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An inside look at what it’s like to work on a Super Bowl ad

VCU Brandcenter alumni share their stories of creating commercials on the ad world’s biggest stage.

Brandcenter alumnus Michael Wilson has been art director on two Super Bowl spots, including a 201...
Brandcenter alumnus Michael Wilson has been art director on two Super Bowl spots, including a 2014 “The Matrix”-inspired Kia ad starring Laurence Fishburne.

All it takes is 30 seconds. Thirty seconds to make or break your brand. At least, that is, when those seconds take place during one of the most-watched television broadcasts of the year — the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl, which in 2017 had more than 110 million viewers, is one broadcast event that guarantees its audience will stay in the room and pay close attention during the commercials. As many people watch the Super Bowl for the ads as for the game itself.

But as glamorous and fun as those seconds are to watch, creating them is another story. And the stakes are high, with a price tag of more than $5 million for a 30-second spot.

“Coming up with the idea typically takes a mix of two stubborn people — a writer and an art director — a good creative brief, and days of coming up with horribly bad ideas until you find one you don’t hate,” said Michael Wilson, who has been art director on two Super Bowl spots since graduating from the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter in 2011. 

Wilson worked on the 2014 “The Matrix”-inspired Kia ad starring Laurence Fishburne and PayPal’s 2016 “new money” spot. He is among the dozens of Brandcenter alumni who have helped create memorable Super Bowl commercials over the years.

Each project presented widely different experiences. One project was a whole year in the making, while the other was written, sold, produced and finished in less than four weeks. Wilson said he has encountered all kinds of difficulties, such as testy celebrities, rogue directors, days without sleep, impossibly short timelines and unapologetically uncooperative animals.

“It’s definitely a higher-stakes job than a traditional campaign,” Wilson said. “A lot of money goes into producing and airing a spot for the Super Bowl and, thus, a high level of scrutiny comes along with it. [It’s] stressful and exciting. The Super Bowl is the ad world’s biggest stage, so it’s always a little nerve-racking to put something out there not knowing how people will react to it. Creatives can be sensitive and fragile creatures.” 

Fellow art director Tom Scharpf encountered a few sensitive personalities on his 2009 Super Bowl ad for Audi, “The Chase,” which he worked on with 1999 Brandcenter grad Crockett Jeffers.

“The shoot actually ground to a standstill one day due to disagreements between the actor, the director, the agency and the client,” said Scharpf, a 1998 Brandcenter grad. “There was a period of several hours where no one was talking to each other anymore. Luckily, it started to rain and the rest of the shoot day was cancelled so we got to reshoot the next day. Otherwise, the spot never would have gotten finished. Lots of disagreements and anguish, but in the end it turned out pretty well.” [“Pretty well,” indeed. Time magazine gave the ad an A-, writing, “Some funny period touches, and amid most commercials’ emotional appeals and the feeling-the-economy zeitgeist, it’s nice to see a spot that just says, this car is fast as hell.”]

While the shoot itself was tough, the concept came pretty easily, based on something Paul Venables, founder and chairman at the California firm Venables Bell & Partners, had said in the kickoff meeting, Scharpf said.

“He said that all the other competitor brands were of the past,” Scharpf said. “Mercedes was of the ’60s and ’70s. BMW was an ’80s. Lexus was the brand of the ’90s. And Audi was the car for this particular moment in time. It rang true to us and we just wanted to get that point across in a way that was entertaining and easy to absorb. Director Ivan Zacharias and editor Filip Malasek deserve all the credit for meticulously condensing four decades into 60 seconds.”

Audi: The Chase (2009)

When it comes to viewing the commercial, there is plenty of anticipation for the creators, but then it’s over in a minute, Scharpf said.

“And then you wonder what all the fuss was about,” he said. “I remembered watching it on my home TV and not being happy with the mix. All in all, it was super anticlimactic in terms of watching it live. But I’m still happy with the spot years later.”

Copywriter Howard Jordan Jr., who graduated from the Brandcenter in 1999, doesn’t watch commercials at all. He said his career took off when he “stopped trying to do ads” and started focusing on creative ways to tell a client’s story.

“I started thinking of different ways to do new, big ideas,” Jordan said. “Trying to create something that can grow business, of course, but also be smart and first and fun. More content driven concepts. … But, I don’t stress over ads. I appreciated the opportunity to have so many eyes and launch something potentially cool.”

Jordan worked on two Bud Light spots that aired during the 2012 Super Bowl. The pressure is high, he said.

“Higher than usual to be certain,” Jordan said. “Bigger budget. More eyes. More anxiety from all clients and executives involved. You also start from further out. But, like all projects, it comes down to the deadlines when you have to move.”

Bud Light: Here We Go (2012)

The beer commercials took about three months from concept through production and represented a team effort, he said. Jordan, who served as creative director and copywriter, worked with eight creatives toward the integrated campaign that was set to follow the traditional TV spots.

But the client’s need changed, changing the project’s creative direction as well.

“So we definitely worked lots of days and nights,” Jordan said. “A junior copywriter came up with the first ‘line.’ Then, it was off to the races." 

Jordan credits the Brandcenter with every foundational piece of advertising knowledge he has, such as innovation, collaboration and networking. And thick skin. Very thick skin.

“I was a 21-year-old straight out of undergrad,” he said. “I grew up a lot. I took those skills to New York, LA and Chicago and just kept building. I didn’t realize it until about two years ago, but I was the first black guy to finish my track. That’s personal obviously, but it taught me some lessons in a very caring, progressive environment.” 

VCU taught Scharpf that you’re never really out of ideas.

“There’s always more,” he said. “Even when things seem bleak and you’ve thought of everything, you can go back and find something new. I also learned that the best tool you can develop as a creative is to be a better listener. When you’re truly listening, you come up with more ideas.”