Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Say "Hi," to laughter. Say "Hi" to Ken Marcus.

Not long ago, I asked my friend, Ken Marcus of the Martin Agency to write a post for Ad Aged. Ken was kind enough to say yes and to bring his perspective--and experience--to this space.

Ken's written many of the commercials people actually like and actually talk about. Hundreds of them. 

Chances are, Ken's made you laugh like he's made me laugh. And along the way he's made a lot of clients a lot of money and he's made them laugh, too. 

Making people laugh.

While you're selling your clients' products or services.

That takes a rare talent. 

Ken has it. And he's kind enough to teach even an old goat like me a thing or two. 

Thanks, Ken.


Thanks for having me, George.  I’m a long-time fan of your writing. I’ve been a writer at Martin Agency for almost 15 years and an Adjunct Professor at Brandcenter for 1st-year writers. And I’ve had the good fortune of producing over 100 GEICO spots. (Most with my longtime partner, Sean Riley.) Here are some things I’ve learned along the way:


The Script Is The Starting Line.
Not the finish line. So be open to unexpected surprises along the way. The original script for GEICO’s “Hump Day” was a lot more straightforward and frankly, more cookie-cutter. It was only in the edit did we discover a much better structure and cadence to the spot. Which brings me to my next point…

Hire Great Folks. And let them do their jobs. Don’t fence in directors and editors too much with an “approved” script. Remember, they’ve done this more than we have. So chances are, they’re better at it than we are. Surround yourself with people funnier and more talented than yourself. They’ll make you look funnier and more talented too. It’s worked for me!


But Don’t Hire Divas. If your director won’t let you approach them or talk to them on set? Fuck them. Never hire them again. There are too many talented and collaborative directors out there to work with. Now, more than ever. The days of the tantrum-throwing, “auteur” directors are over. Good riddance.


Casting. Is. Everything. Yes, it’s boilerplate copy in every Director Treatment you’ll read. But it’s true. Actors can make or break your idea. As much as I can get distracted by all the free snacks, I’ve learned to really pay attention in callbacks. Often, an actor or actress can look the part. But do they really “get” the intent behind your concept? Do not wait to find out on set.


You’re Really A Showrunner. People forget than when you’re watching SNL or sitcoms, they have a room full of writers punching up scripts. Not just one writer and an art director. Most comedic actors work in UCB or The Groundlings and are way funnier than we’ll ever be. Create a collaborative space where they feel free to contribute. Actors, directors, editors, producers and yes, even clients.


Allow For Spontaneity. Some of our most memorable moments in spots are when we let actors or directors explore lines that weren’t necessarily scripted. “Expired! Expired! Expired!” in the recent “Aunts Infestation” spot is a great example. (The original line was something pedantic like “This yogurt is expired.” Gripping.) These quirky, unusual phrasings can really cut through the sea of over-researched copy. I find that’s the stuff that folks play back the most.  


Get Over Ourselves. I hate the “leave the creative to the creatives” mentality. Everyone’s seen a commercial. So everyone can have a valid, well-reasoned opinion. Now we don’t have to act on every opinion, but let’s not pretend like there’s some magical wavelength that only the “creative” can possibly tap into. It’s a fucking talking camel. We’re not writing Beckett over here.


Go Grocery Shopping.  Commercial film sets are deceiving. There are all these big monitors, microphones and lights everywhere. It appears like you’re making an honest-to-goodness commercial. No, you’re really at the supermarket shopping for the ingredients to make a commercial. The edit is where you’ll actually prepare your meal. Make sure you have everything you could possibly need, even if you only wind up using a fraction of it.  Be voracious on set. And merciless in the edit.


Map Your Escape Routes. Build in your escape routes ahead of time. Sometimes jokes or bits don’t work like you imagined in your head. Come prepared with a few alt endings or pathways in your back pocket just in case. There’s nothing worse than being on set and realizing something just isn’t going to work. Be ready to cut bait and go to Plan B, C and maybe even D, if necessary.


This Isn’t College. A lot of creatives think production is the time to booze it up. There’s nothing worse than being hungover in the production van. (The suspensions are terrible.) Partying every night while on production is strictly amateur hour. The client is paying too much money for you not to be at your best. Pro-tip: if you’re gonna stay out late one night? Make sure the next day is for Fittings. You get to sit on a sofa all day.


But Have Fun. If there’s one thing eighteen months of “Zoom” shoots have taught me? Well, besides the Craft Services at my house sucks. We are so lucky to go on production. I’ll never take this for granted. This really is the fun part of our jobs. Working with talented, cool people to bring your ideas to life. We really are the luckiest to be able to do this for living.  I know I am.



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