The Barbarian Group
There was no violent upheaval, no bloodshed or pillaging when The Barbarian Group arrived on the scene in November 2001. The small group of online mavericks and creative rebels who banded together in the Roxbury, MA loft of co-founder and president Benjamin Palmer to launch a first-of-its-kind interactive shop were a well-mannered and sophisticated bunch, barbarians in name only. And yet, the changes they wrought on the still-evolving landscape of interactive advertising over the next four years were no less than revolutionary. These days, most everyone who works in the increasingly internet-dominated advertising industry has heard of web efforts like Nike "Go," Virgin Mobile's "Enlightenment Kit" and Method's Cyber Grand Prix-winning "Come Clean" website, while the mere uttering of the words "Subservient Chicken" elicits knowing nods. But many still can't put a finger on what exactly The Barbarian Group is. Maybe it's because the very nature of the company defies easy description. In an era when the boundaries between traditional and interactive media are rapidly disintegrating, The Barbarian Group embodies the fluidity of the new status quo. "We're definitely not an interactive agency, and we're mostly not an interactive production company," laughs Palmer. "It's tough to explain to people at some of the bigger agencies especially, but we're basically focused on creative campaigns and creative concepts. Our whole company is built around doing the best job on a single internet campaign."
The Barbarians, now headquartered in Boston, can design a website that plays off an existing TV campaign, like they did with Mother/N.Y. on the "Milwaukee's Best Light" site. They can create a single application within a broader project, like they did with Comcast's "Comcastic" site for Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. Or they can take the germ of an idea and craft an interactive experience from the ground up, like they did with Crispin Porter + Bogusky on "Subservient Chicken" for Burger King. "Whenever we work with a new agency, one of their first questions is always, 'How do you guys work?'" says co-founder and chief operating officer Rick Webb. "And our comeback question is, 'How do you want to work?' There are agencies that give us pixel-perfect comps, there are agencies that bat ideas back and forth with us like Crispin, and there are agencies that say, 'Make something cool for us.'"
That model has allowed The Barbarian Group to maintain a consistently high level of creative diversity, which is what attracted the founders to each other in the first place. "After cranking out banners for some telecom company for five months straight, I can't imagine anyone wanting to continue doing that," laughs co-founder and executive creative director Keith Butters, who along with co-founder and executive creative director Robert Hodgin was previously a flash programmer at Arnold. With the formation of The Barbarian Group, everyone involved wanted to ensure that boredom would never again be an issue. "Any of us can be working on a different client, brand or category from one project to the next," says Palmer. "We make a point of continually mixing it up, and it keeps everyone super-stimulated and super-excited."
At the end of the day, it's all about creating an environment that fosters creativity. "That's all we care about," says Webb. As for the company's insistence on partnering with agencies, rather than dealing with clients directly? For a group obsessed with creativity, it makes all the sense in the world, given that agencies tend to have a more solid grasp of their language of choice: the language of interactive. "We're basically terrible at working with people that don't get the internet at all," laughs Palmer. "We love working with agencies, because even if the client doesn't get what we do, the agency does." Which means there are no imminent plans to convert The Barbarian Group into a full-fledged agency itself. "We have no interest in bypassing the agency structure," insists Palmer. "On some occasions, we'll work directly with clients, but it's usually clients that already have skill in the interactive realm. But we don't have any account staff to manage day-to-day relationships that don't have to do with accomplishing creative goals, and we want to keep it that way." Indeed, the creative culture that permeates The Barbarian Group is unique in its emphasis on total creative input, a philosophy the founders consider vital to the company's success. The barriers that traditionally separate "the creatives" from "everyone else" have been torn down, creating an atmosphere of collaboration in which everyone on staff contributes to the creation of the big idea. "It's 100% about involving and empowering everybody," says Palmer. "Our structure is not a management structure. We don't care where the best idea comes from."
In fact, Webb points to the Milwaukee's Best Light job as the genesis of the company's current approach to creative concepting. "We put 10 of us in a room—random people, from our studio manager to some designers—and just hashed it out," he recalls. "And it worked out great. Everybody would just call out ideas for the various games, and it was so brilliant and funny." Adds Butters, "It really shuts down the notion that if the word 'creative' appears on your business card, you get to go into a magic room and come up with ideas. Everybody comes up with ideas." Then again, it's easy to trust the feedback offered by the typical Barbarian Group staffer, given the company's insistence on hiring employees who bring both technical expertise and creative flair to the table. "That was always our premise, that the creative and the technical aspects would be integrated," says Webb. "The animators, the designers, the people who do flash-coding or backend, are also all very clever conceptual people. And we all came from that. I was an economy major, Ben was a physics major, Keith was a film student. You can't have a bunch of creative people that don't get the technical at all, and a bunch of technical people that don't care about design. If you don't separate the two, you end up with a better product."
Yet despite the infectious enthusiasm of the staff and the undisputed quality of the work, The Barbarian Group remains somewhat below the radar. Along those lines, the company has grappled with the issue of public perception and proper credit for years. "People have sort of a block," says Palmer. "They think that the agency has all the ideas, and that we can't be anything but a production company because we don't fit into the standard mold of how things are done." Adds Webb, "They don't have the vocabulary for us at all. Everybody knows what a production company or a director does in broadcast. But there's no vocabulary for that on the interactive side. And we weren't the first. [N.Y. based interactive agency] WDDG did all of the acclaimed Altoids stuff, and nobody knows it."
Slowly but surely, as the profile of interactive continues to rise, that ignorance has been dissipating—along with The Barbarian Group's anonymity. The company is in the process of enhancing its range of services, adding media-buying and expanded content production capabilities to its already formidable arsenal. A brand new San Francisco office now joins the home office in Boston and the year-old New York office run by Butters. "We have 20 people in Boston right now, and we think that's about as many as we can have in one room and still maintain our dynamic," says Palmer. "But with the offices in New York and San Francisco, we feel like we can get bigger if we expand in those directions. Aubrey [Anderson, the fifth partner and chief technology officer] talks about having these similar but unique cultures in each office. That's a big experiment, and if it works, we might add another one or two after that." Sound suspiciously like something a full-on agency might do? Perhaps...but with a decidedly Barbarian twist. "We're obviously pretty well aware of what's going on in traditional advertising as well," says Webb. "We keep hearing about everybody quaking in their boots about the end of the broadcast spot. Well, we're all for it! It would be ridiculous for us to not use our grasp of what's going on in the advertising world."
Even if the advertising world hasn't quite gotten around to grasping them.
Nick Law. Executive Creative Director, R/GA
Aussie native Nick Law has traveled across the world making stops at major advertising and design shops like London's Pentagram and DMB&B. Having overseen a span of print, advertising, corporate ID and interactive design assignments, he discusses how his diverse background has prepared him well for the challenges at his current post at New York's R/GA, where he has worked on jobs for IBM, Levi's, Target, and now serves as ECD on the Nike account, overseeing such coup-collecting interactive projects as Nike iD, Nike Basketball, Nike Gridiron and Nike Women. Ann-Christine Diaz
C What are the challenges of creative directing for the interactive space?
NL Interactive becomes a hub of several disciplines—graphic design, corporate identity, advertising—so you need to recognize the connective tissue between all these things, including offline. In directing interactive there is this tension between generating a strong concept, which tends to be done well in small groups, and then realizing that concept with a very large group because interactive is like making a feature film. There are a lot of people involved from strategy to technology, and they all contribute in a very significant way. They're not just there to produce.
C When you talk about the small groups, who goes into those?
NL There are three purely creative disciplines at R/GA—interaction design, which other interactive or digital agencies usually call information architecture. We call it interaction design because we don't think it's just architecting. It's also designing experiences, it's a little bit more nuanced. Then we have visual design, which is like art direction in the traditional world, and then we have copywriting. There's a triangle of creative disciplines and they work best when those disciplines are not discreet, when there's a dialog between them and the three creatives can help solve each others' problems as well as their own.
C Is there a specific team structure or does it vary from project to project?
NL: It often varies from project to project depending on what the solution is. If we're doing a deep, information rich website, often we'll build a team, from those three disciplines, people who have a systematic sensibility, so they understand how to organize and present and make lots of information coherent, but if we're doing something that's more experiential, more rich media, then we tend to build teams from those disciplines that have more of a narrative aptitude and often you ix those two because we build destinations that are both of those things. There are lots of sub-aptitudes within these creative departments that are marshaled around a particular problem.
C So what are the key points that you keep in mind, in order to do that?
NL One of the first things is that everyone, not just from the traditional creative disciplines, is involved creatively, because it's this marriage of art and technology. One of the problems with traditional advertising is because they don't have technology as a core discipline, they tend to use technology as a vendor. There's an issue there because all these big marketing changes are the result of technology changes, so unless you understand the technology, then it's very hard to find solutions to these nice big changes besides superficial ones. There's a process at the agency that has technology as a core competency and a creative way of thinking. It's there from the beginning. You don't just hand it off later.
C When you start a project, what's step one?
NL At the beginning, it's similar to the traditional process as far as strategy is concerned, but then you get to the point where you have to figure out how it should be delivered, whereas in traditional advertising, you have a set number of media that you play in, in interactive, when you ask how it's to be delivered, there are times when you invent the medium. And then you also have to consider how it works with other channels. Is there a traditional campaign or other marketing expression offline—how does what we do connect all those things? That's a very important part of the process.
C: How do you recommend things be done?
NL If you're building a campaign across multiple channels, then all the disciplines need to be represented at the beginning. There needs to be a true dialog among those disciplines. Often the case now, but not so much as it used to be, is that a traditional agency will be the lead agency. They'll come up with a short, narrative idea, which will be expressed as a 30-second spot, how do we make this work on the web? Whereas, if people from all disciplines were involved from the beginning, you wouldn't start with a 30-second spot, you would start with an idea that was flexible enough to include a narrative, a destination, an e-commerce experience, to include real utility and engagement.
C Tell me about Nike. Which of the individual projects has been the most interesting ?
NL One of the most interesting things we've been doing is Nike iD. It's something that has really transformed your experience with the brand because we express that in all sorts of channels, from the website, to banners, to a digital sign in Times Square, where you could go with your cellphone and design a shoe on this 23-story sign. That's an instance of what I was talking about before, where our technology department invented that channel. We designed the backend technology for the Reuters sign. It didn't exist before we invented it, and that's something I think that only a company with technology as a core competency could do, because the starting point was the technology.
Mark D'Arcy Chief Creative Officer, Time Warner Global Marketing
If media is, in fact, the new creative, Mark D'Arcy has a plum creative assignment. In 2004, the New Zealander and former Y&R/N.Y. creative director took the newly created position of chief creative officer at Time Warner's Global Marketing group. Brought in by Global Marketing president John Partilla—the pair worked together on Sony at Y&R—D'Arcy is charged with developing creative strategies and marketing programs for TW's clients. Instead of merely selling pre-packaged promotions and sponsorships—as media companies have traditionally done—D'Arcy works with clients to help them find innovative ways to get their message out via TW's media properties. We spoke to D'Arcy about the increasing role media strategy plays in creative marketing. Jim Hanas
C What is your role at Time Warner?
MD Global Marketing works with Time Warner's biggest clients , and the way we reorganized the group was with ideas and creativity being central to what we do. My job is overseeing the quality of those ideas. We apply insight and what we believe are the world's best media assets against client's problems. People come to us with marketing challenges, or they come to us with great campaigns, and we invent things, we build things. We try to make cool things happen.
C How does your current role compare to agency life?
MD I think I work harder, because we're inventing what we're doing. I get to meet a lot of really smart clients. When you work at an agency, you're working with a dozen clients, say, whereas in this job, it's been fun to meet an awful lot of really smart clients that it would have taken a lifetime, working at a multitude of agencies, to meet.
C From your perspective, how is the business changing? MD One of the great changes over the last six months is the number of agencies, particularly creative agencies, that are realizing that media is the new creative, for lack of a better cliché. Unless you're interested in how you're getting your messages out there, you're really only part of the value chain.
C How receptive are marketers now to creative media ideas?
MD Clients are desperately in need of creative thinking. Media fragmentation is the greatest thing that could ever happen to creativity. We're rapidly approaching a world where people have the ability to have advertising or not . The burden of doing horrible advertising used to be that you could just make people watch it. But increasingly good advertising is going to become a cost of entry to engaging people's emotions, and the market for doing work that transcends the ordinary is going to be in higher demand. You can't buy your way into people's hearts anymore.
C What does the future hold?
MD Media is going to become a lot more malleable to serve the story. Everyone's trying to tell their story, so the business is going to be dominated by master storytellers who cannot only use the power of film or photography or words, but also the way in which they connect that story to the people they need to connect it to. That's the future for creativity.
Steven Grasse President, Gyro Advertising
Steven Grasse, something of an advertising outsider from the very beginning of his career, was born, appropriately enough, in Souderton, Pa., a small Mennonite farming community outside Philadelphia. His formative ad background was off the beaten path; during his college years at Syracuse University, Grasse traveled the world, doing internships at Bozell in Bangkok, Ogilvy + Mather in Hong Kong and TBWA in London before graduating to a copywriter's job at Saatchi + Saatchi in Auckland, New Zealand. He moved on to Beber-Silverstein in Miami, of all unlikely places, before starting Gyro in Philly in 1988 at the age of 23—an agency that became known frequently for the sophomoric outrageousness of its ideas and its offbeat clients, including tobacco clients, rarely seen at a shop with hip aspirations. Gyro's first client, however, was MTV, which stayed with the agency eight years; in 1992, R.J. Reynolds joined the roster and has remained ever since. Gyro's many brand development projects include the Sailor Jerry G*mart and Bikini Bandits lines, and Grasse's first book, Evil Empire: Why Britain is to Blame for Nearly All of the Modern World's Problems, will be published by Quirk Books in September. In October, the latest Bikini Bandits film, Bikini Bandits and the Curse of the Pirate's Booty, will premiere at London's Raindance Film Festival. Terry Kattleman
C You were partnering with clients and branding from the bottom up, creating new revenue sources for your agency, way before the bigger shops started moving in this direction. What got you started with this in the first place?
SG I've always had this sneaking suspicion that advertising doesn't really work. These suspicions are confirmed every time I go to focus groups and everyone in the room says that they don't look at magazines or watch TV, and if they do watch TV, they TiVo. People adopt brands for different reasons than some wacky 30-second TV spot that won a Gold Lion at Cannes; they adopt brands that they inherently like and that speak to them on a variety of levels. And it's the culmination of these connections that you build with the consumer that eventually wins them over. If anything, the mass channels are the icing on the cake, rather than the cake itself. What drove Gyro to this realization early on is having clients that were heavily restricted by the government in terms of mass advertising (cigarettes) and clients that, at least initially, had no money (Puma). Necessity was the mother of invention.
Curiously, the other factor that drove our strange evolution is the fact that for so long Philadelphia completely sucked. There were no good ad people to hire, at least not in the classical sense, so we ended up hiring people who had unusual skills—clothing designers, set designers, industrial designers. I'd retrain them to be in the ad business, but these unusual skills remained in the agency's DNA. I also believe that what's really made Gyro different is our internal ban on awards shows 15 years ago. It may seem strange that it matters so much, but it really does. Our focus is on how to sell the product rather than on winning a Gold Pencil. Until recently, there wasn't even a category in these awards shows for the stuff we do, and as far as I'm concerned, there still isn't. Of course, the bigger problem is the judges themselves: wacky ad guys who pat themselves on the back for being wacky. No, thank you!
C What are your thoughts on being a creative and the creative process today, especially in light of advertisers' changing attitudes about how they should approach their advertising and marketing?
SG People buy brands that they like and emotionally connect with. People adopt brands that represent who they are; they use them as a badge. Brands, like people, emit an energy or a life force. It's our job to distill this energy and articulate it to the consumer in as many ways as possible on as many levels as possible. Our challenge has been to find marketers who get this and haven't been brainwashed by their MBAs.
C Does Gyro still not do pitches?
SG By and large, we've grown via word of mouth and recommendations. And, rather than "pitch," we charge a fee to do creative exploration. So, we get paid to think about a project. If the exploration is well received, we then go on a monthly retainer with our clients. When we do actually pursue a client, it's when we write to them with a specific observation we've noticed about them in the marketplace.
C What lessons can bigger marketers and agencies learn from your approach?
SG The biggest lesson is to stop entering all those silly awards shows and put all that energy into thinking about how people actually buy brands. And pay more attention to design—the design of every little nook and cranny of a brand. It all matters. And stop being goofy all the time. Not everything needs to be so fucking wacky. Concentrate on making shit cool, and you can do that only if you start ignoring what a nerdy ad judge thinks of your work.
Zak Mroueh VP/Executive Creative Director,Taxi/ Toronto
When you hear the agency name "Taxi," the face that might come to mind is that of Paul Lavoie, the iconic founder who in November 2004 moved to the U.S. to launch the Canadian hotshop's New York office. He couldn't have left his baby, however, without entrusting it to the able hands of ECD Zak Mroueh. A self-professed tough critic, Mroueh has helped to lead Taxi to four consecutive Agency of the Year titles from a major Canadian trade publication, thanks to consistently fresh and groundbreaking moves for Mini, Covenant House, Nike and most recently, its Gold Lion-winning campaign for Viagra, featuring newly libidinized lovers whose morning after play-by-plays are cleverly bleeped out by the little blue pill. Ann-Christine Diaz
C Taxi is well-known for its no-media-barred approach. How have you set up your departments to facilitate this type of work?
ZM We try to stay true to the Taxi model to keeping it to a small braintrust of people who are empowered to make decisions. You've got your production person, the account team, the creative team working closely together. Everyone's part of it, so when we develop an idea, there are no surprises. We really believe in account service people. They play a crucial role. At Taxi not only do they believe in creative ideas but they're also the glue to make sure we're all communicating.
C What have been the challenges in moving from a hands-on creative to a CD and now, an ECD role?
ZM When I started my career, the only thing I loved was coming up with creative ideas. Now I enjoy seeing other people succeed. That's part of the growth of a creative director. The first few years it became about making Taxi stronger, so I set goals for the department, devised a strategy to do great work. The next evolution for me happened about a year ago. In the last 14 months we've gone from four or five teams to 12 creative teams and have picked up really big clients. Now I have an ACD, Lance Martin, and I promoted four people to group creative directors. My biggest fear was, will the standards be up to par as I empower people, but it's working really well. I still see the major campaigns and still want to set the vision and standard. It's just like what Paul did with me. My job now is to make sure there's a succession plan, that I know that there are people here who have the same high standard.
C Paul Lavoie has professed that an agency gets too big when it has more than 150 people. Are you nearing that mark now, and what will happen if you do reach that size?
ZM We are committed to that. We're at 120 in Toronto now, and basically once we hit 150, we're not going to take on any new business. Obviously if there's still a need, we'd probably have to set up a separate agency that would be totally independent with its own president and its own creative director, versus what some agencies do—they say they're setting up a separate division but it's really part of the same agency. The great thing is, we've got a lot of the next generation in place to do that.
C How do you define good work?
ZM The first thing I look at is if it's on strategy. Do I believe this is going to sell the product or the idea? The next thing is the magical quality. Does it have the tingle factor? Either I feel it or I don't. The third thing I look for is appeal. If you're talking to mothers, will moms like this ad? There are times you do want to push the envelope, but for the most part, 95% of the time, you want the ad to appeal to people, especially the target. The next thing, a former creative team nicknamed it—is it "Zak-obvious"? I'm big on clarity. I think of myself of average intelligence, so if I don't get it, why do we think other people are going to? Lastly, it has to have a killer insight and killer execution. What that adds up to is S.M.A.C.K. Really, it's nothing new. I think the mistake a lot of creative people make is they think it's only about getting attention. Yes, you do have to break through. That's a given. But if you don't do all those other things, you're not going to hit a home run. On some of our best campaigns, all five of those things have been checked off.
C Do you have a particular philosophy about advertising?
ZM We don't want to impose ourselves on a brand. We don't want to follow an agency formula for success. When we work with a company, we try to understand the culture internally and externally, what its employees and what consumers feel about it. Some agencies try to create disconnected from brand, then when the work comes out, consumers will say, "That's not right." In the case of established brands, it's knowing what the boundaries of the brand are, working from the inside out, getting into the culture and redefining how to position it from within.
Juan Cabral Copywriter/Art Director, Fallon / London
At 28, London-based Juan Cabral has made impressive pitstops around the globe, collecting enviable accolades along the way. Cannes Lions loped in early on, during the Argentina native's first job as an art director at Buenos Aires agency Agulla & Baccetti. After moving to Mother/London, he continued to earn accolades for Fray Bentos and Orange, and two years ago, he moved to Fallon's U.K. office, where he recently landed the 2005 YoungGun of the Year award, for masterminding the poignant and magnificent two-and-a-half minute "Balls", a live action spot and real life spectacle for the Sony Bravia television that sent a quarter million rainbow-colored rubber orbs flying through the streets of San Francisco. Ann-Christine Diaz
C How did you first get into advertising?
JC I went straight after school to study graphic design and creativity for advertising. I wanted to study both careers at the same time, I did that for two years, mornings doing one and nights doing the other one. I like film and print and typography, everything together. Graphic design was too cold, advertising was less so. And I could do a bit of graphic design within advertising. Then I came to London College of Printing, for a course and when I returned to Argentina someone recommended that I see this guy Sebastian Wilhelm at Agulla & Baccetti, a Lowe office in Buenos Aires, and at the moment it was the best agency there. It was like really? Should I really talk to these guys? So I went and he offered me a job straight away. Sebastian was great. He ended up teaming up with me when we came here four years later to Mother.
C How would you compare your experiences at Agulla & Bacetti, Mother and now, at Fallon?
JC Each agency is different but the three are very creatively led. You know creative people run the agency. Even though the cultures are different, what I add to the agency is the same. I like big ideas, to make them and that's been consistent at these three agencies, whether one agency has account people and the other one doesn't. Then of course you have those surrounding you, who are allowed to protect those ideas you make. Some agencies protect you more or less.
C How did you come up with the idea for "Balls," and why did you decide to shoot the whole thing live?
JC I was just trying to do something amazing with color. We were launching this new TV, the tag was "color like no other." It's just a child's dream. There's something really melancholic or nostalgic about it. When we went to shoot it, there was a chance that we would need to enhance it in postproduction but when we saw the video after the first launch, it was just how you imagined it. It became a silly obsession to just leave it real because what it was already was fantastic.
C You also just did some new Walkman spots that seem more product-focused. Why did you choose that direction?
JC With Bravia, it's about what's inside the telly. With Walkman, the product is completely different. You don't know what it is, a cellphone? What is it? We had to show that. In the beginning of the spot it looks a little like a pill. For me, music is addictive. When I wake up, I need a track to get to work and when I'm working, music is my drug. It's big on the message, for a brand to talk about a music like that, "have balls" from a different angle, in a way.
C Is there a thread to the work you do?
JC Whatever project I work on, I want to be respectful to the audience. Ads sometimes tend to shout too much and I like to not underestimate or patronize anyone. If someone wants to tell you something, make the best of that moment. I'm going to tell you what you need to buy or buy into, but I want to give you a reward for watching. If the audience is going to be there, you have to give them something in return.
C What's most challenging about being a creative today?
JC My challenge is to get to a place where I don't really know if it's good or not, but I really want to do it, and am so desperate to try. I think the client has to get to that point too. If you say, "You have this and it's going to work," probably it's not going to work. That's the moment that advertising becomes cliché and has a structure, or becomes obvious. Finding that balance of thinking it's good but not being sure–that's everything.
Doug Jaeger Founder, TheHappyCorp Global
30-year-old Doug Jaeger is not one to sit still with his ideas. By 24, he was an interactive creative director at JWT, after which he moved to TBWA/Chiat/Day/N.Y. and helped to spin off their interactive company Tequila. Now, he's launched his own gig at TheHappyCorp Global, an umbrella organization to a string of creative entities: Aaarrrr, a creative services arm, t-shirt e-commerce site Dooker.com, and the Live Hard Foundation, aka LVHRD, a 2000 member invite-only creative networking group that brings together players from a spectrum of disciplines to challenge their creative prowess in areas outside their respective comfort zones. TheHappyCorp also recently partnered with Australian design mavens Design is Kinky to host the Semi-Permanent conference, a forum that showcased major players in art, design and architecture. Himself a product of technology, art and marketing, Jaeger shares some of his views on what it means to be a creative today. Melanie Shortman
C What is TheHappyCorp Global?
DJ The vision of TheHappyCorp Global was never to be an agency. We have decided that we want to work on projects that mean to do good for everybody. We try to work with people who are creating things to solve problems, as opposed to taking projects because of money, or because they suit our skill sets. In a lot of ways we approach people as partners, and in a lot of cases our projects involve starting companies of our own.
C What other companies do you own?
DJ One of the projects that I started while at Chiat/Day is a t-shirt company called Dooker. We're starting an e-commerce site that will sell limited edition t-shirts centered around the American brand to make people think about what they're doing, and improve what's going on. But it also gives a creative outlet to people within our company. We also are part owners of the Semi-Permanent conference. We partnered with the Australian group design is kinky them to do the New York part of the event. It was a great way to showcase what the next level of creative people will be doing. We also have a business that I started with Rob Hudak and Matt Spangler called Aaarrr, which is our client service arm, in a way. The Happy Corp acts as a surrogate marketing department for our clients, and we'll put together a marketing plan and Aaarrr will help execute that plan. They're writers, programmers, people who know how to do mechanicals for print. Anything that you need to be made can be made by Aaarrr.
C What about Live Hard—what is that?
DJ It's a series of parties—we don't disclose the location, we have a roster of 2000 people who get text messages about where the party is going to be located. The membership consists of every creative discipline but no more than 7 percent of a specific vertical area. We have events where we showcase a discipline, and they battle at the event. We had a fashion duel where two designers designed dresses on live models in a one-hour period. We also had an event in which J. Walter Thompson squared off against the New York City Ballet in a vending machine challenge. We're creating a social forum in which to break down boundaries between the vertical creative disciplines.
C How do you work with agencies?
DJ We work with ad agencies as part consultant, so someone will come to us and we'll help them pitch like a creative team, but we have the ability to produce work across the spectrum. We've been working with agencies like Kaplan Thaler, JWT, Ogilvy & Mather—they'll hire us in to a lot of times to stimulate their creative department to think in different ways, because of what our company is capable of doing—events, design, print ads, motion graphics.
C What's your view on the role of the creative today?
DJ The creatives we're looking for now are people that natively understand how to put things on the internet. If you know that, then you're valuable. It's not the creative director sitting in his ivory tower deciding what is good and what is bad. There are so many agency people who are excited about what they're working on for six months, and it never sees the light of day. I think the new creative is out there today and has their own personal success. There's no reason why you can't just do something interesting that gets traffic. Because traffic is an audience and an audience is valuable.
C Do you think that it's possible for creativity to flourish in an agency setting?
DJ I just think that the cube farm is not an awesome place to come up with ideas. We think it is important for people in general to be around people that you like, and who inspire you, and who are accomplishing things. The old agency model to me is a lot of wasted time. The stuff we're doing is happening really fast. You do something on a Friday, see the results on Monday and build from there. We think it is important for people in general to be around people that you like, and who inspire you, and who are accomplishing things. We're not a greedy company. Agencies have to make a lot of money because everyone wants to make a million dollars there and wants big salaries, so in order to keep people there they need to land big accounts to the stress of the employees. We've been cruising along and only working with companies that are good and nice and fair, and I thinkit's kept everyone at a great energy level, and that's what I think is so cool about what we're doing.
C People sometimes call TheHappyCorp a design/branding firm. What kind of role does design play in your work?
DJ Design is really, really important. A lot of our clients come to us for logos first. Right now we're branding a self-published woman who is writing books about breast feeding. We told her that her books would sell better if they looked better. In the first day, she did more than six times the sales she had done, ever. The first thing she bought was a logo.
Ian Reichenthal & Scott Vitrone GCDs, TBWA /Chiat/Day/N.Y.
A chainsaw-wielding psycho, double-headed freaks, drooling alien creatures, half-sheep boys, dancing office drones, a Starburst candy bust. Such is the stuff of Scott Vitrone and Ian Reichenthal's reel. The team has made weird, but lasting imprints onto the commercials-scape for Nike, Mike's Hard Lemonade, and Fedex during their tours at Wieden/Portland, Cliff Freeman, as freelancers at BBDO, and now, as GCDs at TBWA/Chiat/Day/N.Y., where they've continue to slap us silly with their excellent work for Nextel, Skittles, Starburst, and work to come for the oddly-shaped cheese-filled snack, Combos. Ann-Christine Diaz
C Judging from your work, you seem to be quite twisted.
IR We've been working on brands that call for it, teenager things. Starburst and Skittles, Nike. But Nextel and Fedex aren't so dark. Where it's appropriate, we like to do it.
SV Then again when we were at Wieden, I always had this feeling that we were somehow a little different. We tended to try to inject dark slightly off center humor. There were times, I thought, maybe I don't fit in here, because other people were doing Nike in a totally different, more traditional, cool way.
C How did you come up with Nextel's "Office"? It's one of our all time favorites.
IR It comes straight out of the product. It makes you more efficient, so the next step was, if you had extra time, how would you squander it? Then it's a race to find the dumbest, funniest thing for people to do. We kill ourselves over examples before we pick one. Maybe there are people for whom it's natural to say "I've got the idea!" We're not like that. We make the teams come in with lots of examples too. We put them through what we put ourselves through.
SV And once you come up with an idea, you leave it behind immediately. If you start investing everything into it, it's so limiting. And I think we try to teach our teams that as well, to stop early. Quite often, I think you'll find you're going to come across something that's even better.
C: What about "Sheepboys?" How was that conceived?
SV It's almost like "Dance Party." You sit around and think, what would be funniest on film? It's more intuitive, a gut feeling about what's going to be really memorable.
IR But we want it to be funny on paper. If it makes us laugh when we read it that's usually a better sign. If they're not, then probably it's never going to make us laugh in production.
SV And even through production , if you think you have something that's funny, you really have to finesse it. Ask Martin Granger, the director. We drove him crazy with the hair on the "Sheepboys." When we started we thought maybe we'd graft on the heads, but visually I thought the picture would be much funnier if they had sheep hair, but it was styled like human hair. We went through all these different wig setups, none of them were right. I tried to describe to the stylist what I wanted, and all I could think of was Gene Wilder's hair, but sheep-like. I remember downloading this picture of Gene Wilder and saying to the stylist, "Look, you see how his hair's parted here and how it's kind of like a combover?" And he looked at me like I was fucking crazy. Finally we ended up shaving a sheep and grafting actual sheep hair, strand by strand onto their heads. And I really think if we hadn't pushed that, a lot the charm would have been sucked out of that spot.
C Now that you're at TBWA—known for the disruption process—do you incorporate that into how you work?
IR Definitely in candy. So much of candy advertising seems the same—a lot of CG fruits, vibrant kid-like colors. Skittles had some historical elements attached to it already—a rainbow, something magical—so we wanted to do a more contemporary version of that but put it in a more real world setting.
SV The idea of the rainbow kind of sounds a little corny, but the brand had personality and I think if we would have wiped it out entirely, it would have been a mistake. I think the client appreciated that we didn't come in guns blazing and say, "All wrong!" I think that's a good way to start a client relationship.
C Is it easy to create for a young demographic?
IR Since our sense of humor never progressed past the 8th grade, I guess in that sense it's easy. In another sense, it's hard because this group of people is more cynical than others and they don't like to feel like they're being marketed to.
C What's it like working with Gerry Graf? What kind of advice does he give you?
SV One thing he said that I think applies to everyone in the agency, was, "Don't try to bring me work that you think I would do." I think that's why he lets us go off on our own a bit, because he knows stylistically that we're different than he is and he wants that. Maybe he was noticing that some of the teams were coming to him, or maybe through some of the work they were bringing us, they were trying to emulate either his style or our style. Why would you want that? You're going to become a one-note agency.
C Do you have any creative influences?
SV In-flight magazines. All the products in in-flight magazines are hours of fucking comedy.
IR We were obsessed with the man nightgown for awhile. This was in an ad in the back of The New Yorker. It's like a regular nightgown but there's an illustration of a studly man in it. We're not influence by any of the content portion of The New Yorker, just the man nightgown ad in the back.