Creative Dreams vs prosaic budgets

The budget for your creative endeavour is always an interesting chicken-and-egg situation: do you write something in the knowledge it probably can’t be filmed, then hope, or do you compromise your idea to ensure it fits within the available budget? Oh, and in most situations it’s pretty much impossible to know exactly what the budget is or what it will make available. Go!

Throughout my advertising career I’ve either been given a sketchy neighbourhood idea of the budget or no idea at all, and in some ways that’s how it should be: I don’t know what a cherry picker costs vs a helicopter; nor do I know in advance the price of that that critical music track. My job involved coming up with the best possible idea then working with the production department to make it happen in the best way possible.

But if I come up with, say, an idea about waves made of white horses for my Guinness brief, should I be aware that such a thing would be impossible to shoot without £1m, or should I just think up what’s best and go from there? If the client then turns round and says I’ve got £150k, what am I supposed to do? The two options would be either to trash the idea or to work out how to make it for less (animation, for example). But even then, what would I know about the limits of those two options? The Guinness example is a good one because this question came up after the shoot. The waves had been shot and looked so majestic that the CEO of the agency agreed with the client that the extra £250k it would cost to add the horses was now unnecessary as they already had a spectacular ad on their hands for much less than expected. On hearing this the creatives said they’d resign if the horses were not added and the rest is advertising history. Was it worth spending the extra money? Clearly. Was that 100% obvious to everyone before the money was spent? Clearly not. So the point at which creative vision hits financial reality is a big grey area where one side needs to quantify and value something which is impossible to quantify or value, and the other side has to take a leap of faith.

If a producer says I have another £100k, how can I know what that will buy me in terms of the overall quality of the execution? Should that be spent on a great track, or a so-so track and another week of post? This ad is an interesting example of how hard it is to make that decision:

It looks like a million dollars but actually cost much less because the director loved the ideas and wanted to make it work. So the buildings at the beginning are just painting on panes of glass that were shifted around. And they could only afford to film one crash, so they only had a single shot at getting it right (fortunately they did). It wasn’t cheap, but the compromises in budget were mitigated by an increase in creativity and a willingness on the part of the director to make it happen. This may be the point where the favours accrued on previous full-price jobs are called in to allow for more editing time or extra post. The ad makes the people involved look good so things are shifted around to make sure the finished article is not a let-down.

This issue occurred to me because of a conversation I’d heard about how it applies to the digital world. How much does something cost when it’s ‘only’ going to run online? Usually a production budget is worked out to be around 10% of the media spend, so when that media spend is relatively small (online vs proper TV) that proportion becomes unworkable. After all, a motion picture ad is a motion picture ad, whether it’s viewed on a TV, a computer or a phone. And what about the other ideas that live in less conventional media? How much is a Snapchat Story? What about an Alternate Reality Game? A new product that syncs with the car you’re selling? A giant event that takes over a city square? An installation on the side of a skyscraper? An app that depends on a Michael Jackson song? No idea. Does that mean you shouldn’t think of those things? Obviously not; they seem to get made regularly enough. But having some idea of what a budget can afford will presumably be what stops you wasting time planning a five minute underwater shoot helmed by James Cameron when your client is the local caff.

The question is, where do you draw the line? A pound of gumption or creativity can be worth thousands of pounds sterling, but there has to come a point where you discover that your great idea that needs the involvement of Jennifer Lawrence has zero chance of involving Jennifer Lawrence.

Experience helps you understand when you’re getting in over your head, but putting the shackles on your brilliant idea before it’s had a chance to live is never going to result in greatness.