The Sorrows and Triumphs of Shooting Commercial Work

A café scene produced as part of a sequence for an insurance company. © 2019 Christopher Boffoli

A café scene produced as part of a sequence for an insurance company. © 2019 Christopher Boffoli

Mixing objects of different scales has been a favorite advertising technique for ages. I’m not quite sure where Jonathan Swift got the idea – used to great effect in his famous social satire “Gulliver’s Travels” in 1726 –but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he first saw it on a billboard somewhere.

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As I’ve written about previously, my work with miniatures and food was influenced by television commercials I saw growing up; the Pillsbury Doughboy, Jolly Green Giant, Ty-D Bol man in that little boat inside the toilet, and the Ralston Purina miniature chuckwagon that would get chased by the family dog.  Mixing objects of various scales was a popular theme in TV and movies of the 70’s and 80’s. And it continues to be a reliable (and extremely effective) technique for attracting attention in advertising today with ad agencies around the world. 

It’s fortunate that I work in this wheelhouse. Without exception, commercial commissions for advertising agencies have been the most demanding but also stimulating parts of my work, not to mention the most lucrative.  Though they also can be one of the most frustrating as well. Agencies will often contact me to let me know that they will be pitching concepts – based on my work – to their clients. However, as I’m only one of a range of ideas, when the client chooses something else on a capricious whim I generally don’t back from the agency. So I’m always careful to not get too excited about the project too soon. Very occasionally they’ll thank me for my time in helping to put together whatever pitch materials or quote they’ve requested. More often they evaporate like sugar in hot tea.  It is important to not take it personally. Though I always do appreciate the professionalism of those account executives or producers that may be the courtesy of closing the loop.

Sometimes I’m thanked and tell they “went in another direction” only to see the campaign come out several months later and it is pretty much along the lines of what we discussed. Ad agencies may have decided that my quote was too high and went off and hired someone cheaper. Or they might have had an existing relationship with a creative studio or photographer who for practical reasons it would be easier to work with. Maybe they went with someone who was available sooner than I was or who was in their own time zone.  A lot of the reasons have nothing to do with me.

Reshooting a lone snowboarder element for my animators for a large commercial shoot in 2018. © Christopher Boffoli

Reshooting a lone snowboarder element for my animators for a large commercial shoot in 2018. © Christopher Boffoli

I can recall at least one creative agency that seemed ready to hire me to do product packaging for a winery. They wanted tiny little people on a refreshed identity, which included product packaging and labels for twelve skus of wine. They accepted my quote but then pivoted to a holding pattern due to some unexplained delay and then went dark.  Cut to two months later when they came back to me with hat in hand to say that they hired a photographer to shoot it for cheaper (than my already very reasonable quote) only to panic when the work that photographer returned was an embarrassing mess. They said they could not present it to their clients and wondered if I would re-quote and then scramble to pick up the pieces. I told them to go pound sand.

It should be no surprise to any creative doing commercial work of any kind that there is always someone out there who is willing to undercut your rate and produce something cheaper.  This has happened to me enough to know that it is never fun.

But before I come off as too cynical here, there absolutely are some heroes out there too.  I’m thinking of the very accomplished and well-respected graphic designer in NYC who once told a company that she would walk from the project when she got wind of their plan to ice me and to hire a much cheaper photographer overseas who was ready to knock off my work.  I ended up doing the work. And the designer has won my respect and loyalty.

Storyboards taped up in preparation for a product packaging shoot. © Christopher Boffoli

Storyboards taped up in preparation for a product packaging shoot. © Christopher Boffoli

There also are creative directors, producers and agencies who seek out and value quality and who come to me as they regard me as something of a pioneer in my genre and who understand the real value I bring to collaborating with them on their projects. For all of the negative interactions I’ve had with less than scrupulous agencies and undercutting competitors, the superlative experiences I’ve had working with some of the best agencies in the industry have more than made up for the unseemly experiences I’ve had. I’m really proud of the work that has come out of some of those collaborations. I consider it a privilege to have work with and learned from those brilliant creatives.