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The era of the demo reel has come and gone

By Joel PIlger

Be honest, when business gets slow at your creative studio, does someone suggest, “Let’s cut a new demo reel?”

Ah, the “demo reel.” That classic, rapid-fire, glitzy montage of your studio’s best work. The first demo reels I ever saw came from legendary studios like Pittard Sullivan, GRFX Novocom and Telezign. They gave me goose bumps. That was 1994.

Amazing how the demo reel (or “sizzle reel”) has remained the stalwart calling card for motion design studios and production companies for over two decades. Or has it? After all, the goose bumps are long gone.

I believe the venerable demo reel is finally dying. I submit that if we creative studios took the traditional “demo reel” out back and shot it, our clients would cheer.

Speed Dating Reality Check
Here is a real-world example, which makes my point: PromaxBDA Client/Agency Speed Dating. This event consists of 10 TV network clients sitting across from 10 top creative studios. As one of those studios, you’ve got just 10 minutes to introduce your firm and make your pitch. When the bell rings, you slide over to the next TV network and repeat, 10 times.

Those poor TV network folks… After one such event I asked a dazed looking client, “So what stood out?” He said, “Uh, I kinda remember the last demo reel. Maybe.”

Speed dating is quite a reality check. Yes, playing your demo reel for 10 top TV networks is thrilling, but going up against nine other studios — also showing demo reels — is not thrilling. In that context you suddenly realize all demo reels pretty much look the same. Speed dating is the chance of a lifetime, yet you’re walking away wishing you could have shown something… more.

Lori Pate, an industry veteran who has represented many creative studios, tells it like it is: “Montages do nothing more than list the clients who have trusted you with their brand. So if you insist on a montage, just show logos! I prefer to show full case studies.

Demo reel montages don’t work at speed dating, or maybe demo reels just don’t work.

Has the demo reel gone the way of the View Master? This writer thinks so.

What a Demo Reel Says
If your creative studio features a demo reel on your website, it says two things to visitors: 1) You can edit a montage. 2) You look like everyone else.

Demo reels used to be a great way to make so-so work look stronger, but today’s savvy clients are not impressed. They want to get right to the work that best demonstrates your expertise and your personality. Michael Waldron, VP, creative director of art and design at TV Land, who also spent years on the vendor side as a principal at NYC creative studio Nailgun, says, “The only thing a demo reel shows is that the company is really good at editing. I would rather see their newest and best works. I want to know what the challenge was and how they solved it. A lot of that is stripped away in a montage.”

Montages are even less acceptable in the commercial world. Ellie Anderson, CEO at Griffin Archer, a Minneapolis-based ad agency, had this to say: “I don’t think a ‘sexy montage’ is a very accurate representation of the work because you’re only seeing the flashy bits and not the entire concept. Like a movie trailer showing you the one great joke when the rest of the film sucks. Personally, I’d rather see the work in its entirety.”

No one is going to tell you this truth, so I will: prospective client don’t watch your demo reel. And don’t ever make the mistake of broadcasting a message like, “Check out our new reel!” across all your social media channels. That just makes matters worse.

Forget the Sizzle, Show the Steak
So the trend has shifted to presenting projects in their entirety. Why? Because showing entire projects answers questions about your creative studio’s ability to solve much bigger problems, such as, is the concept yours? Did you handle the copywriting? Did you shoot it? Direct it? Produce it? It’s tempting to hide behind a montage, but you’re not fooling anyone. Not anymore.

One former executive producer, Heidi Bayer, who now reps studios in the broadcast space via Numodo, says, “I have spoken with many network executives; they find it difficult to tell just what a company did on a particular project when viewed within a traditional sizzle/demo reel. Instead, I try to figure out the client’s need then curate spots which speak to that.”

It’s really that simple: try to figure out what your client needs, then show them solutions.

Make Sure You Answer This One Question
At the end of the day, the biggest question clients have goes something like this: If I hire your studio, can you deal with demanding requirements, never drop the ball, make me look great and yet somehow keep the creative pure? A demo reel can’t answer those questions.

However you choose to showcase your firm’s work, always remember expertise and personality get you noticed, not a demo reel. You can now safely take that old school approach out back and shoot it.

For 20 years, Joel Pilger helmed Impossible Pictures. Now as a consultant with RevThink, Joel advises owners of top agencies, studios and production companies. You can follow him on Twitter @joelpilger.

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