How does one get into commercial writing?
July 6, 2012 10:12 AM   Subscribe

How does one get into commercial writing?

I realize it's tough, but I think I'd have a shot at it; I've always been good at coming up with catchy narrative ideas in a short amount of time. Over the last year I've accumulated a fifty page word document of spec commercial treatments.

I've done some research online and I even read a book on the process of making commercials, but there are some very basic questions about the business I have been unable to answer.

I gather that copywriters in ad agencies, in collaboration with their clients, draw up the rough concepts/treatments for commercials, and then pass those treatments on to the commercial directors for revision.

What I haven't been able to figure out is if there are copywriters who specialize in writing commercials as opposed to print ads. I don't think I'd be great at writing print ads or clever slogans. My ability lies more in storytelling and visual ideas. Is it possible to get a foot in the door if you're only good at writing commercial concepts/treatments? And if it is, how do you get a foot in the door?

From what I've read copywriters use a book full of spec print ads to get their first jobs. But what if I want to focus on commercials? Would I use a book of spec commercial treatments instead, or would I need to actually film the treatments (something which would be very difficult and costly)?

I have also read that some television stations have people whose job it is to write commercials for them, but I've had trouble finding out more about these jobs or how to attain them. Any idea?
posted by timsneezed to Work & Money (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You have to start as a junior copywriter at a traditional agency, and you'll probably get put on a team with a designer. You would have to do some work in print and digital as well as television, and it actually is better for you to be more well rounded in this way. It's usually more senior people who can specialize in TV scripts, but even they are often pulled into other things, because that's how agencies work -- if you have availability and there's a need on an account you'll get pulled in.

I'm a producer in advertising, not a creative.
posted by sweetkid at 10:17 AM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'd say the best thing you could do for your career is to start making friends at ad agencies.

I have also read that some television stations have people whose job it is to write commercials for them, but I've had trouble finding out more about these jobs or how to attain them. Any idea?

I used to work in print advertising at a television network. Most of the on-air promos (the ads for the shows) were cut by video editors working with writer-producers.

Everyone I know on that side of the business started as a runner and worked his way up.
posted by roger ackroyd at 10:35 AM on July 6, 2012

Broadcast may be the biggest "spend" at consumer agencies, but one can work on B2B accounts for decades and never see a broadcast campaign.

In most agencies, broadcast typically earns placement commissions, not creative fees. So agencies are investing their own resources in broadcast campaign development and production, betting on future reimbursement when the campaign runs successfully. Most creatives have to earn the right to be trusted with that kind of risk-laden budget. It's a spot for a senior, not an unproven beginner.

Your best bet, if you want to be a broadcast specialist, might be a local television station in a small-to-medium market. In my experience, most of those have a single writer on staff, handling strictly local advertising. You may write commercials for the car dealership and draft the voiceover listing the week's grocery specials for the "donut" of a regionally produced commercial, but you'll learn and you can make your own creative opportunities. Then you can advance horizontally -- a similar position at a station in a bigger market, working with bigger budgets, until you have the chops to get attention at a national market agency.
posted by peakcomm at 11:36 AM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Copywriter here seconding everything sweetkid and peakcomm said.

Consider writing web videos—TV time is super expensive, so commercial projects tend to go to the top guys on the team. But lots and lots of companies are leveraging their web presence and beefing up their content with video, mostly short-form, that aren't all that different from commercials. You could also consider going to school. Advertising programs are popping up everywhere, and it's an excellent (though expensive) way to build your portfolio and make connections.

In the end, though, it's like any other creative endeavor: You gotta start at the bottom. And also like any other creative endeavor, the field is crawling with enormous, rock star-esque egos unwilling to share the spotlight.
posted by feistycakes at 11:41 AM on July 6, 2012

The ad copywriters my company employs (on a contract basis, mostly) have journalism degrees. Mostly BSs, but also one master' degree. I work in the art department of a publishing, training and direct marketing company, and all our writers have j-school on their resumes.

I asked two of the in-house copywriters how they got their first jobs, and one had an internship lined up by her school (University of Missouri - Columbia), and the other had an internship he found on his own.

Feistycakes is dead right about the egos involved. Hell, I'm a mere creative director, and I have an ego that could destroy a small city. A lot of the writers I use regularly think they're just biding their time before Hollywood beckons. It can be competitive and ugly.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 12:27 PM on July 6, 2012

I own an ad agency and am friends with several other agency owners or high-level creatives. First, I can speak to what I'd look for when hiring someone for my own agency: wow me with some spec work. Worst case scenario I contract you for strictly video scripting (I wouldn't limit your talents to just commercials, but all sorts of web videos too). If your stuff is good enough, a little on-the-job copy writing would turn you into a fine copy writer. I value creativity and vision first, then writing proficiency second.
The long, cut-throat road through talent pools of large agencies is losing ground to the rise of small to mid-sized agencies who bring on talent regardless of how many industry hurdles you've jumped over. These modestly sized agencies are becoming more and more popular because they are agile, hungry, and more focused. Plus it's much easier to get in with a smaller to mid-sized agency.

Second, I know owners of a couple different video production companies, and they'd kill for good creative writers like yourself - that would be a perfect place for your talents. Clients come to them with all sorts of needs for video - training, promotional, informational, teasers, and yes, full blown commercials. Many agencies use these companies rather than keep the video talent in-house, and they rely on these video production houses to concept and write the creative also.
As a writer for videos, it's important you know as much visual narrative techniques as possible - different kinds of pans, cuts, framing and establishing shots, zooming methods, etc. A deep knowledge of videographer will help you tell as funny/compelling/emotional/memorable :30 to :60 second story (and longer) because you're maximizing the medium's visual approach. A perfect, and industry related, way of going about this education would be to get into storyboarding. Believe it or not, some of the top storyboard artists for companies like Pixar and Lucasfilm are comic book artists and writers. The comic book medium is the ultimate narrative form - combining prose, cinema, and art. It's the prose and cinema combination that you'll want to become familiar with.
posted by Detuned Radio at 11:47 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Detuned Radio, I just sent you a PM in case you aren't notified.
posted by timsneezed at 9:41 PM on July 7, 2012

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