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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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