Ask a lot of questions so that you are crystal clear on the brief. Try to gauge how flexible they are about the story and visual style. This is important - the amount of creative freedom you have on a project can vary widely from one brief to the next. Some briefs will be very specific, with little room for additional creative input. While at the other extreme the agency will have one of those "no idea" briefs - the bare bones of an idea that relies heavily on your creative input to flesh it out and make it work. Know the demographic and don't lose sight of who your audience is when crafting your treatment.
2. Is the ad Story or Spectacle
If it's Story then it should have a beginning, middle and end, with at least one character. Traditional story telling techniques come into play here (see next point). The objective of Story is to engage the audience with a plot that resolves at the end with the advertiser's message embedded. If it's Spectacle there is no story - the ad is eye candy in the form of motion graphics, montage or visual effects. The objective of spectacle is to attract the audience's attention with appealing visuals and catchy audio to get the message across.
3. Get your story essentials in place
All stories must have a CHARACTER that the audience can empathise or identify with. The character should have a GOAL - he/she/it wants something. Finally there should be CONFLICT - an obstacle to the character getting what she wants, which must be overcome.
STRUCTURE is equally important - most stories have a beginning, middle and end. The beginning is where the character is introduced and the setting is established. Then a problem or incident moves the story to the middle part, where obstacles are overcome. Finally the story resolves and the character is much happier now that (thanks to the product) the problem is solved - cue the logo and park it for the last second. If your TV commercial has these story elements in place, you're in good shape.
Ask yourself these questions - will it fit into the duration you have to work with? Can it be funnier/scarier/more dramatic/whatever? Can I withhold some information from the audience until the end to give them a surprise? Is the main character appealing enough? Will the audience connect with him/her/it? Could I add a prop or setting that makes the story more interesting? What about the technique and visual style - how can I make it look original/quirky/retro/ whatever. Look at lots of films and commercials for inspiration. Some ideas should be starting to gel as you get a feel for how you want to tell the story.
5. Keep it simple
Don't lose sight of the message - and there should be only one main message in a TV commercial. You will come across clients who insist on trying to squeeze 10 product benefits into 30 seconds. This is counter-productive and the end result is never good. One main message and maybe a secondary message is enough for a 30 seconder. An agency worth their salt will back you up on this one.
6. Getting it onto paper
Start by writing about the objective of the commercial, and how your treatment will get the desired result. Reassure the client how this commercial will integrate with existing content and branding. Give the impression you know the product and what it stands for - but don't over analyse this - the client knows their product way better than you do. Write with confidence and with intention to influence - make it a good read.
Next take the reader through the story beat-by-beat (a beat is the smallest element of a story). Write in such a way that the reader can visualise it. Don't get technical with descriptions of camera angles or visual effects - just tell the story as it is. If your treatment is a Spectacle, then keep the description brief because a MOOD BOARD (see next point) will better describe what you want to say.
Write about how your proposed visual style will give the commercial a unique look, and make it stand out. Mention the colour palette - the three main colours that will dominate the commercial to give it a certain look or mood. If there's a special technique you are proposing, this could be the place to get a little technical (don't overdo it), and impress with something unique you are bringing to the spot that's going to make it special.
Write about the audio. Is there a VO (voice over)? Why - and what kind of voice? Will there be music -what kind? Will the music drive the commercial or will it be used subtly, as sound design, to accent story moments? How will the sound and the visuals integrate to work together?
Finally, close with a short summary to wrap up your treatment and drive home that you and your team are going to make this commercial a hit.
7. Make a Mood Board
A Mood Board is a montage of images you have borrowed from the web, that create an impression of the visual style, colour scheme and brand values that you want to come across in the commercial. Your mood board might be one or more full pages of your PDF document. It might be projected at a pre-production meeting.
In total your treatment might be two to four pages. The design of the document itself is a statement about the aesthetic you are bringing to the project - so make it look good.
Author: Steve Bristow has lectured in Screenwriting, Story and Screen Language, has screen credits as a Director, Creator and Story Editor, and has directed hundreds of TV commercials and videos. Find him at Kite Media.