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TV Commercial Director

The Real Poop

So you want to make a career out of creating something that everyone in America tries to skip?

Because that's essentially what being a television commercial director is all about: creating short commercials that everyone just wants to skip through as fast as they can. A television commercial director manages every production stage in order to design and execute these minutes-long commercials. To begin the process, a director works with ad agencies, art directors, copywriters, and other media types to create a specific vision to sell a certain product.

And then, to make that vision a reality (insofar as commercials reflect "reality"), the director works with (or, "is trapped on set for 16 hour days with") the artist types: grouchy cameramen and set designers, melodramatic actors, and interfering producers, among others. So directors need superhuman patience and teamwork abilities. This isn't a job for the kids who dreaded group projects in high school.

This also isn't a job for the kids who were always running out of money and never knew where it "went," as though it stood up and walked away. (Hint: It doesn't.) Directors need to be budget-conscious. You can be sure the company that hired you to get a project done under a certain budget won't just let those couple tens of thousands of dollars you spent on catering and expensive hotels slide. Respect budgets, respect deadlines.

But you can't just be a "numbers guy." You aren't an accountant. You are an artist. And if you're pretentious, you might even call yourself an "artiste." Although, you won't have total freedom. You're not Spielberg. You still have to more or less present the ad agency's vision. But still, directors are first and foremost visual thinkers with some formidable technical skills. They understand trends, and they know what sells. (Usual suspects include violence, sex, exotic locations, and celebrity cameos.) They know their way around a computer. After sketching out concepts on storyboards, directors rely on software to make the film they shot look cool.

How does one acquire such skills? While there aren't any formal educational requirements to become a commercial director, most directors aren’t born with a working knowledge of Final Cut Pro. (If you know of someone, let us know.) Even Ridley Scott, arguably TV commercial’s most famous director who also made a successful transition to full-length movies, had to learn somewhere.

The majority of commercial directors pick up some skills by pursuing a four-year degree in something related to fine arts or graphic design. Courses in studio art, graphic design, computer-aided design, and advertising tend to be pretty helpful. In fact, those courses are pretty helpful for a lot of related careers. If you find yourself leaning towards art and design aspects, and the idea of designing layouts and page spreads appeals to you, you might be more interested in becoming an art director for newspapers and magazines. Or maybe you lean towards computer graphics, in which case animation might be more your style.

What we're saying is, keep your options on the table as much as possible. The life of a television commercial director isn't the black-beret glamor you've envisioned. In fact, television commercial directors make average money at best, work long hours no matter what, and are rewarded with very little job stability and an only average job outlook for the career in general.

No wonder most people get into the television commercial business as a stepping-stone to higher things (like paychecks and movies that people actually watch).

In a nutshell? Your intended career might be, well, a little moot in a world where most people are able to skip (or at least mute) their commercials. Of course, you might be the exception, creating commercials so fresh and innovative that they go viral, and everyone actually wants to watch your commercial.

But more likely, you'll work for low pay and long hours to create a 30-second ad spot for TurboTax that 90 percent of viewers will skip through so they can find out what happens next on Biggest Loser. And the remaining ten percent who actually watched your commercial won’t be able to recall a single detail about your work two minutes later.

If you really want to sell yourself on this career, maybe you could make a commercial about it? Because if you can't sell to yourself, you can forget about selling to other people.

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