Depending on the budget, bigger commercials can have shorter working hours than movies and can shoot for a week. Sometimes on lesser budgets, there is more pressure so the days will be longer to try and reduce the shooting schedule.
Commercials are not only an exciting area of the industry to work in but a gateway to feature films for many directors and crew.
Talk to your school or do your own research, internships at companies specialising in commercials is a great first step.
Apply for PA positions at commercial production companies, research the company’s body of work on their website, make reference to this in your covering letter.
Expect to work as a PA for 18 months to 2 years before progressing within a company. If you want to direct look for picture researcher and treatment writing positions.
Despite the 30 seconds of screen time, well-executed commercials are widely regarded as microfilms that have the power to sway opinion, excite and engage us. Commercials have award ceremonies, their own superstar directors and most importantly own identity within the film industry. Whilst commercials can be lavish affairs (Baz Luhrmann’s 2004 Channel commercial cost $33m), they can also be simple and thought-provoking. The commercial industry fosters and creates the opportunity for new talent, many feature film directors have started their careers in commercials, including Ridley Scott, David Fincher and Zack Snyder to name a few.
Working in the shortest of film formats can be quite a challenge, especially when the creative forces are doubled by teaming up with a creative agency. Commercial production companies exist to meet the needs of these organizations who are instrumental in conceiving the initial concept and conveying the client's message. The process can be a pressure cooker, and directors have to be mindful when working with so many voices during production.
Agencies often, but not always, have preferred directors whose interests are aligned with a specific company. When the agency has completed the script they will ask their preferred directors to write a treatment, laying out their vision for the commercial. The treatment needs to answer all the questions of how to convey the client's message of the brand. It also needs to be visually stunning, with a team of treatment writers and picture researchers working alongside the director optimizing the company's chances of success. Agencies will be asking 3 - 4 companies for treatments, which is modest considering music videos will have around 40 companies pitching for the work.
Before the shoot, there is a PPM (pre-production meeting - there may also be multiple PPPMs to agree on details), where the agency, client and production company will sit down together and approve all the shots on the storyboards. Going into the shoot everyone should be in agreement, knowing what it is they wish to achieve with the commercial; the PPM should help stem any issues on the shoot day. However, there are always last-minute changes, especially if the client and members of the agency team are present during filming. Directors often find themselves acting as the anchors for the production, making sure everyone is aligned and following the same creative vision.
Commercial companies have key members of staff in place (production coordinator, production manager) and bring in freelance talent when the need arises, so many businesses are not very big - unless they have merged or set up a creative agency to run alongside the Production Department. The smaller the company, the bigger the advantage for junior members of staff as a promotion can be quicker and there's more scope to move around the company as it grows. Alongside internships, many commercial production companies offer in-house junior positions such as:
The production team on a commercial (production coordinator, production manager) will often hire the set PAs unless the 1st AD for the shoot has his/her team they like to have with them.
Internships have been developed to provide the right candidate with an immersive experience into the world of film production and give you a chance to find out how each section of the industry runs. The tasks you may be assigned may feel menial and not educational, such as making the coffee, but you will be able to chat to people; ask them what they do, and what’s their job like? Internships should also provide you with the opportunity to get your teeth into a project, and for the right proactive candidate, an internship can see you gaining some valuable experience in the workplace.
PAs are tasked with the essential role of helping a production company run smoothly. You’re going to be the first person in the office, and the last to leave. You have to be very patient, and always have a smile on your face as the days can be long and tiresome. While working as a PA your responsibilities can include:
Such as emailing out call sheets, picking up the phone and helping to file a large amount of paperwork associated with all productions.
Assisting with pre-shoot prep.
Working with the production coordinator to stay on top of any changes that might occur, booking flights and transport. If the production company is hosting a production from abroad, PAs assist with booking accommodation and providing ‘Welcome Packs’.
Dealing with office supplies such as stationery, toner, and photocopier/printer paper
Commercial companies can be exceptionally busy, so it’s not uncommon to find members of the team eating lunch at their desk. If the company has a kitchen, you will be asked to keep it clean and the fridges stocked with drinks and snacks. Make sure you know where the nicest deli and coffee vendor is.
Some companies will also have their own camera equipment, if this is the case you could be put in charge of making sure it's prepped and ready to go, which can be a dream for a PA who wants to progress their career in the Camera Department. If you are unsure of what you're being asked to do - or don’t know what the equipment is on the checklist - ask someone, never guess.
Working on set as a PA.
Keeping clients, agency staff and production staff refreshed and happy. Doing a good job invites trust and confidence in you, in-house PAs can often double up as set PAs when the budget does not support the extra staff.
Similar principles, working methods and etiquette are observed when working as a set PA on a commercial and a feature. The hours may be longer when working on an ad, however, the length of the individual job is never usually longer than a week, and the pay is significantly better. A set PA on commercials will often have a very tight schedule to deal with and many personalities to navigate. It is important always to appear professional and available while being prepared to offer help to all departments where possible.
Highlighting skills and essential qualities in your resume is a must when you're starting out as an in-house PA. If you look at any job advert, skills or a list of required experience is always present. Read these carefully as they lay out what the company is looking for, you can demonstrate them in your resume referring to internships you have taken. The skills attributed to production assistant work are not limited to:
Being proactive: If you can see something that needs doing then get it done. Although no one will expect you to know the entire workings of the production process when you start work, there is little time for hand-holding; employers like to know you can act on your initiative and show a little common sense.
Prioritize: You are going to be asked (told) to do a lot of things when you’re a PA by many different people who think you exist to fulfill their tasks alone. Try not to meet requests with a negative, use your skills of diplomacy, and let them know it has been put 'on the list'. Unless someone looks you dead in the eyes and tells you the whole company hinges on this one email being sent, work through the jobs methodically.
Be enthusiastic, friendly and approachable: It sounds obvious, but you should act as though you want to be there. Don’t spend time on your phone tweeting about the next commercial you have been booked for. You need to be focused and fully engaged in your tasks, even if some of them feel menial. When you are interrupted from a task that takes patience and concentration to make the coffee, don't be annoyed, treat every new job with enthusiasm.
Be confident: Especially when talking to colleagues or anyone who comes into the office. Don’t be overly confident, no one likes a show-off, be yourself if you can. Introduce yourself to other members of the team and make sure your handshake is firm, and you make eye contact. Try your hardest to remember their name, write it down after meeting them if you need to. Be confident enough to ask when you're unsure of a task you have been set, you shan't be expected to know everything.
Be adaptable: Situations can change at a moment's notice, something may come up that needs all hands to the pump, or you may find yourself in a hire car with a producer traveling to a meeting at the other end of the country. Take it all in your stride; this is life in the industry not just as a PA.
A commercial production company can vary in size, here are some of the roles you will find:
Director (freelance/occasionally in-house)
Producer (freelance and in-house)
Head of production
Members of the Creative Department within the creative agency:
Agency producer (larger companies)
Whether you want to direct commercials, work as part of the production team or put your advertising degree to good use, there's a good chance that you will start your career as an intern, PA, assistant or working the front of house on reception. Initially, you're going to find yourself sending out lots of resumes, and you may not receive a response from any of them. Try not to be discouraged; this is a very competitive area of the industry after all. It can be difficult when you have just started to look for work to know what to include, but you're going to need to demonstrate some work experience, see our advice for more information.
Before you put your finger on the keyboard, have a hard think about the career you want, do you want to be a copywriter, production manager, producer, director? Knowing where you're going will greatly aid your decision-making process when applying for jobs. Do your research and think carefully how this first step is going to enable you to progress.
When working on your resume check it through (or ask someone else to) to see it reads well and is correctly formatted. Keep it short and to the point, as many employers will be ‘scanning’ rather than reading, try and keep it down to one page, two max.
If you are just entering the industry, think about internships within the commercials sector to add relevant experience to your resume. You can also utilize your previous experiences, add voluntary or part-time work to show you are familiar with the working environment.
Finding work and sending out resumes is going to feel like a full-time job in itself. Alongside opportunities listed on MFJF, you can send your resume to commercials companies which can be found on online directories such as NY411. Some people will get lucky, finding work almost instantaneously after education. Some may have put in the hours while they are studying, some people might just be in the right place at the right time. Whatever situation you find yourself in, the resounding advice from professionals working in the film industry is to be persistent; persistent and relentless in the pursuit of your chosen career. Keep applying for positions, sending emails, handing in resumes at commercials companies, and calling in to see if they have any vacancies or work experience opportunities.
Research is the keyword when looking for employment. When you're sending in your resume - or when you receive the call for an interview, research the directors on the company website. Familiarising yourself with their style and the company's slate of work. Who are their clients? You can include why you like certain directors' work in your covering letter, which gives a hint to employers you're willing to take the time to find out what the company has to offer. You can also do your research to acquire knowledge of how the commercial industry works, who are the preferred companies and directors of the moment. Commercial production is a compact area of the industry, and every business will be keeping tabs on what competitors are engaged with. The advertising industry will be looking at the following websites for information:
Alongside researching who all the production companies, creative agencies and in-demand directors are, you can also further your knowledge of the film industry, how movies are made, and the art of the commercial.
Where good ideas come from. Stephen Johnson
The Ad Makers: How the best TV commercials are produced.Tom Von Logue Newth
If you have aspirations of directing commercials, you may wish to include a link to your site with your showreel. Only display your very best work, and be sure your site loads quickly as potential employers will not hang around. If you have created any spec commercials or worked on short films (the shorter the better) make sure they’re good, otherwise, leave them off the reel. Ultimately, companies are going to be hiring a PA to complete all the tasks (and probably more) outlined in the responsibilities section above. You need to demonstrate to potential employers those tasks will be your primary concern, but you can also highlight your long-term career goals, employers like to know you have them!
Working as a PA is where you can begin to build a network of contacts, progress your career within a company, and continue to build experience. Collaborating on short films or short film challenges such as the 48 hour Film Challenge, 48 Film Project, Tongal and The Guerrilla Film Challenge, can be great to add to the showreel. As can the new mobile phone festivals such as the iPhone Festival and the Toronto Smartphone Festival which are open to anyone to apply. Working in a short format requires a large amount of skill as a producer, director and writer. If you love making films then keep on doing so, it’s the best form of training.
A living wage is essential while you're looking for employment, especially if you already live in a big city. So, if you are waiting tables, working behind a bar or pouring coffee, it’s relatively the same starting wage as a PA, except you get tips! Your pay is most likely going to be low for the first few years of your career, if you have no external source of income, you may wish to consider saving up before you embark on your career plan, or looking for a secondary source of revenue.
Although you may not think it, the skills you are developing while working in these jobs will serve you well and can be the attributes employers are looking for to fill the position. In both instances, waiting tables and as a PA, you will need to display the same attitude to the work, you shall be working under pressure from customers, provide excellent customer service and are prepared to work anti-social hours.
Becoming an in-house PA in commercials can mean working in a creative and dynamic environment. Production companies are evolving to meet the demands of the industry and often incorporate music videos and short films into their remit. In some cases production companies that remain solely commercials-based have incorporated a creative agency into the process, making them a one-stop-shop for clients.
Commercial production companies can be quite small compared to their siblings, film and television. As a PA you may be assigned to one project, or find yourself working on multiple projects; if this is the case be sure to remember who asked you to do what! If you're working at an established commercial company, you will primarily be office based concerned with the running of the production - rather than venturing on set. Freelance PA’s are brought into the agency when the volume of work requires extra hands, especially if you're about to enter production.
As the production team can be quite small, members of staff learn how to work together very quickly; which is useful when working on big projects with tight deadlines. Working in a production company isn’t like any other office job. Working in-house can be a steep learning curve for many new entrants to the industry, be prepared to work unsociable hours, and work hard. However, progression can be quick and your determination and readiness to put the hours in should pay off when you are offered a promotion.
As with all aspects of the industry, budgets are a key factor in determining what sort of production and what type of production company you will be working in. Companies who are making commercials on tighter budgets will require their in-house PA’s to work on set, assisting the director and the production team. You can be called upon to:
Lift equipment and help all departments when needed.
Help set up the monitors.
Help arrange the product for the packshot.
Take timings on shots for the director.
Collect or arrange lunch and sometimes dinner for the crew.
Conduct travel arrangements for the cast.
Working as a PA offers you a unique insight into the world of television commercials, music videos and the discipline of working in the short film format. Working in-house creates an opportunity to access the production route into the industry, moving into production coordination and production management. From commercials, it's also possible to cross disciplines and move into feature films, music videos or television.
If you're looking to direct commercials, there is no easy path. You can use the experience of observing commercials directors and use that knowledge while working on your projects. While observing directors you will find their role incorporates the management of the combined creative forces on set. Directors of commercials are charged with bringing about a shared vision, and one of their priorities is to keep everyone one mission for the duration of the shoot.
Production companies will hire PAs with college degrees or high school diplomas. What matters is a willingness to do the job, and a desire to progress and learn how commercials are produced. Companies want to know you can handle yourself within a workplace environment, being able to show examples of work experience within your resume and application would be more than advantageous.
A degree in film or any other subject can offer you a solid educational grounding, foster a love of learning and provide some life experience. It can also offer you options at a later date if you decide the media industry is not for you. If choosing a film or media major, look closely at the modules the course is offering, does it offer:
Practical modules with industry-recognized equipment.
Lecturers (full-time or guest) who are working in the industry.
Affiliations with industry-recognized institutions.
A chance to meet alumni or industry members.
Crew & unit lists.
Movement Orders & maps when working on location.
Travel Movement Orders, often filming happens in more than one location/ country and this document give the cast or crew the reference numbers and timing.
Scripts / script pages. Adverts as usually dialogue light, but script pages with the action are still used, you will probably be the one doing the photocopying.
Strike notices. When filming on a set has finished and the rushes have been checked, a strike notice is issued so that the construction & Art Dept can dismantle the set.
Purchase Orders or POs, which will be generated for every spends and you will be expected to file all PO’s from each department.
Invoices. Crew invoices may come your way, make sure to pass it on to the Accounts Department.
Know your industry.
The commercials industry has its own set of ‘superstars’, and it would be wise to know who they are and their work.
Read the trade papers.
For film and marketing. Informing yourself about the creative agencies is a good practice to get into, the papers will also let you know who the favored production companies are.
Always make notes when taking instructions. Many offices are busy, hectic places to work in, and it can be overwhelming for a new entrant who is not used to the pace.
Keep working on your own projects.
If you are looking to work in commercials as a director keep making short films, through competitions like the 48-hour film challenge or films with friends and industry contacts, then get them out to festivals. Talk to the directors if they're working in the office, but choose your time to do so, never ask them whilst they are working on a shoot.
Learn the format the production company adopts when it comes to call sheets so you can find information easily. Even though you may not be on the shoot, make sure you're aware of who is, it's not uncommon for the production office to get a call from crew who wish to order extra kit or ask questions.
Loose lips sink ships.
Be very careful what you say when you're on set or in the office with clients about, that might not be another member of the crew/office you are talking to about the product. A strict protocol is to be observed when dealing with clients. If they're in the office for meetings do all you can to make them comfortable, and zip it.
Get to know the office.
Where the photocopier is and how to use any internal systems, phone, email etc. Familiarise yourself with this in the first few weeks of entering the company so you can be a useful member of the team from the off.
Learn how to drive.
If you do not have a driving license it would be in your best interests to get one right now. PA’s are often sent out on errands or called upon to drive hire cars/vans to collect the kit.
Be willing and show your interest in all areas of production.
Ask the producer if you can get on-set experience - which is key in broadening your understanding of how the work and planning in the office affect the shoot.
Be polite and calm under pressure.
It’s a tough industry to crack, but the satisfaction derived from seeing an ad you worked on hit the airwaves during a primetime show makes it all worthwhile.
Call sheet. The most important document during principal photography or ‘the shoot’. You will find yourself knowing them intimately as you'll be checking and triple-checking all the information is correct.
Call time. Different departments and members of cast can have different call times marked on the call sheet.
Pre-call time. Some departments, depending on the day, may have a pre-call time for unloading.
Turnaround. A minimum of 11 hours rest period of ‘turnaround’ should be taken between working days. If not possible a penalty is paid.
Packshot. The hero shot at the end of the commercial.
Depending on the budget, bigger commercials can have shorter working hours than movies and can shoot for a week. Sometimes on lesser budgets, there is more pressure so the days will be longer to try and reduce the shooting schedule.
Working as a PA on commercials can earn you a decent living wage. The average is $200 a day. If you are solely working in commercials you can generate a decent living as you start out. If you are in-house, however, you trade pay for the added security of employment rather than self-employment.
The Advertising Producers Association was formed by and represents the interests of production companies, post-production, VFX and editing companies making commercials. The APA also run courses and provide information on the industry.
A spec commercial is a fictional piece of work used by directors wishing to showcase their talents to advertising agencies or production companies. If you are going to make a spec commercial you need to make sure it’s as close to the real thing as possible: advertising execs and producers will know its worth in the first few seconds.
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