Wall poses with Lil' Penny.
Wall, now 35, studied journalism and advertising in his native North Carolina at UNC/Chapel Hill, where he says he learned how to put a book together, but the rest he attributes mostly to luck, which is undoubtedly his modesty talking. He got his first job at BBDO/New York in '89 and went on to Deutsch/New York a year later where he worked on Ikea and British Knights and also did "a funny little spot for NBA Hoops cards, with all these dentists praising the cards because they weren't packaged with gum," he says. This, incidentally, was Phil Morrison's first commercial, and today the two are directing buddies at Epoch Films.
But between then and now Wall helped blaze a trail through some of Nike's brightest creative years, beginning in '91, with campaigns like "Lil' Penny"; Dennis Hopper as that crazy, shoe-smelling referee; George Gervin holding court in a barbershop; and, to top it off, he was the CD on ESPN's SportsCenter when the campaign was first developed. When the ESPN account moved to Wieden's New York office in '97, Wall moved with it, where the business averaged a whopping 225 commercials a year, he says. "And it wasn't all mock-doc. We did things like dogs playing poker." But he didn't direct a thing. "I had no plans to make a transition. Most of my work was directed by Phil Morrison or Pytka. I was learning a lot from them, especially Joe, without ever thinking I'd be doing it for a living." He was even asked to direct for ESPN on some low-budget spots, and he declined. "I had too much responsibility as a CD. It seemed presumptuous of me to direct at that time. There were too many people out there with the talent to do it."
Now he's one of them. He left W+K in '99 and joined Hungry Man, but he initially went there to produce TV shows. "We pitched a lot of different shows to a lot of different networks," he says wearily. But he finally took an offer to direct some spots, "because I wasn't really enjoying the TV development business. In fact, I found the process to be not enjoyable on any level. It's just so much more of a political, insulting process than advertising is."
What sealed the deal for him was a campaign from The Martin Agency, where Wall has good connections, for, of all things, a pesticide from FMC Corp. "There was something about it that made me think I could bring a point of view to this and direct it in a way that people wouldn't expect me to be able to do right off the bat." The campaign, triggered by the none too appealing notion, "`Why don't we give our corn to the rootworms?'' leads to rhetorical queries like, "Why don't we give our ice cream to the flies and our sidewalks to the gum?'' and the resulting interpretive imagery looks like the work of a seasoned pro.
After that, "I thought maybe this was what I should do for a living, because it combined a lot of the things I loved about the business but it was even more invigorating," says Wall. "It was like when I first got into advertising. I sort of regained my youthful optimism about the world. So I decided to try to do it seriously, and I felt I needed a fresh start." He left Hungry Man for Epoch about a year ago and hasn't looked back -- though campaigns like FMC hardly come along every day, and Wall is very picky about what he'll put on his reel. He shot the recent, reasonably funny Geico campaign, featuring the CG gecko (a Martin Agency gig), but none of this is making his cut. He does show some accomplished UPS spots (also via Martin), an ESPN X Games spot with puppets (his only Wieden work) and a Nextel b-to-b campaign from Mullen featuring talking portraits; he's very big on the latter at the moment, partly because it's comedy/dialogue that's not mockumentary or "wide-angle, over-the-top." OK, but for our money his best work by far is a 12-spot Cadbury Crispy Crunch campaign from TBWAChiatDayN.Y. that offers bizarrely inspired variations on the same theme: a desultory conversation between two guys in a record store (in one spot they're played by puppets), as if the whole was a Surrealist theater piece called Sisyphus Sells a Candy Bar.
When asked why he hasn't got any Nike work- he has plenty of connections there, after all - Wall is refreshingly honest. "I don't necessarily expect it. I don't consider myself in that top tier of directors yet. If I got the opportunity, I would want it to be further down the road, when I'm more confident in my point of view as a director." He's confident enough to want to do music videos, but he's not too keen on his prospects. "It seems like the same 10 guys shoot all the videos; the opportunities are limited."
Not so in commercials; is it an advantage being a former creative? "I think so. I know that what I'm seeing as a board is probably an idea that's been worked on for two or three months. I always try to respect that. Yes, I try to bring a point of view and suggest things, but never to the point where I feel like they're going to have to back up three months in time and re-present. I try to be a very collaborative director, because it's their idea, I'm just here to execute it. But I'm sure in the ongoing years I'll become more and more egotistical," he laughs.