Group Creative Directors, Philip Sicklinger and Alex Booker are, in their words, “the perfectly balanced team.” Since they began working together in 2011, this duo has secured a laundry list of awards and created campaigns for brands including E*TRADE, JetBlue and Playstation.
Originally from Down Under, the team now manages the creative department at MullenLowe New York along with ECDs Tim Vaccarino and Dave Weist (full disclosure, I worked with Phil and Booker when they were CDs at BBH New York).
Speaking with Creators Are Us, Phil and Booker shared their thoughts on the origins of their professional relationship (spoiler alert: it involves beer), dogs on boats, and how much it costs to blow up an apartment building.
Zack Seckler: How did each of you get into advertising?
Philip: It’s funny—I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a really long time. Even when I was at university, I still didn’t know what I was going to be. And—Booker has probably heard me say this a million times—I randomly saw the movie What Women Want with Mel Gibson, and that was actually the first thing that made me realize, “Oh, yeah—someone’s got to write these ads and come up with them.”
Booker: For me, it’s a little more traditional. I started off at university doing a degree in communications. I hated it and decided I wanted to do something more on the art side of things. So from there I went to a design school, and then from there I got a job in an ad agency, which was one thing I swore I wasn’t going to do. I had my heart really set on doing the paper sample brochure designs and annual reports and stuff like that. I begrudgingly took a job in an ad agency, and from there I ended up sitting with two creatives who kind of took me under their wing. That worked for, like, three years, and then they got me my own partner, and I haven’t looked back since. I do laugh to think what my life would have been like if I hadn’t stuck down the brochure design path. I’d probably have, like, four kids in the suburbs.
And how did you guys come to work together?
B: Ours is a pretty fun story. We both worked separately with other people for a while. Then, just before Christmas one year, our partners both went on vacation over the holiday break, and a really good beer brief came in. Beer briefs in Australia were, like, the mecca of advertising. It’s the one thing you want to work on. So they put Phil and I together and we did that job, and it was, like, “Oh—that was kind of good.” Then our ECD approached us and he was, like, “I think you guys work really well together.” And then we had to break the news to our respective partners that a little fling over the holidays had turned into something a bit more serious.
P: It was basically an affair.
B: I’m not going to lie—it was kind of awkward at the beginning. But that was a while back now. And ever since that job, we’ve worked together.
P: Yeah. How long now?
B: Like, 2011.
So how do you guys work well together? What’s made you successful as a team, in terms of working style?
B: I think we just quickly jelled. Like, we had a similar kind of work that we wanted to make. So I think initially it was, like, “Oh, yeah, we’re into the same kind of stuff.” And that also helps when you’re spitballing ideas—like, you can quickly build on someone else’s idea. And then later, after it’s been a couple of years, it works well because you trust the other person. We’ve been doing this long enough that even if I don’t personally think it’s great, I know it’s not a dumb idea. It’s like, even if we don’t see eye to eye on an idea at the beginning, I know that if he sees something in it that there’s probably something in it.
Does it come down to taste? Is that a huge part of it?
P: Yeah. I think taste and trust.
B: I think trust is a really big part of it. And it’s being able to tolerate that person, in a fun way. Like, I see more of Phil than I see my wife. I see him every day. Every day. And we hang out on weekends. Most of this can get tedious at times, but at least you’re like, “Well, I can hang out with Phil all day today.”
P: You also have those weird moments where it’s, like, 3 a.m.—”Dude, we don’t have any ideas.” There is this kind of team mentality to it where you’re like, “Shit, what are we going to do here?”
B: At least we’re in it together.
P: Like, you turn up for a first day at work, but if you turn up alone it’s a lot more daunting than turning up with your best friend.
Let’s talk about Bow Wow Wow. How did you come up with the idea?
B: The team we were working with came up with the initial thought. I think it was through Rich Dogs of Instagram. They were showing us all these dogs that lived these amazing lives, and we’re like, “Yeah, we really need to write a spot around these dogs that literally have better lives than you.” So they came to us with that, and we went through a few rounds. It was actually one of the easier things to sell through out of all the work we’ve done in this latest round. We found the song pretty early on. We did the presentation. We played them the song before we even read the script, showed a couple pictures of dogs living these exquisite lives. It was one of those fun ones. It was smiles all around from the get-go.
P: When we heard that idea, we knew we were going to buy it. They just said that one line: “There are dogs that have better lives than you.” It’s funny—there are just those ideas that come across the desk where you instantly know, “This is a good one.” That was one of those ones where straight off the bat it went to, “Well, how do we start selling this?”
B: And then, from there, kicking it through to production. It’s funny—the final spot is a little different to what’s on paper. There was a bit more of a story through it. But as soon as we saw the footage and knew it was 30 seconds, we didn’t want to convolute such a simple, clean idea with too much narrative. We tend to like a bit of narrative in a lot of the work we’ve done, but we found that this one idea was so clear and so strong that it was like, “Let’s take the narrative part out and just celebrate these dogs that have way better lives than you.”
How long was the shoot?
B: That was a pretty quick one in terms of a shoot of that scale. It was only two days, and then we saw the first edit like four days later. It was a super quick turnaround. We had already entered all the negotiations for the song. It’s one of those things that came together really quickly. Some things, we’ll get like 40 different cuts before we land on the final cut, and I think that was, like, four cuts.
What was the hardest shot to shoot? Was it the boat, the dogs?
P: The trick to that one is that there’s two poodles, and you just did multiple passes of the boat, put them all together. So that was actually relatively easy. The hardest ones are when you’re asking for a performance from the animal when the context of where they are gives the performance. For example, poodles on the boat: well, the boat is doing all the magic for you. And the location. When you need the animal to bring something to it, that’s when it gets tougher. You’re kind of just looking for magic, to be honest with you. You put your hands together before the director calls action, and you’re like, “Come on, give me something on this take.”
B: I think one of the other tricky shots was the intro boat shot. The cigarette boat at the beginning. The water outside the harbor was a lot rougher than what we needed, so we couldn’t get a clean plate of the boat driving through clean water. We had to do a little trickery and shoot inside the harbor and replace al. the backgrounds. And then, of course, the light starts fading right when you need it not to fade. Like, all of a sudden we’re shooting an opening shot at sunset, and the rest of the spot’s in bright light. The light is starting to go, and you’re like, “Oh, come on, let’s just get the shot.”
But it worked out really well. It’s pretty seamless, and it looks like it could be the start of the day instead of the end.
B: Of course. And we work with good people that know what they’re doing, obviously. Like, great cinematographers. We had an awesome DP on the shoot. He’s a Hollywood guy so he had all the tricks. And then the right post people to make sure the color matches and all that kind of fun stuff we do at the end.
You used Matt Aselton, right? You guys bid a few people—how did he end up in the job?
P: One of the things we always notice is if you have a good idea, it means you can get good directors, and they’re pretty receptive. So it wasn’t an easy one, because we had three good directors in the mix. At least for me, one of my favorite parts of our job is that you get to give the script to somebody else highly creative, and it’s exciting to see what they do with it. So you give them a script, but you want to see more of that script back, and what he brought back extra was what we fell in love with.
B: It’s always so hard, especially when you’re talking to, like, top-caliber people. I would love to see what the other guys would have done with it, too.
P: He probably had the most E-Trade feel to what he brought back to the script. So that’s a pretty big factor for us as well when we start to look at these treatments that come back.
Actually, that’s a good segue—so, when you were having the creative call of these directors and you’re looking at the treatments, does the creative call end up being more important than the treatment?
B: They’re both super important. I tend to go with the call. For me, anyway, the call is that chance where you get to, like, collaborate with someone and hear their vision firsthand. A good treatment should just really be the summation of that call. And when we’re talking to these guys, we’ve looked through their reels. We know their reels front to back by that point, so we know we’re talking to people that can do a great job. It’s just about finding out what their vision is for your job and making sure that you align, I suppose, on that vision at the beginning.
P: Yeah. On the call, you also get an insight into what particular bits they’re being drawn to. For me, that sometimes helps—like, what they pull out of the script is always really interesting. I think it gives you the best insight int where they’re going to take it.
B: The treatments are the most fun, but to rate them. You sit there with a cup of coffee or something, and you’re like, “I got the treatment. I don’t want anyone to disturb me.” It’s the exciting bit after the call.
What makes a great call?
B: It’s a level of enthusiasm. It’s like, they’ve done it a lot, so they’re very good at it. They tend to have a very strong point of view, which is really good when you’re trying to decide how something is going to play out. Like, we’re going to these people for a point of view, and when they give you a very clear point of view it makes it a lot easier to see their vision and take it in quite clearly.
I want to talk about Rivalry. That was a yearlong production?
B: It was probably 10 months.
And you guys used Wayne Mcclamy. That was like a Hollywood film. That was amazing.
B: It was literally like being on set. There were TIE fighters on set. We had, like, the whole Star Wars costume wardrobe people turn up with 11 stormtrooper suits. We got to touch all the, like, actual guns that they used. It was incredible. We had to sign NDAs on stuff because the suits we were using hadn’t come out in the films yet. Like 600 feet of green screen. We turned up and it was like, “Woah! We have all the toys here!”
P: We’ve been doing this for a long time, but that was one of the ones where you’re still on set and you look at each other and go, “Holy shit.” This was ridiculous. This was, like, a piece of paper written at 3 a.m. that maybe took up half a page, and then eight months later you’re literally standing on a Hollywood movie set with 100 people trying to bring that to life. And you still pinch yourself. It’s a crazy moment when there’s a $50,000 explosion going off and then stormtroopers running through the scene. You’re like, “Oh shit.”
B: That job in particular, the amount of stuff that was done practically is mind-blowing. They built an apartment to blow up. This kid had maybe 30 trial runs through the apartment before we blew it up with him in it, running through the explosion. If you watch the tape we actually used, he stumbles at the beginning. I was, like, super worried for him. He tripped a little, which actually looks way better in the cut, but, like—he was inches away from getting blown up. I mean, it’s all fake glass, but it still would have kind of hurt.
And he still had that grin at the end.
B: I don’t think he knew how close he was to stuff blowing up behind him.
So what about transitioning to the agency side? What makes for the best creatives, art directors, copywriters, creative directors—people that you see working that are on your team or reporting to you?
P: One thing is resilience. There are special people out there that can come up with the best campaign ideas off the top of their head, and they’re probably the people with the letters CCO in front of their name. But, you know, for a broad 90 percent it’s just a willingness to keep going at it. And it’s just a general playfulness and curiosity with work.
B: And a willingness to push it.
Interview by Zack Seckler
Edited by Francis Carr Jr.