why that is and you’ll earn yourself millions. Meanwhile, just write stuff that real people can talk about, and you won’t go far wrong.

Ad writers need to be great actors

You’ve got to sell your ideas. Be brave, be enthusiastic. Stand in front of the board and sock it to ’em. Shrinking violets need not apply for ad writing positions.

Write flexibly

Always ensure you have a few ideas in the air, because no final decision on wording or dialogue will be made until broadcast day of a television commercial, or publishing deadline day. Keep slogans fluid with multiple options that will work in the ad’s design. Ensure all your ideas are those you’d be happy to occupy the final spot in the ad, and make it look like you came up with the alternatives on the spot. That’ll get you rehired.

Play the accountability game

Fact is, no-one really wants to claim they had the idea behind an advertising campaign until it sells product and wins an award, and if that happens, suddenly it’s everyones! If you want to claim ownership of your ideas (and I assure you, you won’t always want to), make sure that your name is attached to the earliest appearance of the idea, in an email, or in the minutes of a meeting. That way, when it comes to award time, you’ll have proof, but be warned: claiming ownership before an idea floats is fraught with danger.

Nobody reads

This assertion is going to make some people very angry, but it’s certainly true in advertising. Every one of the players in an ad campaign will wait for the writer to write the ad and put it in the mouths of actors on set, or in the hands of a designer, long before reading it. Even then, they may only be scanning the words. First time ad writers are fooled into thinking they’re having a dream run because nobody is giving them any feedback, then, in the studio, they’ll hit a wall as all the stakeholders suddenly see how to ‘make it right’. That’s where the writer needs to have written flexibly (see above).

The client is always right

Even when they’re wrong, even when they’re very, very wrong, they’re right. It’s always best to get a client’s decisions in writing for this reason. Many will try to avoid this moment of accountability, but it’s essential that you get it. It’s called ‘sign-off’. If they waver at sign-off, you’ll know that they know they’re not right, and they’re about to change their minds. Back to your suite of excellent alternative ideas.

The account manager is always right

See above. Seeing a pattern here?

The writer is always wrong

Even when they’re very, very right. The best thing to do with your total lack of currency is to make allies along the production chain. There are plenty of other players with a bit of currency they can trade with you: designers who can tweak your ideas to make them outstanding; and video and audio editors who can give you more options than you thought you had. You’ll find these players working late in editing suites and darkened offices, and they’re usually happy to hear from the writer. Foster such alliances like war comrades, and buy them lots of drinks.

WRITE REGARDLESSDon’t stay too long in advertising

Unless you think you can maintain being right for your entire career.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

On the Board at Fox Studios

Hi res Fox Colour_0How a Writer’s op-shop jacket got him cast in a commercial.

Towards the end of my acting training my class appeared in The Legend of King O’Malley by Bob Ellis and Michael Boddy. In preparation for the title role, I scoured the local op-shops for weeks in search of my costume.

Having been an inveterate op-shopper for years, I knew the chances of finding anything my size were slim, so when I discovered a light green plaid jacket, the sleeves of which covered my long arms right to my knuckles, I rushed to pay the hefty $5.

But hey, I had an outfit that didn’t pinch me in the shoulders or make me look like Frankenstein, wrists exposed from cuffs halfway up my forearms. I felt able to play the man (“The King”) who had such an impact on the formation of modern Australia.

About a fortnight after the show, I was rehearsing for a production of The Popular Mechanicals by Keith Robinson, Tony Taylor and William Shakespeare, at Penrith’s Q-Theatre, when I got a call from the only agent I’ve ever had (who recruited models and actors through letterbox drops), asking me to attend a casting session for a car commercial at Fox Studios in Sydney. “Dress corporate,” she said.

My only smart jacket was King O’Malley’s. Matched with a business shirt (I had to fork out another $2), I looked about as corporate I was ever going to get, and plonked myself down in the casting office waiting room, surrounded by people in black and grey.

We were seen in groups, seated in a mock boardroom complete with a whiteboard, and launched into a board meeting improvisation. I was asked to stand and play the boss, whiteboard marker in hand.

BOARDROOM BITCH Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.
BOARDROOM BITCH Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.

Having spent months in theatre training, I was used to playing to the car park, so I was drawn to channel Faye Dunaway playing Joan Crawford in the Pepsi Cola scene in Mommie Dearest, (“Don’t f#%k with me fellas!”), and launched into sacking the whole lot of my motley staffers.

A note from the big wigs in the shadows, behind the camera, asked me to “Do it again, but tone it down.”

So I changed gears, made it quieter, colder, figuring they might be framing my head and shoulders. My fellow actors looked back at me with fear. Before I knew whether they were acting or not, we were shuffled out.

At the callback we had to imagine, on cue, a wonderful new car driving past our meeting, which was so innovative and attractive that it stopped us, and all our corporate musings, in shock. The result was several rounds of dreadful face pulling, and a bit of inappropriate chuckling.

But I got the gig!

Marched before the director at the costume fitting, “The Board” all looked at me when he asked “Where’s your green jacket?”.

“At home,” I muttered, feeling like I’d worn the wrong gear to sports class. “Can you bring it to the shoot? Can he bring it to the shoot?” he asked, not allowing me to say anything to the first part of his question. The costume designer looked at me with daggers in her eyes, nodded, and marched us out.

There was me thinking it was my well-honed acting skills which got me the job!

On the day, “The Board” waited in a bland green room at Fox Studios, where we worked out very quickly that only one of us could be defined as a “proper” actor – the NIDA graduate cast in the role of “The Boss”. The rest of us were ring-ins, really – a film festival producer, an accountant, an ad sales-rep – all earning far more in one day than we’d ever get in our day jobs.

If we made the final cut, that is. Word got around the set that the director was speculating on too many scenes for his Asian-screened commercial, and if we got cut we might get nothing.

No-one said it, but everyone on “The Board” thought “Don’t f#%k this up, people”.

We were fetched by a man with five mobile phones on his belt, seated in front of a blue screen with a small black track across it, given two quick rehearsals to aid in focussing on the fluorescent taped mark as it sped by (indicating where the “car” would be keyed-in by the editors) and then we were on.

I was seated with my back to the “car”. After the first take, they asked us to take our cue from the NIDA graduate, who was to take his from the director. We were all to be amazed by the “car” at different moments.

After a few more takes, a message came through to the NIDA graduate that he needed to do his turn, his “discovery” of the “car”, “less Broadway, please”. Everyone chuckled, because he had, actually, been having far too much fun with it.

A few more takes later, I shoved some papers off the table, on purpose. “Upstager!” I imagined the NIDA graduate say under his breath. But they liked it, “Keep the papers falling, please.”

A few takes later, they asked for me to take my green jacket off and put in behind me on the chair and roll up my shirt sleeves. No problem, it was getting warm anyway.

Then things started to go a little awry. The NIDA graduate was turning early, which put us all off. The message came through to “Stick to the cue, please”.

Bemused, sweat trickling down his temples, the NIDA graduate looked as though he really was earning his extra dollars for being slightly more featured in this commercial than us ring-ins. While they reset the marker, he leant across to me and whispered: “What’s my cue again?”

“When the director says ‘action’,” I whispered, as reassuringly as I could.

A few more takes later and it was all over. “The Board” was marched off the set to loud applause from the clients, clustered around a mock living room at the edge of the sound stage.

THE BORED MEMBERS Corporate grey is good, but green is better.
BORED MEMBERS Corporate grey is good, but green is better.

“When do you think we’ll get paid?” one of “The Board” asked back in the green room. “Don’t be so cynical,” the guy with five mobile phones said, calling-in the two models cast in the scene where the secretary gets ravished on the photocopier by some random office guy, after seeing the “car”, or course.

We cynical non-actors laughed, exchanged business cards, raided the fabulous leftover catering, and departed.

I drove back to Penrith for the technical rehearsal of The Popular Mechanicals, which was to open in only a few days. After all the blood, sweat and tears that goes into putting anything onto the stage, we played to some houses comprising fewer people, showing less enthusiasm, than the ad execs after “The Board’s” gripping performance at Fox Studios.

And we got paid nix. Welcome to Showbusiness, Mike.

I kept the green jacket for a few more years, but ditched in a hurried move, and I have never acted since I gave it up. Maybe it was my Good Luck Jacket?

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.