Danilo Boer, Executive Creative Director at BBDO New York, is renowned for lush, cinematic spots; seamlessly-integrated cross-platform campaigns; and an uncanny ability to reverse the fortunes of struggling brands. After just one year of working with Boer and his team, Macy’s reported its first positive sales quarters in several years.
Boer’s work for global brands like Bacardi and Billboard Magazine, have won him the Cannes Grand Prix, as well as—in his words—“several other shiny metals.” (If there were an award for understatement, he’d probably win that too.)
In our interview Danilo shares his thoughts on heady topics such as the creative process, the future of advertising, and what it’s like to set off ten thousand model rockets in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
Zack Seckler: Can you give us a quick intro to how you got into advertising?
Danilo Boer: Yeah. My parents are both in advertising. I was, like, an advertising child. My dad was an art director and my mom was a proofreader. So they met in an agency. Then I just went running around agencies as a kid grabbing sharpies and drawing everywhere.
I got into design college. I was really into design. I didn’t really want to do advertising. I thought design was a much higher area to be in. Then, when I was 18, I got an internship at AlmapBBDO in Brazil to work under Marcello Serpa. He’s like one of the big art direction legends. So I learned a lot there, and quickly left the design world into the classic advertising world. It was great—from 18 to 24, I was doing college at night and going to the agency during the day and, basically, not sleeping for seven years. But it was amazing. I was learning so much more in the agency than in school.
If you want to start as an art director, I think you should start with this incredible desire to make things beautiful and really care about photography, typography, color, composition and how to convey an idea in the most compelling and exciting way. Then it becomes this process where you slowly start working with other people—talking to illustrators, talking to photographers, and talking to producers. You start to develop the skill of managing people and leading groups. Then, when the agency really feels that you can lead in that way, probably they start raising you to the creative direction role. And of course, an executive creative director is just the continuation of that. It’s just endless more responsibility and more people you manage. And it becomes less and less about you, it becomes more about raising everyone around you and getting everyone to deliver greatness, together.
Right now you have about 20 creatives that report to you and your partner?
Yeah, we’re growing a lot. When I started in Bacardi it was just me and two people. Then the projects started getting bigger, and we had to hire a lot of people. Then Macy’s came in, and we had to hire even more people. We also do a lot of pro-bono work and a bunch of proactive stuff. It never stops. Everyday is very different and really exciting. So we need talented and exciting people working with us.
So tell me about that. What’s it like to hire someone? What do you look for and what have you learned?
It’s so much about the personality of the people that you want to have around you, and how much they want to succeed. You know—it’s so good to find someone that wants to run faster than you, that wants to really be incredible, and that you don’t have to push up a hill.
That’s what I normally look for.
The portfolio, of course, is a big deal. I want to see people that care about craft both in art direction and copywriting. Like, we have copywriters here that also write for the New Yorker, art directors that are photographers in their spare time. Caring about craft and making ideas as incredibly well written and art directed as they can possibly be is really important for us.
But also, you meet the people and you try to understand how they feel and, I would say, how much they want—how much they desire to be incredible. I’m trying to surround myself with the most incredible group of people I can. Our group, I’m so proud of it.
Me and my partner Marcos Kotlhar always have our eyes and ears open to see who is contributing—who has that extra gear. I think the people that do advertising school come ready, and they can get a brief and knock it out of the park, but sometimes the most surprising idea will come from someone who comes from a completely different background. We had digital producers that contributed so much creatively to some of our work that we turned them into creatives and the solutions that come from them is so fresh.
So I want to jump in and talk about some specific work. How about Macy’s? I especially love the Space Station spot, I’m curious about one of the last shots—where you see the woman open up the present, then you cut to a wide shot in outer space and she looks like she’s inside the snow globe. Was that shot planned on the original storyboards or did the idea come up during production?
Honestly, when the team showed me and Marcos the script, the first thing I did was to get a piece of paper and I draw that scene. I was like, “We need her in a rounded window so she looks like she is in the snow globe.” And when we met Martin de Thurah we talked about how that scene could be a great way to end the film and visually represent the feeling of connection between the mom and the daughter.
So, the first thing we did was to reach out to our amazing visual effects partners. They’re just incredible, incredible, incredible craftsmen and craftswomen, and they really care about making things perfectly real and cinematic. So even before we talked to any directors, we approached them and said, “We have this idea, do you think it’s doable? How would you approach it?” And they came back with all these ideas of how we could pull that off.
After that, we went to the most important partner, which is the director. We went after Martin De Thurah, who has been delivering beautiful films year after year, hoping that he would say yes to this project. And he totally jumped on board. He really liked it, and he came back with a lot of very interesting solutions to make this real. First of all, he wanted to shoot in Prague, where we can build really incredible sets. They have huge stages and great craftsmen to really build whatever you want. And after that he developed an incredible rotating set and rotating light to mimic the sun. All that, combined with a super technocrane and hanging actors helped to create the feeling of zero gravity. Chayse Irvin who was the DP also did an incredible job, everything he frames looks amazing.
How much input did Martin have with the overall visual look?
It was very collaborative. For the interior of the SpaceStation we sent so many references, and he also researched so much.
We bought every manual you can buy from the actual International Space Station and from most Space Missions that have happened in the past. We wanted to really get the sense of how those things should be built, and send it all to him, and Martin and his team built it beautifully.
Martin was on board on making it all as real as possible. We researched how astronauts eat, sleep, communicate with their families, etc.
And on the exterior shots, he had super smart ideas of how to bring the spaceship to life, and how the sun light should hit it, and how it should work in the space. Martin wanted new angles and frame the SpaceStation differently than anyone had done before.
We wanted someone that could be incredible visually, but also someone that could bring emotion, and he is a guy that delivers beautiful AND emotional films all the time, so he was one our top picks from the beginning.
So when you’re in a situation where you’re triple bidding with directors, there’s the creative call and there’s the treatment. Do each of those have equal weight with you, or is one more important than the other?
It’s tricky. I’m a little bit against a triple bidding process. I think we do it because clients need it and they want to see different prices and stuff, but creatively you normally know what you want. It’s very rare that the third bid is the surprise factor. Creatively, I think a lot of times we are wasting our time and people’s time, which I think is so unfair.
So generally you know who you want going in, regardless of the creative call?
Yeah. We know who we want. But it’s not every-time that who you want is available or interested. But I do think we really work hard to get great directors on our projects, and it’s been great, I have been shooting with people I really love.
Let’s talk about Rockets. Can you tell us a little bit about the process for coming up with the idea, and then talk about the production side?
Yeah, that was interesting. That was a brief for Mountain Dew for this energy drink called Kickstarter. They had a lot of things on the brief, but for me it was so very simple that it was just about energy. How do we represent the feeling of energy? And then we started with a more complex idea, where kids were in the desert and they would open the door of their car and as soon as they would take a sip of Mountain Dew, explosions would happen and balloons would come out and sparks appeared everywhere and much more—it was just every single element that can represent energy.
We knew right in the beginning that we wanted Juan Cabral to direct this. At the time, he hadn’t shot that many commercials as a director. But he was just transitioning from a Creative to a Director, and as a creative he had been someone who could create a visual masterpiece that represented a feeling. So we reached out to him, and he’s the one that said, “We don’t need all this other crap. Let’s just do model rockets, nothing else, and let’s buy all the model rockets in America.” They bought, like, 10,000 rockets.
Then we went to the desert. It was a super incredible production, because we only had one chance with 10,000 rockets. We spent a whole day shooting one rocket at a time and framing the camera for that one rocket. Then we shoot another one and frame a second camera for that.
It took forever to set it all up. We had over 30 cameras.
Then, when the sun was down, it was magic hour. It was a super nerve-wracking countdown—cameras were on, and then we shot everything in six seconds… and that was the film.
And then Rick Russell, who is an incredible editor, put it all together. We went after opera music because it felt epic and grand. Juan delivered something magical. We really enjoyed working with him.
So you said you had been following him for a little while, but he hadn’t done a ton of commercial work. What’s your process for keeping tabs on up-and-coming directors and people you want to work with? How do you discover their work?
I think it’s an ongoing, every-day research that you have to do. It’s always about watching cool music videos that are coming out. A lot of times the directors haven’t exploded yet, so they do a lot of music videos. I’m always on top of that kind of thing. Both me and Marcos here in the agency really care about finding directors that are right for each project.
I think a good example is: I worked once with Megaforce, and they had done a super cool music video for Kid Cudi. They had done one or two bigger commercials, but nothing, like, huge yet. They said yes immediately to a Bacardi idea I had, and we did a spot together. It was so much fun and it still felt like we were shooting a music video. Very fast and insane.
So how, specifically, do you look at music videos? What websites do you look at?
I’m so dumb I just, like, click “Best music videos right now.” I’m not smart enough to have all the cool blogs bookmarked and things like that. But I’m also always checking all the things that are winning award shows even if they’re not the biggest project of the year—trying to check out the credits and figure out the names, and also checking the production companies and who are all the names in their roster. I try to surround myself with the best people.
When I work with a brand, my main goal is to make work people will enjoy participating in. It can be an amazing film that you would actually enjoy watching or a cool social media idea that you will want to spend time with. It’s about trying to make things that feel part of your life—things that you don’t hate. The goal is to make ideas that people want to engage, that people want to be part of.
You want to live culture. You want to live the music you like; you want to live the films you like. So if you bring that brand to that world of filmmaking that people enjoy and music that people enjoy, and cool social games or whatever we do on the internet that people want to be part of—I think that’s bringing a brand to your life, and ultimately to culture.
A lot of brands lose that touch with people. They become about promotions and sales and less about emotions and feelings and connecting with humans. So by trying to bring them more into people’s lives, I think we naturally turn them around. It’s been happening a lot with the brands we work here at BBDO.
So: future of advertising. How do you think things are going to look in the next three years? Do you think we’re going to keep going down a road of having to entertain an audience in order to gain their attention?
Advertising is not going anywhere. People need to sell stuff. People always try to find a way to say it’s going to die. The models are changing a little bit, but it’s still about making beautiful, interesting things for people to watch and engage with. It hasn’t changed that much. It was a poster; now it’s a video. It was on TV; now it’s on your phone. But it’s the same—people will always engage with funny pieces or beautiful things. They’re always going to engage with emotional storytelling. It’s the same since we were cavemen telling stories to each other.
So, yes, we will have to keep entertaining, like we always have.
You’ve done big, film-quality type stuff for Macy’s and Bacardi. Do you think there’s still going to be a high demand from clients for 30-second or 60-second work?
I think so, honestly. There’s always going to be a space for that. If you think about people engaging on their phones—more and more people spend a lot of timing looking at their phones. Even Facebook is pushing for longer content. They have Facebook Watch. Instagram now has Instagram TV. So all the social networks that keep telling us that people don’t have attention span keep pushing to longer formats themselves. We used to watch two-hour movies, and now we watch a series of 15 two-hour episodes. I think the big film quality work is never going away. It just needs to be combined with other shorter content that people also want to engage with. You need both.
On Bacardi we did a cool combination of super smart social media work with big TV spots and it’s been working great for them. Same with Macys, while some people enjoyed the emotional Space Station spot on TV, others had fun with a super cool 3D scavenger hunt we did on Pinterest. It all works together.
People love longer content, as long as it’s good.
Interview by Zack Seckler
Edited by Francis Carr Jr.