Ad folks recognized by Acad for its 30-, 60-second stories

It’s not surprising that last year’s Emmy for best commercial went to a 60-second spot that saluted revolutionary thinkers, the “crazy ones” with the courage to “think different” and change the world.

After all, one could say judges who awarded the top prize to the advertising campaign for Apple computers were equally crazy to think that there should be an Emmy award for commercials in the first place.

It was members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences involved in the production of commercials, the same people who now decide the award, who successfully lobbied for it to begin three years ago. The award has bestowed recognition upon those who had long felt that their creative efforts in the field of marketing were deserving of Acad notice.

“We used to be the stepchild of television,” says Sheila Manning, a Los Angeles casting agency director and Academy secretary who led the fight to bestow an Emmy for commercials. “But we in the commercial world have become the creators. We are doing the cutting-edge work. We are making mini-films that are entertaining and convey a message. And we do all of that in 28 seconds.”

Now that the award is here, there are signs that it’s gaining in popularity within the advertising field. Manning says that without any publicity this year, more than 200 entries were submitted for consideration, with 199 deemed eligible for the top prize.

Inside a chandelier ballroom of the Beverly Hilton Hotel in mid-May, about 50 Academy members from the commercials peer group sat down to judge the entries. Seated in plain padded chairs, they viewed the contenders on two monitors during one marathon session, broken only by a brief intermission.

The commercials, which had to have aired nationally in primetime during the period from June of last year to the end of May this year, included product endorsements, program promotions and public-service announcements.

One by one, with only a few seconds spaced between them, the commercials were beamed at the judges, pitching products that included soft drinks, pizza, financial services and emerging Web sites. The peer judges were aiming to see past the items being promoted and to detect instead which commercials sold themselves as being worthy of a top award.

“It all starts to blur after a while,” admitted Matt Grayson, a peer judge and commercials editor who looked a little bleary-eyed at the break.

“But I’ve seen most of them before, so you come in with some preconception. I don’t know how we could do this otherwise,” says Grayson, who was looking for spots that showed signs of skillful execution of a strong concept.

Lawrence Bridges, a commercials director and another judge, says in contrast that he was taking note of ads that enticed viewers to “enter a fantasy and to go with it.”

“If you make commercials and play around with this stuff, you kind of have a clear idea of what quality is. You can identify those things very quickly,” Bridges says. “It’s like sailing in the ocean and seeing an island. When a great commercial comes by, it sticks up and out.”

Bridges says it’s regrettable that the Academy didn’t act sooner to offer an ad award.

“It’s almost embarrassing that at this point in time they have finally come around to accepting commercials,” Bridges says. “Not only are commercials the economic driving force of television, they are also the weathervane of techniques and taste and impact.”

John Leverence, awards director for the Academy, says it wasn’t a lack of enthusiasm for commercials that caused a delay in recognizing them with an award category. Instead, the way for a commercials Emmy was cleared after years of posturing and legal wrangling between the Los Angeles- and New York-based branches of the Academy.

As part of a 1977 settlement agreement, both groups have to concur if either one decides to add an award category. The national Academy resisted efforts to launch an honor for commercials and the dispute went to arbitration, where it was decided that the commercials Emmy could go forward, Leverence says.

Leverence was on hand to instruct peer judges this year before they began screening the eligible spots, telling them to score them on a scale of one to four, with one being the most award-worthy.

“What you’re seeing here is the best possible Emmy judging that we can put together,” Leverence says during an interview at the hotel after the screening got up and running. “You have the immediate experience of watching everything in an equivalent situation with other judges and casting your votes from it. If we could do this throughout the competition, it would be the ideal way to do it.”

Of course, viewing almost 200 commercials in one sitting takes around two hours. But sitting through a marathon showing of say 200 TV movies is a bit impractical. That’s why the overwhelming majority of the other 84 Emmy awards are selected by ballots mailed out to Academy members.

The commercials peer group meeting in May was whittling the initial nominations down to 25, which would be further reduced to five top nominees in July after selections by future peer groups in Los Angeles and New York. A winner will be announced Aug. 28 at the Creative Arts Awards.

After a similar process last year, it was the Apple computer ad produced by TBWA Chiat/Day that earned the top spot. The ad featured noteworthy free thinkers such as Muhammad Ali, Albert Einstein, Gandhi and Bob Dylan, showcased in stylized black-and-white imagery that underscored Apple’s Think Different campaign.

Jennifer Golub, who directed the spot, knew as she was working on it that it was something special.

“It was the first time in my life that the work I was doing could impact the culture,” she says. “With every frame I knew I had the opportunity to be provocative.”

When asked about how widely regarded the Emmy award is in advertising, Golub replies, “I’ve won lots of awards, but I’ve only kept my Emmy.”

Meryl Marshall, president of the Academy’s Board of Governors, said it is was very appropriate to finally give out an award for commercials.

“Commercials have evolved dramatically over the years. They have broken barriers with regard to style, content and short-form storytelling,” she says. “By ignoring them we were ignoring an important segment of the creative community and not giving sufficient attention to the short form of storytelling.”

Marshall says the commercials that tend to get recognized by the Academy are those that unfold as short stories. “It’s amazing how much drama and human emotion can be captured in a 30- or 60-second spot,” she says.

With the ever-decreasing attention span of television viewers, commercial producers have had to become especially savvy in designing innovative ways to capture an audience. That’s led to the development of breakthrough production techniques and styles that have later been adopted by the television and movie industry.

“The more compelling these spots are, the better it is for all of us. We need commercials to keep our business alive,” Marshall says.

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