I look around at all these 26 year olds, and I suddenly realize that I'm the old man on the set," says Peter Friedman, 46. "What's funny is that it doesn't feel like all that long ago when I was the youngest guy on the set." Of course, that was back when commercials production companies had licenses to print money, Joe Pytka was slaving away on P&G shoots and Nike was this little outfit that made a few lines of running shoes.
Today, Nike is a $19 billion company, commercials producers' budgets are scrutinized more closely than Apple's balance sheet, Pytka probably hasn't even held a P&G product in years and Friedman, who finds himself on more Nike shoots these days than even Big Joe, is about to hit the quarter-century mark in the commercials production arena. And while he may indeed be the old man on the set, he's clearly not too old to learn a few new tricks. After spending a dozen years on the agency production side and a dozen years running commercials production companies, Friedman was recently named to the newly created position of global broadcast production director at Nike. Yep, he's the client, and he's hangin' with the Wieden & Kennedy homeboys, whether they like it or not.
Since his hire last March, Friedman has been running nonstop, mostly going to shoots and making himself familiar-not with the production process, which he knows intimately, but with the functions, goals and objectives of a job that's new to both him and his employer, to a roster of some of the most talented creative and production people to be found on the agency side and, of course, to the culture that is Nike. On one of his first days on the job he met Dan Wieden, a guy who had previously existed to Friedman only as a legend. During a 10-day period last month he was on the set with Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Pete Sampras. "It's a lot to digest," he says, but he's just doin' it.
Friedman reports to Geoffrey Frost, Nike's global advertising director and a former group head at FCB who's something of an international renaissance man, and Chris Zimmerman, director of U.S. advertising. He was hired by Frost from Wells Rich Greene/BBDP in New York, where he had spent a year as head of production. Prior to that Friedman spent two years at Saatchi in New York as associate head of production, working under David Perry; Friedman and Frost were at Saatchi at the same time, although Friedman says he never produced any of Frost's jobs.
Friedman started in the business on the agency side back in the mid-'70s at Scali McCabe Sloves, then moved on to posts at Ogilvy & Mather and BBDO, which he left in 1981 with art director turned commercials director Michael Moir. Thus began his 12-year stint on the production company side, during which time he was a partner in a company with Moir, ran the first full-up commercials unit at Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic and opened a New York-based shop called First Light. But as the production business evolved into one where only the largest firms could survive, or those smaller shops that just happened to house one of the industry's top directors, Friedman began to tire of the rat race. He had functioned as both a rep and an executive producer, "and it's really a kind of solitary exercise," he says. "You're really working for yourself in a way, and every day it's a sprint. When you're on the agency side, it's more like a marathon, and every day there's a different event. You have to know so many things, whether it's music or editing or special effects. When you're on the production company side, every day is mainly about making money." What Friedman says he missed most about his time on the production side was the sense of being part of a team, and that's what he found when he folded his tent and joined Saatchi in 1993.
Even though his title is global broadcast director, Friedman is currently focusing one hundred percent of his time on the domestic side of Nike production-as well he should, with over 60 spots in the works, most of them at W&K. He admits he's got quite a bit to learn about the global structure of Nike advertising, and how the client and its lead agency interfaces with the various affiliates and associates with which it works in different parts of the world. He has immersed himself, he says, in getting to know the cast of characters at W&K and in learning the Nike culture and mentality, one in which the brand is everything.
Friedman also has the pressure of essentially creating this job as he goes along; not only is he new to the client side, but this is a new position to Nike. "They do so much broadcast, and they've had no one here who could more or less keep an eye on things and oversee budgets," he explains. "But I'm not the in-house cost consultant," he quickly adds. "I'm not here in an adversarial role." Rather, Friedman feels he can help the agency sell work by helping the client to better understand the production process and the unique pressures that affect the kind of work they frequently find themselves doing: a combination of cutting-edge concepts that often involve A-list directors, unpredictable and expensive star talent and dizzying visual effects. While it's a recipe for breakthrough work, it can also drive a client crazy, and Friedman sees it as his job to massage this volatile mix and ease it along.
Of course, first he has to "work on the trust issue," as he diplomatically puts it. Friedman wants the W&K producers and creatives to get to know him and to understand what his role is, and recalls a conversation he had with W&K head of production Bill Davenport in which Davenport agreed that Friedman can add some much needed knowledge and experience to Nike's advertising staff. Still, there is some resistance to his presence, he says, and he's resolved to break it down. (Davenport did not return several calls asking him to comment on Friedman's relationship with the agency.)
Mostly it seems Friedman will be attempting to provide a sense of accountability for Nike production, "and not just in terms of dollars and cents," he says. "My job, simply stated, is to get the most value for Nike's dollar. It's about spending the money we have as wisely as possible." He says that he has not been given any mandate to cut production budgets, but rather sees his role as simultaneously pushing the agency to get the best people possible for each job and educating the client about the process as much as possible.
One thing he has going for him is his level-headed personality and his ability to get along with just about everybody, egomaniacs included. "Peter is always the voice of reason, and the last person to get flapped," says David Perry, who has known him for 20 years. Long before Perry hired him at Saatchi, they worked together at both Scali and BBDO. "I can't think of a better person for this job than him," Perry says. "He'll be able to take the best of what he's learned on both sides of the business and apply it to Nike."
Given the crazed state in which most commercials are produced these days, Friedman sees opening lines of communication as one of his top priorities. "Everything has been condensed," he says about the process. "There's no time to do anything anymore. You have to have constant dialogue, and I don't care what side of the fence you're on. Everyone has to understand everyone else's problems." Of course, before we can all just get along, as Rodney King once put it, we've got to get to know each other. That's what Friedman is doing now by going to shoots with the W&K crowd. "You have to see them on the set, see how they act when they're in the heat of battle," he says of the creatives and producers. "That way you learn how they think, and you see what they need to do their jobs. And that's what I'm doing now. I'm going to school."
DDB Needham/Chicago producer Greg Popp should have been a director. Well, actually, he was a director, a Northwestern film student who co-wrote, -produced and -directed Black Magic, a 13-minute short that was a regional finalist in the Student Academy Awards, and The Lottery Rose, an 86-minute feature that won the 1984 Student Academy Merit Award.
He later worked as a location manager on films like Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but something stood between Popp and a life in the features business-his hometown, Chicago. "I was offered a two-year deal with William Morris to move to L.A. and develop projects, but I had a love for Chicago, and I just didn't want to move," he recalls. "I wanted to make something happen here, but this is not a film industry town. I'd just finished a two-year process of independent filmmaking on Lottery Rose, and it was murder. The agency job seemed like a steady income and a chance to continue making the whole thing happen, since an independent filmmaker has to a be a producer anyway."
Popp, now 35 and an eleven-year Needham vet, has been making a lot of things happen; expensive, very complicated things, usually involving beer or pretzels, with intense narrative requirements and distinctly comedic tendencies. There's no need to collect testimonials to his skill from his colleagues, they're all there on the reel, which currently includes major productions like the Budweiser gator-and-frogs reggae party, directed by Simon West; the Pretzel Boy Super Bowl parachute extravaganza, directed by Jim Gartner; a host of other Pretzel Boy wonders, directed by David Kellogg; and the Clydesdales playing CGI football, directed by Anthony Hoffman. Even a lesser-known spot like a Heinz 57 sauce :30, directed by Rob Pritts, in which a suburban schlub orchestrates a backyard barbecue that looks like an Andrew Lloyd Webber production, is an impressive display of special effects and comic timing.
So what's the secret to snacking lavishly on Bud and Rold Gold? "I'd like to think I have a certain respect for creative thought and the creative process to the degree where I'm able to make a contribution," says Popp. "Maybe it's the ability to recognize your own limitations that lets you fill in the gaps as an organizer and a project leader."
One key to the role seems to be in having a keen eye and a not so keen ego. "The more I work with directors, the more I try to sort out in my own head what makes a particular director really special," he says. "It seems that in commercials you run into a very specialized kind of person who has a God-given gift, but a gift that has to be harnessed and managed with the assistance of the production company and the guidance of a really sharp agency. As a producer, I can harness this raw power and turn it into something really magical. So maybe I'm not as creative as they are, but I'm able to recognize that and work with it."
While Popp travels in heady directorial circles, he's equally proud of his nose for new talent and nurturing the endangered idea. When it comes to choosing directors, of course, "there's a route of bandwagon jumping where you go after those who do work you're envious of; who's in the headlines, what's hot this month," Popp explains. "And if you have a project that has enough money behind it and a strong enough basic premise, it's easy to jump on one of those bandwagons, and if the director's available and your creative group is reliable you can get Kinka Usher or even Joe Pytka. The project that's not so clear cut, that needs heavy improvement with client perspective, where the idea isn't that original-well, then it's trickier. You learn eventually to follow arcs of careers, and you try to grab somebody on the upswing; they've demonstrated certain creative and technical skills, and you try to collaboratively raise the bar."
Popp cites Jacques Rey of Propaganda-whose very first spot, a live action-animation Cheetos :30, is on the current Popp reel-and Breck Eisner (see stories on page 44) as perfect examples. In the case of Eisner's "Powersurge" :60 for Bud, which opens the reel, "I had a project that Mark Gross and Bill Cimino wrote, and I always liked the idea," says Popp. There's a citywide power failure, "you're on the edge of your seat wondering what's happening, and it's this old joke where the world is powered by a hamster on a wheel. Anheuser-Busch had shown interest, but it was in limbo. My sense was it was headed for the reject pile, but I felt it was a good spot for A-B; not controversial, entertaining, it had some style, it would do well for their media use. The way to sell the spot would be to put it in a much more front-room form before they even committed to it, with set sketches, so they'd see how the beer really integrates into this story. I'd seen Breck Eisner's student film, Recon, on a reel, I didn't even know who he was at the time, and I was immediately impressed with the piece's technical dexterity, it was really well-crafted. It reminded me of a feature-film style by a seasoned veteran. When I found out he was Michael Eisner's son, I assumed immediately that the film was funded by his father and he'd be an amazingly spoiled brat who had no interest in this project or commercials at all, this was just a marquee thing for Palomar Pictures. But he also could bring some marquee value to A-B, and I thought Palomar might be willing to do the work to develop this project, storyboard it and figure out how it would be done, and fully budget it at a really fair price so I'd have a complete package to present to A-B. They did all that, and I found out I was completely wrong about Breck and Recon, and we put a calendar together that started the project immediately. I was able to put something in front of August Busch so he knew exactly what he was buying. He could see the director's vision, and he said, 'Let's do it.' It was rated No. 5 on the Super Bowl. In my book, for a first-time spot, that's a real success."
In true producer fashion, Popp must be not only a generalist but a general. Yet, "steering and wielding an iron fist are different things," he notes. "Everybody has a different agenda. An agency team's desire is to get their spot produced. And they want Tarsem to do their donut commercial. The account management's goal is to produce the spot but to also make the client happy, which is much less of a concern to the creatives. The client's concern is to minimize risk and not spend money on something that has no value to them, something which is unairable for any of a myriad of reasons that take years to get a sense of. The director's concern is to further his incredibly lucrative career with work that stands apart from the crowd. I have to find a unique subset that makes everyone happy. It's a balancing act, and that's my main role. I'm part critic; you need a knowledge of the techniques of storytelling and an appreciation of pop culture; teams will look to you for advice on how to fine-tune something, and that advice can be a creative suggestion. But what I have the most respect for is the raw idea; there are a lot of shapers and critics, myself included, and a lot of people who can add value to an idea, but there are very few true original-idea people. There are a handful on the agency side and quite a few in the director's ranks."
Ultimately, it's about a client's confidence, and Popp has to earn it the old-fashioned way-with consistent results. "A lot of the spots I work on are big budget, and clients aren't going to sign up for those plans unless they know somebody is going to be able to fly the ship," he says. In the case of a staggeringly complex spot like the Clydesdales on the football field, A-B "believed we would deliver something at a level that was consistent with their expectations. August Busch IV knows contemporary film. He likes action/adventure features and he likes commercials with style. He knows my work, I know his taste. He loved the idea and he felt comfortable that we would assemble the right team to pull it off. It was a big risk. It's the kind of thing where if it doesn't work out you lose your credibility and the client's trust."
Jason Alexander parachuting live into the Super Bowl was another great success, because "people weren't sure whether it really happened or not," Popp continues. "That required some very clever planning. You've got to balance the magic and the real in a spot like this, and I think we made it work perfectly. It got tons of PR attention, it was rated No. 4 on the USA Today poll. We had a five-minute window at Joe Robbie Stadium on a Monday night when three stuntmen dressed like Jason parachuted in. The stands were partly empty and we had to fill them in digitally, then we had to match the Jason footage up with the stuntmen. In a sense it's as big a job as making a feature, and it's probably more expensive on a per-minute basis."
In a startling contrast with his independent film days, Popp isn't hampered by a severe cash crisis at DDB Needham-the Clydesdale football spot, for instance, cost over $2 million. "There was never enough money back when I was making the films," Popp sighs. "The feature won an award, but looking at it today I'd say it's flawed in many ways, in how it's directed, lit and cut.
"But its greatest strength is that it exists at all," he continues. "It's a triumph that an 86-minute student film could even be made. And that's what I still find challenging about commercials. Making 'em happen. Many people say yes to me, and when it's all over, they're glad they said yes. And that's the reward."-Terry Kattleman
Nobody needs to tell Jane McCann that the freewheeling '80s is ancient history. The veteran-and newly solo, having just departed her managing director's post at Johns & Gorman Films-executive producer says that when you look at the production business today, it all comes down to money.
"Production companies have become much more sophisticated in the area of business affairs," explains McCann, "because client budgets have gotten tighter and there is a greater responsibility to produce more for less money. The process has to be incredibly well planned ahead of time, because a job with padding doesn't exist anymore. As a result, producers spend much of their time acting as an accounting service."
In her more than 15 years as an exec producer in Los Angeles, including nearly a decade with Joe Pytka and four years at Propaganda Films, the fortysomething McCann -better known as Janie to her peers-also notes that producers have been called upon to creatively expand their duties. In part, this is due to the increased level of sophistication in making commercials.
"When I first started in this business, making commercials was relatively easy," she says. "With Joe, for example, a shoot meant simple camera moves with real people in real locations. In those days, props people did everything, including creating smoke and fire on the set, if that was needed. Plus, we had small crews, which meant when we were traveling we could all squeeze into a few trucks."
Not so today. The complicated logistics of shooting expensive, effects-laden commercials with highly specialized equipment that often needs to be shipped halfway around the world has turned the entire process into a tangled web of experts and technicians, and crews numbering as many as 50 people.
The producer's expanding role is also a by-product of a company's own needs to reinvent itself. When McCann was hired at Johns & Gorman two years ago, the company was in transition. Veteran commercial directors and longtime partners Jeff Gorman and Gary Johns had already established themselves as top-notch talents, but McCann says the pair wanted to diversify their interests and inject a bit more youthful personality into their business.
With president Sam Schapiro taking the more hands-on role in the directors' day to day production duties, she was put in charge of that reinvigoration, and she began by adding several new directors to the roster, including Rent Sidon, Brian Scott Weber, Chris Palmer and Clint Clemens. McCann also initiated a music video division, bringing in Polygram executive Jeannie Mattiussi. Mattiussi's directors include George Doherty and Ramaa Mosely, whose "If You Could Only See" has received heavy play on MTV. J&G has also expanded into new media, with an interactive division headed by Sylvia Kahn. It has so far produced Web sites and games for Sony Theaters, the Magic Johnson Theaters and Virtual Music, an electronic gaming company, in addition to creating J&G's own truly bizarre Crank Club site.
In all, McCann helped expand the company to more than 20 employees before she left last month over philosophical differences with the principals regarding further growth opportunities. McCann felt that the new directors deserved, and needed, their own identity, and wanted to create local satellite offices that were physically separate from the partners' Hollywood headquarters.
"Jeff and Gary have fabulous reputations," she says, "but directors need to feel like they're at their own company, and that was never going to happen with two directors' names already on the door." The fact that J&G is a director-owned rather than producer-owned company also inhibited McCann from attracting a certain caliber of "mainline" talent unwilling to work in the owners' shadows.
And while other production companies are also fast diversifying into areas like new media, the primary focus is still the next hot director in a market McCann notes is glutted with talent. And they are all trying to make money. At a time when the business has become more volume than percentage oriented-production companies have gotten used to markups of 28-30 percent rather than 35 percent-competition is fierce. "Today, there's a real dogfight for the best directors," McCann says. "The only way for production companies to distinguish themselves is to hire extraordinary talent."
And McCann knows a little something about talent. She began her producing career in the late '70s with director Rick Levine, whose Los Angeles office eventually became Levine-Pytka. She then joined Pytka when he opened his eponymous solo spinoff. McCann left once, to work at Jennie & Co. with Adrian Lyne, but came back in time for Pytka's three successive Palme d'Or awards-1985-'87-at Cannes; Pytka also won the Grand Prix in '85 and '86. After briefly running her own company, Flying Squirrel Films, McCann moved to Propaganda in 1990, which, like Pytka, had a megaclient list that included Nike and Pepsi. Propaganda went on to win Cannes' Palme d'Or in '92.
Awards aside, that's where the similarities end. In comparing her work experiences, McCann calls Pytka's company an "upscale boutique," while Propaganda was a "raucous company with a lot of attitude." At the time, it was also a music video-driven company in desperate need of credibility in the commericals production arena. And despite the fact that Propaganda's commercials business quadrupled during her tenure, and she was responsible for hiring the likes of David Fincher, McCann recalls being "scared to death there," in part because she had to adjust to the kinds of duties that come with a larger, more corporate culture, like writing business plans and making long-term budget projections.
McCann says that that her two years at J&G have left her rejuvenated rather than burnt out, but she adds that she has no immediate plans. One thing is for sure. McCann is no longer scared. "There aren't a lot of mysteries out there anymore," she says. "I do what I do now from a level of well-deserved confidence."