Christine Bunish
Issue: May 1, 2006


Demo reels may not play the key role they once did with advertising agencies when there were no other options for discovering who did what spot. But reels, now delivered exclusively on DVD from editorial companies, VFX houses and animation studios, still have an important place in the agency world.

“We get piles of reels, but I watch very few of them unless I’m actively working on a project,” says Chris Wall, chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather, NY ( “The problem with reels generally is that they are all so alike. If everybody’s the same, you default to people you already know. There’s comfort and convenience with the familiar, but that’s not a good thing because you can get stale.

“The best reel is one that’s actually made for the eyes of a specific creative director,” Wall continues. “That means a rep has to know who they’re talking to and why a particular talent will fit in. [Otherwise], watching a reel of 20 spots where only two or three of them are valid is a waste of time.”


Online database services, such as Source TV, and eCreativeSearch, are often the starting point for agency creatives seeking to uncover new talent and discover who gets the credit for that great spot they saw last night.

“People are gravitating more to these sites,” says Chris Curry, a creative director with Ogilvy & Mather. “The Internet is almost like a card catalog. It’s a useful tool for trolling, to see what’s been done recently. And you’ll find some things on the ‘net that a director, for example, won’t put on his reel.”

Jeff Johnson, an executive producer at Austin-based GSD&M, “routinely” jumps on and Source TV just to “peruse” the postings. “It’s our job to keep on top of who’s out there. If I read something in a magazine or see an interesting spot, I can look it up online. I also have a Filemaker program I created that keeps track of companies by category which can be cross-referenced.”

“It’s fairly common now to use databases,” agrees Greg Lane, senior VP/director of media production at GSD&M, who subscribes to “You can do a self-driven search for a director, post or music house and see a spot or campaign they’ve done or search by spot and get a cross reference for the editor, for example. Then you can call a rep and say, ‘I saw X online, do you have...?’ and they’ll send a complete reel or tailor a reel for you.”
Creative director Mike Binnette, one of the partners in Cannonball, St. Louis ( uses his subscription to Source TV to research and find VFX houses and animation studios “probably 60 percent of the time. It’s really easy to navigate and search by word or category. And they seem to do a good job of keeping up to date.” Since he doesn’t typically get reels from editing companies, Binnette “can get enough of an idea of who’s editing what” from Source TV or


New York’s SS+K usually makes Driver, its independent broadcast and AV production partner/resource, its our “first port of call” when a commercial gets underway, reports creative director Marc Lucas. “We’ll shop the board to them, they’ll bring us names of directors, we’ll narrow them down and then Driver will start to package the job and show us post production reels,” he explains.

Reels are also sought out on the recommendation of a director, notes SS+K partner/creative director Josh Kilmer-Purcell. GSD&M’s Johnson agrees. After Biscuit Filmworks director Noam Murro recommended editor Avi Oron from New York City’s Bikini Edit to cut an innovative three-spot package for The American Legacy Foundation, an organization focused on helping anyone who smokes quit, and ensuring that young people don’t start, Johnson called Bikini for Oron’s latest reel.

Word of mouth and networking with friends and colleagues also yield suggestions, “but what’s on the reel will seal the deal,” emphasizes Kilmer-Purcell. PR and press coverage is another starting point for calling in reels. “Never underestimate the who’s-hot-at-the-moment factor,” says SS+K’s Lucas. “PR can help a lot. When [New York City editing house] PS260 got a lot of press we felt there had to be something to all the hype.”

Although reps still visit agencies to present their clients’ reels, “often time is so compressed that we’ll go to a company’s Web site and view their reel online,” notes Kilmer-Purcell. “If we want to sell the client on, generally, an animator or VFX house we may call and say, ‘We liked this spot and this one and this one, do you have anything else similar? Can you put together a reel for our client?’”


Thanks to the DVD’s nonlinear nature, today’s well-planned reel offers agencies efficiencies unavailable with videotape. Cannonball’s Binnette likes menus that enable him to “navigate quickly through a reel. The reel has to be user-friendly. If not, I’m gone. I have the attention span of a fruit fly!”

SS+K’s Lucas wants “to press a button and play the whole [reel]. I don’t want to have to fiddle too much.” Colleague Kilmer-Purcell concurs. He doesn’t want “too tricky a menu. It can break out the spots, but I also want the option to watch the reel all the way through. I’m way too lazy to keep pushing buttons on a remote.”

GSD&M’s Johnson likes menus that enable him to “skip from one spot to another if I’ve already seen a spot. It’s more convenient to be able to scroll through.”
He also urges reelmakers to spotlight their best work. “Don’t show everything you’ve ever done. Pick your best six to eight spots. That’s plenty to judge what you can do.”

“Sometimes I feel people are trying to fill out their reels for length,” observes GSD&M’s Lane. “People should be pretty judicious about deciding what goes on the reel. You only get one shot” for an agency screening. He isn’t certain, though, about whether it makes more sense “to open a reel with your best piece” so it can make a great first impression or “leave it until the end” so the viewer is left with a memorable image.

Ogilvy’s Wall feels VFX houses should put examples of “what’s new and different upfront to show your capabilities and engage” the viewer. He also advises editing companies, VFX houses and animation studios to put “anything you’ve done that’s famous” at the head of the reel “so people can immediately say, ‘Oh! You did that?’ The first thing on the reel needs to be interesting or you’ll scan through it.”

Wall doesn’t like “tricky stuff -— trying to be funny or clever, unless it proves a point. At the end of the day, a reel should show that you have people with interesting and unique skills, and the process should demonstrate an interest in partnership. We’re looking for relationships with people.”

Montages tend to get thumbs down from agency creatives. Montages on editing reels are “not a good indication of how the finished spots came out,” says SS+K’s Lucas. Editors’ montages “may show a scope of work but they don’t really help me,” adds GSD&M’s Johnson. “They don’t really show me what a person’s abilities are.”

“VFX houses love to show you montages, but I find them terribly disorienting,” says GSD&M’s Lane. “A montage sometimes comes into play when a company couldn’t possibly have done the majority of work in a spot so they use lots of smaller pieces to highlight their work.”
But SS+K’s Kilmer-Purcell thinks eye-catching montages can work well for animation studios and VFX houses, however. He also likes “to hear the song they use for the montage so I can steal it for my next spot,” he quips.

Cannonball’s Binnette notes that “the VFX world is a lot like the agency world with people moving around all the time. And it seems like there’s a new shop every week.” He sometimes meets with surprises when he discovers something he likes on a reel and decides to follow up. “I’ll find out that the person or people who created that effect are no longer there. Or they don’t know who did what so there’s no guarantee that you’ll get the desired team [for your project]. I want the level of quality and commitment to the work that I saw on the reel.”

GSD&M’s Lane enjoys seeing “a span of work” on a reel. “I like to see a volume of different work, especially from editors, rather than back-to-back pieces that all feel the same. I want to see the challenges they’re given in terms of different stories to tell: comedy, drama, a PSA, an interesting effects piece.”

As an integrative agency that “doesn’t just live in a world of 30-second spots,” SS+K also likes to see an array of work — including Web films and online advertising — on a reel. “If an editing company’s reel shows that they can play in more than one arena, it’s a plus for us,” says Kilmer-Purcell.

But showing too much technology on a reel isn’t helpful, he notes. “We’re more interested in the concept and final execution. The company’s producer can tell us that what we looked at will have us sitting in the studio for eight days!” He likes watching something he’s “never seen before, even if it’s experimental.”

GSD&M’s Lane, however, does like VFX houses and animation studios to reveal some of the how’d-they-do-that.“I find it really interesting to show a spot and then show what they went through to create it,” he says.


Agencies tend to be loyal to vendors they enjoy working with and who deliver the goods. But reels can play a part in building new relationships.

After getting their reel, Cannonball selected bicoastal Stardust Studios, specialists in motion design, animation, VFX and live-action production, for several Ameristar casino spots. “They were relatively new at the time,” says Binnette. “The spots had a lot of multilayered, stylized effects and animation. We had a tight budget and timeframe, and the breadth of their reel helped convince us that Stardust could do the job.”

SS+K’s Lucas recalls getting a series of boards for a Song Airlines spot, which “could have been executed in a number of ways. We saw the reel from Buck in LA, and given the time and the budget they seemed the best choice. Their mix of live and CG with a lot of style and class fit the brand.” In fact, the combination of people shot against greenscreen and comped into stylized, photoreal environments has become Song’s signature look. “The client adored what Buck created, so Buck locked themselves into whatever came up next,” Lucas reports.

When Ogilvy’s Curry and his team began working on Lenovo’s first TV spots for the ThinkPad brand, which required extensive photoreal VFX, they went to the online databases to look at recent credits with similar techniques. They narrowed down their search to a few companies with Venice, CA’s Motion Theory among them.

“I had their reel in my personal stack for a while and always wanted to work with them but it was my impression that they did mostly motion graphics,” says Curry. “But I saw two things on their most recent reel that were more heavily CG: a spot for an EA Sports videogame where a guy crawls out of a basketball player’s body and a music video for Beck with very stylized, photoreal effects.

“They were the proof points I needed,” he declares. “It wasn’t until I saw these projects on their reel that I reassured myself that Motion Theory could do what was appropriate for Lenovo. As much as I liked Motion Theory, they wouldn’t have been top of mind for these spots” without the confirmation of the spots on the reel.