Bridging the Gap

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Remember that "Fall into the Gap" jingle? Lisa Prisco fell into the Gap about 12 years ago and emerged a creative superstar. VP-creative director at the Gap's San Francisco-based in-house agency, she was responsible for all those stark, white celebrity and song-and-dance campaigns that had the collective impact of a string of Broadway hits. The Gap was Advertising Age's Marketer of the Year in 1998, and Prisco was named one of 1999's greatest media influencers by Brill's Content, along with the likes of Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey. Now, a year after leaving the Gap, she's signed to direct with A Band Apart in Los Angeles, and has her first commercial out, for American Eagle Outfitters.

So what's the story behind this success? This is apparently one of those patiently-working-your-way-spectacularly-to-the-top deals. Prisco grew up in New Jersey, simply says she's "ageless" when asked her age, didn't go to college and had no advertising, still photography or film background. Before joining the production department at the Gap when its in-house agency was starting up, she had her own business making rock `n' roll buttons and silk screen T-shirts and linens. "The Gap was my first foray into the official corporate world," says the soft-spoken Prisco. "I was a total puppy when I started there." She advanced to art director, was going gangbusters with print, but the Gap had no TV on the menu at that time. "After about eight years, I was wondering if I should stay, if they'd ever do TV," she recalls. "I waited a couple more years, kept on working with great photographers, then some seats changed at the top of the line and I was finally given the chance. We all made the decision to do it in-house. It was one of those naive times when everything is fun. We sat around going, `Wouldn't it be cool to do this, wouldn't it be cool to do that.' The good thing about the Gap is that it was very streamlined, there weren't a lot of layers; we just had to show it to a couple people to get it OK'd. In terms of creative control, it was ideal."

So Prisco took off with a musical celebrity campaign with Aerosmith, LL Cool J and others and never looked back. "My strategy was to make it entertainment based; everybody knows what the Gap is. It wasn't about hawking clothes, it's about what's good for the audience to watch, and how do you brand it. The white space took care of that." The vaunted white space is not an homage to Avedon or even earlier white-cyc campaigns, like the acclaimed Chiat/Day Yellow Pages work of the late `80s. Prisco says it was a collaborative idea with her marketing counterpart at the time, Michael McCadden. "It was inspired by the clean, white interiors of the stores. We needed something we could call our own, some sort of visual branding, and this was it - something big that was worthy of the Gap's pop culture status. So we're out there with well-known directors and a big media buy. Then came the dancing stuff."

The stunning production numbers were "just a logical entertainment step," she says. "You can buy a pair of khakis anywhere. Why buy them from the Gap? How do you get that loyalty and how do you support it, once you get it. So I'm up at 2 or 3 in the morning angsting about the next campaign, watching an old Fred Astaire movie called Daddy Longlegs, and I'm saying to myself, `God, that would be so cool if we had some dancing going on, some pure entertainment with really cool people.' And the thing is, I could do it. The Gap was still very instinct-based, not focus group-based, but the budgets were bigger. We became virtually iconic and penetrated people's psyches. It was a relief from all the other commercials on television. It seemed like a dream job."

So all that time was she thinking, I'm going to shoot one of these myself one day? "By the time we got to the singing spots, I was thinking I could direct, but being the CD at a big company, your time is spread pretty thin. There are so many things to organize, so many people to deal with, I just didn't think I could make it work." As for why she left, "It just came time to do something else, and I wanted to move to L.A.," she explains. "First I was thinking about developing TV shows, getting into pure entertainment, and I was just hanging around, enjoying the opportunity to just think a little bit, after 12 years of activity. I talked to a bunch of people about what I could do, and the directing thing kept coming up." How about getting an agency job or even starting an agency? "It crossed my mind, then instantly flew out of my mind," she laughs. "I don't consider myself an agency person. I tried to talk to people about that, because that's the world where I'm known, and I got the impression there'd be a prejudice about coming from an in-house agency - like you didn't do it the official way. And opening my own agency didn't feel truly creative - being in meetings all the time and deciding schedules and budgets, the endless group thing, didn't feel right. So I called Michael Bodnarchek at A Band Apart, and he said, `Let's try it, let's see what happens.' "

What happened was, along came a fashion client with no agency. "It was fantastically convenient; they were open to hearing ideas, which was a great transition for me. I didn't want to just be a shooter, more like a creative consultant." The result is a horizontal split-screen style, in this case featuring model types chilling in a big backyard peppered with vintage VW vans, to the tune of Imperial Teens' "Pig Latin." Assuming American Eagle has any more TV money, it's got visual signature written all over it. "No matter where you come in in the spot, you'll know it's American Eagle," says Prisco. "I feel I gave them something with a logic behind it. They're a young company, college-based, they're about friendship and Midwestern values. They can't look like everything else out there."

Despite her all-fashion career, Prisco isn't concerned about being pigeonholed. "I feel like I'm on my way, and I'm excited about it. I want to have a mixed-bag career of commercials, music videos - I'm up for one right now, and I think I'm very suited for that sort of thing, that's what shows your sensibility. I'm absolutely looking to do other kinds of spots, too. We're talking about a car commercial right now, and the reason they're interested in me is because they want something different."

For American Eagle, she worked with seasoned DP Ed Lachman, who's shot features like The Lords of Flatbush and The Virgin Suicides. "I learned a lot from Ed, but the storyboards were incredibly tight and all the preproduction was really together, so there were no surprises."

"I worked with her closely on the American Eagle job," says A Band Apart executive producer Eric Bonniot, "and her understanding behind the camera far surpassed my expectations. But the key thing is, she has the vision. She can probably do anything, but her best use should be on projects that require a creative or design direction."

"I'm not about film school," Prisco says. "I'm about the world of pop culture."

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