Martins Zelcs and Bryan Stokely didn't realize what they were getting into when they took on the brief for "Evan," a high school love story turned horror tale for Sandy Hook Promise. The spot shocked the viewer into noticing the warning signs of gun violence—by showing how easy they are to miss.
"We thought it was going to be an anti-gun PSA, so we were excited about it. But when we got to the brief, it was more about awareness," said Stokely. "It was a challenge because we didn't think anybody would watch a spot saying, here are the signs, and then list them off."
But after considering the insight that real shootings occurred after people had clearly displayed specific signs, the pair landed on the winning idea of a tale with a twist.
Originally, they presented the client a vague script that was, oddly enough, comedic. "It was about a science project that the two kids mess up, but then we thought it might hit harder if there was a love story—about hope, and then hope removed," said Stokely.
To give the idea real impact, however, they needed to strike the right balance between making the signs present and yet easy to ignore. "That was the hardest part," said Zelcs. "How do we do that but still stay honest?"
They didn't want to cheat by using overt camera tricks or postproduction effects. That's where the talent of Smuggler director Henry-Alex Rubin and cinematographer Ken Seng ("Deadpool") came in. But they also made a number of tough decisions throughout. Consider a scene in which the gunman appeared on Instagram. "He's holding a gun, and during the edit, everyone was like, 'There's no way people are going to miss this. It's too obvious,' " Stokely said. Ultimately, they just went with it. "We felt the one we used for that particular shot was subtle, but clear enough that you could see it."
Before advertising, Stokely, 34, studied sociology and taught English in Japan. "I wanted to try something new and naively thought advertising," he said. "I reached out to some people and they suggested the best route would be a portfolio school." Latvia native Zelcs, 37, said he started out as a bit of a poser at a small ad firm. "They hired me as a designer but I didn't know how to design," he said. "Later on, they figured it out and fired me, but it was the first time I thought maybe I should do something creative." Both ended up at Miami Ad School in San Francisco and have been partners since.
"Evan" was a pro bono project, but the pair honed their chops on big brands. At BBDO, they also work on Twix, Bacardi and Foot Locker. At their previous agency, Droga5, their work included Newcastle's regional Super Bowl ad featuring 37 other brands and a campaign for the Motorola Moto 360 smartwatch.
For Motorola, the client wanted to tick off all the expected boxes for the luxury watch category, fancy product shots and all. The duo's campaign did that, but then took the piss out of it all with a dose of humanity. Beautiful models, artfully shot, flaunted the watches as a dramatic voiceover made bold statements about fine design and expert craftsmanship ... and ordering burritos and using Tinder. "We've been inundated with these unrealistic portrayals of people in Corvettes and yachts, and we thought that's so unrelatable," Stokely said. "So we just added some realism to that."
"It's easy to make shit out of cookies, but hard to make cookies out of shit," added Zelcs. "We're not afraid to take on things that don't look that sexy, that don't seem like a big spot. But if you really try, you can end up making that cookie."