"I've worked on the biggest budgets, and, subsequently, I've now become an extremely low-budget producer," the 41-year-old Popp observes of recent years. "It's been a unique challenge. To be honest, it's been a complete relearn. It's like being a chef who could buy the most exquisite cuts of meat and the best raw fish in the world, and suddenly you don't have the money to do that. How are you going to make an entertaining menu? Ultimately, you find a way to do it."
Popp, a Northwestern University film grad, joined the agency as a production assistant in the late '80s, initially working on the unglamorous likes of Hamburger Helper, Power Scrub and Clorox. He got an early foot in the door within a year, subbing for a senior producer on a major shoot for Busch beer. "It was a project that was fully bid and prepped and the creative was very senior. I was basically going to tag along and learn my way." The campaign was well received, as was Popp, who had made a bond with Anheuser-Busch that hasn't broken since. "If you can connect with the client, which is one of the challenges of working with A-B - and I did - you just keep moving forward and, hopefully, never screw up. You just keep doing good work and staying in their good graces." Soon enough, multimillion-dollar jobs and dream teams with directors like Kinka Usher, David Kellogg and Joe Pytka, as well as effects shops like Digital Domain, became a way of life for Popp, not just for Anheuser-Busch but also for Rold Gold. Then, after he'd just about done and seen it all, he started to notice a change: smaller budgets. "I think in the case of A-B, there was a realization at some point that a very low-cost spot could actually be the most impressive thing they've done," he notes. "As a result, there wasn't a direct correlation between high cost and high achievement. It just seemed to make sense that doing a higher number of spots at a lower cost would yield a greater percentage of big hits, and I think it worked out to be true."
This had been going on since about '95, but the more recent "Whassup?" phenomenon proves his point in spades. "I bid the job and handed it over to a freelancer because it struck me as potentially not the kind of thing that would easily be received by Anheuser-Busch," Popp recalls. He claims he doesn't have any regrets - like any responsible and passionate producer, he passed that one up for what seemed at the time a more complicated job, which now, he laughs, has slipped his memory. But he did learn a lot. "It's easy to be big with money, but you can be just as impactful small. Originally the notion was that it was distasteful, it wasn't as fun not to immediately have all these resources available. But now the challenge has become, How do you do the best work around; not just client-pleasing, but the best work, period, with very little money? We've all watched the Super Bowl and somebody will have spent $2 million on something that everybody groans at, and then someone will have spent very little money on something people love."
Popp has since managed to assemble modestly budgeted crowd-pleasers of his own on the "True" campaign. Last year's Super Bowl favorites, "Cards" and "Birthmark," directed by Kuntz & Maguire, were quiet, performance-driven pieces that brought to bear all the weight of a good idea sans the big-budget extravaganza. "The biggest factor is learning to recognize what you can do in a day, being really clever about what's important to the story," Popp notes of key strategy points. "You try and put as much money into your shoot day and on the screen as you can." That might mean going outside the country, being more practical about sets and locations, or working with younger talents. Or it can mean shooting the ads yourself.
Most recently, Popp has teamed with fellow A-B vet and GCD John Immesoete (see Creativity, March 2002) behind the lens on DDB/Chicago's latest executions for "True." The director's chair isn't exactly unfamiliar territory for Popp. At Northwestern, he had shown early promise helming two short films, one of which earned him a Student Academy Award as well as a two-year directing/writing offer from William Morris, which he turned down. "As hard as it is to believe, I've always done things slowly," he explains. "In many ways, I'm very cautious and conservative about the decisions I make. I just felt overwhelmed by the Hollywood schmooze of these agents." Instead Popp stayed in the Windy City and did scouting for John Hughes on films like Ferris Bueller's Day Off before landing his job at DDB.
Now, with 15 years of experience on sets, Popp easily warms up to the director's task. He and Immesoete's first round of work included simply shot yet compelling performances in four spots, and a short film The Best Man (viewable on Budweiser.com), in which Jason Jones, the actor who shoves his foot into his mouth describing his girlfriend's tush to her parents in "Birth-mark," hilariously continues to think before he speaks at a wedding reception. "Greg and John," as the duo is known, just completed another six commercials and two more shorts, which Popp says show a maturation in direction, with more complex camera movements and shot composition.
So is this directing thing a permanent gig? Ultimately, that's up to the client, but Popp will let the chips fall where they may. "I've always been an evolver," he insists. "My creed in life is that given an opportunity, in almost any situation if you really have a talent or a skill, it will reveal itself and you'll have a chance to prove yourself and move forward. You have a lot of money; you have very little money. You need to do a lot of spots; you need to do a few spots. It's always been about constantly evolving, and this role is one step in that. The model everybody thinks of is directors at production companies and agency people at agencies. We're doing something differently and it's working. I can't even begin to predict, but I really enjoy working at DDB. I really enjoy working with Anheuser-Busch. Right now it's a neat situation and everyone's happy with it."