Can-do comedy for Cliff
The woman behind the desk seems almost too girlish for the executive office with the sweeping view of Manhattan's lower Hudson riverfront. But signs of a crisp efficiency soon become apparent: the rows of tapes, the production manuals, the wall charts. And when she starts talking, very assuredly, it's easy to see how Clair Grupp, Cliff Freeman's head of production, has quietly reshaped the department since moving here from Minneapolis two and a half years ago.
Grupp's body of work is impressive. She's the organizational force behind Traktor's recent campaign for Fox Sports, the ones where unexplained snippets of foreign sports (Russian face slapping, Mongolian tree catching) are shown with the straight-faced super "Sports news from the only region you care about. Yours." She's the logistical linchpin of global shoots for Northwestern Airlines, as well as the woman behind the complex song-and-dance routines produced for Miller Lite when she was at Fallon McElligott in the mid-'90s.
Before Grupp came to Cliff Freeman, recalls agency creative director Arthur Bijur, the company had slipped into a period of many rudderless months following the departure of production chief David Verhoef. "She had to plug a lot of leaks to get that department in shape," Bijur says. "That freed up a lot of other people's energies. She has her own creative ideas for shoots, from music choices to production companies, and has helped push the agency to a better and more diverse range of work."
Born and raised in Minneapolis, Grupp found herself pulled into the local advertising industry through friends she knew from high school. As a result, she complemented the usual teen preoccupations (playing bass in a local band, dating) by hanging out on sets with Fallon creative legend Pat Burnham. When the day finally came to head for college, she bowed out, opting instead to take a position in Hollywood with celebrity-director/photographer Jay Silverman, of Jay Silverman Productions.
"I guess I've been lucky since I got into the business," Grupp, 32, says humbly. Her start certainly wasn't bad. After one whole day as office manager, she was asked to fill an immediate opening as Silverman's production coordinator. Not even six months later, she became the veteran director's executive producer. At 21, Grupp was handling celebrities like Vanna White and Joe Montana, learning the importance of coddling not just the talent, but everyone on a set. The lessons took.
Silverman says he could see Grupp's drive from the moment she came into his office. "She had a clear understanding of what it takes to get a job done. She doesn't know the meaning of the word no. Clair enjoys, as a producer, the same quality of satisfaction a director gets from a job. She turned out to be valuable to my career by lending our joint productions a level of panache I've tried to keep ever since."
Deciding to move back to her hometown, Grupp shifted gears to produce still shoots for Craig Perman Productions, juggling clients like Jack Daniels, Harley-Davidson, Wrangler, and Time magazine. But after three years the spot world beckoned, so she took a producing job at Fallon McElligott just as the agency was starting to hit the big time. Campaigns Grupp worked on include outstanding ad work for Ameritech, Lee jeans, Holiday Inn, and Miller Lite. After a brief stint at Martin Williams in 1997 ("I wanted to try out their style for educational purposes," she explains. "The key to this business seems to be learning to work with different types of teams and creative approaches"), Grupp went back to Fallon, then moved on to Freeman in 1998.
The Midwestern work ethic is a considerable asset. "I guess I've always been a can-do sort," she says. "I look at the job at hand and enjoy getting it done." She may not be limiting herself to advertising either. "I have ideas for doing movies," Grupp confesses. "Something like Jarmusch's Dead Man." But that's hardly an indictment of a life centered around 30-second spots. Truthfully, she says, "I can bring that sort of [movie] work into what I do here." (Paul Smart)
Clair Grupp's Top 5 Recent Spots
1. Fox Sports, "Alan and Jerome" campaign, Cliff Freeman
Director: Tom Kuntz/Mike Maguire, Propaganda Films
2. Wrangler, "Whatever You Ride," Abbott Mead Vickers/BBDO/London
Director: Jonathan Glazer, Academy Films
3. Levi's, "Real People" campaign, Bartle Bogle Hegarty/London
Director: Douglas Avery, Blink Productions
4. Nike "Elephant," Wieden & Kennedy
Director: Dante Ariola, Propaganda Films
5. Discovery Channel, "Mosquito," "Meteor," "Chum," and "Lion," Publicis & Hal Riney/San Francisco. Director: Traktor
John Noble: broadcast pilot, with his dog Jesse
Creative advertising is in John Noble's blood. His father, John Noble Sr., worked at Doyle Dane Bernbach in the '60s and '70s, becoming well known in the industry for his landmark work on the VW Beetle account. "My dad would bring home storyboards and we'd discuss them at dinner," says Noble fils. As the director of broadcast production at The Martin Agency in Richmond, Va., Noble is actually something of a misfit in a family of creatives. Aside from his father, he has a brother at BBDO/South and another at Hill Holliday. Noble found his niche in the advertising world while spending his college summers as a PA, when he worked for some of the industry's hottest directors, including Henry Sandbank and Bob Giraldi. When he graduated from college, he worked at DDB Needham, McCann Erickson, and Gray Kirk VanSant. Five years ago, he got the fateful call from Martin, and he hasn't looked back.
Noble's role as producer is actually not so far from the family business after all; at The Martin Agency, producers are involved in the creative process from square one. "The creatives get us involved early in the script stages," says Noble, 38. "We're the people who say `This has got to translate to film - try this, try that, have you thought about this?' They respect us as film experts." Even the production companies that the agency works with can't help but notice Noble's contributions. "I look at him as another creative," testifies Steve Orent, a Hungry Man partner and executive producer who has worked with Noble on a number of campaigns, including the recent work for the American Association of Blood Banks and FMC pesticides.
In return for its faith in Noble's creative vision, Martin has received the not inconsiderable fruits of his labor, in the form of quality commercials for clients like Geico, 360 Communications/Alltel, Saab, and Ping golf equipment. Noble's reel attests to his ability to work with an impressive variety of styles and tones. Spots for Saab look sleek and polished; the recent FMC campaign is almost Fellini-esque; and spots for 360 Communications and Geico are complicated and fast, like mini action movies. In his heart of hearts, Noble thinks bigger is better. His favorite spot on his reel is a commercial for 360 Communications that involves a speedboat, a train, and several helicopters. "I love large production," he concedes.
Because The Martin Agency is, as Noble puts it, "geographically challenged" by its location in Virginia, it can be difficult to form relationships with big-city directors. As one solution, Noble invites directors to participate in an informal speaker series at the agency; so far, the agency has hosted Ridley Scott and Traktor, among others. "There's no job, so they come and they speak and there's no pressure," he explains. "Nine out of 10 times, the director gets a job from us down the line." Good chemistry with a director is something of a mandate for Noble. His only complaint about his job is the rare ill-tempered director. "More than anything, I hate dealing with a production company or director who is not a good fit for us." He is not impressed with "talented jerks" or the industry's inevitable "minefield of egos."
On the upside, Noble likes being in charge, and the perks aren't half bad. "I get the best hotel room whenever we go anywhere - and we go to dinner wherever I want because the creatives are too lazy to make the reservations," he quips.
But his work has gotten him more than a king-size bed and a filet mignon; in July 1999, he was promoted from producer to director of broadcast. Kerry Feuerman, Executive CD, made that decision, and hasn't regretted it for a minute. "John has formed a department around an enthusiastic belief that we can produce some of the greatest television in the country," Feuerman says. "He will squeeze more out of a dollar creatively simply because he grew up on it. He's been a huge breath of fresh air."
Taking risks is part of the process. Noble recently took a gamble on a new Hungry Man director, Stacy Wall, a former CD at Wieden & Kennedy who had no directing experience. The producer convinced the client, FMC, to OK the directing virgin for a series of spots for a pesticide named Capture (see Creativity, February, page 15). "It was a big job that took some selling," says Orent, Wall's new boss. "But I think when you take chances there's often a reward." In this case, the reward is a handful of beautiful, cinematic spots; the only drawback is that the campaign doesn't run nationally.
Noble compares his role in production to landing a plane. "Every flight is different," he says philosophically. "Every job is a challenge. The challenge isn't just to get it on time and on budget, but to make it fucking great." (Tess Wilkinson-Ryan)
John Noble's Top 5 Recent Spots
1. Guinness, "Surfer," Abbott Mead Vickers/BBDO
Director: Jonathan Glazer, Academy Films
2. Budweiser, "Whassup," DDB/Chicago
Director: Charles Stone III, C&C Storm Films
3. PBS, "Stay Curious," Fallon
Director: Errol Morris, @radical Media
4. Fox Sports, "Cliff Diver", "Clubbing," Cliff Freeman
5. VW, "Full Moon," Arnold Communications
Director: Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris, Dayton Faris Productions
Regina Ebel: BBDO's grounding force
Eye of the Hurricane
When Regina Ebel was a little girl, she dreamed of someday working as a nurse in the emergency room. "I always loved being around a lot of people," she recalls. "And I thought it would be great to work at night in a fast-paced environment."
Today, the 52-year-old Ebel may not be caring for ER patients, but she got part of her wish: as director of TV production at BBDO/New York, she's operating in frantic surroundings - and definitely working nights. Ebel has flourished in her hectic role. "Once I landed in an agency, I knew I was at home," she says. "I fell in love with the energy."
A Long Island native, Ebel grew up with a passion for the arts and a dream to work in Manhattan. She moved to the city and landed a job at Grey Advertising as a creative director's assistant. After joining BBDO in 1986, Ebel moved up the ranks and took over as the agency's production chief in 1998. Responsible for handpicking the best directors, editors and music houses for commercial shoots, she keeps a close eye on budgets and schedules, and an even closer eye on creative teams. Ebel likes to spend as much time as possible with creatives, so she can be prepared to execute - or shoot down - their ideas. "I do a lot of listening," says the producer. "I basically serve as their sounding board and reality check. When they come up with something that's impossible, I have to tell them they can't do it. But I try to give creative teams positive reinforcement, no matter how difficult the idea is to execute."
Currently, Ebel is recutting the Pepsi commercials she produced for Super Bowl XXXV. (She supervised a dozen spots for the agency's roster of big-game, big-name clients, which include Visa, Cingular Wireless and FedEx). Having overseen nearly 50 Super Bowl commercials in her career, Ebel is accustomed to the frenzied pre-kickoff schedule, which more often than not is triggered by the capricious whims of art directors and writers. This year's game was no different. "The creative teams were changing their ideas constantly, so we were working around the clock up until the game," she recalls. "It's definitely a love-hate relationship. After the game's over, you don't want to see them for a while."
One person who's seen quite a bit of Ebel is Michael Patti, senior ECD at BBDO and collaborator on the Pepsi commercials. "Regina's the eye of calm in the hurricane of insanity that is most commercial productions," says Patti, who's worked with the producer for 10 years. Ted Sann, BBDO's chief creative officer, sees the same calming influence. "Things have a way of building to a centrifugal force and flying out of control," he says. "Regina is the opposite force. As crazy as it gets, she keeps it all together."
According to Ebel, of all her Super Bowl commercials, the spot featuring Bob Dole proved to be the most popular. In it, the former senator lauds the youthful and invigorating effects of what appears to be something he has endorsed before - Viagra. Filmed in trademark pharmaceutical style, the commercial finally reveals Dole's "little blue helper" is not a pill, but a can of Pepsi.
That Ebel spearheaded the Dole spot is no surprise. Two of her most critically acclaimed commercials spotlight real people, not actors. The first, a 1990 HBO promo featuring Jane Goodall with lip-syncing chimps, was shot in Africa, Los Angeles, and Hawaii. "It was an unbelievable process pulling it all together," she says of both the logistics of global travel and the unusual task of getting Goodall's chimps to "talk" (the anthropologist insisted on working with her own monkeys). The legendary spot earned Ebel not just frequent flyer miles, but an Emmy Award - the first ever bestowed on a TV commercial. Ebel's other landmark spot, for DuPont, showcases Vietnam veteran Bill Denby, an amputee whose life changes when he receives a prosthetic limb. "When I finally tracked down Bill, I knew he was clearly the guy," she recalls. "I saw the rough cut and said: `This is so powerful.' You just don't get that every day in this job."
Such poignant commercials only come along every few years, but Ebel still appreciates the daily grind of producing. "I love the spontaneity," she says. "You always have to think on your feet and be prepared for new ideas." (Stephen Smith)
Regina Ebel's Top 5 Recent Spots
1. Gap, work from past two years, In-house
Director: Mike Mills, The Directors Bureau
2. Budget Rent-A-Car, "Propulsion," Cliff Freeman
Director: Dante Ariola, Propaganda/Satellite Films
3. Amazon.com, "Just A Few Days," FCB/San Francisco
Director: Joe Public, Headquarters
4. Fed Ex, "The Wizard of Oz," BBDO/New York
Director: Joe Pytka, Pytka
5. Mountain Dew, "Cheetah", "Mock Opera," BBDO/New York
Directors: Kinka Usher, House of Usher/Samuel Bayer, HSI
Amy Feenan: on the set of Seven, staring down her least likely sin
Judge Judy, With a Laugh
Amy Feenan is anal - and she knows it. "You have to be so organized and prepared in this job," she explains. "After all, if there's suddenly a problem with a production company, you better have an answer, and quick." So far, Feenan has come up with all the right answers. As senior producer at Arnold Worldwide in Boston, the 32-year-old has quickly made a name for herself. From unsettling public service announcements to stop-animation athletic shoe ads, her acclaimed commercials run the gamut in style and substance.
As an aspiring copywriter out of college, she started as a receptionist at Emerson Lane Fortuna Advertising. A year later, Arnold bought out the small shop, leaving her jobless. After bumming around for six months on Nantucket, and a stint as a gas station attendant, Feenan got a call from Arnold and returned to Boston, first as a traffic coordinator in 1992, and finally as producer three years later. Jumping at the chance to produce higher-profile accounts, she then joined Houston Herstek Favat Advertising in 1995. That agency was promptly gobbled up in 1998 by, well, Arnold.
Feenan got her first big break working on anti-smoking PSAs for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. "I was working with Tony Kaye and I heard how kooky he was," she recalls. Thanks in part to the renowned - and sometimes recalcitrant - director, Feenan collected not the heap of trouble she had feared, but actually snagged a few Lions and Clios.
The anti-tobacco spots paved the way for one of her current crowning achievements: the "Truth" anti-tobacco onslaught for the American Legacy Foundation. One of these sobering campaigns (a collaboration with Miami's Crispin Porter + Bogusky) is a six-spot series entitled "Bags Over America," with body bags in starring roles. "They were pretty crazy spots," says the producer. "But the parodies did a good job of answering the ultimate question: What if cigarette ads told the truth?" In the wake of her tobacco indictments, Feenan recently finished a documentary entitled I Can't Breathe. Sponsored by the MDPH, the 48-minute film tells the story of a smoker dying of emphysema. (The woman, Pam Laffin, died last year). "I'm proudest of that work," says Feenan, who has distributed a shorter version of the film to schools and is currently pushing to get it aired on network TV. "It really educates people, especially kids."
Is Feenan's successful anti-smoking crusade a reflection of a solemn personality? Not quite. "Maybe if I were operating on someone's brain, I'd take things more seriously," she says. "But we're creating ads. You have to laugh if you want to work in this business." Arnold creative director Jay Williams can attest to Feenan's lighter side: "One time, when a client was particularly difficult, Amy told us: `OK, from now on, when we discuss client requests, we have to sing them.' `Why?' we asked. `Because they don't sound so bad when you sing them' she replied, and then broke out in a perfect falsetto: `The client wants 500 versions!"'
Indeed, this is a woman who lists a Nickelodeon cartoon celebrity (Spongebob Squarepants) and a hard-ass courtroom referee (Judge Judy) as inspirational figures in her career. Given these disparate influences, it should come as no surprise that Feenan boasts a blend of buoyancy and diplomacy when dealing with creative teams. "It's fun working with so many creative minds," she says. "But you have to be flexible and know when to push and when to stop." For their part, creative teams question whether Feenan knows when to stop. They have just one rule for the loquacious producer: keep voice messages under 30 seconds. "Amy leaves really long-winded voicemails," grins CD Roger Baldacci. "When I listen to my voicemail and hear, `Hi, this is Amy,' I just delete it and go talk to her in person because it's faster." Baldacci calls Feenan "annoyingly detail-oriented," but says he wouldn't want it any other way. "Amy is very buttoned up but that's what you want in a producer. She solves problems before they start." (Stephen Smith)
Amy Feenan's Top 5 Recent Spots
1. Adidas' "Take What You Want," 180/Amsterdam
Director: Mike Mills, The Directors Bureau
2. Mercedes "Aaooga," Merkley Newman Harty/New York
Director: Victor Garcia, Morton Jankel Zander
3. Fox Sports, "Tornado", "Nascar," Cliff Freeman
Directors: Tom Kuntz/Mike Maguire, Propaganda Films/Ringan Ledwidge, Harry Nash ("Nascar")
4. Reebok "Defy", Berlin Cameron
Director: Brian Beletic/Josh Taft/Aaron Saidman/Ben Mor, Enda Hughes
5. Guinness "Surfer," Abbott Mead Vickers/BBDO
Director: Jonathan Glazer, Academy Films.