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In conversation with treatment writer: Arran Igoe

Join us as we explore the world of commercial storytelling through the eyes of Arran Igoe, a master at translating concepts into compelling narratives. As Arran brings his perspective to the creative process, we delve into his approach for writing treatments, the impact of director’s involvement, and what sets a standout treatment apart.

Agnieszka Celej: How do you approach crafting a treatment for a commercial? Can you walk me through the process?

Arran Igoe: I’ll usually get an availability request a day or two before a job so the turnaround is generally pretty fast. The production company will send me the agency script / boards and ideally a recording of the agency call too, and that’s usually enough to make a pretty good start with the writing. 

How things progress from there really depends on the nature of the job. Sometimes I get asked to write on something because the director’s just not available at all. Other times it’s more a case of writing support, and the director will already have their vision for the project but needs a little help developing the idea or finding the right language to bring it to life in words. 

Either way, I’ll generally dive in and start to ‘feel out’ the project by writing down some initial thoughts on the subject matter, product, the key points of the approach etc. It’s rare that this will be the final form of the treatment, but I often find the best way to get something clear in my head is to simply just start writing.

While you can definitely write something ‘passable’ on the first attempt, the first pass is almost always an exploratory thing and it’s not until 2 or 3 drafts in that you get something that feels exceptional – and for high end TV commercials a treatment *must* be exceptional, that’s the point.  

It’s also probably worth talking about director involvement and feedback here too as this can often play a big role in how a treatment turns out. Sometimes I’m asked to write in place of a director when they’re just not around, but if they’ve been able to at least think about the concept and what they want to say, this is generally fine. 

Where it *can* be a problem is when you get absolutely no input at all – so you really only have the agency script to go on and the response will generally by necessity end up feeling a bit generic and non committal (which I think is one of the worst things a treatment can be). A good treatment has a really clear direction, and offers at least an evolution on the agency script and some thought from the director.

How has working with some of the biggest advertising agencies and renowned directors influenced your approach to writing treatments?

I’ve been doing this for a long time and as a career (rather than as a step to becoming a director like many treatment writers and researchers) so I’m generally very lucky in terms of who I get to work with and what I’ve been able to learn. I think that writing, like many aspects of production, is one of those things you gradually absorb over the years as opposed to something you just sit down one day and do. 

Before I was writing treatments I worked in production, in house at Pulse Films and before that in TV. Importantly, I got to work with many of the directors I’d later write for, so it was a natural fit in terms of understanding who they are, how they communicate, what they look for in their work, how they approach a project and so on – which was obviously something I’ve the carried forward into my own work too! 

One of the other great things about doing this so long has been seeing first time directors / new talent evolve over the years and end up doing really incredible work. Again, I think that’s one of the great things about this industry in general: that everyone’s constantly growing and evolving, the more you do in this industry, the more there is that feeds your creativity, and that’s huge. I could never do anything that felt like standing still! 

Treatment excerpt | Arran Igoe

What makes the treatment stand out and resonate with viewers?

While there’s lots of technical stuff a treatment needs to communicate, I think the most important thing is actually how the director comes across – analogous to the way people might judge someone in a face to face interview, focusing not only on what they say, but how they say it, how they come across as a person, whether they seem confident or not in what they’re proposing, whether they seem to know their stuff! 

Clarity of approach is everything and I can often tell a winning treatment as I’m writing it, because not only is there a great idea in there, it’s presented with such clarity in terms of how its been thought through, how it’s taken the original agency script somewhere completely new and unexpected, how the director’s brought it all to life visually in terms of the scenes they’re proposing and why.

I think you need to have an ear for a directors’ voice too – so you’re able to quickly get a sense of their personality from the agency call or brief – and be able to write conversationally in that voice in a way that feels very ‘readable’. A treatment has to be a pleasure to read. It needs to be ‘easy’ to read. It doesn’t matter if it’s 1000 words or 6000, if it’s readable and exhilarating, it’ll get the attention of the agency/client, and you’re much more likely to get your point across. 

I don’t think there’s any magic formula for ‘the perfect treatment’ as every job is different. I’ve no formula I use when I’m writing. Just a lot being able to read between the lines in terms of what a client’s probably expecting, and being able to give them what they want in the most nuanced way possible. Being confident in what you say, but also knowing just how to say it in order to get them excited. 

One big pitfall I often run into is producer’s trying to play by some perceived set of rules that aren’t really there. ‘You need to name check the product in the intro’, ‘that sentence is too long’, ‘we need a section on diversity’ (when it’s already heavily implied in the script and adding a section will just make the whole thing feel a little ‘white people trying to tick boxes’ which I personally think is a bit icky in this particular industry in 2023 :s 

Good writing needs no rules, if it does what it’s meant to be doing and achieves that well, it really doesn’t matter how it’s done. If it’s a high end luxury spot for Louis Vuitton talking about love, let the treatment be rich, poetic and meandering. If it’s an action packed chase sequence 30 for Porsche, let’s make it thrilling, punchy and packed with every kind of driving expletive we can muster, describing the rough, guttural growl of the engine or highlights drizzling over the silky smooth lines of the body. No one size fits all! 

Treatment excerpt | Arran Igoe

I can hear that diversity raises a lot of your concern.

I think there’s STILL a big problem in some markets with certain groups being underrepresented – and I think that can really hamstring the kind of work that gets done. 

I’m from a small former mining town in Yorkshire, England so I really had to work my way out of a certain lifestyle that wasn’t really conducive at the time to coming to London and working in commercials. I still find it rare to find people who’ve shared that journey – state school rather than public school, working rather than ‘middle’ class, functional degrees (expecting to have to go get a ‘real job‘!) rather than film school. 

I think in an industry where so much creativity comes from having life experience, and thus a diversity of ideas depends on having many different life experiences to draw on, it’s kind of worrying that the majority of people come from such a narrow range of backgrounds. We’re making ads, we’re selling certain lifestyles, and I think a lot of the cynicism people have for advertising comes from the fact that it often feels condescending – depicting someone else’s idea of ‘people like them’, that isn’t like them. 

I’d love to see our industry move away from a model of putting people into boxes and instead concentrate more on celebrating difference, rather than trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. I’d love to see more young people think ‘I can’, as opposed to ‘I’m not like them’ or this is an industry that’s all about a certain kind of person. It isn’t… it’s quite the opposite… it’s an industry that thrives on individualism, and imagination: not on a certain kind of education, someone’s accent or the color of their skin. 

Let’s stop pretending the problem can be solved with some token efforts to tick a few boxes or hire a few faces that, by definition of what we’re doing, we’re admitting ‘don’t fit’. In an industry so obsessed with authenticity, it’s a huge red flag that the people making apparently ‘authentic’ work are not at all ‘authentic’ in terms of the context in which that work is set. It’s always been something that bugs me, and in ten years of doing this, I haven’t seen much change.

The industry is now much more virtual in many ways, how do you perceive that shift?

I think this is fine and from my perspective at least doesn’t really affect things at all. I’ve actually worked remotely for over ten years now and for me at least, it works. It just didn’t make sense for me to commute an hour each way everyday in central London just to spend the day largely working alone writing on my laptop… so I left and went to live in Athens 🙂

I’ve also found it actually works to a projects *advantage* to be in a different timezone too as I can generally overnight projects for clients too which makes for a very efficient workflow, especially when deadlines are tight and directors are busy doing something else. I can work distraction free while London, New York or Los Angeles sleep, send my draft, then pick things up the next day after they’ve had a full 24 hours to feedback. 

Generally speaking this is a job where it pays not to be bombarded with endless emails during the ‘work day’ suggesting this or wanting to ‘try’ that. Everything’s much more organised and systematic this way, and the proof I think is in the results.

Treatment excerpt | Arran Igoe

How does AI impact your creative process? Do you apply it in your workflow?

I actually have a bit of a double life as a software engineer developing custom software for businesses too (randomly!), so I’m pretty well versed in AI, its potential and potential limitations. I use it a lot for coding, where it’s pretty much replaced the need for me to work with any professional coders – I can visualize the program I want to make, and Chat GPT can more than adequately do all the coding I need… which is pretty crazy!

That said, on the writing side, it’s just not there yet.

Chat GPT tends to be quite generic and derivative in a way that treatments by their nature shouldn’t be. The more unique the treatment is, the better I think. You can definitely get Chat GPT to write you a treatment (I’ve played around with it quite a bit to see what it can do), but it’s always going to lack the nuance, finesse, flair that treatments are really all about.

I think after doing this for 10+ years and writing 500+ treatments, I’m probably more Chat GPT than Chat GPT when it comes to just being able to ‘do it’ without really having to think about the process.

It’ll definitely catch up and I’m pretty sure you’ll one day be able to feed it a few old treatments and a brief, it’ll spit out something that feels a lot like ‘one of your treatments’. That said, what are you actually getting then? The director’s vision? Or ChatGPT’s vision based on who knows what. You may as well just invite ChatGPT to come and direct the commercial, because if the director’s not even creatively in control of the project anymore, what are they actually doing?

But I think there’s huge potential for using platforms like Midjourney for image generation and design. There’s always been this frustrating thing in advertising where an agency sends over a load of refs, and basically says, we want the same but different, but can’t really define ‘different’ because there’s no real medium to demonstrate that without actually going ahead and making the commercial! So this could really help in terms of communicating an idea more accurately – which I think is a great thing in terms of winning pitches.

I also think this question broaches something else too, that a lot of the treatment ‘writing’ process isn’t actually in the writing. I can write something down VERY quickly, but the biggest challenge in every job comes in the thinking – whether it’s thinking about scene ideas, or just some super inspired way of presenting an idea, or even just finding exactly the right word (there’s ALWAYS a right word). thinking takes time… it’s the things that come to you in your sleep after writing all day, or while you’re riding on your motorbike to lunch. It’s not all sitting at a desk bashing a keyboard… that’s about 10% of what I actually do.  

What are your predictions for the future of AI in advertising?

I think ultimately generative AI will be able to replace 90% of the production process. It sounds fanciful, but we’ll ultimately be able to have it generate shots the same way as we can ask Midjourney to draw us ‘a portrait of Barack Obama in medieval armor fighting an army of orcs with a lightsaber. If you can accept that that’s already a thing, it’s not hard to see that being able to do that with video is not as far away as you might think.

That said, someone still has to have that idea or come up with the prompt, so the expertise is going to shift in much the same way it has for coders. You no longer need to write code, but you need to know how code works and be able to architect the programme you want for a specific purpose. 

I’m not sure there’ll ever be a point where you can tell AI ‘make me a Coca Cola commercial’, purely because of the fact that while that will almost certainly be technically possible, the commercial you made would lose any meaning at all.

Any other competitor could churn out commercials at the same quality and rate too. To have any kind of edge at all, you’d still need incredible creativity, which is pretty much just like now.

How roles will shift though, and what this will mean for the value of certain roles and how that’ll influence things like fees, plus the prestige of working on high end commercials… remains to be seen! 

 

 

Arran Igoe has been writing advertising treatments for over 10 years. Having started his career in London working with Music Video & Commercials Production House, Pulse Films, he quickly went on to become a Senior Creative Producer working as a freelancer across the industry both agency and production side. To this day he’s written over 500 treatments, including for some of the most iconic commercials of modern times, and 2 Super Bowl spots! He currently works on a freelance basis, remotely based, travelling the globe while offering writing, creative, script development and project consultancy services to Advertising Agencies, Production Companies, and Direct to Brand.

 

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