Episode 4: Victor van Amerongen

Victor van Amerongen from Space City Productions on TV advertising that works

Victor van Amerongen has been producing TV adverts for 29 years and, according to Televisual Magazine, has produced more adverts than anyone else. He has specialized in adverts to drive traffic for e-commerce.

We talk about advice for first-time advertisers, budgets, direct response and brand response, spot length, testing, response mechanisms, integrating your TV ad into broader marketing, ideas for creative and budgets.

Victor has been responsible for the first campaigns from dozens of the top e-commerce companies in the UK so it was a great chance to learn from him.

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Andrew Veitch: Hello, and welcome to the Joy of Marketing. This week I’m joined by Victor van Amerongen, the chairman and creative director of Space City Productions. Victor trod that well worn path of having a degree in theoretical physics to TV advertising. And according to a notification I saw on LinkedIn he’s been at Space City for 29 years.

Victor van Amerongen: This is correct, yes and hopefully last another 29 year if my health holds up.

AV: And you’re a prolific producer of TV adverts for dozens of e-commerce brands, including Groupon, Moonpig, Protect Your Bubble, Muscle Food. And indeed, I am also on that illustrious list. So welcome to the podcast.

VA: Yes, well, I say we have had the dubious distinction that Televisual Magazine, I think they’ve now stopped doing it. They used to have not just a poll of, you know, the biggest out of the agencies, but the ones that made the most commercials. And we used to regularly top this. And that’s one of the reasons for that is that quite often, if we make a commercial, the client says “Yes, but we want 100 different phone numbers so that we can track the response”. So that counts as 100 ads. I think, last year, we actually made over 2000 commercials one way or another.

AV: Wow. That’s that’s huge. So I guess, coming back to I think a lot of our listeners, you know, that are ecommerce brands, they’re maybe thinking about their first TV advertising. And I guess, I suppose the obvious place to start is objective, isn’t it. And I guess the objectives tend to be raising awareness, which I guess in the ecom business, we would call sort of top of funnel, or it’s maybe generating a response or a sale, which again, we might call sort of bottom of funnel.

VA: Yes.

AV: I mean, nowadays, I’m also hearing about Brand Response, which I kind of understand is some sort of mix of things.

VA: Well, as I say, I would say that probably two thirds of all the commercials we now make are Brand Response. And it’s it’s a sort of catch all phrase that covers everything. But I suppose the first place to start is explaining that there are two completely different animals originally, there are brand commercials, these are the ones that when you get home in the evening, and you turn on Coronation Street, or whatever you’re watching on commercial TV, they’re 30 seconds long, they’re raising awareness about a car or soap powder, there is no element of response mechanism at all there and then. It’s all about getting you to go to the shop footfall the next visit, you know, to inquire when convenient to you. And then at the other end, you know, the tradition of DRTV, direct response, which, of course, originally came from America is a sort of ad that if you turn on what we used to call satellite TV, in the afternoon, you’d see these rather longer ads, which would repeat a phone number or a website or whatever, over and over again, eliciting a response. So actually, what most advertisers want to do now is have the best of both worlds. And they want a commercial that a) puts their name in everyone’s mind. So that, you know prompted awareness, unprompted awareness. People know who they are. But they also say, well, we’re putting this money on the screen, we want to see some direct return in terms of clicks to our website, sales, return on investment. And so to that extent, the aim right at the start when you make a commercial is to define exactly what you want to achieve. And we actually had a brief this morning, from a client, he said, we want to spend X amount of money. And our aim is to get at 4000 responses in the first burst of advertising. It’s completely quantified. They know what they want to achieve. And they you know, they can you can therefore judge whether the thing works or not.

AV: Yeah, absolutely. I think I’ve always been slightly skeptical about whether you really can do a brand and a direct response ad for in the same copy. I mean, something I noticed Paddy Power did when the had the campaign they had one unified campaign, but they had very clear direct response adverts for their website. And then they had brand adverts for their shops, which were kind of done in the same way. So you could see they were part of the same campaign, but the individual ads were very clearly either response or brand orientated?

VA: Well, I think traditionally, a lot of ads look like direct response and aren’t. For example, I would say things like car insurance or price comparison sites, people actually buy the, you know, the traditional car insurance, ad would say, you know, you can get a better deal with us, we’re cheaper, we’re lower price, blah, blah, blah. But they and they always say, call this number now go to this website, but actually people only renew their car insurance once a year. So they look and feel like a DRTV ad, but actually, they’re really a branding ad they want to get that company on your shopping list, so that when your insurance renewal arrives, you say “Oh I remember that name, I’ll go and check them up”. But I disagree, I think it is possible to achieve both objectives, I think, you know, now that the internet has simplified the process of, if you can remember the name, you know how to respond, and you’ve got a high proportion of people dual screening with their phone, switched on, on their lap as they’re watching TV, the leap from going to the TV to responding doesn’t mean going out to the hall and picking up a Bakelite telephone, it doesn’t mean going up to your office and firing up your computer. It’s literally the process of picking up your phone there and then. So essentially, all you really got to get across is, why would someone want to respond? And what’s your name, because from then on, they will find you and they will find you easily on a device that’s readily to hand. So I would argue that, you know, every commercial should aim to have a response element, because why not it you’re getting some money back straightaway, for your airtime?

AV: And as you say, there’s there’s obviously a huge move. I mean, remember when you did the first advert for me, it was pure 0800 numbers. And obviously, again, over time, that completely moved over to the web. So just on that, I suppose another thing, is that if the aim is to drive traffic to a website, you probably don’t need quite as much information in the TV advert, as you perhaps did in the past. I mean, what would you say as a sort of optimum length for a TV ad that’s aimed at web traffic?

VA: Well, the beauty about this is, of course, these ads have got shorter. When 29 years ago, as I think you mentioned, we started the company. And we very soon established ourselves as experts in direct response. I mean, essentially, this whole culture would come from America, and a lot of ads were 90 seconds long, even two minutes long. And they would repeat the number, the phone number ad nauseum just to hammer home the response information. But essentially, I would say the majority of ecommerce ads we make now are 30 seconds, sometimes 40 seconds. There are special cases where you need to have a longer story, for example, charity commercials, we’ve got to draw people in emotionally, you’ve got to tell a bit of a story. And they can still be 60 or 90 seconds. But the vast majority are 30 seconds. Because essentially, you’ve got to do three things. You’ve got to get the name across, you’ve got to tell people why they should respond. And then you’ve got to make it easy for them to respond. But essentially, the the response mechanism and the name are nearly always one and the same. So if people get the name, they know where to find you.

AV: Yeah. And I just want to briefly mention response mechanisms. And we’ve obviously discussed the web, which I guess is the number one response mechanism, isn’t it? But are you also seeing success with text or SMS?

VA: Yes, I mean, the what mechanism you use, again, totally depends on your target audience. So for example, we do a lot of commercials for the mature markets that’s your stair lifts, and over 50’s life insurance, even now, the response in that target demographic is typically 70% by telephone. So if you put a website and a phone number, the majority still prefer to pick up the phone. For a younger audience, you know, the phone is an irrelevance. They want to respond using their phone via the website or via an app. Text response tends to sit alongside that charities use lots of text response. I’ve always wondered if you give people too much choice? Does it actually help? Or does it just confuse the issue? Because essentially, if you’re asking people to respond by text, they might be people who otherwise would go to your website, you’re just giving them too much choice I’m not convinced, it increases the actual overall response, I think you need to identify who your audience is, if you’re e-commerce, it’s likely that most of your clients will come to your website or via an app. So I wouldn’t even bother wasting time putting a phone number that can be on your website for people to pick up or with enquiries. But again, it’s it’s all about keeping it very simple and straightforward and clear. And confusing. The thing with all sorts of response mechanism is a mistake.

AV: I can see that. So sort of going back to the creative side, which I know is your area. I mean, do you think do you sort of ask the client for sort of, you know, a primary message and supporting messages? How are you actually gonna go about thinking you’re trying to put over?

VA: Well, the frustrating thing about TV commercials is how little you can say. Now, the, as I say the typical commercial is 30 seconds. If you write out the words for the narrator, you have a maximum of 87 words to tell the story. To someone who’s used to building a website, or having that three words a second and half a second of silence at the beginning of it. That’s how you get to 87 words for someone who’s used to having A website with sub pages and links to two other things, or someone who’s used to putting a newspaper ad together, say, oh, we’ll use just a slightly smaller font. But you can’t do that on television, you have to be, you have to be very focused on what your message is. So we have what we call the hierarchy of information, that you have to list main benefits that you want to get across in the order of importance. And you know, you just have to be ruthless about deciding what the mean, you might get two, possibly three or four key messages into your ad, here’s who we are, this is why you should respond. This is how you respond to us now. And every script we write is always way over length to start with. And it’s a question of going through it line by line, word by word, cutting out unnecessary verbiage, removing unnecessary adjectives, until you get it down to the magic at seven words, or even less, because you don’t want something sounds like a machine gun being delivered. If you have a bit of light, and space and air to get the message across in a relaxed way, the ad will work better. So we ask all clients to fill in a sort of briefing form, which is no more than two pages, you say what you’re trying to achieve? Why should people choose you? Why should people come to your ecommerce website or whatever? And then it’s just a question of taking a cold, hard look at this and saying, well, this, this is all you can get in. But what does the ad have to do? It has to deliver the viewer to the website to the app or whatever? If it does that we’ve done our job. And then it’s up to the client to take over and convert that that customer that that person into a customer?

AV: I can see that. Yes. So the 87 words, is giving them a reason to go to the website, and then all the various details can be filled in once they’re online. Yeah, I guess I mean, obviously TV, I mean, we’ve spoken there about the words, but that’s just half of what a TV ads is, isn’t it? The other half is the visuals that we’re watching.

VA: Well, I always say please remember, I mean, there’s a traditional sort of DRTV what we call SMO advert, shouting man in office, became popular in the in the sort of 90s and whatever, which is just, you know, people weren’t used to this, you got a presenter, who stood out and read a script direct to camera and said, “Yes, we can solve all your problems now, have you had an accident, that wasn’t your fault?” or whatever. But actually, things have got more creative, you have to remember that television is all about pictures. And you want to create a commercial that’s instantly recognizable and identifiable as being your commercial. And what we mean by that a) there should be a nice visual image in there. I think when you look at that, is there an image I could take out of that and use as a poster, because that’s a very good test. For example, if you’ve got a group of people, a family group who have bought your life insurance, and then having a happy family day out, or a picnic or something, that still image could work as a poster on a tube train or whatever.

AV: Just on a technical point, I mean, the days when I first started out, you actually had to have a photographer on set if you wanted to use any of the images. But now with HD, the quality is so good, that you can actually easily just take an image straight out of the ad and use it elsewhere.

VA: Yes, except if it’s on a very big poster or something like that, you would still then have a separate photographer, you know, the quality is, is usable, but it depends on what it’s being used for.

AV: Is a good advice of telling a story, do you think? Or is it more just focusing on, you know, the features and benefits?

VA: Well, it’s still the case that every ad, there has to be a core idea. In other words, you know, it is perfect. We get a brief from a client. And then we have to brainstorm ideas for the commercial. And I mean, at the simplest level, you could just say, well, here’s a script saying what, what what the product is, what the benefits are. And here’s the call to action. And I think something referred to as a plain vanilla script. But actually, that’s not what people want. People want some sort of clever idea or twist or a song or a jingle or or you know, something memorable. Because the context is that a lot of commercials particularly during daytime when a lot of these commercials work very well. You’ve got what’s called low interest programming, people have got the television on in the background, they might be doing the ironing or washing the cat or whatever they do. And they, to catch their attention, and then have something that cuts through with a bit of a memorable idea and that applies to every commercial. So we would always typically try and come up with three, four or five different ideas. And, and you know, it depends how inspired we feel or sometimes we hire outside creatives to help us so that we’ve got something of an edge something to give a slight distinctiveness. So that when that commercial appears between two or three other commercials, it somehow stands out and catches people’s attention. And so that’s the constant challenge just to, you know, that doesn’t have to be ground shatteringly original. I mean, not everyone always wants to talking mere cat with a Russian accent. But you’ve got to have something slightly distinctive or clever or, you know, it just has it just to have some something to it that’s more than the script if you like.

AV: Yeah. Okay, so I’m completely sold on the idea of doing TV. So I’m now gonna ask you a really hard question. So what sort of budget should I be looking a for creative?

VA: Okay, I’m gonna answer that question. But first of all, while you’re sitting down with three cups of coffee, telling you what the average production budget is in the UK for a 30 second commercial. It is, and this is, according to the annual televisual magazine survey, which was published at the end of last year, it’s 180,000 pounds. So that when you watch across all TV, that is the average that is being spent to make a 30 second commercial in the UK. And that figure has drifted up over the years from about 150,000. And, of course, when you see that sort of figure, you think, Oh, my God, what are they, you know, flying several crews, with helicopters to Barbados, or whatever. But a lot of that money doesn’t actually ever go anywhere near the production, because you have to remember that a lot of people use large advertising agencies. And there might be rooms full of people and account managers, all in on an hourly rate. And so therefore, the budget includes several layers of management and overhead. But if you’re a new advertiser, and you come directly to a small agency, or a production company, or however you describe it, and particularly if you’re in the e-commerce space, the typical budget on the sort of things we do is sort of 15,000 to 80,000. That’s the kind of bandwidth again, I would always advise people to test at a low cost to see if TV advertising works for them. And, and then they can gain in confidence from the learning they do from their initial campaign, they can go back with a more, you know, high end production, and get more ambitious, but a cheap commercial doesn’t have to look cheap. The key is to keep the creative idea simple and do it well, rather than have a complicated idea on which you then have to compromise.

AV: Yes, so what are the things that makes an advert expensive?

VA: Well, traditionally, if you made a brand commercial for, say, a soap powder or something, you would have a creative team who would say, this is how we want the kitchen that we’re going to film this commercial to look like, you would then hire a studio like Shepperton or, or you know Pinewood or something, and you would spend three days building that kitchen so it looks exactly right. Now, obviously, if you use existing locations, as we tend to do you find, you know, Andrew’s kitchen, oh, we like that, that looks pretty good. Not sure about that table over there. Let’s replace that. Maybe give that more lick of paint so that it’s a different color, so it matches the brand guidelines. But use the existing location instead of a big studio build that cuts costs. Artist’s costs can be a complete minefield. First of all, if you have lots of artists, they cost a lot of money. And of course, if you go down the celebrity route, as a lot of traditional advertisers do, you are talking typically hundreds of thousands of pounds to get a celebrity for maybe just one day’s work. I’m not gonna mention any names, but one, well known celebrity got paid 650,000 pounds for a day’s work for us a few years ago, and the stipulation was that the Krug champagne in the dressing room had to be chilled to a certain temperature. So you can see how it’s quite easy to get, music is another one, if you use a well known pop song as is a kind of easy way to give your ad a bit of a distinctive edge. I mean, typically expect to pay about 150 to 250,000 pounds per year for the rights to use that track. Microsoft used “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones, they paid 9 million pounds of that, rather cheaper to get a specially composed track, which might cost you 1000 to 1500 pounds.

AV: Yeah, to say something about booking talent, which I didn’t really understand in the early days. You can either book on the basis of a buyout, or you can book with a smaller fee and then pay based on usage.

VA: Yeah, the traditional route in the UK was to pay a usage, which meant that the artist or actor was paid by the number of people viewing what’s called the TVR or television viewing ratio. So someone was sitting there calculating, oh, they’ve been on Channel Four. That spot got, you know, 2 million viewers whatever. And they would then calculate on this complicated mathematical formula of say, well, this actor will get so much in terms of repeat fees. We don’t do any of that anymore. We say, here’s the deal, we’re paying you this much to be in the commercial. Normally, for a year. If the ad is successful and goes into a second year, we say, you’ll get the same fee again. But obviously, if it goes into a second year, that means the ad’s working so it’s then a marginal cost.

AV: Sure. And just before we leave, finance, I think the other thing I didn’t really understand about the economics of production, is that booking a crew, a day is pretty much the minimum that you can book a crew for. So I think something I found, but I think actually from advice from you at the time, is that if you’ve actually got a crew for a day, you may as well do quite a lot of filming so you’ve got a bit more in the can, so you can maybe create some more adverts.

VA: You can certainly film all the options you might need. So for example, if your product is currently selling for £15.95, while you’ve got the crew there, you know, you might record, you know, versions for other price points so that you’ve got them in the can the future proofed, you might record different lengths of your commercial, you might be slightly different creative routes. But yes, you’re right, you’ve got the crew for a day. And that can be quite a lot of people. So make the maximum use after that because in actual shoot terms, it doesn’t make any difference at all.

AV: Yeah and actually talking with these fashions, brings us quite neatly on to testing. And again, I know people, obviously in the in the e-commerce world, people test things absolutely all the time, changing websites, changing emails, and I know on TV, you maybe can’t have quite the same number of variations. But I mean, how would you typically approach testing and what sort of things would you be looking to test?

VA: Well, the key thing with a new campaign is, is the ability to test and you have got certain variables, you can’t make lots of different creatives, because that gets expensive. So you have to, quite early on, decide on the ad you want to make. But of course, at the pre production stage, you can research different creative options. For example, you might have two or three different scripts that you like, you can put those out to pre production research in terms of focus groups, and get a steer on what’s likely to work or what isn’t, once you’re making the ad, you’ve then got other variables. For example, the length of the commercial, you might test different running times, a 60 second, a 40 second or 30 second, you might test even shorter ones like a 10 second, because obviously, the cost you’re paying for the airtime varies hugely depending on the length of the commercial, you might experiment with different calls to action, saying earlier, you might try featuring the phone number more promptly or the website or download the app or whatever it is, you might try different offers. For example, a lot of holiday companies have time limited offers, book your cruise this month, and you will also get 500 euros spending money on board your ship or whatever. So there are different variables within the commercial that you can test. And, and that’s just within the creative element. Because the other element, of course, is the airtime different channels, different day parts, start a break and the brake all these variables. There’s an awful lot you can learn and even quite a small test, you know, of one commercial over two weeks over a handful of channels gives you a huge amount of data. So the trick to getting this to work is to think small. First of all, keep your budgets down, keep your ambitions low, do a proper test, then come off air, analyze everything carefully. And from those learnings, you can start to build in confidence so that you can get better and better at doing this and get better results.

AV: Yeah, absolutely. And I think you know, the first, the first campaign I did, I think media plus creative I think came in at under 20,000 pounds. So you know it wasn’t that big a spend. Okay, so we’re in the happy state, you know, we’re advertising the ad is a hit. And I know this is, again, a tricky question to answer. But I mean, how long do you think you can keep airing an ad before it gets tired?

VA: Well, the very frustrating thing for someone like me who just makes the ads and doesn’t have anything to do with the buying the airtime is that occasionally we make a very successful commercial that runs literally for years. I mean, I saw one for a timeshare thing the other day on television that we’d made eight years ago and it was still running completely in its original form. And if an ad runs year after year, everyone benefits, the actors get repeat fees, the media buyer gets an ongoing slice of the the money that’s being spent, the TV company themselves of course are getting the revenue. You know, the composer is getting royalties. etc, everyone except us is getting rich off it.

AV: Let me get my violin out.

VA: We get paid once for making the ad. So, I mean, people have cynically said to me, you’ve got to make an ad that works reasonably well, so that people get enthused about using TV, but not so well that they don’t come back a year later and want you to make a new. And I think that’s fair enough, because, you know, it has happened, an ad has just worked so well that your company say, well, we don’t want to change it because you know, it’s worked really well. And if it ain’t bust don’t fix it. But of course, the wear out on TV ads is quite low, because there are over 400 channels here, in terms of all the different platforms. And that’s actually broadcast TV. So you can rotate your ad from one channel to another to different segmented target audiences. And people might not see the same ad twice, you know, in several years.

AV: So thank you very much, Victor. That was well over 87 words of wisdom. If you’d like to find out a bit more about us search “Machine Labs”, we can help boost the performance of your ecommerce store. And if you’re a startup, we’ll invest in your business by giving you Machine Labs free until you’ve reached 1000 customers. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

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