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So You Want to Be a TV Commercial Director – Part 2: The Agency

As promised, we’re going to continue our lighthearted view of the commercial production business. This time we’ll take a look at:

The Agency

Never forget, no one at an advertising agency actually wants to be there. They’re all secretly mad at you because of your seemingly carefree and glamorous existence and that shiny Mercedes outside the stage. They have no idea what it feels like after four weeks without your email or fax machine spitting out a storyboard. They are the buyers and you are the seller.

But, also never forget that the agency has much more at stake when they pitch an idea to the client than you do. When you make a bad commercial you just don’t put it on your reel, and you probably won’t work for that one agency again. When they make a bad commercial it can take the whole agency down. One client might be 75% of the agencies business. If they lose that business, heads will roll…a lot of them.

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Now, let’s meet the cast of characters you might meet upon walking into an agency.

Head of Broadcast

Probably can’t award you a job, but can certainly stop you getting one. Wants to chuck it in and run a bed and breakfast in the Hamptons.

The Creative Director

Oversees the whole process. He’ll take credit if the product is good; he’ll walk away unscathed if it’s not. Secretly wants to write and direct feature films.

The Copywriter

At best a writer of some of the world’s most creative short stories. At worst a frustrated novelist, writing pitch lines to sell sugar to kids. The minutia that this person has to juggle is mind blowing. Every adjective, comma, and apostrophe is vetted by the legal department. The client wants him to describe every aspect of his product at length and in detail. Alas, he has at most 30 seconds to fit all those words in and fights for every breath an actor or announcer must take.

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The Art Director

Commercials are an Art Director’s medium. He is usually the person that drives the whole project creatively. He will probably create the storyboard and work on the overall creative idea with the copywriter. He might actually enjoy what he is doing.

The Agency Producer

Best case, the power factor of production at the agency, a wise sage that will keep the ship afloat on an even keel. He wants value for the agency, but won’t let his creatives get out of hand, thus saving the production company from taking a bath.

Worst case, the producer is a 22 year old communications major just hired by the agency, eager to climb the corporate ladder and lacking any practical set or production experience,

agencyIn some cases, the producers control everything at the agency. They can be the most influential in awarding a spot to a particular company, and they run their creatives and override them when necessary. They see and appreciate the “value engineering” in any given bid. They know when a job is being low-balled by a production company, and when it’s full of earmarked “pork.” They guide their creative to the best choice financially and creatively.

The inexperienced agency producer is just along for the ride, with the creatives calling all the shots. As the agency usually pay the talent, this person will do little else than keep track of talent hours and payment. A Line Producer will calculate any additional accrued costs and try to get the Agency Producer to sign off on them.Very often the agency will expect the Production Company to eat these expenses in the interests of securing repeat business. “Well, make it up to you on the next one,” has to go down with Hollywood’s mantra, “check’s in the mail” as advertising’s biggest lie.

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Account Executive

Executive Nanny to the clients. A great Account Executive will run interference for the production team and the client to keep them honest about what creative was sold to them and to stop a client from micro-managing the shoot. A bad one will “become” the client and impede the shoot from an ego or fear based position.

The Client

The man spending the money. The first and final word…maybe. In days of old, the client was “persona-non-grata” on the set, or any other place except the agency preproduction meeting. The agency rode roughshod over the client announcing that they are the “experts.” What the hell are you paying us for if you want to run the show? How dare you have an opinion!

The client was the person the Account Executive was required to keep out of the way. Take him to a golf game or get him over to the Universal Studios Tour while the filmmaking magic happened in his absence. He was a bad-joke that needed to be listened to but not acted upon.

Those days are gone. The client now usually dictates everything, and rightfully so. If there one thing I’ve learned in the business it’s that I’m not an auteur director. I’m making a film for the client that paying me a lot of money to do it.

Lately, some clients even act as their own agency, hiring freelance creatives, and production companies directly. This is called “client direct” advertising and is one of the Agency businesses biggest fears. I have been on commercial shoots where the agency has fallen into the shadows and the client has moved up next to me at the monitor and fed me line readings for the actor. “Why don’t you say it this way?” Followed by a sentence with the emphasis on all the wrong syllables. An uncomfortable situation I hope you never experience. But hey, whatever it takes to get to say: “wrap,” right?

Cost Consultants

The rise of the powerful client came with the advent of the Cost Consultants. These are the people who have single-handedly changed the commercial production from “the golden age of advertising” to the tough dog-eat-dog business it is today. Clients finally wised up to the fact that they were spending millions of dollars in a business that they didn’t understand. They hired cost consultants to tell them when they were being taken for a ride. These insidious turncoats come from the ranks of the production companies and the agencies and take delight in putting the screws to their old colleges.

moneyTheir job is to make sure the client doesn’t spend a dime more on the commercial than they need to. To hell with the creative content, or the star director, they know how much this job should cost and will remove any hint of fat from the budget before the job is awarded. Gone are the days when the director could buy a new Mercedes from a single job. If that’s why you want to get into the business, think again.

Next time we’ll take a look at Production Companies and their unique challenges.

Drop me a line if you’d like me to cover a particular topic. bruceloganblog@gmail.com

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About the Author


Bruce Logan, ASC was born in London. His love of imagery started when he was hired by Stanley Kubrick to work under Douglas Trumbull on 2001: A Space Odyssey. He came to California in 1968 and worked as a DP on over a dozen films, including: Tron, Star Trek, Airplane, Firefox, High Road to China, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Big Bad Mama, and Jackson County Jail. He did visual photography for most of these films as well. He has shot commercial films for most of the major companies: Pepsi, GE, Visa, Chevrolet, Pontiac, DuPont, Contac, Sprint, Amtrak, Suzuki, Sunlight, and Armstrong. And—he has applied his talents to making music videos for such high profile performers as Prince, Madonna, Rod Stewart, Aerosmith, Glenn Frey, The Go-Gos, Karyn White, Tevin Campbell, Hank Williams, Jr., and Michael Cooper. See Bruce's full bio here.

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