So he made a few choices of his own. "I didn't start out with an interest to become a director," Harper explains. "I originally wanted to be a producer on better spots. My producer's reel is the best of the best that I worked on," he sadly notes. So why not simply go to a better agency? "If I were trying to get another job as an agency producer, I'd be starving," he insists. And he doesn't mean a producing job at a hot shop, he means any producing job. "As an agency producer, even when you technically have nothing to do with the creative content, you're judged entirely upon that. That's one of the reasons I'm taking the risk to become a director; I'm pretty certain I couldn't make a lateral move anywhere else. And I believed the work at Y&R wasn't going to get remarkably better."
Nor was there any chance of directing small, local/regional or pro bono cool boards that were floating around the agency's creative basement. Harper says there just weren't any. So he made some himself. "It was three years ago when I started pitching concepts internally to see if they'd be interested in throwing them into the mix when they were presenting," he recalls. Was anyone interested? "Yes. I was surprised. The Chicago office is actually a small agency, and there were a lot of instances at the lower level when people were quite receptive." But ultimately, nothing came of this. "If I wanted any control of my destiny, I needed to take a drastic step. The decision to make a spec reel came out of the fact that I'd worked up a couple of ideas for spots for a local client, Banner Personnel, that copywriter Conrad Winter and I had moonlighted for. I tried to sell the spots as spec pieces to some directors I knew, but I couldn't get any commitments. After a while it became clear that I needed to try directing these spots myself."
To make a long and, for Harper, a very expensive and nerve-racking story short, he now has an impressive five-spot spec reel, distinguished by its offbeat concepts. The most memorable is his Jim Beam mini war movie, which is just plain out there. In it, a pair of doughboys shoot each other in the foot in order to go to the medical tent, where, to compensate for a lack of morphine, they're dispensing Jim Beam. They each lose part of a leg, but small price to pay for a drink, as far as they're concerned. The kicker is a soldier who's been cut off at the waist, but he's sittin' pretty since they gave him his own bottle. His buddies toast him as he makes a complacent crack about having lost "three limbs." This outrageous conceit was originally pitched to Y&R, which does Beam TV in Europe, and you can bet it was rejected.
The other spots include two for the aforementioned Banner Personnel, which were intended to air and may yet do so if the client ever comes up with the money. One features a guy in a bear suit handing out flyers, who gets his ass kicked by competing handout men dressed as a hot dog and a ballerina; the other stars a wide-eyed, overly earnest temp rookie on his first day cleaning toilets. A spot announcing a sandal sale at Erewhon Outdoor, another local client and friend who may yet air the :30, takes us behind the scenes with a group of thieving weirdos who are responsible for all the lost socks in laundry rooms. One thief comes back shamefully empty-handed when he tries to steal from sandal-wearers. Another small-client spot, for Everything Wireless, shows us a group of execs working on the right combination of painfully annoying tones to indicate when a phone caller has misdialed - the point being that Nokia phones have a 100-number memory so you'll never have to dial again.
Not your typical spec client list, to say the least. "I'd always be disappointed when I saw a nakedly spec piece for a big, cool advertiser on a director's reel," Harper says. "I find it disingenuous to associate yourself with great work."
The clients on Harper's reel may be small, and their pockets relatively empty, but there's nothing cheap about the work itself. It is, in fact, artfully professional in every respect, and it could easily be construed as the work of a seasoned pro. Harper had the good fortune to hook up with A Band Apart in Los Angeles, which offered him the use of its offices and helped him assemble a production team. Later, after executive producer Dan Bryant and director Jim Manera at The Joneses were psyched by Harper's first three spots, they got involved and contributed to the production costs. But Harper's initial foray, including one spot that didn't make the reel, came out of his pocket. "I sold my summer house in Wisconsin and maxed-out a ton of credit cards," he says soberly. "It's a tremendous gamble. Trying to start out, you can't count on the generosity of friends. You have to commit 100 percent to yourself. But I was an agency producer. Our job is to be resourceful and solve problems."
The man clearly solved a few. "It may be said that the creative on my reel is mediocre," Harper adds with excessive modesty, "but I think the production values are really very good. I come from a background where production values are highly respected." Harper, in fact, has advertising deep in his marrow. The Chicago native was an English major at Duke University, but advertising is nothing less than a tradition in his family; his grandfather, father and uncle were all in the business. "Not that I was expected to go into it too; it's more a matter of being immersed in it my whole life, so it just seemed kind of inevitable. My family was all on the account side - hardly great muses of creativity. But they gave me a certain enthusiasm for this form of communication and the disciplines of this industry. I never considered commercials a frivolous novelty. I was around people who considered them an interesting intellectual craft."
But not in any Gen-X/Y flavor of the month fashion. "I'm the farthest thing from `cool' that you could ask for," Harper insists. "I'm not edgy. I don't like the idea of edginess. I don't like to have to make my film look or feel funny. I have a conservative approach to humor. The scripts may sound edgy, but I try very hard not to be trendy."
Harper joined The Joneses in the summer, but he's still based in Chicago. Will he be moving to California? "I'm not sure, but it's likely," he says. He had yet to land his first Joneses job at press time, but the actors' strike ended with perfect timing, from his perspective. "Right now, I'm prepared to be patient. I realize it takes time for people to view me as an option. I'm not looking for any particular kind of client. I just happen to like an offbeat perspective on a sales message."