Seasons of Love: Ten Years in the Theater Biz

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Drew Hodges started in the theater world as a Renter, but these days the principal/CD at New York entertainment ad agency SpotCo, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month, owns quite a chunk of the Broadway advertising scene—ranging at least as far as Chicago. Hodges, 44, grew up in upstate New York and rarely went to the theater during his youth; when he was a design student at the School of Visual Arts in the early '80s, "I never imagined I'd end up with this specialty," he says. "I was much more geared to entertainment like records, movies and cable." When he graduated in '84, he joined Koppel & Scher, which wasn't designing for the theater, and when he went out on his own in '87 with a tiny studio called Spot Design, he was doing mainly cable TV work. It wasn't till 1995, when he was hired to do the album cover work for Rent, that things took a decidedly theatrical turn. David Geffen of Geffen Records was involved in the Rent project, "which eventually led to an offer to do everything," Hodges recalls.

Coincidentally, Koppel & Scher co-founder Paula Scher, who joined Pentagram in 1991, designed her vaunted identity for the Public Theater in 1996, at roughly the same time that Hodges was signing what turned out to be a long-term lease on the theatrical advertising business with Rent, which he followed shortly with the revival of Chicago. Both projects, he says, were more than a little innovative by the staid standards of the business, which up to that time "basically looked like the Phantom mask." His glamorous use of photography, the sexy supports of Rent and Chicago marketing—he hired rock shooter Amy Guip for the former and fashion shooter Max Vadukul for the latter—went well outside the traditional boundaries of theatrical advertising. "When we started with theater work, I felt a lot of Broadway elements were behind the times compared to other areas we were working in," Hodges recalls. Besides the general lack of contemporary branding and imagery, "people weren't doing multiple campaigns and they weren't freshening campaigns." In a parallel with the print situation, "they weren't hiring outside directors to do TV commercials. We started using music video directors to bring something different to it."

Though he initially handled only the creative and not the media for Rent, by 1997 Spot Design had become SpotCo and Hodges was staffing up, building a media-buying division and expanding the creative department, where he hires only designers, not ad agency creatives. Though he admits it may be partly a designer's prejudice, Hodges believes that "when you're selling entertainment you need people who can be as evocative as possible, in terms of color, form, everything. Designers, in addition to being wonderful communicators like many creatives, are more likely to get to that thing that isn't said but is only felt."

Today, with a staff of 52, SpotCo has thrived during a shakeout in the theatrical advertising world over the past decade that has reduced the major players from five to a mere two, the other being the venerable giant Serino Coyne, founded in 1977. Along the way, Hodges has become something of a player on Broadway, with a reach that can extend beyond a show's marketing. "We see scripts, rehearsals and early readings," he says. "We actually get asked for our opinion, which is still amazing to me. I used to be hesitant to give it, but they really want it." And if a show exudes the air of disaster early on, well, that's just the nature of the business. "You work with producers, ultimately, not shows. You can never really tell what will succeed anyway, and we're in it for the long haul."

Besides Rent and Chicago, which have become international institutions, SpotCo has its share of cash cow-style smashes, including Avenue Q and The Color Purple, though tourist-magnet monsters like Phantom, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Wicked belong to Serino. But Hodges seems comfortable playing Avis to Serino's Hertz. And anything can happen. "Most producers who have a hit with somebody stay with that somebody," he notes, but that's not always the case. "We're working with Mel Brooks on Young Frankenstein, but he did The Producers with Serino. I don't really know why he switched. We didn't pitch it." And despite the near sinking of The Pirate Queen—a SpotCo baby that at one time had franchise-making potential till it fell victim to a broadside of vicious reviews—the future is promising. In addition to the likely smash of Young Frankenstein (ad above), SpotCo's musical horizon includes Shrek and the hit London imports Dirty Dancing and Billy Elliot.

Along with this success is a certain sense of creative accomplishment. "We're sort of the Young Turks who brought the look and feel of other types of entertainment advertising into the theater," Hodges believes. "While we're not some small art house, I'd say innovation continues to be what we're about." As far as design tradition is concerned, "We're certainly aware of the theater posters of the past, but we're much more aware of the history of the theater poster in the broader sense of art history. We're much more interested, say, in Toulouse-Lautrec as a painter than as a poster designer. Our inspirations for theater posters are never theater posters. Painting, sculpture, photography, advertising . . . anything else."
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