Future of TV Media Planning and Buying ITN

ITN Productions reveals secrets of live ads: ‘Lots of things can go wrong’


By Hannah Bowler | Senior Reporter

June 9, 2022 | 6 min read

ITN Productions is gearing up to film its 11th live ad, an uncommon way to create a TV commercial that needs to be intricately micro-managed. The Drum sits down with its head of advertising Mark Thompson to learn why it is embracing this creative challenge.

Co-op’s community fridge campaign shot by ITN Productions

Co-op’s community fridge campaign shot by ITN Productions

ITN Productions has produced 10 live ads, including campaigns for Virgin Media, the Territorial Amy broadcasting live from Afghanistan, First Choice and Argos.

Each ad requires immense pre-planning and carries a high amount of risk, and because of this ITN Productions is the only company ITV trusts to deliver live ads. “It’s good of ITV to trust us because there are lots of things that could go wrong,” Thompson says.

The production outfit shot Co-op’s live community fridge Christmas campaign, which aired during ITV’s Coronation Street. Thompson says for Co-op the live element helped hammer home its social purpose message.

According to Thompson, brands choose to run live ads for one of three reasons, “it’s either about community, celebration or the surprise factor,” he says. In the case of Co-op’s community fridge campaign, the supermarket needed the audience to connect with the community. “The fact is live audiences can relate to people more quickly,” Thompson says. “People are sat in their homes and feel like they are in a better situation than the people in the centers and they can connect immediately.”

Airing during Coronation Street’s prime-time ad break, it coincided with audiences either eating or cooking their dinner. This, Thompson says, “brings it home to people more as it makes it real” that less fortunate people can’t afford their own dinner.

Away from the relatability, senior producer for ITN Advertising Emma Stainton says the risk factor of live can reel in audiences. “The jeopardy of it being live is interesting to audiences,” she says. “People always want to see someone fall over.”

Stainton, who exec produced Co-op’s Community Fridge ad, adds: “There is also the victory from the talent, from the audience perspective you can see the excitement when they’ve pulled it off.”

Thompson believes live ads carry that same water cooler moment as live TV. “Lots of advertisers think [live ads] are a good way to kickstart a conversation and get people talking about things because people will say, ‘oh did you see that live ad’ – it has that FOMO moment,” he explains.

The planning phase of live ads is the most crucial – you only get one take, so everything must be planned within an inch of its life, says Thompson. A contingency ad also needs to be shot and banked in case anything goes wrong on the day.

For an ad to be counted as live it must be recorded and on-air within five minutes.

Once the filming has stopped, the UK ad clearance body Clearcast must replay the recording twice, clearing it ready to be sent back to ITN, which checks the audio and lighting. Once Clearcast and ITN have done their checks Thompson’s team does the “scary bit” and plays the ad down the line. “We push the button, and it literally plays out live – it’s not a case of recording it and uploading it, you have to play it live,” he explains.

ITN Productions worked with Lucky Generals on the Co-op ad. Thompson says live ads push creative agencies out of their comfort zones. The creative process is entirely different from “crafting a 30- or 60-second ad that you’ve poured over for three months to get the creative right in every shot.” He says managing expectations is crucial to the agency/production relationship; agencies must be aware that “anything could happen and there are creative limitations.”

Cadbury ‘Give a Doubt’ campaign

Elsewhere, Thompson and Stainton shared their production stories behind ITN Productions’ recent shoot for Cadbury and The Prince’s Trust’s campaign ‘Give a Doubt’.

The films featured the likes of Helen Mirren, Ian Wright and Ellie Simmons, who shared their doubts and encouraged others to share theirs.

Stainton explains the clients and agency partner VCCP were keen to enlist as many celebrities as possible, which created a logistical problem in getting everyone together for a one-day shoot. To overcome this ITN Productions took sets to the celebrities. This meant recreating a TV studio in Gary Neville’s hotel room for a one-hour record, rebuilding the food truck from Big Zuu’s Big Eats and beaming Helen Mirren in via a video call.

Stainton says a benefit of post-Covid filming is that audiences now accept video calls as part of the storyline. “This meant that we were able to bring Helen in where we wouldn’t have been able to before the pandemic – we would have gone to find someone else.”

Stainton says: “It’s good for the talent too, who might want to get involved and be able to give up some time, but not a whole day.”

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