The Secret to Joe Pytka's Super Bowl Success Is Knowing When to Fight

Creative Needs Conflict, Says Advertising Hall of Famer

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Joe Pytka has directed over 80 Super Bowl commercials -- and nine that topped the USA Today ad meter -- but he thinks most Big-Game spots are "horrendous, overproduced, over-thought, grotesque."

The people who want to see their name in lights on Monday morning "think too hard, and they kind of want to do things that are stupid," he told me during an interview on the occasion of his induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame. "They're trying to be original, and sometimes you become stupid when you're original."

Joe Pytka
Joe Pytka

And everybody's at fault. "The clients are at fault because they approve the work. The agencies are at fault because they sell it to the clients. I was fortunate to work with people who understood the dynamics of the Super Bowl. First, Nike [and] Pepsi, and then Anheuser-Busch learned from Pepsi."

But Joe always had good -- if feisty -- relationships with the creative people during his shoots. "One of the things that was always great about my relationship with creative people was our … conflict. I've always equated a lot of what we did with a team sport, and when you're in the locker room things are going to go on, but nobody outside the locker room is going to know. I had horrendous fights with a lot of creative people about their work…not fights, but we would go toe-to-toe.

"Nowadays, there seems to be an order of when somebody brings you an idea they think it's perfect, and when you question any part of the idea they panic."

Why? I asked. "I'm not aware of the corporate mentality in advertising agencies now, but I do know that it's become commoditized. Before, it was entrepreneurial. Hal Riney fired Ernest Gallo. Ernest Gallo was driving him crazy. I can say this because they're both dead."

Hal Riney handled the Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler account for Gallo Wineries, most famously the spots featuring faux founders Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes. "What Hal was doing was taking every meeting he ever had with Ernest Gallo and putting it into the commercial…into the mouths of these two buffoons. I can't imagine that Ernest Gallo didn't understand that when he saw the commercials."

But then middle-management people at Gallo intervened and started telling Hal how to write the commercials, Joe told me. They wanted to show "young people frolicking on the beach." Finally, with Ernest saying "silly things about the script and the middle-management people pushing for change," Hal Riney resigned the account. "That wouldn't happen today," Joe contended.

Joe attended art school for a dozen years, but his father pushed him to get a degree in engineering. So Joe went to engineering school for a couple of years at the University of Pittsburgh "and it was the most evil thing ever."

Joe left school for a job at a film laboratory, and learned editing, animation and other related crafts, but he wanted to become a filmmaker.

Joe has worked with great ad writers like Phil Dusenberry and great stars like Michael Jackson and Madonna. Joe recalled that Madonna got very angry because she didn't have the director she wanted, and she told Joe: "I ain't dancing and I ain't singing." But Joe hired as choreographer Vince Paterson, who'd been one of the dancing fighters in Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video.

When Madonna saw the choreography of the background dancers, she wanted to meet Vince and she wound up dancing. She and Vince worked together for quite a while "and he taught her about her body and totally transformed her…actually switched her career around, and she became sexier, more aware of her body, more aware of the formality of dance."

Joe said the simplest commercial he ever did was Pepsi's "Security Camera" commercial, in which a Coke delivery guy gets caught on the security monitor trying to quietly grab a Pepsi but is foiled when cans come tumbling out of the cooler. "That was easy. I turned the camera on, turned the camera off. That was it."

The spot originally didn't have the cans falling, Joe said. When the Pepsi team came out to L.A. to shoot it, Joe told them the spot was "kind of a dog."

"So it was one of those fights we talked about. And I used to use the term 'bow-wow' with these guys, because it's shorthand and I don't have to say 'this sucks.' And we came up with the cans falling."
Joe says the ultimate commercial is when it's so stylish you don't have to put the product in it.

"But right now I don't see anything [like that]. Pepsi stuff has been hit or miss for the past few years. There goes that account. The beer stuff looks all the same. Car stuff is all the same. Insurance stuff?"
"That's as much as I care to say," he added. "Do you have another shovel?"

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