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David Zander
David Zander
It's impossible to reflect on 2005's brightest moments in creativity without turning our heads, several times, to MJZ. Surpassing its many fine production competitors, the company's reel was unyieldingly stellar, overflowing with spot after showstopping spot from the entire roster. Fredrik Bond brought boldness to adidas and nuance to Smirnoff's multi-ending "Love," recent recruit Rupert Sanders unleashed a monster of a spot for Xbox while Dante Ariola imparted haunting elegance to Heineken, Levi's and Barclays. The elusive Spike Jonze made consistent headlines with "Hello Tomorrow" and the Gap's demolition makeover, and the newly solo Tom Kuntz, Rocky Morton and Craig Gillespie set down comedic milestones, the latter taking home this year's commercials Emmy for his hilarious direction on Ameriquest's "Surprise Dinner." Meanwhile, newcomer Nicolai Fuglsig bloomed on ambitious efforts for Fox Sports, adidas and Sony's hypnotic two-and-a-half minute bouncy ball escapade. Bold, entertaining, at times unsettling but always well-executed, these collectively magnificent moves, among others, helped MJZ earn the Palme D'or at Cannes in June. Since then, it continued at creative full speed throughout the rest of 2005, zooming straight toward its third title as Creativity's Production Company of the Year. While the directors made the gorgeous creative look easy, business-wise this was the toughest year ever, says co-founder and President David Zander, who here discusses with Creativity the challenges of staying on top.

Creativity So, what was 2005 like for you?

David Zander Creatively it was a really good year. But I think financially, much of the work was challenged. This was the hardest year we've had in five years. There was less work, more competition, less money. We'd have to really push the work. In some cases they were very good ideas and they were worth it. So it was about balancing art and commerce. I can honestly say, it's been a brutal year. Like "Whoa, that was a tough one, I can't wait for that one to be over."

C What was the competition like?

DZ It was brutal. There are great companies and great directors out there. As smart as our directors can be, and as smart as we can be there to support them and find ways of making the job better, so too is our competition. So either you get lucky and you connect, or you don't.

C In regards to great creative, were these opportunities better than usual this year? It's not often you see Spike come out for a job, but he made a handful of big appearances this year.

DZ I think we're a little luckier this year. We were getting the right jobs. The guys nailed them in execution, but it can so easily go the other way, can't it? Some guys had a lucky year, in other cases, some of the guys had a hard time getting the jobs they wanted to do. I think probably we had better luck this year with getting more creative jobs. But last year I found to be overall easier to live through day by day—emotionally, economically, creatively—in every way.

C You say luck plays such a big part in your success, but what's the other part?

DZ I think it has a lot to do obviously with how you work—hopefully you work as smart as you possibly can, and hopefully the director you're in partnership with is working as hard and as intelligently and creatively as they can to get the job. It's all the moving parts.

C Let's talk about your business model and how you grow your company. I'm sure you've heard all the things people have said about you, that you like to buy directors instead of grow talent. How would you respond to that?

"We've chosen really talented people, and when you do that, the result is going to be good work."
DZ The fact of the matter is, it isn't true. Nicolai [Fuglsig] is a really good example of someone who has flourished since he's arrived with us. He's incredible, smart, talented, but I think we were able to get him the work that allowed him to shine. I think originally, when we started with Craig [Gillespie], that was true with him. He happens to be endlessly talented and he's been nominated two years in a row by the DGA as a result of our collaboration. Maybe we got really lucky, but we certainly didn't buy him. I'm hoping everyone is developing in a positive way. That's my job. I think the genius is in the choice. We've chosen really talented people, and when you do that, the result is going to be good work. They could have gone anywhere and done just as well. But what did happen is that they did join us, they did do well. That's just a fact. How much of their success can we actually take responsibility for? I'm not really sure.

C You say things are only getting harder. Meanwhile, the industry tides show it's not going to get any easier. We recently did a young directors issue and spoke to all sorts of new talent who know how to do innovative work without the big bucks on their computers. Do you have any plans to adjust your business according to such changes?

DZ There are certain ideas that inherently allow you to work that way. There are other ideas that cannot be accomplished for no money. If it's two people in a room, and the idea is based on an intimate exchange of dialog, I think yes, there will be varying degrees of what that costs, but if it's a megaproduction with a really smart idea, I don't care who you are, if it's not done correctly it will look like crap. And nobody's going to be happy if it's done incorrectly. I think that it's fair to say oh yeah, we can really work and be flexible, but all of us can be. But it starts with the idea, there's no way around it. If the idea is big and the budget is small, they've got you painted into a corner.

C With your huge pool of A-level talent, how hard is it to keep everyone happy?

DZ It's difficult. I think there are jobs that unfortunately you do that are underfunded but they're really good ideas, and there are jobs funded properly but those are even few and far between. There was a time you could go, wow it's a big job let's do it for the money. Those days of big jobs for gobs of money in my opinion are over. I think the client just beats you to a bloody pulp and takes your number down lower than it should be every time.

C So how do you keep afloat?

DZ I think you try to balance things as best you can and hope by the end of the year you're OK. I don't think it's easy. That's the white elephant in the room. I'd like to call a hundred company owners and ask them the same question because I'm trying to figure it out. It's not easy to do that.

C So what are your plans for next year?

DZ To get in there, roll up my sleeves and do it again and hope that it feels easier. This year was hard, really, no bullshit. Brutal. But onward and upward.

The Contenders David Zander wasn't kidding when he said the competition was brutal in '05. Although the runners up all faced the same compromised flow of creative jobs and restricted budgets, they managed to close 2005 with standout reels. Last year's top shop, Smuggler matured out of production company puberty while maintaining its brand equity as a shop focused on daring, creative work. Happy and Brian Beletic, who once could have been considered potential flavor-of-the-moment directors, proved themselves to be full-bodied talents on work for Gatorade, Brawny, Orbit and Coke. Meanwhile, newcomers like Stylewar dodged the proverbial pigeonhole on spots for Nike and Nextel., while it continues to outpace the rest of the industry on the multi-media front, reasserted its commercials powerhouse potential. Highlights include Dave Meyers' breakout spots for PSP and ESPN, Tarsem's top notch performances on Nike and Pepsi, funny fishiness from Steve Miller for ESPN, and stellar spots from newcomers Daniel Askill, Sebastian Strasser and Jeff Labbe. HSI was a frontrunner as well, producing some of 2005's most memorable moments: BK's "Fantasy Ranch" a la David La Chapelle as well as Nike "Be" and BK's "Coq Roq" from Paul Hunter. Anonymous delivered on a subtle to spectacular range of productions, like David Fincher's Heineken and Motorola exploits, Frank Budgen's in-camera antics for Xbox (co-produced with Gorgeous), and Malcolm Venville's quiet Nike ID charmers. Meanwhile, small shop Biscuit proved a robust competitor to the big boys, with consistent stunners from Noam Murro, Tim Godsall and the wild brains from Reginald Pike.
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