If you own a TV or have the internet, Craig Allen has made you laugh. His unique fusion of droll comedy, striking visuals, and memorable content has created some of the most groundbreaking viral campaigns of the digital age. The YouTube-based follow-up to his Old Spice “Smell Like A Man, Man” series, for example, had more hits than President Barack Obama’s acceptance speech.
After nearly a decade winning accolades at Wieden + Kennedy, Craig founded the CALLEN agency, where he continues to create outside-the-box content for brands like Clif Bar and Lone Star. His recent work with the singer Brett Dennen illustrates Craig’s singular gift for meta-comedy: rather than shoot a high-gloss music video, the duo gave most of the film budget to an 80-year-old woman so she could live out her dreams while Dennen did her housework.
Truly, Craig Allen has earned his position on Creativity Magazine’s list of the 50 most creative people in the world. Read on to learn about his early-career struggles, his favorite vintage comedies, and a police-defying Skittles explosion.
Zack Seckler: Let’s start with the basics, how did you get into advertising?
Craig Allen: I always wished I had a better story here. Sadly, no such luck. I went to the University of Texas and I was in art school. I focused in ceramics and photography, which is a weird mix. Ceramics is usually something you get into in your early forties after you get divorced or something, but I chose it very early. I had this semester where I realized I didn’t want to make pots in my parents’ garage—that doesn’t make a lot of money, and it seemed to me at this point in my life that money was needed for things. So I took a very weird slew of classes. Things like: Age of Dinosaurs, Scuba Diving, Primate Behavior, Linguistics of Comic Books, Pseudoscience (yes, that’s a real class somehow), and—randomly—Intro to Advertising. I basically saw a random flyer for Intro to Advertising in a communications school bathroom. I went into the class, and it was super interesting. I kind of fell into it.
I feel like a lot of advertisers fall into advertising. There are a few glory stories where people grew up wanting to be in advertising, but unfortunately I don’t have that cool story. I have the story where I saw a flyer in a bathroom.
Tell me about breaking through. Was it the Skittles campaign that really broke your career open?
Yes, I would say that was probably it. I went to One Show portfolio review, and put my book in front of the important eyes that were there, and all of the eyes said, “Your book is sucky.” I called my wife from the One Show balcony and said, “It looks like it’s a ceramics lifestyle for us.” The next day, I went to an agency—Cliff Freeman, which is now sadly defunct. It was my dream job at the time, and they actually liked my book, which was like 18 dreams come true. But then, the week before I graduated, basically everyone I talked with left Cliff Freeman, so that went away. Luckily, I got a random call from Chiat/Day and they were starting an internship program called the Young Bloods. I took the job, and I had to be in New York in two weeks. I packed up all my stuff in boxes, took it to my parents’ house, and left for what I assumed would be a six-month internship. I stayed there for five years. I worked on a lot of Skittles, Starburst, Snickers, Sprint, NASCAR and a bunch of different things. The first week I got there, my creative directors quit—which was unfortunate because they were awesome—but luckily Gerry Graf came in. Suddenly we were juniors who were getting TV assignments, and one of those TV assignments was Skittles. And yeah, that was the first thing that I worked on that got some notoriety, and I thought “Woah, this is fun.” Gerry was able to bring out the weirdness in us. We had a little bit of a weird, dark sense of humor, and that played very well with Gerry’s sense of humor.
Which was the first spot you did for Skittles?
The first one we did was a spot called Blender Hands. But the one that really took off was called “Beard.” So Beard was the first real big one, and the first time I worked with Tom Kuntz as well.
Right. I was just going to ask you about that. I know you worked with Tom Kuntz on a ton of stuff—that was the beginning of a beautiful relationship, right?
Yeah. My partner at the time was Eric Kallman, and we got along with him really well—again, similar senses of humor. It started a long working relationship. It was just really comfortable and easy working with Tom all those years. We could be very honest with each other. We fought a lot on sets, but all for the good of the work. We would have a disagreement, we would argue about it, and then we would hug. It always made the work better.
You do a lot of visual comedy, which I personally love. The dialogue isn’t the star—it’s the visual that really sells the comedy.
Advertising is crazy, because you’re basically making things that people don’t want to watch. So, to me, visual comedy is just more interesting and grabs attention faster. And now we’re dealing with ads on Instagram and Facebook that often have no audio at all. It’s one thing I try to teach any younger creatives—if you’re doing advertising, you better be pretty visually interesting right away or people are just going to scroll past or turn it off.
Do you find inspiration from certain comedic material? Is there anything that influences your work or your creative process?
Yeah. I try to watch a lot of movies. The Naked Gun series or Airplane or Top Secret!—even something like Hot Shots. I think those old movies stand the test of time because a lot of them are visual comedic jokes which rarely go out of style. I try to keep up with pop culture as much as possible. I’m a big Reddit fan—I love the idea that Reddit basically compiles the most interesting stuff on a single page. I’m always amazed. The internet is funnier than I will ever be.
Let’s talk about the process of forming CALLEN. In my research I heard that you partnered with your two partners through an amusement park experience—can you talk about that?
I worked at Wieden, which I think is the best agency in the world, for ten years. They offered me a bunch of nice roles and a great career path. That felt really great and comfortable and made a lot of sense, but it was also kind of terrifying to me that it made so much sense and was so comfortable. In all jobs you’re eventually promoted out of the roles you’re really good at. The problem is I really like making work still. So that’s why I started CALLEN—because it’s a role for me to move up, and also a way for me to still leave my mark on things. I believe that great creative work can be done in an extremely small environment. I pitched that to Wieden and after a year or so of figuring things, and maybe a little black magic, I was able to convince them that it was the right thing to do. I think they were like, “You know, at the end of the day, what’s the worst that could happen?”
So we went into it leaning a bit heavier on production and not so much traditional advertising. For example, I had gone to Disneyland with my family. My wife had never been in her life. She was blown away, and I had forgotten how amazing it was. It just runs so properly as a business. The next week we were back in Dallas visiting my family, and we went to a different theme park there. It just felt so inferior. It seemed there were all these small things they could change to make it so much better. How they interacted with customers, how they set up the park, innovations in attractions, and things they could be doing in the park—all these things. It was a little sad, because I loved that theme park when I was young. So the idea I posed to Niklas and Holly was that I would love the opportunity to go into that park and work there for a month or two, assess the problems and come up with recommendations of how to fix a product before you just start pumping out ads. We all got really excited about the idea of using creativity to solve problems instead of just defaulting into ads right away. That’s the kind of agency we wanted to build. Not an agency, but a place where the power of creativity can solve bigger problems.
Obviously, the market is growing with lots of smaller agencies, production companies, all that stuff. Everything is becoming smaller and more spread out. Why is now a good time to start a creative agency?
I think now is a good time for creatives everywhere, because more than ever it’s about creative talent. This is a big reason for the rise of freelance—I think 80 percent of the good talent in advertising is freelance right now. So I think what we’re seeing is agencies like CALLEN, Erich and Kallman, Preacher, Opinionated, and all the other small shops rallying around the smaller creative group mentality. It gives companies a way to get into good creative thinking cheaper and get the people that they actually want to be working with rather than those that just happen to be sitting around needing something to work on. I think we’re going to see more of that as agencies start to shrink down to the bare minimum creative they can get, cutting off the fat of every department and consolidating roles because everybody is trying to figure out how to be cheaper and run more effectively. Creative minds are more in demand than ever—in fact, clients just want to go directly to you. They want to know who they’re working with specifically and that they’re of a high caliber. Smaller more capable groups is the answer. That’s what we are.
So the trend is definitely going to continue?
I think so. Budgets aren’t getting any bigger and people don’t want to pay for extra people they don’t need. “Why am I paying for 60 people? I really want these five working on it.” I think as we continue along as an industry, we’ll have a bunch of small agencies where if you want this product, you go to this person; if you want that product, you go to that person. It’s going to be the way of the future.
You mentioned something you learned at Wieden called the ‘walk in stupid’ mentality. Can you talk about that?
I try to be a humble person, and I think that’s a good quality to have for all creatives—not thinking you know everything, walking in realizing that you may be wrong. I think I came into Wieden thinking, stupidly mind you, that creative is king. Thinking only we are the ones with good ideas. And I learned through Wieden, and especially post-Wieden, that lots of people have good ideas if you just listen to them. So I think the walk in stupid mentality is that if you walk in and you’re like, “No, everybody is wrong and I know how to do it,” you don’t ever open yourself up to actually learn anything.” That’s a powerful lesson. Thanks W+K!
So, in the process of looking at directors, how important is the treatment versus the creative call? Is there one that shines out for you more on a regular basis, or is it more just about the reel?
I think the first call is important just to answer questions. But the treatments are where directors—especially young, new directors—get to shine. I’ve had younger directors surprise me and just beat the crap out of established directors, just on treatment ideas alone. I go into treatments as level as I can, with no favorites at all. Which one is the better treatment? That’s where the meat of the thinking is. Not calls. If it turns out that competing treatments are so close you can’t tell, I always default to the reel. If somebody has a clearly better reel and the treatments are close, every time I go with the reel.
What other advice do you have for greener directors who are looking to level up?
What happens a lot with younger directors is they deliver a great treatment, but then you start asking questions and they’re like, “Yeah, I mean, whatever you guys want.” And they kind of waver, because they really want the job. Again, collaboration is great, but I actually respect it more when directors stick to their guns and have confidence in their opinions. If you honestly think it should be a certain way, say, “I kind of disagree with that. I think this is the better way, and here’s why.” Often times if feels like younger directors are so eager to please that they try harder to not lose rather than win.
I flagged a few of your spots in these questions—Starburst, Oreo, Snickers, CareerBuilder, Skittles. Are there one or two that you think has a particularly interesting story of how the idea came about for the production, anything like that?
A lot of the Skittles spots are done with Tom Kuntz, so it was kind of meshing with him. We loved the idea of doing things in-camera, practically. I’m not a big fan of CG, because CG doesn’t leave for the unexpected magic to happen. For Skittles Touch, we made a desk out of Skittles and it was just hundreds of thousands of Skittles in there. The weight of it started splitting the seams of the glass desk. We tried to shoot it, and it wouldn’t stay together. So we had to hastily build a new desk. It was the last shot of our day. The glue hadn’t dried. Skittles were shooting everywhere. We were shooting in a part of LA that was heavily policed, and I remember cops came into the shoot and said, “Hey, you have 10 minutes to get out of here or we’re going to cite you and take your cameras for the next day!” We’re like, “We just need this one last shot,” and he said, “I don’t give a crap about your last shot. I’m pulling the plug on the shoot.” And Tom calmly said, “No, no I understand…Action!” And we just blew up the desk right there next to the cop. Skittles flew everywhere hitting the cop in the face. The cop was pissed, but hey, we got the shot. Luckily MJZ is a great production company and they talked him off the ledge so we were able to shoot the next day.
That’s a great story.
Also, Flo is in that Skittles “Touch” spot. Did you ever notice that? It was one of her first spots.
Interview by Zack Seckler
Edited by Francis Carr Jr.