Interview sponsored by Warpaint Films.

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Morgan Spurlock is renowned for having his finger on the pulse of the documentary world. When Spurlock created Warpaint with commercial production EP Shannon Lords, he sought to break new ground in branded filmmaking. Empowering a select cadre of notable directors to explore new formats and technologies, the company has worked for major national brands to create groundbreaking advertising and entertainment experiences across every platform imaginable.

What was your first position in advertising?

Before I got into an ad agency, I took bands on the road. I was a musician, and I would put bands together, and I would sell them. That’s kind of what made me realize that I’m kind of a producer type. I love working with creative people, and I basically would do whatever it took to get the show on the road. I actually got hired at Ogilvy firstwhich was my dream agency, because of David Ogilvy. He had written these beautiful red, iconic little books, these little brochures, which at the time were the equivalent of the best website in the business. Ogilvy was a real brand, and I wanted to work there.  I went for a job offer as an assistant account executive, because even though I wanted to write like Kurt Vonnegut, I didn’t have the portfolio, so I couldn’t apply for a writer’s job right off. So, they hired me, and I was supposed to start three weeks later.  Then all of a sudden, on the Friday before the Monday that I was supposed to start, I get a call from the same guy who hired me, and he says “I’m sorry Mark. We have a hiring freeze.’’ And I say, “Well that’s okay, because I already have a job right?” And he says “I know, I know, but it doesn’t work like that. But I know someone at BBDO. Let me see if I can get you a meeting over there.’’ So beggars can’t be choosers, and BBDO was a big name. I didn’t know much about it, and when I got over there I got my first job as an assistant account guy.

How long did you stay at BBDO?

When I got to BBDO I was an assistant account exec. Even though I was a terrible speller, I developed a reputation for proofreading well, so that worked out for me. But I was probably about four months in when my boss was fired, so all of a sudden I went from the new guy to the guy running the account. So I started writing the ads – my first ads. I submit them to the executive vice president of the agency, who had become my boss, because there’s no one in between, and he says “Sure. Go back and do your thing.’’ Two days later, he says he showed my ads to the creative director, and she would like me to join the creative department.  I was going to be a junior copywriter now. So, of course I said yes. I didn’t have a portfolio, so how else was I going to be a creative person? I did that for six months, while the department shrunk from about eighty people to about thirty. And then I got laid off too. I was making $19,000 a year. That was on a Friday, and on the following Sunday night I got a call, asking if I could come in  and freelance, and work on something for Black and Decker as a writer. I said sure, of course. I’m not doing anything. What does it pay? They said forty dollars an hour, and I was like “Ka-ching!” I never looked back. Then I went to Kirshenbaum, where I became a partner, and I was one of the four creative directors there with Richard Kirshenbaum, Bill Oberlander and for a while Andy Spade, one of the founders of Kate Spade.

Do you remember what your first shoot was as a creative director?

Absolutely. It’s funny, I was thinking back, and my first shoot was in college at SUNY Purchase. I played Clark Kent and Superman in a student film. You’ve probably heard of the Purchase Mafia. Purchase produces a lot of film people. That was the first shoot I was ever on. I shared my dorm apartment with actors. Some of them went on to some pretty great careers. Edie Falco had graduated in my class, and Wesley Snipes and Hal Hartley were two years ahead of me. It was an interesting place where people were really excited about film. Fast forward to JWT, and I’m a creative director now, and I had come up with concepts for a half hour infomercial for Dale Carnegie and Associates, and embedded in it are three thirty second spots. We would basically shoot the whole campaign at once. I looked for documentary filmmakers to work with, and Henry Corra at the time was a filmmaker working with the Maysles Brothers. So Henry, the crew and I went across the country just behaving badly and filming this whole thing. Henry and I are still friends to this day.

What was your most successful spot as a creative director?

The first awards that I won were Effie Awards. I found that I had a knack for launching things, so I was assigned to lead a lot of launches. The first things that I launched were credit cards and phone plans. My favorite thing that I got back then was a cover on the Wall Street Journal that said “Success Overwhelms AT&T”, because our launch spots had worked so well for this AT&T Universal Card that everybody called their operator at the same time, and believe it or not, the whole operator service went down. That made the business section of the Wall Street Journal. I was pretty proud of that. I framed that, and I put that on the wall. Some years later, when I was at Kirshenbaum, we won just about every award. I was the lead creative, and I worked with a great planner. I worked on a launch for the Citibank AAdvantage Card, and it was all about their AAdvantage miles program. Everyone was selling them based on travel, but we figured out that some of their best customers didn’t even travel – they were just insane collectors of miles. So, I came up with this idea – “Was it love? Or was it the miles?”

Do you remember what the best and worst parts of the shoot were?

The best thing about that shoot actually happened fifteen years later. I go and see the movie Up in the Air starring George Clooney. Because of the success of that campaign, the AAdvantage program grew to be so big that they sponsored that movie. American Airlines actually supplied the producers with our strategy – the strategy that I initially wrote about why people crave mileage points. I go to this movie, and I see George Clooney doing my strategy! I mean it was amazing. So that was the greatest moment. That was an example of your work getting into culture, which is really the ultimate compliment.

What did you learn early on that you still carry with you today?

So many things. Preparation is everything. You don’t want to turn to the director on the set and say this is the first commercial I have ever made. The only way you can be sure to end up there for a second time is to just make sure that you’ve had all of your qualms and that you’ve addressed them before you’re on the set. But the other thing about it is, I think it was Altman that said that 90% of directing is casting and the making of, whether it’s a commercial, or a film, or whatever. It isn’t a one-person project, and the people that you work with are not machines that you can control. You want to find people who inspire you, who do their jobs incredibly well, and who are incredibly inspiring collaborators. You need to make room for the right kind of collaboration around the material.  The other thing is that every stage of the process is an opportunity not to just take something off your list, but to get deeper into the material to understand it better and to make it better. It isn’t done until it’s done. It isn’t done until it’s out there in the world, and you just have to view every step as an opportunity to get more than you expected it to be. I think if you go at it with that kind of relentlessness and openness with your team, you’re going to have some interesting results.

Do you feel that the role of a creative director has changed?

I think one of the reasons that I’ve done well is that I was this sort of integrated guy from the beginning. I didn’t really have a portfolio, so I had to work my way up doing all kinds of things. I was doing digital and interactive, for example, before there really was a commercial Internet. And today, almost every creative director is working across more media than we were ten, fifteen, or even five years ago. The expanding mix of media is the biggest thing that’s changed in a creative director’s life, and also what that means for budgets, and what you have to do with a dollar, and also what to do with your time. Dealing with the psychology of the people around you who are dealing with this explosion of complexity is a big part of the job, and it’s a part of the job that didn’t exist a decade ago.

What do you think of  the current state of the advertising business?

It’s just a sea of opportunity. But the sea can be a choppy, turbulent and overwhelming place. Sometimes it can feel like you’re at war, but war in a sense that you have to constantly change your plans on the fly, and you don’t know when the next thing is going to hit you. The outcome is uncertain. If you kind of pull back and get a sense of the big picture, it’s a war we’re winning. I think that there’s so much more to do. Every client is moving toward being a publisher, a network, a content creator. Most clients aren’t content creators, so they need us more and more. Now the biggest clients are pushing the agencies to do more and more for less and less money. But if you’re innovative, if you’re open to new and different kinds of media, if you can help your client adjust to the new world, there’s so much opportunity. We’re just overwhelmed by opportunity right now, which I think is just an awesome place to be.

Do you have a favorite website when searching  for fresh new talent?

The job of a good agency producer is to know everybody and to really help you cull that list down to the people who could be the right people you’re looking for. They are a very important part in the mix. But of course, first off, I am an IMDB addict, and if I’m not spending a good part of my time watching film and video on the internet, then something must be really wrong with me. The reason I love My First Shoot is because I’m just hungry to go even deeper beyond the sources that everybody has access to. I just love this stuff, and I love to learn from other people’s experiences, and I just love the people that do this stuff. So, you have to be a student of the business, and in order to stick with it, you have to love it – just love storytellers and the people who tell stories. I really feel like that’s the core of it.

Has there been one director who has stood out to you?

I love to work with directors who are on their way up, and I was lucky early in my career to work alongside people like Mike Maguire, Tom Kuntz and Tim Godsall. As far as one favorite director, it has changed over time. I have my pantheon like the gods, and that’s got to be a list of twelve at least. My cousin, Gina Zapata, is the executive producer for commercials for David O. Russell. I just love what David O. Russell has done in feature films right from Spanking the Monkey, on through Three Kings, and on and on. I mean there’s something to be said for directors who are masters of commercial form, and I’ve certainly worked with quite a few of those. I love the interplay and learning with folks who go back and forth from films to shorter projects and commercial projects. I liked doing commercials with Tony Scott, even though he wasn’t one of my favorite feature film directors. I loved True Romance, and I enjoyed some of his other films. He was kinetic. We came up with this campaign, and we wanted to find someone who could recreate the excitement of a trading floor. The three days that I spent on set with Tony Scott were three of the most exciting days I’ve spent in the business. He was the whole package. He gave his whole self to it. He was wonderful to collaborate with. He was wonderful with clients. There’s always someone that I want to work with next, and right now it’s David O. Russell.

What’s your favorite commercial of all time?

My long-time friend and our current agency chief creative officer Tom Christmann did a spot for one of those job websites called FreeAgent.com. Tom and Noam Murro, the directors, chose to tell the story in photographs until the last scene, which is live action. It’s the progression of this guy through his career, and he gets to the point to where he gets passed over for a promotion. Then he just kind of ages while he is at the job, and they retire him, and now he’s an oldish man. He steps outside in the live action scene at the end where he sniffs the air and then keels over dead. Then the spot says, “The Company Man. May He Rest in Peace.”, and it gives you the URL for this site. The whole idea is, why would anybody do that? And that’s always been the thing for me. For me, it’s not about what the directors are doing with the medium, but it’s heavily about psychology. How does the medium work on the audience? What are we getting to, psychologically? For me, getting some of the dark into advertising has been incredibly effective. I think of it as bringing psychological reality into our lives.

Are there any directors or commercials that stood out for you this year?

Anton Corbijn is an incredible director. His film The American staring George Clooney is just about perfect. I’m eagerly anticipating his A Most Wanted Man with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

What percentage of your broadcast projects include a web component?

I would say across the agency 75% percent of what we do is digital, mobile, social or whatever, and almost all of the other 25% percent is television.

Were those percentages different a few years ago?

There was a time not too long ago when digital was fifty to sixty percent. Outdoor was the number two medium, radio was the third, and TV was the fourth. So now what’s happened is that the main reach of the brand medium has become television, and interactivity is how we reach and interact with everybody. But television is the way we tell the stories about the brands and get the emotion across. Everything else has taken a back seat now. And not only that, but increasingly what we are doing in those mobile mediums has a video component, so video is just erupting.

What is your latest project? 

I’m really proud of the 100% Fat Cat Free campaign we just launched for Affinity Federal Credit Union, and we  just completed a few spots for Reader’s Digest, believe it or not. When I say Reader’s Digest, a lot of people are like, does that still exist? And that was the point. It’s the magazine with the highest paid circulation in the world, and they have a somewhat robust web presence, yet they could have been mistaken for dead. It’s a series of three commercials, and they’re funny. They’re awesome.

Name

Mark DiMassimo

Occupation

CEO, Founder - DIGO