Finding The Right Video Guys
Choosing a production house is a bit like finding a good doctor.  As a business owner, you want to find someone you can trust with your baby.  And there are almost as many specialists in video as there are in health care.  Finding the right balance between cost and quality, then factoring in those nebulous qualities of experience, style and talent (or the lack of it) can be daunting. 
Where to start?  First let's consider the various ways a small business owner could produce a commercial spot.

Advertising Agencies: A full-service Ad Agency will not only have connections with the better video production houses but, if they're big enough, they may even have their own in-house video facility.  Plus they will be able to handle all your advertising needs including flat-art design for print ads and/or Fulfillment, conceptualizing, script and copywriting and buying.  Agencies are the one-stop-shop for advertising.  With a good one you should end up with a top-notch product, but you'll pay top-dollar  Agencies can also be toney, aloof places that may be more aggressive about selling their clients on services they don't really need.  They are motivated to pay their large staff of workers and may not be inclined to help their clients save money.  They may be used to dealing with corporate clients who aren't all that worried about the budget.  Beware of Ad Execs, Creative Directors and Producers who will pad out your budget for the sake of image or to employ their friends and colleagues.  Like production houses, agencies come in all sizes.  If you shop it out you may find just the right one for your needs.   If you have no time or inclination to get hands-on with your project and have money to burn, this is perhaps the easiest way to go.  Like with life, the easiest is not always the best.

Do-It-Yourself - If you own a camcorder and a PC or Mac and have some basic skills for shooting, capturing and editing video you could do it yourself.  This way, you have only yourself to blame if things don't work out.  If you did try to do it yourself you would probably be looking for help somewhere along the way.  It's just not that easy to produce and deliver a good spot, but you could do it.  And It would look it.

The Fly-By-Night Company - Not a lot needs to be said here except be careful about businesses you know to be start-ups.  There is nothing wrong with dealing with a start-up.  You may even get a deal.  However, if you're looking for a continuing relationship with a production company, one or two bad decisions due to inexperience and your start-up producer can become a start-down producer pretty quickly.

The One-Man-Band - This guy works almost exclusively by himself.  If you're lucky he knows how to write the script, find the Talent, operate the camera, microphone and monitor the sound, direct the Talent, edit the project,  design the CGI and deliver it in a usable form.  Yes, if he's experienced, and talented, and can concentrate on three or four things at the same time, it's totally possible for him to turn out a great commercial all by himself.  If he needs help he knows where to find it.  This guy will save you big bucks.  Like the old saying goes about good men, a good One-Man-Band is hard to find. 

Mom & Pop - There may be more Mom & Pop style video houses around than any other kind, and that's not a bad thing.  Two people running a video business can be a pretty efficient operation depending on the type of projects they pursue.  They may even own a studio, or have access to one.  As much as I hate being pigeon-holed, MediaSmiths Digital could be considered a Mom & Pop operation given the fact that my partner Rose and I are actually a Mom & Pop.  However, in our case it's a Mom & Pop & Sons & Daughters-in law &  Granddaughter & Grandsons.  Our whole family is media savvy and involved in our business on one level or another.  Why do you think we call it MediaSmiths Digital?

Mid-to-large-sized Independent - This house should be able to do it all.  They didn't get to be mid-to-large-sized without gaining a lot of experience along the way.  They should own or have access to a good studio with a Green-Screen stage and a TelePrompTer.  This is important because many of the most popular visual techniques involve shooting Talent for Chroma Keying into video Composites.  The TelePrompTer aids the Talent by allowing them to read their dialog while looking directly into the camera; superior to qu-cards and  most helpful with inexperienced spokespeople who may have trouble remembering their lines.  Other than taste and style (which should be a totally subjective judgement on your part) the only thing to be careful of here is padding out the budget.  Larger companies like to pitch "all-out" production techniques as being superior to the "cutting corners" approach the above entities might take.  Their rational is that the more crew and Talent, the more sophisticated the equipment involved, the better the production quality.  Of course, that's a generalization because a more conservative approach to production can be just as effective.   A five person crew (Producer, Director, Camera Operator, Sound Engineer, Grip, others) working a recording session involving directing Talent, along with special lighting and microphones can be accomplished just as well with a crew of two, if your guys know what they're doing.  Do you really need a crane shot when a simple zoom shot could get the point across just as well?  Is it necessary to hire a Steady-cam Operator when a good steady hand might suffice?

Local Cable - Your local cable franchise should be operating some sort of production facility.  Due to the "Local Access" rules they may even have a nice studio available.  In some markets the sophistication of their operation may even rival The Big Boys (see  below).  They may be able to handle your needs quite well.  They also offer air-time (in this case, cable-time) to run your commercial.  It's possible to work a good package deal that includes producing your spot and running it on one or more of their many tiers of content.  Cable channels being more niche oriented (travel, sports, music, kids, etc.) may offer the best bang-for-the-buck in terms of reaching the right demographic for your product, services or store.  The only venue more niche-specific than cable is the Internet.

The Big Boys - Like with cable, most local broadcast stations not only sell the air-time for commercials, they also make the commercials.  These people are the work-a-day pros who bring you the news, talk shows and other local programing.  They are good.  If your commercial spot could benefit from state-of-the-art graphics, like fancy layered text and other graphical information, this may be the right place to go.  They always have one or two graphics specialists on staff for their own purposes.  They will also offer studio services with a Green-Screen stage and the use of a TelePrompTer, which could be important depending on the complexity of your concept.  This is the cream of the local crop, but again, you'll need to have a big check book.  They will expect you to buy air-time on their channel which could be a good thing if you get a good deal on a production/air-time package.  It could be a bad thing if their demographic audience is too general and doesn't properly target your customers.

The Internet - The Internet is the best place to shop for a production house.  If they are worth their salt, all of the above will have a web site.  And all will be a little different from each other, from bare-bones pages with no motion, to all Flash-generated works of animated art.  Most will show you examples of their work in some form of Internet video along with their client list.  Just be aware that it's easy to exaggerate ones abilities on a web site.  Still shots of studio interiors and camera cranes can be misleading ("I once shot some video in this studio and saw a camera crane while I was there").  However it's pretty easy to tell the pros from the wannabes, and the hack from the artist.  Just look at their work.  If they don't display their work on their site, don't bother.

All the above entities are capable of producing a commercial spot in one form or another.  A lot depends on your concept.  Do you require studio services for a Green Screen shot or a TelePrompTer?  Does your message lend itself to complex moving text graphics to tell your story?  Do you want professional Talent on camera and in voice-over?  Or do you just want to stand in front of a camera and talk?  In the next section we'll break it down even further.
Preproduction:

The Concept - When thinking about making a commercial, we know most small business owners have their own Ideas about what it should look like, what it includes and who should see it.  Many times those owners are right on target when it comes to the message and the market.  After all, who knows your business and your potential customers better than you?  However, under the best of circumstances, video production is a collaborative effort.  The person you collaborate with on the concept (hopefully, a good Writer, Director or Producer) should bring ideas to the table.  That person should have the vision to see your ideas in ways you may not have considered.  There are many different ways to illustrate a point.  The more ideas the better.  Some production houses may be so eager for new business that they are willing to take  the time and effort to write a script, and may even create and present a Pre-vis or Storyboard for you just to impress you with their skills and thoroughness.  Some production houses may be so busy with production work as to expect you to get in line and trust their reputation before they spend any time on you.

The Budget:
Once a concept is agreed upon and a firm direction is established, an estimated budget should start to appear.  Production companies like to charge according to time spent, resources used and expenses incurred.  For Acquisition they usually bill by the hour, half a day or full day.  For Postproduction, it's usually billed by the hour.  With today's gas prices you may be asked to pay mileage if your shoot is far from their location.  A good Producer should have a pretty good idea of how long it takes to do things, along with the tool-set and extra expenses involved and should be able to give a fairly accurate estimate of the total cost.  A smart and experienced Producer will know many ways to help the client cut corners and save money.  Beware of the Producer who will pad out a budget for the sake of image or to employ his friends.  For those firms requiring it, a formal proposal should be made available.  Depending on the complexity of your project, contracts may need to be signed, a good practice for both parties.  Some production companies may offer package deals for the budget minded client (think Wedding Videos).  Just make sure you understand exactly what the limitations of the package might be (get it in writing) and how that could effect the outcome of your project.  Items that can inflate a budget pretty quickly are the use of professional Talent, producing on film, preparing Special Effects, and using popular music.

Script Writing - Once the client and the production house have agreed on a concept and an estimated budget has been approved and, perhaps, contracts signed, work can begin on the Script.  If you, the client, are dealing with professionals you should insist on seeing one, or more Scripts.  Some Writer/Producer/Directors may like to work without a Script, shooting a lot of footage, then piecing it together in Postproduction.  This method is not advisable and may be motivated by the fact that the W/P/D just doesn't want to take the time involved with writing and presenting one.  If a W/P/D is capable of producing a good commercial, they should be capable of writing one pretty easily.  And they should realize that it's important for a lot of reasons.   A Script is really just a detailed description of the images and sounds that will make up the commercial.  This is where the concept gets it's bones.  Who actually does this may vary.  It could be the Producer, the Director or a Professional Writer.  It could be a guy called Account Exec or Creative Director.  It could even be you.  In any case this is where production really starts.  Commercial spots come in two basic sizes; 30 sec. and 60 sec.  An experienced Editor can cram a lot of visual and aural information into 30 sec.  The Scriptwriter will assemble and organize all the elements (scenes, dialog, music, graphics, etc.) into written form that can be understood and visualized by others.  The Director and Editor, who may not be initially familiar with your concept, will use the Script as their roadmap to nail down the timing and pace of the  spot and figure out what they will need to make it all happen on screen.  The Director will use it to make a Breakdown Sheet to keep track of all the elements that will need to be recorded during Acquisition..  The Talent will use it to rehearse their dialog and motivate their performance.  And you will use it to evaluate your collaborator's talents and abilities (can they write, do they know what they're doing?).  If you don't like the Script you can call a halt right there and start over, until you like it.  That way, no wasted production time on a questionable concept, or because your director wants to shoot everything and pick out the best parts later.  A Script is important.    Some Producer/Directors may even like to create a Pre-vis or Storyboard to work from.  This step is not strictly necessary, especially if your concept is simple to produce. The client could ask for one if they have trouble visualizing a more complex Script.  In any case, with a Script, Pre-vis or Storyboard, at this point the client should be able to have an excellent understanding of what they're in for.
 
Production:

Original Acquisition is the footage you and your production team create from scratch.  How much you shoot and how long it takes depends on the complexity of your Script and the efficiency of your Talent and crew.  A Talking-Head commercial with one background is about as simple as it gets.  And if the Talking-Head is you, you won't have to pay for Talent.  Everyone has seen spots like this.  They are usually produced on a shoestring, and look it.  That's not to say that you shouldn't appear in your own commercial.  Many times the best one to be the spokesperson for a business is the owner.  There are many ways to do a Talking-Head spot in an elegant way, without looking cheap.  If your Script requires a lot of multi-layered Composite images acquired both in and out of studio, this will complicate the shoot.  If you are using amateur actors, as with testimonials, it may take you way longer than you had planned.  Using professional Talent will save you time and give you a level and variety of performance you may be pleasantly surprised with.  Any complex preparations, like critical lighting and microphone placement, or special sets, or special  equipment setups will add time to your schedule.  The worst mistake a production team can make is to have to do a re-shoot because of mistakes or poor planning.  If your budget is on-the-clock make sure you understand how budget over-runs will be billed and who is responsible for what.  There are many things that could make that happen: last minute decisions about changes in the Script, dissatisfaction with the performance of the Talent, acts of God.  If an over-run is caused by decisions and changes made by you, the client, then you pay the bill.  If the over-run is caused by mistakes from the production team, like bad estimates of how long it takes to do something, then the production entity should eat it.  The key to harmony and understanding between the client and the production house is good communication.  The Producer needs to spend the time to help the client understand exactly what problems may be encountered during this phase so the client can make informed decisions, if things happen to go wrong.  If you're working with seasoned pros everything should go smoothly and everyone will have a good time.  Acquisition should be the fun part.  If you're not having fun, something may be wrong.

Stock Acquisition - Stock Footage is footage created by others that is obtainable for use in your production.  There are many stock footage companies that can supply anyone with just about any kind of content you can think of.  The point is, it's easily possible to make a commercial spot entirely with stock footage, saving you all the fun/pain of producing your own original footage.  Prices vary widely, usually depending on the quality and length.  If your production company has their own library of stock footage, or access to reasonably priced clips, you could save.  It would pay you to inquire about this approach.  With stock footage, licensing and copyrights issues are involved.  If you buy footage through your production company, make sure you understand what your rights are and who owns the license.  Normally your production company will retain the rights to the license that you pay for, unless you ask for them.  Examples of Spots produced from Stock Footage can be seen here.

Postproduction:

Editing - This process can be as simple as cutting out the bad parts of your footage till you whittle it down to 30 sec., if you're the guy who doesn't like to work from a script.  Or it can be as complex as a Hollywood production, as witnessed by the commercials we see during the Super Bowl.  Because the process can be quite complex and the learning curve for knowing how to use the tools is so high, good Editors bring top dollar.  In high-end Postproduction environments the Editor may even farm out certain tasks to specialists who do nothing all day but correct color, or operate a software application for compositing Visual Effects, or process Chroma Key scenes, or create text animations.  Fortunately for you, in today's digital world the tools and resources available to Editors is pretty incredible.  It's totally possible for one Editor to do all these functions, and more.  With the right software and third-party resources, a computer with lots of muscle,  and the skills and talent to operate them, one Editor can create just about anything you can imagine.  It may take him a little longer than the high-end team approach but the results can be just as effective.  What this means to the client is that if you are dealing with one of these editing magicians, the sky's the limit on ideas and concepts.  The Editor will work closely with the Producer/Director, and sometimes all three of these hats may be worn by the same guy, the One-Man Band.  The client may want to sit in on the editing sessions.  If it's important to you, do it.  However, editing is a very concentration-intensive art form and many times the client looking over the shoulder of the Editor may actually slow things down, as you can imagine.  With the Editor on the clock, that's not advisable.  Better to leave him alone while he does his magic.  Chances are you will be thrilled with the results.  That's not to say the client doesn't have a say in the process.  A smart Editor will be conferring with the client as need be.  And of course the client will have the last say on the results.

Rendering, Transcoding & Archiving - Take it from me, knowing about this is way more than you want to know.  Rendering, Encoding and Transcoding is the process by which you make your finished video into a usable digital form. Back-in-the-day video was shot, edited and archived on tape.  There where only 3 or 4 tape formats to keep track of and a producer would probably be working in only one of them.  In this digital world the number of different flavors of digital video is mind-boggling.  High definition production has now made it doublely, triplely mind-boggling.  Once your edit is complete and approved it needs to be rendered out into a digital file that can be published through one of the publishing platforms: disc, TV, Cable and the Internet.  Of course each of these platforms require different Codec schemes, and even different Codecs within the same platform.  The same video may end up needing to be Transcoded many different ways before all is said and done.  You needn't concern yourself with this.  Let the pros handle  the delivery to your target platform.  You do need to understand that your project will need to be Archived.  During the capturing and editing process many digital files will be generated and used in different ways.  It's quite possible that for a 30 sec. spot, hundreds of digital files will be generated.  Saving these files for potential future use is important.  You wouldn't want your production company to throw away all the files it took to create that beautiful flying logo, or the unused footage you might need in your next project.  Your archives can be thought of as money in the bank.  Usually burned to disk, they should be stored for you by your production company and available next time you need them.  If you want copies for your own files, ask for them.

Distribution - Now you're ready to show off your product, service or store just the way you've been dreaming of.  What are your options?  The three main platforms for video commercials is broadcast TV, Cable and the Internet.  Each has it's own advantages and disadvantages. There are others, such as local movie theaters and kiosks.  You could even display it right in your store from a DVD player, or play it for your colleagues during meetings.  Today video monitors are everywhere, as are cameras.  There are video monitors with advertising in airports.  Soon there will be monitors and video advertising on buses.  There are imaginative ways to market with video that have yet to be tried.  Think about it and maybe you can come up with some ideas of your own.

Fulfillment - Fulfillment is the design, printing and packaging that happens if you need to distribute your project in a physical form, such as tape or disk.  It's not strictly necessary to need good looking disk packaging for a commercial.  Your project will usually be delivered to your target platform via one of the digital avenues on the web, or on a disk with some sort of printed generic or production house label.  Hopefully, your producer will present something better looking than a plain naked disk and Magic Marker.  If you feel you would like a custom package for your own reasons it would be handy if your production house could knock that out for you, rather than having to go to a third party.  If you are concerned about appearance a good production house will find that no problem.  There are plenty of third party companies that specialize in Fulfillment, if you find the need.

Buying:

Selecting and Purchasing your Publication Platform - If I where a small business owner looking for a place to run my new commercial this is where I would spend most of my time and effort.  If you're not the hands on type you can solicit help and trust a professional Buyer to do it for you.  Advertising agencies have staffers called Buyers who specialize in knowing all the markets and can help you in deciding where to go.  Larger production houses may also employ a professional Buyer.  Both will have connections with the sellers and can guide you.  That's the trouble.  With commercial video, as much as I believe in dealing with professionals, this is where I digress.  The producers and agencies are in a position to recommend the sellers.  The sellers are in a position to recommend the producers and agencies..  In this industry back-scratching and favoritism is the norm.  So how does the small business owner know if he's hearing the nitty gritty?  Do it yourself!  You are the one who can best decipher all the stats and decide where your money is best spent.  It just takes a little time and research and you, too, can become an expert in buying time to advertise your product, service or store.  Who better?  The Internet is a great place to start.  All the sellers (TV Cable,Internet) have web sites.  If you don't find what you're looking for there you can call their sales departments and request a Media Kit (or what ever they call it) with all the info you need.  If you do call, they may want to send a sales rep out to talk to you.  Suit yourself on that.  They will be  talking about things like demographics, footprints, avails, tiers, repetitions, ratings, clicks and click-through's.  It's not that hard to figure out.  Do the research, or get your partner to do it.  Make up your own mind.

Evaluation:

Evaluating your Results is the moment you've been working for.  So how do you know if your commercial spot is working, or not? Let's consider three ways to evaluate your spot.

Sales: Product sales for stores and jobs received for service providers should be the bottom line.  Or is it?  Sales stats for spots run on broadcast TV or cable is, again, one of those nebulous areas of advertising. Even if you could know exactly how many people saw your commercial (you'll never know that from TV and cable), how would you know if that figure relates directly to sales?  If you're marketing your spot on local broadcast stations or cable, repetitions (how many times the spot is aired) and placement (what channels and what times) will be your most important factors.  But comparing the sales stats to the times when your spot is run may not tell you much, as it may take a while for the effect you're looking for to kick in.  You can't expect immediate results because sometimes an idea or pitch may take some time to sink in with the viewer.  In the mean time, keep your own good stats.  If you own a brick-and-morter store, how many people come through your doors each day, every day?  If you're advertising a specific product, compare that to other products you sell.  If you market through a web site, does your site Hits spike around the time your spot plays?  Running a spot for a week, then a week off, then another week, then another week off could give you a basis for comparison. Pinning down exact figures for sales and services may be impossible, but if you're persistent with your campaign, eventually you should start to get a feel for it.

Stats: Statistics only work of you keep accurate ones.  Your broadcast station or cable company will have their own stats.  This may initially be helpful in selecting your Avails, but it won't help much in evaluating the results.  You can keep an eye on the ratings for shows or channels, but that still won't tell you much about your spot.  You could include the old "Mention this spot for 10% off" (or whatever) tag line, but that will take up valuable space in the content of your spot and may not fit your style, or type of business.  Those who market through a web site or advertise on the Internet will have a foot-up with stats.  If you are running a professional web site, your site company should provide you with tools for evaluating your stats.  If you buy advertising on the Internet, your seller should also offer stat tools far more accurate and useful than what you can expect from TV and cable.  Usually measured in 'Hits", "Clicks" or "Click-through's", these stats can give you fairly accurate figures on how many people visit your site, or a page on your site, or how long the visitor stays and how they leave.  If you buy Internet advertising space, the stats may tell you exactly how many viewers saw your spot, and what they did then.  This is the Internet's greatest advantage over Cable and TV, not to mention the potential saturation, that is, the total number of people who have the potential to find you.  That figure can be huge depending on your marketing campaign.  Don't get bogged down with statistics.  They can also be misleading.  They can be interpreted, and misinterpreted in many ways.

Emotion:  In your evaluation you may find that you get tons of new business from your marketing campaign, or you may have a hard time noticing any results at all.  Commercial advertising is an emotional game.  Through advertising, you make the first move by attempting to appeal to the emotions of your public.  They make the next move my responding to your appeal - or not.  If they respond the way you planned, you win.  If they don't, it doesn't mean you loose.  A Commercial is design to illicit an emotional response.  What kind of emotion does it illicit in you?  Forget the pressure and stress of studying your sales figures and stats for a moment.  Let your assistants do that.  Take a moment and ask yourself, "Do I like it"?  Do you feel good when you see it on TV, the Internet or Cable.  Do you wish your rivals could see it?  Do you make your friends and family watch it over and over.  Does it represent your business in ways far better than you had originally hoped.  Does it make you proud.  A "yes" answer to any of these scenarios could be reason enough to make a commercial.  A "no" could mean you got hooked up with the wrong Producer. 
COMMERCIAL
SPOT PRODUCTION
'101'
Rather than bore you with watching an endless stream of spots produced for others with the intention of demonstrating our technical and aesthetic competence and showing off our client list, we feel it more important to educate and inform our visitors  about the processes involved with producing a commercial spot.
Can You Afford It?
Every small business owner dreams about advertising their business with a cool commercial on television but few get around to making it happen.  Usually because they believe that rendering their ideas in high quality video or film would be cost prohibitive.  In the past, that was probably true for most small businesses.  But in today's digital world, professional imaging tools have become so affordable and the opportunities for publishing content so prevalent that It has spawned a whole new wave of young video entrepreneurs willing to make video for you on a shoestring.  The market is crowded with video companies and the competition can be brutal.  So, can you afford it?  Can you afford insurance on your car?  Absolutely!  Of course the price is not the only factor in producing a successful commercial.
Five Basic Stages Of Commercial Production:
Preproduction  -  Production  -  Postproduction  -  Buying  -  Evaluation
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In Conclusion:
All the above information not only applies to Commercial Spot Production, but also to any kind of video project you may be contemplating.  If you've bothered to read this far, that means you are serious about video production and, hopefully, this article will serve to help you get started on the right path to Commercial Spot success.  Producing good video is a complex art form.  It can also be rewarding in ways you may not have considered.  Don't become overwhelmed by the complexity.  Let your Producer worry about all that, and just have fun with it.