A Word About Writing Corporate Videos and Commercials
By Doug Morris
“When it comes to writing scripts, we know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.”
What’s the difference between writing a screenplay for a film and writing a script for a corporate video or a commercial?
Well, if you write a film you have final script approval right up to the moment when you sell your screenplay to a movie studio. However, if you write a script for a corporation, you’ll always have that extra layer of client approval baked into the writing process.
You’ll need to get used to the fact that corporate clients will always get their demands sandwiched in between you and your audience: You’ll have to please them first… before you can hope to engage your viewers. So it can be helpful to learn some diplomacy and the art of persuasion.
IS IT SAFE?
It can get especially tricky producing corporate videos, thanks to their high visibility within most corporate cultures. An expensive production can expose and unsettle even the most seasoned Brand Manager or Marketing Director, so tread carefully.
Many clients will be happy to default to their video being a literal regurgitation of facts. This is often referred to as the, “just tell ‘em” strategy. But is anybody going to want to watch it? Or remember what was said? It’s unlikely.
People being people, we aren’t all necessarily creative thinkers, especially when our jobs are on the line. Nobody wants to get into trouble so when the script or video goes up the ladder, many lower level clients quickly become risk averse.
WHEN TALENT AND PASSION AREN’T ENOUGH
It’s one thing if you’re dealing with the company CEO but if your contact is a client farther down the chain of command, whose butt may be on the line if the video doesn’t turn out right, or doesn’t fulfill the vision of the corporate heads, that brand manager or advertising director’s head may roll. And unless you mind your Ps & Qs, you could be on the chopping block, too.
These mid to lower level clients have, what has been referred to in creative circles as, negative authority. They can almost always say “no” to an idea but they rarely have the power to approve it. Their presence in the process can be a real frustration and cause the writer some sleepless nights.
Back in the day, Vidal Sassoon had a tagline that said, “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.” Similarly, if you can make that marketing director look good to his or her corporate masters, there’s a good chance that it’s also going to reflect well on you and you may get hired for work again.
Try to pick up on the fears and concerns the client may have regarding the project. They may not be saying it directly but if you’ve got a hunch that something could cause them to get into trouble, you should probably find a way to diplomatically dissuade them from doing it.
Some clients may even go so far as to ask, “Why do we even need a copywriter for this? We have all this information on our website in the About Us section: Why don’t we just make that the script and that’ll be our video?”
Perhaps you’ve known clients who’ve even tried to write a script themselves: As often as not, they’ll come around and say, “Yeah, this sucks, this isn’t really my job.” Many just don’t realize how much goes into writing a script so you are there, in large part, to keep them from embarrassing themselves.
For instance, when you read silently from a page, it’s a lot different than when you hear it expressed aloud. The writer will condense some parts, simplify others, and work to amplify the message so what’s said becomes more important to the viewer.
As Los Angeles Madman Bob Humphreys often said, “The Art of Advertising is making small differences loom large.” That dramatization, not to be confused with exaggeration, can be helpful for making the sale to the client, and ultimately, to the viewer.
WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?
As you know by now, there’s quite a bit that corporate clients don’t stop to consider. Many believe it’s all about them and their branded image but in fact, nobody really cares. Consumers only want to know one thing, “What’s in it for me?”
That’s why you have to hook ‘em from the start. You’re giving something to the viewer, something that makes them want to either Click or Learn More or Call this number. We’ll discuss more about the hook a bit later.
BUT FIRST YOU NEED A CREATIVE BRIEF
Ideally, your client will provide you one: A single-page document that holds all of the important information that you’ll need to get across in the video. Like any good newspaper story, the creative brief should contain the “who, what, why, when, and where” necessary to write your script.
Perhaps the single most important thing you’ll get from the brief is “who” the client wants to speak to: What are the demographics? The age range, or the gender, race and culture? Who will you be talking to and in what tone?
Does the client expect the video to simply be straightforward and informational, as though you’re speaking to their board of directors in a presentation? Or should the tone be spirited, funny and playful? How far should you go to dramatize the emotional angle and tug on the viewers’ heartstrings? Are you trying to sell their products or improve their corporate image?
The brief isn’t simply a checklist – rather it should reflect the brand character and personality of the corporation and the expected outcomes of the video when viewed by the target audience.
Some clients won’t be able to provide you with a creative brief so it may behoove you to take all the notes from your discussions with them and, together with your own research on their competitors, their industry and their brand, write your own creative brief. A word of caution if you do: You must always run your brief past the client for approval before proceeding. To do otherwise could spell d-i-s-a-s-t-e-r!
Once approved, the brief becomes the touchstone for you and your client to measure your script against. It‘s there to protect both you and the client: Only when you’ve come to an agreement on what the creative brief contains should you begin work on a script. In fact, aside from your deposit check, an approved creative brief is the single most important document the client can provide a writer.
Another thing your creative brief should provide your target audience is a reason to believe. Like the old Tim Hardin song: “I cried when they lied but still I look for a reason to believe.” Consumers especially, of all stripes, whether B2B or consumers, have become so used to being lied to by advertisers that it’s become critically important that you present them with reasons to believe in the goods or services you’re selling.
Your claims need to be honest and truthful. You can always dramatize but never exaggerate. Try to build off of that and you’ll stand a better chance of cracking the code to engage viewers in a meaningful way.
SETTING THE HOOK
Yes, a hook is any intriguing opening that can relate to the viewer in a number of different ways.
A verbal hook can be a provocative question, a dramatic declaration, or a relevant quotation. Anything that sparks your viewer’s curiosity and compels them to stay tuned to find out what happens next.
A hook can also be an unexpected or provocative image that catches the viewer’s eye and makes some kind of visual statement about a product or service. The hook can even be a metaphor or simile such as this print ad for the VW Crafter, which features the payload capacity of the cargo van expressed by cleverly stacking a number of cardboard boxes.
Other entertaining metaphors worth noting are, 1) this older Guinness video in which humans stand in for sheep in a Welsh country sheepdog trial:
Or 2) A metaphorical video from Farmers Insurance “we know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two” TV campaign such as this one dramatizing an actual damage claim played out in an imaginative way.
By using your imagination to create and use metaphors, “an image of one thing representing another thing,” we can help our work transcend the ordinary “see and say and super” approach to become a lot more engaging and memorable to the viewer.
But regardless whether the hook is a metaphor, or it’s in the audio or is in the video… What’s critically important is getting the viewer’s attention right away.
The big New York ad agency, Young & Rubicam mandated that all its copywriters and art directors “arouse related viewer interest in the first five seconds of a spot.” What “related viewer interest” means, I suppose, is that you engage your viewer from the beginning as an individual and not as just a member of a herd.
DON’T FORGET THE MNEMONICS?
Still working off of the creative brief, you should also be seeking out ideas that help viewers by providing mnemonic devices that help them to remember your branded message. Perhaps you’ve heard what the legendary copywriter and agency principal Hal Riney had to say on the subject, “The best thing advertising can be is helpful.”
Helping viewers remember your spot or video, by providing memorable elements in your scripts and storyboards, and making it easier for them to recall your messages, is one of the best things you can do to serve your clients.
WHEN SHOULD YOU HIRE A STORYBOARD ARTIST?
In many cases, such as a talking-head presenter or a series of customer testimonials, presenting a storyboard with your script is a total waste of time and an unnecessary expense.
However, for more complex productions, which may include animation, graphics, or a storyline the client needs to follow, a storyboard can be a useful sales tool.
Much like a comic strip, a storyboard shows your clients, as well as your production crews, exactly where you’ll be taking them. This can provide clients an opportunity to sign off on art and copy in advance of your production. In addition, storyboards are also an essential component of pre-production planning, providing producers with an invaluable tool for bidding your video or TV spot and help keep things on track during production.
Another reason to present a storyboard to a client is to give them a chance to spot things they may have overlooked. Your two-column script may be comprehensive enough to list all the visuals in great detail but many clients are visually oriented and will respond better to what they see in front of them as opposed to just what they’ve read.
If the client missed something in the script, a storyboard can save a lot of time, money and heartache down the road.
WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
Plenty! One of the most frustrating and least satisfying aspects of writing a script for a corporate client is when you’re not allowed to make the creative product really sparkle the way you know it should. You may come up with a great idea that you really feel passionate about but be careful you don’t get too attached to it. There are times when the client may have something else in mind and you may need to go with what they want, especially if they become adamant.
DEATH BY A THOUSAND CUTS
Another real frustration is having a good idea that everybody agrees on it at the top. And then, by the time you’ve gone through the approval process and get to the end product, everything has been watered down because there have been so many different voices coming in to say, “No, take that out.” “Let’s add this list to the copy.” “Hey, I’ve got a better idea…” So before long you’re watching the whole production go straight off the rails. There’s a fair bit of irony involved when a group of executives can take something that only you could write and make it something that anyone could write.
In the end it’s their dime and you’ll have to do it their way and that can be tough. But if you’re really persuasive and can give your client enough rational reasons… you may, in the end, win them over: It’s doable and that’s why they hired you. Just don’t fall on your sword if you don’t get your way.
It can be especially frustrating if, when you started the project, you thought, “This is going to be great in my portfolio.” I can’t wait to share this with everybody but in the end, you’re frustrated because you know the project isn’t going to be as good as it could have been and you still have to apply yourself professionally to make it as good as it can be. Not unlike a broken engagement, it’s a very unsatisfying experience.
But on a more positive note: There are two kinds of book pieces. The ones that you put proudly on your reel or in your portfolio to showcase to future clients your amazing talent… And the book pieces you deposit to your checkbook account.
Both kinds of book pieces have value so if you’ve got work, count your blessings: If not, stay positive and better luck next time.
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