In 2003, MJZ didn't generate half the excitement it did last year, when the industry was abuzz with speculation about whether or not the shop would prove to be worth its weight in purported signing bonuses. But this year did show that president David Zander and crew seem well prepared to be in it for the long haul, turning out another impressive reel worthy of earning the shop a back-to-back honor as Creativity
's Production Company of the Year. Indeed, our decision was more difficult in '03, which proved to be a tough period to break any kind of creative ground. Lackluster ideas abounded, and competition for the best boards was undeniably brutal. A look back reveals that the choice jobs were rare, sparsely sprinkled about a handful of shops. MJZ itself didn't even have a "Lamp" to tout, but its overall creative yield stood out as the most solid and stimulating of the bunch, enough so that we were obliged to bestow upon it the repeat honor.
David Zander notes that business-wise, '03 was something of an unpredictable roller coast ride. "We've been charting the business since at least '98, and the business seems to have followed a general curve and a consistent pattern, but this year was kind of different. It didn't have the same changes as the years before. We'd have two strong months with good creative going on, and then in a traditionally big month, it would be dead quiet. It kind of bounced around and you didn't know what was going to happen next."
Despite the stops and starts, the reel hardly suffered. Many argue quality over quantity, but MJZ succeeded in simultaneously delivering both, thanks to impressive efforts from the spectrum of its directors. Notable contributions came from Rocky Morton and Craig Gillespie, whose comedic edges only seem to sharpen over time. Gillespie delivered memorably offbeat performances for Washington Mutual and Citibank as Morton relentlessly brought on the laughs for the BBC, Starbucks, Honda and continuing work for Chocolate Milk.
Perhaps a testament to the shop's overall strength, the Propaganda wavemakers didn't factor in as heavily as they did in 2002, although their efforts did weigh on the outcome. Dante Ariola remained a prominent player, bringing eerie beauty to Hotjobs' "Dreamers" and the utterly compelling "Idle Thumbs" for Virgin Mobile, one of the best spots on the reel. We would have liked to see more from Grand Prix-winner Spike Jonze, who peeked in just once, with a well-executed soccer iteration of the Freestyle phenomenon for Nike Latin America. Kuntz and Maguire dipped in while on hiatus for The Onion
movie, following runaway luggage for VISA and contributing some chuckles for Playstation and Sega. Others to note include Victor Garcia, who performed a stunning "Bucket Ballet" for SBC and Sean Thonson, who combined visual talent and wit for Corona. Annabel Jankel also intrigued with an anti-bullying PSA and Marcus Nispel uncovered the dark side we always knew was lurking in the Snuggle Bear.
As for the most recent additions, Fredrik Bond brought considerable heft and dimension to the shop's output via HP's "Il Postino," an outstanding component of our Campaign of the Year, and in Miller's fresh approach to beer-verts, featuring human domino acrobatics. MJZ filled out even more with the addition of Nicolai Fuglsig, who yielded a Land Rover beaut showcasing the animal instincts of the car's drivers. The shop seems prepped to carry on boldly in 2004, with the signing of Matthijs Van Heijningen, who thrilled Cannes audiences with Peugeot's "Sculptor" but has yet to contribute to the MJZ library.
While the work merits high creative marks, the company itself remains arguably the best-run machine in the business, and agencies and directors alike have long attested that its muscle is not just director-deep. Y&R/Chicago executive producer Matt Bijarchi, who worked with MJZ on the Miller "Dominoes" spot, notes, "They have the best talent, but they also have the best producers. They take it very seriously without calling attention to themselves, which is refreshing. The top-of-the-line production is a matter of fact. It goes without saying that you feel the weight of David Zander and all the people that work with him. It's not solely run by him, but he's not afraid to get involved in the day to day of what gets done. If he can lend his weight to a project, he will."
Director Bond has similar observations: "It's a very efficient, extremely tight organization, maybe sometimes too tight. It's extremely well-oiled and all the people working there are in the loop of what's going on. It's not about showing off, there are no red carpets or exclusive champagne every Friday afternoon. There's no bullshit. It's just about the work." Which explains why the shop, growth spurts and all, seems to have lasting power, one of the reasons Bond joined in the first place. "Ever since I started directing, I'd always seen MJZ around," the director observes. "New companies would appear on the showreel shelves, but MJZ's logo was always there. If I was in Budapest or Paris or the Ukraine, there was always an MJZ showreel. That was really impressive to me."
Hungry Man: First Runner-Up
It probably stacks against Hungry Man that its work is so consistently good; year after year, it becomes harder for the shop to impress us. Nevertheless, its overall body of work had a freshness factor considerably above the rest, thanks to its virtually leak-proof lineup of talents. Moreover, HM opened a full blown outpost in London this year, adding a promising European roster and funneling in a steady flow of inspired creative from overseas. "We had an exceptionally busy year," notes executive producer Steve Orent. "Billings-wise, it was our best ever." Notable moments include Bryan Buckley's sinfully sexy campaigns for Las Vegas and Archers and celebrity-driven work for Orange and Pepsi Twist. Jim Jenkins was in rare form for BBC, Amex and AirTran, as was Hank Perlman for Fox Sports and Toyota, and David Shane for ESPN SportsCenter and SPCA. John O'Hagan brought a telepathic twist to Sprint while Allen Coulter showed his skills for Visa and Egg. Not surprisingly the majority of the work garnered laughs, but the shop added dimension via Michael Cuesta's docu-spot for the BBC and Russ Lamoureux's festive sports work for Powerade.
Anonymous Content: Second Runner-Up
A few years ago, the buzz around town about Anonymous, with its big-name directors and huge overhead, was that it was going to follow in the ill-fated footsteps of Propaganda. But 2003 proved a shining period for the shop, which was home to some of this year's most creatively impactful spots. This was due in no small part to Malcolm Venville, who secured his A-List status with quiet stunners like Volkswagen's "Squares" and Honda's "Best Friends." Executive producer Dave Morrison notes, "The theme of this year has been hitting on all cylinders." That was evident, for example, in bold contributions from directors like David Fincher, who delivered a slew of deftly executed, if not groundbreaking, spots like Nike's "Gamebreakers" and Xelibri's bizarre trip into fashion's future. Andrew Douglas carpeted HP and FTD with fantastic florals, and the shop wisely welcomed Christian Loubek, who brought quirky elegance to Discover. Anonymous' hookup with London's Gorgeous also lent creative oomph, by way of Frank Budgen's "Streaker" for Nike, Peter Thwaites' Nascar work and Tom Carty for Kellogg's. Moreover, the year's efforts give credence to the shop's staying power. "We've been in the black," asserts Morrison. "Three or four years ago, we had ups and downs, but now the Anonymous/Gorgeous brand is firmly where it needs to be."
Smuggler: Breakout Bandit
We couldn't close this year without giving special recognition to Smuggler, which managed to become the hottest thing on the production radar in 2003, invigorating the ad scene fast and furiously with its posse of offbeat talents. Highlights include Happy's controversial Wrigley's "Dog Breath," James Brown's ‘60s spunk for Sheraton, Ivan Zacharias' Bollywood-inspired Absolut Mulit, David Frankham's filmic touches on Uncle Ben's and newcomer StyleWar's quirky Ikea artistry. In conjunction with London partner Stink, the shop also landed a major McCoup via McDonald's global branding effort. Director Brown led a crew of young guns on the multispot deal, which introduced an innovative production paradigm to the fold. Although that work ultimately didn't stand up to the shop's best, no doubt Smuggler's feisty talents and fresh production strategies make it well-poised to become the David the Goliaths should keep their eyes on.
(This article appears in the December 2003 issue of Creativity.)