How long does it take to write an award-winning, 30 second TV commercial?

By - CTL
January 12, 2017

By Aidan McGeady.

Advertising people, even creative ones, are supposed to be professionals. That means they’re obliged to produce ads that work, (the creative), in an agreed time, (the schedule), for a set amount of money, (the budget).

Sounds simple. But it obviously isn’t, because it so seldom happens.

In March this year, I attended a large pre-production meeting for a major, so-called, fast moving consumer product. (Ever heard of a major, fast moving advertising agency?). During the course of the proceedings the client was asked to approve a director. She didn’t like the agencies recommendation or the other two. The Group Account Director said that if she didn’t make a decision, “today”, the shoot and subsequently the media schedule would have to be pushed back.

“I briefed you,” she said, steam exiting her ears, “Six months ago, precisely to avoid being put in this position ……. again.”

In this case, half a year was not long enough to complete the creative process.

Cue an unhappy client, an unhappy agency and a vulnerable brand.

(Just for good measure, before the meeting began the client had to return to the basement and move their car as they had apparently, parked in the wrong spot. It occurred to no one at the agency to move it for them.)

Writing a song is not quite the same as writing a television commercial but there are parallels.

The following comment is by Leonard Cohen, Los Angeles 1992, and appeared in the book, Songwriters On Songwriting by Paul Zollo. “That (Hallelujah) was a song that took me, (Leonard Cohen) a long time to write. Dylan and I were having coffee the day after his concert in Paris a few years ago and he was doing that song in concert. And he asked me how long it took to write it. And I told him a couple of years. I lied actually. It was more than a couple of years.”

“Then I praised a song of his, ‘I and I’ and asked him how long it had taken and he said fifteen minutes.” (Laughter.)

Ron Mather wrote for Advertising News in June of 2012 about times at the incomparable Campaign Palace, “An agency that knew how to enjoy itself. Where the lunches were legendary, often resulting in advertising campaigns that were equally legendary.”

So there you go. In the right hands, a ‘lunch time’ is all it takes to come up with a (mostly) award winning script. Though admittedly, Palace lunchtimes were rather longer than most.

I personally knew copywriters (and a few art directors) who could write scripts in their heads while they were taking the brief. What was often mistaken for a short attention span was actually boredom. That’s not to say they didn’t later spend days crafting their original thoughts but the core idea was more or less instant. If anyone has this talent today they are keeping quiet about it and making sure their time sheets reflect the ‘enormous amount of hours and effort’ they have exhausted  constructing their thirty-second masterpieces.

So, where does a creative’s time go?

Quite legitimately creative teams could insist on knowing everything there is to know about the product or service they are writing about. They could visit the factory, R&D Departments, design studios, laboratories etc where they were created in search of ideas. They could visit the stores, supermarkets and offices etc. where the products and services are dispensed. This takes time but it’s well spent. How often does it happen? I would suggest, hardly ever.

You can never know too much about what you are advertising.

When I was ECD of a large multi national the following scenario was not uncommon. An Account Director would burst into my office on a Wednesday waving a usually thick document, which inevitably turned out to be a brief. He or she would explain that it was a great opportunity for the creative department to showcase their talent and could he or she see ‘something’ before the end of the week? I would then ask, “Why the short deadline?” The answer was always the same. “The briefs been in the agency for six weeks and the client’s extremely pissed.” I could have asked where in the agency the brief had been, but I already knew the answer. In planning.

Sometimes briefs are unusually difficult and will take a lot of time and occasionally a lot of teams to crack. If however the agency has a good working relationship with their client they will explain the situation and negotiate a sensible time to come up with a brilliant solution. But how often does this happen?

From time to time, even the most awarded creative people draw a blank. It is the job of the ECD, CD, CCO or whoever is in charge, to identify the problem and fix it as quickly as possible. Telling the client the truth is a good idea. It’s remarkable how understanding they can be if they’re in the loop.

Agencies are, all too often, under resourced. They simply do not have the right amount of people to do the work on time. Or they don’t have enough good ones. This can be the fault of head office squeezing their outposts dry of cash. It is often the client cutting budgets. If it’s the latter, probably best not to blame them. This is the time to remind everyone creating TV scripts isn’t work it’s an opportunity to demonstrate how clever you are. I read some-where that Charles Saatchi, before he was Charles Saatchi, would, late in the evening, take briefs from senior people’s desks, write the ads overnight, and put them on the desks in the morning.

The answer therefore to, How long does it take to write an award winning television commercial, is, nobody really knows.

A better question might be, “How long should it take to write an award winning television commercial”. The answer to this question is easily found. It’s in the brief.

After all, we’re all professionals here.


It’s OK to be wrong. But you have to be seen to be right most of the time.



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