Monday, April 6, 2009

A Message From The Government of Canada

Today I'm supposed to speak to a class at Algonquin College about "writing for television".

Now, I've worked on quite a few TV spots over the years, and I've learned quite a bit. But most of it is really "how to write a 30-second spot that fits within a competitive budget and government policies and still not have it suck".

This is not meant as any slight to the clients. They're working under the same constraints, which are forced upon them by political realities and the extra scrutiny the public turns on when they see an ad they've paid for in taxes. Our best government clients act more like partners, working with us to navigate the barriers and pitfalls throughout the process.

Working together, we manage to create good work. Just last month, our campaign for Public Safety Canada's 72 Hours Emergency Preparedness packed a good amount of information, drama, and motivation into 27.5 seconds (leaving the mandatory 2.5 second "A Message From The Government of Canada" tag).

How we got there was an exercise in knowing our client's internal audiences as well as we know the public ones.


On every government job, we have to write a detailed proposal outlining our skills, experience, approach, and budget. Even if we don't go with the spec concept pitched, we are usually tied to those numbers.

Since talent tends to be our biggest production cost consideration on a national campaign, we try to keep it minimal. No casts of thousands for us.


All Canadian government advertising has to be equally effective in English and French. No hiring separate agencies to regionalize the message; we need an almost identical spot. Most times, this (as well as budget) means we end up shooting a silent spot with voiceover added in post. This has become even more common now that many of our spots get dubbed into multiple "ethnic" languages. (LGT a CFIA spot we did, coincidentally, with the same Quebec Director as 72 Hours.)


We must always represent "all Canadians". This means showing representatives of lots of visibly different populations within Canada. If we're casting an unrelated group, the challenge is just to make the mix not looked contrived. In a family situation, however, we have two choices: show a family of mixed origins (as in the 72 Hours spot); or else cast people who are more ethnically ambiguous ("Mediterranean" is a popular catch-all.)

Beyond ethnic inclusivity, we also have to consider age, income, region... within the most targetted audience, there can still be a fair amount of diversity. So we usually shoot for averages.

Focus Groups and Committees

Finally, our work is scrutinized by two rounds of focus groups across Canada, as well as two or three high-level decision-making groups within government who we never get to meet directly. We have to anticipate the objectives of policy-makers, as well as the subjectivity of members of the public willing to give up their evening for fifty bucks and a stale sandwich.

And yet somehow, we do it. I guess all agencies have similar challenges with other sectors. Our particular constraints would probably frustrate a consumer agency... but at the end of the day it's just nice to get our work on TV. Plus, we actually might help some people.

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