For almost two decades Creative Director Justin Bilicki has been racking up awards for his work on Ally, FedEx, Subway and Twix. His creative genesis began in cartooning but he quickly drew the line to advertising. During stints at Anomaly, BBDO and Grey Justin expressed a visually comedic style that earned industry applause.
In 2015 his Twix Bites campaign was recognized by the Gunn Report as the Third Most Awarded Film Campaign in the World and the Most Awarded in the USA. His work helped contribute to BBDO’s Adweek Agency of the Year and 2015 One Show Network of the Year decorations.
Read on to hear about going from script to screen with directors like Jim Jenkins and Tom Kuntz and how freelancing can feel like being a “pregnant labradoodle at a puppy mill.”
Zack Seckler: Tell us about starting off in cartooning and then making the transition to advertising.
Justin Bilicki: I was born in metro Detroit and went to Michigan State. While there, I weaseled my way into doing political cartoons for the student newspaper, as well as the Lansing State Journal, the state capital’s newspaper. It was there that I caught the journalism bug and loved the fast paced newsroom environment. In 2000, I was lucky enough to win the John Locher Award for best college political cartoonist in North America and then decided cartooning was my ultimate dream. Advertising then became the backup plan and doing anything on Wall Street, the oil industry or arms dealings was out of the question. The plan was set. Kind of. There were only 42 full-time political cartooning jobs at that time and I was a late addition to the fray. But being a cartoonist allowed me to move around so I set my sights on Chicago and took a full-time job at Coldwell Banker, being the Marketing Director. It was very odd because I replaced somebody that had been doing it for years. I was terribly unqualified—had really long hair, played in a band, was only 23 years old and knew nothing about being a Marketing Director. As long as I didn’t cry through the day, they let me work there.
Well, I went to school for advertising. I graduated with advertising, and there was always that advertising bone in my body. I would write jingles and draw print ads and make spec work on my own. I saw a lot of people were going to ad school after going to college; I was like, “why would I pay money to go to school again. I want to do something. I want to get into an agency.” Off the bat, it became a noticeable disadvantage, because I didn’t have a sharp book crafted by professionals or any book at all. So I got scrappy, knocked on some doors and was lucky enough to get into Cliff Freeman & Partners. I learned from the bottom up and didn’t sleep much because of the paranoia I’d fail. That was my school.
A lot of your work has a comedic thread running through it. What is it about comedy that is attractive to you?
When you create something that’s funny, it’s much different than if you create something emotional or straight silly. You can test in real time. You show your ideas—your print ad, your cartoon, whatever it is—and if somebody laughs, then it works. It makes everything fun. That said, I do believe it’s more about digging into a human truth and comedy has been the device that has resonated most.
I want to transition to talking a little bit about some specific work—maybe first about Twix Bites. What was your role when those came out?
For Twix Bites, I was working at BBDO, and they had set up the Left-Right campaign—left Twix and right Twix. But when we came out with Bites, there’s no middle. There’s no left and right, so we had a license to go outside of the established campaign. I think we wrote nearly a hundred scripts to get to the four 30s and four 15s.
The first batch of 30s we shot with Jim Jenkins; that set the tone. We were thrilled, they’re doing really well—sticking out a little bit, winning at the shows, so how can we create more? Initially we pitched the 15s as Instagram videos for an extremely small budget. We worked with Jun Diaz to shoot all four in a day and they ended up on TV eventually winning a Gold Pencil.
Was it exactly as boarded out? How much did the 15s deviate from the script you guys put together?
A lot of thought had to go into the pre-production and the script writing because we were shooting so many in a day. We had the whole day lined up. Of course we riffed tons of alts on the fly but always maintained the simple setup joke structure.
Can you talk a little bit about the difference between working with those two directors on this campaign?
Both Jim and Jun were fantastic. They both were very collaborative. Jim knows how to run a show, how to cast and how to throw wild lines. Jun was like another creative and being a former editor, knew how to shoot for the cut. Both were great to work with and excited about creating something kick ass. They’re both pros.
Now that we’re talking about different directing styles—you’ve also worked with folks like Tim Godsall and David Shafei. Can you talk about which campaigns you worked on with them, and a little bit about how they work differently?
Both directors are amazingly talented. We worked with Tim Godsall on the Ally campaign—the “We’ll do anything, seriously anything for our customers” campaign. He is one of the nicest guy in the world and gives a real sense of calm on set.
We worked with David on a loads of things. He is a great friend and collaborator to everyone on set. He shares his excitement for creating something great to keep everyone in production working in orchestra.
Tom has done some of the most visually comedic work around. He sprinkles magic dust on everything he touches and I’ve been so lucky to work with him and all these guys.
Can you give us an example or two of what you mean by that magic dust?
With Tom at the helm and MJZ…. The casting, the framing, the tone and the pacing all comes through with him and becomes his signature. He has his entire crew behind his vision and snap judgements. You only have to look at Old Spice, DIRECTV and Hahn Beer to know what I mean.
What did you work with him on?
I worked with him on FedEx.
So, you’ve done a lot of FedEx spots. Let’s talk about the creative process of coming up with those scripts. Which is your favorite to chat about?
I think the tiny briefcase is my favorite, even though it’s a 15.
How did that idea come, and how did it get iterated to the final product?
For me, working on FedEx was an incredible experience. We didn’t test, we had great clients, and we had time. It was all about writing scripts over and over and over until one landed. I think the ratio would be maybe 50 to one—50 scripts written for one that gets produced. The ones that did rise to the top were simple, based off of insights that everybody could understand.
The briefcase—when we first saw it, it looked like if you took a bunch of aluminum foil and sat on it. It didn’t look like a briefcase at all, so there was some real-time reconstruction going on, and that held up the production a little bit. We ended up doing a lot in post with a little handle that falls down at the end. That’s all CG, and that was the most important part of the joke—the tiny briefcase. And if you look at the raw film it looks not nearly as believable as the real thing.
Interesting. So the first time you guys saw the prop was on set? There was no approval process for that?
Yes, something happened, that’s the thrill of production. We tried to make it like one of those Halliburton cases to match the larger one. It ended up working out in the end, but that was a scary moment.
I feel like every creative person has days like that.
I know, and I think that’s what keeps us doing it. That is one of the things I’ve learned along the way on this crazy ride of advertising— this idea that it’s healthy to be paranoid of not doing something good. It’s healthy to want to create something before somebody else can create it, to have any idea before someone else does. It can be frustrating to think that way, but it also motivates you to work and just look at the bottom of the barrel of your brain to figure out if there’s another way of doing something that nobody has seen before.
That’s where I really grew up as a creative person. Being around extremely talented people, my biggest fear was being the least talented person in the room. I would say both David Lubars and Greg Hahn taught me a lot. They were all about the work. No egos or bureaucracy. Just the work. That taught me that if you don’t trust the person that’s judging the work you give up your nights and weekends for, then you shouldn’t work for them at all. I’ve always trusted David and Greg.
You’re now freelance and that world seems to be booming right now. Do you have tips for staff creatives out there who are interested in going freelance?
Start knocking on doors now, because if you don’t, nobody is going to know who you are. The biggest thing is constantly building up your network. When you do go out on the field to freelance, you might get a job for three days; you might get one for three weeks or three months. But you always have to overlap, and sell yourself as much as you’re selling the work that you’re presenting.
So what is it like to get work? Does it all come through your network of people that you know personally?
I really just have been going off relationships I’ve known and worked with. The best way for me to find work was contacting CDs, ECDs, CCOs, recruiters or whoever I have had a relationship with and just saying, “Hey, I’m around, so call me when you need me and would love to help.”
Freelance—you know what? It’s really interesting. I didn’t know what to expect when I first went into it, but you get to see and meet a lot of people. It allows you to go in the doors of agencies you’ve never even considered. I’ve been able to work with people that I only heard about. That’s a huge positive.
The other part challenging part about freelancing is that often you don’t get to follow the work through even if it’s eventually produced. So, you have to understand that you’re there for a certain reason and not to take anything personally. That’s why you’re paid a day-rate. When you’re freelance, it can sometimes feel like you’re a pregnant labradoodle at a puppy mill. When you birth your puppies and say to yourself in a dog voice, “Look at all these beautiful puppies” suddenly, rows of SUVs and minivans arrive, load your beautiful labradoodle puppies in up-cycled Amazon Prime boxes and head back to the suburbs. You never get to see them grow up. You don’t even know if they’re alive anymore. You just know that at one point you had beautiful labradoodle puppies.
I love that analogy. Very funny. Also a little depressing.
There’s also the idea that you get to work on a gaggle of things that you never would have worked on before. Every day is different and thrilling in its own way. In my career, I feel like I’ve been at places for a long time. I just got a little complacent and failed to network or sniff around.
‘Sniff around’—are you sticking with the analogy?
Yeah. I’m actually wagging my tail right now.
Interview by Zack Seckler
Edited by Francis Carr Jr.