Aaron Duffy (aaronduffy.com) is the co-founder and creative director of SpecialGuest. He has based his career on a combination of strategic thinking with a love for craft and execution. Aaron has 7 Gold Cannes Lions, is an ADC Young Gun, a top 10 director by AdAge, and a BusinessInsider top 30 under 30.
In spending time with Aaron I not only felt like I was in the presence of a great creative mind, but also someone with a true passion for bringing the art of advertising — and the art in advertising — into a new era. Read on for a fascinating interview and hit up the image links for some brilliant work.
Zack Seckler: So many creatives dream of getting to create a Super Bowl commercial, and yours — Parisian Love — was so impactful, so unique. Tell me what that was like. How did it feel to have the opportunity, and have it do so extraordinarily well?
Aaron Duffy: It’s kind of a funny story with that one. When we set out to make it, we had no plans of it being a Super Bowl commercial. It was a pretty small budget thing. At the time, the goal was just to make something to go up on YouTube.
I was lucky enough to work on it with a music composer, Jeremy Turner, in the very early stages of the project. I think the music was one of the most important parts, actually, because otherwise it was hard to see how the sparse visuals would evoke any kind of emotion. Also, the Creative Lab team was instrumental in reining me in, on not making it too complicated, which I can sometime do.
So, we finished it and we put it on YouTube, and it just sort of sat there. I didn’t even really like the piece that much, to be honest, mostly because it didn’t have any handcraft in it, which i was pretty obsessed with at the time. Then, a month later, it already had a million views. Everyone was sort of confused and surprised by that. As the story goes, one of the google founders’ wives saw it and loved it. The next thing we knew google was ready to air it on the super bowl.
It wasn’t only Google’s first Super Bowl commercial; it was also the first television commercial for Google. They really didn’t do a lot of advertising in 2009. On top of that, Parisian love set the stage for google’s brand voice for quite a long time after it aired. I was told by a new google recruit that during his first day of orientation, he was told to watch Parisian Love for a better understanding of the company he was joining. I didn’t get my hands dirty as much as I normally like to, but it did give me this realization that I can do more than just my own hand craft style. It was really one of the biggest insights for starting SpecialGuest and trying to make that kind of difference for the people we work with.
ZS: One unique thing about you is you started out as a director, and now you’re a creative director. How do you think your start in directing has formed your ability to work as a creative director, to work with clients on the creation phase of a campaign, or whatever it may be that you’re doing for a client?
I was really lucky to direct on so many rad projects. I got to watch some great creative directors at work. I didn’t always get to see behind the curtain so I made up my own idea of how agencies get things done. I would love for the lines to blur more. At the end of the day, director is just another word for leader on a film set or creative project. Creative director is just another word for leader on a campaign or concept. So, if I can be a good leader and communicate what I’m thinking, then I should be able to do both. At that point, it’s just about what you most like to do. I like to be on set and I like to think conceptually and build communications. I’m not interested in choosing one or the other. Maybe I’m better at one over the other. Maybe I’m better suited for some projects more than others. The future of SpecialGuest will be about navigating those things.
ZS: tell us a bit about SpecialGuest and the process of co-founding that company.
AD: SpecialGuest started about 2 years ago and we call it a communication arts company. Basically, we are coming at the creative agency world from the perspective of makers that love strategic thinking rather than the other way around. We also pride ourselves on the ability to communicate to smart skeptical people. It’s the hardest audience but the most fun to make things for.
The process has been pretty organic. I got started directing at 1stAveMachine 10 years ago, within my first year out of school, and over that period of time had the chance to be involved in the early concepting and communication stages of some rad campaigns. I feel lucky that so much of that work had a very open and experimental edge to it so I got to try things that were less explored in advertising.
Eventually, some brands like google started coming to us directly for that kind of experimentation and rather than mess with the 1stAveMachine model, SpecialGuest was started. So, it kind of happened over time and grew naturally out of some things that we were already doing.
AD: We’re pretty small, so you could say that everyone is on the client side. Right now, I don’t think there is anyone on the team who does not work directly with one of our clients in a creative way. We do have people on the team that look after the accounts and manage the relationship, but everyone is involved in the creative process. It’s not such a binary system—there’s not enough people for that just yet. We’ll see how the culture develops.
ZS: With so much that has changed with technology and with social media, do you see more companies like yourself in the future? Do you think that’s going to be a trend?
AD: Sure. I think it will be, and I hope it will be. I hope we have much heavier competition in our category in the future. It’s not a bad thing to muddy the waters between the production world and the agency world. It’s happening naturally. We shouldn’t fight it. Maybe that’s what clients want. I think that kind of competition would be good for SpecialGuest because clients and CMOs would recognize the category more—they would understand when it’s the right time to go to a big traditional agency, when it’s right to just hire videographers, and when it’s the right time to go to people that have their own production abilities but really bring a lot of value on the strategy and brand side and understand how to make a difference.
ZS: Let’s switch gears for a second. I want to jump in and talk about your creative process. I see trend lines in the creative that you’ve done. One thing I see coming up a lot is illusions. Tell me about the creative process of coming up with an idea for an illusion, and playing around with the physicality of the optics.
AD: Sure. So, illusions are sometimes seen as these gimmicks if done a certain way—you know, people standing at the tower of Pisa and pretending to shove it over, or something like that. But at the same time, the reason that they are so exciting for people is because it’s a momentary realization that your mind can play tricks on you.
ZS: Absolutely. So, tell me specifically, for example, about the Google Chrome logo. Tell me about the process of the idea—printing the idea, and physically creating the illusion itself.
AD: This feels ancient now, but at the time, the main way people were introduced to their browser was through the built in software on their computer—like safari and explorer. People in the know were using Firefox but the vast majority of people were using what came with their computer. We wanted to try and find a message that would say that there’s a different way of looking at browsing—there are great, different, new benefits of this new Chrome browser—it’s faster, doesn’t crash as much, things like that. So the illusion became really helpful in that it tried to, in a back of the mind way, get people to say, “there’s another option for browsing”
I worked with Bob Partington, who was an artist that I’d just met at the time. Since then I’ve directed with him on a lot of stuff and he’s gone on to do incredible stuff, but that was the first project I did with him, and before that he had been on other projects, like Celebrity Death Match for a long time. He and I just sort of tinkered with the pieces of the chrome logo made out of cardboard and paper until we felt like we got it right. And then we built it out a bit nicer with the fabrication that Bob does. And my director of photography on a lot of stuff, Will Rexer, was the brains behind the optics of making the illusion work.
I was really lucky to get to work with Will Rexer, who also became a pretty regular collaborator. He helped us figure out the optics—we didn’t know that since this logo is stretched out for eleven feet, the amount of light we would need just to keep the front of the logo and the back of the logo in focus. I just didn’t think about stuff like that, and so we had eight 20k lights blasting the thing. I remember my hair burned at one point just from how hot all those lights were.
ZS: Another trend that I see in a lot of your work is in what I refer to as a handmade or crafts aesthetic. Tell me about what that means to you, and why that shows up in a lot of your work.
AD: I think when you’re in school, you’re not in the ad-minded world yet. You haven’t been dipped in any of that. So I thought it could be interesting to make commercials, but was kind of frustrated with the idea that you’re trying to convince an audience of something with things that are overproduced. I think people are pretty skeptical of things that are over produced. This was just my perspective at the time, but I felt like, let’s just be honest with everything that we’re doing, including things in front of the camera, and not just with the messaging. I think a big reason for it is that it’s just—it has an honesty to it.
Maybe we just need to see the human hand in it. And that’s the sort of back-of-the-mind messaging that you can’t really get from a script, you can have a voice that says “We’re being honest with you about what we’re telling you about this product,” but if the visuals don’t match that, then I think it all falls apart. And I think the viewer doesn’t take it in as you intended.
It’s not an exclusive way of working, but it is fun. If we think it fits the client, then we recommend they be honest with their visuals and craft as much as possible.
ZS: What is something that’s true that few people agree with you on.
AD: Generally, people think advertising is bad, and bad for them, and bad for the world, and makes bad stuff—and unfortunately, I can’t disagree with the majority of what they’re saying. There are these two worlds. There’s the fine art world, where fine art is always good, and there’s the commercial art world, where commercial art is always bad. I’m generalizing a lot, but the thing I feel pretty passionate about is that it’s an illusion in itself. There shouldn’t be two worlds. There should be one world.
I wish everyone had a chance to have the art history classes that I was forced to take when I was in art school. What I got from that, and from spending time in Florence, is really understanding that all the fine artists that we know about from the Renaissance—the Michelangelos, and the Giottos and the Raphaels—they were commercial artists, basically. They made a living by doing art for people, not for museums and galleries or an art market.
It’s sort of taken as this truth that there’s just advertising and fine art and there’s nothing in between. If we could break down that construct, then we could actually see artists making a better living generally, and advertising being better cultural content, because you wouldn’t have this sort of garbage advertising that’s purely commercial.
We already see that changing, mostly because it’s not acceptable by people who watch bad ads.
ZS: What’s a hack that you have for getting your creative brain going when it’s not working the way you want it to?
AD: Let’s see—so, I don’t know if this is a hack, exactly, but I think that when you’re not really sure—when you have a project that’s maybe starting out kind of bland, or you’re not sure what to do with it—I really would try and compel people to look at nature for inspiration. The natural world and the world of science sometimes provides the most crazy and absurd things that we never thought were possible. If you just do a little research into, say, what E. coli looks like microscopically, it’s like all of a sudden, these crazy sculptures come up that you never could have imagined yourself.
Interview by Zack Seckler
Edited by Francis Carr Jr.