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January 4, 2006
What I've Learned

If you're familiar with Esquire magazine, then you've no-doubt read one of its "What I've Learned" essays in which some old codger offers up some lessons learned. While this isn't Esquire, I have learned a lot in my career as copywriter, creative director, designer, and director of food, fashion, comedy, effects, kids and toy spots. Hopefully you'll find it entertaining - or at least better than filling out your time sheets.

Here’s What I've Learned:

  1. The kid who can say his lines the best is almost never the kid who can throw a ball. You run into this with kid spots that, well, involve throwing a ball, or being really athletic; but also require dialogue. Reason: The kid who can act spends his after-school time with the other drama students. The jock spends his after school time terrorizing the drama students. When you find a ringer who can do both, cast him immediately.
  2. Fashion spots are the easiest for the director, yet they get the most respect from agencies. Directing a commercial of any kind is never easy. Still, the fashion stuff I've done has had the fewest rules, so it qualifies as easiest. There's tons of creative freedom. Beautiful people, great clothes and lots of esoteric imagery – what’s not to like? And nothing's cooler than using the director who just did that great jeans spot.
  3. Toy spots are the hardest for the director, and, of course, get the least respect from agencies. If you've never done a toy commercial, it looks easy, and formulaic. And, to some degree, toys can be formulaic. But that's more about network rules than lack of creativity. And working with kids isn’t the hard part, either – at least for people who do it regularly. Here’s why it's not easy: A. EVERY shot in a toy commercial is a product shot; B. Toy clients see their product in exactly the same way as the Tiffany clients see theirs. And, C. Budget-wise, one Tiffany spot equals four toy spots.
  4. Effects spots, no matter how spectacular, are out-dated before they hit the air. While you were in the post house finishing your spot, some guy in a basement somewhere was writing new software that makes your effects look old. Doesn’t mean don't do them - just don’t plan your retirement around the ones you did last week.
  5. Really good comedy spots require that the director, the editor, the talent, the writer, the art director, the account supervisor, the client, and everybody’s mom all have EXACTLY the same idea of what's funny. Which is why there are so few really good comedy spots.
  6. Wide lenses are funny. Long lenses are not. I don't know why. It's like algebra. Accept it.
  7. Brands count - even in award shows. This explains why a just-ok spot with a Swoosh logo on it will pretty much always get in CA, but a spectacular spot for Ed's R/V Center probably won't. As advertising people, we're supposed to be immune from brand worship, because we're the ones who create it. But actually, advertising people worship brands more than anyone else. And award show judges are simply advertising people who've reached the status of advertising gods.
  8. Award show judges are not advertising gods. Awards are great. Spectacular, even. Almost nothing else has a fifty-fifty shot to: A. Make you think you’re worth twice your salary; or B. Make you think your career is over. But remember: Award show judges are there because they couldn't get somebody better. And in advertising, no matter how good you are, there's always somebody better. I've judged award shows. Enough said.
  9. No matter what trend you follow, or film-look or effects you use, great advertising is about the concept. No amount of production value will beat a good idea.
  10. Clients aren't nearly as dumb as you think. Okay, some of them are. But not most. Maybe they see the wisdom in doing it your way. Maybe not. This doesn’t make them dumb. Difficult, perhaps. A given, though, is that pretty much all clients can see right through the bad sell-jobs we've all attempted. If you can see through it - rest assured - your client can, too.

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Ernie Mosteller has directed hundreds of national and global commercials, owned two production companies, and founded a boutique agency. His e-Book, "Use A Stick," and his blog are regular reads in the agency world. Recognized for his views on the changing shape of advertising and his core belief about all creative -- content is everything -- Ernie is currently VP, creative director at Blattner Brunner, Washington D.C.
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