Rediffusion’s advertising agency on what makes good and bad television ads in 1965

How do TV commercials arrive on the screen? Fusion asked Mather & Crowther, the company’s advertising agency. This article by MAURICE SMELT, a creative group director at Mather & Crowther, where he has been for the last six years, is the result. Mathers have such a streak of Trappism that they never say anything about themselves if they can avoid it, keeping their advertising strictly for their clients. What follows is therefore one man speaking for himself, and Mather & Crowther will neither confirm nor deny that his viewpoint reflects any official viewpoint that Mather & Crowther would ever publish as their own, if they could ever bring themselves to publish it.

From Fusion 41, the house magazine for Rediffusion, London, in December 1965

Please note the accurate, sad, fatalistic passive up there in the title. How television commercials get made. Not How we make television commercials – which would imply a universe full of free will where man was always master of his fate. Still less How to make television commercials – which would not only be presumptuous but superfluous. Good advice on the subject is offered all too freely, except by one or two consultants who actually charge for it. No – the fact is that in far too many cases, commercials just get made.

The most conspicuous fact about television commercials is how awful they are as a general rule. And yet nobody wants them to be awful. The writer puts pen to paper with good intentions. The producer, the actor, the man at the piano, the client, all do their best. Even the ITCA are presumably on the side of the angels. Why such a gap, then, between what everyone wants to happen and what does happen? Is there some special intractability about commercials that confounds the cunning of their makers?

Well, it may be that commercials do begin with handicaps that are peculiarly their own. If it isn’t pretentious to call them an art it is certainly true to call them a unique form of art. Rules that apply to making programme material hardly apply to commercials at all. Whereas programme companies somehow have to fill hours and weeks and years, world without end, the advertiser, with thirty seconds only for his sales pitch, has every problem except killing time. In press advertising we do at least work to the same scale as the editor, in pages and half-pages and whole columns. In the ocean of television we are spots indeed. The point is not merely philosophical, because it has meant that since commercial television began, the advertising industry has had to discover what could and could not be done in mini-segments of time, with little that it could usefully plunder from motion pictures and television.

Then again, it is very hard to buy first-rate artists for commercials. Voices over, yes. Screen appearances, no. (What, never? Well, hardly ever.) ‘Face fatigue’ is the excuse that the actors’ agents give – by which they mean that stars will lose their public following if their faces come out in TV spots.

Still, handicaps like that should not be crippling. After all, they only are handicaps – problems which one should be able to put one’s mind to and solve. In fact they obviously are soluble, and every so often a good commercial comes along to prove it. So what goes wrong, when it does go wrong, which is most times?

What goes wrong is everything, every little thing, piecemeal. Watch Monday’s Newcomers (every Monday, 10 a.m., Channel Nine, when the past week’s new commercials go on air for the benefit of the trade) and it is easy to see how mediocrity wins its war of attrition. Somewhere down the all-too-long line someone has toned down a racy phrase, someone else has pushed in a cliche punchline (‘… at your stockist NOW!’) … and daintified the actresses … and prettified the sets … and picked the mushier of two musical backings. We all know the suburban kitchens that are too opulent and too clean; quiverfuls of winsome children; their mummies (aged about 22, irreproachably genteel); women who get out of bed every morning with immaculate hair-dos; uxorious husbands; the whole, horrible galère – forever smiling, cheerful, and odious. And then there are the voices that bully you, or suck up to you, or suddenly come over all sincere and comforting, as if the dog had just died.

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All this tediousness comes from nothing wickeder than a lot of sensible people trying not to be rash, meaning well, and always – at every decision – choosing the safer of two courses. How seldom one sees a commercial that failed because vision went haywire and genius ran amuck. How often one sees failures of dullness and committee-thinking. It is the old story of the committee that sat down to design a horse, and came up with a camel. Only it’s worse. Like a fish designed in committee that ends as a fishcake, the bad television commercial is inoffensive, shapeless, and dead.

That’s what happens when commercials get made. For a commercial to survive the death by a thousand cuts requires the man in charge (whoever he is) to stick to his guns, his script and his intentions with quite ruthless determination. Otherwise this, roughly, is what could happen to a commercial conceived on a Friday 13th.

  1. An agency copywriter writes an outline of a script and discusses it with
  2. An agency television-producer. Granted that both have talent, they devise a first-draft script that is plain, pithy, relevant, and unordinary.
  3. They submit it to some creative overlord, who may make some tactful, euphemistic revisions, because perhaps the first draft was a little too plain, not to say plain-spoken.
  4. The script then goes to agency executives. Suggestions; counter-suggestions. Slight changes get written in. Statesman-like compromise.
  5. The revised script (now turned into storyboard, or videotape, or 16 mm with or without sound) is presented to client. Pause. Agency sit with bated breath. Breath unbates, when client proposes two tiny changes, ever so tentatively. Agency demurs, ever so faintly.
  6. Casting session on closed circuit. Those present include writer, producer, creative head, executive, client, minions and myrmidons. Everyone has a voting paper. Any actor whose features are irregular, foreign, or otherwise unsafe, is told that we’ll ring him.
  7. Pre-production conference. Actor can’t manage his lines, changes them slightly. Director from production company changes lines slightly.
  8. Script goes to the ITCA, who change the lines slightly.
  9. On the floor. Take 1. Not quite. Take 2, 5, 8, 19, 23, cut. OK, that’s it, print.
  10. Rushes, rough cuts. Sequence of shots slightly altered from the camera script for editing reasons.
  11. Double-head screening for the client. Agency bates its breath … ‘Could we dub another voice on to that first man? … Oh, does that mean we have to redub all the actors? … Very well, redub-a-dub-dub.’
  12. Panic.
  13. Bulk prints rushed to stations in penalty time, almost injury time.

It seems you can’t win – not if you believe in reason, in give-and-take and the courtesies of debate…

And yet, somehow, we do manage to win – quite regularly – at Mather & Crowther. Not always, not often enough to encourage complacency, but yet oftener than you could account for on coincidence. One could quote Player’s (since ‘People love…’), Eggs (since Bernard Miles), Shell (since Bing Crosby), Cream (the little cat), and Schweppes (Schhh… You-Know-Who). Perhaps we have a little talisman somewhere that enables us to beat the average a little bit, in a game which otherwise seems to be ruled by random. Certainly we have some guides to scripting which everyone is supposed to adhere to. Such as:

  1. When the commercials come up, your viewer instantly switches his mind off; therefore reactivate him, make him switch on again, by opening dramatically.
  2. Never close a commercial with a boring old pack shot and price.
  3. Every commercial must contain some singular, odd, gee-whiz thing that will stick in memory when all else is forgotten.
  4. This mnemonic – which we call the selling fix – must be not merely relevant to the product but central to its use. Otherwise people will only remember an extraneous oddity and they will completely forget the product.
  5. Ideally the whole structure of the commercial should lead to placing this ‘fix’ in the very last frames, so that the whole advertisement ends surprisingly, delightfully, and powerfully. No dying falls.
  6. If you can demonstrate, do so. One in the eye is worth 10 in the ear.
  7. If you can set up a familiar problem that people recognise as their own, and solve it right before their eyes, and prove that you have solved it – do so.
  8. Keep sequences simple. Preserve the unities. A commercial must never become complex – it is not a motion picture.
  9. 120 words a minute is ample.
  10. Notwithstanding the difficulty, go for the top talent. They can only turn you down. Among those who have not turned us down have been Bing Crosby, Jack Hulbert, Sammy Davis Jr., Bernard Miles, Joan Littlewood – and the top of the Pops.
  11. On no account use harsh, injunctive, bullying commentaries. A commercial is an advertisement, and all advertisements are on the side of the public and have the public’s needs in mind.
  12. Don’t be greedy. Don’t say one thing in titling and another on the sound track. Words and pictures must always agree.
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Those are most of the Mather & Crowther rules, and we think they are good rules. They never made a good commercial yet, any more than you can make sonnets just by knowing rhyme schemes. But they do at least discipline creative energies, and concentrate thought so that the committee procedures within the agency begin with a strong measure of consensus. Beyond that, I think that we owe such success as we have enjoyed to the unrelenting, ferocious highhandedness of one or two people who have the energy to pick up the progress of a television commercial at every stage of its filtration through committees, and put back the vitamins that were there in the original script. This makes life a little bit hard sometimes for those of us who are reasonable, used to give-and-take, polite in our discourse. But if you want a good commercial more often than just sometimes, that may be the only way to do it. Or at least it’s better than democracy.

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