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When Ads Are a Labor of Love

  |  July 10, 2009   |  Comments

Scores of people vie to produce a single video ad that may earn one winner $2,500. Is this the future of advertising?

When Conchita Perales and Mike Van Dine work together to produce a video ad, they believe their efforts are worth more than the $2,500 they may collect.

So what pushes the husband-and-wife team to kick around ideas for a script, round up one or more actor friends, take a day out of work to shoot a video, and then spend a few more days to edit it?

Call it a labor of love. I caught up with Perales by phone last month to learn what motivates people to work on a commercial project for so little, if any, money. I also wanted to find out if consumers and viewers -- anyone armed with a video camera -- can disrupt the big business of producing video ads for TV and online. It's not likely, and Perales and Van Dine's story offers insights into why.

Chasing the Muse

Perales and Van Dine aspire to create and produce creative short feature films and enter them in festival competitions. So about two years ago, they invested $10,000 in a high-definition camera and editing system.

But they encountered a challenge. "The number-one enemy to producing independently is setting your own deadline. It's really hard," she said when discussing the couple's creative pursuits.

One day, Van Dine heard about competitions involving so-called viewer-created ad messages, or VCAMs, organized by Current, a cable television channel and Web site cofounded by former Vice President Al Gore. (The media company made international news last month when two of its journalists were convicted by North Korea for illegally entering that country.)

In an initiative started about two years ago, Current posts an assignment on behalf of sponsors, such as Axe hair products for men, Almay cosmetics, Hewlett-Packard, Toyota, and Nissan. Viewers create and submit a video ad, working from the assignment. A sponsor then selects three to four winners; those ads are shown on Current TV and the producers get $2,500 for each ad.

Perales and Van Dine jumped at the opportunity and started a company, Interstate5, to participate in Current projects. They liked the framework, especially the deadline, laid out for each assignment. Now they have about 30 days to kick around an idea before moving into action mode. Van Dine works the camera, lights, and sound; Perales is the producer, director, and editor.

Out of seven VCAM contests they entered over the past 18 months, four were $2,500 winners, including "What's in Your Basket" for Almay Pure Blends and "One for You" for Wachovia Bank. Another earned the duo a total of $7,500 when Hewlett-Packard posted the video ad, "You're Gonna Get It " on YouTube.

Current dangles the possibility of even a bigger reward -- as high as $60,000 -- to participants. For instance, if the sponsor uses the ad in a public billboard or theatrical trailer, the creator would get another $20,000. If it's used on network television, the creator would get $15,000. Current TV didn't respond to a request for an interview to discuss the results of the VCAM program and whether any single contribution has received $60,000.

Current TV's approach has detractors. "Where else can a car company get a tv commercial made for 2,500 bucks. seriously. Current is a Tool of da man, man," FluxRosrum commented four months ago on an SFweekly.com blog.

A Winning Streak

When Perales and Van Dine first started producing video ads for the Current competition, they came up against 50 or so other submissions. "Nowadays, there have been up to 150 submissions per assignment!" Perales said.

So what contributes to their success over rivals?

"My husband is creative. He started working in advertising. One of his biggest assets is his talent for a short, funny idea," Perales said. "He's always brainstorming."

What's more, the couple work in the film and video industry.

As a gaffer (define), Van Dine is the owner of Power & Light, a provider of lighting equipment for video and film projects. Perales owns Eyeline Teleprompting, an operator of teleprompters for indoor and outdoor shoots and live events.

"A lot of people who participate [in Current's video ad assignments] don't have the knowledge or money to rent lights," Perales said. Without that expertise, many efforts fall flat.

Current may offer brands an opportunity to get creative video ads on the cheap, but it won't undermine more costly endeavors. "You get paid so little money, you don't have the ability to get the location where you would really want to shoot [the video]. You cannot afford to approach successful actors or talent that is known. The same goes for the production value," Perales said. "I don't think it's going to replace advertising. It's another way to advertise."

For Perales and Van Dine, the experience has been invaluable to their long-term goal of producing short feature films.

"We have great ideas and a couple of scripts already in progress," Perales said. "Participating and winning on Current TV has energized and focused our creativity."

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Anna Maria Virzi

Anna Maria Virzi, ClickZ's executive editor from 2007 until 2012, covered Internet business and technology since 1996. She was on the launch team for Ziff Davis Media's Baseline and also worked at Forbes.com, Web Week, Internet World, and the Connecticut Post.

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