Skip to main content

Fear And Loathing In The Commercial Industry

By Leroy James King · May 20, 2010

If you haven’t noticed, lately I feel like I’m spinning into a vortex of self-loathing and reevaluation. Talking to my sister yesterday, we confirmed that this is indeed a Quarter Life Crisis. Scoff all you want, but it’s true – I mean… it feels true anyway. It’s a situation where you’re blinded by being unsure all the time, and in effect, you mistake opportunity for “getting stuck.” By “getting stuck” I mean you feel pulled in different directions, and at the same time, you feel like you can’t say no, but then you can’t seem to find the light at the end of the tunnel, the big picture, a year or 2 or 5 from now. You live in the ever present – you don’t treat this period of life like the beginning of adulthood. You treat it like the end of youth, and the beginning of the end of the rest of your life.

This is of course… retarded (pardon my flippant use of the word, but it’s the only word that really encompasses how I feel about this). What is it going to take for me to see that I’m being offered amazing opportunities, even though these opportunities pay in ass pennies?

Well, the first thing that really jarred me out of my willfully comatose black hole state was my new intern (my previous intern was fabulous, so I’m incredibly picky).  So he’s trying to learn how to write treatments and whatnot. He’s definitely a good writer, but he’s been having some difficulty wrapping his head around how to approach treatments, which is totally understandable. If you’re not familiar with commercial treatments, here’s a little breakdown (this will probably be really confusing, but to write a good treatment you must, must, must know who’s reading your shit, and what type of people they are):

Commercial Treatments
These are necessary evils whenever a TV commercial is going to be made. Ad agencies rep clients (i.e. McDonald’s, Home Depot, etc.). For big clients like McD’s or Home Depot, ad agencies are held on retainer, kind of like a company lawyer. They get paid disgustingly huge fees to sit around and think of ad campaign ideas for the client (I’ll note that this was the norm for a really long time, but due to the economy being a shitbag and more and more “amateurs” able to make high quality content, the paradigm has begun to shift away from this, but for the sake of clarity we won’t go into that). Anyway, once the ad agency has come up with a campaign idea that the client likes, the client is like, “Hey, we like these. We need to find a director to make the spots now.” So then the agency usually calls up their favorite commercial Reps. Reps (you guessed it) represent rosters of directors, usually a whole production company’s roster.

Now before I get ahead of myself, I’ll let you know that the commercial industry is assbackwards when you think about the making of TV show or Films – everything is counter intuitive. So when I say things like “a production company’s roster of directors” I’m guessing you’re like “Well don’t talent agencies represent directors..?” You couldn’t be more right… but that’s for movies and TV. In commercials, a director (usually) signs a contract with a commercial production company to be “repped” by them. Once a director signs with a commercial production company, most prod co’s employ Reps (mentioned above) to push their directors to ad agencies on their behalf. Also, Reps are divided by regions of the country (West Coast, Texas, Midwest, and East Coast) – simply put, there’s a gajillion ad agencies across the country, representing a gajillion more clients that are spread out all over. So, for the sake of efficiency, Reps are usually delegated to 4 territories. So, with all that said, a commercial production company usually has at least 4 different people in different parts of the country pushing the same roster (on average, about 10 directors) to different ad agencies.

So, this is where the politics really come in…

Like I said earlier, once an ad agency gets a client to sign off on a campaign, the agency then has to seek out (again, usually) around 3 or 4 directors that match the style the client’s looking for. Enter the Agency Producer – the Agency Producer is the only person at the ad agency who really knows production – how to delegate costs, whether or not the concept being produced is feasible to make for the money provided, etc.

Like the agency creative team, Agency Producers are usually assigned to specific accounts (McD’s, Home Depot, etc.) – they’re not really floaters or anything. Reps hound these Agency Producer guys, because their lives do depend on it. They woo them constantly so that once a campaign is greenlit by a client, the Agency Producer will be like “Hmmm… I’ll call Debbie Do-Me because she bought me all those shrimp cocktails and then did that thing with her…” You get the idea. Now this isn’t a universal thing – a lot of Reps simply make it a point to have really solid rosters of directors so they can let the directors’ work speak for itself. But for Reps with shitty rosters… there are strategic measures that can be taken to create a demand for their roster… ahem…

Anyway, Agency Producers will leak that they have a McD’s (or whatever campaign) to 1 of 3 groups of people:

1) Their Favorite Reps – Depending on the project, the Agency Producer might be like “Eh, this is a dumb project anyway that a chimp could do on an ether binge – I’ll leak the deets to my friends and see who they have for me…”

2) Specific Reps – Sometimes the client or agency creative team (the Creative Director, Copywriters, Art Directors, etc.) will actually have a specific director or directors in mind for their campaign. So the Agency Producer will then figure out who reps who, and then will leak the info to their specific Reps.

3) Executive Producers – I’d say this is rare, but I think it’s becoming more common. Agency Producers will hit up the Executive Producer(s) at a commercial production company that they know reps a specific director. This is usually in the case of really big budget projects, projects with A-list talent attached, or if the client is super tight lipped about their campaign. Sometimes it’s even simpler than that – the Agency Producer may just know the director personally, or the EP at a production company. Whatever the case, this is kind of rare, albeit a possibility.

So regardless of how a director is brought into the mix (through a Rep or direct contact with their EP), the Agency Producer will pass along the materials for the job in question (scripts, storyboards, production specs, animatics, mood boards, film references, etc). Once the production company has received all the materials they’ll shoot it over to their director to gauge their interest. Anymore, directors are always interested in whatever the campaign is because companies across the board have drastically slashed their advertising budgets – so there’s less commercials now (notice how you’re seeing the same spots over and over, more so than before 2008…?). So yeah, directors more often than not will sign up to do whatever campaign comes their way.

Once the director says, “Yeah, I’m interested in doing this,” the EP at the production company will let the Agency Producer know. Then the BIG FUCKING SHITSTORM BEGINS!!!!!!

This is when the EP at the production company schedules a creative call through the Agency Producer. Creative calls include the following people (this isn’t standard, just the norm):

Director, Production EPs, Agency Producer, Agency Creatives (Creative Director, Copywriter(s), Art Director(s), etc.), Assistants (in total covert mode – they never announce themselves on the call, whether it’s a production company assistant, or an agency assistant), Reps

The call is really so the Director can talk with the Creatives – they loop him/her into the concept, what they’re thinking for it, etc. This call is the treatment writer’s best friend – usually this call is recorded, and thus, it’s the writer’s Bible to see what the director’s thinking, as well as what the agency absolutely wants to hear.

So when the call is done, it’s a total shitstorm at the production company. As soon as the call is over, they’re all like, “Get a writer on this now! The turnaround is yesterday! AHHHHHHHH!!!!!” That’s when they call me. They send over all the materials, the call, and if I’m lucky, I’m able to get on the phone with the director and talk about his/her approach. And if I’m even luckier, I get to talk to the EP too – that’s when I find out the politics of the job – who it came from, if they know the creatives, if the director has worked with the client before, what territory the job is from, etc. These little details help when you’re nailing the tone of whatever you’re writing.

The treatment is something the ad agency usually always asks for. It’s more or less a reiteration of what the director said on the creative call, plus more details he/she comes up with afterward. A job is “awarded” to a director/production company based on 2 things: the treatment and the budget they come up with. Sometimes an Agency Producer will let the production EPs know that the award is contingent on the treatment more than anything, or the budget. A lot of times it’s more of one than the other, but of course, sometimes they’re of equal importance. Blah blah freakin’ blah.

Back to Reality…
So my intern – he doesn’t know any of this stuff really, except for the really fast, cracked out explanation I gave him. Thus, his treatments aren’t really reading right yet, which is totally understandable. Me being me, I’ve gutted the hell out of his treatments and have approached mentoring him as if we were working on an actual job. So I come off pretty strongly, but it’s all in the spirit of setting him up for the “real deal.” But he came to me… kind of upset – he thought he was fucking up, that maybe this opportunity wasn’t for him, etc. Of course I jumped into a longwinded spiel about how this is a learning experience, of course he’s not going to nail it the first, second, or 100th time he does this. The more you work on this shit, the more you and your writing will evolve.

I tell him all this and he calms down – he gets it. And then I realize that I get it too. Sometimes you have to speak your wisdom into existence before you realize you already know the answer to your problem.

So today, I woke up and looked at my kitchen table, which is strewn with a fuckton of writing projects, materials, and bills. Then I replayed everything I said to my intern in my head – I decided that today is the day I sack up, acknowledge that I’m going to be poor as fuck for a while, and that I have look at these projects as opportunities – not as balls and chains.

I’m a procrastinator at heart – it’s genetic. The King family has some of the smartest, yet most notorious procrastinators in the history of history for God’s sake. So I sit here, writing this as a procrastination mechanism, but once it’s done, I’m jumping off a cliff of idleness into a manmade lake of creative cultivation. It’s now or fucking never.

Some miscellaneous haikus:

My head was down low
And my heart smelled like vomit
It’s time for a change

There were no answers
Then I suddenly woke up
And farted wisdom

From whence we all came
A secret seed was planted
Perseverance, man