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Since I started as a junior creative - a good 20 years ago now - I’ve seen a huge transition in terms of the kinds of scripts that were written compared to today. 

This is partly due to declining budgets (which means we obviously see fewer of the epic concepts that directors like Jonathan Glazer and Frank Budgen were known for), but we also see far fewer great comedy ads on TV. Why is this?

Back then, it seems like there was a lot more trust between the client and the agency, and also between the agency and director. This led to a working process that is probably closer to how great TV comedy sketch shows are created, with fewer steps of approval between the initial concept and the final outcome.

Back then [there were] fewer steps of approval between the initial concept and the final outcome.

I’m not saying that’s how it should be now, but there is certainly a lot more hand-holding with the client to get to that final film these days. It’s much more of a collaborative process now, but during this transition, where does comedy sit? And what’s the best way for creating a funny ad?

Harking back to the early noughties, I was working under the tutelage of Paul Silburn, who was one of the most awarded creatives of the time - best known for the John West Salmon's Bear ad and John Smith’s campaign that he produced with Daniel Kleinmann. 

John West – Bear

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Above: The legendary John West Salmon Bear ad.


He was part of a generation of creatives - influenced by the likes of John Webster - who appreciated the craft of creating a 30 second TV commercial with the simplicity of a Fast Show sketch. 

There had to be a good balance of trust between the client and agency that would trickle down to the production company and director. 

There had to be a good balance of trust between the client and agency that would trickle down to the production company and director. They were buying braver ideas that were slightly edgier. 

Agencies like Howell Henry, Fallon and Mother were making ads that really stood out, like Tango, Skoda, and Cadbury’s.

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Blackcurrant Tango – St George

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Skoda – Factory

Above: Two classic British comedy spots for Tango and Skoda.


Meanwhile, agencies in the US were pushing the boundaries even further, making some great award-winning ads with memorable campaigns for Fox Sports, Budget Rent-A-Car.  

Clients wanted to see what an ad would look like before it had been shot and they wanted to know exactly what they were getting for their money. 

There was definitely a noticeable shift after the financial crisis in 2008, which obviously had a huge effect on advertising on both sides of the Atlantic. Everyone had to tighten their purse strings and budgets were massively slashed. Clients, understandably, were less likely to take risks, because everyone’s job was on the line. And that affected the work that agencies were producing. The clients wanted to see what an ad would look like before it had been shot and they wanted to know exactly what they were getting for their money. 
 
At the same time, agencies were saying to production companies, “you can’t write a one-page treatment anymore, you need to spell it out. We need a document that tells our client exactly what they’re getting”. 

Above: Funniest from the States for Fox Sports and Budget Rent-A-Car.


This is when we started to see ‘director’s treatments’ evolving to where we’ve got to today, with each document having to be bigger, better and glossier than the competition’s. It’s become an industry unto itself. In an attempt to convey to the client exactly how the finished film will look, we have managed to dilute spontaneity from the process.

A treatment can only go so far to convey the full potential of an idea

With comedy in particular, I find that a treatment can only go so far to convey the full potential of an idea, as so much of the humour actually comes from subtle nuances of performance and the unforeseeable moments that occur on set, when working with actors. That’s something that you won’t ever see in an animatic and therefore gets completely overlooked when an idea is put into research.

Treatments, animatics, and mood films are obviously all useful tools, but are only ever part of a pre-production process that should never get in the way of the idea continuing to evolve on set. After all, it’s only once you have all the elements in place and start to work with actors that the true comedy potential of an idea begins to take shape.

Advertising has to be sensitive to whatever is happening in the world. A recession is obviously a massive thing for the industry to get through. Then we’ve had Brexit, the pandemic and now the war in Ukraine. All of these factors have an effect on what kind of work the clients want to create.

The pandemic is an example of how advertising felt it was necessary to reflect the mood of the nation.

The pandemic is an example of how advertising felt it was necessary to reflect the mood of the nation. During the first wave production was obviously very limited, and we started to see a lot of ads on TV that looked like they had been shot on iPhones or via Zoom, with everyone making understandably sombre work - when actually, I think that this was exactly the time we all had a need for comedy. We were all desperate for a bit of escapism. That’s why we all got obsessed with Tiger King, and started binge-watching Schitt’s Creek.

It took a while before clients started wanting to make funny ads again.

Extra Gum – For When It's Time

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The Wrigleys Extra commercial [above] directed by Nick Ball really stood out to me as a refreshing break away from the sombre, heartfelt advertising. Packed with observational comedy nuggets that we could all relate to. It’s a great example of a client and agency being brave enough to produce work that could easily have been shut down as being insensitive.

Let’s all hope we’ve seen the end of the last lockdown, and ads like this are a refreshing sign of a braver future where we are all able to take more risks. 

After all - funny always wins.

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