BACK TO THE FUTURE;HE WAS COOL IN THE '70S, GOT DISTRACTED IN THE '80S AND NOW HE'S BACK IN THE '90S, BEARING DOWN ON THE MILLENIUM WITH A COOL, MATURE GAZE AND A SELF-ASSURED STYLE. AFTER 25 YEARS OF DIRECTING COMMERCIALS, BOB GIRALDI HAS NOTHING TO PROVE TO ANYONE, EXCEPT MAYBE HIMSELF

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"HE'S LIKE THE NOLAN RYAN OF commercials directors," says Goldberg Moser O'Neill's Brian O'Neill. "He still has a fastball, but he's proud of his split-fingered pitch too, and he knows when to use it."

Had O'Neill compared him to Carlton Fisk he would have been right on the money, but then how could he have known that Bob Giraldi played his way through Pratt on, of all things, an athletic scholarship? Yeah, a jock in an art school, as incongruous an image as that might be; nevertheless, Giraldi was a good enough catcher (he played hoops, too) to play for a semi-pro team and be offered a minor league contract with the Chicago Cubs.

Who knows what would have happened had Giraldi signed. Maybe his restaurants would be scattered along Michigan Avenue instead of Park Avenue South. "But I wasn't a prospect, I was a suspect," the 56-year-old director says. In his senior year he gave up the idea of the ballplayer's life and devoted himself to his art studies, aiming not for the upper deck but for a career in commercial art.

That was back in, let's see, 1961. Thirty-five years ago. Giraldi went first to Young & Rubicam as an art director, then to Della Femina, and that's where he got the

directing bug, which he caught in 1971. Twenty-five years ago. I mention this to O'Neill and he seems surprised. Giraldi has shot a number of jobs for them, including a series of funny Dryers ice cream spots (the best being the little baby doing the digital effects moonwalk) and a jittery Kia campaign that depends on a lively directorial style to make the spots come to life. "It's refreshing to see that at a more mature stage of his career, Bob is turning out stuff that's fairly risky."

Says Larry Kopald, executive CD at Ketchum in Los Angeles, "What blows you away about Bob is that you find yourself saying all the time, 'That was Bob Giraldi?' I mean, who would have picked him to do the Shaq stuff for Reebok, or the dancing baby, or the Statue of Liberty spot for Aurora? That's what comes to my mind-that's he's got all this stuff down so good."

Well, you know what they say, practice makes perfect. By the time Giraldi addresses an agency and production industry audience at the AICP's annual Museum of Modern Art presentation in early June, he'll have directed, by his own estimate, over 1,800 TV commercials. His topic? "Longevity," he says. "I've been around a long time and done a lot of work." More to the point, he's managed to do work that has succeeded, regardless of whether you're crazy about it or not, in continuing to look current and contemporary. It may be technique driven, like his recent foray into high-end special effects stuff (the Shaq vs. Shaq campaign being perhaps the best example), or it may be old-fashioned performance/dialogue (albeit staged with a more "Mad About You" feel than "Ozzie and Harriet"), like the five-minute Volvo spot he did that featured twentysomethings eloping to Vegas and urbane seniors spouting Kerouac as they cruised through the mountains in their Sportwagon. Most recently, he shot a brooding, graphic Reebok spot starring Shaq, called "On My Mind," that fits in nicely with the current vogue of overlapping, split-screen imagery.

In Giraldi's view, the fact that he's one of the few commercials directors who can claim his work is still as viable and relevant in 1996 as it was in 1976 is worth noting. "I think the one thing I've done is survived the bullets of commercialsmaking, the flavor of the month or flavor of the year mentality," he says. Indeed, if you look at the people he's been working with recently-a client list that runs the gamut from Leo Burnett and BBDO to Wieden & Kennedy and Goodby, with the occasional DeVito Verdi thrown in to keep things interesting-you'd have to agree that agency people buy his assessment. In fact, when talking to creatives about him, Kopald's sense of being pleasantly surprised frequently comes up, as does the concept that Giraldi keeps reinventing himself. One person who's quick to mention this is the director himself.

"I've always felt a need to reinvent myself in my work, to stay contemporary and cutting edge and therefore stay competitive," Giraldi explains. "With my ego, I could never allow myself to just sort of filter down to the middle rung of directors. I couldn't do that, I wouldn't do that.I'd go build restaurants."

For Giraldi, the need to reanimate himself is more a necessity than an indulgence. In spite of the diversions he's occupied himself with over the years, whether it's the ongoing restaurant saga, the music video period in the '80s, his largely uneventful dabbling in features and episodic work or his more current and promising foray into new media, Giraldi still looks at commercialsmaking as the core, the focal point of his career. He admits to being obsessed by boredom, and in a world where he's been there and done that, he seems constantly on the prowl to stay focused and above all interested in his commercials work. "To me, technique has never been as interesting as ideas," he says, "and now that we're in this time when technique is as important if not more important than anything, I keep thinking about how I can come up with techniques that are interesting."

This explains why, with the support of people like his longtime partner Phil Suarez and Carol Case, his boundlessly energetic rep since 1988, the Bob Giraldi who shot what some have called schmaltzy music videos starring middle of the road stars like Lionel Richie and easy-listening but nonetheless popular ad campaigns like Miller Lite (back in the "Tastes great, less filling" era) has been replaced by a guy whose gritty depiction of homosexuals and drug addicts made his Ads Against Aids spot of a few years back the only one in that campaign worth remembering. Then there was his Acura "Wrecking Ball" spot; not that it was such a killer car ad, it's just that it came out of left field for a guy not associated with sheet metal. More surprises followed, such as a funky Mercedes spot for German agency Springer & Jacoby that featured jazzy car shots underneath several different versions of the Sinatra standard "My Way." Along the way there was the steady, consistent output of solid mainstream work like the Gregg Kinnear Eagle campaign and a series of funny Navy recruitment ads from BBDO that looked more like the old Bob than the new.

And then along came Shaq and that dancing baby and it was reinvention time all over again: introducing Bob Giraldi, effects wizard. "It's just another new and different thing for me, like doing cars," he says. "It took a long time for me to do cars, and it took a long time for me to believe in effects."

Now, it seems, he can't bid a job that doesn't have some kind of fancy footwork in it. He's set up a relationship with R/Greenberg that has so far been mutually beneficial, but neither Giraldi nor the people he shoots for seem to make too much of this phase of his career. "Bob is results oriented, he's not caught up in the process," says Leo Burnett VP Randy Spear, with whom Giraldi shot the "On My Mind" spot, among others. "He's fast and instinctive, with instinctive being the key. He's anxious to push things, and he seeks out projects that allow him to do that."

Clearly, Giraldi does this more to prove something to himself than to anyone else. He says that what motivates him in the commercials game is solving problems-not necessarily marketing problems, and not necessarily production problems. What he's talking about, it seems, is just taking care of people's needs, whether it's the worry over introducing a new campaign or trying out a new technique.

Giraldi talked about working with a Goldberg Moser team recently on a Kia shoot in Manhattan who are in their 30s. "I could be their father," he says with a smile, not a wince. But he adds, "we're contemporaries. They respect me and my work. I respect their work."

The anecdote is offered in response to the question, How long do you want to do this stuff? His answer is to the point. "As long as I'm in a business where that can still happen," he says of the feeling of mutual admiration, "and while I can still give them stuff without making excuses for it, excuses for why it didn't work. Once in a while an excuse is OK, but if I'm in the process of making too many, I know it's over."

And while he's come to the somewhat bittersweet realization that his life has become his work-and he acknowledges the personal sacrifices he's had to make in that regard-he considers himself pretty lucky to still be on top of his game after 25 years. "At 56 I still enjoy what I'm doing every bit as much as I did

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