Advertising & Entertainment
The FORCE of Creative Director X
It’s a very dark and strange time to be a career creative, especially if you’re in a transient state waiting for that other half of season 5. It’s even more so agonizing that Bryan Cranston won a SAG award for an incomplete season not unlike winning a Clio for a Super Bowl ad that’s essentially a teaser designating it to be ‘an ad for an ad’. And in that state of interminable waiting you’re prompted to meditate to channel that creative ‘force’ to have every creative idea in your head gestate into something that can get you by in this period of limbo.
But then all of a sudden the chimera-fusion of creative thinking has been interrupted gets a party foul from a prancing unicorn with lollipops and balloon animals in the shape of humans. Your brain of open, libertine thought has just been bought by Disney. And you’re tormented by the thought of having your precious cache of creative thoughts be stripped down to something of a G-rating. PG if you’re lucky.
Does it really make a difference? Your brain probably just constructed a large summation of some second-hand information, very much like those idiots that say things like, “I hated Captain America. It didn’t follow the comics at all!” Yeah, no shit dumb-shit. It’s really hard to compress decades of mythology into a two-hour feature. But seriously, I myself hate that Captain America movie. Not to defer to my film-snob behavior but I just don’t trust Joe Johnston because half of his things are shittily made unless – JUMANJI! No? Nothing? I thought saying something like that would end his career.
I digress. What was I getting to? Switching over to Disney, right. Does it really matter? I’m sure the last 5 Disney flicks you’ve seen were probably amazing and they were more or less developed by Pixar (which also happened to be bought by Disney). And there are some movies that slip past the G-rating like John Carter and the quadrilogy (?) for Pirates of the Caribbean. Hell, even Tom Hanks’s Big was PG and it had F-words and boobies! Yeah things change with the passing of time and conservative-America gets more stringent and lays the smack down for the children because apparently they’re the only ones who will think for the children. Hence why we don’t have things like this or things like that. Hell, if any of you were old enough back when classic trilogy of Star Wars had a re-release back in 1997 to “advertise” the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999, you’d see that they were all PG despite minor vulgarities, hand-chopping, killing of the elderly, small demonstrations of incest, deaths of thousands because it is themed around wars and stuff. Even George Lucas wanted Revenge of the Sith to be brought down to a PG from a PG-13 because it was extremely important for all the younglings out there to see a guy killing his wife and later getting dismembered.
If I were acquainted with George, I would introduce him to Joe Johnston and have them sent off on a drop-ship to a desert planet so they would be left incapable of making another shit movie. And the truth that many people don’t know but should know is that despite making Star Wars, every film made since was pure bullshit. In actuality, he didn’t even make Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi. Don’t believe me? Just watch (as in go on Wikipedia or something). I’m sure it’s in fine hands with Disney. and I’m sure I share the sentiment with most others out there that Disney will surpass the quality of Lucas and his later career. Ahem… Red Tails.
And again, I digress. What was I getting to? Advertising, right. That’s why I brought up Star Wars because I came into Deutsch to QA a creative director for the “episode II” of my op-ed and these are the guys that did work for VW by bringing Star Wars into the mix. So for sure I wanted to ask about all that jazz and get to know the creative pursuit of Xavier Teo, who went to art school to pursue his fine art passion as well as how it opened him up to advertising. Sounds like somebody that I used to know. Anyways, watch me poke and prod this guy’s brain.
What city is this? Marina Del Rey?
Xavier Teo: Yeah, Marina Del Rey.
And you’re a creative director in… digital?
XT: Integrated creative director.
And that signs off on the digital oversight of your ad agency?
XT: It’s more of a hybrid role that bridges both traditional and digital.
Sprechen Sie Deutsch?
XT: (laughs) No.
Well what kind of Deutsch guy are you? I thought that was a house requirement to be a part of the agency. To go along with that, why are you guys called Deutsch?
XT: Well it was a company that was started by Donny Deutsch. So I’m sure it doesn’t really have anything to do with Deutschebank or anything like that. He isn’t even German, ironically. Donny was the founder of the agency and along with our CEO, Mike Sheldon, they started Deutsch together.
Is Deutsch strictly local to Los Angeles or do you guys have offshoots and other locations around the globe?
XT: We have two of them. One in New York and one here in LA.
You’re a creative director right now but where did you study? How did you start out? Where did you come from? Did you start out in art-direction? Copywriting?
XT: I didn’t really come out of an ad-school. I came from an art school and I started designing on my own. And in the late 90’s I got really stuck studying things happening on the internet. So I started out freelancing for companies by making banners for them. There was a lot of designing of portal sites, big sites for telecom companies like Nokia and designing the CD-ROM supplements that come with stuff in your mailbox. You know, stuff back in the 90s. And before I knew it, that’s how I got into advertising. In short, I started off as an interactive designer and slowly moved into making campaigns for clients. Been like that for ten years and it gets me to look back. I was born, raised, educated and began working in Singapore. I moved here about four years ago.
Singapore? That’s where you started off your ad pursuits?
How hard was it for someone from Singapore to finagle their way into getting a working visa for the States?
XT: The visa wasn’t that tough but I lucked out because my entire mission was wanting to move to America and getting out of Singapore. I’ve lived there for 30 years. I’ve traveled a lot but I haven’t ever lived in another country. And one day I thought, “Why not try something new?” So I moved. I’m glad advertising is one of those careers that gives you the opportunity to move around the world, meet interesting people – those are the perks of being in this industry. It brought me over to Boston. If people like your work, they’ll hire you.
Not too big on Boston, I’m guessing?
XT: Don’t get me wrong, I like Boston but I just don’t like the cold because I’m from Singapore.
XT: Yeah, tropical weather. Everyday was nice enough to play basketball but when you move to Boston, you’d have to adapt to the lifestyle. I like the passion the city has around sports. I’m a big basketball fan. Not necessarily a big Celtics fan but I enjoy going to their games to see the passion they have.
If you said otherwise, that you enjoyed the Celtics, I think coming here from Boston was the wrong move.
XT: (laughs) I’m not a Laker fan either.
XT: But Boston has its charm, it has its spirit. I like that city.
Same! I went back there in November for the first time. Court Crandall told me his father was an ECD at a place in Boston. Just curious, which agency did you go to?
XT: I worked for an independent agency called Modernista. I guess you could say it’s a small agency compared to Deutsch.
Yeah, you guys got a big office. It’s gorgeous, too. In regards to Los Angeles, I’m assuming most of the ad shops are in the beachy areas.
XT: Yeah, I guess so.
What else is around here?
XT: I think Chiat is around. Media Arts Lab, the guys that do stuff for Apple. Chiat is one of the more famous agencies. Owned by Lee Clow. And he basically did a campaign for Apple, Visa, Pepsi…
Apple? That “1984” ad?
XT: Yeah yeah yeah! He was a partner there so he and the agency grew along with Apple. Which is super cool in my point of view, to grow with a company and see to their entire success and playing a big part in it. It’s just around the corner.
To go along with Apple, that one “1984” ad drew their concept from the 1984 film. Is that right?
XT: I’m not sure where the concept came from but it’s a great ad. I think it’s more of the positioning that they set Apple to “Think Different”. To define something that sets such a high bar for a company, I think it’s pretty awesome.
That just gets me to think, what’s to say Lee Clow didn’t cannibalize his concept that was taken from a preexisting film property rather than coming up with an original concept? Regardless, it was big but what viewpoint can be taken from people in the industry? Ad creatives. Would they say something like that would be considered copying?
XT: I don’t think it’s copying per se. In advertising, a lot of times what we’re trying to do is to align ourselves with culture in one way or another. Sometimes people would see it as copying or purely just borrowing culture. But I guess to a certain extent it comes out to thinking ‘what is the idea?’ If it serves its purpose in getting a message across that would appeal to the audience, I don’t think it’s straight up copying. Because we’re in the industry we see things differently so we’re able to present what you want to talk about in the simplest way possible.
Yeah, it’d be like, “Hey it’s like that one movie I just saw last week.” They wouldn’t be very vocal about it but they would be expressive to how their interests align with how it played out.
XT: Yeah, exactly.
So you told me you went to art school but was your concentration in graphic design? Painting? Sculpting?
XT: I took a year of painting and sculpting. I took a six-month… let me think about it; it was a long time ago. I didn’t complete the entire course but those six months were about multimedia and design. I didn’t really enjoy those as much as the painting and sculpting.
But that’s what got you to transition into advertising? The art school?
XT: In a weird way. I didn’t really finish the course but it was fun. I met a lot of cool people. Most of the time during that point it was more about ‘what you’re willing to learn from the internet. Nobody knew what the internet was during that time, there was so much happening. Even today, the culture of learning everything online still happens.
Absolutely and it was going to bring me to ask since you’ve been creating ads for the past ten years; your tenure in the business is almost if not equivalent to how long the internet has been around on the consumer level. It seems to me that you have to be keeping your eyes peeled for that new medium for communication. Fill me in on the digital spectrum of things. Advertising has transitioned so far in so little time at this age very sporadically from just print and television. What typically is defined as ‘digital’ besides an online presence?
XT: I think it’s getting harder and harder to discern what’s traditional and what isn’t, for example like what you said about the whole consumer onset of the internet, it evolves so much. At the same time, if you’re a digital creative that has been through that transition your career changes so much. You’d start out designing portal sites and CD-ROMs and then you get into mobile. Then you get into the social media frame and there are people who are specifically dedicated to specialize in that area. The landscape is forever changing but there’s something nice about it because although these are platforms for a story to unfold, it becomes more focused so the best idea stands out regardless whether it’s an app, a TV commercial, things thrown up on Youtube, making a play on PSY from Korea – we are in this space where we’re competing with so many things. We’re not talking about just advertising, we’re talking everything. We’re talking about Old Spice versus Harry Potter because when you’re online it doesn’t matter if it’s an ad or a piece of content, whatever catches your attention, catches your attention. We’re in the space where the best idea wins as cliché as it sounds; we are in that zone right now.
Right. As an interactive/digital creative director, you’re technically captain wading through uncharted territory with the ongoing development of new technology and software. You’d really have to have a trained sense of keeping a look out on what could be applied to an ad piece. Tell me about your search for new.
XT: That’s an interesting question, most of the time it doesn’t start off like that. A lot of times when people think about digital they always think about the new thing or the newest thing. But for me it always starts with what we want to achieve from the client’s perspective, you know? It’s all about solving a business problem for me and when it comes down to it, it’s all about strategy. If the client has a very specific business problem maybe the best way to solve it would be in mobile. Maybe the best way to solve it would be a piece of film on TV. I love good TV, I love a good script, I love a good song – who doesn’t? I don’t think you always need to look at the media first, you always look at what the problem is and figure out the solution from there. And then everything falls into place because once you have an idea about the problem; people will come to you for the solution.
Sensible enough. Back to when we were talking about art school. I once had this artist friend who went to art school to pick up studio art and he supplemented it with this personality of being really defiant and apt to subvert conventional ways of thinking especially when it comes to commercialism. And back when I thought to myself, “Hey, I want to be a copywriter maybe you could be my art director. We think of things on a creative level that are very articulate and specific.” And he says to me, “I don’t believe in advertising because I don’t believe that I should convince people to buy things that they don’t really need.” Which is a notion I see as antithetical to how lives because sort of comes off as a branded person himself. He loves TOMS, he’s an Apple fanatic and he buys Moleskine because they look cool but essentially they do the same thing as any other piece of paper would. If he were really dedicated in defying a scene, he’d be naked and without anything in his possession but he’d still be adhering to a nudist subculture. So what would you say if you met a guy who didn’t really apply critical thought to comprehend that advertising is embedded into our lives to forward things? And you yourself, you started out as an artist but was there any conflict in working your way to get into the industry if you were working on your own art?
XT: No, I really don’t see things in such a deep way. I see things in a very simple way. I’d say there are good things about advertising! We’re not trying to sell people anything, really. It’s like a first date, you try to present yourself in the best way possible when you meet a girl for the first time.
I totally get you.
XT: (laughs) I suppose it’s like our job. We present the product in the best way possible in the client’s interests. There are a lot of times when people tell me that advertising is misleading. Which exists, but I guess the advertising that isn’t so much on the dark side tells the most interesting story to make people interested in the product. You know?
Xt: We’re not trying to sell people anything. Like what you said about Moleskine. The way that it’s designed, the way that the paper feels and the way it’s cut – it attracts you in a certain way, right? It gives you a reason to get it for yourself. I’m digressing, what was your question about being an artist?
Was it a deterrent or a hindrance of what you originally wanted to be? Did you want to be a painter or a sculptor?
XT: Actually, yes. I did. I did it for a while but I did a lot of design projects on my own and then I began freelancing for ad-agencies. At a really young stage of my career I thought to myself ‘this is love’ and ‘this is just for making money’ but then I grew over it. Why can’t I fuse the two together? I can still make the things that I love and stuff that I make for clients. But that’s the challenge. Helping people solve a problem with your creative intuition. I’ve met a lot of people in advertising who are great artists that stopped for a while to work on their art and then came back to advertising. It’s an interesting industry, you’d meet a lot of interesting people but it all depends on how you look at it. I don’t think that things should be black or white. There’s an art in advertising. It’s probably a big pill to swallow but when you think about it, there are commercial scripts that are so well written, they’re art to a certain extent. Brand stories inspire me sometimes and when I leave the office, I’m just a normal guy on the street and I don’t think about things the way I scrutinize every single idea like I do in the office. Like everyone else, I watch TV and I absorb whatever comes to me.
That’s the contrast I find between what I’m finding out and where that guy’s head is because I suppose it’d be very polar opposite wanting to be a ‘capitalist pig’ or be ‘some guy that gets the message out there’ in a visually and textually palatable way for everyone else.
XT: That’s a very tough life to lead if you keep thinking about things like that. It is for me.
I was trying to tell him, “ You know, you could do advertising and work on your art on your downtime or whatever.” But from speaking with Court Crandall, there’s hardly any downtime, you’re always at the office, right?
XT: Yeah but advertising is not always about selling things to people. There’s a lot of pro-bono marketing that really helps pass certain laws. Politicians use advertising tactics all the time and their ads are geared essentially around the essential good. The longer that you’re in this industry, there are so many things you can put to use that you learned here to do good for the world.
So what kind of pro-bono stuff does Deutsch do to mitigate that type of consumerist attitude that everyone is immersed in?
XT: I just joined Deutsch last year. I don’t think we handle a lot of pro-bono jobs but there are companies out there that do a lot of that. And there are a lot of companies that do work for…
Companies that are geared towards non-profit?
XT: Exactly, geared towards non-profit. It’s a very specialized thing. But we’re all in advertising in my point of view. We use the same things everyone uses to get the message out. Maybe anyone who’s in the zone of trying to get signatures for a petition to pass a law, they’d use the same approach.
Pretty much comes down to making the wheels to get something moving. A thought that came to my mind, everyone is so embedded into advertising, even since conception, everyone can be taken back and formatted into an ad. The way a person is made would be the art and the name that they’re given would be the copy. That’s just a weird, stray thought I had in my mind.
XT: (laughs) That’s funny.
So WDCW has an offshoot film development brand that they’re going for but what does Deutsch do? How do the creatives here forward their thinking beyond advertising in the office?
XT: Deutsch is a really busy agency so a lot of the time we’re just doing campaigns for our clients. But Deutsch is very open to let people pitch ideas to the agency. If you have a good idea you’d pitch it to the partners – it could be anything, it doesn’t need to be in advertising. It could be a product you wanna make, it could be a film you wanna make, even if you need funding for something but it has to be a good something. Or maybe you just want to form a band. Anything within the bounds of creativity.
Right on, right on. I’ve asked a lot of questions about being a career creative and reconciling the art and the commerce ends but now I want to talk about brands that you’ve done and stuff Deutsch has worked on. I looked at your portfolio and in regards to entertainment and advertising, you’ve done stuff for Nickelodeon and HBO’s Dexter.
Oh, I guess I don’t really watch that show. I’m assuming you have to get acquainted with Dexter to-
XT: Yeah, to a certain extent. I wouldn’t say that I’m a big fan but I suppose that’s a good thing because being a fan you’d get too caught up in the world. I’m a fan of other TV shows.
Are you a Breaking Bad-type of person or the Dexter-type?
XT: I’m really selective and the only thing I can tell you is that I’m a Homeland fan. I love that show.
I gotta start watching that show myself. Going along with things you love and relationships, advertising creatives are workhorses. They’re at the office for a substantial length of the day and oftentimes would sleep in the office. Do ad-creatives begin to date each other?
Jeff Sweat: Solomon?
Communications and PR of Deutsch, Jeff Sweat comes in with a Clash tee.
I have THE SAME shirt!
JS: Do you? Right on! I was worried you got hit by a bus or something. I didn’t know that you guys connected.
No no, it was a great ride. My first time taking the rail this far. I’ve come to realize that you guys are right across the street from LMU.
JS: Cool cool.
I was asking Jeff over email about those big Stars Wars/VW spots I’ve been seeing.
XT: I wasn’t here when those were developed.
JS: But it was done here.
I just wanted to know your opinion, your insight about these new developments going on – how Disney owns the franchise. Did you guys have any knowledge of that back when you made the Darth Vader kid and the Mos Eisley Canteena spots?
XT: I’m not too sure, I can’t answer that. It wasn’t that long ago when I joined.
JS: I’m not sure anyone here really could because…
They all got fired!
JS: Well they worked with Lucas two years in a row, they had a good relationship but no one hung-out together. We weren’t really tight with all the people. I’m sure a lot had opinions more so as fans but less so as a working relationship to know about that big change.
Well the specific question I wanted to get at was wanting to know what the specific parameters of being able to incorporate another existing big entertainment property into an ad that sells another property. Unless I’m dumb, it just doesn’t really seem like a widespread thing in advertising. Did you guys have to draft up some type of agreement to use Darth Vader in a spot?
XT: Yeah, of course. It all comes down to negotiation.
Ah. What have you got your hands dipped into right now?
XT: I’ve been doing stuff for HTC and I’ve been working on a Superbowl teaser for Taco Bell that I can show you.
That’s right, the game is in two days. You’re gonna show me a Superbowl spot?
XT: It’s all online.
JS: It’s all up there.
For a second I thought I was privileged to see something that no one else has seen.
JS: No no.
XT: Everything is out!
JS: Yeah, everything has been coming out about a week before the game so everyone can start talking about it.
Really? I had no idea!
XT: The tradition is kind of gone now.
XT: Most of the clients would prefer to launch it on game-day but most of the spots are on YouTube now.
JS: You know ‘the Force’ you’re talking about with the mini-Darth Vader? That one came out a week early and that was before anyone pre-released anything and so the next year everybody was gearing up to do that. To mess with that, we decided to release a teaser. Every year it gets out earlier and earlier and people are trying to top each other but then this year everyone else started doing teasers for their Superbowl spots. It’s like an ad for an ad (laughs).
Phases out the whole practice of having them go on during the breaks.
XT: But you’ll get so much more exposure from a brand perspective. It does more good than bad. Yeah sure, I understand the traditional convention but when it goes down to say that it’s about getting the client as much exposure as possible.
JS: You should show him the teaser.
XT: Yeah yeah, I’ll pull it up.
You got that shirt from PopKiller didn’t you?
JS: I did! You live over by there? Where are you? Are you in Los Feliz?
I live in Burbank but I’d get stuff at their spot in Little Tokyo.
JS: Yeah there’s one by my place in Los Feliz.
Right, I’ve yet to go there by I’m dropping by Skylight Books for a Pete Hook’s reading of Unknown Pleasures.
KT: I love Joy Division!
You guys should check it out!
A 45-minute QA and I didn’t even get his word on the dating atmosphere inside an agency. I’ll have to ask him on my next drop in. Well, I hope you artists out there get your thoughts simmering because you don’t have to continue to live as a starving artist.
And my next QA will feature things more on the literary end. Literary to the extent of captions of a porn picture of a porno book.
Check out Xavier’s art, the stuff that isn’t advertising.
And if you’re the voyeuristic-type, peep out a live feed into Deutsch’s office. Cater to your creep temperament. Way cool!