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Anatomy of A Television Advertisement



Television ads, or commercials, or spots as they are known in the States, were the heartbeat of advertising and ad agencies for through the golden years of four-channel UK broadcasting. If you talked about advertising, people thought television, if you wanted to make a name in the business, making a great tv ad was the fast track. To make money - production and media buying for TV.

So I thought it might be an interesting addition to my series on advertising to take you through the process of how an agency gets to make a big production ad.

In 2001 at FireIMC we were on the government roster for ad agencies. Just before Christmas 2000, we got the invitation to pitch for NITB (Northern Ireland Tourist Board, now Tourism NI). So I got thinking about the strategy we would pitch, how would we win this, what could we do to stand out in a very competitive pitch list.


Core to our first meeting in our Storm Room was the idea that we should not pretend that the Troubles had not existed. We should use the recent history to, in effect, do a Judo move and overturn the expectations of gloom and despair that were a part of the NI brand. It would literally be a surprise attack.

The line I proposed was “Where? Northern Ireland!” Said in total disbelief that the places and activities that we would be promoting for short breaks could be in Northern Ireland.

The creative team, led by Adrian Power and Chris McKeown, took the brief and worked, hard, on developing it.

Some of my best moments in advertising were when I put a brief in and received in response ideas that had never crossed my mind. Getting an idea pitched that really excited me, and completely fulfilled my hopes. Adrian and Chris brought back just that.

We were going to pitch with “Add a Splash of Colour to Your Life”.

Benefit driven, showing people, who had been on a short break in full colour, revived and happy. Everyone else grey in a grey background.

Add in the “Where? Northern Ireland” and we had a campaign, which was developed across other media, but TV was the important piece of the jigsaw, the one that would win or lose the pitch.

We won.

We had pitched well. The team had all dressed in black and white, and I had put on my most colourful shirt and tie. They noticed. Gillian McGee, who had just returned from a job in London, loved it. We were thrilled. This was big. Big money, big TV production, big ideas, big kudos.

We got started.

We developed three full ads.

So now it became like making three short films. A five-day shooting schedule, shooting on 35mm film, that requires a full crew. Sparks, gaffers, lighting cameraman, director, sound man, key grips, the lot. And the budget? Advertising budgets were the most expensive per second on TV. We would have 120 seconds for £120,000.

As an agency, we didn’t charge for our services or the time for our team. We marked the production invoices we received up by 25%, as per industry practice. This covered all the scriptwriting, art direction, time on set, agency producer,, account management and more.

We cast the main parts and then the extras. We arranged the shooting schedule, getting to and from the places that were locked down to allow us free access without people film bombing the shot.

The shoot started early. The crew arrived with the equipment, lights, rails, cameras, film,

The cast arrived, were dressed by the wardrobe manager, made up by the makeup people and got ready for their rehearsals.

It all sounds exciting.

It isn’t.

A film shoot is boring. Not a little bit boring, Really really boring. You have no idea how boring.

Film production people are amazing. They all have an incredible attention to detail. They take hours to set up the shot perfectly, making sure that the light is right, there are no unwanted shadows, no hairs out of place, the camera angles are the best possible to tell the story. This can take a couple of hours. Then:

“Speed” which means get the camera rolling.

“Action” the actors start moving.

“Cut” the action stops. Having lasted a few seconds.

They do it all again. A couple of times, then it is all over, move on to the next set-up.

There is nothing to see. No really exciting bits. It is so dull that the agency always has an account executive on hand to keep the client, who has insisted on coming, entertained. By the third day, the client has realised, this is too boring, and stayed away.

But we are happy. The rushes look great, we were lucky with the weather. We get the film graded (putting the colour balance right) and we were off to the edit.

This is where we put the bright colour onto the key actors and washed out the rest. Where we spent hours discussing the cuts, the shots to use, the length of each shot. Our attention to detail, as the team that had developed the idea, came into place.

I was in the edit and Adrian called.

“Music, I don’t think we should use diddle-de-de”

“Neither do I”

We were working pretty well together then.

So we didn’t. The reasoning being that we didn’t just want to be another part of Ireland, we wanted to be separate, to differentiate ourselves, our product, to stand out. So jazzy music was in.

The ads were finished.

Meanwhile, the media was booked, on UTV and Channel Four in Northern Ireland and RTE in the South. Our brief was to sell short breaks to the people on the island. About £200k was spent to launch the campaign on TV, press, radio and outdoor. A promotional tour was also underway, with large inflatable golf clubs and fishing kit.

The agency return was sizeable. Every TV spot returned us 10% of the airtime cost. That’s how ad agencies make their media money, on commission. So if you buy an ad for £100, we will also charge you £100, but the media will bill us £85, in normal cases, but with the public sector, we gave back 5% of our revenue. Part of the value pitch. So when a TV spot cost £3k, we got £300. So you can see how TV is a great media for agencies. An ad in the paper could be a one-off for £3k, TV had ten at that price and more at lesser rates due to audience size. It is all to do with ratings and the cost per thousand eyeballs. So the TV budget took up the huge bulk of the total, and every time it was on, kerching!

So you are now thinking, that’s all very well, but did it work? Does advertising work?

Of course it did.

The research showed growth in both the number of visitors from the South, more short break bookings by residents of NI, more nights booked across Northern Ireland in all ranges of accommodation and an increase in spend per visitor. Around £11 return for every £1 spent on the campaign, over three years.

A successful campaign, for all involved, and that included ice cream vans, golf clubs, B&Bs, National Trust facilities, shops in Belfast and elsewhere, and an overall improvement in the opinion of Northern Ireland as a place to visit, a mere four years after the Good Friday Agreement. Job done.

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2020 Tim McKane - on WIx. Belfast Northern Ireland