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Communication Objectives: Are Yours Adequate?

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What in the world was that commercial all about?”

How to make sure that’s NOT the viewer reaction to your nice, new, expensive TV commercial.

Advertising is a-changin’.  Radio is shaped to audiences like a glove, internet channels exist for left-handed stamp collectors, and, of course, Programmatic TV is growing like a weightlifter on steroids.

It’s sheer anomaly that, at a time when we can pinpoint the audience better than ever before, we can lose focus creatively.  How many times have you sat through a commercial – maybe even enjoyed it – but been baf­fled at the end, not even able to discern what the advertiser was trying to communicate?  (If you have trouble coming up with a specific recall right after the commercial, you can bet big money that your 24-hour recall will be a mess.)

So, how can you beat the rap of inadequate or absent communication?

Here’s how, in one easy, elementary, most reasonable exercise with your agency, you can be sure the right people will get the right message out of your commercials.

This little bit of magic is called a Communication Objective.  A Communication Objective is a distillation – a tincture, if you will – of your advertising strategy or creative brief.

(If you can’t find, or have mislaid, your advertising strategy, skip right to the part where we tell you who to call to prepare your resume for moving on.)

But, we jest.  Of course, you have an advertising strategy.  It delineates, at its very minimum, who should be interested in your product and what benefit they’ll derive from using it, and why your product alone can offer that benefit.  It may also include some other stuff such as mood or mandatories, but the first three factors are the guts of any advertising strategy.

That’s also the essence of the Communication Objective.  When your agency presents a storyboard, ask “What do we want the viewer to remember from this commercial?”  Generally, communication objectives should not describe the look of the commercial or the way the characters are to be depicted.

While executional factors are important (and you’ll spend a considerable amount of time profitably wrestling with them in your pre-production meeting), they are not the key elements of the commercial that you want remembered.  If you have a Communication Objective that wants the viewer to remember how much fun it is to drink a particular beer, you decidedly don’t want people playing back, “It was a dreamy, fleeting moment, music probably by Vangelis.”

Communication Objectives should be few in number – fewer than five, even four pretty crowded.  If you have more, consider: you’re trying to get a single, focused playback expressing a single cognitive bit from a single viewer.  Chances of harvesting five cogent and memorable communications out of a :30 spot are very slim.

How Close Are Communication Objectives to Scene Objectives?

In that both are techniques for organizing your advertising objectives and clarifying communication, they are closely related.  However, the Communication Objective is a simple, “whole cloth” sort of exercise, to be applied at your commercial’s earliest presentation stages.  In fact, it is a really good idea to ask an agency’s creative group either before or after they show you the advertising, “What playback would you be happy to get from our target viewer of this commercial?”

If you’ve got an ad for a superior-performing cleaning product, for example, you’d be delighted if viewers played back that your product gets out the tough stains – and does it better than competition.

Scene objectives, on the other hand, come in handy when clarifying the net take-away of a specific scene in the commercial: here’s where we establish our mom in an upscale kitchen; here’s where we introduce our product; etc.

If you have multiple Communication Objectives, go through the storyboard and identify the particular parts of the commercial that are supporting each of the objectives.  If you’re having trouble finding a match between storyboard and objectives – well, probably the viewer will, too.

Communication Objectives are useful at the production bidding stage, too.  Smart agency producers will include them in the material given to prospective directors.  This will help the directors to focus their energy in the right direction as they determine what their “treatment” or approach to the production will be, and to help insure that the bid allows for these objectives to be given sufficient emphasis.

Communication objectives should be reviewed again during the pre-production meeting to serve as a benchmark by which all decisions can be measured.

Want to know more about Communication Objectives – particularly as to how you might apply them to your advertising? Contact MRA — we’ll be happy to discuss with you.




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Commercial Production: Critical Guidelines for Successful Casting

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Casting On-Camera Principal roles can sometimes be a difficult part of the production process because so much is riding on a compelling, credible performance.

Want to keep your next casting selection running as smoothly as possible?  Follow the guidelines below, and you’ll be well on your way!

#1 – Casting Specifications

Review and approve casting specifications complete with enough clear, useful detail to define the roles the casting director is being asked to fill.

  • “35-45 male, good looking bot not too ‘Modelly’…” can be interpreted in may ways. Add relevant details.
  • When pinning an age to a role, be clear this is a “looks like” age and not a chronological age. Many re-cast sessions have been called because the callbacks were “too young” or “too old.”
  • Share a relevant and tangible key motivation to the role description as a starting point: “…he is a retail store manager who is authoritative and confident but not arrogant…”
  • It can be easy to have too much style direction, so choose the clearest and most defining.

#2 – Timing

Allow sufficient time for specs alignment prior to casting and for review & approval of agency recommendations.

  • Specs should be reviewed at the pre-bid meeting so there is time for corrections, if needed, prior to the award.
  • The conversation, however, can start earlier as the script is evolving and approved: Consider having the creative team include a profile of who the character is in the original script and storyboard. Will this change over time? Perhaps, but it provides insight into what the copywriter is thinking. You may or may not be in agreement, but it’s a place to start the conversation with a “flesh and bones” development.
  • Establish a regular approval process:  Casting selects should be posted within a set number of days before your pre-production meeting, allowing enough time for review and alignment across all stakeholders.

#3 – Criteria for Evaluation

90% of the performance you will see on shoot day will be present in the casting select files. Establish criteria for what will show the range in delivery. Don’t expect the director to be able to “pull” a performance out of an actor who doesn’t demonstrate an ability to deliver the performance in audition.

  • Reading the whole script vs. select lines:  If the talent read the whole script, remember that unless this is is a one-take monologue / presenter role, the script will be read several times in different scenes with different emphasis.
  • Choose one line and ask it to be read 3 times in a row – with different deliveries and intensities.

Remember, like everything else in commercial production — from creative development to editorial — casting is a process.  If it feels rushed, too complex, or confusing — contact us…we may be able to help.




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Commercial Production: the Cost of Rushed Timelines

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Rushed production is like a junk-food binge — everyone knows it’s wrong and bad for them, but they do it anyway. Many have said for years that the ad production process can be good….and/or fast…and/or cheap — you can pull it off with two, but it’s pretty darn rare to score all three.

Over the last 36 years, we’ve worked with 1000’s of national & global brands; we’ve seen marketers time and time again with the mentality, “Well, we don’t have time to do it rightright now. But we’ll have time later to do it over if we need to.” Hmmm…do you see anything wrong with that thought?

Advertising Production: The Wretched Waste of Rushed Timelines

The cost premium for rushed production is 15%-25% — or more. Most Product Managers would be in serious trouble for missing any of their other marketing numbers that badly.

But chances are…you, yourself, have authorized rush production at least once during the past year. There are times when rush production may be warranted — such as responding to a competitive pressure. However, 90% of rush production is totally avoidable.  Ad production that is rushed is nearly always the result of inadequate planning or discipline.

Consider this…right this very moment, you likely know several dates in the coming year when new advertising is due. You know when new markets must be opened…when print media closing dates are scheduled…when your dealer or bottle meetings will be held…when research findings on new creative have to be in.

In your marketing timeline, you may have penciled in a period of 8 weeks for producing your TV commercials or print ads (and likely 12 weeks if your spots have special effects or animation — or for global production).

And while you don’t plan on compressing this timing…if you run behind on any of the other functions that lead to new copy, you end up squeezing the production schedule — because the air date or insertion date doesn’t move.

Yes, you can rush production. But you’ll also be taking a dreadful creative chance in the process. Here’s how:

1. Bidding

In a rush situation, none of your three best directors (or any other vendor, for that matter) may be available. You’re stuck with “what’s out there” – be it fourth choice of talent, or sixth, or twelfth. Your agency may very well say, “Because we’re in a rush, we have to single-bid this job” — and you lose all the advantages of competitive bidding. And normal competitive bidding can save 10%-20% of your production company costs.

In any case…rush will insure that whatever production company is invited to bid, realizing this is a tricky and not completely defined, will load up the estimate with an additional 15%-25% worth of time and materials so they can be covered.

2. Preparation time

A client in dire straits decided to improve his chances of securing good talent on a rush schedule by simultaneously casting in New York, Los Angeles, & Chicago. Obviously, that builds in a waste factor of 66% for casting expenditures, since the client likely threw away two-thirds of the effort.

Additionally, on a rush schedule, preparation of color-corrected packages can carry a premium of 50%-100%. Extra locations are scouted. Extra props and wardrobe are bought. (“I don’t know which she’ll like better, the yellow or the blue. Get ’em both.”)

3. Actual production

Everything will be hopelessly padded and overproduced. Extra setups are shot (“Well, we may need to cover.”) And hasty decisions aren’t normally well thought-out…well, considered, “quality” decisions.

What really hurts you is the attitude that pervades every facet of a rush production. Everyone is so absorbed with “getting the job done” that no one is thinking, “How can we do this better?”

4. Finishing

Try opening an editorial house on a weekend or on a national holiday. That has cost many a client a bundle. Rushing editorial or retouching can add 25%-50% (or what the traffic — that’s you — will bear). Hope you have deep pockets.

And how often have you heard this, “We’ll fix it in post!” Lack of proper preparation time can cause a false sense of security that all shortcuts can be fixed during post production. And in many cases, post production costs and retouching costs can escalate significantly due to the very fact that “fixes” need to be made.

What Can You Do About This Wretched Disease of Rushed Production?

Well, you can’t cure it — but you can certainly inoculate against it!

Right now, sit down and look at your advertising plans. Keep in the 8 weeks for TV & print production (12 weeks for global or spots with special effects and/or animation). Now, add in additional weeks for creative development, copy testing & research analysis, management approvals, and legal snarls — and every facet of marketing development which you know, through experience, you’re going to run into.

And then stick with your new resolves! Keep after your agency to make deadlines, not to slide by them. Keep the pressure on suppliers to outdo themselves — while they still have time left to come through with maximum performance.

Beat the rush production — before it beats you, financially. Or worse, before you miss an important date.

Want some help on the specifics of rush, and how you can preclude them from infecting your marketing operation? Contact us – we’d be happy to help.





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The New SAG Contract: 5 Things You Should Know

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The current contract between the Screen Actors Guild and the Joint Policy committee of the ANA/AAAA which sets terms and conditions for all union talent appearing in broadcast advertising (TV, Cable, Internet, New Media) expires on March 31, 2016.  Negotiations are now underway for the new contract, which will run until March 31, 2019.  Here are 5 considerations to help you anticipate, participate and prepare for the changes to come.

  1. Contract Terms

The current contract terms will remain in force if the two sides are unable to reach a ratified agreement by March 31st.  However, any advertising produced after March 31st will retroactively be aligned to the new contract once it is ratified.  In other words, you will have to pay the difference in pay for session fees, holding fees and Pension & Health, assuming the new cost is higher.  Because of this, you may want to consider producing any currently approved or pending advertising prior to the March 31st end date to take advantage of what will most probably be more favorable terms of payment.

If, for any reason, you are considering rescinding your signatory status with either the Screen Actors Guild, or your authorization of the Joint Policy Committee (JPC) which binds you as a signatory, please understand that any commercials produced during the current contract period of 4/1/2013-3/31/2016 will still be bound by the terms of the current contract if you decide to continue their exhibition.

  1. Signatory Status

If you are unsure of your company’s status as a signatory, you can contact Kim Stevens, Director of Industry Relations of the JPC, at kstevens@jointpolicycommittee.org or (212) 549-0324.  Her mailing address is 599 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10022.  She will be able to determine if you are or are not a signatory.

Besides your company being a direct signatory, if your agency of record is a signatory (and most large agencies are) then any work they produce for you comes under the SAG contract.

  1. Off-Shore Productions

Production shot off-shore is exempt, but be aware, the contract forbids taking a commercial outside of the U.S. for the purpose of avoiding SAG payments.  Your reason must be for savings in the cost of production, or because it is a commercial to be used by multiple regions on the globe, or its essential location is a foreign country.  Contact us here at MRA for specific guidance in this matter.

  1. “Hot” Issues

The 2013 contract included some advantageous defining of what was covered and not covered by SAG in terms of contests and “man on the street” commercials, and was ratified after only 2 weeks or so of negotiation.  The anticipation for this year’s negotiation is for a more typically contentious collective bargaining process.  “Hot” issues include: new media, ad agencies using third party sources to utilize SAG talent while not signing the SAG contract themselves, and off shore production.

  1. MRA’s Promise

MRA stands at the ready to help you through this process, both in terms of planning, budgeting and getting your voice heard by the JPC if there are issues that are a priority for you.  Our newest consultant, Jerry Rice, was the vice chairman of the JPC from 2004-2015. He has been through 4 contract negotiations and brings special insight to this process.

As the negotiations progress we will update you on all the progress as well as any issues that might crop up, as your complete production partners.  It’s the MRA Way.

If you’re not yet a client of MRA, we’d like to learn about your business.  Give us a call at 513-354-3833 or email Stacey St. John at sstjohn@mraservices.com.




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Testimonial Commercials: Making them work for you

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Testimonial Commercials:  Many package goods advertisers use them successfully.  Are they for you?  Can you make them work for your brand?

“Real Person” Commercials are a highly specialized form of advertising message.  They can be tremendously effective when they are:

  • Set up correctly to achieve the desired result
  • “De-bugged” to prevent costly disasters
  • Conducted unerringly by thoroughly coached, competent people

Why are testimonial commercials so effective?

3 solid reasons:

  1. Testimonials make visible the invisible. Let’s say your brand has a taste advantage.  Great!  But who can see taste?  It’s invisible.  Or, let’s say you have a cleaning advantage that’s too slight for the TV system to pick up.  Again great!  But you’re precluded from presenting a convincing demonstration by the inability of the TV screen to show your advantage. The testimonial commercial enables viewers to “see” what they really can’t see.  They can’t perceive your advantage directly with their own eyes; but, via testimonial, they can see someone else perceiving it.  If viewers also see someone expressing a strong preference in favor of your flavor or your cleaning advantage, they’re inclined to believe it, and give your brand a try.
  2. Testimonial commercials can show conversion. Right in front of the audience’s eyes, an honest-to-Nielsen consumer goes from disbelief to skepticism to growing conviction to a purchase decision.  Obviously that’s what you want out of your consumers.  You want them to try your brand.  Testimonial commercials show people trying a new product or experience – and becoming convinced by it – doing exactly what you ultimately want them to do relative to your product.
  3. Testimonial commercials provide perfect audience identification. You can pre-select and show your prospective buyers.  Identification is strong medicine in television commercials.  On the other hand, instead of accurately depicting your consumers, you may want to “upscale” them about 10% so you have emulation working for you as well as “identification”.  In any case, if your home viewer winds up thinking “that lady in the commercial is just like me (or like someone I’d like to be)”, you’re in.  You’ve pushed the right button.

All right, how do you go about all this?  Watch it, because testimonial commercials are costly!  You can spend anything from $50K to $200K a day, and unless you’ve pre-planned with exquisite care, you can wind up with miles of ineffective or unusable footage.

Thoughtful Pre-Production

Thoughtful pre-production is more important on testimonial commercials than any other production because the copy and the action and the visualization and the result are in the hands of someone over whom you have no control: your unsuspecting interviewee.  Therefore, it behooves you to:

  • Think through your premise and dramaturgy.  Let’s say you want to show a lady discovering that something she thinks tastes reasonably bad actually tastes great.  You can have her make the discovery fairly straight-forwardly: she says “well, yes, by Glories, that isn’t so bad after all”.  (Yawn)

What was needed was a meeting in which careful thought was given to the premise.  Before rolling the cameras, have your interviewer set up the respondent for a bad taste: get her swearing on a stack of bibles that such-and-such tastes awful; she wouldn’t touch it; never uses it; can’t stand it.

Then, without telling her the interviewer gives her your product.  The very vehemence of her previous position is now working for you.  He withholds the reveal until he has milked her positive reactions.  And then he tells her what she’s been tasting.  And works both sides of the reaction: “but you said you hated it?”  “So, what do you think now that you’ve tried it?” etc.

  • Be sure of your legal ground.  It will do you no good to come back from location with stunning, effective commercials which no one will let you run.  Claims and support in testimonial advertising are unusually tricky.  It’s likely, too, that the lawyers will have a point of view about the people you select for your respondents, as well as your rights and the proper legal releases.  Better check out early what you can do and what you can’t.  (Some agencies even take experienced legal counsel to the shoot.  Makes sense.)
  • Triple-check your questionnaire.  Knowing exactly what answers you ultimately want out of the respondent helps frame what questions you initially ask.  Try out your questionnaire in a dry run or focus group.  See if it’s producing the results.  If not, revise it until you get what you’re paying for.

Also, consider the advantages of keeping one of your areas or districts “clean” (i.e., not running testimonial advertising).  Nothing kills an interview so quickly as having the respondent know what the joke is.

  • Pre-test with an audio test.  When you’re actually in production, and film or tape is running by the mile – that’s a terrible time to discover a weakness in your questionnaire or your interviewer’s technique.  Test out your production plans on a small scale, with only an audio recorder going.  You’ll be able to spot problems and fix them at leisure – perhaps even retest – before you start unloading money by the ton.

Pick your suppliers with great care

You may very well end up paying between $100K to $400K or more for your shoot, so it’s a big cash investment.  On the other hand, if you get 12 commercials and three years’ effective advertising out of it – and you should expect that, if your planning is right – it’s a fine payout.  So be terribly careful in selecting the people who are going to spend your money.

  1. The production house is paramount.  There are a handful of directors in the business who “do” testimonial commercials, and they’re worth every cent they earn.  Ask to see samples of their work.  Look at the pictures: is the action clear, the camera close-up enough?  How’s the sound: is it clean, can you hear the testimonial clearly?  Ask the agency to have a director in for you to meet and question; get an idea of how he sees your job and wants to handle it.
  2. The interviewer can make or break you.  But don’t just settle for a high-priced announcer who’s all over the dial and likely to be recognized by your respondents in the field.  You might consider developing your own interviewer: a psychologist; a paralegal, trained in taking depositions; a researcher.  Audition two or three if necessary.  Don’t hire an actor!  Actors are trained to talk; they have skimpy experience in getting the other person to talk.
  3. Watch research costs.  Firms have driven up the costs of recruiting respondents, but you may not need those firms.  Check, as a second bet, the Psychology or Economics Departments at your local university.  They’re used to recruiting statistically valid panels, and academic cost levels are attractively low.
  4. Hire a production advisor.  Specifically, MRA, Inc.  We’ve had over 35 years experience with this kind of commercial, can watch your dollars and improve the odds in your favor.  The advice you got herewith is general and free; there are no warranties, express or implied.  Instead, what we’d welcome is a chance to tailor a testimonial shoot for you – or for your agency.  Write or call, we’d like to work for you.
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Pre Production Meetings: What Every Brand Manager Should Know

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OK, your storyboard is finally approved (with a few footprints on it, left by various Advertising Managers, Marketing Managers, and Division Presidents) and you’re ready to produce it, EXCEPT for the pre production meeting.

This is an inordinately critical stage of your incipient commercial’s life.  Unrecognized possibilities for disaster loom on every side, and people start talking a new language: “production gobbledygook”.  And you have to midwife your baby through the last stages of its pre-natal existence.

Take heart.  What’s more to the point, take this article to your next pre production meeting.  It may help.

Why Have a Pre Production Meeting at All?

Two excellent reasons:  To save money and prevent mistakes.  The pre-pro meeting is the time when the people who have planned the commercial get together with the people who are going to execute it.  It’s terribly important that the ideas and hopes and “watch-its” get transferred understandably and unerringly.

When to Have a Pre-Pro Meeting:

Not less than a week after you’ve got the board approved (really approved, no hold-outs for the Legal Department) and at least two days before you want to start shooting.  The temptation is strong to hurry things, but don’t forget that pre-production is a planning stage; hurrying a bid from a production house means more pad as the production house rep, deprived of time to get thorough answers and check out alternatives, simply covers his risk with a few creative entries.  Hurrying an agency’s casting department means they have to settle for whatever actor’s available, rather than taking time to think, carefully, about who would be best for the role and then tracking them down.  Hurrying the production schedule means you might have to settle for bids from three directors, but all of those available might be second choice.

Time spent constructively in pre-production comes back to you in speedier editorial and quicker finishing.  So, despite the temptations to ram your commercial into production quickly, don’t.  You will be shortcutting yourself and your job.

Who to Have at a Pre-Pro Meeting:

You, certainly.  The Brand point of view must be represented, for questions will surely arise.  Your Production Representative, if you have one, should be there for he’s your interpreter: he’s the person who can see puzzled frowns developing, and realize that the director doesn’t understand your need for a certain product handling, or you don’t understand his need for a return wall on the set.  (If you don’t have a Production Representative – AHA! – call us.  We’ll do that for you.)

Beyond that, the Agency Producer should sit in, or whoever at the agency fulfills that function.  If you have a Copy/Art creative team on your business, OK, but the function of Agency Producer must be represented by someone who knows production thoroughly.  If you go, your opposite number Account Executive certainly will; but remember, the fewer people involved, the better.  Insist that either the director be there or someone who can commit him.  Since the purpose of the pre-pro meeting is to reach agreements, you don’t need to talk to the director’s functionary, who later has to rescind commitments because the director, on subsequent consultation, doesn’t agree.

Props, set decoration, wardrobe, and other specialists will attend as needed.

What to Cover at a Pre Production Meeting:

To bring order out of the chaos; to provide an agendum to which everyone can subscribe; and, most importantly, to make sure all subjects are covered – the following is a workable but not onerous outline:

  1. Overall Objective:  Before you do anything else, ask yourself “What is the single net impression I want the viewer to take away from this commercial?”  What single, unified message do I want to get across to my target audience?  Get this answered in one short, simple, direct sentence – and you are well on your way to a good commercial.
  2. Visual Objectives: For each scene and sequence, ask yourself “What do I expect the viewer to get out of this?” In reality, you don’t need to know where the camera is placed or how the scene will be shot (the director’s job); you want to know what selling message your viewers are going to get as a result of each individual scene you are putting before them.
  3. Casting Objectives: When you think these through, don’t describe people (i.e., tall, short, old, young); instead, describe characters.  This gives the casting director something to sink his/her teeth into – and gives you a tangible goal against which to measure the actor’s performance.
  4. Props, Set, Wardrobe, and Product: Here, again, learn to talk and think objectives; leave the actual execution of these objectives to the experts.  A small tip, however: challenge every square foot of your set.  Chances are someone may be over-building to cover a filmic eventuality that will probably never happen.
  5. Director’s Point of View: By this time in the pre-production meeting the director has heard quite a lot about what you want to see as the result of his work.  Make him now play that back to you in his terms.  Ask him to tell you precisely how he intends to fulfill your objectives and get the results which will bring off the commercial you are looking for.
  6. Discussion of Demonstration: Obviously a demo is where you show off your product in its most advantageous light, either versus a previous incarnation of that product or versus its best available competition.  This merits considerable discussion; and your Properties Master should be deeply involved in the talk; he is often a gushing fountain of helpful information and ideas.
  7. Final Script Reading: You’d be surprised how many times the omission of this simple step leads to a comment in the screening room like “Oh, didn’t you hear?  Charlie wanted us to change that.”  Make sure that the script that comes out of the pre-pro meeting is the same one the Script Clerk will be using on the set.
  8. Production Schedule: By now all of the production requisites and requirements have been discussed and decided – and you’re ready to determine finally when and where and how long each scene will take in actual production.  It’s your money: make sure your agency producer tells you precisely, hour-by-hour, how and on what it will be spent.
  9. Summary and Next Steps: If there is any unfinished business arising out of the pre-production meeting (and there should be as little as possible) this is the time to put it on a piece of paper and make sure someone has taken each item and question off the check list before you actually start rolling cameras.
  10. Changes: If any changes do come up, be sure they’re covered in the original bid. If an overage is submitted, you’ll want to confirm it’s your responsibility (and accurate) before approving.

What to Get Out of a Pre Production Meeting:

Clearly, the steps above are going to lead to a number of decisions.  Equally clearly, these decisions should be written down so that they can be screened, agreed to, and reviewed by anyone involved in the production.  This means a pre-production call report – and it’s an important document.  Don’t let your agency get by without writing it.  You will need it in the screening room as a check against your commercial objectives.

Does All This Sound a Little Complex?

Certainly, that’s why MRA was formed.  We can help guide you at this most important meeting – as we can through the entire production process – so that you get better commercials at lower costs.  If you need any help – give us a call, contact us online or give us a call; we’d like to help you!

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3 Money-Making Principles for Brand Managers

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Commercial Production Costs: It’s amazing how simple our business really is.  Here are 3 unassailable principles:

  1. There is absolutely no relationship between a commercial’s cost and its “creativity.” Further, there is only a rudimentary relationship between a commercial’s cost and its production values.
  2. Commercial production cost-cutting is not the most appropriate goal for an advertiser. Instead, a better goals is the elimination of waste in the production process. Do this well and you’ll save 15%-25%.
  3. The most effective way to spend less on production is to buy less. The only way to purchase wisely is to know what things cost.

Now, a few variations on the above themes:

 #1 – There is indeed no relationship between cost and creativity.

First, the most extravagant commercial — irrespective of cost — is the ineffective commercial. Whether it cost $100,000 or $1,000,000 doesn’t matter; a bum commercial is a total loss. Beyond that, some of the greatest television ideas are essentially simple ideas. Many products that use television extensively are basically simple products, consumed in a kitchen, used in a bathroom or drunk at a tavern.  One of the most memorable tire campaigns on TV eschews running shots, road races, and expensive location shooting. Instead, it stars only the client’s tire…and a baby. Talk about visualizing the end result benefit! None too expensively, either.

For the most part, extravagant production costs are generated in the execution of commercials, not by the basic strategy or selling idea. Execution is what wins Cannes Gold Lions. Concept is what wins share of market numbers.

We are clearly not constructing a case for making “cheap” commercials; we are instead promulgating an argument for putting the heavy-duty creative work against the selling idea. There is absolutely no predictable or discernible relationship between the amount of money spent on a commercial and its “creativity.” And, beyond a well-spent budget, there’s virtually no client-perceptible or consumer-perceptible difference in production quality. If you can’t see it in the screening room or your customers can’t see it when viewing at home, why are you spending money on it?

#2 – You can realize a larger share of potential savings not by cutting costs but by eliminating waste

Define “waste” as “something you go to the trouble and expense of producing — but which the viewer never sees.”

Overbuilt sets are an example. Once, we had an agency argue endlessly and mindlessly for a 32-ft. wide set.  The middle 12 feet of the set were all that ever appeared in the commercial. Two-thirds of the set — ten feet on both sides of the television frame — which was constructed, erected in the studio, painted, propped, and lit (the reverse process of striking and disposal costing an equivalent amount of money) was total waste.

We once saw an Art Director hold up a shoot for a half day, insisting that the table (concealed by a tablecloth) in a food shoot was the wrong period furniture. That was waste: under the tablecloth, the viewer couldn’t see whether it was a Louis XIV table — or a tray on top of a sawhorse.

Commercial production is an inescapably wasteful business.  It is populated to a growing degree by inexperienced buyers, and all-too-experienced sellers of production.  The selling posture of production houses is, “Whatever you want, you got it!” and that’s a heady experience for a young Art Director.  But there’s a tremendous price connected with that sort of “cost-is-no-object” operating principle, and of course the client is the only one to pay.

It’s not surprising that responsible agencies today are calling for better planning, more thoughtful allocation of elements, and better estimating in both production specifications and sets, film, time, crew, props, and wardrobe.

#3 – If you know what your production elements cost, you may buy less — and therefore spend less

The important distinction lies between what things cost, and the prices agencies are asked to pay for them. This item needs more attention than it gets. For example, everyone knows what percentage is charged for Crew P&W:  We’ve seen overrides from 7% to 35%!  But what’s the true cost?

In addition, it’s a rare agency producer (and virtually no creative) who can tell you at any moment what an average sound day on a set will actually cost in Prague, Toronto, Mumbai, New York, or Sydney. The charges, however, run from $20,000 to $200,000.

I once sat in a pre-production meeting in London with a top agency and first-rate client, and absolutely no one in the room (except for the interloper American) knew the cost of any of the elements in a board which had been parsed within an inch of its life. Not to know these costs, at that late stage in the commercial’s life, was unprofessional and unforgivable.

There have been instances where U.S. agencies have installed mature and experienced former producers as heads of their Production Departments. This may be the best way to buy the knowledge so critically needed in the business.

One of the world’s largest TV advertisers once set up and ran a carefully-controlled mirror-image production test; and, as a result, discovered the true cost (not the selling price — as above, there’s a difference!) of the most common elements of production. That knowledge made careful, thoughtful buyers out of that advertiser’s staff people.

You CAN do that…

…Or, you can call us

The business we’re in is helping clients buy production more thoughtfully and less wastefully.

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