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Helen Mirren, Budweiser and commercial production budgets

Commercial production budgets
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This post is by Clive Duncan a Senior Consultant at TrinityP3. As a Director and DOP he has an appreciation for the value of great creative and outstanding production values, while also recognising the importance of delivering value for money solutions to the advertiser.

If you haven’t seen the Budweiser ad with Helen Mirren that played at this year’s Super Bowl you need to seriously consider your place in the advertising and marketing industry. But here it is again… just in case.

Now this commercial is interesting for several reasons. This year it cost US$5 million for a 30 second spot at the Super Bowl, so the Budweiser spot, a 60 second TVC, would have cost US$10 million to air just once.

It is claimed that 114 million people watched the Super Bowl game live, so if everybody is watching (and not taking a pee or cooking pop corn) then the figures don’t look that bad. But my interest in this particular ad is not the media cost but the production cost.

Most ads that air at the Super Bowl cost well in excess of US$ 1 million to produce. Now in my well-educated opinion this ad would not have cost any more that US$350,000 to produce.

Now this does not include Helen Mirren’s celebrity fee but does include an over-blown one shoot day director’s fee of US$75,000 (it is the Super Bowl after all). Even Helen’s status as a celebrity (that would be easily recognised by the target audience) was in question, so Helen introduces herself at the beginning of the spot so that there is no doubt who she is and that Budweiser is getting its money’s worth.

Breaking conventional advertising norms

This ad flies in the face of conventional advertising norms in several ways.

There are no over-the-top production values, Helen sits alone in a deserted diner. The only other person in the ad is a non speaking extra playing a waiter who disappears within seconds of the ad commencing.

The camera simply zooms in on Helen as she delivers her monologue about the responsible consumption of alcohol and drink driving. A worthy message in anybody’s language.

So where are the production values that our agencies tell us are essential for full viewer engagement. Where are the special effects, ingenious editing and the over saturated colour grade that normal creative teams insist upon and fight tooth and nail for on even the most basic of ads?

Not only that, the (hero) product does not face the camera as it slowly zooms in, and when Helen picks up the product she obscures half the label with her fingers, this is advertising sacrilege, what were they thinking?

What were they thinking?

Well my guess is they recognised a well scripted piece of communication that needed none of the embellishments that hack advertisers rely on to beef up their ordinary offerings, or am I being too harsh? You be the judge.

Personally I find the Budweiser ad clever and engaging and I think that the agency was brave offering up such a visually simple ad for a Super Bowl spot and I think the client was even braver for giving it the go ahead.

What should a reasonable production budget be?

The best way to establish a reasonable production budget is to use a percentage of the media budget as a guide. For instance a brand commercial production budget should be 20% of the media fee. Of course a media fee is based upon the reach and frequency required to reach the target audience and this should be calculated by your strategy team well before a brief is handed to an agency.

Recently, I have witnessed clients setting production budgets based on previous spends, not a percentage of the media spend. In the instance I am recalling the proposed production budget was slightly higher than what a media spend percentage would have allowed.

Now this was fine by the agency because the true cost of the production that the agency proposed was some $50,000 less than the client’s target production budget. So the agency and production house were happy to load their budget so that it came in slightly higher than the client’s target budget (this is standard procedure by agencies no matter what the target to push up budgets across the board).

So the best way to set a target is to establish a media spend and then allow the correct percentage as a production target budget. TrinityP3 will be happy to tell you at no cost the correct percentage based upon a few relevant facts.

If you use this method and think the production budget is too modest remember the Helen Mirren Budweiser spot. A brilliant commercial does not have to cost an arm and a leg to produce as it’s all about the quality of the creative idea.

Remember a crap idea is still crap no matter what special effects and cinematic embellishments you throw at it. Be brave and ask your agencies for out-of-the-square ideas, not out-of-the-predictable-box ideas, and who knows you may just end up with an ad with massive recall and save yourselves some money along the way.

I would be interested to hear what you have to say.

TrinityP3’s Production Management Assessment provides a detailed evaluation of your current production operation, and recommendations to achieve optimal performance.

Why do you need this service? Read on to understand more.

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Clive has spent all his working life in the film and television industry and was invited to join the TrinityP3 team as their TV production senior consultant. Clive has the unique advantage of having hands on experience at almost every level of TVC production and understands the complex relationships required to produce creative and cost effective TVCs. View Clive's full bio here

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