Production Company of the Year: Smuggler

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At the final awards ceremony of the Cannes International Advertising Festival in June, attendees gazing through their opera glasses might have noticed a touch of red and a wet glimmer in the eyes of Smuggler co-founder and EP Brian Carmody, who stepped onto the stage to accept this year's Palme d'Or. Sure, that could have been from excessive partying the night before, and the night before that, but more likely, those were residual signs of the joyous tearfest he'd had earlier that day, when he'd called his partner/co-founder Patrick Milling Smith, half-choked, to inform him of the big news. "Yeah, he was crying," Milling Smith testifies, to Carmody's chagrin. But who wouldn't? The award is arguably advertising's most coveted production honor (next to this one). It's also a testament to the fact that the five- and-a-half-year-old company, once the renegade start-up, has grown up to become one of the industry's most solid, well-respected production outfits. But couple that with the fact that it still retains the sense of ambition, creative daring and youthful energy of its early years, and you have the killer combination that earns Smuggler the 2007 honor of Creativity's Production Company of the Year.

Smuggler's skill in executing bold, well-produced and creatively-driven spots has been a given from the get-go, as on initial outings from Ivan Zacharias for Levi's and on the Absolut short film Mulit. Subsequent years yielded Brian Beletic's non-stop moves for adidas and Happy's avant-garde interpretations for Sprite. Last year, Zacharias' spots for Nike and Vaseline and Chris Smith's for Cingular led the shop straight to the Palme d'Or. 2007 was no different. Randy Krallman, coming off his 2006 Cyber Grand Prix win for Ecko's "Still Free" out of Droga5, slipped back into his weird skin with one of our favorites, Starburst "Bus Station," and a campaign for Droga5 encouraging Steinlager beer drinkers to win the life of one of its brewery employees. Indie filmmaker Smith, whose latest feature The Pool earned a Special Jury Prize for Singularity of Vision at Sundance, shot more dropped calls for Cingular and brought celebs into mundane worlds for Geico. Fellow longform maven Henry-Alex Rubin of Murderball fame applied his documentary skills to another round of Schooled for Office Max and Versus spots for Taxi New York. Happy, absent for a chunk of the year on baby sabbatical (Guy Shelmerdine had a daughter) shot a manly man for Old Spice and vibrant new spots for Mini. Meanwhile, Stylewar brought more visual genius to Lexus' "Pop-Up Book," Filip Engstrom made a change for Levi's, while David Frankham stepped up his cinematic game on charming Citicard stories "Suit" and "Father and Son."

This is just a smattering of the shop's fine spot work—and a prologue to Smuggler's story. It's no news that the playing field has diversified, and any company hoping to be relevant in the future will need to be adept at negotiating the new terrain. Smuggler, like other leading shops, has been devoting a significant portion of its talent and time to testing out those waters and has positioned itself at the forefront of next-generation advertising and marketing. The Ecko viral is a landmark example, but in 2007 the shop got even more serious, partnering with CAA Marketing and again with Droga5, respectively on the "Let Them Post" effort for eBay, and on the ambitious youth culture meets home shopping venture, Honeyshed. CAA's "Let Them Post" initiative, launched to encourage eBay sellers to use video in their auctions, required the production of 120 shorts from real eBay sellers. "All great companies can handle complex production jobs and no one is going to let you down on the TV spot, the film or the music video no matter how difficult it appears in script form," says CAA's Jae Goodman. "But Smuggler is also really good at helping figure out the production details of the thing that hasn't been done before. 'Let Them Post' was, on the surface, actually quite simple. But once we got into the details the project became quite complex. For starters, we wanted to source the videos from real eBay sellers who were not professional directors but who were likely to do something interesting. This is where Smuggler as community versus Smuggler as company was really helpful." The shop ultimately enlisted a crew of amateur directors from its broader circle—gaffers, assistants, and even director Brian Beletic's mom—and created the films in just under three months. "We tested their patience, but we certainly didn't test their competence," says Goodman. "They handled everything seamlessly." So much so that the company has returned for the next iteration of the campaign, which launches early next year. This year Smuggler has also been hard at work with CAA on another major eBay push, this time a talent-centric effort involving a series of high end short films, including one directed by Randy Krallman that was recently accepted into Sundance.

And then, there's Honeyshed, the Smuggler/Droga5 partnership that brings the sales pitchiness of the Home Shopping Network online, outfitted in a hipper, sexier skin, thanks to a trio-plus of smokin' spokesgirls and the creative vision of director Brian Beletic. As a full-fledged e-commerce portal, it's new territory for both the agency and production company and "freaked both parties out," says Droga5 honcho David Droga. The venture has demanded an obscene level of entrepreneurialism and experimentation—and all the creative production savvy it takes to turn out an hour and a half of compelling programming on a daily basis. "Smuggler is a very successful production company—no question," says Droga. "They could rest on their laurels, but they're better than that. The best time to challenge yourself is when you're in a position of strength, and they're doing that."

The Smugglers believe that deep, trusting relationships with its agency partners have been crucial to the successful execution of both outstanding commercial work and tricky content projects like the above. "One thing we're really working harder and harder at is making those relationships better," says Carmody. "When you have that trust and the agency and the client know you're going to pull through for them, the result is a singular vision. It's not three separate parties working for three separate goals. It's working for the one goal." A goal that's gotten a lot more elusive. "That for me has been the biggest change this year," says Milling Smith. "There's no room for things not to be good. People have to be more specific to their audience, rather than make work for the advertising community. There's been a definite shift in how we value and judge ourselves. If something isn't really working, or really sparking some change in pop culture or being relevant or talked about, there's a small sense of it being a waste of time."

Smuggler would be nothing without its own culture, which promotes a family-like closeness among the staff—the kind of environment where directors can call each other up to ask about a camera angle—or give each other shit. "It's about directors wanting to see the new directors on the roster do well," says Milling Smith. "The minute they lose that, we're going to be just like any other company. That's why it's so important that you bring in the right people and make sure they're the right fit, all the way from the PA's to the directors. Personality is a very important thing here. Someone who works here needs to be respectful, talented and honest. They need to be energetic and open to working with people in order to grow."

Growth is another plotline of Smuggler's tale. When the company launched, "everyone was a bit green," Milling Smith admits. With a few exceptions like new chief operating officer Lisa Rich, a former EP at MJZ who adds production heft and "helps monitor us when we get a little bit daft," says Carmody—"everyone's been grown from the ground up." This year head of production Allison Kunzman moved up to executive producer. Former editor Renny Maslow busted out with a whole reel full of stellar comedy work for Diet Coke, Chevy and ESPN. Jon Watts and Ben Mor, who had both been assistants to Beletic, shot major spots for clients like Sprite, Verizon and Pepsi. And the EP/partners are just as eager to get traction for newcomers like Steve Ayson of The Sweet Shop, and hotshot editor Jun Diaz, the latter who recently shot work for Fathead and another of the upcoming short films for eBay. Randy Krallman's career trajectory has been as obvious as the spring in the Starburst Little Lad's step, but when he first arrived, "MTV was probably his calling card," Carmody observes. "But he worked very hard with us and we had so much faith in him that every time we went to do something, you knew you had the ingredients to make it work. We kind of came at things guns blazing, but to sum up this year, it's been about experience, mixed in with a talent group that has matured. We've all grown together and have come to that place where we can compete with anybody."

Watch Smuggler's 2007 highlights

Very Special Mentions
Again, we could have easily bestowed this year's honor on runner-up MJZ. The company delivered the lion's share of 2007's biggest and most striking spots from the spectrum of its superstar roster—Sony, Guinness, Xbox, more Skittles, with a few stellar online efforts like Dante Ariola's eerie executions for Sony PS3's "This is Living." But MJZ's consistently excellent commercial work is a given, so we're looking forward to seeing the shop stretch its production talents further on a broader scope of work. Special recognition also goes to last year's winner, which continued to deliver on more outstanding longform content like BBDO/N.Y.'s celebrity autofest Fast Cars and Superstars for Gillette and new episodes for The Gamekillers. The company's pilot for AMC's Mad Men also finally hit the airwaves, leading to one of the most compelling new series on TV. We'd also like to give props to Park Pictures. The home to expert storytellers and photographic mavens attracted our spotlight with more fine work from Lance Acord and new addition Joaquin Baca-Asay, who became an instant industry darling, shooting spots for Nike out of Wieden and TracFone for Droga5, among others. Another surprising outfit was Mekanism, which has carved out an innovative niche producing multiplatform campaigns while providing some of the great ideas behind them—as well as top class new media expertise. On the heels of its inventive "Clearification"campaign for Windows Vista, it brought multi-tiered touches to Snickers, Sega, and Axe. Last, but most certainly not least, the year in commercials would not have been as dazzling, or as uplifting without the work of Psyop, whose continued creations for Coca-Cola helped to bring feel-good back to the brand, and frankly, advertising in general. Congratulations to all.

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