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Adidas "Unstoppable"
Three and a half years ago, Smuggler was merely an ambitious -- perhaps alcohol-induced -- idea conceived the day after Cannes in 2001. Brian Carmody, then head of sales at the shaky-fated Satellite, and Patrick Milling Smith, who had been line-producing for director Neil Harris in the U.K., were sitting in a French house music bar, where "I think Brian was squeezing the last bit out of his Satellite credit card," Milling Smith laughs. "We said 'we should set up a production company,' sort of laughed and got more drunk." Carmody had been entertaining the notion of opening his own shop for some time, but he still had hopes that Propaganda and Satellite would emerge anew. So the dogged Milling Smith incessantly hounded him in the months following. "I wouldn't leave until we took the conversation further," Milling Smith jokes. And they did -- into the wee hours over the phone, in Brooklyn diners, in planes flying over London. Finally, in March of 2002, months after Propaganda and Satellite finally closed their doors, Smuggler became a reality when co-executive producers Carmody and Milling Smith launched the company as a satellite of veteran production player Villains, also aligning their shop with international partner Stink with EP Daniel Bergman and his London-based talents.

"It was worth all the talking and thinking that went into things back then, about what we liked taste-wise, how we'd get on together," reflects the thirty-something Carmody in a curmudgeonly Irish brogue. "There are ingredients of setting up a really good company, a company you're really proud of and you're really into working for seven days a week. You need to have each other's back, you need to have taste, you need to have drive and motivation, and you certainly don't need baggage. You need to get a clean start and come in really sweet. I do believe with my heart and soul that nobody has hit the ground running faster than we have. Nothing has gone from zero to 60 so quickly. "

Skittles "Lumberjacks"
Smuggler indeed came on hard and fast, setting off with Ivan Zacharias' cinematic pair for Levi's and then turning out more unforgettables like Wrigley's "Dog Breath" from Happy, Brian Beletic's abstract extravaganza for Virgin Mobile, Zacharias' mini-Bollywood masterpiece for Absolut, and Stylewar's stylish humor for Ikea. In under two years the company established a reputation for its fresh and gutsy creative approach, so much so that in 2003 we dubbed it our "Breakout Bandit," or, as we put it, the "David the Goliaths should keep their eye on." One year later, although still a relatively small outfit, the shop has proven worthy of a place among the big boys. Its creative flame continued to burn brightly while it extended to a broader spread of agencies and tapped into bigger budget work. Not even three-years-old, it recently became fully independent from Villains and is set to move into its own spacious Hollywood turf early next year, and most important, spot for spot and director for director, its reel brims with excellent work on par with the other top contenders this year. Although the competition in 2004 was especially fierce (see below), thanks to its new level of maturity, proven production expertise, and most significantly, its enduring and idealistic commitment to innovative and original creative, we confidently crown Smuggler our 2004 production company of the year.

While Carmody has been known to turn up at parties in P.J.s or sailor outfits and his just shy of 30 British comrade is rumored to have curious connections that have him zipping off rooftops in helicopters or playing golf in the Caribbean with Sean Connery, the lads actually turn out to be stiff-collared professionals when it comes to running their company. "For a group of directors who are so wildly creative, the production company is so incredibly buttoned up and I think that's a rare combination," observes Jae Goodman, group creative director at Publicis & Hal Riney who worked with Smuggler on the recent Brian Beletic-directed Sprint "Business is Beautiful" anthem and also on Beletic's earlier Virgin Mobile campaign, via Leagas Delaney. "Usually, you've got the zany creative bunch and they somehow manage to pull it together, but these guys have the creative end of it, the directors are all amazing, and you know that no matter what happens -- the client kills the script, you get a new idea that's better -- Smuggler will find a way to pull it off."

Snickers "Paleontology"
"It's always easy to get people to notice you, but to get people to really respect you, that's what this year was all about," says Milling Smith. "One of our biggest goals was for our production to be so strong that people would come to us for that too." In 2004 the shop proved itself big-production-friendly on Sprint as well as Snickers via Stylewar, Bacardi from Happy as well as adidas' "Unstoppable," directed by Beletic. Meanwhile, the most dominant chromosome of Smuggler DNA remains its honest-to-goodness commitment to talent, bolstered by strategy, caution and selectivity -- a holdover from Carmody's days at Satellite. "We're never thinking about Happy directing for us for the next five years, so to speak," Carmody explains. "Happy should in the next three years start to have enough experience under their belts to be contending for the film they want to make. Our directors know we can't maintain a company around them for the next ten years. A strong manager is going to watch his directors' history and should be managing them so their careers are moving and they stay interested. You can't let somebody you believe in that much just fall asleep."

And from the looks of this year, they didn't. Brian Beletic remained in flavorful form with the infectious ESPN/NBA campaign, but reached a new career goalpost on bigger, cinematic filmmaking for Orbit, Sprint and most notably, adidas' "Unstoppable," for TBWA/Chiat/Day, a modern-day Gulliver's Travels-inspired tour de force that pits an ivory-outfitted mini militia against the Houston Rocket's Tracy McGrady. David Frankham, while remaining spot on comedically with new work for Fox Sports, turned up visual grace on spots for T-Mobile and the utterly charming "Ball" for adidas. Meanwhile, Happy brought their quirks to bear on large-scale work for Bacardi and Skittles, featuring the tree-gnawing lumberjacks and a gum chewer who "blows up" his own escape route. Other high points include Stylewar's visually finessed tales for Snickers and Mastercard, James Brown's Mitsubishi showdown, Neil Harris' Netflix distractions, and Renny Maslow's subdued silliness for Heineken and Cheerios. Ivan Zacharias also peeked out for some gorgeous doll-driven espionage, for Smirnoff, while Nacho Gayan sped us through BMW's "Robert Costa" spectacle.

Recently, the shop added to its roster Chris Smith of American Movie fame and formerly of Independent Media, as well as up and comer Jon Watts, who shows great promise with a reel full of stylishly odd spec work and a fresh video for Fat Boy Slim, after spending six months assisting director Beletic. "When Smuggler got started, one of the big platforms was to be a place for new talent to be grown," Beletic notes. "There are a couple directors here that are close to me and I spend time with, and we want to do even more of that. The support system here is so strong, even though it's a small collection of people. A lot of us have really grand, individual goals in life, but they're very similar so the unit feels like a unit. There's a philosophy of the quest for quality, logic-based decisions, staying focused, a hard work ethic, and the ability not to be persuaded by a lot of the exterior attractions that being in this business can have."

Mitsubishi "Freeway"
"There have been directors we've met over the course of the year, some who are doing very, very well, who I probably could make a lot of money with, but they're not right for us over time," Carmody explains. "It's about knowing the talent you can get on well with, what inspires you, what drives you, what's going to make you stay up until four o'clock in the morning and take a conference call with someone in Sweden. It can't be just work at that point. I'm a taste snob like that, a snob about who I want to be working with. He's the same," he says, nodding over to Milling Smith. " He's worse than me. He's an animal about that and he drives it and drives it."

And the shop continues to push forward creatively, with major brand campaign work from some of its talents to hit early next year, as well as an underwraps project with a game guru and one of Smuggler's agency partners. "It's been hard work," says Milling Smith. "But now it will be about maintaining, making sure people don't sell out and we don't take our eye off the ball and lose what makes the company special." Upping the ante, "Next year will be about no mistakes," Carmody adds. "And making what we have better, with each step we take."

TBS "Strange Fruit"
2004's recipient of the coveted Cannes Palm d'Or, Hungry Man remained in impeccable comedic form, with perhaps the best executed, most solidly entertaining body of work of all the other contenders. High marks go to its entire bench, with a generous handful of extra special moments from Jim Jenkins, who brilliantly stole the show with TBS's "Very Funny" branding campaign and Bryan Buckley, who continued his big name work on Orange and Amex, among others. Other highlights include Bennet Miller's zany Cingular "Inconsiderate Cell-Phone Man," as well as a series of hilarious spots via newcomer Brendan Gibbons.

Virgin Mobile "Snowflakes"
After topping the charts for two years in a row, MJZ remains a leading contender, which isn't hard to do if you're home to what could easily be the Iron Chefs of the commercials business.

Notable moments came from Rocky Morton, who turned out our campaign of the year, BK's "Subservient Chicken"; Kuntz and Maguire, who brought a cappella touches and Chrismahanukwanzakah to Virgin Mobile, and Craig Gillespie, who rocked on comedically with Wrigley's and Washington Mutual. MJZ recently added more weight with Phil Joanou, who moved from Villains and helped to mastermind U2's hyper-hyped impromptu roving concert in New York.

Sharp "The Pool"
We could have named our top production company in 2004, but we feared that that it would skew things in their favor for the next few years as we waited for everyone else to play catch up to their all-encompassing emsemble of offerings. While its traditional commercials were standout, the shop pretty much out-categorized itself with branded content efforts like American Express' Seinfeld/Superman webisodes, Sharp's "More to See," Mercury's "Meet the Lucky Ones" and BK's "Chicken Fight." Other highlights include its feature/documentary work like Jay Z's Fade to Black and Brotherhood, a new print division and an unprecedented achievement of earning Cooper-Hewitt's National Design Award.

(This article appears in the December 2004 issue of Creativity.)
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