Monday, April 22, 2019
  • Friday, Oct. 19, 2018
Craig Allen Retires From Venables Bell, Reflects On How Ad Biz Has Evolved
Craig Allen
Agency vet calls it a career after 41 years, looks back at lessons learned, his favorite work
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Breaking in as a production coordinator at Grey Advertising NY in the late 1970s, Craig Allen moved to San Francisco in 1980 to become a producer at J. Walter Thompson, collaborating with such clients as Chevron, Activision, the California Milk Board and Dole Pineapple. In ‘87 he was promoted to sr. VP/director of production at JWT S.F. During his tenure there which lasted until ‘97, Allen worked with a host of leading directors ranging from Bob Giraldi to Steve Horn, Joe Sedelmaier and Mark Coppos. 

Next came a four-year stint as a freelance producer, with Allen contributing his expertise to varied shops, including Goldberg Moser O’Neill, Goodby Silverstein & Partners and Kirschenbaum & Bond, all in San Francisco, and GSD&M in Austin, Texas. It was during those freelance years that Allen met Paul Venables and Greg Bell, creatives at Goodby who went on to launch Venables Bell & Partners (VB&P), San Francisco, in 2001. Messrs. Venables and Bell then wound up hiring Allen as a freelancer to work on that agency’s first campaign for Ultimate TV by Microsoft. 

For that Ultimate TV shoot, Venables and Allen drove from San Francisco to L.A. in a rental car since it was such a difficult, uncertain time to fly immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Their shared automobile ride marked the beginning of what’s became a lasting friendship as the two forged a strong professional bond. Allen spent 2001 freelancing at both VB&P and GSD&M. In 2002 he went on staff at VB&P as executive producer, later becoming its head of integrated production. In his early years there, Allen was the entire production department, which he helped grow over time into a cohesive team, overseeing an expansion of agency capabilities into business affairs, production and post. VB&P’s content divisions now include Lumberyard, Rabble and the VB&P studio.

After 17 years at VB&P, Allen recently retired from full-time duty, anticipating that he will occasionally come into the office, maybe once a week in November and into early December so as to help ensure a smooth transition to his successor, Hilary Coate, who had been freelancing at the agency for the past year. Prior to that, Coate spent 17 years with Goodby Silverstein & Partners, starting as a sr. producer and then becoming exec producer. SHOOT caught up with Allen who discussed Coate, reflected on his career, lessons learned over the years, and how the ad business has evolved.

Allen described Coate as “the perfect person to come in and take over. She comes from Goodby and understands the importance of making the work as good as it can possibly be. She was brought up in the same culture that Paul and Greg, the original founders, came from--they too had been part of the Goodby culture. (Venables is now chairman of VB&P; Bell exited some years back to become a director and recently joined the roster of Community Films.) 

“I’ve known Hilary for a long time,” continued Allen. “She’s well respected by the production community. She understands traditional advertising as well as where the work is going--social activations, different kinds of experiences and content. She will be great at helping the agency in these next periods of growth. She’s freelanced here off and on over the past year so she has a great feel for how we work and the culture here. I spoke to a lot of different candidates (to succeed me). I reached out to a lot of people and some reached out to us. When it was all said and done, Hilary was the ideal choice.”

Lessons learned
Perhaps the most notable lesson that’s stayed with Allen throughout his career is that “you never stop learning.” One of his initial lessons came at Grey NY where he worked for five producers, three of whom were women--Catherine Land, Barbara Barrow and Regina Ebel; the latter went on to lead production at BBDO for many years. “They were producers who would throw you into the fire but always be there to backstop you if you got into trouble,” recalled Allen. “They gave me new responsibilities I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with but that always led to growth. To this day, i believe very strongly that you provide an opportunity for people to grow by having them box above their fighting weight so to speak. You give them more responsibility while still having a safety net there for them. Catherine, Barbara and Regina give me those opportunities. They had very strong personalities, which I also learned from. I saw how they stood up for making the work as great as it could be, how important that was--and is to this day.”

The nature of a producer’s responsibilities have also grown exponentially since those early days. “Back then, it was pretty cut and dried in terms of broadcast production--you did a :60 or a :30 with a :15 cutdown. It was pretty prescribed in terms of the process through which you got things done before shipping the final spot out the door. By contrast, now there are so many different pieces of content across different platforms for which we’re responsible. Producers have to not only be incredibly knowledgeable and organized in terms of making that extra content, but also have to much more multidimensional in terms of knowing the nuances of digital and social media. You have to be much more of a renaissance person to juggle all of this.”

Yet as much as things change, some aspects remain the same. “Time and money have always been concerns,” noted Allen. “Clients to this day are very concerned bout keeping production costs down. And we seemingly never have enough time to produce all that is expected of us. The other constant is the quest to find the right talent to match with a project--directors, editors, composers.”

Big career break; spot highlights
Though he was already an accomplished, longstanding producer--with 24 years under his belt at the time--Allen felt his big career break came in 2001 when he got to be on the ground floor of VB&P. “I was freelancing there and saw they had something special going on. When Paul and Greg reached out and asked me to come on staff, I felt that I had to accept. The creative values were so strong and it felt right to hitch my wagon to this place.”

A prime lesson learned at VB&P, said Allen, was simply, “We never did stuff just to be shocking. We weren’t shocking for the sake of being shocking. There had to be great conceptual creative behind every piece of work. The partners felt strongly about that and imparted that priority to all of us. That’s how we generated great work--work that was creative but at the same time could also sell and promote a product and build a brand.”

Looking back on his 41 years in the business, Allen said that five projects he worked on stand out for him personally as his favorites:

  • California Milk Board’s “New Baby,” one of his first major projects at JWT San Francisco, directed by Hill Covington at Jenkins Covington. “It was a heartwarming spot about a little boy who’s jealous of his new baby brother. But when mom spends some time with him, we see the boy bond again with her over milk and cookies. The boy later leaves a cookie with the baby, showing his acceptance of and affection for the newborn.”
  • A Sprint campaign at JWT San Francisco directed by Joe Sedelmaier of the Sedelmaier studio. “Joe took charge. He was like no one else. Working with him was unlike any other process I have ever been through. He had his own ideas and he would cast his own characters, many of whom weren’t real actors--from his mailman to someone he met at the grocery store. Even the most strong willed directors didn’t carry that kind of clout. No director took ownership of a project like Joe did. You had some input but if you let him do his thing, you’d often get some very funny spots.
  • Barclays’ “Fake” from VB&P--directed by Nicolai Fuglsig of MJZ, with visual effects by The Mill--thrusts a man into a Wall Street populated by mannequins, props and buildings which appear real but aren’t, depicting a world of finance which is all smoke and mirrors until the protagonist breaks free upon finding a  Barclays bank branch.
  • Audi’s “Green Police,” which earned a primetime commercial Emmy Award nomination in 2010. Directed by Bryan Buckley of Hungry Man, the VB&P spot shows people being arrested by the green police for such “crimes” as not properly disposing of an orange rind, choosing plastic over paper, and using incandescent light bulbs. “Green Police” later takes us to a police checkpoint where traffic has been stopped. Seemingly all the drivers are in jeopardy of being arrested except for the one behind the wheel of an Audi A3 TDI clean diesel automobile who’s allowed to go on his way. “I liked the spot because it was embraced by liberals and conservatives, demonstrating that humor can help bring people together,” said Allen.
  • And Audi’s “Commander” directed by Craig Gillespie of MJZ. In this 2016 Super Bowl spot, we see a retired astronaut who’s lost his zest for life. He’s surrounded by memories of his past, the Space Age’s golden years. But when his son shows up and hands over the keys to the new high performance Audi R8 V10, a rocket ride under the stars stirs newfound life within the ex-astronaut, reminding us that amazing things can happen when we choose exploration, technology and the moon. Supered on screen is the campaign theme: “Choose the Moon.” The inclusion of David Bowie’s “Starman” track is also among the reasons “Commander” ranks as one of Allen’s favorite spots.

Career advice
As for the lesson he’d impart to aspiring agency producers, Allen affirmed, “While you have to be attentive to all the details and be on top of every little thing, don’t lose sight of having a life. You have to carve out that work/life balance, Work hard but think of your family, your significant other, whomever. You need to have a well-rounded life to truly be successful as a person. That’s the most important takeaway for me which I try to share with those who work with me. Make sure you work hard while still leaving some time for yourself and others.”



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