Master Class: How To Make A Great Commercial (Part One)

This is the first in a new Co.Create series called Master Class wherein top talents from various creative fields explain, in detail, how they do what they do. Post Super Bowl XLVI is a great time for Co.Create’s first Master Class: How To Make A Great Commercial. An in depth, step-by-step look at how to conceive, develop and produce a spot, from one of the art form’s top names, Gerry Graf. This is Part One.

Master Class: How To Make A Great Commercial (Part One)

From the editors: For the past few years, around this time, all eyes have turned to the ad industry and the ad industry has lowered its collective eyes and said: perhaps we could have done better. Most viewers would agree that, aside from a handful of exceptions, the Super Bowl did not represent the best possible creative product the brand world had to offer. So it’s time to regroup, and what better way than with Co.Create’s first Master Class. The subject: How to Make a Great Commercial.


The Super Bowl is a writ large reminder of the importance of actually being able to make a great TV commercial. And, despite reports of its death, the spot remains a core competency for creative agencies year round. For the past several years, the ad industry was (rightly) criticized for clinging too tightly to the ad format that had been its bread and butter for decades. So the industry (rightly) set about reorienting itself to be better able to create and execute ideas suited to the new ways people were interacting with content and each other. But it seemed a zero sum proposition–as the volume and quality of digital campaigns increased, the industry’s ability to make a great spot seemed to decrease.
Recently, the industry has been reminded that its mandate is to explore new kinds of experiences that don’t fit into the 30- and 60-second template but also to make the spots that do run better, and more resistant to the DVR skip.

And let’s be clear: TV audiences may have fragmented and dwindled, but commercials are still an important part of the marketing picture. Mid last year, media companies like TimeWarner and Viacom reported big revenue gains, based on growing ad revenues. And, of course, the Super Bowl continues to command ever higher rates ($3.5 million for a :30 this year) for the unparalleled opportunity it provides advertisers to reach a lot of people and start, or continue, a conversation.

And, as we’ve seen in other stories here, the rise of social media has only served to point up the social binding function of TV–and commercials, if they’re good, can be a part of that. In the end, the tips here also transcend medium and can be applied to any creative endeavor.

And there are few people in the world more qualified to lead this Master Class than Gerry Graf. One of the top ad creatives working today, Graf currently leads New York-based Barton F. Graf 9000, an agency he founded in 2010 after several years writing and then leading the creative departments at several top agencies. During stints at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, BBDO New York, TBWA\Chiat\Day New York and Saatchi & Saatchi New York, Graf created some of the best-known and most awarded commercials in recent history.

If you clapped along with the ETrade Monkeys in this classic Super Bowl spot, you know his work.


If you’ve seen the insane Skittles campaign and wondered how a campaign like this ever got sold through a giant corporation (and realized that it actually also sold Skittles), that’s him (and some very talented coworkers).

If you’ve used the phrase “Not going anywhere for a while,” you’ve borrowed his expression.

Here, in this two-part Master Class, Graf walks us through how exactly a great commercial happens. Of course, if you’re an independent filmmaker or work in-house at a small company your process will differ. Graf provides a picture of what the ad-making process is like inside the agency/big brand environment. But many of the underlying lessons are universal. Unsurprisingly, one of those lessons is: there are no shortcuts. Now, we turn it over to Gerry.

The overview

Basically, you have to work your ass off during every stage of the process, from the briefing all the way through to distribution. You can’t lighten up on any part of TV production, which includes the following: The brief, picking teams, concepting, creative directing, selling the work, picking the director, the editor, the cast, the location, the editing, the post work, the rough cut presentation, the finish, and the distribution. Every step of the way needs your full attention and when you think you’ve done all you can do during those steps, you should go one more. If you let up at any time, the spot will suffer. It’s exhausting but worth it.


I didn’t know how to write TV–good TV–for about four years. I learned by picking my favorite campaigns and copying the writing style. For me, it started with Cliff Freeman and then moved to Wieden + Kennedy–Fenske, Riswold, and Stacy Wall.*

The starting point: A good creative brief**

It should be one page. I like a clear point of difference; it makes it easier. The more specific the problem to be solved, the better, as opposed to saying “Snickers is good.”

The Kayak brief (Kayak is a BFG9000 account) was refreshingly simple. People thought Kayak was just another travel site like Travelocity or Orbitz. It’s not. It’s a travel search site. If you like Travelocity, Kayak will search that along with a thousand other travel sites. So the brief was – There’s no good reason not to use kayak. There are bad reasons, stupid reasons, but no good ones.

For Starburst Berries and Cream (from TBWA\Chiat\Day), the brief was a bit over thought, it was looking for some higher order benefit when all we needed to tell people was that Starburst had a new flavor, berries and cream. And that’s what we did.

The perfect team

One decision maker is key. A CMO or president who has final say. Group decisions are bad decisions. The most important thing with a brief is that whoever has the ability to change or kill the work needs to sign off on the strategy. I’ve slaved over projects just to have the CEO say, “why are we doing this?”

Creative directors should be involved in making the brief. A good creative can tell when there is fertile ground in a strategy.


Account people: no one who has a vested interest in making sure the client is happy. I don’t want anything to do with people who think they work for the client. Many account people get their bonuses based on how clients rate them. If your salary is based on keeping a client happy you don’t fight for work. Everyone on the agency side should have one goal–make the best work.

The best scenario in which I’ve worked is with one creative team who concepts, and then they show their creative director who knows more about the client’s business and also knows more work that has been “done”. If anything has the faintest whiff of familiarity, we kill it. Even if you can’t cite a specific example, if it feels like it’s been done, kill it.

Finally, an executive creative director who has a vision for the agency who checks off on the CD. I don’t believe in 1000 monkeys typing or agency gangbangs***. Although, if you don’t have the best talent, you have to put two or three teams on an assignment. The junior teams need to be pure creative, out of their minds, idea generators. The CD needs to be able to identify a kernel of an idea in those scripts because juniors rarely identify big ideas–they have them, but they have to learn to see them. Sometimes it’s one line from a script—good CDs dig out those nuggets to find the idea. The ECD keeps the CD focused.

Another thing: CDs should NEVER work on the same assignment that they have handed out. It is completely demotivating. Sometimes you have to come in at the last moment if the ideas aren’t coming though.

Agency production needs to be around from the beginning. When I was at TBWA\Chiat\Day New York, I moved production into the creative department. That way if you have an idea, they can start thinking on how to get it done. You have to go into a client meeting ready to explain exactly how you will do the spot. If you say “We’ll get back to you”, the spot usually dies.

The creative process

Complete immersion in the product. Planning needs to get research and all information to the creatives early. I told my planning department at Saatchi that when I came into their space, I wanted to feel old and stupid. Planning needs to know more about the product and more about the consumer than even the client and they need to feed the creative department in a simple way.


I’m a big believer in Ray Bradbury’s book Zen in the Art of Writing, where data input starts off the process then you make a clear statement to your subconscious of what the problem to be solved is. Then you take some down time to let the subconscious work, then do the actual writing.

I will work alone in the beginning filling a notebook with everything I know about a client, not really searching for ideas. I’ll let it sit and then start concepting with a partner. Sometimes another writer, art director, designer, media person—it depends on the assignment. I do know that you can’t come up with great ideas on your own. Even Tarantino needed Roger Avary to write Pulp Fiction. I also get most of my ideas after working all day with a partner and walking home–if your subconscious knows the brief, it is always thinking for you and the ideas spew out when don’t expect them.

A page from an early notebook of Graf’s. The beginnings of a campaign…

The writing process is almost always the same. A lot of ideas come at the beginning. Most you should throw out. Then there is a period when you think you are a hack and will never think of an idea ever again and your career is over, the well is dry. Then the dam breaks when you are completely desperate. Happens every time.

Then there is the story of the endless “No’s.”

The way it works is you work on your own for a bit and about one in every ten ideas you have are good, the rest suck. So when you start working with a partner, you start pitching the ideas you think are good enough to say aloud. Your partner, if they are good, will kill about one in ten ideas. So you do this for a week or two to get enough ideas to take to the creative director who will then kill at least half of your work and send you back to do more. So you have to start all over again. When you finally have stuff passed by your creative director you go to the client who will then kill everything except one thing. Unless they like nothing, which is what usually happens and you have to start the whole process over again. By the time you get something made, there are probably about 100 ideas that you personally thought were good but someone else has said they stink. You need a thick skin.

If everyone has agreed on the brief, and all your work is on brief, it makes it a lot easier to sell highly creative work, because then it is just a matter of who has the right to say if this is a good idea or not. More often than not a good agency can win that argument. I have never sold anything to a client that I didn’t think was right for their business. If you sell something that will simply win an award for yourself and your agency and the client thinks that why you sold so hard, you will never sell anything good ever again.


In sum:

The best work comes from talented clients and agency people who truly want to do something good for the brand. Unfortunately, most people are just trying to hold on to their jobs and making choices based on that. People with talent are not afraid to lose their job because they know they’re talented and they will get another job.

Read Part Two: Production, Directors, The Critical Casting Process

*Cliff Freeman and Partners: a storied (now shuttered) New York agency that defined humorous advertising for many years. Sample work. Wieden + Kennedy, is, of course, a well-known creative agency and Mark Fenske, Jim Riswold and Stacy Wall former creatives.
**A creative brief defines the brand problem that needs to be solved. It’s the summary of what the marketing mission is, the document the creative team works from.
***An unfortunate term used to denote when a brief is opened up to multiple (or all) creative teams in an agency.