Monday, May 31, 2010

Why most advertising sucks. (Part 3)

If I could tell one thing to clients I've worked with over the past 23 years, it's this: Say one thing.


It's hard to stick to one message. Especially since articulating one message generally takes far less than 30 seconds. So clients think that if it takes five seconds to say that your snack food is make with no artificial ingredients, you still have 55 seconds left to add that it comes in seven fun flavors and four convenient sizes, is available in the snack aisle, has an exciting new label, is fun to eat, and is enjoyed by some celebrity who is utterly irrelevant to the message they want to communicate, but who they pay ridiculous amounts of money to in order to be photographed eating it.

The thing is, expressing what you want to communicate isn't the same thing as communicating it. Or to put it in a way that even some of my most bone-headed clients could actually understand, it takes less than four seconds to say, "Brian Belefant is incredibly good-looking." But I guarantee it'll take longer than 30 seconds to convince you that the statement is true.

Say one thing. And say it well. If once you've crafted your message you realize that you actually need less than 30 seconds to communicate it in the most compelling manner possible, don't screw it up by throwing more information at the viewers. Run shorter ads.

Friday, May 21, 2010

How to keep from becoming an asshole.

So there I am, prepping this job in New Brunswick, and it turns out the client isn’t crazy about the location we’re presenting. The weekend is coming and we can’t really do anything until Tuesday, so I decided to go out and see if I could dig up some alternate locations.

You know what? It was a great use of two days.

Not just because I found a couple of really good locations, and not just because I got a chance to see a lot of the New Brunswick coastline, but because I got a reminder of how hard location scouting is.

I’m going to do a whole blog post on what makes for a good location scout at some point, but suffice it to say here that it’s pretty hard work. And when your assignment is as specific as mine was (an open-concept waterfront home with an uninterrupted horizon behind it, not too close to the houses next door, well-maintained, but not too upscale and by the way, not blue), it gets really hard.

I knew that. But now –– again –– I really appreciate it.

Every once in a while, do one of the jobs on the crew that you haven’t done in a while. Or that you haven’t done at all. It’s a really good way to keep from becoming an asshole.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sometimes, you have to travel 4,000 miles to get the best dirt from your back yard.

If you're in the film business in Nova Scotia, you either are now or will be soon drinking at the Economy Shoe Shop in Halifax. As I was. Repeatedly. A couple of days last week.

I ran into a bunch of film people I've either worked with, heard of, or vaguely know, and was told more or less the same story by five of them:

Apparently, a huge American client (name withheld) was convinced by its huge American ad agency (name withheld) to pony up for what's technically known as a boondoggle –– wasting a bunch of a client's money in order to indulge your own personal desire. In this case, a business class ticket and five-star accommodations in exotic locations around the world, hobnobbing with famous people, in order to "supervise" a production.

You noticed the quotes, right? I'll get to those in a minute.

One stop on this whirlwind world tour was Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, where an Academy Award-nominated movie star (name withheld) was to be filmed entering a class room. Thirty or so local kids were hired as extras for the shot, for which they were meant to be paid $200.

The director decided to tell the kids what to do when said movie star walked into the room. This is called "directing" and union rules are pretty clear that directors can't do that. If directors direct extras, those extras become principals, which means they get paid as principals. But I suppose the production team figured that since these kids were just local Nova Scotia yokels, not seasoned Hollywood actor kids, who would know, right?

(For the record, the movie star appearing in the commercial is a Nova Scotia yokel herself, which was probably one of the arguments the agency mounted to convince the client they needed to take an all-expenses paid trip there, but isn't it funny how the dots aren't connected when it's not convenient to do so?)

Where was I? Oh yeah. Union rules.

These union rules, by the way, are not obscure or particularly arcane. They're almost as basic as "light goes into the front part of the camera." You can't be a working producer or director –– much less a producer or director worthy of flying around the world, spending hundreds of thousands of your client's dollars, and working with an Academy Award-nominated actor –– without knowing them.

Still, nobody "supervising" the production flagged the take as unusable, so the editor cut it into the spot. Which got presented all the way up the corporate ladder and approved and eventually ran globally.

Union rules are pretty clear about this, too. Each time a principal appears in a spot on air, he or she is entitled to collect residuals. But I suppose Nova Scotia is considered such a backwater of civilization by the sophisticated ad guys in LA that they figured nobody there has television.

Imagine their surprise when somebody noticed.

A fan got hit with shit, as they say, and negotiations were suddenly entered into in earnest. The upshot? Each of the extras got a nice little surprise bonus –– a check for $10,000, courtesy of the client. I don't know the media schedule, but I'd be willing to bet that the union was extremely generous in the compromise it reached on behalf of the performers.

Which brings me to the quotes.

Here you have a copywriter, art director, producer, account executive, and probably a couple associate creative directors, account directors, creative directors, and agency heads of production –– because this is, after all, a critical project for this very important client and somebody must be on hand in each of these exotic locations that coincidentally we've always wanted to visit at someone else's expense –– "supervising" this shoot and yet not a single one of them did anything to prevent a $300,000 overage.

The bottom line: Lots of people got really nice vacations, the director (if he's not totally inept) shot enough footage even if the concepts were totally lame to cobble something impressive together to go on his reel, and 30 kids in Nova Scotia are well on their way to having college paid for. The client ought to be furious because the agency didn't just drop the ball, they ran into their own end zone and then stomped on it, but they're so huge and profitable that $300,000 is probably less than their catering bill at the annual shareholders' meeting, so maybe they don't really care.

I think we can take away two lessons here:

1) Just because you convinced somebody to fork over a shit load of money doesn't mean you still don't have to do your job; and

2) Those dumb hicks you're hiring for pennies on the dollar aren't necessarily dumb hicks.

What's cool, though? It sure is easy to find people willing to work as extras in Nova Scotia these days.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Why most advertising sucks. (Part 2)

If you only retain one rule about advertising, this is the one: Advertising is not sales.

I'm going to repeat that, just in case there are any clients reading this blog. Advertising is not sales.

Advertising. Is. Not. Sales.

Sales is about making a transaction. Customers give you money in exchange for your product or service. Advertising, on the other hand, is about creating a desire.

Advertising comes first. The more desire you create, the easier it is to close the sale. Which has huge implications, especially when you fuck it up and do it wrong.

Treating advertising like sales actually reduces your likelihood of success. If you haven't created any desire, your efforts to close come across no better than the guy in the third-world market barking, "My friend! I make great deal for you!" which if you've ever been in a market in Cairo, Ecuador, Roumania, or just about anywhere else in the world, you know roughly translates into English as "Hello. I'm an aggressive freak who's trying to rip you off. Run."

But even if that weren't true –– which it is –– from a practical point of view you can't close a sale in an ad. Let's say you're sitting on your couch, watching TV, and a commercial for a new toaster comes on. You want that toaster. You need it. What do you do?

You a) go to the store, b) go to the internet, or c) go to the phone. Doesn't matter, you aren't in a position to make a transaction, no matter how much you want to. You can't throw your credit card at the television. You must take another step, one that involves interacting with either a salesperson or an automated process. Who or which is there to close.

Is that clear? No. I know it's not. But I can't help but try.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Why most advertising sucks. (Part 1)

The next time you're watching TV and wondering how such horrible stuff ends up on air, here's what you need to understand:

Corporations have levels. The bigger the corporation, the more levels it has.

At each level, the person making a decision is probably trying to make the best possible decision, but also has to consider his or her career. That means he or she can't very well say to the boss, "Sure, this commercial sucks, but I gave lousy direction to the ad agency and sent them down the wrong path for two weeks."

As you ascend the levels, you also acquire more responsibility. So while an individual commercial might be a high priority to the ad manager, the brand manager has to deal with the fallout from the celebrity spokesperson who has been photographed using a competitor's product and the fact that the design firm can't seem to get the color on the label right.

Ultimately, a lot of advertising happens by attrition. An air date has to be met and something needs to be shot. It can't be anything too controversial because every level not only has to present it to the level above, but explain why it's not going to cause more harm than good.

I actually had a client tell me on one shoot that he didn't want me to do anything that would make anybody notice the commercial we were working on. And no, I'm not making that up.

So next time you see something even marginally entertaining, beautiful, or compelling on air, remember: It defied the odds. It made it up the ranks of approval and didn't get eliminated in favor of something safer.

And then go buy whatever it is it's selling. Good advertising is something we want to encourage, after all.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Bruce Willis and the art of Hollywood economics.

You know what I love about Bruce Willis? He loves to work.

Sure, he takes in $25 million to star in a Hollywood film. At least that's what they say he's getting to be in 'Die Hard 5'. But for every big Hollywood film he makes, he makes a bunch of little films.

Some, like 'The Sixth Sense', turn out to be huge moneymakers. But a lot of them are little, itty bitty films that nobody would ever notice if it weren't for the fact that he's in them. And when he is, he negotiates a deal that pays him on the back end instead of –– or in addition to –– the front.

I may be wrong, but that tells me two things about the guy:

1) He obviously doesn't have a problem being a big Hollywood movie star, but on films that don't have money set aside to bring in three trailers, a personal yogi, and a corral full of shetland ponies, he'll still show up and do his job.

2) He has taste. He knows that it's a pretty safe bet that 'Die Hard 5' is going to be a turd, and if you want to put him in your turd you're going to have to pay him. Handsomely. Up front.

More importantly, he knows how much his name contributes to the legitimacy (translation: profit) of a film, and he requires that you give up all of that except a small margin –– just enough to make it worth your while to take the gamble.

In other words, with Bruce in it, 'Die Hard 5' is pretty likely to make just a touch under $25 million more (plus whatever his percentage of the back-end is) than it would without him in it.

Wouldn't it be nice if we all knew just how much value we added?