It's the Music, Stupid, Part IV: Music Supervisor

Recently the iTunes Weekly Rewind podcast (Ep. 47) featured a short tribute to John Hughes. Unlike all the other obits, this podcast didn't talk about him so much as a filmmaker as they did a music supervisor. In fact, they called him the Godfather of Music Supervision.

And it occurs to me that this is a role the best creative teams put themselves in as well.

Hughes didn't just stick music in to fill space. Or because it sounded cool. He used music to set a scene, develop characters, and tell a story. Sure, the scripts were hilarious, and the stories were good, and Mollie Ringwald always looked cute. But Hughes used the music to bring everything together.

No one had ever heard of Yello's "Oh Yeah" before they saw Ferris Buehller's Day Off. Just like no one had ever really heard "Da Da Da" by Trio before VW adopted it. (And both are over a decade old, and they're still valid examples.)

When you're putting together a spot, it's easy to want to use the latest, cool band. Or something goofy and nostalgic. And sometimes that works. But remember Hughes used everything from then-hot bands like Oingo Boingo, to then-obscure bands like Simple Minds, and then-forgotten artists like Ottis Redding.

So try writing a spot that needs a Japanese wedding melody. Or a really obscure Dave Brubeck track. Or something from Tommy Emmanuel. Or Slayer. You can't tell me you're not itching to write a script with some Slayer in it.

You might even get the right sound, and end up hiring the actual artist to write an original piece like Dunkin' Donuts did with They Might Be Giants and Coke did with Jack White.

Become a music supervisor. You might even end up with a spot that wins you some awards and resurrects Mickey Dolenz's career.

Stakes in the Ground

One of my first jobs in advertising was as an intern at an agency in Salt Lake City. Every Monday, the entire agency (40 or so) would meet in the board room to review any work that had been produced, and address any issues for the coming week.

Each week, we'd be reminded of the agency's goal, which was to be the premiere creative boutique between Minneapolis and the West Coast. (This was back when Fallon McElligott and Goodby Silverstein were having their breakout years.) We even had a map on the wall outlining the states we wanted to "own" - everything from Arizona to Missouri. And within five years Creativity had listed this agency as one of their "20 Agencies to Watch," and Communication Arts had profiled them.

I think it's important for agencies to have clearly stated and ambitious goals that everyone can rally around. It's the difference between a good shop and a great one. It's not enough to say, "We're going to do killer creative." That's what 750 other agencies are saying. Compare that to Fallon's new CEO Chris Foster, who publicly declared last month, "We want to be Ad Age's Agency of the Year within three years." That's an awesome reason to want to work for Fallon right now.

As a junior creative, you might not be in a position to set such lofty goals for your agency. But there are a few things you can do:
  1. You can ask what the agency's purpose, vision or goal is. My guess is there is one, but it's not clearly articulated. If there is one, and it's a good one, get behind it. Start championing it. See each assignment through the lens of "How will this help us do X."
  2. If there's not, ask why. Chances are your CD or other agency leaders have thought about it, but need some enthusiasm to nudge them.
  3. If you're interviewing, ask the people you meet with if the agency has a goal or a purpose. The answers they give can give you a huge insight into the agency's ambition and its commitment to creative work. If the president says the goal is to be the best agency in the region, but the CD says it's to be on Creativity's Top 5, the junior teams say it's to do killer work, and the account team says it's to keep the clients happy, you'll at least know how well the agency is with its internal communications.

The Importance of Seconds PART 2

15 seconds is half of 30 seconds.

30 seconds isn't very long to begin with, but it seems like an eternity after you've tried cramming an idea into 15 seconds.

Clients love 15-second spots because they can buy a lot more of them for the money. In media impressions, they're not that different.

But in creative terms, they are very different. In a :30, you can set a scene. You can have some dialogue. Tell a little story.

A :15 is the equivalent of a billboard. You get one idea. A simple one.

DO NOT try to cram a :30 idea into :15. The results will not be good. I say this, and yet I've tried it many many times. I've had ideas that I just knew were so great that I wouldn't let them go, even though they were too complicated for 15 seconds. I've had :30 scripts that a creative director promised to a client could become :15s. Most often, I've had :30s that had to also be cut down to :15s because they had the in the plan. Whatever the reason, the results have not been good.

Know going in if you have to do a :15. Then concept for a :15. KEEP IT SIMPLE.

One of my favorite :15 campaigns of all time had a very straightforward, single-minded idea.

The Importance of Seconds PART 1

Here's an idea for the media folks (feel free to take this and run with it): The 33-second spot. And as a corollary, you can do the :17. I'm serious. Copywriters across the country would be pitching in their own coin to help the client buy them.

But odds are, as brilliant an idea as that is, nobody's going to take me up on it anytime soon. So here's my advice, something I've learned through painful experience: TIME YOUR DAMN SPOTS!

Aside from a pen and paper, a stopwatch might be your most valuable tool. Get one. When you write copy, BEFORE you present it, read it out loud and use that stopwatch. If it's over :30 cut it. Actually, if it's over :25, cut it. Allowing for a decent pace and pauses will give it character in the end. And when you read it, don't read it with the goal of hitting :30. Read it like you want it to be read by your announcer or actors.

I can't tell you how many times a writer comes into my office with a half page of copy for a :30.

"How long is this?"
"30 seconds."
"You timed it?"
"Out loud?"
"Well, kind of."
I pull out my stopwatch.
"Read it. Out loud."
They do. They read fast. As they get close to the end, they get faster and faster. They stop breathing and the last couple sentences come out like they're speaking in tongues, "andforminationvisitourwesiteatredna dot com!"
"34 seconds."

This is so simple to do, but it happens all the time. Or, maybe more often, they write a nice script that clocks in under :30, and when the client makes them add stuff, they're so enamored with their original copy that they don't cut any of it.

Cut it. It will be painful at first, but suck it up and get over it. Learn to love that pain. Half of good writing is good editing.

Believe me, there is nothing more embarrassing than being on a set, ready to roll, with actors and crew and client and a director all standing by, and having the script supervisor tell you that she keeps clocking your script at :32, and you having to edit your script right then and there. That's pressure you don't need.

Stopwatch, my friend. Stopwatch.

Internal presentations

When agencies present work to clients, they go to the trouble of setting up the presentation first. Usually, they read the brief to remind everyone what the purpose of the assignment was. They might explain who they're talking to, what media they're using, and may even reveal the tag line or theme before showing the work.

But when creatives present work to their creative directors, they usually just push a stack of sharpied comps across the desk. And I think more work dies unnecessarily because of this.

I'm not suggesting creative directors need a big, client-sized presentation. But a little context can go a long way. You may say, But my CD is a genius. He's been doing this for 15 years. He knows what my stick figures represent. I'm not going to patronize him by re-briefing him.

But consider that most creative directors have more responsibilities than a junior team does. Just because you've been developing your ideas day and night for the past two weeks doesn't mean your CD has been equally involved. There are client calls, new business developments that aren't announced, senior staff meetings, departmental budgets to consider, review and revise. There are a million other agency-related distractions CDs have to deal with.

So it may help, at least on the initial internal presentation to present to your CD as if he were one of them instead of one of you. I'm not talking about polishing your comps - that's a waste of time. I'm talking about briefly reviewing the brief: Who are you talking to, and what are you trying to tell them and what the client's expectations are. Ninety seconds upfront and you're done.

Do this with your account team and planners as well and you'll see less and less work die internally. Not because you've managed to talk them into your work. But because you'll be able to pre-edit ideas that aren't on brief anyway.

Keep Writing

Three lessons to take away from this great spot:

  1. Music can make even a history lesson dramatic and inspiring. Learn how to use music.
  2. You don't have to have CGI, punch-lines, scintillating dialogue, a cast of thousands or slick editing techniques to make a killer spot.
  3. Writers, yes, you have to learn to think visually. And sometimes a killer visual with the client logo is the right thing to do. But a real writer, has to write. And write as well as BBH's Justin Moore did on this spot.

Talk About the Work

If you want to get better at recognizing (and ultimately creating) great work, you need to talk about it. With your partners, with your CDs, with your planners and account team. You probably already do this, but let me tell you why it’s a good thing to do. By talking about the work…

  • You internalize why it’s great (or why it sucks). Those values become a part of who you are as a creative.
  • You open your taste to criticism. And education. (Someone at my office thought this was a great “commercial.” Obviously, we need to talk about great work with her more often.)
  • You become more capable of articulating why something works or why it doesn’t. This is an invaluable skill if you want to be a creative director or judge an awards show. (“It just isn’t working for me,” is not helpful direction.)

Seeing the work Fred & Farid did for Wrangler is good.

Understanding why it won the Grand Prix at Cannes this year is better.

Having an opinion on whether or not it deserved such an honor - and being able to articulate it (see Lubars' comments) - is best.

And you get bonus points for knowing the opinions of your partner, creative director, agency president, and planner. Because that will let you know what kind of agency you work for. Not because they agree or disagree. But because you’ll know that they’re thinking about what’s great, and what it takes to get there.

Art & Copy

You've probably seen trailers for Art & Copy. If not, it's something you'll want to check out.

That's George Lois at the end. Gotta love that enthusiasm.

Steal Their Ideas

I'm as inspired by the way people work as much as the work they produce.

Lately, I've been enjoying They're on break right now, but you should check out their stuff if you haven't already. 

What inspires me about these guys:
  • They are prolific.
  • They don't hoard their ideas. They know they've got millions.
  • They are ad guys who don't just think in terms of ads.
  • They present simply, clearly and consistently.
  • They have a distinct voice.
  • They're clearly a unified team.
Anything about them inspire you?

Revising Your Creative Concept Without Ruining It

I can't think of any time in my career where I went into a meeting, presented work and had no revisions to make coming out. How you handle feedback and present revisions can be a make-or-break step in the process. Over-react to a off-handed client comment and you can unnecessarily water down or complicate your work. Ignore client concerns and you might come across as unresponsive and torpedo the whole project.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you run the revision gauntlet:


1) Listen to feedback. Take notes. Some creatives like to come in, look cool, present the work, then leave. But the most important part of a client relationship is listening. And unless you have a photographic memory, take out a pen and paper. After the meeting, there will be discussions about what exactly the client said and it's good to have your own notes.
Note all of the feedback, even from the junior clients. If there are pertinent quotes from clients, write them down (and note who said them). Nothing lets a client know you listened more than, a week or two later, being able to quote them in a meeting, or being able to say that something they said led you to a solution (this does happen).

2) Make sure you understand which feedback needs to be addressed. Depending on the client, many many people may throw out thoughts. Some of it will be overruled, some of it will be ignored by the group, some of it will be irrelevant, and some of it will be very very important. What you need to be absolutely clear on is which issues you will be addressing with your revisions. A good account person will sum up the feedback at the end of the meeting. If they don't, you should verify what was agreed upon. "So, what I heard was..." or "Just to be clear, for next steps we'll..."

3) Try to avoid executional feedback by understanding the issues. Good clients know that the most helpful feedback for an agency is issue-based rather than executional, but even the most seasoned client will make executional comments from time to time. For example, "I feel like the tone is too frivolous for our brand," is an issue. "I don't like the words "itty-bitty" is executional. "The spot feels rushed" is an issue. "Take out this shot, that shot, and that shot," is executional. You want to get issue-based feedback because there may be several ways to solve an issue, whereas something like "take out that shot" has only one solution and may not be the best for the spot.

4) If you disagree, discuss it. (This has the major caveat of "if you are in a position to do so." If you are a junior creative and your creative director has already agreed to a client request, you are not in a position to voice a dissenting opinion. Nor are you, if you're a junior creative, in a position to argue with a CEO). Be clear that you're in a different place, but avoid being too confrontational. I don't even like saying things like "One could argue that..." That positions it as an argument. Client meetings, though they may sometimes seem like it, are not debates. You're on the same team.
One non-confrontational phrase that can be very helpful is, "Help me understand..." to probe the client issues. Phrasing your point-of-view as a question, or simply explaining why you made the choices you did are also good ways to make a point without seeming combative.

5) Know what's worth fighting for. If your list is "everything," you're going to have a tough time. Some things aren't worth fighting for. Then there are some that are. If you feel strongly that a change completely compromises the integrity of the creative, speak up. And as a last resort, recommend that you take the creative off the table and go try a different approach completely.

6) It's okay to say "Let me think about it."
It's an easy trap to fall into to think that you need to solve an issue at the table, or that you need to decide if a suggestion will or won't work right there on the spot. Reserve the right to walk away and take the time to think of an appropriate solution. Clients should respect this.


7) Make sure you addressed your client's concerns. This is a no-brainer. Just double-check before the meeting. It's not pretty when you don't.

8) If you find a better way, STILL make sure you address your client's concerns.
This goes for suggestions from your creative director in pre-client meetings as well. If you agree to a revision, DO NOT come to the next meeting without making it. If you get specific executional direction, you'd best follow it. If you come up with an alternative solution, bring that IN ADDITION TO (but definitely not instead of) the agreed-upon revision. Then you can have a discussion about it.

9) Let the client know you heard their concerns. Set up the work by listing what the objectives of the revisions were. What issues did you address? This is the part where your notes from the first meeting come in handy. If one client had a concern, let them know that you made a revision for them. If necessary, explain how you addressed their concerns before you go through the work.

Revisions are a part of the business, so learn how to handle them. They're not necessarily a bad thing, but you have to know how to fend off the ducks or your brilliant idea might get pecked to death. The key is to keep bringing back great work each time. If you do that, you'll only produce great work.

When good enough is not good at all

Last week I checked into a hotel and found this assortment of shampoos, conditioners and shower gels waiting for me in the bathroom:

They were products from a company called Lather. And while I rather enjoyed the rosemary and mint scent of their shampoo, I was completely underwhelmed by their branding.

They're colored squares. Each unique product gets its own color. That's it. That's their packaging.

You can say I'm being harsh picking on a small shower gel company. That I shouldn't be thinking about brands and advertising while I'm on vacation. But I think Lather's packaging is a great example of a pseudoidea: something that looks like an idea, and feels like an idea, but is really just a hollow shell masquerading as an idea.

And we're all subject to this. We come up with a simple idea - usually the first idea - see how easily it works and fall in love with it. What's not to love about brightly colored squares? And that simplicity, the ease with which we solved the problem, the fact that we no longer have pressure to deliver anything gives us permission to stop pushing. To stop peeling back layers. To stop looking at the problem from as many possible angles.

Good enough will get you a portfolio, but not necessarily a killer job.

Good enough will get you a salary, but it won't make you indispensable.

Good enough will get your work produced, but not celebrated.

Good enough will relieve some of the pressure, but it's not insurance against regret.

Advice from Hal

This article originally appeared in September/October 2002 issue of Communication Arts. Hal Curtis is a brilliant creative, and this is one of the best articles ever written to students of advertising. We've linked to this article a couple of times, but since it's become harder to track down online, we're including it here so you can refer to it in the future. Enjoy.

A Note To Student Art Directors
by Hal Curtis

Dear Student Art Director,

In the last decade, advertising schools that teach you how to put together a portfolio have prospered. If you are currently enrolled in one of these fine institutions, well, good for you. But there’s something I’d like you to think about.

First, let me just say this. Advertising schools are a blessing to our industry. They provide a constant stream of talent that, more often than not, is able to acclimate to the agency environment and contribute.

Which is good.

But the focus of these institutions on advertising, advertising, advertising, has a price. There is a good chance you are not being exposed in depth to the things that constitute an art director’s fundamental foundation, that you are not collecting the tools that will enable you to exhibit a high level of executional craftsmanship.

Here’s the thing. While you’re getting a terrific education in the advertising aspect of art direction, you are studying less and less the fine-art aspect.

You are getting the ad part.

But not the art part.

Which is not so good.

I write this letter because I want you to become an art director. I don’t want you to become an ad director. I’m very sure we have enough of those already.

I should mention that one of the nice things about Wieden+Kennedy is that a whole bunch of people send their work to us. I’ve looked at literally hundreds of student art director portfolios over the last several years.

Your competition.

Here’s what I see:
1) I see competent conceptual thinking.
2) I see underdeveloped typographic skills.
3) I see underdeveloped layout skills.
4) I see the computer more than I see the art director.
5) I see work derivative of other advertising.

Hey, I’m really happy that today’s art director is more conceptual than ever. Because it’s a fact and that’s great. We all know that concept is king. But never, never, never—Young Student Art Director—underestimate the importance of execution.

Here’s a little creative director mathematics for you to think about.

Assume you are a creative director and you need to assign a project.

You have a good writer available. You need to team that person with a partner. Here’s the math part:

A) Good Writer + Art Director with strong conceptual and executional skills = A good idea fully-realized.

B) Good Writer + Art Director with strong conceptual, but poor executional skills = A good idea not fully-realized.

C) Good Writer + Graphic Designer with strong executional skills = A good idea fully-realized.

It’s complicated I know. But to the creative director, A and C are happy scenarios. But B? Decidedly not happy. It produces weak advertising.

What should you learn from this?

That unless you develop the ability to execute, the creative director might as well hire a graphic designer. And why not? They put it down better than you do. And a good writer is providing the conceptual part. So while your conceptual ability is a good thing, the fact that you can’t execute has hurt the final product.


Agencies are not in the business of training art directors. Agencies are in the business of selling a quality product to clients who are willing to pay for it. Agencies require personnel who contribute to the creation of that quality product.


As an aspiring art director, you may exit a technical school with a portfolio that can get you a job, but if you find yourself standing at a lightbox beside a print production manager unable to give competent direction because you don’t understand basic concepts like value and chroma, it’s a problem. And if I’m the creative director who hired the portfolio, it’s my problem.

The point of all these paragraphs and silly math equations is simply this: Make sure you know the fundamentals of art direction. If you are not getting enough of this currently, go get it on your own. It’s all out there if you’re willing to look for it.

I’m not an educator, but my guess is that the drop in the executional proficiency of today’s entry-level art director is due to some horrible collision of the computer and the curriculum.

The computer because it teaches art directors how to be lazy.

The curriculum because it focuses on making ads, not art.

Here are a few ideas. You’ve probably heard most of them before. That’s probably because they are important.

1) Learn how to draw. I never trust an art director who can’t draw. I know there are those rare examples of great art directors who can’t draw, but it still drives me crazy. Drawing is simply an understanding of how lines and shapes fit together to communicate an object. If you can draw, you can probably lay out a page. Or compose a television frame. Or do all sorts of other art director things.

2) Develop a passion for typography. Good type is rapidly becoming a lost art and that’s sad. If you don’t know what a ligature is or you’ve never heard of Jan Tschichold—go ask one of your instructors. I hope they know. And hand letter a couple of alphabets while you’re at it.

3) Understand value and how it behaves.

4) Become a closet editor. Other than music, it’s the single most effective way to impact a piece of film.

5) Make photography a hobby.

6) Use your hands. It’s the quickest way to make your work distinct because no one uses them anymore. I will quit the business the day “hands on” becomes an item on a pull-down menu. The computer is a wonderful tool, but your brain and your hands are much, much better. And they’re yours. Not everyone else’s.

7) Look to anything but other advertising for inspiration. There’s culture all around us. Pay attention.

And may I also add that Communication Arts is a wonderful publication.

Influence it. Don’t copy it.

Best regards,