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breaking in to local commercials

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Jensen Yanceybreaking in to local commercials
by on Mar 26, 2010 at 8:34:06 pm

right now I'm a student at Texas A&M hoping to get in to some kind of video production when I graduate, and one thing I've noticed since I've lived in College station is that the local commercials are TERRIBLE, I know for a fact that I can make a better product than what most of these businesses are putting on the air but I have no idea how I would actually start. I've got a portfolio of a few commercials that I've done for online contests, but does anyone have advice on how to get work, how to price commercials, and how to look more like a real business and not some college kid with a camera? thanks!

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Mike CohenRe: breaking in to local commercials
by on Mar 26, 2010 at 8:57:33 pm


Great to see that you are taking some initiative as a student to find out how to have a career when you get your degree. This is certainly a good place to learn.

First, check out the enhanced COW search

type local commercial or commercial or whatever and you might find some threads that have discussed this issue already.

It is common knowledge among video folks, especially video folks who want in on the local commercial market, that local cable commercials are not very lucrative. They tend to be included with the local cable advertising rates, thus not much effort or expense is put into them. Occasionally you see a local commercial that actually has some production value, but local businesses want customers immediately - they are not very interested in showing you how classy they are with a classy commercial. And most do not want to pay much more than they pay currently, which is not much.

Sounds quite cynical, doesn't it?

When I was in college I did a Summer internship with a local cable advertising department. The office was mostly sales guys and a small office in the back with the edit bay which was an old Chyron and some tape to tape editing machines plus a Sony tube camera and portapak deck. This is the 1992 equivalent of a camcorder and iMovie on a low end Macbook. We did weekly spots for the local supermarket, and the occasional new commercial. We were told, "Don't spend more than 2 hours on this" because that's as far as their $250 credit for a commercial would go.

We have had numerous threads here about this exact situation. Sure you as a student have done some great work, but the local businesses are not generally interested in great work - they are interested in selling pizzas on a Friday night.

But it is good to know the truth about this part of the industry before you go out there wondering why nobody is interested in your services.

but there are a few customers out there for better quality work - you just need to find them.

Mike Cohen

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Mark SuszkoRe: breaking in to local commercials
by on Mar 26, 2010 at 9:18:13 pm

You probably can't beat the cable company's spot rates, they have it set up so that your spot will always cost more to air on their system than product they make themselves. You can fight the power, or join the dark side and work FOR the cable company, inside their operation or as a freelancer. That won't pay you enough for PBR and Ramen. But you'd have *some* chance to show you can deliver higher production value.

I had a bud that went to work for a south-western car spot production outfit, where you judge the spot by how many flashing letters and stock footage price explosions you can cram on the screen. They worked him like a rented mule, very hard hours, insane production deadlines and quantity, and no loyalty, for relatively low pay. The only thing he can say of the experience was that, like young boy Conan pushing on the Wheel of Death, after pushing it around a few years he was a veritable Arnold Swaarzenegger of ability with AfterEffects and could make kick-ass comps in jig time. But they were (not his fault or choice) generally templated re-dos of very cliche' car spots. They didn't give him time or permission to make truly artful work, just quantity of the same same same. Like Mike Cohen says.

If you really want to do great commercials, I would work on PSA's and promos for high end or worthy charities you favor, as spec pieces to get you in the door at ad agencies and at the charities themselves. I would also look into buying some leased-access broadcast time and producing your own infomercials, if you want to combine real money making with making something that satisfies your creative itch, on your own terms.

You had better love the work so much it hurts, that's the only thing that will carry you thru the hard times before you hit it big. There are way easier ways to make a living than this. So you do it first for the love of doing it, and maybe the money comes later.

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Todd TerryRe: breaking in to local commercials
by on Mar 26, 2010 at 9:29:24 pm

Mike hit the nail on the head there... you can't make any money by doing the cable-level commercials, unless you give those advertisers a reason to pay you more to do them. The reason, being quality of course.

That's exactly the way we set out to start our company 14 years ago.

Like everywhere, the local station-produced or cable-produced spot were just horrible (and still are). We targeted the advertisers in our market who needed something a lot better than the $200 (or free) cable spots... but yet didn't have $50,000 to pop on production from a big film house. Our goal was to land in the middle, and give people a choice. And to give them quality... spots that looked like they were expensive, but weren't.

You have to identify those target customers, and learn who they are and who they aren't. They generally aren't a mom-and-pop corner store... those guys are happy with the $200 spot. And they aren't the big corporations... those people either already have national resources, or are willing to spend mid-to-high five figures on commercials from a big post house. We found a lot that do fall in that mid range though, and it will be up to you to find them in your market, too. We were looking for advertisers who could/would spend somewhere in the $5,000-$15,000 range for commercial production. Here in our market those turned out to be clients like plastic surgeons, financial institutions (banks and credit unions), hospitals, health care clinics, higher-end automotive dealers (Porsche, Jag, LandRover, etc), and those of that ilk. They may be a completely different group in your neck of the woods.

What we also found, is that many of these clients already have advertising agencies they are working with... but agencies who either do not do a lot of TV... or do it only very sparingly because they thought great television production was too expensive.

It would be to your great advantage to pitch to and align yourself with one or more local ad agencies... since they often handle exactly the right type of client in need of your services. We started by doing all the commercial production for one small agency. Now in my area there are probably a dozen or so agencies within the region... and I think we work for every single one of them now... some, just a little, but others we do all their commercial production.

I'd say first, have a killer reel... then identify the right kinds of potential advertisers and hit them up, along with whatever mid-sized ad agencies there are in your area.


Todd Terry
Creative Director
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.

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grinner hesterRe: breaking in to local commercials
by on Mar 27, 2010 at 5:27:12 pm

Because nobody pays for local spot production, it's really not that hard to "break in to"
assuming you are willing to work on spec to build a reel.
TV stations do the production on these for nada (hance the horrible production quality) so they can sell air time... now down to about 20 bucks a pop. You'd be best off gearing advertisers towards a better bang for their buck with turn-key web video campaigns. They'll pay for that... once they see success with it by their competitors.
It's funny. Almost all companies claim to lead the way while they wait for someone to go first.

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Eric NicastroRe: breaking in to local commercials
by on Mar 27, 2010 at 9:14:47 pm

Jensen, it's good you're taking the initiative to break into the professional world of commercial production. I am here to offer you a unique perspective on local commercials from cable company's and TV stations. Why is it unique? Because I work for a local TV station that makes those terrible commercials. I'm not here to defend myself and say our work is not terrible. I agree with you 100% on just how bad TV station commercials are. I've voiced my opinion many times to my station management. But they don't care. All they care about is filling that 30 seconds of airtime. If you could see some of the spots we've done and let air, you would be speechless! Audio sounding like crap, video not white balanced, graphics looking like something from the early 90's, zero lighting and nonexistent direction. We are airing some of those spots right now as I'm writing this! And it drives me crazy that there isn't any quality control or oversight or even someone to say, that looks or sounds bad and should be fixed. I've voiced my words, but they don't care. I've even heard that words, "I don't care how it looks, just get it on air." I've had spots scheduled to run the following day before anything has been shot or edited. And what's even worse is our creative decisions do not come from a creative director, we don't have one of those, they come from the media sales consultants. The sales department! The people that convince local businesses to buy airtime. These people, at least at my station, have no creative background whatsoever. And many of them hardly have any idea of how long a spot takes to create or know anything about the production process. Only one out of 12 has touched a camera before. They all think it takes 10 min to create something.

I'm a person that takes great pride in my work and do not feel comfortable letting something go to air without my approval. Have some of my commercials fallen into those categories mentioned above? On occasion yes. Have I been upset about it? Oh yeah! But the reason why so many companies have commercials made like these is one word, FREE. We do not charge production rates unless it's a big special project; basically anything over a 60 second spot or for non-broadcast use. There are very few production companies in my area that cater to local businesses because of this. We have many ad agencies but hardly any with full TV production services.

So here's what I'm trying to get at. If you have to work for one of those stations doing their crappy work, do it. And here's why. Robert Rodriguez, the famous director and author of Rebel Without A Crew said make as many movies (or in your case commercials) as you can. Do it now because everyone has bad movies (commercials) in them and needs to get them out of their system before they can start making good ones. And it's true. I've been with my TV station for almost two years now and in the hundreds of spots I've done, about 170 last year, I see a huge progression in my style and my quality of work. I can see a change in what I've done for the better. I've finally been able to convince my sales reps to give me more time on my spots, meaning not to start the schedule the following day of the shoot. I've showed them what I can do with extra time and with only two hours. I mean literally, I showed them what two hours of my work looks like versus a whole day or two days looks like. I took the initiative to make a change at my station and it's finally starting to happen. However this is only for what I make, I can't speak for the three other commercial producers.

So just get out there and make commercials. If you have to do a couple for free at first, do it. If you know you can make better spots than what the cable or TV stations are offering, go there and show them what you can do. Make them see what you're capable of. Yeah I know it's the not the ideal place to start, but it's a start. And to break into this industry is tough, especially when you're on your own without any equipment.

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Jensen YanceyRe: breaking in to local commercials
by on Mar 29, 2010 at 1:09:01 am

I really appreciate all the detailed responses you guys have given and its been a bit dissapointing. My end goal is directing film, and I was hoping working on ad spots would be a good way to get more practice behind a camera and make some money at the same time. I'll see if there are any ad agencies in the area that could use freelance work but I won't get my hopes up.

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Eric NicastroRe: breaking in to local commercials
by on Mar 29, 2010 at 5:03:10 pm

Jensen don't take any of the things we've said the wrong way. Yeah some of the information isn't exactly what you wanted to hear, but it is the truth unfortunately. But what you have to learn to do is be resourceful and, for as much as I hate this phrase, think outside the box. If you see a local company with a commercial that you think is terrible and you have a better idea, approach that company, ask about their advertising needs and budgets, tell them you can make something better, find out if they use an ad agency, approach them with your better idea. If you do that, make sure when you make the full pitch of your concept with treatment and visualizations you have anyone in the room sign a non-disclosure agreement so they don't take your idea and have someone else do it (trust me, it happens a lot, you have to protect your intellectual property). Tell that company you're willing to work for free on this one spot, and make sure they know that it is just this ONE spot that is free. If you're not specific and it's not spelled very clearly in your contract, they will take advantage of your free service and expect everything else to be free or incredibly cheap. If you don't have your own gear, ask them if they'll just cover the rental fee. Or you can do this on a contingency basis. If they like it, they can buy it. If not, you have something to put on your reel.

What I've seen a lot of filmmakers overlook is that this industry is a business and you have to be able to sell yourself. Everyone that comes out of film school just wants to make films. But you have to remember that making films is the end product. You have to have sales and negotiating skills to get someone to buy your film-making skills. From some of the research and stories I've read though, it is usually the filmmaker that goes into commercial production, not the other way around. But you can take any path you wish.

If you really want to test your film-making ability, try making wedding films. I know everyone cringes at the the thought of having to shoot a wedding. Every time shooting a wedding is brought up, everyone pictures terribly shot, extremely boring hour long video. But you can be very creative with it. Many filmmakers are using their cinematography skills to really change how weddings are shot. Just look at what this company is doing Cameras are getting cheaper and with DSLR's that shoot video, you can get some beautiful images.

These are all suggestions on how to be resourceful in this business. Nowadays, you can't limit yourself to just one skill set or focus only on one job. Find alternative ways to use what you know and expand your knowledge.

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grinner hesterRe: breaking in to local commercials
by on Mar 29, 2010 at 5:24:11 pm

Well, you are on taget then, man. Local spots will train ya for bigger productions. Those can lead to the movies you wanna be makin'.
Get to work. Time's a waistin'.

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Milton HockmanRe: breaking in to local commercials
by on Mar 29, 2010 at 9:14:29 pm

hey man,

I wouldn't get discouraged. If you have the time and energy, approach these businesses and let them know you can do better. And show them how. Its a good way to learn the ropes in this business.

Just don't expect it to be a full-time money maker. As others said, they want cheapies made!

But, that doesn't mean all want cheap.

Especially since you're starting out, try and find a gig with a higher end studio, and do cheap ads on the weekends, or after work. build your name up.

When i got into website design, noone wanted to talk to me without portfolio samples. So, i found a couple of friends working at companies with bad websites, and told them I would create a new one for cheap! They loved that! So now i have several high-end websites (yes they took longer, sometimes abused my skills, and I could have charged 5 times as much for them) but they've paid off.

Now I get high-end web work because I put the same effort into those cheap freebies in the beginning.

So go for it!

Freelancer Designer Virginia -
Find out more about me, see my portfolio, and read my blog

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