VIDEO KILLED THE COMMERCIALS STAR - Once one of the most vibrant forms of film-making, promos have lost out to commercials, Jim Davies writes. Below, creatives pick their favourite promos

The music video, or pop promo, is the brattish younger brother of the commercial. It’s essentially there to shift a product but the parameters are less rigorous, allowing for a greater freedom of expression on the director’s part. As a result, they’re hit or miss: either wonderful flights of the imagination or indulgent slices of solipsism.

The music video, or pop promo, is the brattish younger brother of

the commercial. It’s essentially there to shift a product but the

parameters are less rigorous, allowing for a greater freedom of

expression on the director’s part. As a result, they’re hit or miss:

either wonderful flights of the imagination or indulgent slices of


Ever since the advent of MTV in the early 80s, when they suddenly became

regarded as a serious promotional tool, music videos and commercials

have enjoyed a more-or-less healthy symbiotic relationship. Ideas,

scenarios and techniques have passed in both directions, and in pop

promos, ad agencies have found a happy hunting ground for bright, young

directors. In turn, these bright, young directors have used the medium

as a means to gain valuable behind-camera experience and racy footage

for their showreels.

Tarsem, who cut his teeth on a promo for REM’s Losing My Religion while

still at film school in California, is a typical example.

’It’s a bit of a training ground,’ agrees Spectre’s Daniel Kleinman, who

directed promos for the likes of Madonna and Prince during the 80s, but

these days concentrates on commercials. ’They can, of course, be

interesting in their own right, but for me they were really an

opportunity to try out new ideas. As a result, I’d say 50 per cent of

the videos I did were rubbish; you win big or you fail big.’

It’s generally agreed that promos have less of an influence on

advertising than they did during the early days. With several cable and

satellite channels blasting them out 24 hours a day, they have evolved

into a kind of rhythmic wallpaper - how many agency reception areas have

you sat in watching banks of all-singing, all-dancing TV monitors with

the sound turned off?

TV comedy and stand-up have also stolen a march on the music video;

witness the latest Holsten ads and a host of contemporary campaigns

featuring any half-decent comic you care to mention.

Having said that, pop promos do seem to be enjoying something of a

renaissance within the advertising community. This is reflected in the

number of big-name commercials production houses which have set up

specialist video arms recently, including Pink, Paul Weiland Films and

BFCS. It’s also significant that this year’s D&AD pop video category was

dominated by several hot commercials directors, notably Propaganda’s

Spike Jonze, Partizan Midi Minuit’s Michel Gondry, and Chris Cunningham

of RSA. Academy’s Jonathan Glazer, the It Boy among adland’s left-field

creative teams thanks to an extraordinary run of commercials for Nike,

VW, Guinness and Levi’s as well as videos for Jamiroquai and Massive

Attack, reckons the standard of pop videos is ’better than it’s ever

been; most of the early stuff is put to shame by what’s going on


Many other directors, however, believe the creative pendulum may have

swung towards advertising. ’The two disciplines have moved much closer

together,’ observes Tim Pope, whose quirky videos for the Cure are as

weird and wonderful as ever. ’The danger and excitement seems to have

gone out of music and the videos reflect that - they are less about

content than style. Ironically, commercials seem to be more dangerous at

the moment.’ Pope is another director who has turned his attentions to


’If the music was a lot wilder, I’d be there no question ... but once

you’ve worked with Iggy Pop, why bother to work with anyone else? I find

commercials more fulfilling these days.’

Kleinman agrees: ’(Music video) pioneers like Julien Temple, Don Letts

and Steve Barron were more interested in ideas than

technique ... slickness wasn’t important, coming up with an inventive,

mad narrative was. Every video was different. Then the industry grew up

and they became more safe and formulaic. Commercials, on the other hand,

are on the up and up. Creatively speaking, they’re far more innovative

right now.’

An obvious reason for this is budgets; commercials, in general, are far

better resourced than music videos. ’Sometimes there simply isn’t the

money to do what you want to do, so you end up turning the job down or

compromising your original ideas,’ says the director, Howard Greenhalgh,

who flits between both media, having worked with the likes of the Spice

Girls, Suede and the Pet Shop Boys as well as directing spots for Rover

and BT.

Along the same lines, the director Chris Palmer, who has just directed

his first promo (for the Verve), points out that there’s a danger in


’It’s like talking about newspapers as a whole, there are very different

types (of video) out there. The process of directing a Michael Jackson

or Madonna video is a whole lot different from directing a video for

some indie kids who’ve just signed up to a new label.’

The inherent similarities of the two forms will inevitably mean that the

crossover of both talent and content will continue ad infinitum. ’Pop

videos still have a major influence on ads and always will,’ Glazer


’Young creatives have a whole different set of iconography, it’s not

influenced by books, cinema and theatre any more, it’s MTV. There’s

nothing cerebral about it, it’s a kind of visual shorthand which can be

good or bad’.

Directors lucky enough to be in demand for both media need to balance

the comparative creative freedom offered to them by pop promos with the

money and budgets that come with advertising. But in either case it’s

the raw material which will determine whether the end-product is any


’In advertising, if the idea’s good, you can produce a decent

commercial,’ Pope says. ’With promos it’s the song that counts.’

TREVOR BEATTIE on Firestarter

Firestarter blew my socks off. It looked like the devil, sounded like

the devil and seemed to have been shot in hand-held hell. Its debut on

Top of the Pops sparked the largest number of complaints in the show’s

history. And why not? Remember when pop stars were dangerous? Apparently

99 per cent of the offended mentioned Keith’s pierced tongue. (How


Some of my closest friends have pierced tongues now ...) Did it

influence commercials? Change the face of pop promos? Nah. Have you seen

the grinning inanity that currently passes for both? I’d rather sit on

my TV and watch the settee.

Trevor Beattie is creative director at TBWA GGT Simons Palmer

TIM ASHTON on Crying Airport

Promos to my mind are either brilliant or rubbish, nothing in


I loved Tarsem’s Losing My Religion promo for REM. You knew you were

witnessing the emergence of a huge talent; he commands such respect that

he can even influence which tracks bands release from their new album.

Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy was really fresh and influenced

Spike Jonze’s brilliant California Wax Burning Man. Michel Gondry’s Cibo

Matto Sugar is technically amazing. All of these directors have done it

and moved on. So ex-photo journalist turned promo director Ringan

Ledwidge’s Whale promo is my choice.

Tim Ashton is a partner at Circus

GERRY MOIRA on Friday I’m in Love

Today, music belongs to the clubs rather than MTV, so pop videos aren’t

nearly as influential as they used to be. There isn’t the same kind of

money behind them anymore and they tend to be performance- rather than

concept-driven, usually with lots of sex and pointing. Tim Pope is my

favourite director of pop videos mainly because of his wicked sense of

humour - considering the throwaway nature of the medium, too many tend

to take themselves arse-achingly seriously. His Cure series is fun and

anarchic. His long-running Neil Young series is probably even


Gerry Moira is executive creative director at Publicis

PAUL GRUBB on Bitter Sweet Symphony

I’ve watched more MTV than Beavis and Butthead put together, not looking

for new techniques, but because I love music. Promos are, after all,

commercials for music, and a simple idea that uses a band is what I’m

always drawn to. I love Pedro Romhanyi’s two-dimensional look for Blur’s

Parklife, and I always enjoy the Beastie Boys’ Starsky and Hutch

pastiche for Sabotage, or Nirvana dressed as 60s geeks for In Bloom. My

fave is Bitter Sweet Symphony, because it’s so engaging to watch Richard

Ashcroft just walking down a street. You just can’t tell whether it’s

for real or just well acted.

Paul Grubb is creative director at Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters


My shortlist included recent work by Jonathan Glazer for Radiohead and

Weezer’s Buddy Holly by Spike Jonze. Back to the beginning of MTV, Steve

Barron’s Money for Nothing springs to mind (for the visual innovation,

not the song) and Billie Jean, which did more than a bit for Michael

Jackson’s career. The Madness videos showed that you didn’t need big

budgets to be entertaining. The gold, however, goes to director Julien

Temple. Years on, you’d be pushed to come up with a stronger visual

narrative for a performance of that song, My Way, by Sid Vicious.

Jay Pond-Jones is executive creative director at Bates Dorland

DAVE BUONAGUIDI on Come to Daddy

There are these nasty little kids with rotten heads in a tower block, a

talking television, a skinny bloke with the same rotten head as the

kids, and a poor old woman who has the shit scared out of her. The

track, Come to Daddy, is very disturbing and the promo makes it even

worse. Every promo rule has been broken. Most of them have no ideas, a

band trying to look ever so fucking cool and stupid and Michael Jackson

group dance routines. They’re all about airplay, but this one certainly

isn’t. Well done to everyone involved, for not trying to get on to Top

of the Pops. Watch it, eat some cheese and go to bed.

Dave Buonaguidi is creative director at St Luke’s.

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