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Aaron Duffy

Aaron Duffy is the Executive Creative Director and co-founder of boutique creative agency, SpecialGuest. In this inspirational chat, he shares the story of how a project he wasn’t excited about (and nearly turned down) propelled his career forward and landed him a coveted Super Bowl ad.

How to stay curious
How to stay curious

How to stay curious

Ep
173
Jan
26
With
Aaron Duffy
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Looks can be deceiving.

Aaron Duffy is the Executive Creative Director and co-founder of boutique creative agency, SpecialGuest. He also works as a director with acclaimed production company, 1st Ave Machine.

In this inspirational chat, Aaron shares the story of how a project he wasn’t excited about (and nearly turned down) propelled his career forward and landed him a coveted Super Bowl ad.

Searching for stories

In 2010, Aaron was given a unique creative brief. It was for Google. At the time, they had not advertised on television.

At first glance, Aaron didn’t think it was right for him. The ad was about a love story shown entirely through Google’s user interface for search. Not exactly visually stunning.

Aaron thought he’d graciously decline the job. The restrictive brief didn’t match his style and he thought it was kind of sappy. But after a few words of encouragement from his creative partners, Aaron decided to give it a shot.

Over a decade later, that television ad he nearly passed is a cultural phenomenon. It played during the Super Bowl and was inducted in the MOMA archive. You might recognize it.

This blessing in disguise changed the way Aaron thought about creative work. It helped him move past narrow-minded ways of making things. And for the rest of us, it is a wonderful reminder to always remain curious.

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Episode Transcript

Aaron:

If we always know each other's good intentions, I think we'd all benefit in a way. That doesn't always happen. We get very busy. We don't have time or patience for that, but I do think that all you're really doing by providing some new thinking and things like that is potentially opening the door. And then if they close the door, they close door, and you find another way of doing it, and try not to get too disappointed by that.

Chris:

Aaron, I'm really excited to talk to you because you and I, we have some shared DNA that we used to work in production and post-production, and then you migrated where I went into education. There's a story I want you to tell, because I read it and I'm like, "Yes, I need to hear this story." But before we do that, can you introduce yourself to our audience please?

Aaron:

Sure. I'm Aaron Duffy. I am the ECD and co-founder of SpecialGuest. SpecialGuest is a boutique creative agency with global reach. I'm also a director at a production company called 1stAveMachine. I think if there's any work that people listening might know, if I try and figure that out, it would be maybe way back doing directing Google's first TV commercial, which is called Parisian Love. It was a Super Bowl spot in 2010. We also did Google Chrome's first work in the US. So this was called Google Chrome speed test. We compared the speed of Google Chrome to the speed of a potato gun, things like that. And OK Go music video called Writings On the Wall. So if people know those things, that maybe gives people an idea of the kind of stuff I do.

Chris:

Wonderful. I want to go into your past, your education, how you got started. But I think a more interesting thing is to talk a little bit more of about Parisian Love. I think there's a story here that people need to hear about. And the question I have for you is, I know you get this a lot about how one develops personal style in their work, because we all want to get notice and we think that's the way to do it. And I'd love to hear your take on that.

Aaron:

Yeah. It's something that comes up a lot when I'm talking to students or people trying to get into the industry that style does come up a lot and for good reason, I think. You want to stand out somehow and that totally makes sense. I always feel that way too. But then I have some experiences that I've been through that also sort of keep that thinking in check a little bit and making sure that people don't dive into style too heavily and keep their minds open.
And that project is one of those experiences because when I was first getting started, this was very early in my directing career, I was getting boards in and opportunities that I felt were very much in my style. This was kind of like a crafty, sculptural getting your hands dirty and making stop motion and things like that, those kinds of projects. And I loved that. I felt like that was my style. Then this one opportunity came up and my instinct was to turn it down, because it was not in that style.
I like some other things I had already turned down, but my partners were just telling me this could be really good. It was a super small budget, but thought it would be worth trying to do anyway. So I did it just because people were encouraging me to do it and it was very kind of graphic driven. It was not that creative from my point of view at the time because it was just about using the Google search interface to tell a story and we didn't get to create much because they didn't want to change the interface at all.
So it really put us in this place of needing to figure out how to tell a story in this very confined way. We eventually finished it. It took about two months going back and forth on the story and we didn't have really a plan for it. We were working with Google Creative Labs in the very early days of... It might have been the first year or so of Google Creative Lab.
So the plan was just put on YouTube like make a thing, put on YouTube. That's what we did and I forgot about it. I wasn't even that into it because it felt sappy to me, to be honest. It was like a love story and it was just not a thing I was used to doing. So I just thought it would go out there and I wouldn't hear much about it. But a couple months later we found out that the founders of Google had seen it, that they really loved it. And then not long after that... Because we had made this video. It was only 52 seconds long and they're like, "You need to make it 60 seconds long because we want to put it on the Super Bowl." I was just sort of shocked because I didn't even like this video.
So we had to figure out how to add a little bit of story, extend it to 60 seconds, master the audio in ways that Super Bowl commercials really want to be. And it ended up making quite a big splash in an unexpected way that year because it was so quiet and Super Bowl commercials are so loud. I think all of that sort of... After that, it was inducted into the moments archive for The Art and Technique of the American Commercial, all these things that I didn't even know existed.
I realized that I could have... Really, I was basically going to turn this thing down, but today it's actually one of the more important pieces that I've done at least for the progression of my career. And even helping me get out of say like narrow-minded ways of making things and reminding myself that when you can collaborate with people and get a great brief or even a bad brief that you try and fix, you can make things that really resonate with people.
I think it's cited a lot in marketing business books, I notice every once in a while. If you look at the comments for it on YouTube, people say, "I'm here because of this book." I'm usually shocked by those things. But I try and remind students and things like that of those things because it's great to have a style, but it's also great to keep it a little loose on that too.

Chris:

Wow. So many things that have come up here. So a video that you thought wasn't a right fit for you because it wasn't the right.

Aaron:

Right.

Chris:

You wound up doing it because people had encouraged you to do it, otherwise your instinct might not have been to do it. And I have to think about this, because I've seen boards before where I'm not really feeling like this is right for me, and the budget isn't great. That's usually why I just walk out.

Aaron:

Yeah.

Chris:

Other than your friend saying, "You should do this," was there any other reason why you thought, "This might be a good thing for me to do?"

Aaron:

Yeah, to be fair at the time, and this sounds kind of crazy now, or hopefully people believe me when I say this, Google had not done a lot of advertising to that at that point back in 2009, 2010. A lot of the content that they put out was usually an engineer Google who had a new project that they were talking about. They get someone filmed then standing against one of the walls at Google and they say, "This is the project I've been working on." And they get it out that way.
There really wasn't the kind of advertising powerhouse that Google is today back then. So that was kind of a draw where I literally think I said at the time, "Does Google advertise?" when they first came to us with this video. And the truth was, they didn't have a plan for it.
There wasn't a media plan for this thing we were making. We just were putting it up on YouTube women and got noticed. But that was a draw because I am intrigued by doing new things for companies, things that they haven't done before. So that was another reason maybe I did decide to take it on. I guess you could say maybe the challenge of, "Can we tell a good story with something so restricted?"
But to be honest, it was sad not to get to craft something. I did pitch them like, "What if we filmed this happening on this screen of a laptop and the camera was going around as it's happening?" And they're like, "No, just use the interface." So I got lucky that people were patient with me when we were doing that.

Chris:

It's neat because quite literally, it is just a screen capture. I hate to say it like that, but it's a screen capture. And you get a peek into a person's mind as they're searching for how to impress a French girl. And then eventually, it ends up with getting a flight, or how to get a job in Paris or whatever. So it's a neat, very stripped down minimal thing.
I can see why your initial reservations were there because is that a portfolio piece for me? But then there's something very emotional that's happening in between the search queues. Right?

Aaron:

Yeah.

Chris:

I think that's the power of Google. You very definitely delivered on... I think art to me is when form and function find it's perfect mate where it needed to be the Google interface to tell the Google story in the very Google way. But just devoid of everything else and just removing everything that's not necessary, and that's what you have. It's this very pure expression.

Aaron:

Yeah. Probably something that's tossed around a lot over the last 10 years is humanizing tech, and that being a big endeavor because technology exponentially is more involved in our lives, but tech is quite cold until you try and apply a context for it or some kind of storytelling plan for it. And the Google interface may be more than most things even though it has some quirk to it is pretty dry.
So a couple of those things that you're mentioning that we learned on that project was the way it feels when you show someone typing something and mistyping, deleting and retyping. That became kind of a true or something that we could use. Or another thing was at the time Bing was first coming out right when we were trying to make this. That's how long ago this was. I don't know that Google was necessarily reacting to Bing exactly when they were making this.
But the Bing in commercial that was out at the time was poking at Google because the point that they were trying to make was Bing knows more what you want as a search engine, so you don't get sort of this noise in your search results the way you do other browsers. And Google, to their credit, they did a really smart thing where they leaned in to say that noise is good for you. That noise is good. The things you get back... So when you're looking up what truffles are, and you mistyped something, you learn about Trufo.
That's just the noise that you get back in the search as a benefit and it can almost be this, not a guide for your life, but just an expansion on the possibilities of your life, almost to the point of you meet someone that you weren't expecting to meet. It's very, very like big concept that ends up being there. But I think we're all used to that experience of rabbit holing, I guess, which is its own problem these days, if you listen to the New York Times Rabbit Hole series. So I don't know if people like that term anymore, but they're rabbit holes that you go down to learn different things.

Chris:

Yeah. I think if you're trying to be efficient, it's not a good thing, but if you're trying to learn to be curious about the world, it's a wonderful thing.

Aaron:

Yeah. So search ends up being that, like you're saying, that discover concept.

Chris:

Yeah. One of the things I miss the most about going to the local Tower Records or the Barnes & Noble bookstore is on way from point A to point B, I run into things I would never find that are outside of my normal preferences of what it is that I want to see or listen to. I'm an old school guy, because people are listening to this, what is a Tower Records or what is Barnes & Noble? And we're going that way.
So this digital equivalent of bumping into something that you weren't actually looking for can be an epiphany. It could be this really spark of joy that you have in your life. And in the telling of that story, it is expertly crafted. It's like, "Oh, but that's interesting. I misspelled this word, and did you mean that? No, but that's kind of interesting and I'll go down that rabbit hole."

Aaron:

Yeah, definitely.

Chris:

A couple of questions for you, and I want to get a little nerdy about the whole production director process. Oftentimes at least it's been, my experience with ad agencies is they have a script, there's an idea. They shop it around a couple different directors to get a treatment. This seems like it's client direct. Was it?

Aaron:

That's right. And because it was the early days of Google Creative Lab, which you might call... I'm sure there's plenty of other examples before them, but you might call this prototypical in-house creative team, or at least the one that a lot of companies would like to model themselves off of that are having in-house creative. It was direct. The team there knew our work and they wanted to work with us. We also happened at the time to be doing Google Chrome work through BBH.
I don't know if there was like a connection there where they saw us working with BBH or not, but tho those things were happening simultaneously. They came direct and we didn't think about it that much at the time to be totally honest. It was just boards coming in from somewhere or ideas coming from somewhere.
And now today, we sort of.... And this is the reason SpecialGuest was formed was because we realized if we really wanted to service clients better, we needed its own pipeline to do that, its own way of working that was different than a directly production pipeline that we had grown up with.
Yeah, I've been curious how that worked in the blind world as well because it's a more gray area world these days than it was when I first got in the industry. So we did realize a lot of brands are developing either their own in-house teams or marketing teams that do want to get to production a little quicker, you might say. It's not everyone and it's not even all of our clients on the SpecialGuest side. We do get into strat and creative development way before talking production with a lot of clients. But then there's some that they might have an idea already and want to get to production. But Google was really the beginning of that for us.

Chris:

Was it one of these projects where if you said, "Yes, you get the project or do you have to win the project and be awarded it?"

Aaron:

So that's a good question because in production, of course, we're very used to the triple bid and actually the triple bid in a lot of cases has become a requirement by procurement. So it's not even really that people even think it's the best way of doing things, it's just the established way of doing and a required way to do things. That kind of triple bid route doesn't exist exactly when brands are coming to SpecialGuest, but we do often pitch against other agencies for the work.
It's not in some cases were sort of an issue, but a lot of times we are pitching against other agencies. Te triple bid in the production world and as a director has its ups and downs, obviously, which we could talk about that a lot, but I miss it sometimes in our world, because what it allows us to do is create a creative contract with the client where if you don't like the idea that I have, or my response to your brief, then we just saved ourselves months of agony not liking each other's points of view on things.
And you had another route to go. You bid another director on it. You're good to go. No hard feelings on that. When the single bidding comes up and things like that, there isn't sort of like a way out, I do find that there can be... I miss that creative contract sometimes at the front end, but of course there's downsides too.

Chris:

There's a lot of downsides.

Aaron:

Yeah, there's a lot of downsides. For sure.

Chris:

Like having to fight for your meal every single time.

Aaron:

A hundred percent.

Chris:

It can be very painful.

Aaron:

Yeah.

Chris:

You're bringing a fresh perspective here because oftentimes we're like, "I'd rather just be like the one so I can work through the ideas and it can be done in a truly collaborative spirit versus I got to nail it or that's it. They're going to pick someone else." But there's also the other side because we do have those relationships back when I was making commercials where an agency would say, "It's your job. I just need you to make something so we can sell it through to the client. But we're not going anywhere else, it's just, we need this."
And then you're like, there's this immense amount of pressure like, "Oh my God, I have to nail this then because otherwise we're screwed, you're screwed. I don't want to embarrass you. This is not good for anybody." There's a few negatives. It's not a lot, but when reaching here, there's two negatives, right?

Aaron:

Yeah. I think that particular scenario and I've definitely felt that myself before as well, it does feel like it constrains your creativity, I think in some ways, because you have to nail it, you walk on eggshells a little bit more. So I think if the board flow isn't good, then you also have that problem. I know even when you're not single bid, if the board flow is not great and you don't know when the next board might come, it puts a ton of pressure, and I definitely hear that.
If the board flow is good, then I think it opens you up to what I think the agency is probably hoping for, which is that you'll take a chance on maybe an unexpected idea and that might be the thing that they love, or it might be the thing which has happened a bunch of times where they said you just totally disregarded something that we cared about. Why would you do that? And that happens too. So it's hard. There's a lot of guesswork. I didn't want to come on fighting for the triple bid, but I thought I'd bring up a couple of the upsides, but it is a lot of down sides.

Chris:

That'll be the title for the episode, why Aaron thinks all production should probably triple bid.

Aaron:

Yeah, I know.

Chris:

And then you get a lot of fan mail after that.

Aaron:

Oh, no. Yeah.

Chris:

So a couple of things there. Okay. So you're not quite sure the nature of the job whether or not it was just yours or you had to do a three way bid for it, but you did get the gig. I'm just curious about your pitch process. Is it like you wrote a treatment? Because you said you wanted to do these elaborate moves. At what point are they like, "You're the right guy, but that's not the right idea."

Aaron:

Yeah. So I actually, recently... Because it was 10 years since that spot came out, I was looking at some of the pitch work and the pitch process there was I did try and pitch them on one version of it were all the words on the interface sort of moved around into animating characters, that wild things that were just not asked for. I sent them those things as well as a straight edit that I created out of just screen capping the interface straight up and just knowing that was something they wanted.
So they kindly thanked me for the weird ideas and then focused on that test I had done. That I think is maybe part of the answer is testing. Prototyping was a really big part of that, prototyping things off the bat. Fortunately in that case, it wasn't hard to prototype. It's not like needing to go out and shoot things. You could just video screen cap, typing things and trying stuff, and edit it together. We don't always do this, but Jeremy Turner is a composer who I just met at the time and I've worked with a lot since then, but it was early days, I think of some commercial stuff for him too, and he did a demo in almost the first prototype I did, got some music on it that was just like really beautiful, and wasn't that far off from what ended up being the music, which I'd argue is maybe even more important than the visuals.
He just did a great job on that, and I think they might have fallen in love with that too. So I think that was, I would say, prototyping as a sort of way in, rather than trying to overwrite the concept or over pitch on it. What we were really able to do is just make a video like thing that they could share around, and that helped.

Chris:

Are you able to share the actual budget that you were given to do this thing? Because you said it was a low budget.

Aaron:

Yeah, it was pretty low. I probably won't remember exactly what it is and it did go up a little bit be when they came back for the extra work for the Super Bowl stuff. But I think at first it might have been somewhere between 40 and 60K, something like 50K or something. I know that that can be... Maybe people listening are like, "Hey, that's a big budget." I think, it's very in our world and the kind of work that we do and Blind does, that's not of good budget.

Chris:

No, it's not.

Aaron:

Yeah.

Chris:

This may not be the best PR podcast for you. People are going to walk away like, "Chris and Aaron are spoiled brats." Because these days people are doing a lot more for a lot less than that in the video world. Not in commercials specifically, but for everyone that's listening, oftentimes back when I was doing commercial work, I would say if it's under $100,000, I can't even look at it. How are we going to make this? It's impossible?" And you knowing the budget, I'm a little surprised that you even pitch some of these wild ideas with kite-flying all over the space. I can visualize that. I feel like I might have written that treatment myself. And then this other thing about the camera swooping around 360 and showing all this. In your mind, were you concerned of how the heck are you going to do that for 50K?

Aaron:

Yeah. I'd say that we, in the early days, especially, we did make that mistake every once in a while, but sometimes we're rewarded for making the mistake where I think the best case scenario, they see the idea and they decide it's worth spending more money on. It's a little bit of an upsell and that can go wrong where they get excited about and they think you're working within the budget, and it ends up not being the case.
I think, especially in working directly with brands, we need to be careful that because we're potentially working with folks that are differently than creatives on the agency side, are producers on the side. We're working with brands that may not be very production savvy, and we can get people over excited about something that they then realize that the rug has been pulled on them. We do have to be careful with that.
So there's downsides to doing that too, but this is one of the things that I think we really believe in and why we wanted to build a creative agency off of our experience in production is that when you know a lot about production and you know the ins and outs of it, and you can incorporate that in real time into your ideating, then you're making this big leap that I think is not made as often where if you have creatives working on an idea without knowing what is possible, or either hasn't been done or what is possible from a production point of view, you might actually restrict your own potential for what that could be.
Or you come up with an idea that's just completely impossible off the bat because you don't know. So we really try and weave our production thinking into that, and we know the corners we can cut. So maybe the animation style I was thinking for that at first would've been a little bit more expensive, but not a ton more or things like that, and we can find ways of getting new ideas through.
In the end, they chose something that was not production heavy at all. So maybe the budget makes sense there, but turns out to be way more valuable. And that might happen too. So it ends up being this really valuable thing for them. They still use that storytelling style today, even in the Super Bowl from a year ago or so. Same kind of UI storytelling, and the movie, Searching uses that. I don't know if you saw the movie, Searching, but that UI storytelling style was pretty new, I guess you could say at the time. Like I said, not mind blowing to me at the time, but ended up being like a style that is used a lot today.

Chris:

I feel like I'm making a meal out of this conversation because there's so many... Every time you say something, I want to ask you more questions. So I wonder when I'm going to get to the bottom of this whole thing, so there's so much that's going on here. Right? So a couple different things here. There is a sweet spot in knowing enough, knowing too much and knowing too little. Right? And you talked about that. I'm just nerding out with you. Just two guys talking shop at this moment because if you don't know what you're doing, you pitch all kinds of ideas and you have no idea what anything costs and you shoot yourself in the foot because you create expectations that no one can deliver on. Actually a lot of times you're showing that, "I don't know what I'm doing."
Right? Sometimes when you know too much, you automatically limit your thinking in these constraints. Sometimes you can get really creative and you know where you can stretch a dollar and where you can make something look like a lot more than what it really costs to make. So living in that sweet spot, it's not so easy to do.

Aaron:

Right.

Chris:

There's this idea too, you as a director, that you can bend reality. What I mean by that is it's 50,000 bucks, and usually this is really young, high energy creatives who look at it like, "50,000, who cares?" When you write this idea for 250, they're going to love it so much that they will find it. These are stories we tell ourselves and more often not we're sadly disappointed by it. And it seems that's what you got into like, "I have all these wild creative things." And our desire as creative beings is to write ideas that allow us to stretch our creativity, and then sometimes in doing that we lose our way, and we actually come up with things and ideas that we want to make that have nothing to do with what is good for the client.

Aaron:

You're right. In this particular scenario, the client had patience with me. And clients may not always have patience for that. I've had clients that don't have patience for that and maybe they're right not to, in some cases. But I think if we always know each other's good intentions, I think we'd all benefit in a way. That doesn't always happen. We get very busy. We don't have time or patience for that. But I do think that all you're really doing by providing some new thinking and things like that is potentially opening the door and a crack.
Then if they close the door, they close a door and you find another way of doing it and try not to get too disappointed by that. Definitely have had those scenarios and I agree with you that it's hard to figure out where to be in that balance of knowing too much, knowing too little, keeping your mind very open because you know so much about how to make something.
I remember one brief I got once as a director, they wanted to actually project something on the moon and I was just like, "No, you can't do that. I mean, we're going to end up comping it and what's interesting about that?" Things like that where it's like, "Okay, they didn't know you can't project something on the moon." That's like a very sort of like pie in the sky kind of thing, but I applaud them for trying something as well. So it's hard to know where the balance is. I agree with that.

Chris:

Right. Well, here's an argument back for why we need long-term relationships and not triple bidding on things, because you said when we understand each other's intentions, and intentions and giving people grace comes from having really strong relationships where I think Aaron is a good person. He's trying to come up with breakthrough creative to help us deliver the message. He's not just trying to sew his wild creative oats, right?
Then when the agency or the client pushes back, you're like, "Oh, they're actually trying to make this work internally as well. It's not, they're just putting their thumb or foot on the creative person's head and saying, "Do as I say," kind of thing. So I think strong relationships, clear community expectations usually helps with us understanding each other's intentions.

Aaron:

Definitely. And also perspective. I admit that having now been running a creative agency for over five years, I have so much more respect for when agencies would come to me with an idea, and I would crack it open a little bit. Really if they get upset at all, it's because they just spent nine months trying to sell this idea through to the client and it was hard. When you crack it a bit, they feel like you've found a linchpin that can make the whole thing fall down. And you don't realize it as the director. So when it comes to the stacking of collaboration and things like that, you introduce a lot of potential. You also introduce a lot of potential for knocking things over, I guess.
So people get protective for that reason. I definitely understand that today. I just think that having some patience, open-mindedness. You're right about longer term relationships would definitely help with that. We've been really lucky to have some clients that have gone from company to company coming back to us in that way. So it's long term relationships not just with a certain brand, but with people that have been going to different brands that know our way of working and like that.
It's tricky. At the end of the day, I think if we are getting to be very creative, even when we do get shut down sometimes, then it's still a good day that we got to like think really creatively. And I try to remind the team of that in the tough moments.

Chris:

Time for a quick break, but we'll be right back.

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Chris:

Welcome back to our conversation. I want to highlight this one thing about you creating a prototype in our world that the language we would use is probably like an animatic where you produce an edit, and luckily the idea was something that you can actually produce, not like a Star Wars battle scene where you can't really do that. But this was about telling the story through search queries and then cutting it together and putting a piece of music against it to find that the emotional core of it, and you were able to do that. So tell me a little bit about what is it about the prototype that you think is such an effective tool at communicating your vision or your idea?

Aaron:

I think there's two ways I would talk about it because you might have more perspective on this than I do. When I first got into directing and things like that, the tools for making things were changing pretty quickly. After effects was really changing a lot. 3D potential was changing a lot. I think what I'm told by older directors I've talked to that have been in it longer than me is they didn't prototype very much. They would write up their ideas and maybe storyboard a bit, but not prototype as much.
In what we were doing, we were quite small. We were pitching against SIOP a lot against much bigger places. We needed way to get a leg up, and we tried to use those tools to try and almost just help the client imagine more what it could be like, try and make something that was similar enough without scaring them potentially of what it would look like.
There would always be this debate of like, "Does this feel good enough that it won't scare them? Will they know that this is just a prototype and not the way the final thing would look?" Because we certainly can't do that over a weekend pitching. There's always that debate, but the tools were getting to a point that we could prototype, I think. I think that's even increased more and more these days like what you can do with a kid jumping on cinema 4D is just outrageous compared to when I first started.
You can really mock things up like very quite easily. I'm not saying that's always the best thing to do when pitching, but in a lot of cases, we would need to do that. Especially with some clients who might not be able to picture things super well, it becomes very, very useful. Then one other thing I would say is when we've worked with places like Google Creative Labs, for example, or worked with folks like pitching to Robert Wong or folks like that, I don't think there's really as much patience for this is what it might be like.
It's like this is what it will be like. And I think that there's a much bigger appetite for that if it's possible to show. And you're right, if it's recreating a Star Wars kind of scene, then you have to figure out where the, the prototyping makes the most sense. But when we can, I try and do it because we have better results that way, I think.

Chris:

I think at least in the traditional commercial production world, there's a lot of money being spent in the creation of the commercial media buy that's been paid for and a big launch of something that people have been planning for months and even a year ahead. So there's a lot writing on this in what you need to do. And this is the basic communication. If we just think about, "I have an idea, or I want to describe something to you, I could use words. Words are wonderful, but they can be abstract. I can be open to interpretation.
So I can do a drawing which makes it a little bit clearer, and I could do a really high fidelity drawing, which is to use all these powerful software to generate an image that feels like from a single frame, from the entire production, it's going to look just like that. And in your case, it made the most sense to actually just build the animation around these screen captures and tell a story that way.
Whatever it is, however, you want to articulate this vision, so you guys have a shared framework or a vision. It's like, "Yes, we see that and now we want to give it to you." Because it's hard for them to take it back once they award it to you and then they have to live with that. To your point earlier about this whole pitching phase, they have already made the decision. We're committed to your vision, what you're coming up with and we're going to have to back this because there's no getting out of this.

Aaron:

Right.

Chris:

So it's a big decision they're holding on.

Aaron:

Yeah.

Chris:

I'm just curious how much of the script was worked out or how much of it is just you saying, "It'd be nice if I typed in this," and it came up with that instead?

Aaron:

So Tristan Smith was what they call one of the five at Google Creative Labs. I believe he's still at Creative Labs today, creative director there. He was the writer, and I think it's even half... I could be wrong about this, but half autobiographical. He really wrote a lot of that. We may have tried different things in the middle parts because actually what's maybe not 100% clear to people viewing it, but is definitely I think happening in the back of the mind is that a lot of those little scenes in the middle are really talking about benefits, product benefits.
So for example, when the character flies to Paris the first time, I think it is, it does this really quick thing where you see typing in the flight number into the search bar. That wasn't a thing people were doing, but what it's actually doing there is showing you, you can get really quick information about your flight by typing in the flight number, and it will give you all the information you need.
So I think there's things that were being tried out in terms of what benefits could be talked about, what things we could cover, but really Tristan knew this story. The other thing is there were dozens of these search stories being developed out of there. This was just one of them. And to this day, I think there's still search stories going on, but this just happened to be the one that broke through. And that's why I say it's not even necessarily the style. I think it's this combination of that story, the way that we got these little humanistic things going on.
It was also the first one where we tried to start it with this really abstract closeup of the search bar with the cursor blinking. I remember there was a ton of debate on whether we should do this weird abstract thing at the beginning. And in the end, I'm glad that we did it because it really became the face of search on in a way. You can put anything in the search bar, but that wasn't really figured out when they first came to us.
I think what was fun just on that note is it was like applying film techniques to an interface. There's extreme closeups, mediums, wides. There's pans. That's was more my role, I think. Tristan did the writing and was trying to bring filmmaking to a digital interface.

Chris:

Yeah. This is wonderful because I can see now why this is cited in case studies and in different books and courses that people take because it is such a beautiful expression of idea, story, heart. It is essentially a love story, a boy meets girl kind of thing told research. So it has that novelty to it too. You feel like where's this going to go? With each query, you're like, "Oh, okay. Now chocolates, I get it." And they're going to just keep doing this thing. And then eventually it's like, "I'm going to book another flight back." When initially it was a study abroad kind of thing. Right?

Aaron:

Yep. That's right.

Chris:

Just a wonderful case study in writing and how you can create something that's a story that happens to be an ad that happens to point out the benefits of a product.

Aaron:

Yeah. I think also where the... We think about this a lot beyond Google too is how can the medium be the message in a way? How can you think outside of what are our normal storytelling tools? And to me, that's like the most important thing that we try and take away from when I talk to the team or things like that about what we can do next is, "Yeah, you can shoot something or you can animate something 2D motion graphics and stuff."
But what are we missing? Because yes, storytelling has been done in so many different ways, but not every discovered way. If we can find other ways to do it or use the brand's product to do it in that case, then we can really create something new and special even if when I made it, I disliked it, to be honest.

Chris:

Well, thanks for indulging me just geeking it out and just talking about this for 40 minutes or so. I have other questions to ask you, I promise. I do.

Aaron:

Cool.

Chris:

Let's pivot away from that for a second here. From our conversation earlier, you had mentioned you're a director for a production company called 1stAvenueMachine and you also are one of the co-founders, partners of SpecialGuest, which is a digital agency, right?

Aaron:

It's a creative agency.

Chris:

Creative agency, I'm sorry. Is a creative agency. I'm curious why there is this separation and why isn't it just everything, if you want to work with Aaron, you got to go through SpecialGuest? Why?

Aaron:

Yeah. It does happen that way, although as SpecialGuest we will collaborate with other creative agencies, but we're not hired by creative agencies, we're hired by brands and client, the actual companies as a creative agency in those cases. Of course we do collaborate with... Some of the brands we work with, have many, many creative agencies we work with and we will like plug in with them quite well.
But if I'm wanted to be directing something by a creative agency for their client, then I'm on the first dive roster for that. Actually, 2021 was the first year since I started directing that. I didn't direct anything because we were just so... I was so sort of caught up in the SpecialGuest world. But every year before that and since we started SpecialGuest, I would either direct a couple things or at least one thing that is a project I really believed in or really liked.
I would need to work with my SpecialGuest team to make sure that I didn't drop the ball on anything on the SpecialGuest side. But 2021 was just very busy, so I didn't get a chance to do that.

Chris:

Do you find it problematic or an issue at all for agencies who want to hire you who are like, "Wait a minute, Aaron also owns this other agency who's working with clients." Do they see conflict there or it's not even an issue for them?

Aaron:

I haven't felt that at all, and I hope not. I feel very comfortable jumping between those modes. I hope there aren't times when I bring my ECD brain to the directing space because that's not what they're looking for. I think I probably need to check myself on that sometimes. But no, it hasn't come up. And like I said earlier, the industry has just become much more of a gray area like that. I mean, we know that the agencies have developed their own in-house production companies. And even production teams within brands.
It's all over the place right now. It's a bit more of like a wild west. There's downsides to that too, but even when we were talking about the triple bid, some of these things do need to be broken down and changed and updated and stuff like that. I think trying other ways at it, I think makes sense. At the same time, I directed some work for Ford in 2020, and it was awesome to be back in the director's seat just doing something slightly more traditional in that regard. So I'm glad everything is still out there and on the table, having your cake and eat it too in some ways, but it hasn't come up as a problem.

Chris:

Good to hear.

Aaron:

Yeah.

Chris:

While we're on it, maybe this will serve as some kind of time capsule as to what's going on, but I'm curious how you as a director and also as part of a creative agency how the early parts of COVID had impacted your business, if at all? So in 2020, I think it was around February or March, somewhere right around there, there was a lockdown in a lot of agencies in production grinded to a halt. I have friends who are agency owners and they're like, "Whoa, okay. We have to get creative." I'm curious as to what you felt in 2020 and what it's like in 2021.

Aaron:

Yeah. That was obviously an interesting moment, a very sort of intense moment for everyone and we were not sure exactly how things would go. One thing that did happen for us is we had just spent pretty much all of 2019 doing Snapchat's first global consumer campaign in 12 countries around the world. As it also turned out, the style of that was a completely remote production. It was such a big campaign and the budget was such that in the very early stages, I'd worked with the amazing creative team at Snap on developing a way for us to make really all the assets that they needed around the world, but doing it as remote production and working with Snapchatters in each of those countries to capture things themselves, get us the content and create the hub for where all that stuff would land, and then generate the content out of that from a design and animation perspective once it got back to us.
This was, of course not that the whole world was about to go remote and remote production. But we had literally just finished making the case study for that work, and it became this perfect case study for showing brands how we could do this with them. We had been working with chewy.com just before the pandemic on developing a script that we were going to shoot in LA. And then when the pandemic happened, right in that moment like you said around February, March, we sent them this case study showed them how we were making things. And they're like, "Yeah, let's just switch this. Help us switch the script to how we can keep this going."
Because in the case of Chewy, their pet food and things like that just went nuts. They couldn't even fill all the orders that they needed, that people are just scrambling to get pet food. So we ended doing a bunch of work for them through 2020. So I think what I would chalk that up to, I think in that case is that we needed to be creative for snap at the time regardless of the coming pandemic obviously to figure out how do we make this differently than we would normally be planning to make it where we would normally send a video team around the world, shooting the Snapchatters doing their thing, and we just couldn't afford that. So we needed to find another way to do it. I think that creative way of thinking about how to make things, it helped us when the pay pandemic hit a lot because we needed to be creative in how to make things there as well.

Chris:

And as we seem to have these waves of like, okay, new variants are coming, have you fallen into a groove in 2021 and looking into the future, do you think, whatever happens, we know how to adapt, we're well positioned to deal with whatever comes?

Aaron:

I do. I do feel that way. I think the nice thing is that we are a pretty malleable company, both as a team and in the way that we make things. There's not a particular way that we do things. So that comes with some inefficiency, which we always need to reckon with, but it also comes with that ability to work around the things that come at us.
I feel pretty good about that. I mean, every team member wears multiple hats that they like to wear, hopefully in all cases. And so we can jump into different modes where we need to and we're not huge. We're not like a big place. We do expand a lot with freelancers and things like that when we need to on top of our staff teams. I think we're pretty prepared for what I agree will continue to be somewhat tumultuous.

Chris:

How big is the team right now at SpecialGuest?

Aaron:

It's eight people. It's just eight people. We've been bigger.

Chris:

Where are you based out of?

Aaron:

Brooklyn. A couple of our team members are in on the West Coast, but our team has always really been Brooklyn based. We have satellite offices in LA London and Buenos Aires, and we're starting one in Spain in the new year.

Chris:

So in the way you're structured, you're already all remote anyways, and you're just working wherever it makes sense to work. Right?

Aaron:

Totally. I mean, just like all things that there's ups and downs to the remote times, but we were already remote is a good way to put it.

Chris:

Okay. Now, I'd like to spend the few minutes I have left with you here to talk about the early days. I'm curious because you're a very well spoken person and it's hard to tell how old you're, but you don't look that old. I know you've been doing this for some time, but I'm curious just really quickly, if I can just knock out a few questions with you. What did you study in school?

Aaron:

I was an illustration major with what would've been a minor in sculpture if they let me have it. But I basically had those credits.

Chris:

So what drew you into directing?

Aaron:

To the chagrin maybe of my illustration teachers, I was always storyboarding more than illustrating. They helped me realize that and pushed me that direction. And then a director who had graduated from my program three years prior, her name was Lauren Hartstone, great director. She came back. At the time, she was working at Loyalkaspar. She was like, "Did you know, there's this industry?" And I was like, "No." Because I was thinking I was going to be an illustrator for the Times or something like that. I really didn't know-

Chris:

Like editorial?

Aaron:

Editorial, yeah. She showed me SIOP's website, brand new school. And most importantly, her friends... She was friends with Lifelong Friendship Society at the time. I don't know if you remember those guys that doesn't exist today. But I was so obsessed with them that I just emailed them almost every other day until I graduated until they let me come and meet them, and then they didn't need anyone, but they were like, "Our HTML website is a mess. Can you help organize that?"
So I came and helped them with that until I was there long enough that just interning that they let me stop motion direct this cookie spot that they needed, and that was one of the first things I did. It was learning about this thing that I had no idea was there, honestly, because it was not a big part of our schooling.

Chris:

Right. For context, what year is this that you finished school and you wind up being an intern with those guys?

Aaron:

That's 2006.

Chris:

Okay. So 2006, you're like motion direction, what? And then you get into it and you go all in. I love how tenacious you are that you find something that you like, and you kind of just... I hear this in the stories of very successful people. They don't know how to take no for an answer. They'll find a way. Right? And you found a way. So you're there. Is this your education into directing and animation and all the other stuff?

Aaron:

So kind of. I was learning stop motion animation and compositing at the time, was really what I was trying to teach myself, because we didn't learn that at school exactly. But I learned enough about Photoshop and things like that at school and in my program to jump into After Effects and shoot some of my own stuff. What happened from a directing point of view is I just happened to be lucky to meet this woman, Claire at a Super Bowl party.
I was crocheting a lot at the time. I got a little gig crochet patterns for a yarn company in New York at the time. She saw me crocheting at a Super Bowl party. She thought it'd be funny to talk to me. And I told her I do animation. She said, "I've been working at this company called 1stAveMachine. She was literally the first employee at 1stAve. And she said, "You should come and meet my boss, Serge." I met Serge and he looked at some of the little things I'd been creating and he said, "Do you want to direct?" And I said, "Sure."
I didn't know. I didn't really know that that was going to be a thing and he said, "Let's see if we can get some directing gigs for you, and we went from there." I mean, there is, like you said, the not taking no for an answer kind of thing. I think there is also just... Not that you have to be in New York for things to happen, but being in New York and meeting people and running into people and stuff like that definitely made... I'm not the best networker in the world, but it helped to be doing a creative thing like crocheting in a place that I wasn't supposed to. That's where it went from there.

Chris:

Your resume, your pedigree is just very diverse. Illustration, and you said sculpture, stop motion, animation, crocheting. It all makes sense now really, because you're just really a person who's curious about a lot of different things. I guess a way to bring this all together is that for you, it sounds to me like you're just open to things and being open is the thing that's open doors for you, right?

Aaron:

I'm glad you mentioned it because it comes up a lot in our work too, and as a team and stuff like that. And being open-minded is I think a huge part of the game and being creative in general. I know that there are more... There needs to be some structure and more rigid things in what we do and I try and always be very open to those too. But I think being a malleable company, being open-minded to ways of doing things, to me, that's a huge part of being creative in general, allowing ideas that don't belong together to mash up somehow creates new things.
There's a whole other route, I could go down talking about like I have an obsession with visual illusions and that's come up in my work a lot. To see a visual illusion... And the beautiful thing about visual illusions is that you know that there's two ways to look at it. I try and look at life that way too of these multiple perspectives and a whole other rabbit hole is how not open minded the world is, I think these days in general.
That's a whole other cultural thing to think about, but there's a lot of close-mindedness. So I'm lucky I get to be in like at least a job and industry, I think where it's our job to be open-minded.

Chris:

Is a visual illusion something where they create two or more images, and depending on how you look at it, you see one or the other?

Aaron:

Yeah, it can be. There's names for all these different kinds of illusions that I always forget, but there's either two ways to looking at it, or when you look at it right side up, it's different than when you look at it upside down, and that kind of thing where all you need to do is just move this way, and the whole thing is different. So I just think that a lot of things are like that. A brief can be like that.
A brief comes in and if you read it once and you only decide to look at it a certain way, you're actually missing a whole way that the brief could be interpreted. We really like try and apply that thinking and, and open-mindedness to what we do.

Chris:

Well said. When it comes to pitching, and it's a competitive space, whether you're working client direct or within an agency, what do you think is unique about the way you approach things that helps you to have a competitive edge?

Aaron:

I think I try and ask myself that question when the brief comes to me. If they know it's for me, I'm trying to figure out what... Especially for directing stuff, but what part of me are they looking for. That comes back to that style thing that we talked about at the beginning. Sometimes they're coming for how do I turn my product into a story like the Parisian Love thing? A lot of times they're coming with, "How can I be truly experimental with this?"
I have a whole stack of work that is very much about as little post-production as possible like capture the thing in camera as much as possible, and that's another side of me that people might be wanting an honesty to the what's in front of the camera, that reflects on the brand.
I need to sometimes figure out what that is, because if I choose the wrong thing, then it really doesn't go well like which part of me that they're really looking for a combination of things. So getting that right in the pitch if it's not clear at the front is important, and hopefully I get a chance to ask those questions to really make sure I get it right.

Chris:

So for the people who are still bent on having a strong personal style, what perspective do you have on that?

Aaron:

Don't lose that. Hone it. I definitely am not here to tell people to be generalists on everything. I just think that you can do that while being aware of the opportunities that are around you that don't look like opportunities at first. They might look like a waste of your time at first. Because another part of it, there's a quote that I... If I say it, I won't remember who to attribute it to, that style is a maneuver around what you can't do. You apply your style as a crutch sometimes in order to avoid something that you are less confident about.
So I'll apply my style to it because I know how to do that. And when the person who you're working with that might want to hire you is looking for another part of you that you might not be aware that you'd be great at. That can go wrong as well. I'm not saying it will always go right. But in my case, just from experience, there's an opportunity there to discover something else that you might be great at if you can collaborate with people enough to make it work.
Even if you're a little scared about whether you're good at that or not. I'd say just like, "Don't be too worried about whether you're good at it or not. Give it a chance and you may find out that you can do it."

Chris:

Well, I just did a quick Google search on this to see who it is, to see if I can recognize. There's a quote here from Larry Gilbert that says "Your style is formed by what you can't do." Is that who you're quoting?

Aaron:

That sounds right. Yeah, that sounds right. Was it-

Chris:

There's one with maneuvering too, by the way. But that one's not popping up as the predominant one.

Aaron:

Yeah. It came up in the case of... It was something like Raymond Carver's editor.

Chris:

It is Raymond Carver.

Aaron:

Something like that.

Chris:

Yes.

Aaron:

Oh, it's Raymond Carver? Oh, okay.

Chris:

Yeah, it is.

Aaron:

Yeah. That makes sense.

Chris:

Yes. So because the-

Aaron:

I can't remember where I heard it.

Chris:

... attribution of this was strange. Right? So it's on a blog somewhere where it says David Means during a discussion in the writing of Raymond Carver. So it's Raymond Carver. Your memory is excellent.

Aaron:

Got it. Yeah. It's something in that world, but it's just helpful to think about and hard. I won't say that's an easy thing to open your mind to when it just seems so wrong. But if you can give it a chance, you might as well try it.

Chris:

I think it's one of these weird things where if you have no style, no voice, no vision, and then you just fall into the masses, and if you have a really strong style and you are not open to doing any other thing, then you could be blinded by a lot of the opportunities as you've said that are presented to you. And it sometimes feels like that quote, where if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Aaron:

Totally.

Chris:

And sometimes that's you missing the point of what's in front of you.

Aaron:

Definitely. I agree having a perspective is huge and having... People want that from you if you're a creative person. That's why they're coming to you. So I definitely don't want to send people on the wrong path to losing a style. And I'll admit there's times when I do find myself working on something that I've opened myself to and just felt like, is it right for me or not still? But I'd rather be more open than not in a way rather than close those things off.
I mean, another amazing part of just being in this industry is we get to be... At least I feel we get to be in spaces that we have really no right being in. Getting to be in the room, pitching an idea to Evan Spiegel or to Whitney Wolfe Herd or even we work with this... We work with a semiconductor manufacturing company in Taiwan that no one, literally no one is allowed in their factories.
But we got to be in there to shoot things because they trust our creative POV on things. And just getting to be in there and wearing bunny suits and being in there and stuff like that is an amazing feeling we're invited into these... That's part of the idea of being called SpecialGuest is like we're a guest into these spaces that because we have this special skill, we get to be there when no one else really gets to be there.
So I do think some of that open-mindedness allows us in a little bit, whereas if we were too rigid, maybe we would only get to work on a certain kind of thing. I just really enjoy getting to see all these like crazy things. I pitched once to Michael Eisner, the former CEO of Disney and I was pitching these EDM like animated character things to him and just realizing I get to be in this room doing this is just really fun.
So if that's not like the thing that matters that much to you, then that's fine. But maybe it's worth sort of saying that. I think that's one of the most awesome things about getting to be a creative person is you're invited into all these places.

Chris:

What a lovely explanation to not take for granted and to have that perspective that it's a privileged position to be in and you want to be mindful and respectful of that. I love that. Aaron, I appreciate you spending this time with me and also just allowing me to compare notes, if you will, in terms of your creative process. It was really fun. You're very thoughtful and articulate person. Now I know the thinking behind that campaign. It all makes a lot of sense to me. Thank you.

Aaron:

That's cool. It's from a ways back, but when I was first getting started, I was definitely watching Blind, what Blind was doing. As a 1stAve team, we were always watching Blind and what Blind was doing for sure. So it's of course, super exciting to talk to you as well, Chris. Thank you.

Chris:

Wonderful. And for people who want to get a hold of you or to continue this conversation, where's the best place for them to go?

Aaron:

Yeah. I'm not ultra active in terms of posting on social, but I will definitely respond to DMs on Instagram. And my handle is @dufslam, D-U-F-S-L-A-M. So you can at me there for sure. Please do.

Chris:

Okay. Wonderful. Thank you very much.

Aaron:

Yeah. Thank you, Chris. I'm Aaron Duffy, and you're listening to The Futur.

Speaker 3:

Thanks for joining us this time. If you haven't already, subscribe to our show on your favorite podcasting app and get a new insightful episode from us every week. The Futur podcast is hosted by Chris Do and produced by me, Greg Gunn. Thank you to Anthony Barro for editing and mixing this episode and thank you to Adam Sandborne for our intro music.
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