Commercial Director

Arts

Commercial Director
32:54

Q: Okay. Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?

A: I am a director of commercials and short films and documentaries, and writer of them occasionally, I am a freelancer, so I work for various different production companies, and it’s been eight years since I graduated college.

Q: Can you provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

A: My job consists of finding clients, either by word of mouth or by me contacting them directly or them contacting me, they will present me with a problem, it’s usually called an RFP, a request for pitches, and what that means is that a client somewhere out in the ether needs a video of some kind. And they usually have a series of problems or objectives that they’re trying to hit with that video, occasionally it’s a commercial, sometimes it’s a longer form piece, but the majority of my work is for corporations who are trying to get something out in the world, right? So it’s either marketing or advertising or something along those lines. I’m contacted by various production companies, who give me these RFPs, I write something to try to accomplish those goals in an abstracted or metaphorical way, it’s presented to the company, if they like it, which they frequently do, they will contract my services to create a video for them. That usually means there’s a three week-ish scripting process – that’s even with documentaries, all sorts of fiction and nonfiction, they all have about three weeks of preproduction, larger things will go up to three months – where the client and I find harmony in our various approaches to what they’re trying to enact. Then we have anywhere from one to five actual production shooting days, where the seven-person pre-production team that I’m kind of leading creatively and my producer’s leading logistically, we ramp up and hire anywhere from 20 to 70 people to shoot a commercial or a short film. And then there’s about anywhere from a month to three months of postproduction time where we are actually in the edit and crafting the narrative that we have created and attempted to shoot in reality, but never hit the mark, and it’s called “finding it in the edit” – we spend a lot of time making sure that what we did and did not get on the actual days of shooting are made as perfect as they can be. Throughout that time, I’m in constant contact with the client and also the production companies that I’m working for, refining our idea, figuring out how to overcome various obstacles, either we can’t shoot at the location we wanted because they had a shoot previously and one of the gaffers accidentally flooded the whole space so they’re not shooting anymore, to the person who is going to be the star doesn’t want to do it unless we quadruple their salary and we just don’t have the money for it, to things as drastic as, “The CEO just saw the script and hates it, what are we going to do? We’re shooting in two days,” – which happened to me a couple months ago, and was not fun. But, yeah, that’s my job. I essentially write and direct commercials.

Q: Can you please estimate in an average week what percentage of your job requires writing?

A: Seventy?

Q: Okay. What forms or types of writing, or documents, modes of writing, etc., are you most often finding yourself completing?

A: The majority of the writing that I do that I would call genuine writing, that’s not emailing – I do a lot of script writing – so I’ll either, as an individual or with one or two cowriters, create various pitches and pitch decks where we show our ideas in as beautiful and comprehensible a way as possible, with images and words, or I’m actually, if those pitches are approved, writing those scripts and making sure that they’re as good and tight and fast and fun as possible. When I’m not in that mode, a lot of my writing is communicating with either producers, art directors, and cinematographers about what exactly the vision that I see for the piece needs to be from their end, so it’s a lot of turning visual language into actual language so that various people in various different departments with various different skill sets can all be on the same page. Or talking to my editor in postproduction, giving he or she notes about what exactly they’re missing, or what they’re hitting or what they’re doing very well or what needs to change, talking to composers, giving notes about that, and then the most important part, and frequently least fun, is responding to client notes and making sure that the efforts that we put forth as the creative arm of the team are understood and embraced by the more logistically-minded members of the client side. So it’s a lot of emails, scripts, pitch documents, so essentially big, I would call them aesthetically-oriented slideshows, and responding to notes and questions and concerns from various members of the team.

Q: Great. Can you talk about who typically are the primary audiences to which you’re writing?

A: Well, the meat of the writing, the audience would be, you know, the scripts themselves, the audience is general, whoever the client is trying to attract. So you know, males from 18 to 45, women who are in their 70s, whatever it is. But unfortunately, that’s not the bulk of my writing. The bulk of my writing is either inter-office interactions, where we’re all sort of trying to make sure we’re on the same page and moving in the same direction, or messages between the production company and the client, where it’s sort of a delicate balance where everyone’s trying to find harmony, and both sides, which are sort of frequently at odds, need to find harmony and embrace the final product, and a lot of times the onus of making sure and massaging that harmony falls on me. And so that’s a combination of being as charming as possible and as forthright and kind of steadfast in my vision as possible. So it’s a very delicate balance.

Q: So, with both the creative aspect and this sort of more inter-office communication, business-type stuff, did you feel like you were familiar with those styles of writing when you were a student? And if you were, how do you think that affected your approach now that you’re doing them professionally?

A: I was lucky enough to study creative writing and so a lot of my education was workshopping. So it was taking what other people had written, sitting down in a room, and dissecting it, and saying, “You know what, the opening was great, the middle I kind of lost you, but by the end, you had me and I think if you spend another week and a half on this short story, this thing will really sing.” And having that basis of knowledge as to how to speak to people in a critically constructive way that finds what’s good, tries to slough off what’s bad, and really help them find their vision while also hearing that same kind of criticism about my own work – that I think was the most important aspect of my college education in terms of moving into the professional world. Things like tone shifting, where obviously, when I’m writing a commercial, most of the commercials that I write are silly or absurdist, so when I’m scripting, I try to let myself go as weird and silly and open as possible. But then when I’m talking to a client, I have to obviously button myself up and be very direct, straight-forward, and professional. So it’s a lot of tone shifting when I’m actually doing the writing. But I think– yeah, is that answering the question? That was pretty close [laughter].

Q: Yes, yeah, totally. So you hit on this a little bit during your first question about describing your job, but can you kind of run us through an overview of your whole writing process, from the time you get an assignment, any kind of preparation you do before writing, and then all the way to completion of that project?

A: Okay, since I’m sort of varied in my employ, I’ll keep it just to commercials. Usually the way that it goes is I’ll get a call, and it’s like, “Hey, are you available?” And if I am, “Yes.” “HP,” for example, “wants to let people know that their servers are faster than everyone else’s and they want to make something that is funny. They have no idea what they want to make, but their competitors are doing this and this, and this is what HP used to do.” I’m usually armed with that information from the outset. What I’ll first do is research as much as I can about what their competitors are doing, and what they themselves have been doing during their campaigns, and then I’ll try to think about what they’re missing, or really, selfishly, what I really always think about is what I would like to see, because if we’re being honest about advertising, nobody wants to see advertising. So I try to think, what would be a thing that would make me happy if I was forced to watch it before I could get my inflight wifi? And then, find the harmony between how that makes – for example, this is not a real example, but – how that makes HP’s servers clearly faster than everyone else’s and would bring a smile to a 12-year-old me, but also make a 55-year-old guy who’s just got off a flight from Shanghai and really just needs to send an email to his wife to let her know that he’s about to come home, how to find the harmony of all those things. And then I write up usually around five different templated ideas, about a paragraph or two paragraphs, for each of them, with a couple of– there are various resources online where you can find stills from films or I usually have, whenever I am coming up with an idea, because commercials are a very visual medium, I’m always coming up with visuals as well. So I’ll either contract a storyboard artist, or just find images that create the right mood, and then present those things to the client to see if they like it. Then once that’s achieved, it’s usually a phone call that’s around an hour long, where they tell me that they kind of liked it but they also hated a lot of things that I did. So I have to go back to the drawing board a little bit, reassess, write a script, send the script over, do a revision, do a revision – you’re always contracted for two revisions, but you always go until at least five – keep going, keep sending emails with each revision, where they’re winnowing down what they want, you’re winnowing down and fighting for what you think is really important, and making sure that you’re navigating that space where, there’s a lot of times that as conversations continue and continue and continue about an idea, people can lose the thread of what was even good about it, so the onus is always on me to maintain that sort of, whatever the crystal was inside of the cabinet, to make sure that it’s unbroken when it gets to the final destination. And then yeah, basically from there it continues, then we do the shoot once the script is approved, and then the same process basically starts over again once the client sees the edit, where they had an idea of what it was, usually they’re not as experienced in production as our team is, they have an idea of what they were expecting, what they see is slightly different, they’re almost always happy, which is nice, because it means I get to keep working, but it takes another series of, “Here’s what we made,” then they send notes, then we respond to the notes, then we make a revision based on our responses, and it’s just making sure that everyone is happy with the product, while making sure that people with bad ideas or sort of– there is a sort of sickness in this type of work, where you’re mixing business and creativity, where a lot of people involved sometimes feel like they have to say something, and they have to make a criticism, so there are sometimes extraneous notes, just so that– sometimes on the client side there are 15 people involved who are all supposed to give notes, and really, one person is leading the team, but person number 13 feels left out, so they always toss a curveball in, and you have to navigate that stuff by again, just charm and a lot of “in our professional opinion” sort of phrasing, where it’s like, again, just massaging and making sure that people aren’t leading themselves off of a cliff because they think they know what’s best.

Q: So just to go a little bit off track here, in the sort of, after the script is approved, before filming begins, are you, as director, also responsible for say, casting?

A: Oh actually, I completely forgot about that. So once the script is approved, we have the big things that need to happen is, we need to crew up, so I need to hire, I don’t actually do the hiring, but I need to pick a cinematographer, a production designer, all of the cast, and a location. All of those things require a great deal of writing to get to the end of, for you know it’s like, “Hey, we need a production designer,” and it’s not like saying, “Hey, I need an ATM.” Production designers all have very specific sets of skills and their own specific aesthetics. So you need to say, “I need a production designer who’s really good at making things both gritty, very mobile, they need to be good at physical comedy, they need to be able to do gags, and they need to be able to, I don’t know, paint metal quickly.” And then they need to also vibe with whatever my aesthetic is. So I need to craft an email to them, to say, “Hey, here is the mission, if you choose to accept it,” but lay it out entirely for that team. Then I need to do the same thing, but in a much different way, for the cinematographer, the same thing in a much different way for when we’re location scouting. Location scouting is one of the more difficult writing challenges because you basically need to say, “Hello everyone, I need this thing that does not exist, but I hope it exists somewhere. Here are the things that I would love if it had. I don’t know if this is real, but I would love it if there was a dojo that had a trapdoor that led into a basement, and all the walls were green, or if they’re not green, a place that will let us paint them.” And then for something like a cinematographer, it’s even more heady and kind of, you have to use real language to talk about visual language, so you end up, it’s– a good conversation with the cinematographer is essentially just almost like this litany of visual references – be it paintings, or films, or sometimes even short stories or longer stories, or illustrations, or every once in awhile, it’s like, “This sculpture I think I saw in a children’s museum and I know that you grew up in the same town as me, so maybe you saw it. It was like the inside of the heart, and it was beating all the time, and you know how you were kind of going in through the tunnel, do you remember that feeling?” A lot of weird pulling references from all throughout your personal visual history. And then the hardest, hardest, hardest is casting, because it’s similar to the location thing. It’s, “I have an idea in my head about what I would like reality to manifest, I don’t know if it’s there, but here are the parameters that I would like to hit.” So you know, you kind of have to create a wide enough birth that you can realistically find this person, but also be very specific so that the casting director’s armed with the materials that they need to find the right person.

Q: So you talked before about all these revisions that you go through, can you talk a little bit about how you approach making changes when you’re getting feedback from so many different voices? Making sure that, like you said, the vision improves from one draft to the next for your client, but you also don’t lose that key thread?

A: Yeah, you know, it’s always a– you have to be realistic about things. Frequently the first thing that you send is what I think is best [laughter], so I send over the best version of what we have and what we could create, and that’s almost never, it happens sometimes, but it’s almost never accepted as the final version. And so what you do is you just, a lot of times when you’re getting notes from clients, because they spend a lot of their time on the client’s side a lot of time, they’re doing marketing, or they’re working with different teams, or they’re trying to achieve different goals every single day or every single month, that they’re not as versed in exactly what you and your team are doing. So you need to find– the spirit of what their notes are is frequently more important than the actual content of what their notes are. So sometimes it’ll just be like, they’ll be as vague as, “This part doesn’t feel right.” And so what me and my editor have to do whenever that happens is she and I will have to just watch that part over and over again [laughter] to figure out exactly what they were talking about. And frequently, unless the person is kind of phoning it in on the other side, frequently there is truth to whatever the notes are, and it’s just about determining the spirit of a question or a consideration and making sure that we all keep in mind on our side that the other person is, at the end of the day, paying for this thing, and it is theirs more than it’s ours. So really trying to listen and use comprehension to determine not exactly what they’re saying, but what the spirit of their note is.

Q: Great. Typically, how long do you have to complete a writing project?

A: I mean, it’s a hard question to answer, because a lot of times, for that pitch process, where it’s like, “Hey, this company wants something,” I’ll have around four days to put together a pretty comprehensive document that probably takes around 20 to 25 hours of genuine work. Then when it comes to the scripting process, it can be anywhere from 24 hours for a script, to two weeks for a script. It’s all sort of, it goes up and down with, there’s no rhyme or reason as to why things are like that. With the client notes things, you want to respond as soon as possible, usually within the hour. And for things like casting, casting notes, location notes, interactions with or calls for DPs, etc., it is right now – so in the next 30 minutes, in the next 15 minutes, can we have already had that? Because time is always very expensive when you have this many people involved in a process. So sometimes I’ll be in between meetings and I’ll have two minutes and I’ll have to write a 500-word email to someone, and it’s just, when you’re used to it and when you’re comfortable with it, you get into a place where it just starts to flow out. But it’s very dynamic and there’s no set rules as to how much time I have to do any of this stuff.

Q: Great. So we sort of already touched on what’s at stake in your writing, in terms of who you’re writing to and their goals, so I think we’ll move on. I know you’re freelancing, so you’re dealing with people all the time – in terms of the job description or title of the people that typically are overseeing your writing, as clients, who would that be? In a broad sense I guess?

A: Yeah, let’s see – I’m in constant conversation with the head copywriter at the agency, the creative director or the associate creative director at the agency, they’re usually my point people on that side. And then on the client side, they always have strange, convoluted titles like SVP of client marketing, or that’s not right, let me think, I’m actually going to look at an email signature right now and I’ll let you know. They’re always people who are sort of on the VP track it seems, usually it’s a big deal to be able to be giving notes and to be involved in the marketing for a company, because obviously that’s how they put their face forward and they want to put their best people. But there are also some companies that have creative directors of their own, so, I guess it would be creative director, copywriter, senior vice president, or sometimes marketing director, or occasionally people have weird, sort of esoteric titles, like thought leader [laughter], but it’s usually people who are in the upper echelons of whatever company we’re dealing with.

Q: Great. And all of those people, from VP to copywriter, what are they typically – maybe they communicate this to you through their feedback or your communications with them – what are they using typically to judge success or quality of the writing that you provide for them?

A: Everything comes down to the metrics on the end. “Was this a successful campaign?” is judged by how many people saw it, or in worst case scenarios, what the – the word’s escaping me – what are the people that give feedback? Where they’re in a room and they watch something?

Q: Like focus groups?

A: Yes. It’s either what a focus group scores it, or basically the reach of the campaign. And also a lot of times I’m judged on something as pure as someone’s, “Yeah, we liked that!” Because it’s a creative thing, it’s, “Yeah, that was good!” and [laughter], “I enjoyed the final product, so you did a good job writing,” you know?

Q: Great. Have you had any formal writing training or education since college?

A: No. I still write creatively quite a bit, and so I’m in a sort of loose group of writers that meet every week and we discuss either stories or scripts that we’re writing, and we’re all sort of various different types of professional writer, so that is a type of training, but it’s not a formal type of training, and it’s totally free except I have to buy guacamole.

Q: Great [laughter]. So what kind of challenges did you face your first few jobs as a freelancer, and what did you do to overcome those early challenges?

A: The big challenge that I faced when I first started working was I thought of every assignment that I would get as a freelancer as a research paper, and so I would basically be, I would just put too much work into everything, and make these very comprehensive scripts and documents and even emails. For a while I was working for Gawker and I would write these blog posts that were remarkably long, probably too long and too well researched, and I was just putting too much into things, because I was coming out of the university system where that’s expected. And I was a little bit too formal in my writing style. And once I was able to make myself a little bit more casual on the page, things started really coming together.

Q: Great. Are you able to identify any changes in your writing between college and now your time writing professionally?

A: That’s remarkably difficult. I think that I’ve embraced– I was much more interested in form and sort of more obscure writerly techniques when I was in college, and now I’m much more interested in making sure nuggets of ideas come through, regardless of the aesthetic content of them. So I think I’ve become more direct and less obtuse in my writing style.

Q: Great. And you’ve hit on this a little bit in terms of creative writing background, but in what ways do you think your academic and college writing background prepared you for some of the stuff that you’re doing now, in the workplace?

A: Without the creative writing study that I did in college, I wouldn’t have a career. It is the reason that I am able to communicate with any sort of alacrity and why I’ve been able to move through my career very quickly in a way that I didn’t even expect. And it’s only because I’m able to use language better than most of my peers that I’ve been able to make the strides that I have in the time that I’ve been out of school. A lot of the people that are in the same field as me might actually be better at the tangible parts of the job, like being a director and being on set, but I’m much more likely to win the job because I’m a more persuasive writer.

Q: Do you actually attribute even your successes in the inter-office email communication, that kind of stuff, back to some of your experiences in creative writing?

A: Yeah, I do. I think that the workshopping process and the finding ways to be critical of people and also to exalt them, and basically having that as my schooling, has made me a better coworker than I would have been if I didn’t have it, for sure, yeah.

Q: So if creative writing and those sorts of experiences in workshopping left you sort of feeling prepared for that kind of interaction and communication, in what ways did you feel maybe less prepared, going into the workplace?

A: I, because I didn’t take any business marketing or any of those sorts of classes, I was startled by the difference in vocabulary between fiction writers and journalists and sort of everyone else. These sorts of weird acronyms that would come up, like ROI and CRM and PPQ, or whatever they are, really threw me through a loop for a while, and it took me a long time to learn that language because there is a very specific language to this industry. But beyond that, I think that was the biggest hurdle, just the linguistic, just having completely different lexicons and different words for the same things. And I’ve been fighting that still, in terms of trying to avoid the business-minded idiomatic phrasings that a lot of people fall into, like “making the ask” or “the burning bush” or “the view from 30,000” or you know, all of those idiomatic crutches that people lean on in business relationships because it feels safer. That was pretty startling to me, coming from someone who pretty much only reads books, that was all new.

Q: Great. Would you consider yourself to be a successful workplace writer, and if so, why would you say that? What are you judging it on?

A: Yeah, I think that I am because I am able to– I think the big hurdle in workplace writing is not can everything be harmonious and can you get your ideas out, but can you solve a problem exclusively with your writing? Like can you identify something that’s wrong, get in touch with the right person who can fix it, and make them understand exactly what the problem is, without ruffling their feathers or making them concerned about something, or even worse, making them worried about their own job security. And just to be able to have the linguistic skills to be like, “Hey man, I noticed this is happening. Let’s do it this way. How about that,” and maneuver that sort of interpersonal space that is much easier because I am more fluid with language than I would have been had I not studied it in school.

Q: Great. And final question – what skills do you think are most central to being successful as a writer in your particular job?

A: Empathy and speed [laughter]. I need to be able to figure out what people are really saying and react to it very quickly.

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