New things that haven’t made ads better, part 1: treatments.

This whole series is going to be based on the incontrovertible truth that ads aren’t as good as they used to be. You might not agree with this. If so, watch the best ads of twenty years ago, then the best ads of today.

I assume you now agree.

If memory serves, back in those days there was no such thing as a formal treatment from a director. You’d just look through some umatics to check out someone who might be good for the job, maybe narrow the list to two or three, then meet them for a chat.

That chat was something of a two-way street, where the creative team would feel out the director and vice versa. Afterwards you’d all have a good idea of whether or not you’d want to work together, so you’d award the job, hope the director liked you as much as you liked him or her, and go and make a commercial message on behalf of a person or corporation..

Some time in the early 2000s the treatment was added to the process.

Treatments, or some sort of expanded version of the director’s vision laid out on pages, or as a Keynote presentation, existed before then, but they weren’t essential. Some directors used them to work out their process, then shared some or all of it with the creative team. Others just went to the pub and scribbled their ‘vision’ on the back of some beer mats.

I believe the first instance of using a treatment to win a job was the big-ass document Tarsem produced to convince BBH to allow him to direct this:

Although that was made in 1992, Tarsem’s extra effort might inadvertently have kicked off an arms race from which there has yet to be a retreat: if Director A offers a big document of photographic references, name-drops of classic DoPs, a page or three of arse-kissing (‘First, I just want to say how much I love this script, yadda yadda yadda‘), and the occasional use of film jargon, such as ‘anamorphic lenses’, then Director B is going to look lazy and uninterested unless they do the same.

A treatment is (supposedly) an indication of intent, but it’s also (supposedly) a demonstration of how much the director wants to do the job, conveying the extent to which they will be inclined to put in extra hours on the set, or call in post-house favours to perfect the CGI, just for you. Most people like having their egos stroked, so it also serves that purpose.

(I think this is the moment to point out that many treatments are not actually written by the director. Instead, the production company employs treatment writers who specialise in making such things look real purty, writing them with evocative élan and sourcing some great images from books about Nan Goldin or Corinne Day. Sometimes they do this with the director, in order to more accurately reflect that all-important vision, but sometimes they just get a recording of the initial meeting and kind of parrot it back to the agency. It might also be worth mentioning that – gasp! – the finished result doesn’t always correlate entirely with the promises in the treatment.)

And now it is de rigueur; an ‘essential’ part of the process, as worthy of a calendar entry as the shoot itself.

But if the ads are now worse than they were in the pre-treatment days (and they most certainly are), why do we now insist on ‘treatment o’clock’, as I heard one CD refer to it?

I know correlation doesn’t mean causation, but perhaps the rise of this extra prep has contributed to the fall in standards. It’s possible that the extra time spent on these documents is time that might otherwise have been spent on more useful endeavours. These could be anything from visiting more locations, meeting more potential DoPs, or having a bath where more and better ideas might arrive.

It might also be the case that committing to much more stuff up front reduces the space for magic to happen on the shoot. Most productions throw up new circumstances that might be incorporated into the ad, but if you’ve already nailed down the finished article (or more of it) the opportunities for spontaneous greatness are reduced.

Third, and I think most important, the treatment is an implicit reduction of trust. It says ‘I know you said some good stuff in the meeting, and we got on like a house on fire, but I need still more indications that you’re not going to fuck this up’. This is never made obvious, but both parties know it’s there, just as they know there’s a good chance the director didn’t write the treatment. Then we all sweep this weirdness under the carpet and pretend everything is above board and no one lied to anyone.

I get that in the past ads sometimes ended up in bad places that you weren’t expecting, and that perhaps a treatment would have prevented that. But perhaps it wouldn’t. Treatments by their nature offer a kind of perfection that is unlikely to be reached, making disappointment a more distinct possibility.

I certainly know of directors who would prefer not to spend the time and money creating a treatment for an ad that fails to win them the job. Just like in Highlander, there can be only one, so two or three treatments are going to be a big waste of resources, adding to the annoyance of failing to get the job. Margins are already tighter than two coats of paint, so adding in an extra (rough estimate) 10% cost to every script (including the waste of the losing treatments on other jobs) is something of a kick in the teeth. They’re essentially a director’s pitch, and all pitches are something of a shot in varying degrees of darkness.

And I think we can be sure that, as with pitches, the ‘best’ doesn’t always win. Jobs get awarded for many other reasons, so a brilliant treatment, expensively produced, might lose out to a more focused budget or a client’s whim.

So maybe we should return to the old days, when a chat and a handshake, with all their attendant implications of connection and trust, were enough to kick off some of the greatest ads of all time.

Or we could just keep adding extra pointless bollocks to the process of making ads, even though it’s clearly no guarantee of better work.

I wonder which would be the better choice…

***** SPECIAL BONUS *****

I asked a production company founder for his POV on this subject.

His response was much more interesting than my post…

I think “the Client” has a role to play in all of this.  ‘Back then’ – as you say – it was a question of sifting through some tapes and doing some meetings.  As an account man I would go to the Client and say ‘this is your script, and this (shoving the u-mat into the machine) is the bloke (always a bloke back then) who’s going to direct it’.  Okay.  Not always quite that straight-forward.  But the Client rarely needed to be ‘sold’ the Director – unless it was someone (a) without a reel (see your note on Tarsem) or (b) someone really, really expensive.  The Client simply bought into the ‘mystery’ of production.  More on that in a minute….

You are right.  Tarsem lit the fuse.  But why did it take 8 years between his three hour pitch to Larry & Rooney and ‘the early 2000s’ to become A Thing?  Partly because Tarsem HAD to pitch that hard.  He had two things on his reel – an REM promo and some MTV idents.  That was it.  He was up against Mike Seresin (old-school brilliance) and Steve Lowe (hotter than hot wunderkind).  So he HAD to pull a rabbit out of the hat.  I was at Garretts (‘Ministry of Film’), Blink and Stark in the ‘90s.  Not a treatment in sight.  So Tarsem’s treatment was a false dawn.  The big guys simply didn’t have to work that hard to get a gig.  The agency didn’t press them.  And the client didn’t know any better.  Vaughan & Anthea were pretty revolutionary with their filmed ‘conversation’ which was sent across to the agency.  But words?  Few and far between.  And pictures?  How are we even going to do that in a pre-computer, pre-www age anyway?

Actually – looking back – I think the pressure came from other places.  TV – where ‘Sizzles’ ruled the roost – had some influence.  Brett Forracker (where is he now I wonder?) had the backing of 4Creative and did some cracking treatments.  And some of the more computer-savvy directors – who knew how to combine words and pictures (‘Wow!  What even IS that?!’ ‘Um – it’s called a Word Doc’) led the way.  And then – of course – the curve was exponential.

What started as a competitive edge that helped the Prod Co win business became the albatross around its neck.  Agencies couldn’t award a job without seeing a treatment (the bigger, the bolder, the better).  And then of course the Client (who had remained pretty oblivious to all this up until now) was dragged in.  Agencies started using director’s treatments to help sell in scripts.  And then we heard that one agency was researching treatments to see which one found most favour.  Yikes!

So the whole deal was ramped up.  And out-sourced.  RSA begat a slew of in-house ‘visual researchers’ who traded on their experience and took it into the freelance market.  Then people realised that it wasn’t enough for the Director to explain what it was he wanted to do with a script.  Blow me – he had to entertain whilst he did it!  A few gags, a heart-warming intro – some writing craft.  The birth of treatment ‘writers’.   And the whole cottage industry exploded.

Treatments got more and more lavish.  And theatre was employed (Ringan’s ‘Sainsbury WW1 Christmas ad’ was delivered to AMV in a battered despatches briefcase straight from the Western Front in 1914 – or so it appeared…).  And guess what – we heard comments like ‘well the meeting was hopeless…but the treatment was stunning, so we gave him / her the job’…..Well what a surprise.

So now Clients wouldn’t even look at a Director unless there was a treatment.  And wouldn’t chose between directors (‘we recommend this guy (or girl…now), but either of these other two could do a good job…’) unless they can compare treatments.

And of course the more people see them – the more the words and images stick.  So when the finished film turns up – and there’s no shot of the sad looking boy on a bike in the rain (“But I LOVED that image!”) it’s a bit of a let down for some.

As you rightly say – it become prescriptive.  We’re going to tell you what we’re going to shoot – and how we’re going to shoot it – before we’ve visited the location, built the set, cast the talent etc etc etc.  Would Nick Kamen’s image (or anyone like him?) have appeared in a treatment for Laundrette?  Doubt it.  And would the Client have bought that image? (he was definitely a swarthy, ‘bad’ boy vs the WASPish clean-cut American image the Client was expecting).  Doubt it.  So Nick might never have been called to the Casting Session. Etc etc.  

Again – as you rightly say – film-making is like chemistry.  The end results might surprise and delight.  But there’s a degree of risk.  It might all go tits up.  And no one wants (or can afford that).  So the treatment is a sense-check.  A Risk Assessment.  A due-diligence process that tells everyone they’ve made the right decision.  If it goes wrong now, no one can accuse us of not being responsible in the process.

Could Directors be doing other stuff?  Not sure I agree with that – the time is being spent pitching on the job and that (hopefully) will pay dividends if and when the director wins the job (thinking about sets, cast etc).  But are they too long?  Almost always – a Facebook treatment went in last year at over 200 pages….  Are they too expensive?  Almost always – but who’s going to turn up in a Cortina when the other guy’s in a Merc?  And do they stand scrutiny?  Well let’s put it this way – I’ve yet to hear of agencies having a ‘creative wash-up’ after the job.  Sure – there’s a ‘financial wash-up’ to see where the money went.  But a post-match analysis to compare what they were promised vs what was delivered?  Nah.  Nobody wants to do that….
If I ruled the world two things would happen.

1.  Clients should pay the pitching but losing Prod Cos.  Nothing evil – £1000 each would do.  But if the Client demands to see the treatment then the ‘pitch’ should be a line in the budget – unless of course the Client says they’re happy to award without sight of a treatment (never gong to happen of course).  
2.  Agencies should be prescriptive about the length of treatments.  ‘5 pages and that’s it – you can send in a sixth but we won’t read it’.  And why not do this?  The most depressing thing to watch is ECDs on your shoot reading treatments for their next shoot on shitty phones on your set – swiping page after page after page.  What a waste of everyone’s time and effort.

I’ll leave you with two stories.  Neither of which are about treatments.  Both of which are about trust.  And both – weirdly – involve VW.  Tony Kaye did the PPM for God Bless The Child.  When it came to the ‘Director’s input’ in the meeting Tony bent over in his chair and put his head in his hands “I p-p-promise” he whispered “to d-d-deliver you the b-b-b-best VW commercial you’ve ever h-h-h-had”.  And that was it. Didn’t do too bad a job, did he?

And I read on Dave Dye’s blog that Frank Budgen – when it can to the ‘Locations’ part of a VW PPM opened a file in front of him, took some images out ad held them close to his chest.  He looked at each one in what was a silent room, put them back in the file and said quietly ‘“yep – I’m happy with those”.  Brilliant.

Life was a bit more fun when there was a bit less certainty and a bit more trust in the process I think….