Big thanks to Wendy, who sends in today’s reader question! Wendy writes…
“I have been told a TV commercial is a good way to get some writing credits. Is this so, and how would a person go about getting into commercials? --Wendy?”
Well, Wendy, I think writing TV commercials is a great way to get some writing experience… IF YOU WANT TO BE A COMMERCIAL WRITER.
For the most part, showrunners and executives aren’t combing through ranks of commercial writers searching for the next great TV writer to join the staff of The Mentalist or My Name is Earl or Mad Men or The Colbert Report or Sons of Anarchy. Writing TV commercials is a different craft than writing TV shows, and while execs and producers definitely want fresh voices, they also want fresh voices that can write TV shows.
Personally, I’m of the belief that if you want a certain job, you should laser-focus and go for that job. If you wanted to be a NASCAR driver, you wouldn’t do it by first becoming a mechanic. You would get a car, get on the track, and learn to race. And while you’d also learn all you could about automobile mechanics, you’d dive into the specific training it takes to become what you actually want to be: a real driver.
Sometimes I hear people offer TV writers advice like, “You have a better chance of breaking in if you first become a lawyer, because there are tons of law shows, and showrunners always seem to be looking for lawyers.” While there may be some truth in this, it’s also misleading advice. Showrunners do like to hire lawyers—especially on law shows—but telling someone to become a lawyer first… or any other profession… is sending them down a long, risky, circuitous path.
The truth is: showrunners and execs want talented writers who understand the medium of television and have real-world/life experience to help inform their writing. So yes—experience as a lawyer can be helpful and attractive. But so can experience as a fireman. Or a marriage counselor. Or a spy. Or a plumber. Or a stay-at-home mom. The is key taking the real-world experience you have and being able to translate it into powerful stories and writing. But I certainly would never say that certain professions—whether ad-writers, lawyers, or airline pilots—are funnels to the TV world. If you wanna be a TV writer… go learn how to be a TV writer.
Having said that… showrunners and executives also like hiring writers with produced credits. Produced credits suggest someone else—someone acting as a “filter”—read a writer’s work, liked it, and got it made. They also suggest the writer has a certain level of professionalism, or at least understands some of the processes of translating words from mere thoughts to actual out-there-in-the-world products. Produced credits suggest, in theory, a writer knows how to take notes, collaborate, rewrite to accommodate practical elements (time, money, space), etc. And in the world of television, where time, resource, and budget constraints constantly force writers to change stories, characters, and scenes, these are important skills and experiences to have.
Produced credits could include plays, movies, published novels, articles, short stories… and yes—probably even TV commercials, especially if they were particularly creative and/or well-known. A showrunner hiring for a sentimental melodrama (say, Seventh Heaven) may be very impressed with a writer who has written a successful series of touching Hallmark card commercials. An executive looking for writers for a raunchy new sketch show may be impressed by someone who’s written a bunch of hilarious Bud Light commercials. I’m not saying they actually seek out and scour these places for new writers… and I’m definitely not saying the best way to impress a producer or exec is to go out and write commercials… but I am saying that commercial-writers who have creative, successful commercials under their belt may be attractive to certain showrunners searching for specific and appropriate voices.
There have also been a few rare instances where TV ad campaigns have literally been turned into actual TV shows. The most recent of these was last year’s ABC flop, Cavemen, which was based on a series of Geico ads created by the Martin Agency, an ad agency in Richmond, Virginia.Joe Lawson, the ad copywriter who wrote the original spots, even got to write the script for Cavemen’s pilot episode. Likewise, in 2002, CBS developed a TV series based on “Baby Bob,” a talking baby who had appeared in a series of freeinternet.com commercials.
However… these instances are few and far between (not to mention, they rarely work). I don’t think it’s fair to say that a commercial writer who creates a brilliant ad campaign has any better of a chance of turning it into a TV show than someone who writes a great short film… or a terrific autobiographical memoir… or a wonderful stage musical… or anything else that catches Hollywood's eye.
So to sum up this rambling answer, Wendy… if your goal is to be a TV writer, my advice is to go be a TV writer. Don’t waste time taking circuitous paths as an ad-writer or a janitor or a doctor or a military commander because you think it’ll somehow “backdoor” you into the industry. GO GET A JOB IN TELEVISION. Get as close to the action and the writing process as you can. Become a writers assistant… or a P.A…. or a script supervisor… or a runner. Start wherever you need to start to begin learning the process and making contacts.
BUT… if you’re not in L.A. or you can’t yet get that first job, by all means—keep writing. Write the best pieces you can and get them out there into the world… poems, plays, skits, magazine articles, online shorts… or—if you want to—TV commercials. Whatever best shows off your unique talent and voice.
As for actually getting into writing TV commercials, if you really want to pursue it, I would begin by researching ad agencies in your area, then contacting them about job opportunities. Most probably won't hire you as a bona fide writer right off the bat, but you can begin as a desk assistant, or a production assistant, or even a receptionist. This will allow you to meet the players, learn the process, interact with clients, and understand exactly how TV commercials are conceived, written, and produced.
Do a good job, make friends with your co-workers, please the clients, and eventually you'll feel comfortable enough to ask for more responsibility and let the higher-ups know your aspirations. Again, you probably won't leap right from assistant to writer, but perhaps your boss will let you help write a few spots... or rewrite a few lines... or pitch an idea... or something that will allow you to begin showing off your writing chops. Eventually, you'll impress people enough that you will move up the ladder and begin writing your own spots.
Hope that helps, Wendy!... and for the rest of you who may have questions about TV, film, writing, agents, or anything else… please feel free to email me at WDScriptNotes@FWPubs.com. Have a good weekend!
P.S. If you haven't seen them, here's a compilation of Geico's caveman commercials...