Kill your dog – into the mind of a parsimonious creative

Sometimes, marketing budgets aren’t everything they should be, so here’s John Pace with a comprehensive guide to squeezing the ad-making lemon. It starts with killing your dog.

We need to talk

John Pace 150 BWAs a director of commercials and someone running a creative company, I have a keen interest in how creative development can be better streamlined and production budgets more efficiently spent to achieve better quality and effectiveness. Yet despite marketers and production partners being the two parties most impacted by broadcast and digital content budgets, it’s rare for us to talk in an unmediated way about the economics of production and how we can hack those economics to achieve better campaign outcomes.

So in the spirit of kicking down the doors between us, what follows is an insight into the production business and the psychology of creative professionals, all in the service of increasing the yield of your limited campaign dollar while also improving the quality of the end product.

But while a lot of this article is about creating cost savings to get more on screen, I’m not talking about being cheap. I’m talking about being cost-effective. I’m not here to encourage a race to the bottom. I want to encourage an ecosystem in which everyone is motivated and enabled to make elevated work that moves the business needle.

With all that in mind, here are some tips for getting the most from sub-$100,000 budgets.

Kill your dog – deliverables

For every series of four or more spots, there is always a dog – the one that doesn’t quite work as well as the others because you ran out of time on the shoot day or simply because there were too many scripts to focus on during the writing and pre-production phases.

I get it, it’s our nature to want more. But having more doesn’t necessarily make your campaign more effective. If anything, overburdening your sub-$100,000 production with deliverables can damage the entire campaign. So kill your dog before it eats your time.

Time is the cornerstone of a successful shoot. As far as budgets and quality go, everything is pegged to time – from the number of shoot days required to whether an actor or director has sufficient time to ensure the scene is done well. Don’t let anything consume that time unnecessarily.

You are much better off getting three well-executed deliverables than you are getting three good ones and a dog. So put your effort into fewer deliverables that will work harder. Buy yourself the time to focus on those 1% decisions that separate the good from the great, the forgotten from the famous.

‘But a dog might get me an extra few campaign weeks’ I hear you saying. True, but at what price? After all, we are showing these things to people, and people are smart.

Think about looking across a street to a confident, middle-class, Eastern-European woman in her early forties who seems like she’s lost. How do you know all that detail from a glance at a stranger across a road? Because people are incredibly perceptive! And it’s these incredible people that you are expecting to not notice the shortcomings of your dog.

Invest a manageable set of deliverables and resist the temptation to believe that more is always better. Buying that extra time in pre-production and on the shoot day will pay dividends. If you can step across the fence and understand time from the point of view of a production company and shape your scripts accordingly then you’ll go a long way to being one of the few people who consistently create world class commercials.

Dog (Dangerous Ideas - AVC TV)

Please don’t actually kill dogs. They have feelings. And names. This one is Rosie. (Dangerous Ideas – ABC TV)

Write by numbers – scripts

Write to your budget to get more from your production dollar.

I run a creative company – a hybrid production company/creative consultancy – so I’m in the fortunate position of writing 90% of the ads I direct. I always know the production budget I’m writing to and, because I’m in the production game, I know how much the scenes I’m writing will cost to make. It’s a huge advantage for sub-$100,000 projects because it means we can make the budget work as hard and efficiently as possible.

If, for instance, having three characters is threatening to compromise the quality of the end product because it’s stressing the talent budget, then we can cut a character on paper, well before it’s too late.

But in the traditional campaign pipeline the script doesn’t get to a production company until it has been through countless iterations and then approved. At that stage it’s very difficult to do things like cut characters and it can lead to the script and the budget being out of alignment (this is less so in larger agencies with in-house producers). From a production perspective, this imbalance is one of the most common reasons for a disparity between the expected cost and the actual cost of a production.

One way to mitigate the risk of a misaligned project/budget is to bring a production partner into the process sooner so you can get a clearer sense of what is achievable on your budget and to also get ideas for streamlining production to achieve all you want to achieve. Anything is possible on the page. It’s where a project is most plastic. It’s where you can rewrite, rework and improve at very little cost. The script is everything and your best chance for success is to write and rewrite until you’ve aligned your story and your budget.

(Tackers – Blue Tack)

Mould and remould your script (Tackers – Blue Tack)

Manipulate reality

Here’s an example of how better aligning the script and budget can yield better results. It’s a case study of how approaching the production process with as much creative vigour as the concept phase can lead to improved results at no extra cost.

Hooves was briefed on a job for Sensis that required shooting eight 30-second pieces. The original concept given to us saw each of those spots shot in different locations. That’s essentially impossible on a sub-$100,000 budget with any reasonable level of detail because it means a minimum of two 10-hour shoot days (with a large cast, in this case).

So the first task was to take some stress off the budget by cutting a script. That left us with seven 30-second spots to make on a budget that would allow for one big shoot day. But, still, seven spots is a lot to achieve in a day.

The solution was to rework the concept slightly so the scripts could all play out on an office set that we would build in a studio (pictured below). That eliminated travel time and minimised the number of camera/lighting setups (big eaters of time). And just as importantly, it gave us an opportunity to raise the production values by creating a distinct and stylised world for the characters – a world with a controllable look that Sensis could own. The money spent on set construction was paid back threefold in saved time, allowing us to spend more time on perfecting the look and letting the actors perfect their performances.

(Don't Ask Susan – Sensis)

This 9K set saved us 20K (Don’t Ask Susan – Sensis)

Exploit creative energy – psychology

Creative people are desperate to please. Ask my wife.

We’ll make a short film and all we want is for people to watch it. At a certain level, filmmaking is an altruistic pursuit, and there are ways you can make your campaign and your bottom line the beneficiaries of that altruism. Creative people will work harder than you on your project, but only if you give them ownership. That doesn’t mean giving over control or relinquishing your vision or business goals. It means understanding the psychology of creative people to optimise their performance.

(The Way It Should Be – Squeaky Gate Olive Oil)

Directors want to give. So let them give to you. (The Way It Should Be – Squeaky Gate Olive Oil)

But if you’re a marketer, then you are also a creative person, so I’m not telling you how to suck eggs, just to step back and remember what motivates you. Be inclusive. Be open. Be collegiate and egoless. Play the long game and manage your production partners as you like to be managed.

Here are two practical things to understand and execute to get your director and production team deeply invested in your project so they’re motivated to produce the very best work possible:

1. No gods, no masters

If there’s a unifying force among people who run their own business or freelance, it’s that they have a fundamental problem with authority and hierarchies. This is especially true for creative workers. They don’t like to feel subordinated and they are at their most confident, creative and productive when they feel respected (don’t we all?).

Be as open as possible – it might be something small like including the CMO or even the CEO on an email or two. Make your production team feel like you’re all equals who are in it together and you’ll be amazed by how hard they’ll work.

Here’s an insight into directors – any production company producer will tell you that if they reach a budget impasse where the director can’t get something they deem vital to the success of the project then the director will often say, ‘take it out of my fee’. Money isn’t always the primary motivator for directors who are invested in a project, so get them invested and you’ll have gained what can’t be bought.

2. Avoid disappointment

My guiding light, when considering if a job is worth taking on, is whether I sense that there’s a high risk of people feeling disappointed by the end result. That usually equates to whether or not I think there’s enough money in the budget to execute the idea in a world class way. That’s not necessarily about how much money I will make – it’s about whether I sense that I’ll end up feeling someone else’s disappointment.

Align your budget and script. Make sure there’s enough money in your project to make people feel confident that they can execute it well. That’s not to say that the budget should automatically be higher, just that it should be enough to make the job achievable (reasonable deliverables etc) at a high standard. Find that balance and you’ll likely find your production team going out of their way to make your campaign kick arse.

(Profiles – SEEK)

Treat a director right and they’ll make you stacks of paper (Profiles – SEEK)

Sit down all day – logistics

This is a simple one and it is born out in the Sensis example outlined above: minimise your locations.

Every time your production team needs to move location you will burn precious hours. Let’s imagine; for a typical sub-$100,000 shoot you’re looking at roughly an hour to pack down and an hour to set up. So there goes two of the eight to 10 shoot hours you’ve bought. That’s 20-25% of your day gone with one location move – and we haven’t even factored in travel time!

Again we come back to the importance of time and of getting the script right. Always streamline your locations when you’re on the page. Next time you’re reading a script, look at the number of setups and locations. If you want to achieve high-quality results on low-to-mid-range budgets then refine your scripts while you can. You’ll buy yourself time, and that’s the most precious asset you can have on a production.

(Do Less, More – Jayco)

Set up camp and stay there. (Do Less, More – Jayco)

(Do Less, More – Jayco) 1

Or at least try to.

Learn to love an IKEA couch – post production

It’s nice to be pampered and it’s nice have your ego stroked, but all the accoutrement that come with status signalling production companies have to be paid for somewhere along the line. Whether it’s designer couches in the edit suite, top shelf complimentary lunches or a high-end production company EP telling agency creatives she has a slush fund for personal projects in case there’s a short film or something the creatives would like to make – that stuff is ultimately taking money away from what is on screen.

Of course that’s totally fine if you can afford it. Do it for sure. Life is short and extravagance is nice. But if you’re in a position where you need to get every dollar possible onto the screen then seek out production partners with IKEA couches.

Another area of post production where money can leak is the edit. But there are ways to keep it trim without compromising quality. One is to stop overcooking the edit with chains of command. Group editing is unproductive and a massive waste of money. Again, if you can afford to throw cash around then go for it, but if you want to maximise every one of your $100,000 then rethinking the standard agency post-production model is crucial.

Generally speaking, editing, like writing, is best done by an author. Aside from the cost, having four people sitting behind an editor does nothing but disempower that editor and create a groupthink situation. It’s much more efficient for sub-$100,000 projects to let an editor and director do a first pass and then share with the wider team.

There are a bunch of subtle psychological reasons why in the initial stages this approach can help you get better results for your money. If you give a production team the creative room to work on the cut independently then they’ll bust their arses to make sure they deliver something that you can’t pick holes in – they desperately want to avoid the dreaded disappointment we talked about earlier; and as I also mentioned earlier they’re desperate to please when they’ve been given freedom.

And if you do find holes in the edit, then great. You’re there to shepherd the brand and the campaign, not to micromanage each initial cut.

(The Reverse Pitch – Campaign)

Sometimes too many notes can weigh down a project (The Reverse Pitch – Campaign)

Steal from locations

If you do need to shoot out in the world, then here’s a neat hack to get your spots looking a million bucks when you only spent $80,000 – steal production value from your locations.

You’ll see this everywhere, a car ad with a giant piece of roadside public art in frame or a shot of the car moving through a beautifully designed tunnel. These shots are leveraging the money already spent on those locations. But that’s easy stuff – let’s get more granular.

Keep the backgrounds of your your locations neutral, then build your colour palette around them. Here’s an example from a spot Hooves did for Devondale’s 8Bar Iced Coffee (granted, this budget was closer to $200,000, but the principles are the same).

First we found the perfect hole-in-the-wall cafe to help immediately establish that we’re dealing with an elite barista. That cafe had black walls. OK, so now black will be our neutral base background colour which is great because it speaks to urbaness and perhaps a little bit of pretension. As you can see below, every shot was designed to have a black base. From there, Hooves created a very limited palette of colours that every single item in frame had to adhere to. Being disciplined about all these elements will always allow your project to punch above its weight.

(Break it to Your Barista – Devondale)

This cafe set the palette for the entire piece (Break it to Your Barista – Devondale)

(Break it to Your Barista – Devondale) 1

(Break it to Your Barista – Devondale) 2

All this stuff is the job of the director and production team, so I’m not suggesting you need to take it all on. Just be aware of it so you can make sure your production partner is doing everything possible to maximise your dollar by using simple hacks like this to increase production values.

Be brave

Sub-$100,000 projects have to differentiate themselves to thrive, but hopefully the ideas above have shown that standing out isn’t only achieved through a bold idea. Differentiation can be aided (and your bold idea helped) by looking for efficiencies in what you’re already doing. Cast a thorough eye over the traditional production pipeline and you’ll find 20% savings. Cast two eyes over it and you’ll find even more.

Behind any outstanding campaign is an even more outstanding marketer, someone with the guts to back an idea and stand by it. If that’s you, then I encourage you to use your nous to re-examine the broadcast and content budget pathway, and to continue this conversation with your production partners so we can all expand our knowledge and elevate our outcomes.

John Pace is director and writer at Hooves

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