The Creativity Interview: Jon Kamen

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These are challenging times not just for the ad industry in general, but for the New York commercials production community in particular. As one of the most visible members of that tribe, Jon Kamen, the founder and chairman/CEO of Radical Media, has recently spearheaded a coalition trying to jump-start a New York film production scene that took a big hit on September 11. For Kamen, this is one more on a long list of missions: With Radical now producing not just commercials but also network television series, indie films and even a planned Broadway musical, Kamen is at the forefront of the movement by ad creators to branch out into other forms of entertainment. Over lunch at his industrial-chic headquarters in the West Village (a long stone's throw from ground zero), Kamen chewed over the many items on his plate these days.

WB Let's talk about the coalition you're involved with; what are you trying to do to help the New York production community?

JK It started with a meeting held the Tuesday after the disaster, pulling together some of the leading people in the production industry - not just producers, but the unions, state and city film commissioners, and so forth. And the idea was just to assess what we needed to do to let people know New York film production is open for business. In fact, the production community has really risen to the challenge of September 11. On the day of the disaster, crews responded immediately in terms of helping to provide generators and lights. That night, all of these gaffers and grips and lighting companies showed up, en masse, with equipment and manpower to provide light for the rescue workers. It was really great to see people from our business respond that way. Afterwards, the head of the union said, "I want to make sure our guys get some recognition for their contributions," and they were thinking of taking out an ad in the trades. And I said, a one-time ad in the trades is not enough. We really have an opportunity to take this beyond getting some recognition, and to deal with the task at hand - re-energizing our own industry within New York. So we're now committed to it as an ongoing campaign and coalition. It's really about internal communication within the industry to say that production in New York is extremely viable right now. We're using trade advertising, but more importantly we're bringing together people from around the industry, in a kind of support group, to see how we can help each other out.

WB Aside from the financial impact, how do you think September 11 is affecting advertising in terms of tone and content?

JK I think as an industry, we have to re-evaluate where we're going. Watching the TV news reporting from Afghanistan, it struck me that some of the ads stood out more than others in terms of seeming a bit inappropriate. I would hope there's a sense of renewed consciousness as to what's appropriate, and what's not, in advertising. Even before all of this happened, it seemed to me that there were some campaigns and projects that were getting a bit violent. So perhaps it's healthy that we're going through this re-evaluation. I don't think it will pass quickly. And I hope it doesn't - I hope it really is a time for us to reconsider. Quite honestly, if you look at some of this past year's award-winning commercials, like the Fox sports campaign with people essentially killing themselves . . .

WB You think that kind of advertising is over?

JK Well, it probably should be. There's a whole different sensitivity now.

WB Does advertising have a special responsibility to help the country become more positive, more engaged in normal life?

JK In an odd way, I feel a sense of economic patriotism - in which it's our job to help fuel the economy and support brands in their marketing efforts. I mean, we do have a responsibility to stand up to all of this and make sure we don't allow the country to be economically destroyed. And advertising can play a role in that. But it has to be done responsibly. We don't want to put people into hock in terms of buying and spending on things they can't afford.

WB On the subject of spending, are advertisers trying to scale back costs and produce commercials on the cheap these days?

JK There's different schools of thought, in terms of what people consider to be a required level of quality, and what is economically responsible. The problem is not so much cutting back costs on jobs - it's just that there are fewer jobs. And the most upsetting consequence of that has been the massive layoffs in our industry. There are a lot of tremendously talented young people who had set their sights on careers in advertising who may have to think otherwise now.

WB What about directors, specifically; how are they doing?

JK This situation has put a lot of stress on the ability to develop and introduce new talent, because there's somewhat of a flight to safety and experience. So it can be very difficult on the up-and-comers. There is a flipside to that, in which some young talent is given an opportunity because of lower budgets. But the question is, even if they get those rare opportunities, can they sustain it and start to build a successful career? It's tough, because so many great, well-known directors are available right now. So a project comes along that a young director thinks he has a shot at, and then some experienced director just comes in and scarfs it up. Very frustrating.

WB You were one of the first people to talk about moving beyond the 30-second commercial into entertainment - something that a number of ad agencies have picked up on in the past couple of years. What got you started on this?

JK What we've been interested in all along is the eventuality of branded content. We felt that while we were successful in producing entertaining commercials, we had this modest goal of filling the gaps between the commercials with some quality programming. And we saw the possibility of advertisers going back to the future with single-sponsor programs. It was based, in part, on the fact that the media was proliferating so much - which naturally leads to a huge amount of time that needs to be filled. And now we're beginning to see some traction in that area.

WB What's the key to creating good branded content?

JK It's not easy to figure out how you make a brand part of the DNA of programming, rather than just doing a heavy-handed product placement. In recent weeks, in light of what has gone on, it occurred to me that if a brand can create content that would be appreciated by consumers during sensitive times like these, that's a lot better than bombarding them with 30-second commercials. I'm talking about high-quality half-hour or one-hour programs, such as documentaries. We worked on something like that with Wieden & Kennedy and Nike, a documentary about Lance Armstrong.

WB What do you think of the BMW films on the web? Does that fit the mold?

JK The way they inserted the product into the story still follows the old model of product placement. And, speaking of appropriateness, I'm not sure if getting chased by machine guns in cars would be the most appropriate advertising right now. But I salute them for the effort, for trying something new. And it did create an awareness - though I wonder if it was the most economically efficient way of getting out there with programming. It amounted to an incredible investment on BMW's part.

WB Are you moving away from commercials, and more toward making television series and films?

JK The production of commercials is still the bulk of our business, but strategically, you have to be looking ahead. I mean, who can say what the future of the 30-second commercial is? Everyone talks about the threat of TiVo, but it goes beyond that. We have to recognize that right now the hottest TV network is HBO - and they don't even run commercials. So we're trying all kinds of things. We're producing a series for ESPN [The Life], we're developing another for the WB, we've got some one-hour documentaries we're doing. And we also think it's strategically important to pursue the feature film arena, because so many of our young directors are interested in moving into feature films. We realize it's a gambler's business - you have a better shot at succeeding in the current stock market than making money on feature films. But it's still important for us to do it.

WB How can you tell if a commercials directors has the potential to be a good features director?

JK The only way is by having a working relationship with them and observing them. There are some who can easily adapt to the longer format, and others who - talented as they may be in commercials - will never succeed in feature films. Partly because the politics in the features film world are so vicious, and not everybody can adapt to that. Over time, we tend to get some insight into who we think has the chops to be able to make a film - and it's mostly based on how they collaborate with others, more than a matter of directing style. I always find it odd when the talent agencies pick directors out of our pool - they don't understand that what they see on the commercials reel is not necessarily what they're going to get on a film.

WB The extension into film seems logical, but the move into live theater [Radical is co-developing Ball, a musical about basketball, choreographed by Savion Glover] is more of a leap. What's the thinking behind that?

JK It may seem like a crazy place for us to be going, but as we pursued this particular subject matter for a feature film, it was pointed out that a number of films had already dealt with the subject of playground basketball. So somebody naively said, "How about a Broadway show?" And I said, "What are you, crazy? That's even harder to do than a film." But then again, it hasn't been done before. And that idea of always trying to do something new and different is what drives this company. So we're moving ahead with it, and it's going great. One of the unexpected benefits is that working in theater has opened our eyes to a whole new universe of talent that we were unaware of before.

WB Do you ever have the urge to direct any of these projects yourself - or do you get enough creative satisfaction from being a producer?

JK I feel like I've had a chance to help in the careers of some very talented directors, and to really collaborate with them. But the real creativity for a producer is figuring out how to solve the problems of a particular job. That includes choosing the best talent for a job; the producer has to be able to understand who can best translate a certain vision onto film. When I decided to become a producer and not pursue directing or photography, it was a commitment to try to do the job of producer as creatively as possible. You know, in the film and television world, producers have a lot of opportunity to contribute creatively - perhaps we haven't always been thought of that way in the commercials world, but I think Radical has tried to change that.

WB How hard is it to work with directors? Are they really as difficult as people think? You hear the horror stories about people like Tony Kaye and Pytka.

JK In many ways, the times are a-changing, and there's not a lot of room for difficult behavior anymore. Some directors have had to change their act. And often it was an act - sometimes as a means to intimidate people and maintain control, sometimes manufactured by their producers to create a persona. But it's different these days. I suspect even Tony's behaving this week. And Joe certainly has mellowed. I happen to believe that control and respect on the set can be achieved in other ways, without intimidation - I mean, Frank Todaro is great director and he's also just a nice guy. And we've tended to choose people like that to work with. We don't have a lot of room here for assholes.

Education

Attended P.S. 131 in Jamaica, Queens. Attended the School of Visual Arts, New York, 1969-70.

Experience

Print production assistant at Horn Griner, later Steve Horn Productions, early 1970s. Joined Henry Sandbank Productions mid-'70s, which later became Sandbank Kamen.

Bought out Sandbank and formed Radical Media, aka @radical.media, in 1993.

Jon Kamen

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