Barney Goldberg has been a driving force in some of the most entertaining auto advertising in recent years. As Executive Creative Director on the Hyundai account for Innocean in Huntington Beach, Barney has overseen the creation of multiple high-profile Super Bowl spots including “First Date” with Kevin Hart, “The Elevator” with Jason Bateman and “Smaht Pahk” with John Krasinski, among others.
No stranger to large projects, Barney was already an old hand at Super Bowl ads by the time he’d gotten to Innocean – at Deutsch LA he’d made big-time spots for Dr. Pepper and Volkswagen. Not bad for a kid who worked his way up from the darkroom!
Read on as Barney shares his insider view on the process of creating a Super Bowl spot, about working with A-list directors and keeping your head up in pandemic working conditions.
Zack Seckler: Let’s start out by talking about one of my favorite spots from the Super Bowl this year “Smaht Pahk” for Hyundai. Adding celebrities into Super Bowl spots has become so common, it often feels like an afterthought. But the way your team integrated celebrity talent into this spot was just so brilliant. How did the project develop?
Barney Goldberg: The process is we decide on a vehicle for the Super Bowl. We picked the most interesting feature, which is Smart Park and briefed. One of our teams, Eddie Babaian and Chris Dyer, had a great idea. Eddie is from Boston. So Eddie, being the uber-Boston guy, just kept saying it, kept saying Smaht Pahk, Smaht Pahk, in the accent and wrote out the script.
Then our GCD’s Ryan Scott and Jeff Bossin saw it, earmarked it, then we all reviewed it together. And then what we normally do is have writing sessions where we just try to plus out the script. It became this game of how many times can we say “Smaht Pahk” in 60 seconds? Could we set a record for how many times we say it? So the team got the script in a great place and then we started looking at casting. There was definitely some good fortune getting [John] Krasinski and [Chris] Evans and [Rachel] Dratch all from there, all genuine, all authentic.
We had A-list directors calling us. Usually you get a couple guys you’re hoping for, but when Bryan Buckley was in, we were like “Oh my God, this is it.” And then of course, he’s from Boston so he made it funnier and more insightful. Every little bit of it was just authentic and real and hilarious and all the actors brought things to it.
It’s determined by the project, but we have a shortlist. Usually you kind of know the people ahead of time, but I never like to jinx it so I don’t even think about directors until we’re sold. You’ll find out pretty quickly how good the script is based on how many directors on your short list are interested.
I will say: when we did Operation Better it was only Peter Berg. He was, in my mind, the only director on Earth that could have pulled that off. From his tone, to what he’s done live, to his love for the military, to his love for football. We knew going in, if we were going to sell this, it was going to have to be Peter Berg. That’s pretty rare that you’re that committed.
And then so with Smaht Pahk you had three A-list directors who all were interested. Do they do treatments like directors usually would when bidding for a job?
The standard is, you do a phone call. Usually clients want to see three options, so you’ll go through a triple bid process. It starts with a phone call and that’s where you just sort of talk it out. In the case of Smaht Pahk we got three separate 60-page treatments from each director. From there, you just huddle as a team and decide who the right person is.
I had a great time interviewing Bryan Buckley a couple of years ago, can you describe his process, how he works as a director?
He and his team are just so buttoned up that you really worked it out a lot beforehand. It’s very much like Jim Jenkins and David Shane: you do a lot of pre-meetings, pre-writes, going over all lines and stuff. Bryan’s collaborative, he’s hilarious, and he gets both sides: agency and production. And there was a shorthand with him and Krasinski – Krasinski kind of became the ringleader of the talent and really it was kind of built around him almost because he was driving the Hyundai. So he and Bryan had a nice rhythm. Rachel was, to me, the underrated MVP. You saw the SNL brilliance coming out of her. The riffing and the improv were so evident. But it took a guy like Bryan to sort of corral that, plus it’s raining, plus we got a camera going down, plus we’re shooting in winter so the day is shorter – there’s just challenges like that. You have to be out there with somebody that’s been in the fight before.
My Mom worked as a traffic manager at The Martin Agency in Richmond – they call it project management now – and I was going to school at VCU and there was an opening for a dark room assistant. That ended up becoming my education in advertising. I was still going to VCU, going to school at night there and then during the day seeing all these great ads come in front of me. I would work on mechanicals, I would do the photo stat machines; all dinosaur-like objects now. It was just a steady stream of advertising greatness and it became my advertising class.
I really owe it all to my Mom. And to The Martin Agency for basically paying me to learn advertising. Becoming an art director at Martin was a big break and I did an out-of-home board for Mercedes. It got in CA (Communication Arts) and it got in all these award shows, and getting in an award show at that age was a pretty big deal. So, those kinds of moments told me “Oh, OK, I can do this.” Eventually, I put together a book and then moved out here to LA.
It sounds like Mercedes-Benz was early exposure to the automotive category and you’ve done a lot in automotive over the years. Is that just by happenstance or have you always been attracted to the category?
LA is kind of a car town, so it’s just kind of worked out that way. At Martin it was more just one of the accounts they had, Mercedes, but I think once I got into Toyota it became a space I enjoyed and I definitely like it. Hyundai keeps it fresh though, because it’s not always just cars: they’ll partner with The Walking Dead, they’ll do FIFA, they’ll do the NFL. They mix it up a lot. It’s one of the best parts of working at Innocean.
And that’s what’s interesting too is that all the car work that I’ve seen from you, a lot of it has a comedic element to it.
I think everyone is attracted to humor. Most people I know want to laugh. I think there are certain car brands that can take a serious tone and own it, and I think there’s certain car brands that it wouldn’t feel genuine to be overly serious or dramatic. I would say for the most part I just default to comedy. I mean every year we do Super Bowl, it’s pretty rare that I even see scripts that aren’t funny. So it’s kind of become what Hyundai is known for. Hyundai gets that audiences relate to comedy, which makes it a compelling piece of the brand.
I wouldn’t say it’s easier to do comedy, but I’ll say it’s very hard to do sincere. It’s got to be that perfect mix of some sort of social movement, plus the right brand, plus the right time – like Dove Beauty. Those are beautiful and perfect the way they are, and comedy wouldn’t have worked, but it’s kind of hard to take those elements and pull them into cars because they can be cold. You’ve got to bring the warmth to it. Every so often we’ll do more serious work for Hyundai like Operation Better but for the most part, we’re in the comedy space.
I think, agency-wise, we’re as productive as ever. The negative of that is you’re always “on”. I’m looking at my year and I haven’t even taken a vacation. Self-care and looking out for your coworkers’ mental health is important right now. You’re not working from home, you’re trying to get a job done during a pandemic and ensure your family’s safety. It’s wearing on people and I’m so thankful that I have a job.
At the same time, it would not be fair to myself or to people to acknowledge that this is not easy. It is much easier being face to face. We lose a lot of camaraderie and culture and energy by not being in the same room together. Normally when I’m in the office, it’s 10 straight hours of meetings, but I get those moments just making jokes with friends or going out to lunch. Now I’ll look down and I’ll be like “Oh my god, it’s 1:30, I didn’t eat. What am I doing?” And if you know me, you know I normally don’t forget to eat.
What about the creative production at Innocean right now? Have you guys been able to create new work? Have you done remote productions?
Yeah, we’re doing it. I mean I’ll tell you without our Head of Production, Nicolette Spencer, I don’t know what we would do. She’s the MVP at Innocean. We just did some Wienerschnitzel work and shot that remotely and we were observing social distancing, everybody was wearing a mask, but we were at Innocean 6 feet apart watching big monitors with Dave Laden directing on set. We had the clients there and the spots turned out great.
I think now more than ever it’s always about the work, but the tiebreaker is always going to be: What type of person are they, and are they collaborative? I don’t mind disagreements, but it’s all in the way you disagree. If you have somebody that’s super talented but notoriously difficult, I just don’t have the time for it. Life’s too short. It’s not a fun experience, and there’s just too many good people that are just as talented.
Can you give an example of a time when someone – and obviously we don’t have to name names – but when someone was disagreeing in a way that was not cool with you, that stands out as an example of what not to do? Not necessarily something dramatic, but just something that rubbed you the wrong way?
I’ve definitely had that. I’ve had the yelling director, the director that won’t do what you’re asking for or even what you already agreed to. I definitely had the director experience where, two shots into the day, they were irritated about something and just blew up in front of the client. That’s just not necessary. We’re not saving lives, we’re not paratrooping into a war zone, we’re making silly commercials. There’s just no need for yelling and disrespecting people.
And what about any advice for young creatives who want to work with Innocean or do the type of great work that you’ve done as a creative?
First, I think it’s try to work somewhere great where there are great people to learn from. You just need to be around people that have been there and are willing to teach and that’s what I was fortunate enough to have at Martin. It’s the culture we’re building at Innocean.
Be resilient, and be ready to have a lot of work die. You’re not going to be a .300 hitter. If you’re writing a script, for example, you are going to write, and write, and write to land that one, but when you land that one you’re going to make it great and that’s going to teach you how to write even better.
I think what makes them the same is they’re just naturally funny people, all of them. I think in that grouping they’re more similar than different. There’s maybe a little bit more of an edge to Jenkins and Shane, who are both whip smart. They also make you feel comfortable enough to try things. Aaron Stoller is an example of a director I have a nice shorthand with. We’ve worked together so much we just kind of know what each other is going after. I would say it’s probably easier to differentiate them and someone like Peter Berg. I have the utmost respect for Peter Berg and I would work with him again and again. He’s very much in the process. When the shoot comes, he’s in the zone, and I don’t mean he’s not collaborative because he is, but everything is so well-orchestrated and it runs like clockwork.
You’re not standing next to him and like riffing lines with him like you would with Jenkins.
Right. It’s just a little different. You can definitely fly something in – for example, at the end of “First Date”, Kevin Hart looks into the camera and smiles. Bob Rayburn thought of that in the moment and flew it in and Berg like looked up from the camera and gave a thumbs up and the next thing you know Kevin Hart was doing it. But for the most part Peter Berg is so thoughtful and so well-prepared it all just happens as planned. Clearly I’ve never shot a film but I’d imagine that’s how it runs.
Ryan Reynolds was just super humble. He rode a bike from the trailer to the set. He would talk to everybody. He would take pictures with everybody. He would throw the football around with people like just really down to earth. Like Michael Strahan was the same way when I did the Dr. Pepper ad years ago with him. I’m a Ravens fan so I started to talk to him about the Ravens and asking him questions. The cool ones are engaging and they do all the goofy pictures.
I can’t say who, but I’ll say one actor was pretty late to set to the point where we thought we were going to re-cast. My client and I were basically in the fetal position watching our careers go up in smoke. And then the guy shows up and the second he gets in front of the camera it’s perfect. And we were like “oh my God, it was totally worth the wait.”
Interview by Zack Seckler
Edit by Tyler Peterson