Corky Arnold Interview

Interview with Corky Arnold of Jackhammer Creative

Corky Arnold is an award-winning commercial director and sold screenwriter at Jackhammer Creative. Corky directs wacky, entertaining commercials involving live-action, special effects, and animation that evoke laughter from the consumer while increasing an advertiser's bottom line. Jackhammer creates and produces all types of projects, including commercials, branded content and “infoadvertainment,” from concept through post, around the world.

The Spec Bank: Tell us about Jackhammer.

Corky Arnold: At Jackhammer, we produce and direct comedy, dialogue and action commercials for ad agencies, sometimes blending animation, 3D and effects into the mix. We think a lot about the consumer, not just pretty pictures and awards.

We specialize in branded content called “infoadvertainment.” It’s our approach to a new type of advertising. It gives consumers something they should know in an entertaining way, with a touch of mild advertising tacked on. It’s a more friendly way for the advertiser to reach the consumer and leave their brand impression of goodwill behind.

One example is the Pet Minute with Steve Dale. We created a series of 52 sixty-second segments combining flash animation and live action to give consumers interesting, yet entertaining, tidbits about their pets, like, “You can train your cat!” These are the revenue streams we concentrate on. Fun and entertainment are the core of our brand.

We also take on the role of ad agency/production company when an advertiser wants us to create and produce an entire campaign, including Internet, broadcast and social media that go outside the proverbial box to reach consumers in a special way.

Check out our work at:

How is the field of commercial directing changing?

The basic elements of directing a project are still the same. The ad agency sees your director’s work, sends you a board of the commercial, then calls to talk creative before you and your producer bid the project along with 3–5 other companies, sometimes more. If you’re awarded the job, pre-pro begins and you’re on your way to casting, location scouting…the works.

Don’t be afraid to call producers and exec producers at ad agencies to get work, even if their personalities are prickly. Overlook the attitude. Be smooth, not pushy. Help them to remember your personality and get them to your site to see your work. And follow up no matter what, until they say “never.”

Don’t be afraid to call chief marketing officers at an advertiser to show them that what you’ve produced for them can sell their product better than anyone else and will increase their bottom line. They might actually surprise you. Every company wants to make more money. Help them do that and you’ll get more work.

Also, you need to understand actors. Your directing will benefit even if you’re directing inanimate objects. Take acting classes and you’ll learn the what, why and how in the actor’s mind.

On preparation: don’t wing it. Make a shot list, know what you’re doing inside and out, and magical things will happen on set. Know how to do everyone’s job on the crew so no one can screw you over with their incompetence. Always have a smile on your face and a can-do attitude. It keeps the blood pressure low.

Commercial directing is always tough to break into, but what creative job isn’t? Getting work is always competitive, no matter what the economy is like. Get used to it. Some advertisers run contests in the hopes of getting better creative work than their ad agencies are giving them and for less bucks. It’s an opening; jump in and do something memorable – and don’t be afraid to be outrageous or funny. Consumers love it. There are now websites like Idea Bounty that run idea contests for advertisers for commercials, print, etc. You can win cash for thinking, and these competitions give the new director a chance if you’ve got what it takes to be a thinker and a doer.

How do branded content and other forms of web video fit into the mix of work?

Branded content comes in many sizes and shapes and is usually sponsored by an advertiser in some way. It’s a category that includes every area a director works in, except movies. Although some movie shorts are considered branded content, like the BMW shorts that aired on TV and in cinemas.

Web video is a way for a director to break in and get to know the ad agency. Show them something they’ll remember to get the job. Ad agencies try out new directors on this kind of work.

Is there money to be made today? How much can a commercial director expect to earn?

The money and the work are out there. Find your niche, your brand, do something different than all the other directors, and you’ll find success. Run your own race.

A commercial director can earn ten bucks a year or a million a year. There are no set rules or paths to follow. But be diverse if you want success and, in the beginning, if possible, get a job that allows you to have fun while you’re moving on up the directing ladder.

What are advertising agencies looking for in directors?

Large agencies look for big production companies and directors with heavy samples. The fear factor is always high in the ad agency person’s mind. But there are exceptions to the rule. Go in with terrific work anywhere and your time will come.

Small to mid-size ad agencies are the best place to start when you have the goods. Go to ad agency web sites to see the kind of work they produce before contacting them.

What are production companies looking for in a director?

A director who already has clients. A director who has great work they can sell. And, once in a while, a fresh director with unusual work.

If a company is entrepreneurial, they might take a chance on new directors but they have to mentor and help them grow. You can’t tell a thing about a new director or any director until you see them in action and view the results.

Spec work is a starting point to enter into a conversation about your capabilities.

What do you want to see on a director’s reel?

Creative consistency that shows me the director is thinking.

What kind of spot samples and how many?

No less than five or six spots. The more the merrier, though it’s quality, not quantity.

How do you choose a director for a project?

I’m the only director at my company now, so the choice is easy. The client chooses me or they don’t.

If we expand and I need to choose a director or directors to join us, I’d look for all the things I’ve mentioned, plus I would need to involve our sales rep. If the sales rep doesn’t agree, then no sale. Although we might sell a new director ourselves in our city to get them rolling.

How does a director need to stand out? Technique? Style? Niche? What should they avoid?

Avoid working with companies whose work is not as good as yours.

You’re the general, have confidence in your decisions. The work tells us who you are, even in the beginning. Find your own way, don’t copy. Be quick on your feet. If you blurt out a bad idea, turn it into a great one before the agency person’s face goes south. And always smile.

Find what genre you like to direct and go after it even if it takes a while to figure out what your style and likes are. There are many genres to pick from. If you don’t care about your style, technique or niche, and want to work regularly, find out what genres ad agencies buy a lot of and get good at it. Be the best.

Never miss the opportunity to direct anything when you’re coming up. Just don’t show every sample you have to potential clients thinking it’s Casablanca. Be very selective about your samples and the order they show. Start with a great spot and end with a greater spot. Throw your favorites in the middle.

Also, study humanity. Read “The Uses of Enchantment,” by Bruno Bettleheim. Then go to and view the work of the greatest commercial director of all time.

What does it take to start out as a commercial director these days?

Luck, perseverance, and a second job in the biz that allows you to parlay it into a directing job.

If you are at a production company in a beginner capacity, at an animation company, an editing company, etc., use them as stepping stones to encourage management to go after work for you if you are capable of handling the work as director. Increase the bottom line for your company and reap the rewards.

What is your advice to someone trying to break in?

Direct anything you can to make bank and only do spec commercials or anything spec with great concepts.

I would need to see samples that surprise me. Samples that are fresh and set the director apart from the competition by the way he/she handles the creative. Samples that make you laugh hard or feel sad, any emotion is memorable. It’s fun to see a scary commercial.

And last but not least, if your work is as good or better than mine, we’re going to talk...

Tell us about your background.

I have a BS in creative writing and an MS in visual design. The visual design aspect includes motion graphic design, animation, computer animation and live- action.

I left the Pacific and headed for the Atlantic, where my short film work, spec- written commercials, short stories and television commercial storyboards got me into advertising working as a copywriter/art director creating broadcast commercials. Great fun. Tons of hours; one year was like ten in the learning category. I created funny, outrageous commercials for every consumer product I was on. If it passed committee scrutiny and the client got it, I’d work with a team to find a director/company to bring the commercial to life.

Creative by committee can be an archaic caste system, full of insecurities, where you learn immediately that your innate confidence, talent, reading people’s faces, decision-making when it’s your turn, and a thick skin reign supreme. They’re all tools you’ll use in any career.

After a few years in the east, I hopped in the car and headed west. On my way, I stopped overnight, called a friend for a hello, and it led to a job directing a commercial for his ad agency. A quirky, comedy commercial where I experimented with live action, hand-drawn animation, and stop-motion for the Illinois Lottery. It started my career as a director.

Thank you very much.

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