Q It Up: How do you make your commercials “creative”?

Q-It-Up-Logo-4Q It Up: This Q It Up question is for those of you who write commercials! How do you make your scripts “creative”? What resources do you use to generate creative copy? Do you have an idea bank? Do you use online services of any kind? Do you have brainstorming sessions? Perhaps you just take a walk outside or listen to a sound effects CD. Tell us how you inject creativity into your commercial scripts.

Andrew Frame <andrew[at]bafsoundworks.com>, BAFSoundWorks, Lehigh Acres, Florida: I draw from my life. I have had rather intelligent people around me for most of my life, and those that weren’t smart were sarcastic. Some, were both. Often, copy is based on - if not quoted verbatim - from an actual conversation that I have had with someone, or have been privy to.

My idea bank is my own library of copy and concepts from the past 30 years. I also can tap a robust producers’ network, and my bride is perhaps one of the most brilliant concept people I know.

Plus, I encourage my customers and their salespeople to provide input. Some of the best stuff has come from them since they don’t have to be “creative” ten times a day.

And finally, there’s the shower. An amazing amount of material has been thought up and worked out the day it’s due during the morning constitutional.

Jay Rose < jay[at]dplay.com>, Clio- & Emmy-winning Sound Design, www.dplay.com: You just stare at the blank screen until drops of blood come out of your

forehead.

-- Generally attributed to Gene Fowler (1890 - 1960), slightly updated.

John Pellegrini <pellegrinijohn[at]gmail.com>: I’ve had numerous debates with colleagues about this subject, and I’ve written a lot about it too. Over the years I’ve developed a philosophy about ‘commercial creative’.

You can have a really funny script full of original product tie-in ideas... matched with a beautifully written jingle that’s worthy of being a hit song... and still have absolutely no response.

Therefore, if you don’t mind my being skeptical, I believe that the concept of ‘commercial creative’ should be changed to ‘commercial development’. The ONLY reason a client advertises is to increase sales. And the only reason we create a commercial is to facilitate those sales for the client as best we can.

Now that doesn’t mean you can’t do a creative theater-of-the-mind piece for a particular commercial. But ONLY if the creative approach emphasizes the client’s product or service correctly to inspire the audience to actually commit to buying it. Or making a reservation or appointment, or whatever the client wants the listener to do.

If the commercial concept fails to do that, then I don’t care how ‘funny’ or ‘brilliant’ it is, it’s a failure. Use whatever type of commercial works, and stick with it.

My view is, save the “creative” for the station imaging/promos, and make your commercials SELL instead. That’s how you keep clients happy, and keep the clients buying your station. Unless your station owners want to go out of business instead... and with some corporate owners these days, I’m really not sure if that isn’t the case.

Kelly Thompson <kellyt[at]laradiogroup.com> LA Radio Group: How do you make your scripts “creative”? How many times have you been handed copy info and told to “just work your magic”? The worst thing you can do is TRY to be creative. All that seems to accomplish is a serious case of writer’s block. The last thing you want is for your copy to sound forced and fake. The key is to just allow your mind to wander and the inspiration to take hold.

What resources do you use to generate creative copy? I started writing commercials pre-internet. Early on, I put together an idea binder full of images, quotes and anecdotes. It’s changed a lot over the years and I’ve added sections specific to the different seasons. Christmas is especially challenging, so it’s great if you can find a different way to present a holiday greeting that is tailored to each of your clients so they don’t get lost in the crowd.

The bargain bin at Chapters was a treasure trove of the odd and unusual. I picked up books like “Casanova’s Parrot - tales of famous people and their pets”, “The True Saint Nicolas”, “Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions”, and “Why Do We Say It?”. I have also been known to reference the “Guinness Book of World Records”. It saved my bacon during rodeo season one year, especially when I learned many of the records were set here in Central Alberta.

I invested the time to watch every Superbowl ad ever aired. I made notes on which worked and which didn’t. How many of the products advertised are still around? How has their marketing strategy changed, or has it remained consistent? If they were to air that ad today, would it still work? You would be surprised how many well-produced commercials fell short because I had no idea what the product was or how to get more information. If a copywriter can’t figure it out, Joe Consumer doesn’t stand a chance. Proof that a multi-million dollar budget doesn’t mean success and that excessive “creativity” isn’t always a good thing.

Do you have brainstorming sessions? Every day! I am very lucky that my Creative Director is on board with discussing ideas and thinking outside the box. We often take time out to just toss ideas around and see where they lead. We have also had some pretty interesting conversations that turned into ideas for clients.

Gary Michaels <gmichaels[at]schurz.com> WASK, WKOA, WKHY, WXXB, ESPN Radio, Lafayette, Indiana: ‘Creativity’ here is defined differently by the different entities I work with. My sales staff defines ‘creativity’ to mean a script with two or more voices. My clients usually define it as the use of a character voice. Under the time constraints we have to churn out spots, I try to keep it simple -- namely, trying to steer clear of the tried and true cliché hooks. I preview music beds, sfx and such to pick a wacky hook or use a bed that’s out of the client’s comfort zone so it’ll get noticed and stand out from all the spot break mush. Those client comfort zones can be incredibly narrow though.

My greatest tool is theft. Unashamedly I steal ideas from other stations in different markets, from other agencies, YouTube ads, parody spots and even the RAP CDs. Another determiner of ‘creative’ is the talent I have available to help with production. In terrestrial radio, everyone’s bank of talent is growing smaller and smaller. Am I a creative guy? I think so, but when my normal turn-around time is 20 minutes or less and other staff are on the air or out to lunch, then ‘creative’ usually necessitates theft. Yes, I have NO honor!

Steve Stone <adfreak1[at]gmail.com>: The wheels on my chair seem to be melting as I push away from my desk. The peyote is kicking in. I put on my three-foot sombrero, grab my laptop and walk outside to answer RAP’s Q It Up question. I smile, and type: I believe that the opening line should be a curve ball (let’s face it, we need to be good attention thieves). I often revisit the curve ball at the end of the copy. Don’t get me wrong, not every spot is quirky, so toilet-flushing ponies don’t always apply - but even in serious ads I like to put together uncommon word combinations. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the age-old balance of persuading listeners and pleasing clients. If you’ll excuse me, there’s a cloud that looks like a chef salad...

Sheldon Hovde <sheldon[at]theq.fm> 100.3 The Q / The Zone at 91 3: Great question! How we generate ideas has really changed a lot around our Creative room over the last couple of years. Most of that comes from the amount of brainstorming we do. We went from basically none at all, to doing 3 - 5 quick sessions a week. The ideas that get generated in those meetings are what make up most of our best stuff. I would recommend it to any department who doesn’t do them on a regular basis now. Depending on how much time you have, you can set a stopwatch and move on from client to client in a matter of minutes.

Something I personally do that always generates ideas is going through our music library and just listening to beds at random. I find a music bed takes me to a place I never would have gotten on my own, and always generates an “out of the box” idea.

Another thing I’ve found very effective is taking a walk to a coffee shop a block away with a couple projects in my hand, and getting away from all the office distractions. How many times have we all been sitting down to write, and get a phone call, a visit from a co-worker walking around talking to people, etc., etc.? Time away from the office can be very effective. I encourage our writers to take an hour and work away from their desk. Sit in the park, the Laundromat… whatever. It works.

I’ve also heard some people like to sit and write a long list of possible taglines, or go through their sound effects library at random to jump start their brain. Those never worked for me personally, but I know they do for some.

Jeff Ogden <jeffo[at]gpimonline.com> Fargo, North Dakota: In creating a script I go to my idea book. I am sure we all have an idea book. I have collected as many commercial copy ideas as I can remember, saved in the markets I have worked. You can be a real genius in a new market if you have one of these. The first thing I make sure I do is ask myself, “Am I coming from The Buyer’s Point of View?” Why someone would need this is the base point of all of my creativity. It’s my spark! From there I start to think about the item(s), not that business. From there I can start to think of many ways a buyer would want this, need this, use this and not be without this.

I believe that a truly effective ad MUST sell the item being sold before we ever sell where to go to buy it. Most of the time, ads are produced in the reverse where they come from “The Sellers Point of view.” Where is the creative in hours open, years in business and location and phone number? How many times have you heard a buyer say, “Wow, look at this business location and staging of stuff and hours open?” Instead, the WOW has always been linked to the thing being sold like, WOW look at this! All of the creativity in an ad comes from the thing being sold and the how, when, where and why you need this.

Creative folk and producers MUST realize that if we can sell a listener from the buyer’s point of view on the item being sold, the listener gets sold on the item first. They are hooked into the commercial, retain and remember the commercial better and yes, if sold on the item, they will remember the place that sells it. Legendary Programmer/Air Personality Harry Nelson (KFRC) taught me something years ago in an air check session that I later took to Creative Production that changed me. He had me do a practice break from a liner card on a station promotion. He then said, now sell it in the winter, sell it in the summer, on a holiday, to a female listener. All of a sudden, I saw the selling of the station to the audience as endlessly creative. I would never read a liner card the same way again. You will never create the same commercial again if you always and first come from the buyer’s point of view.

George Johnson <micpro-1[at]comcast.net> Voicebox Productions, Edmonds, Washington: With me, commercial “ideas” rarely arrive when I’m sitting in front of the computer. Generally, I’m stuck in traffic, or out walking my dog.

Sometimes in conversation with a friend, just “one word” will ignite a treasured idea. A brief notation is made, and then tucked away in a small filing cabinet that contains a folder full of scraps of paper. These bits & pieces snatched from the ether and saved have become a very valuable commodity. The secret is being a good listener, and then remain open-minded with your client. A demented mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Lee Rugen <lee.rugen[at]moody.edu> Moody Radio Network, Chicago, Illinois: Through the years, I’ve found that creating spots and features can be one the most daunting experiences… and yet I love it. When I start a new project there are countless options on where I can take it. Ironically, that’s what can also be so overwhelming -- trying to figure out where to start.

It’s like having a fresh canvas, but you’re sitting in a dark, empty room with no paint. But once that first bit of light starts to shine, the ideas start to flow.

I look for material anywhere I can find it. I have a library of books that can give me thought starters. I write down odd little things that happen to me throughout the day. Funny quotes or interesting videos on social media sites catch my attention. I get out of the office and walk around the block. I bounce ideas off of other producers and writers. I watch a variety of TV shows and do some station jumping on the radio. I watch random videos online. I go for a drive or a walk in the woods. I look at old pictures and talk with friends and family.

I talk with other producers and writers in the industry. Trade magazines like this and the CD are a great way to help me think outside of my box for fresh ideas.

Just like many of you, I have these bizarre revelations at the weirdest times like: in the shower; on a walk; at dinner; when I first wake up trying to figure out what that weird dream was all about. For those situations, I always have my smart phone or a pad of paper nearby so I can write down those unplanned spurts of creativity.

And this may sound a little odd, but if sometimes those things don’t work, I sit in a quiet place and just write down a list of random words. The first that come to mind.

The other thing that helps me is when I talk with the person who requested the piece. If the spot request came from someone else, I’ll ask questions about every aspect of their work. Even if they seem like trivial facts, sometimes I can get a nugget to get me started.

If all else fails – I just start writing. About anything. Usually something starts to come together. Even if one of my scripts bombs, I try to remember that, too. We can all learn from our mistakes.

These are just a few of the ideas that come to mind at the moment. Now, I can’t wait to see what some of you are going to say, and I’ve got my smartphone right here to write it all down.

Jim Kipping <jim[at]jimkipping.com>: One thing I don’t do is over-think the creative process. I approach it the way a good comic develops their material, LIVE LIFE!

If you approach a script using your life experiences, the spot will write itself. In radio, we don’t have the luxury of sitting and brainstorming ideas and bouncing ideas off of the client… we have to write it, produce it and go. If I need ideas from other people, I don’t do a formal meeting, I like to do what I call creative huddles. A quick conversation in the hall with someone generates more ideas than stopping what I’m doing, sitting down and over thinking a concept. That’s like putting that same comedian above on the spot and saying, OK, BE FUNNY, GO!

I will play the “what if” game a lot of times to turn a situation on its side to make a more interesting spot. Example: “<sfx> Wet and dry clean up on isle 451”. <anncr> Sure you CAN pick up a mattress at a big box membership store. <sfx: door open to parking lot, car door open and stretch/cramming sounds> but then you have to try and cram it in your compact hybrid next the bag of frozen chicken and 100 count toilet paper rolls you just purchased. <music> Why not buy your next mattress at a store that actually SELLS furniture? There’s a wacky thought?!? At Furniture Market… (blah blah blah)

I actually use real life experiences I have had, to write like this above. I thought this very thing in my head the last time I was at Costco and saw they sell Serta mattresses. Then after the thought, I wrote it down saying, uh, that would make a good commercial for one of my clients. Boom. Instant idea and spot.

I also don’t second guess when I’m writing, and just let it flow, always thinking how to write it how people would say it or hear it in their head. Don’t write a COMMERCIAL… tell or show a story, present a problem (i.e. shoving the mattress in a Prius above) then offer a solution. Bam! Instant commercial. That particular client I have been doing that for, his business is UP 30% since we’ve been using my creative.

Whenever I encounter a sales rep that says “I don’t know how to write copy,” I always come back with, “Did you take a breath and a step this morning at some point? Did you experience life in some way shape or form? If so, you can write copy.” Be a student of humanity. There are commercials all around you, but you have to look for them, because they are cleverly veiled AS FRIKIN HUMAN EXPERIENCES!

That is all. Drive around to the second window. <feedback>

Dennis Mattern <production.pa[at]verstandig.com>: I’m inspired by the people I work with… in good ways and bad ways. I know that sounds cheesey, but it is true. If you’ve never met the characters that inhabit small market radio, perhaps you just haven’t been listening!

Ric Gonzalez <Ric.Gonzalez[at]coxinc.com> CMG, San Antonio, Texas: Real life is a great writer. At a Dan O’Day seminar in LA one year, Dick Orkin and Christine Coyle advised us to look around and listen. Don’t just sit in the airport with your face in magazine. Don’t tune out the world with your headsets. Do some people watching and remember the things that happen in your life.

I stash them away in a special place in my head and use them as a bank of ideas when writing. I sometimes see something funny or odd happen and look over at my son and say, “That is gonna end up in a one of my commercials.”

I am also fortunate enough to know some great creatives who I can brainstorm with by conference call or by email. Some are with our company at other clusters and some not with the company. And for some quick juice I may go to firstcom.com and click on some random music… then just start writing the spot the music puts in my head. It may take a few different cuts, you may not even use any of the first scripts, but they usually spin you off in some direction that leads to a final script. This was also a Dan O’Day writing exercise.

And lastly, I have toys on my desk (yo yo’s, hot wheels, Woody, etc.) to make sure the wheel is not to tightly wound. As grownups in a crazy busy world, we forget how to play and imagine. Toys make you remember.

Blaine Parker <bp[at]slowburnmarketing.com> Slow Burn Marketing: This is going to sound harsh. Don’t worry. You’ll get over it.

Rule #1: Don’t Try To Be Creative

“Creative” commercials are, frankly, irritating.

Mostly, “creative” means trying to be funny. Which means the first derivative, amusing, clichéd thought that comes into one’s head. (Obviously, that doesn’t mean you. If it did, you wouldn’t be here reading this.)

Anyone who’s ever taken an improv class knows that the first thing they tell you is don’t try to be funny. The humor comes organically from the situation when you practice “yes, and.”

The first thing I do when writing a commercial is focus on relevance. I start telling the story of the product or service. I don’t start by saying, “Wouldn’t it be funny if this sounded like one of those…”

By telling the story and writing in a real, human voice, eventually, I’ll start to find a narrative thread that makes sense.

Sometimes it means starting the story seven times until I find a place I like.

Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it’s poignant. Sometimes, it’s serious. Sometimes, it’s absurd.

Sometimes the story evolves into a monologue.

Sometimes it evolves into a dialogue with SFX.

Whatever form it ends up taking, the key is always relevance. And there’s a hot button — that trigger that’s going to make the core customer sit up and take notice and act on the message.

One of the worst things a writer can do is say, “Let’s write an award-winning commercial.” It’s a self-defeating directive. The writing ends up getting swallowed in ego-driven dreams of prize winning instead of being an exercise in the craft.

However, when ego is put aside, and it becomes about crafting an honest, authentic message, it becomes possible to create a good commercial. Then, if you know you have something good that can be elevated to great, that’s where the magic really happens. That’s where tin becomes attainable.

Of course, the performance needs to be as good as the material. But that’s another rant.

And not that this was a question about how to win awards. The question is about how to make scripts creative. But that’s the ultimate barometer of creativity, after whether the message sells: is the spot award-worthy?

Bottom line: get out of the way of the writing. Let the writing happen. Don’t try to be creative and let it flow.

As Mahitabel said to Archy, “I try not to think when I write. One cannot possibly do two things at once and do them both well.”

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