It’s actually a pretty funny story. One Sunday morning back in the early nineties, I’m in Central Park attempting to rollerblade, because rollerblading was huge at the time. I don’t know how to skate, but I refused to give up. I’m going down this steep hill, and I can’t stop, and I crash into this man, and I’m mortified, because I’m so embarrassed. His hand reaches out, and he says “Are you okay?” I look up, and it’s Bill Oberlander. Of course I recognize him, because he was a graduate at the University of Delaware, and he’s also the executive creative director at Kirshenbaum Bond and Partners, which was the hottest agency at the time. So I say “Bill! I’m an art director. I just graduated from the University of Delaware, and I’m here looking for a job!” And he was like “Easy buddy. We are about to hire our art director interns. We already have sixty-four applicants. You would be sixty-five. We are supposed to make the final decision tomorrow, so you better get down there and apply.” The next day I took my book down. The following day they called me to tell me I got it. That’s how I got my first job as an intern at Kirshenbaum Bond and Partners.
At the time it was a real hot shop. Some of the young creatives there were Brian Hughes, Amy Nicholson, and Tim Godsall. It was a really great place to be a young art director. I was around a lot of really great creative energy.
The first thing that I made that’s still on my reel was for Raisin Bran Crunch. It was a series of spots that we made with Director Peter Miller. I would say my personal favorite would be one called Haircut. It was a really simple commercial; the line was “Breakfast is back.” The spot opens up on this guy with super long hair, and he’s looking at himself in the mirror. He picks up a pair of scissors and cuts off a big wad of hair in the front of his face. Then he walks into the kitchen and he’s sitting down in front of bowl of cereal and now no hair is going to get in his cereal. Super simple. The style of the spot was really understated, and there was no copy. The objective was to take the Gold Lions winning concept launched the previous year with the spot Slackers (developed by colleagues that left the agency), build off that campaign, and develop more spots that lived up to how strong the first spot was. I think we did a good job.
Peter had shot the past Raisin Bran Crunch commercial that won a Gold Lion. So it was like, he did that, why would we not want to work with him again? I think as creatives we all want to discover new people, but we also want success. And when there’s a perfect storm with someone, why try to second-guess something that was already working?
Haircut was a success as was Blender. Everybody seemed to love them. They were on TV a lot. In the spot called Blender we show a guy with his mouth wired shut. His friend pours cereal and milk in a blender for him and puts a straw into it. The guy takes a sip and tries to say thank you with his mouth wired shut. Again no copy. It was simple. The spots were visual stories that were an emerging trend in advertising that now we see lots of, but at the time these were fresh, simple stories that were very understated, and they were a symbol of the mid-nineties.
I think the best and the worst part of that are one in the same. The best was that we succeeded in delivering spots that lived up to the previous spot that everyone fell in love with at the launch of the campaign. The worst part was having the pressure to create an ad sequel, which was very difficult to have to do and get excited about it. Having to inherit ideas that did not originate from you, and owning up to that, and trying not to disappoint the client is a tough position to be in as a creative. You don’t want to inherit someone else’s idea.
I think that the biggest thing is the challenge of being original and our desperate need to do so. It’s so important to communicate the idea that serves what you’re trying to accomplish, and so many of us fail at this incredible challenge of being – A) original, and B) communicating clearly. So often it’s one or the other. It’s like – okay, I have the clients, and this thing works, or wow that’s really original, but what does it mean? I think what I try to do is both, but it’s really tough sometimes.
Oh yeah, no question. When I started it was very, very simple. There was a print campaign, a TV spot, and maybe a piece of direct mail. Now there are a thousand different things on any given assignment. There is also this belief that there is a line of people out in cyberspace waiting to do what you do cheaper or for free, and it’s just not true. We are in the age of user-generated content, and for me as a creative director the challenge is dealing with that and always proving that what the client pays us as an agency far exceeds what you can get out there from this mythological crowd of people. They might be able to pitch some random ideas for this or that, but what they can’t do is architect a compelling brand position that is sustainable and interesting over time. That is what a great creative director needs to do, and that involves listening, molding, and shaping, which takes a good chunk of a lifetime to begin to master and understand. If you can stay in the game long enough, like fifteen to twenty years, you get better at it.
The current state of the advertising world is similar to the current state of the corporate world which is the fat will be trimmed. It’s a value question when companies start to ask “What does he do?” and “What does she do?” and “Why do we pay them that much?” The form of the agency may shift and change, and the amount of people that are required for a particular job may shift and change, and the roles may have different names. However, at the core of our business, the value of great creative thinking and the presentation of those ideas and the production of those ideas will never go away.
That happened for me at Lowe & Partners in New York. The two people who believed in me were John Hobbs and Peter Rosch. They hired me to come work for them. We were there together nearly a year when, ironically, they took me aside and said “Hey look. We know we brought you in, and you’ve done a great job, and we wanted to let you know before word got out that we’re going to resign, but we want to say something to you. Lowe is getting invited in to the XM satellite radio pitch. The agency is going to be pitching against some really thriving agencies, and you’re the only guy here who can run that business and win that pitch.” or words to that effect. That was a defining moment for me, because I trusted them, and I trusted that they meant it. Therefore, I believed in that possibility. I pitched the business after working really hard with a lot of other people who helped make it happen. That was the first business win that I really take credit for. Ultimately that win built confidence that really helped me get my job at Crispin, Porter + Bogusky, which was my next and most important move of my career.
I typically lean on the producers that I trust, and I also have a lot of relationships with production companies, and I try to pay attention to new stuff that’s being circulated and look at what’s interesting out there. Since I started as an art director I’m attracted to certain aesthetic, and the longer you’re in this business, the easier it is to see if someone has it or not. Sometimes it just sticks out, and you want to know who made it.
The first director that was a god to me was Jonathan Glazer, especially his Guinness Surfer spot. I think that spot was such a clear departure, such a gutsy ad. All the decisions that were made in that spot were so confident and uncommercial. Everybody in the business stopped and said “Wow!” It was something really special. I think he’s done a lot of really great work. It’s always incredibly strong and confident. I think that Sexy Beast as a film was like that in the way he directed the actors. I think that he’s just an incredibly confident, risk-taking director.
Well, I would actually say that my favorite commercial of all time now is the Project & Gamble Moms spot. It was done for the Olympics last year. The reason why I say that is – A) it’s Proctor & Gamble. We all talk about how there are certain clients that creatives don’t even want to touch, and historically Proctor & Gamble has been a company that’s been in that conversation many, many times. When you take a parent company and the Olympics and you say you’re going to do something that celebrates moms, you’re going to have a really hard time doing that commercial well in the commercial space and be respected by your peers. Let alone create a spot that is revered by the most respected people in the business. I believe most people look at that spot as a masterfully made, flawless piece of communication.
It’s word-of-mouth from people that I know and trust. Because the reality is, if I see something exciting, I’ll inquire about it, find out who made it and note it. It’s hard to get on someone’s radar, because ultimately the decisions we make of who we’re going to work with are going to be with the right production company that has the right director that we’ve worked with, or we know someone who has worked with, or it’s a production company that we trust enough that there’s not going to be any concern about working with someone for the first time. This is assuming I’m working on a job that has a pretty decent budget where the stakes are really high as well as the amount of risk that we can take. That’s always the conundrum we are in, because we always have to have proven talent that is sellable to the client.
The best example was on a BMW campaign at Kirshenbaum Bond and Partners. We had to shoot a brand spot, and we hired the Snorri Brothers to do it. We also had an opportunity to do these digital shorts for a very strict budget. The challenge was that we needed to do six comedy spots. Interrogate brought forth a solution for that. It was a director whom they were building that we hadn’t heard of. We didn’t have a lot of money, so it made sense. So we went for it, and it was incredibly successful, and the spots were great. Everybody loved them, so everybody won, and everyone was really, really happy. Two of the spots ended up being regional Super Bowl buys, and so it was a really good move by Interrogate to invest in him and that job. The director’s name was Amit Mehta.
I’ve actually been working on a personal project that I’m directing. It is a website that I’m building that is filled with documentary shorts about couples that have been together for a period of time – some really long, and some short. It’s called Global Glue Project.This project began as an idea for a documentary film that I developed in the application process for film school. I wanted to create a film that was both personal to me, and took on a subject that has a broad, transformative reach. So I got to thinking about my great-grandparents who were married almost eighty years. I had lots of fond memories of them together. I realized that most people I know have been divorced. There’s just so much failure out there. It just seems interesting to me to sort of go out there in the world and ask people how they make it work. It is something I just started exploring a few years ago. I started buying cameras and started shooting the content. At first the production was super basic, and over time it’s developed into something that I believe can be an important brand that really helps people. My sister, Gillian Pierce, has been my partner in GGP since the beginning, and my close friend, Anders Bramsen, a Danish editor, has also become part of the core team. Working with close family and friends is one of the most challenging – and rewarding – chapters in my career.
Kennett Square, PA
Creative Director - Kirshenbaum Bond