Master Class: How To Make A Great Commercial (Part Two)

This is the first in a new Co.Create series called Master Class wherein top talents from various creative fields explain, in detail, how they do what they do. Post Super Bowl XLVI is a great time for Co.Create’s first Master Class: How To Make A Great Commercial. An in depth, step-by-step look at how to conceive, develop and produce a spot, from one of the art form’s top names, Gerry Graf. This is Part Two.

From the editors: This is Part Two of our first Master Class. The topic is How To Make A Great Commercial, a timely post-Super Bowl examination of the steps required to make a spot that stands out. Part One dealt with briefs, teams and the creative process. Read it here.

Part Two delves into production—the contribution of a great director and editor, the fluidity of a script, the importance of casting and more.

Leading the Master Class: Gerry Graf. One of the top ad creatives working today, Graf currently leads New York-based Barton F. Graf 9000, an agency he founded in 2010 after several years writing and then leading the creative departments at several top agencies. During stints at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, BBDO New York, TBWA\Chiat\Day New York and Saatchi & Saatchi New York, Graf created some of the best-known and most awarded commercials in recent history.
Now, we turn it over to Gerry.

Directors

I like to have one or two directors who have nailed it for me before. I’m a creature of habit. At the same time, I look for projects where I can test out new people. I think it’s very important to have a relationship with a director so you can talk about the project from the beginning, especially the shoot. Directors I use need to know that it is a work in progress. You always have to shoot the script and make it perfect. But. That is just the beginning. During each shot we set up, we get what’s in the script but before we break down to light and shoot the next scene, the creatives on my shoots need to be thinking what else can we do. They need to come up with ideas quickly. We need actors and directors who know we will be making up 2,3,4 more versions of every scene each time. If creatives are just sitting back in video village instead of thinking of what else can we do, they’re not doing their job.

Examples: Harold Einstein. I was brand new at Saatchi & Saatchi; I didn’t know any of the creative directors, I needed someone I knew and had total trust in. The idea was wonderful but for it to be great I needed someone who could make it better every step of the way into production. Harold and the creatives worked on new scripts together up until and during shooting, casting was perfect, and it turned out wonderful.

In (the Kayak spot) "Frank Reardon," we were going to shoot the wedge scene with the kid dangling from his underwear delivering the entire line, just hanging there. We shot that and it felt a bit aggressive and not very funny. So Harold Einstein got wardrobe to make this pair that could be pulled over the kids head. That was what we used. Also, as Frank walks down the hall, we shot about twenty different lines until we just told the guy to stick out his tongue and blow. Then Harold had him twirl his finger and we were done.

Bryan Buckley: I knew my partner at the time Dave Gray and I had great scripts and I knew they would get even better with Bryan. The ETrade monkey was supposed to be on a stage by himself. We were on a location scout and Bryan saw a driveway. He stopped the car and said we should shoot monkey here and the monkey should have two buddies sitting beside him clapping.

Matt Dilmore: (BFG9000 creative director) Eric Kallman and I were looking for a director for Dish cowboys and all our favorites were booked. Matt Dilmore was an AD for (director) Tom Kuntz who was starting to direct stuff. We had a great call with him. He got what we were trying to do. He knew how to be ridiculous with a straight face. The spots have this very cool Sedelmaier, mark story feel while still feeling fresh and new. He brought all that and I think he was born after Sedelmaier shot his last commercial.


Casting:

Casting is almost as important as coming up with the idea itself. I have spent days, until midnight casting a spot. I have pushed shoot dates because we don’t have the cast. It has to happen in those cramped casting rooms. Don’t ever say "we’ll get it out of him at the shoot," because you won’t.

Casting in action


Editing:

Some of my happiest memories are sitting in editing rooms at 1a.m. trying to figure out a cut. Things you thought were great on the shoot many times feel flat in an edit. It takes a few days to screen all the dailies (which I make my creatives do) let the editor work and then go in and start piecing things together. I need to see all the different ways a cut can go together.

Again, you leave the shoot thinking you nailed it and you get into editing and it just lies there. The scenes you thought were hysterical aren’t, and again you question whether you have lost the ability to judge what is good. Just like in casting.

"Five-Man Search" for Kayak was good but then (editor) Gavin Cutler put the cutaway in to the dummy after the soda is sprayed, and it made the spot.


Distribution:

Distribution is huge today. It seems the key is to write the greatest spot in the world, with perfect casting and editing, air it nationally so the most people see it, then have a mechanism set up online so people can find it and share it easily. Without a TV buy, it is quite a struggle to distribute online, and it gets harder every day with millions of videos being uploaded every day on YouTube. There are hundreds of companies who say they can do it but in reality there are very few who can. Luck plays a big role and you’re screwed if you rely on luck. Building a Facebook and Twitter following is a start, so you can distribute to your fans. Getting subscribers to a YouTube channel does the same thing; you have a set group of people waiting to hear from you. Many people employ good old spam, blast a video to 20 million people and hope 1% responds but then you have 20 million people who hate you. Paid clicks seem to be a necessary evil but hopefully in the beginning stages of an online media buy, enough to get the ball rolling. Targeting gets easier everyday, so you can get your video to people you know will like it, but it still doesn’t beat the reach of a good old TV buy.


In Sum:

So there is a ton of work and you can’t let down at any moment. Most juniors need to learn over a few years. And you need talent. In the past five years all the talent money has gone to the digital side. TV seems like an afterthought. The juniors and less talented people have been given the TV assignments. The award shows have furthered this. A TV Lion (a prize at the prestigious Cannes ad festival) is nice but it doesn’t compare to a Cyber or Titanium Lion (prizes for digital/emerging media type work). You are old f you do TV. It took me five years working at agencies to learn how to do TV. There seems to be very few people who know how to do it. Clients think so little of TV that they have contests to have anyone write a spot. This is cheaper for them and they think it’s some great "Social Media" idea, when it’s just cheapness. What you end up with is Doritos spots that look like a Bud Light spot from 1993.

A great TV spot can turn a brand around. Look at Old Spice. TV also had a bad rep because clients were sick and tired of sending agencies to the Four Seasons hotel to shoot million dollar spots. The recession also screwed things up. There was no money so agencies and production companies cut costs drastically and were doing spots for $100,000. Clients didn’t know that what was happening was agencies were pulling every favor they had accumulated over their careers just to get something made. Clients think the "real" cost is 100K, when you really need at least $400K to do something that influences culture and moves sales.

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5 Comments

  • Francisco Sanchez

    I think that the budget that it's needed for a great spot depends on the idea itself. You can have a great idea and produce it in way less than $400k like you can have a very stupid one that costs $1MM. Content is king in my opinion.

    Awesome article. 

  • John

    Overall, that piece is in serious need of proofreading. What would Graff do if someone under him published something so sloppily written?

  • Guest

    "The scenes you thought were hysterical aren’t, and again you question whether you have lost the ability to judge what is good."

    Every. Single. Day.

  • Brad Hall

    Amen.

    So many nuggets of absolute truth in here, and it goes to show—everyone thinks they can do great work if only they had the chance. But it really does take a long time to learn to master the millions of nuances and details. Awesome read.