Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Tuesday Tip No. 33 - How To Do TV

There are tons of people out there far better qualified than me to give advice on how to do great TV ads.

And one of them is Nick Gill.

He’s written Axe ‘Getting Dressed’…

...and Vodafone ‘Time Theft’, among others.

Fortunately, Nick did a talk for us here at BBH the other day, and he gave me permission to put the gist of it up on Scamp.

I’ve added a few bits here and there, so if anything doesn’t make sense, it’s probably something of mine not his.

Writing Great TV, by Nick Gill

The elements that go into making TV are Strategy, Creative and Craft.

They will all be present, but not necessarily in equal quantities. For example, the iPod ads don’t have a new strategy or an exciting creative idea. But the craft is great. ‘The Fourth Emergency Service’ campaign for the AA was a brilliant strategic breakthrough. It didn’t have much of a creative idea along with it, or a great deal of craft, but it still worked.


A fresh strategy is something that changes the language of the market.

It’s about looking at what everyone else is doing, and doing something different.

It’s something that makes the viewer say “What’s a brand like you doing in an ad like this?”

Strategy is primarily the responsibility of the Planners, working with the Client, the Account Team, the Creative Director… so by the time the brief gets to you, the strategy will have been ‘signed off’. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a contribution.

Be the person that simplifies the strategy still further. Try to rip out as many of the rules as possible. (Here I mean not just the rules on the brief, but the ‘rules’ of the market).

De-sophisticate your thinking. Don’t start writing ads till you know exactly what you’re trying to say, and what you’re trying to say is very simple.

(Knowledge is great but it doesn’t always help Creatives. Sony employ 4 year-olds to help with product development, because they don’t know what the ‘rules’ are.)

Get the ‘sensible shackles’ off. Great TV is a bit logical. But mostly not.


The basic principle of writing good TV is the same as for any medium. Simplify, and then exaggerate. That’s all we do. Oh, and add a sprinkle of magic dust on top.

All you have to do is make an arresting statement about a brand, and make it entertaining at the same time.

Try writing a simple, functional script first. In fact, often the simplest idea actually turns out to be a pretty good ad.

The best ideas are usually the freshest ideas – stuff you haven’t seen before.

Fresh ads seduce us and disorient us at the same time.

Something that doesn’t talk or behave like an ad captures our interest.

Avoid formulas. Why have the packshot at the end? Why not have it at the beginning? (c.f. Real American Heroes).

If coming out with a brilliant script is like passing an anvil then, I’m sorry, that’s what you’re paid for.


Writing the script

You don’t have to write “we open on” or “cut to” in your script. Write how you want.

How much to write? Well, for your creative director, start out just writing a couple of paragraphs to get the idea across. More is a waste of time.

But when it’s time to go to a client, you’ve got to write it up and help them see it.

Paint a picture. Make it vivid and interesting. At some point, it’s just going to be left on a director’s desk somewhere, and he has to pick it up and – just from your words – want to shoot your film.

Don’t cram stuff in. Far, far more scripts are too busy than too sparse.

Don’t write “We open on a man. He thinks it’s Tuesday.” If it can’t be shot, it shouldn’t be written.

Mentally storyboard your ad. Or actually storyboard it. Heck, why not?

What is the emotional agenda of your film? Are you trying to make people laugh, cry, feel proud? You’ve got to know.

Presenting to client

A client may have lived with a brief for months, and almost feel they can write the ad themselves. So it’s hard to get them in a position where they’re open to a surprise. But you have to try to. They are giving you some bread, some butter and some cheese so they’re very much expecting a cheese sandwich. Explain to them it might not be a cheese sandwich. In fact it would probably be disastrous if it is a cheese sandwich, because all you are doing is concocting something obvious that they could have done themselves.

Try to give clients emotional ownership of an idea. Share early thoughts. Have lots of reference.

A client will often ask “what music will this film have?” Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” If you have only just thought of the idea, maybe you don’t know yet. The film isn’t finished until it’s on air. It’s an organic process.


Your producer has a huge contribution to make. Don’t just use them as a glorified secretary. Use their creative judgement too. They may be far more experienced at making TV than you are.

Getting the right director is crucial. Glazer won’t do a tabletop ad. Don’t waste your time thinking “But he’s never done one of those, it might be interesting for him, just for a change.” It won’t.

In your shortlist of directors, always have a banker and a wild card.

The script you send to directors shouldn’t necessarily be the same as the one you send to the client. Who says it has to be?

When meeting directors, you need to decide ‘Can I work with them? Do I like them?’ Never work with arseholes. It’s just not worth it.

If you are making an ad about a tap-dancing horse, clients will often want to see a director who has already shot tap-dancing horses. Sell the client on their broader qualities.

Write lots of backstory for the characters you are going to cast. Don’t just write ‘Man, good-looking, late 20s’. Who is this man?

Often you’ll need a central character who needs to be sympathetic. But that doesn’t mean smug. Go for vulnerable. It works so much better.

Try out gags in casting.

Try music against casting tapes.


Film sets can be intimidating for young Creatives. Remember, it’s your ad.

Make sure the clients feel they are being listened to.

Directing is very difficult. Give them space. Let the director do the shot.

Then again, if they do the shot and it is wrong, intervene. Never let the director waste time.

Be open to happy accidents that occur on set.


First cuts are terrifying. A lot rides on them. You will probably be angst-ridden. But don’t let your angst show. Be positive.

Often a film can change so much from the first cut. So don’t be downcast if you don’t like it. Have faith in the editing process. Ads have gone from ‘canned’ to ‘Cannes’ with a single editing tweak.


Music helps you move people in a particular way. Make sure you’re pushing the right buttons.

There’s nothing wrong with personal taste. If you like a piece of music, chances are others will too.

Look for trends. Then avoid them.

Try using the ‘wrong’ music. What would Levi's 'Drugstore' have been like with a hillbilly soundtrack?

A great VO can make an ad. Or even a brand (c.f. the effect Garrison Keillor has had on Honda).

Try using an unfamiliar voice, or a familiar one in an unfamiliar way.


If you make a turkey, it will have a huge media spend. If you make a great ad, not so much. Sorry.

You have to believe you can beat Gorilla.

In the future, consumers will edit out ads that don’t entertain them. In fact, it’s already happening. Great. Bring it on.

The summary? Good TV ads are like good vegetables. Fresh, and produced organically.

thanks Nick

Tip No.32 - How To Do Digital
Tip No.31 - How To Do Posters
Tip No.30 - Look At Weird Shit
Tip No.29 - Presenting To The Client
Tip No.28 - Presenting To The Team
Tip No.27 - Presenting To The Creative Director
Tip No.26 - How To Deal With Rejection
Tip No.25 - Look Creative
Tip No.24 - Don't Be Afraid To Ask
Tip No.23 - Your Idea Has To Be 120%
Tip No.22 - Read Iain's Tips
Tip No.21 - Don't Behave
Tip No.20 - How To Discuss Ideas
Tip No.19 - Read Hugh's Tips
Tip No.18 - How To Get A Job In Advertising Part IV - How To Turn A Placement Into A Job
Tip No.17 - How To Get A Job In Advertising Part III - How To Approach Agencies (re-print of Tip No. 7)
Tip No.16 - How To Get A Job In Advertising Part II - How To Put A Book Together
Tip No. 15 - How To Get A Job In Advertising Part I - FAQ
Tip No. 14 - Make Friends With Traffic
Tip No. 13 - Get Reference
Tip No. 12 - Don't Stop Too Soon
Tip No.11 - Be Very
Tip No.10 - Breaking Up
Tip No.9 - Working Well With Your Partner
Tip No.8 - Finding The Right Partner
Tip No.7 - How To Approach Agencies
Tip No.6 - Never-Seen-Before Footage
Tip No.5 - Dicketts' Finger
Tip No.4 - Two Blokes In The Pub
Tip No.3 - Play Family Fortunes
Tip No.2 - Should You Take A Bad Job?
Tip No.1 - Don't Overpolish


Anonymous said...

brilliant. that sums it up. everything you need to know.

one that i would add from personal experience is this. it sounds odd but i've found it to be true.

beware the snappy TV script that everyone instantly loves when you tell it. these inevitably disappoint on film. they're better on paper.

it's the ones that don't sound like much on paper that invariably surprise most when executed.

]-[appy Thought said...

I agree with anonymous there, when someone told me about the Sony's "balls" before I'd seen it there was no way her describing it sounded awesome, but it was.

Thanks for sharing all this good advice Mr. Scamp, "Getting Dressed" was a brilliant ad, and a little bit of wisdom from the maker of is internet gold dust.

Anonymous said...

that was really good. i'd say that nick gill has a great future ahead of him.

i always found this thought really useful when doing tv ads. remember you are the director's client. you're the potential pain in their arse.

and just as you like working extra hard for cool clients, directors do too. so be the cool client. if you have creative freedom, pass it on. bite your tongue. let them do it the way they want to.

make it clear you want a collaboration. put some pressure and responsibility on them. they'll work harder. everyone's happy.

and they'll tell everyone how cool you were.

Anonymous said...

Nick once told me how Frank Budgen's producer was so desperate for him to use Frank on Getting Dressed that he flew out to LA to persuade him.

(this was when Frank was good)

Nick declined the opportunity becasue he thought Ringan had more humanity. He was damned right. A lesser man would have taken the Budge.

(cue a torrent of 'Frank's the bomb'-type comments from a bunch of fucking losers)

Cedric said...

Nice inspiring description... And insightful too. I was indeed surprised to see that in the UK projects were presented to client at a very early stage, i.e. basic scamps or script in TVC instances. Whilst in my country, far far away, across the Channel in fact, the client was presented a product that was quite advanced, i.e. a (animated) storyboard or a photomontage. Was that a way to sell "poor" ideas that are npot self-sufficient? Maybe, but in any case, this had as you say the benefit to engage the client on an emotional level, and help them visualise the idea.

Anonymous said...

"The best ideas are stuff you haven't seen before."

"Have plenty of reference"


Anonymous said...

Excellent. More than a guide to doing TV, though – more of a 'how to do ALL advertising, with a bit of TV info on the side'.

Anonymous said...

it was eric b and rakim who advised us to 'know the ledge' and now i feel i know the ledge that is the gill, a true ledge, a ledge in his own lifetime. all hail the gill for it is he. may the ads that he writes illuminate the world for verily the sun doth shine out of his ringpiece. god bless you all and all who sail in you. season's greetings and felicitations. amen.