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Why big budgets don’t always mean big emotion in TV ads

The Global Head of TV Production at BETC Paris and D&AD's Cinematography Jury President on the pursuit of feeling in commercial ads

Illustration by Lauren Morsley

D&AD caught Karim Naceur, Global Head of TV Production at BETC Paris, in a brief moment of calm. He had, as of two minutes before our call began, been sprinting across congested central Bangkok, first by tuk-tuk and then by foot, navigating past revellers and workers. Naceur is in Bangkok to shoot a Christmas commercial for a French state broadcaster — a task that’s something of a yearly ritual for him at this point. “We’re going for something sci-fi,” he says, “So we need multiple locations and different scenarios, and Thailand is perfect.”

Naceur has worked with actors (Roberto Rodriguez, John Malcovich), musicians (Major Lazer, Travis Scott), Chinese celebrities (Jackson Lee, Zhao Wei), French actors (Sophie Marceau) and international brands including Duolingo, Lacoste and Audible through the course of his career. His agency, BETC Paris, can count no fewer than 55 D&AD Pencils on their trophy shelf, and as Global Head of TV Production, Naceur has been on the D&AD Cinematography jury for a couple of years now. This time around, he is, in his own words, “honoured and surprised” to be nominated as President. The pandemic forced him, on an individual and organisational level, to reconsider every aspect of production, but as he sits in Bangkok in the cut and thrust of it once again, he sees it as something of a blessing in disguise; now the harder times have passed, hopefully for good, he has emerged as sharper and more dynamic, and sees similar change in the industry at large. “There’s a renewed sense of organisation across the industry now, a responsibility not only to move forward and advance but to make positive steps to the betterment of what we do. There’s a real maturity now, as a result of all this.”

Yet while things may have changed on the production side of things, creative benchmarks have not shifted for Naceur. He’s keen to drum home the central tenet of his Jury category Cinematography, what he wants to see and to speak about more than anything else: feeling. “I know we’re going to get high-quality work, that’s a given. But how do we separate the good from the great, or the great from the best? Feeling.”

“I know we’re going to get high-quality work, that’s a given. But how do we separate the good from the great, or the great from the best?”

As Naceur understands it, Cinematography comes down to look and feel. For him, magic is found in the harmony between those two tentpoles, a sweet spot where everything just clicks. This, he says,  happens when an entire team works in unison to deliver on a vision — something that sounds far simpler in theory than it is in practice. “A group of people in the right place at the right time can make or break a production. Everyone on set needs to be on their game 100%, open and communicative — even turning up on time! — from top to bottom: no exceptions. Because that intensity really shines through on a finished piece of work.”

That harmony, according to Naceur, isn't guaranteed by big budgets or big names behind a project, not by any stretch. “Sometimes you can take something in from a top director, a top DoP with the fanciest cameras, and just not feel it,” he says. “Other times, something can come in from god-knows-where, a total outsider, and whatever they’ve done, it works.” Technicalities are all well and good, he says, but there must be no temptation to drift too deep into the weeds when emotion is the pursuit. “The less you focus on technique,” he says, “The more you’re involved in emotion.”

“The less you focus on technique,” he says, “The more you’re involved in emotion.”

Of course, the pursuit of emotion does not mean that gongs will be going out solely to high melodramas, feeling needs to be tied to intention. “If the intention is fun, it needs a fun look and feel. If the intention is to unsettle you, or to linger with you, the cinematography needs to reflect that and support those intentions.” There is a vocabulary to these emotions, much like any other form of storytelling, and there is no limit to the manner of ways in which they can be expressed, or who can express them: what matters is their resonance, and Naceur is charging his jury to find those works that exist at the highest frequency of their intended emotion.

Naceur is so keen to place emotion as the watchword for the industry because he can see how much change it still has left to perform. “Ten years ago, it was so different. There was a French way, an English way, a Nordic way of doing things, and that was that,” he says. Not anymore. Rather than being subsumed by other markets or corners of the globe, what is emerging is a more diverse and experimental approach to cinematography and storytelling, whereupon newcomers entering the field are absorbing — from afar — techniques and tools from all over the world, and filtering them through their own experiences and ideas.

He gives the example of a newcomer at BETC, who had never even visited France before moving there full-time. “Instead, they’d thrown themselves into taking in so much of what we do — TV shows, films, commercials, everything — and arrived with this totally original outsider’s perspective on what we’d been doing all those years. It made us all better, instantly.” The practical side of Cinematography might still be totally upended by new developments and technologies, as it always has, but the fundamentals will remain the same for Naceur, and the industry can’t flinch at finding new ways of chasing emotional harmony through film. “It’s not a local game anymore, it’s a worldwide game, and we can’t hold back, because the newcomers aren’t afraid to break out from behind us.”

Written by Kieran Morris

D&AD Awards 2023 is now open for entries. Submit your work here. Read more insights from jurors into their corner of the creative industry here.

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