On paper vs on the air

I f you’re an advertising creative (or a scriptwriter of some sort), you will at some point have to produce an ‘idea’ on a piece of a paper, which is then intended to convince lots of clever people that it would be a good TV ad.

So far so obvious, but the process of how a ‘good’ script becomes a good or bad ad, or how a so-so script can become something great is rarely discussed.

I’m aware of a script that said as little as ‘People rub themselves in Levi’s jeans’ that was not only approved all the way up the chain at BBH, but was also taken on by Frank Budgen and shot (here’s the result). I don’t think that script made a classic Levi’s ad, despite the fact that it was Fred and Farid + BBH + Levi’s (when they made excellent ads) + Frank in his prime. But was it a good script? Was the massive free rein the right thing to do? Or was it actually a bit crap and lazy, resulting in an ad to which you could apply similar adjectives?

I heard recently that the same thing happened for a classic Orange ad in its early WCRS days: ‘Just shoot some kites’. I seem to remember that a VO went alongside that, elevating it from the dullness of 60 seconds of nicely-shot kites, but maybe that was a good brief to give a ‘visual’ director. Plenty of ads have no real narrative, so why pretend to have one when you don’t?

Then again, what about great scripts that have produced poor ads? They’re harder to come by, obviously, but I’ve definitely heard the phrase ‘every director in town is after this one’, or ‘Frank’s pitching against Danny’, only to see a rather underwhelming 60 seconds at the end of the process.

Of course, many things can go wrong (or not right) during the process, leaving your ad without the great track, cast member or editor who might otherwise have sprinkled the requisite fairy dust over the production. And the opposite can happen, with a brilliantly chosen bed of sound design or series of beautifully-lit shots elevating something that would otherwise have been humdrum. But at the end of the day you have to fill a sheet of A4 with the right words to get your ECD interested, the client to put his hand in his pocket and the production bods excited enough to take it on and bring their A game. Without that you don’t even get the chance to beef it up/fuck it up with the later decisions.

So have you been surprised by your own B- script turning into an A+ ad? Or vice versa? Have you seen the shiteness of others become miraculously brilliant because you weren’t able to see the hidden diamond that only a great ECD or director could spot? Have you watched an ad on TV, considered the script it must have come from, and thought ‘how the fuck did that ever get made’?

Open on a slightly bored creative, scratching his head…