Creating HOT Spots

By Bridget McCree, Response Magazine

Direct response spot production gets sophisticated as it increases in popularity

These days, anyone armed with a basic desktop computer can make just about anything imaginable come to life on a screen. Unfortunately, when it comes to short-form DRTV production, this low barrier to entry tends to bring out the worst in people—especially those who urge to be George Lucas for 30 or 60 seconds. “The effects replace the idea,” explains Bob Feinberg, executive vice president and chief creative officer, USA, of Grey Direct in New York. “Communication is sacrificed for impact and results go right down the tube.”

From left to right, dancers Bobby Burgess and Elaine Balden with director James Balden and producer Don Azars, on the set of dapTv associates' EasyDance.

Celebrity Gary Collins and financial expert Tony LoCascio discuss LoCascio's Make Your Money Work financial program, the subject of a recent spot by writer Colleen Szot. Jeff Young at ShadowBox Pictures produced the program's spot.

Atomic Direct's spot advertising for i-opener includes a toll-free number and Web address for the product.

Once consumers arrive at the company's Web site they view Web site animation developed by Atomic Direct.

“The truth is, everyone is jumping on the short-form bandwagon—even car dealerships—because they recognize that consumers appreciate immediate gratification.”
—Colleen Szot, Wonderful Writer, LLC Inc.

Taking it Step-by-Step

By the time they make it onto the air, those 30-, 60- or 120-second spots look like a piece of cake to throw together. After all, how hard could it be to write a script, get a camera and throw some talent together to create a short-form infomercial. Don't be fooled by their appearance. Much work, time, sweat and effort goes into each DR spot that makes it onto the air.

Colleen Szot, owner, Wonderful Writer, LLC Inc. in Minneapolis, Minn., is known throughout the industry as one of the best script writers. Typically, she starts with a product that brings with it a bit of creative strategy. From there, she brainstorms with the producer or director to come up with a position that they agree on, and maybe even an offer that they sell to the client. Then, she drafts a rough script, and it's back to more brainstorming—this time with the client included.

“I rewrite, tweak and polish, and by the third draft, we usually have an approved script,” says Szot. “If I'm working with Jeff Young of ShadowBox Pictures or Joan Renfrow of Onyx Productions, we even come up with specific locations or setups, but more often that's the job of the director.”

The next step, according to Szot, is the shooting of one spot with three different tests: price, offer and value-added. "Then I wait to hear what happened in the test...and if there are changes to be made, I make them," she says. "Good, thorough testing usually takes anywhere from two to six weeks...then the spot is ready for rollout. Six months later, if it's applicable, I refine the spot again to drive retail, and that's it. Short form typically has a short life."
—B. McCrea.

Toronto-based Phoenix Productions puts a greater emphasis on image and relies on a softer sell approach in DR spots for clients like Kmart and Walgreens.

12 Tips for Successful Spots

  1. Keep it simple. A DR spot is much different from an image spot. The viewer must know what the problem is, how your product/service solves it, why they must act now and what they're being asked to do. It's tough to get that across in the 30-second format, which is why most DR spots are 60 seconds or longer.
  2. Be patient. Don't commit to a shoot date until the script is approved. Forcing a script through to meet a shoot date isn't an economical way to produce a successful spot.
  3. Choose the right leader. Use direct response directors whenever you can. They should be the type of people who live, breathe and sleep direct response.
  4. Select believable talent. Make sure the talent you select is believable, and that they fit your product and the image you want to portray in the spot and for the product.
  5. Don't limit yourself. Avoid producing just one spot. Instead, find a way to at least produce two spots with a different creative approach, and test the two against each other. Sometimes the only difference has to be the opening 10 seconds or the closing 10 seconds, or a different product offer or bonus (i.e., "when you call now, you'll also get this absolutely free").
  6. Research, research, research. Do your homework before you even start writing the script. Don't assume that you know your product so well that you can dash right into the spot development. Experience shows that success rates are much higher when time is taken to establish the basics.
  7. Select a good partner. Work with a strategically oriented production company that starts by developing a message strategy and a business financial strategy before they even start writing the spot.
  8. Don't be a loner. Hire a professional to write the spot and put it together for you, and don't try to do it yourself. Remember that no matter how cute or fancy you want to make your commercial, the product is still king and that product is the hero.
  9. Show its benefits. Don't attempt to put everything and the kitchen sink into your spot. Find the key benefit, support it with a secondary benefit and run with that.
  10. Keep it current. Give as many examples of multiple uses of your product as possible.
  11. Buy media selectively. Don't saturate the market with your spot, be smart about where and when you're placing it. Frequency is the way to go, but go to where your viewers are watching.
  12. Keep it current. Don't be afraid to update your spot from time to time—change the offer, add another incentive, drive them to retail. You're giving more life to your spot, and that's only going to drive more sales.

—B. McCrea

“Remember: most spots fail. Know that if you don't do your homework, your product could fail too.”
—Doug Garnett, Atomic Direct

But there's a positive side to the advancements in spot production, according to Feinberg, who says that you "just can't miss what's right about short-form production when you see a spot that does everything right." Those with a strong offer and a clear call to action, for example, are housed in an actual idea that's executed with style and brio. "People have finally figured out that you can get more response if viewers actually enjoy watching your spot," he says.

But getting back to those low barriers to entry, because Feinberg isn't the one who has noticed how they're affecting the industry. According to Don Azars, executive producer, director/writer at dapTV associates in Los Angeles, a lot of clients—mostly individuals and not companies—feel that their brother-in-law can create great, low-cost spots without much DR or production experience.

"I find a lot of independents make the mistake of having someone put together a spot who has never done it before," he explains. "Anyone with these new non-linear editing systems, or a high-end consumer camera, thinks they can shoot a spot."

The state of the industry

Prices are going up, quality is improving and clients are demanding more and more. In other words, it's business as usual in the world of spot production. And while all agree that the costs for creating good spots have increased, so too have the variables involved with the process. For example, "some DRTV products require more expensive spots than others do," says Rodney H. Buchser, president of Hollywood, California-based FMS Direct. Those variables include:

  • The desired quality of images;
  • 35 mm film vs. digital beta vs. mini digital video;
  • High-end computer animation and Paint-Box graphics vs. lower-end graphics, or no graphics at all;
  • Expensive locations, studio facilities and expensive props vs. inexpensive locations and no props.

"The number of shoot days is usually another major factor," Buchser adds. "And there's the creative team, producers, directors, writers and talent. Who you hire as your production team will automatically determine up to half of your production budget."

Colleen Szot, owner, Wonderful Writer, LLC Inc. in Minneapolis, Minn., says the current state of short form today is "better than it's ever been." Short-form spots are beginning to look and feel more and more like traditional advertising, she says, "and that's a good thing."

"Marketers are hiring top-flight directors, and using good lighting, good talent, little things that add up to a lot," she adds. "I'm very proud of the industry today."

On the downside, Szot says too many marketers are still hoping to run a spot one weekend, then reap the rewards by the following Monday. "It just doesn't work that way," she advises. "First, you simply can't bypass the testing aspect. Test your price, test your upsell—test, test, test. Listen to what the numbers are telling you and pay attention to your timing."

1-800-CYBERSPACE

It has infiltrated just about every industry in the last few years, the DR space included. Call it the 'Net, call it the Web, call it cyberspace—by any name, it's a powerful new medium that direct response advertisers are using with a vengeance.

"We see marketers using spots to drive hits to their Web sites," says Gerry Cunningham, president and CEO of The Firm Multimedia in Ocala, Fla. "They still use a toll-free number, but more of the activity has been at the Web level and less at the phone level. In fact, I can't think of a single DR production we've done in the last two years that didn't include the Web address."

Doug Garnett, president of Portland, Ore.-based Atomic Direct LLC, agrees, and says his firm has measured a clear correlation between Web site traffic and media spending. However, he adds that consumers are still not purchasing from the Web in large numbers. "For any given campaign, only about 5 percent to 10 percent of orders are through the Web," he adds.

At The Direct Network in New York, President Peter Marshall says the use of Web sites in spots has tapered off a bit in recent months. "For a while, it seemed like it was all we were doing," he says. "People wanted to drive traffic to their Web sites, and were specifically [interested] in announcing their Web sites. I think a lot of people were using the DR format because they could get media rates that way."

For example, Marshall says a few of his clients from the insurance industry are more interested in directing potential customers to their Web sites, and not so much interested in taking phone calls from them. "They're Internet-based, so they don't want a phone call," he explains. "Sometimes we find ourselves putting the telephone numbers in anyway, just to qualify for DR media rates."

But a Web site does not a toll-free number make, so for now those companies solely interested in driving traffic to their sites will have to wait for the lower rates. "They aren't necessarily selling something the way a traditional direct response advertiser does—they just want to drive the traffic to the sites," says Marshall. "Now, what we have to do is start negotiating with the broadcast outlets to let us put URLs up and get those DR rates." Marshall says the adoption of this technique is "beginning to happen," but that stations and cable are both still resistant to handing over a DR rate without a toll-free number.

Who's using them...and for what?

For the last year or so, Wonderful Writer, LLC's Szot says she's been deluged by inquiries from pharmaceutical companies and Fortune 500 companies. They want DR spots, and they have money to spend. "It's driving up the cost of some short-form production," says Szot, adding that spots like Vioxx and Claritin are in the $300,000-plus range, which not everyone can afford. "The truth is, everyone is jumping on the short-form bandwagon—even car dealerships—because they recognize that consumers appreciate immediate gratification."

After all, she adds, when was the last time you heard "allow six to eight weeks for delivery." Hardly ever, because people want what they want now, and "marketers are building that into the price," according to Szot. "Also, with the Internet, people can go right to the Web site, find out more and then order online. People respond to that."

Grey Direct's Feinberg says right now, "everyone is doing spots," from Fortune 500 companies to start-ups, dot-coms to brick-and-mortar institutions, and national brands to local newspapers. "The easier it has become to sell directly, to take orders or deliver information through a Web address or a toll-free number, the more advertisers enter the DR arena," he says. "This doesn't mean they're classic direct marketers, or even that they use direct agencies, but today, as never before, it seems everybody's doing it—most of them badly."

Expounding on that comment, Feinberg says it's the dot-coms that have raised the noise level and "weirdness level" in DRTV recently. In the drive for intrusiveness and differentiation from competing Web sites, he says, many of them have spent "horrifying sums of money on truly dumb advertising."

"My feeling is they've launched a short-lived trend of 'anything for attention,'" he adds. "Wasn't it [Carol] Burnett who observed, 'If I just wanted to be different, I'd come to work with a sock in my mouth.' I'm not comfortable with people who equate bizarreness with a reason to do business with a company."

In nailing down just why all of these firms are using DR spots, most agree that the goal is a mix of brand awareness, driving customers to retail, with a bit of direct selling thrown in. Lead generation is another option, though it's an expensive process that not all companies can afford to manage. In fact, Atomic Direct's Garnett says he wishes more clients would use spots for lead generation, which takes the capital backing to get the leads and convert them effectively. "This means it takes at least two to three months to test for a final 'profitability' of the campaign," he explains. "Unfortunately, few companies are able to generate the financing to test for two to three months."

Duane Andrews, president and creative director for Toronto-based Phoenix Productions, says he sees more of an emphasis on image in DR spots, and less focus on the quick demonstration type of spot. However, that signifies a move away from the hard sell approach that traditional DR spots were originally after. "Clients like Kmart and Walgreens don't want the hard sell anyway, but when you 'up' the image, response drops," he explains. "The more you brand and push the image, and move away from the hard sell to pick up the phone, the orders drop. But that direct-to-retail softer sell approach works for a lot of our customers right now."

The Balancing Act

The Firm Multimedia's Cunningham likens the running of a spot production company to a balancing act. He says it's all about owning the latest, the fastest and the coolest, while at the same time trying to determine what has real staying power. "Producing any content will always require some form of shooting/editing, and today's field equipment achieves better quality at less cost as does post-production equipment and software," says Cunningham. "It's easy to get upside down and be unable to amortize a piece of gear over what would normally be its useful life." Another variable in the industry—as with many others right now—is labor costs. "It can be a challenge depending on geography," he adds.

According to Grey Direct's Feinberg, the real challenge is creating a clutter-breaking idea in a context that makes people respond immediately. "The goal hasn't changed in decades," he explains. "But what is different is the relative sophistication of the majority of DR commercials. For every down-and-dirty, shrill announcer over product demo shots, you'll also see some highly conceptual, beautifully art directed, carefully cast spots." Feinberg agrees with Cunningham, however, he says that a frustrating issue for spot producers is that the former tends to generate greater response than the latter. "Of course, there's always a reason for this," he adds, "and it usually has to do with direct marketing best practices."

FMS Direct's Buchser concurs, and says that in the past, it was good enough to see a product, write a script and throw it on the air. Now, success requires a well thought-out presentation based on research and market analysis. "Because the costs of media continue to increase, itis getting more difficult to develop a winning advertising campaign," he says. "So campaigns are now more elaborate."

Overall, the real key to success in spot production still boils down to one thing: the product. "Many products just can't live up to the financial expectations held by people coming into the industry, so be realistic," says Garnett. "Remember: most spots fail. Know that if you don't do your homework, your product could fail too."