Promo Poetry

Senior Creative Damian Townend talks about the art of short form:

I’ve been thinking about what makes a good promo these days.  I’ve recently noticed some great pieces of creative work but also an increasing amount of route-one, more obvious and explained pieces.

What I see as the more creative pieces, the ones that work in terms of planting an unshakeable little idea in your head, are those that are more heavily impressions.  These creative pieces, have usually gone through a process of some rigorous investigation.  Creatives have taken a product, then deconstructed it, breaking it up into its smallest parts. They then hold the parts up to the eye and understand them and then reconstruct the product by using as few as these parts as possible. What’s created is an impression of what the product stands for and what it is all about.  I used to hear this mantra ‘Deconstruction and then reconstruction’ often over the years.  Sadly, over time in a lot of cases it has just turned into a chant with very little understanding.  As a result, creative work is succeeding to varying degrees as work has become more dumbed-down and obvious.


There’s been a trend over the last five to ten years for short form pieces of work such as ads, promos, trailers and brand spots to explain and unpack in longhand what the product is all about.

They often become overcrowded as information is crammed in, with voice over or graphics hammering home every detail of the product and everything explained in the most basic terms, just in case a potential punter is missed because they didn’t get it.  I think a lot of this comes from fear of not getting the message across. Doing it in really creative and often abstract ways is a scary business, so more often than not we get these ‘does what it says on the tin’ pieces of work.  Work like this credit the consumers with little intelligence and place minimal trust in the human mind and subconscious to do it’s magic and put the pieces together.

When great short form pieces work best, in my opinion, is when this is happening, and it’s this magic that appeals to what is inside us and whatever a soul may be.

That’s not to say there isn’t a place for the more unpacked and explained pieces of work. Airline safety videos probably wouldn’t be quite so effective if they took on a more arty and creative form. Air New Zealand pushes them pretty far, and of course longform work such as drama, comedy, romance and documentary would become quite hard work if all the story development and character arcs were represented with abstract imagery and sound.

A few years ago I was working on some trailers and marketing films for a big US broadcaster. The Exec Producer, none other than Mark Burnett wanted to have a telephone conversation to brief me in on his creative take on how they should be.  I don’t think I’ve every heard anyone speak better about the craft of promo making.  He believed it to be a real art form and made a point that has stayed with me to this day:

“Promos are poetry and longform is prose.”

I’d felt this for years and always approached my promo work like this, challenging myself to see how far I could reduce a film or a show and still absolutely nail its essence but I never could explain what it was I was trying to do.  I think Mark captured what a promo is  very well.  You could read a great book that takes 500 pages to leave you with the same impression that a brilliant ten-line poem could.  And that’s what makes promos an artform.  If you can leave someone with the same impression and excitement in 60 seconds that they’d get from watching a two-hour film then you have made a piece of art and achieved your purpose.

So, I suppose really what I’m hoping is that more of us keep pushing to make great creative short form work, and prove that it works better. Great creative work has greater resonance than just dry messaging. I also hope more marketing directors, creative directors, and all the clients we want to make great work for, can be a little braver going forward and encourage us to make the magic happen. Play it a little less safe, unless of course it’s the airline safety video, maybe.

Ben Okri has been promoting a new collection of poems and while doing so made a point that I think applies to short form when it is done well:

“Poetry can go straight to the truth of things, with extraordinary brevity, with great rhythmic beauty so it moves the heart as well as the mind.”


Damian Townend is a Senior Creative and Editor for Thieves Kitchen.

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