A lot goes into a spot.
The phone rang. “How much does a television commercial cost?” inquired the caller. It’s a question we get a lot, but the person on the phone happened to be my mother.
“Well Mom, it all depends. What’s the big idea? Who’s the target audience? How much are you spending on media? When does it need to start running?” She ignored my questions. “Huh? I don’t know. The cable company said they’d make one for $500 and I just don’t want to get ripped off. What am I paying for? How much do yours cost?”
Sigh. Rather than give my Mom a hernia by quoting her a dollar amount or telling her the old rule of thumb (that production should cost 15% to 20% of your media spend), I assured her that the cable-produced spot was probably the best route for the little hometown restaurant that she and my Dad own and operate. But her curiosity is valid: what am I paying for? And why is there such a colossal price difference between the local cable spot and the agency-produced commercials we see on the major networks every day?
The short answer is people. The typical local TV spot is produced by a very small team of people. Sometimes written, filmed and edited by the same person even. The on-camera talent is usually unpaid (I played both “girl dining at table” and “martini-drinking customer” in the commercial for the restaurant, for example). These spots usually are small on concept and special effects and big on information. There are some exceptions — Rhett and Link, for example, have made quite a name for themselves with their insane yet memorable local commercials (Ojai Valley Taxidermy is my favorite.) Also remember that the cable company will be happy to give advertisers a discount in production knowing that they will recoup this money back (and then some) in the media buy.
A typical advertising agency-produced spot begins with a creative brief prepared by the account services team and approved by the client. This document outlines the objective of the spots, any mandatory inclusions, the target audience and the key message(s). The creative team then goes to work dreaming up ways to convey this important information in a way that will be original and engaging. The top concepts get storyboarded and presented to the client. A lot of work has already been done and production hasn’t even begun!
Once a concept has been selected, the agency’s producer will work on selecting the right director and production company for the job. Often the producer will get bids from several directors, who will offer their own treatment for the TV commercial and what they believe it will cost to produce. The project is awarded and then a whole new team is assembled to pull the project off. Every production is different, but this team could include:
• Assistant Director
• Casting Director
• Art Director
• Location Scout
• Prop Master
• Director of Photography (DP)
• Production Assistant (PA)
• Set Designer
• Make-up Artist
• Wardrobe Supervisor
• Script Supervisor
• Film Loader
• Sound Mixer
• Grip (lighting and rigging technician)
• Gaffer (electrical technician)
• Teleprompter Operator
• On-screen Talent
• Off-screen Talent (voiceovers)
• Craft Services
• Visual Effects Supervisor
• Sound Designer/Music Supervisor
Now the big question: do I really need all of this? If you own a steak and seafood restaurant in small-town Ohio, you probably don’t. To produce the caliber of commercials you see during primetime television or while watching a major sports event, however, it practically takes a village. Finding the big idea, putting together a team of people who can pull it off, executing it and getting it on the air at just the right time to reach your audience requires a sizable investment and a lot of talented people. But the end result will hopefully be priceless.