So You Want To Make Television Commercials – Prologue & Chapter 1

By - CTL
May 22, 2016


I think the reasons why we wrote a book such as this, is sometimes more important than what’s in it.

Having devoted a chaotic lifetime to this insane industry, we have noticed a dramatic and tragic change to its soul and persona.

When we started our careers we trained people from the studio floor to work through different departments, learning the craft, experiencing problems, finding solutions and thereby growing with each experience, developing skills into a craft that should in time become an art form.

Alas, we fear today certain economic imperatives have taken charge and are neglecting the most fundamental needs of the development and the learning process, skills that cannot be taught in student lecture halls, or debated in the hallowed grounds of ancient University buildings.

Given this, there comes a time when truly a little rebellion is indeed a good thing. It brings relevance and focus back into life. Something like the death of a loved one; the really important things become more focused.

One of the most difficult tasks when sitting down to write this book was to distill into words the funny, the absurd, the truly unbelievable and the reality that has taken place. Endeavouring to try to make sense out of the nonsense that we both have spent a lifetime being part of truly challenges one’s own personal perception of your reality.

In an effort to pragmatically lift the skirt on an industry that spends its entire time justifying and convincing itself of its relevance, and of the importance of the role that it plays in the geopolitical overview of events that shape this planet; when truly all we want to do is to flog a few more boxes of soap powder or cans of soft drink and convince the unsuspecting punter to buy things they didn’t know they wanted or ever needed. Inevitably the truth becomes the casualty to the rhetoric of the spin-doctors, with their slavish obsession with the need, to have the punters think and believe “Things go better with Coke”.

In addition to this collection of mad, bad and sometimes unbelievable realities, we wanted to give the reader the ability to take a little piece of learning from each experience, and should they ever be faced with a similar situation they may have something to fall back on, that may give them a perspective that will assist them in their decision making process.

When Dale Wasserman set about writing Man of Le Mancha its keynote spirit was embodied in the lyrics of its leading song: “The Impossible Dream”.

Tilting at windmills as foolish as it might seem,was reason enough to have written this book.

There will of course be a great deal of criticism of its content, and the opinions that it offers.

When looking into the mirror, we very often don’t like what we see. As in all industries we have always endeavoured to conceal our “dirty little secrets”.

However given the current state of our profession and industry as is, with the

extraordinary revolutions in technology, and the break-neck progress that every part of it and those who are in it are experiencing, we fear the very craft we cherish is being compromised and thereby putting it at great risk.

There comes a time when someone needs to speak up; call a spade a shovel, if for no other reason to at least get some proper discussion as to how to constructively deal and work with the changes and manage its very soul.

Charles Darwin once said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, it is the one most responsive to change”. By this I believe he meant “response to change” was about preserving the very essence of what made the species great whilst embracing this brave new world.

Criticize if you might, but don’t disregard the message. Should you do so, consider this… you may be part of the problem.

At no stage do we want our readers to believe or take from its text that there is no vision of hope or any bitter cynicism associated with its content. On the contrary, discussion and debate that causes thought and inspiration is the very thing we wish to encourage. If there is one thing that should come from its text is that with insight, knowledge and experience, we grow and develop a better and more inspired culture.

So with no further ado let’s follow Alice through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole and into this strange world.

“Sometimes I believed as many as 6 impossible things before breakfast”

The Queen: Through Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carol

Chapter 1

What makes a good commercial?

In the first analysis, one that works. But like most things in life it is much more complicated than that. I remember quite some years ago seeing a documentary on advertising. It covered a research group where ten women were being asked a number of questions regarding a proposed TV commercial for a famous brand of dishwashing liquid. The usual storyboards and sound tracks were presented. The general consensus was that the execution was irritating due in no small part to the quality of the talent’s voice.

“Irritating?” questioned the documentary maker of the agency people present behind the twoway mirror. “Irritating, that must be bad?”

“No, no not at all” replied the Senior Account Director, “That’s good, it will give us cut-through”.

Up to a point the Senior Account Director was right. But marketing departments and agencies have a much greater degree of responsibility than that.

Really good advertising should be liked or even loved.

How does this happen?

Nothing is more conducive to great advertising than the existence of trust between client and agency.

The extremely famous English advertising identity Anthony Simonds-Gooding was flying in the company of the man somewhat responsible for creating a campaign for his Heineken beer brand, Frank Lowe.

Lowe decided to take the opportunity to present a few scripts. Before he could get them out of his brief-case, Simonds-Gooding asked him if they were any good.

“Yes”, replied Lowe.

“Well if you say so, make them,” said Simonds-Gooding.

The result was the extremely successful, highly awarded, and long running “Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach.” series of television commercials.

Lowe’s agency at the time was the formidable, highly effective and extensively awarded CDP, so Simonds-Gooding was on pretty safe ground.

If you have this kind of relationship with your agency, hang onto it; they are hard to establish.

But what if you don’t?

What if you inherited your agency from your predecessor and you’re locked into a contract or you’re aligned to a multinational or you’ve given your account to your brother in-law?

First-up make sure you write a very good brief.

Before you put fingers to keyboard it’s worth quoting Steve Jobs who said, “It’s not the consumers job to know what they want”.

Too much advertising is the product of research where the respondents have only been able to express opinions based on what they already know. Is it any wonder the resultant work is predictable and boring?

Almost every company has a standard format that purports to be the definitive vehicle for informing an agency what is required of it, but in my experience they tend to be over complicated. They are often the product of committees and invariably try to cover too many bases. If you don’t believe me, turn on your TV any time of day, any day of the week and you’ll discover most commercials aren’t quite sure what they are supposed to be saying.

Ideally you should be making a single point.

(My product is cheaper or faster or more fuelefficient or tastier or the most expensive)

It’s then up to the creative department in your agency to come up with the best way of communicating whatever it is you want your market to know.

Ask yourself, “What is it that my product can promise, that research shows my market wants that my competition isn’t saying”. A good creative team can work with this.

Successful film scriptwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) said, “In Hollywood, no-one knows anything.” It would appear by the small percentage of films that become block-busters he is right.

But scripts for TV commercials are business tools and require a high degree of accountability.

I’ve always thought one of the hardest things an advertiser has to do is give an instant appraisal of a script or scripts immediately after they have been presented.

It would make more sense to thank the agency for their effort and take a day or two before giving a considered response, (assuming of course the agency hasn’t put the project behind schedule by taking up too much time coming up with the scripts in the first place).

Then you will have the time to think, “does the script answer the brief, is it right for my brand and will I be able to answer truthfully next time someone at a dinner party asks me what I do for a living?”

If you are an accountant, or a motor-mechanic or a farmer or a teacher or gardener and you stuff up, usually only those directly affected will know about it. But if you are a marketer, everyone knows.

When you order 2 million aerosol cans, or 2 tonnes of barley or whatever it is you need to make your product, more often than not you receive the quantity and quality of cans or barley you paid for. But when you commission a television commercial you commit to spending a considerable amount of money on production and media without being absolutely certain what the final commercial will look like. So it’s not unreasonable to ask as many questions as you like in pre-production meetings to ensure your interests are being looked after.

And you will need a great director/production company.

One that can demonstrate they really understand what you wish to achieve for your brand.

A good treatment is the usual place to begin looking for assurances; once you have been through the process of selecting the right director (see “HE COULDN’T DIRECT TRAFFIC OUT OF SIGHT ON A DARK NIGHT” a chapter later in the book).

Often, somewhere within the preproduction process a good director will say something or do something, usually unprompted, that will confirm to you they are the right person for the job. It may just be the way they listen or how they make a suggestion but you will know it when you hear it. It will give you inner confidence and it’s something to look out for.

Will your attendance at the shoot help make it a good commercial?

Hopefully by the time the camera turns over your presence will not be required. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be there. Shoots are an exciting part of the marketing process, but never try to tell the director how to do their job.

I always hope that when a client sees their commercial for the first time they say something like, “That’s just how I thought it would be only a million times better”.


While there are no absolute guarantees to what makes a good TV commercial, a good brief, a good script and a good production company are good places to start.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Email and Name is required.