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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Al Kelly
Al Kelly
alkellyinside Al KellyExecutive Creative Director

Al Kelly is a fortunate man. While many of us spent thousands of dollars on fancy ad schools, Al received an education simply by observing his dad and by not really listening to his professors. He’s had the good fortune to work under and alongside some of the brightest in the business, and even has a few best of the best awards on his resume, including a Cannes Grand Prix and a $100,000 Mercury Award. Last year he joined the legendary Minneapolis agency Fallon as its new Executive Creative Director. ihaveanidea managed to snag some time with Al to talk about his fascinating career, from his first pre-teen taste of the ad world to his current plans for Fallon.

ihaveanidea: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into the ad business? I mean, it’s not one of those “parent approved” jobs like a doctor or a lawyer.

Al: Why advertising? OK, if this is my chance to reminisce I’ll go for it. My father had a small advertising agency in Pennsylvania, Amish country, where they shot the movie Witness. His clients were UTZ Potato Chips, Turkey Hill Ice Cream and a local funeral home. Sometimes he would bring me into work and I’d sit under his desk.

My father was a military guy, but he hired a lot of hippies. They swore a lot, smelled funny, and could draw. One guy named Don Hiney spent hours in the bathroom and when he was done the smell made your eyes water. Another one taught me that a grocery store was really a free restaurant if you could eat a box of donuts before the manager saw you. He would bring me raunchy comic books. By raunchy I mean one of them featured a cartoon guy putting his dick into a wood-shop lathe and carving it into a chair leg.

There was a church organ in the lobby, and Playboy magazines in the bathroom. When in junior high and I thought I got a girl pregnant and needed a couple hundred bucks, I knew exactly where to find someone to loan me the cash. It felt like an artists’ commune, where they made ads for potato chips instead of art. It was creative anarchy with a little bit of discipline, and a lot more fun than what my friends’ dads did. I’ve been trying to recapture that environment ever since.

Especially the porn in the bathroom.

IHAVEANIDEA: It sounds like being involved in your father’s world was a better education than an actual ad school. Did you end up going to ad school, or did you feel like you already knew it all and could skip that stage?

Al: At the time we didn’t have (or I was not aware of) the kinds of options we have today, with intensive creative advertising programs taught by actual working creatives. I went to Syracuse University, the Newhouse School, because it sounded kind of impressive, and somehow seemed like a legitimate advertising education. Ha-ha! It was very expensive, and I feel it was a big waste of my parents’ money. At the time Syracuse was mostly a party school for rich kids from Jersey and Long Island. Lots of sweatsuits and late model Camaros. You always knew when a shipment of coke arrived on campus because the cash machines were tapped out.

For the most part, the advertising classes were taught by guys who hadn’t been in the business for decades, who worked in big agencies in the 50s and 60s. They told stories about martinis and taking trains to meetings in Chicago. But there were lots of other resources, some good teachers, journalism classes, photography classes, and kind of an ad geek community which was positive and motivating. I graduated with something called ‘credits pending’. Which means i didn’t really graduate.

IHAVEANIDEA: Your first job was as a writer at Ogilvy & Mather. Now I don’t know what Ogilvy was like back then, but I can’t imagine was anything like your dad’s shop. How did you adjust? Was it a steep learning curve?

Al: Yes, my first job was at Ogilvy New York in the 80s. It was a wonderful place, full of big personalities.

I worked for a guy named John Doig, a larger-than-life New Zealander who knew how to drink. If you had to present to him, it was good to do it before lunch. If he saw something he liked he’d say good onion! I assumed New Zealand was a land of onion farmers, and this was high praise. Turns out he was saying good on ya! which makes more sense. He also used to say Humor is the lubricant that lets you drive in the big idea!

My first ad was for American Express. The line was Where to find rest in the city that never sleeps. I thought I was a genius. I did a fast-food campaign called Smell-O-Vision that ended with the line Follow your nose to Hardees.

I worked for some incredible characters, like Rick Boyko, Bill Hamilton, Ty Montague, David Apicella. It was the best advertising education I could have hoped for.

I also learned how to hide in a big agency. You’d get two weeks to do one print ad. I got really good at a video game called Marathon, and I also discovered that pot smoking was compatible with advertising. We’d get really high, come up with these mind-bending, genius ideas then come in the next morning and scratch our heads. None of it made any sense.

I almost got fired twice. Once for going to a really important AT&T meeting and not doing a damn thing but stuffing my face with free donuts. Another time was for getting drunk and trashing the Chief Creative Officer’s apartment.

It really was another era. You kids won’t remember, but back then recording
studios recorded on tape, and the editor literally cut and pasted the stuff with a razor blade. We used typesetters and photostats, did paste-ups with rubber cement. We heard stories of people airbrushing headlines. Everything was Betamax. We could smoke cigarettes in our offices.

Then one day this little computer arrived, a Mac Plus. It had different fonts, proportional spacing, and a laser printer. Everything kinda changed after that.

“No matter how great a place is, when you’re in the middle of the machine, day after day, you can lose perspective.”

IHAVEANIDEA: Let’s fast forward a bit past the days of Letraset. Advertising is a business where creatives move around in the blink of an eye, and instead of promotions people move on to better paying jobs. Yet you stayed at one shop for nearly a decade. True, the shop was Goodby Silverstein & Partners and that decade was a particularly good one, but what made it so special to keep you there for such a length of time?

Al: I stayed there longer than most for a few reasons.

No matter how great a place is, when you’re in the middle of the machine, day after day, you can lose perspective. A lot of people at GSP came from other creative hot shops, or started their careers there, and didn’t know how bad other agency environments could be. So when the phone rang, they’d jump. But often, after a year or two, they’d come crawling back. There’s probably a hundred people there who left and then came back. Some more than once. I’d been at good agencies, but also had some not so good experiences. I felt fortunate and wasn’t so eager to leave.

Also, it was also easy to stay because place changed so much. It never stopped evolving. It felt like a completely different beast every couple of years. When I started, there were maybe 50 employees, we did print and TV and radio, and our biggest account was Isuzu. When I left, there were 500 people, nearly a billion in billings, and the place had reinvented itself as a new media powerhouse.

Another big reason: the people. All incredibly smart, driven, intensely creative, but also decent. There was a sense of treating people right and playing fair. There were a few assholes, I guess. But it felt like a family, and I spent a decade growing up there. Jeff Goodby, Rich Silverstein, and guys like Steve Simpson and Jamie Barrett were very good to me.

But probably the main reason is that I am a basically lazy person who seeks comfort and stability, fears change, and avoids challenge whenever possible.

IHAVEANIDEA: Not too many people can say they have a Cannes Grand Prix winning, Clios Hall of Fame inducted campaign on their reel. You do, as the writer on the famous Nike “Skateboarding” campaign. How and when do you know an idea is golden? From the moment you put the scratch pad down? When your boss likes it? When the client okays it? When the accolades roll in?

Al: I’ve had some good ideas, but the Skateboarding campaign wasn’t one of them. I had an idea to do this mockumentary about police stations around the country using longboards on patrol, the same way some cops use mountain bikes. We worked on this for a couple days. Then my partner Jon Soto said what if we, like, hassled tennis players the same way skateboarders get hassled?? And that was that.

But the idea’s just a fetus at that point. A lot could go wrong. Fortunately, the agency got behind it, we wrote about fifty scripts, Nike bought it, we found an awesome director, Baker Smith, and shot something like 40 hours of footage.

I’m a worrier. I don’t relax until I see a rough cut that works. If you take it for granted, something will go wrong and fuck you in the end. So, for me, it’s not golden until you’ve done everything humanly possible, worked every angle, to make it great.

On the other hand, I wrote a Sega radio spot that won the $100,000 Radio Mercury award twenty minutes before the meeting. The moment I wrote it I thought, this is going to be funny as hell. Feminine hygiene is always funny to teenage boys.

IHAVEANIDEA: Speaking of the Mercury Awards, you have been quite successful in the radio medium. I myself have always felt radio doesn’t get much respect, especially nowadays. What are your thoughts? Where is this medium headed, both as a marketing facet and as a creative outlet?

Al: Radio is great because fewer people get involved. Clients think: It’s only radio, it’s only a couple thousand dollars, why not? On the other hand, it’s so cheap that a lot of inexperienced marketers use it.

There are many formulas: There’s the two guys with funny distinctive voices yammering at each other, there’s using sound effects in a silly way, there’s the this is a radio commercial about the guys in the booth making a radio commercial. There’s a million, and I’ve used them all at least once.

I guess radio is dying like TV is dying. But as long as people drive cars, there will be a place for radio, although things like podcasts are kind of the new radio. The Mercury awards did get creatives to take it seriously, mostly for purely selfish monetary reasons. A hundred thousand dollars is motivating. I couldn’t have bought a house without it.

A story: one of the other Sega spots I did was about a guy in brain surgery, awake. The doctor poked at his brain and the guy screamed. The recording engineer clearly hated the spot, never laughed, kept rushing us. Which is weird, because they’re usually the nicest guys. Finally he stormed off. Literally, left and slammed the door. Turns out his father had died on the operating table a few months back, in brain surgery.

I guess that wasn’t a very funny story. But it was ironic. What are the chances?

“I would recommend to anyone that they spend some time working abroad, especially in a European hub like Amsterdam.”

IHAVEANIDEA: After your decade at GSP, you didn’t just leave for another agency, but for another continent, becoming Executive CD of StrawberryFrog in Amsterdam. Now everybody has their own Amsterdam stories or have friends that do, but what was it like for you? How different was the advertising scene compared to back home in the US? What was the biggest surprise?

Al: I would recommend to anyone that they spend some time working abroad, especially in a European hub like Amsterdam. The best interactive talent is next door in Sweden. German account handlers know how to crack the whip. Suave Italian new business guys are born schmoozers. We only had one Dutch guy in the office, and he ran IT like clockwork.

In general, visual creative solutions are valuable, because they don’t require translation. Websites tend to be less commerce-driven and more brand-building. Northern and Southern Europeans are as different as Europeans are to Americans. If Italy loves it, Greece will hate it. Russians like things in English but Germans don’t. I think Iceland has the most bars per square km.

We dealt with a lot of family-owned businesses. The layers are impenetrable, just getting to the top guy can take months and months. Then you present to the founder’s 28-year-old playboy son, on his way to Monaco to drive a racecar. You wont see him again for six months.

StrawberryFrog was a great experience. Lots of talented and passionate people trying to reinvent the ad agency. To some extent it worked, and it was sure fun. We did some good work for Heineken and Onitsuka Tiger.

Two pieces of Amsterdam advice: be careful in the coffee shops, the stuff they sell is literally mind boggling. Lots of backpackers staggering out of doorways, red-eyed and puking. Also, avoid the red-light district during the day. The ladies don’t look so good in daylight.

The biggest surprise was the Dutch culture. You’d expect them to be liberal, anything-goes partiers, but they’re the opposite. It’s a very pragmatic culture. They permit soft drugs and prostitution because it allows them to control it, and of course tax it. It’s a great place to raise kids. Holland has the lowest rates of drug abuse, teen pregnancy and underage drinking in the world. The US should pay attention.

IHAVEANIDEA: And now you’re back in the US, and you’ve been Executive Creative Director of the legendary Fallon in Minneapolis for coming up on a year soon. What have been the biggest challenges facing Fallon in this ever changing industry, and what have you been doing to overcome them?

Al: Working here, you feel like you’re standing on the shoulders of giants. Some have moved on but the best ones stayed, partially because of loyalty but also because they believe they can do great work.

Last year we had one of our best shows ever at Cannes. We’re shooting four campaigns for Holiday Inn and Travelers, and the work has doubled their business. The new Equinoxx campaign is filling gyms, though they won’t be opening in the Vatican any time soon. The creative team and our PR person have all gotten phone threats from humorless, flabby church-folk.

Recent pitches, both wins and losses, have shown me that the machine is running well. People here are incredibly resilient. The spirit is healing, not those big gross purple bruises anymore, they’re turning yellowish now. Which is better than purple.

Most of our clients are growing and spending. I’ve been selectively hiring, people I know and trust from previous jobs. Were recruiting a new President, we’re moving into a fantastic new office space next month, and making a short film symbolizing the move. Kind of like Burning Man for Minnesota.

IHAVEANIDEA: Looking back on all of this, what has been the absolute coolest moment of your career? Not necessarily the biggest, splashiest moment, but the pointwhen you felt like everything was perfect? Or has that even happened yet?

Al: Probably the stack of Playboy magazines in the office bathroom when I was a teenager. That’s about as perfect as it gets.

Interview by:
Brett McKenzie
Giant Hydra Creative Manager, SBN2

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