Mike Mazza

By Ad Published on .

"I don't think I've done anything original in my career," claims Mike Mazza, the 44-year-creative director at Publicis & Hal Riney. He's joking, right? "No, I'm not," he insists. "I'm serious. Originality is in the realm of genius. I'm hardly that." For someone who's too modest to toot his own horn, the work speaks differently. Mazza heads up some of the most crafty creative out there as the CD on Sprint PCS, one of the biggest accounts left in the struggling San Francisco ad community, which runs at nearly a whopping $400 million. But figures aside, the campaign has endured and matured impressively on the creative front with Mazza at the helm. In its three years, broadcast for Sprint PCS has continued to highlight in increasingly entertaining and original ways, the product's core positioning of clarity, as well as its other features, like text messaging and talking voice mail. The Sprint Guy, as he's known (played by actor Brian Baker, who last year was voted People's Sexiest Pitchman), has become something of a cultural celebrity in his investigation of the warped universe where people's cellular problems are outrageously embodied in the form of odd characters, including the small-town folks whose speech is garbled with static; the fast-talking woman who zips around her house like the Flash because she's become accustomed to speeding things up to accommodate expensive long distance; and even the spicy Love Boat mainstay Charo, who randomly appears because someone mishears the word "tomorrow."

"It's always had a certain level of absurdity, so over time you always have to look for fresh ways to attack the same problem," explains Mazza of the difficulties in keeping the long-running campaign on course. "Originally, the campaign had a different type of humor. A lot of it was parody; a lot of it was underplayed, and with the exception of one or two spots, it wasn't all that broad. What we've done over time is broaden out the humor, and the more we've done that, the more people are talking about the spots."

Most recently, Mazza and crew broadened out with bizarreness in the way Sprint PCS addressed the Winter Olympics. The oddest but most brilliant execution featured a team of identically helmet-headed, neoprene-clad humanoids in strange scenarios - examining fruit or squatting in tandem in the snowy outdoors, all while a robotic voice stiltedly announces slacker-styled phrases like "Con-quer the moun-tain, dude." Baker is relegated to a cameo in the spot, which plays like an alien encounter, but it cleverly promotes the phone's talking voicemail feature. "We've always try to do something humorous, whether it's played down or broad," Mazza explains. "It involves the athletes, but we also wanted to keep it fairly light, because my thinking is the airwaves are cluttered with commercials that try to pull heartstrings and go to the emotional side."

Although he has written and art directed some of the work, Mazza hesitates again to take points for originality. He names copywriter Mark Sweeney as the originator of the Sprint Guy, and he also notes the crucial contributions from art directors Erin Alvo and John Emmert. Mazza's leadership, however, has undoubtedly been key to the campaign's success. "I do, in effect, what a city editor would do," he notes. "I'll help shape the scripts through production and make suggestions in the edit or on the shoot. I really work to keep this thing on track and maintain our focus. I also work on a strategic level and have a long-term creative vision for the client's business. "

Though he's spent most of his career in California, Mazza wasn't always a West Coast dude, although he does admit to some pretty out-there pastimes for a creative, like earning a stockbroker's license and competing in amateur boxing tourneys in his youth. The Wisconsin native got his degree in commercial art from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, and after brief stops at small shops in Phoenix and Hong Kong, he struck creative gold in Los Angeles. Appropriately enough, there he got heavily involved in cars as an AD on Nissan at Chiat/Day, and then as an ACD at Team One, where he helped to launch Lexus. He later moved north to Goodby Silverstein, where he worked on the award-winning "Unwritten Law of Driving" print campaign for the Isuzu Trooper.

Stellar creative on sheet metal helped Mazza, along with long-time partner Steve Silver, to land top creative seats at the San Francisco outpost of Saatchi & Saatchi. "The great thing about it was that the Delaney Report called it the worst agency in the country, so we had a great story to tell," he recalls. "You could only go up from there." The pair managed to bring the agency to relative health, drawing clients like Hewlett-Packard and CNET, but Mazza left after 18 months to become a CD at Riney in 1997, where he's also overseen work for Evergreen Funds and America West. On the latter, he led a Spinal Tap-esque campaign that followed a group of geezer rockers on tour, after they find renewed fame when a rapper samples one of their songs. At Riney, he also created one of the few things in his entire career that he finally admits he likes - a print ad for GM's EV1 electric car. "Print is sort of a personal thing for creative people. It's the kind of thing in which you can't hide behind production glitz. It has a certain honesty to it - either you hit or you don't."

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