Interview with Dan Duffy of Hungry Man

Dan Duffy is the executive producer of the Los Angeles office of Hungry Man, one of the world's top commercial production companies. Founded by Hank Perlman and Bryan Buckley – ranked #1 commercial director in the world for award-winning commercials – Hungry Man enjoys a reputation for being at the cutting edge of commercial direction and production. With an illustrious career of his own that has included stints at some of the country's top ad agencies, Dan has helped develop the careers of many of today's foremost commercial directors. We sat down with Dan in Los Angeles for a wide-ranging interview about the state of commercial directing, how to break into the industry, and what it takes to be a creative leader.

The Spec Bank: Tell us a little about your background.
Dan Duffy:

I started on the agency side. I was an intern at Chiat (TBWA\Chiat\Day) out of college and worked my way up to being a producer there. I was there five and a half years. By the time I left, I was producing Nissan and Infiniti spots and things like that. And then I went to Wieden (Wieden+Kennedy) and worked there for four years. Mostly working on ESPN, and Microsoft and some Nike spots. Did the first campaign for SportsCenter when nobody really noticed or cared about that account, so we could just do whatever we wanted.

That's how I met Hank (Perlman) and Bryan (Buckley), the guys that started Hungry Man. They started the company in '97, in New York. Then it got crazy busy during the dotcom boom times, so they needed to open an office in LA, and that’s when I took the job to open the office in LA and get that started. It was good to be on that side. It was my first job on the production side, so I learned a lot.

What's Hungry Man been up to lately?

We've been developing a lot of our younger directors, though Bryan and Hank are the bread and butter, the engines, of the company. Bryan’s been working on a lot of big, visual Superbowl spots this time of year. And Hank's been doing a lot of the comedy and performance spots that he usually does. He’s had one of his busiest years this year.

We've got this guy Wayne McClammy who comes from the Jimmy Kimmel show and the “I'm F**king Matt Damon” viral and some of that stuff. He’s been doing a lot of work with Wieden: a bunch of Target ads and some Dick's Sporting Goods. We’re working a lot with Goodby (Goodby, Silverstein & Partners) right now. A lot of the guys are starting to build their reels and get a lot of attention on their own, which is great.

So there are newer guys?

Yeah, we have about four or five newer guys on the roster.

Why would you bring someone new on board?

That's a simple question with a complicated answer. We tend to bring on former agency people. It’s kind of how we’ve built the company. Writers or art directors, guys who know the agency business, they know how to treat clients and deal with agency issues and how to do an ad.

It's changed a little bit now, though, where we're seeing a lot more viral work, and agencies are interested in guys who can do those kinds of ads: web, content, longer form. So there’s a desire to find people who are good at that. In my opinion, the directors are versatile, so they can do a lot of different things. But agencies always try to pigeonhole directors into certain formats and certain types.

We kind of have our fill of younger guys. We have a lot of work cut out with the guys we have, getting them noticed. So we’re not really looking at any new people. When I come across somebody, right now, my attention is, can this guy work? Can he bring opportunities in for himself without much effort from the sales team and everyone else?

Mostly I look for someone who can tell a good story, who has a good command of themselves, who can sell themselves, write a good treatment and be great on the call. We can get a lot of people opportunities to pitch a job, but they have to do it themselves. They have to tell the agency that they’re the right person for the job.

Tell me more about the alternative media stuff. How does that work? Do agencies come to you just for the virals, or do they tend to go to newer places?

It's been interesting. Last year, before the economy went bad, there was a lot of money specifically for viral stuff, for web content. Now, it seems to have gone back a couple years where they partner it up with a regular spot. Or, there are just different agencies picking it up. Like the Razorfish or AKQA; those kinds of agencies are focused on that. Interactive agencies. Droga (Droga5). Guys who have their circle of people. And clients want more. They want somebody to seed it, and do the web design, and track it. And a lot of these interactive agencies don't have business affairs, so they need someone to deal with talent, and trafficking, and a lot of other things that most production companies don’t do. So there’s a changing climate regarding that.

And then the conventional agencies want to make big-impact cinema ads, or ads they know 30 seconds isn't enough for. They want to do a two-minute piece. Bryan did the JC Penney Beware of the Doghouse two Christmases ago. It became a big hit. It started out as a 90-second script, and then it became a four-minute piece. Just because they kept coming up with different ideas and funny things to try. And it was great because you didn’t have to contain yourself into that timeframe, so you could just play, and do more, which is a great opportunity.

Do you get called a lot for that kind of work?

Yeah, we do sometimes. Mostly, though, a lot of that work – the really bread and butter work that's interactive – isn’t that creative, and isn't necessarily that good. I know some of the production companies that have tried to start a specific division, to make a separate branch of their company to focus on that, and they've been disappointed in the work that they've done, just because there's not a concept behind it that really lends itself to something entertaining when you're watching it. It's just heavy lifting, it serves a purpose.

So TV is still where it's at…

I think TV is still… I don’t know for very much longer, but it is still for now. There's definitely going to be a desire to just be able to do any kind of production, and some of the directors we have are moving in that direction. I wonder why agencies and production companies rebrand themselves as “content producers” or as “interactive producers” when it's all just production. I think there's a trend that’s going back to, “We're just producing whatever needs to be produced.” We can tell a story if it's 30 seconds or two minutes. It's the same process you go through. And I think clients are getting that. If they want the kind of work that we do, they'll come to us for that stuff, too.

What's hot right now in the industry? What are the current trends?

We see so much comedy, and that's the bread and butter of what we do. That’s still a really big, solid genre of work. We see a lot of that. And there's always going to be the high-level visual storytelling ads that you see Noam Murro do, and Dante (Dante Ariola) do.

So not much has changed.

I’m surprised there isn’t more push to do 3D ads. We get a lot of calls from vendors that say, “We can do this for you,” but a lot of agencies haven't really pushed that. I think there are just not enough people who can watch it that way to make it worthwhile. That seems like something that'll come in the next year or two. But everybody's shooting video, everybody's shooting HD, they're shooting with the Canons, so that's the biggest change in the process that we do – what we're shooting on.

And agencies are cool with that? Would people prefer to shoot on film?

I think budgets are a big reason why. I think a lot of them would prefer to shoot film, but this can save them money. And a lot of directors we have prefer shooting on tape because you can just keep shooting and not have to load.

Is comedy over-saturated, or is there always going to be a need?

No, I think there's always going to be a need for comedy. I think there's been a desire from agencies to work with guys who do College Humor or Funny Or Die, sort of going to unconventional directors, like Jody Hill, or the guy that does the Danny McBride show. Guys who are doing TV are sometimes getting a little more notice from agencies. Agencies are more comfortable with them telling longer stories, though. They still worry about them telling 30-second stories. One of our guys, Wayne, I mentioned earlier, he’s really successful in that area, but he didn’t get a lot of jobs because he didn't have a lot of spots on his reel. Now, he's got a lot of spots. We worked really hard at that. So he's an easier sell.

Many Spec Bank members are aspiring commercial directors and are doing comedy. Any advice for someone starting a comedy reel? Would it help to have effects-driven comedy? To pick a unique niche?

If you can do effects-driven comedy, that's a big thing that people want. There's definitely a need for that. And make it look good, that's another thing. A lot of people can do funny, but it doesn't look good. So if you can, really take the time to make it look really nice, the art direction, and the way the camera moves. And do something with the camera, if it makes sense to, if it pushes the story along.

Give it some kind of technique, or style.

Yeah, something. Something interesting visually always helps. Because there's a lot of comedy. And the other thing is try to do something unique. Don't just try to do another version of a Bud Light ad. Don't try to mimic a big brand, because someone sees the log of spots [on your reel] and they're going to say, "Oh, it’s a Pepsi, or Bud Light," and then they're just going to compare that to something they've seen. Try to do something really interesting on its own, that can be judged on its own, without being compared to a Snickers ad, or a Skittles ad. Don't try to do another spec Skittles version, or an Old Spice. You're gonna compete with Tom Kuntz?

So pick a brand that may not be advertising right now?

Yup, yeah.

Do your clients like to see fresh faces?

The best ones do. Some agencies really like to find someone new. There are producers out there who love it. But producers these days don't really work hard at finding people. They're going to just pick a list of directors their creatives like. If they suggest somebody and it goes badly, then their neck's on the line. And a lot of freelance producers, especially, they're not going to do that at all, because they want to make sure they get hired again. And that's always something we try to identify: is this producer freelance? Or staff?

Do directors have to reinvent themselves to stay relevant?

Only the top ones do. There's always a big push to put people in a box and keep them there. Agencies really want somebody who does something really well.

So is it a good move for a new director to pick a niche and stick to it?

I think it's a good move for a new director to not be versatile. Agencies are going to want to see the spot they want on that guy's reel. They're not going to look deeper and go, "Well, he obviously can tell a story because of the way he did this." They're not going to combine parts from three different things and put them together in one. They're not going to do that math. They're going to want to see, "Oh, he shot a baseball spot before. I have a baseball script. Let's use that guy." It's annoying, but most agencies do that. A quicker way of getting work is to just do the kind of work you want to do - pick a direction - and keep trying to serve that same vision.

Are there any styles or niches that nowadays are more of a sure bet?

It's really incredibly hard to be a brand-new visual director, a visual storyteller. I wouldn't go in that direction. Partly because you're competing against guys who have bigger budgets and have more expensive ads on their reels. There's not a lot of work that's like that, so when the work comes out, the 10 guys who do it really well are going to be bidding on that, and they're going to go after it. We’ve tried to start guys that do that, and it's extremely hard because they just can't compare. They'll maybe get a job because they're a third-place bidder and the other two guys got booked. And you get an opportunity like that and you have to make the most of it, and that's great, but the opportunities aren't coming up that often, and it's really hard to get them.

Any other kinds to stay away from?

Any of the high-end things, like cars. Guys that do sheet metal, that's a skill. A lot of them develop that as a DP or as a still photographer. I think there's room for those guys to move into that world, if they really excel as a still photographer or a DP. But really, storytelling or performance or casting. I see a lot of spec reels where the directors will use the same actors over and over. They'll do three spots with the same actors. Don’t do that. Show you have some versatility.

Do you look for directors or do they come to you?

Both, but most of them come to us. I get a lot of reels. Every week I get 10 or so links. Some of them are successful in their area, or they're young guys who are trying to get noticed. Or they're from Group 101 Films or some of those organizations. And that's a great training ground, too.

Many Spec Bank members are directors who are trying to break in –

That's a great way for directors to meet creatives that are doing good work. Because there are a lot of creatives who have great scripts they weren't able to sell, and they want to get them produced. Bryan has had such a successful, long-standing career because he started working with creatives when they were starting their careers, and now they're all creative directors. He continually works with them throughout their careers. So he's been loyal to them, and he's always delivered, and they've always brought opportunities to him. As a young director, you can get tied in with young creatives, and then as you both rise up, you can keep that relationship strong.

It's all who you know.

It really is. It really gives you that opportunity.

So what impresses you when you meet a new director?

I really judge on: are they realistic about their place in the market? Do they have a misguided sense of how talented they are and how easy it'll be? Are they honest about themselves, about the challenge ahead of them? Do they have the ability to earn money in another way so they can really wait for the right ad and not just take something that comes along because you're anxious to shoot? Because you can't hide a bad ad anymore. If you do something that isn't very good, it'll get out there and people will know, and then you're the guy that did that. A lot of agencies will look for an easy reason not to use somebody. “Oh, he did that ad? I don’t want to use that guy.” And they might not give him a chance, because he did something bad.

It's really tricky because you have to be careful. And especially if you're trying to find somebody to give you a break, and then they send you a script, and it's not very good, and you have to ask yourself, “Do I want to do this bad ad and get a bad ad on my reel, or do I not do it and risk alienating this guy who finally came through?”

So what do you do?

My advice is, don’t do it. You gotta wait for something good, or find a way to make it good.

Because even if it’s not on your reel…Everything gets out. If it’s out there, it’s online somewhere.

How important is the concept in a spec spot?

Really important. A lot of agencies just judge on the concept. They aren't going to judge on the ability of the directing. They judge editors the same way, I think. “Does this editor work on good spots?” That's kind of the first question they ask. For directors, it's just a matter of, are good concepts coming to him? The creatives who are smart, who obviously have good ideas, are they willing to use this guy? They want to feel like somebody else they know has used him, or they've read about something he's done. Press on a piece is great. Shoot Magazine's “The Best Work You May Never See,” that's great. Any kind of exposure like that, being on AdCritic, that’s great. They're really important.

So submit your spec spot everywhere.

Yeah. Or you can just send a link to something. It always helps if a third party endorses your work.

How many spots on a reel?

Four to eight. You're going to be judged on the worst spot on your reel. That's what they're going to remember. It doesn't have to be long. If there are three spots and they’re great spots, that's fine. If it’s six spots and three are really weak, take the weak ones off.

DVD or web site?

Links. It's so much easier for people to watch links. And you can actually tell if somebody watches it. If you link to WireDrive, you get an email if they actually watch it. I send links to people, and say, “How'd you like the reel?” And they'll say, “Oh yeah, I watched it, it was great.” I know you didn't watch it. You might not know I know… (laughs)

Should new directors put other stuff, like music videos and short films, on their reels?

Yeah. I think if they're good, they absolutely can help. Plus, that also can serve those longer form things that are out there. Sometimes you don't know what you're putting yourself out for. I don’t think it hurts. As long as it's good quality. It’s gotta have spots on it too, though. Can’t just be short films.

Who should a director contact at a production company? He finished his reel. Now what?

The sales staff and the reps and the executive producers. Or other directors. That's a great way we've found people – our directors have suggested them. A lot of directors really want to help other people, so that would be something they should try. It's a little different because our sales staff are always getting hit up by people, EPs are always getting hit up by people… So if you can get in with a director who is supportive of your ideas, that's going to go a lot further and get a lot more traction with the people who work around him.

How should a director prepare himself for a meeting with you?

I would love to see a director not only talk about what he's done and why he wants to be a director, but also talk about how he's going to sell himself. Bring treatments along to the meeting. “These are some treatments I worked on, this is how I like to prepare for my calls.” Talk to me about the preparations they take when they're trying to pitch a job. Because we just give them the opportunity, and they have to do it. Have they written their own treatments? Do they pull their own reference? Are they able to design web sites to sell their idea? Is there a creative way they like to sell themselves that's different? And bring examples of that.

If they're actually meeting with somebody, they probably like the work, or they like you, somebody recommended you, says you're a good guy. So, make the most of that opportunity by trying to sell the rest of the process and talk about how great you are on a phone call, or how great you are in a meeting.

Also, when I meet with a guy, I say to myself, “Is this guy going to be the guy in the room who everybody can tell, this is the director?” We have a couple directors at our company that, you'll be in a crowded room, and you just won't know. They blend in. They don't have charisma. They're just not directors. They'll never be great. They'll be okay, and they'll have a decent career, but they'll never compete against great people: guys that are great at talking to clients, and the crew, and everybody knows, “Okay, he's the guy that's in charge.” How much of that do you have? Sometimes you just have to develop that. Some people just have it. But I think you can develop that. You can learn how to be that person.

Something distinctive about yourself. Some directors do weird things: funny haircuts, or they wear strange hats, or they dress in obnoxious ways. Sometimes that's not a bad thing. Most people want their director to stand out. They want it to be obvious that this is the leader and we’re following him. So you have to have that leadership ability that just comes through. And confidence in a room, talking to somebody. Fearlessness. But not arrogance. It's a balance.

So talent isn't always the key decider…

Right, be memorable. You want somebody to remember that meeting. You've got to be able to sell yourself.

Any other words for an aspiring new director?

I think there's a couple things. One is a real important thing: when you get an opportunity to pitch a project, don't pitch the idea in the way you think they want it done. Instead, think, “I'm going to pitch it in the way I want to do it. The way I'm sure is the right way to do it. I'm not going to pitch it in a way that I think you want.” Don't tell them what they want to hear. Tell them what you’re going to do, and then, if they agree with you, great. Everybody is going to tell them what they want to hear, and then you're just blending in with everyone else if you do that. Have a viewpoint. A lot of places are fine with that – with a different interpretation of it.

And the other thing is, if they don't pick you, make them regret that they didn't pick you. Make an impression. If you don't get the job, make a good impression. Because often it will take an agency ten times to get them to hire one of our guys. They'll pitch a job, and won't get the job. They’ll pitch it again, and won't get the job. And eventually, they'll decide to go with us. So you always have to make a good impression, even if you lose. And make them wonder, “Maybe we should have gone with him.” Make them remember you.

What’s it like working with creatives? What’s that process like?

That's a really complex process. There's a lot of great creatives. I think the reason why we do work with the same people over and over again is because you have to respect them and what they're going through, and how they got to where they are. And listen to them. They might not always have great ideas, but there are reasons behind their suggestions that you may not be aware of. So, it's really about getting them what they want, but giving them more.

It’s very frustrating when you have creatives who don't know what they want or don't have a clear point of view. Or a creative director who wasn't involved in any of the discussions and is suddenly involved every step of the way, and now I have to sort of serve two masters here. Make the guy who's on board with my idea happy, plus his boss who isn't really on board with my idea. You have to be political. Try to make people happy, but ultimately, you have to try to avoid shooting things that you don't want end up in the spot, because they usually do.

Please describe the process when an agency comes to you with a campaign they want to bid.

It happens two or three different ways. They'll usually come to us requesting a specific director, like Bryan or Hank. Our company is different, though. I think they'll often come to us and say, “Who do you have?” And a lot of our directors, people might say, are interchangeable, so they'll say, “Well, tell us who's available, and we'll consider them.”

So we'll get an opportunity to maybe pitch two or three guys for a project. Because we have a lot of the same type of comedic directors. And some places will just want Bryan or Hank and that's it. Often they'll also just really have an open mind and look at somebody. All we really want them to do is look at the reel and hopefully decide to give the guy a chance to pitch it.

So what happens when an agency wants to meet with your directors?

I’ll get scripts and see if our guys are interested. Sometimes the director they want isn’t interested, and passes, if they feel it isn’t right for them. But we’ll say, “Here’s another suggestion. Check him out and see if you like him.”

And then, if it goes somewhere, we’ll talk internally about the project. We’ll find out who else is bidding to get a sense of what they’re looking for. Some agencies will tell us. Some won’t. But really important, from our point of view, is to see if they’re looking at three of the same kind of people or three really different people. Because sometimes you’ll notice clear differences between the directors they’re looking at, so we’re like, ok, well, they must be coming to you because of this strength in your reel, or this is what you have, the performance. Or they might talk about specific spots they’re fans of, so we know the type of humor they’re looking at. If it’s subtle humor, or interesting casting, or whatever it may be. So then we’ll use that as a way to tell our story and pitch our director and work on those strengths.

A big thing we try to do is, when you get the situation where all the directors are similar, it can be a risky move, but we’ll pitch a different take on the scripts. How do you interpret them? What would you do differently than the other guys? Then they’ll either love the idea, and you’re the only one that’s pitching the idea, so you’ll have an advantage. Or they won’t like the idea, and they’ll pick somebody who just wants to execute the ads, or they pitched a different idea.

For the most part, agencies that are willing to consider something new are more likely going to be ones you want to work with. I think we always like to work on projects where we have the ability to bring something to the table, to discover something in casting or while you’re shooting. You discover a new way of doing it that suddenly takes the intention that they had starting off, and plus it. The agency still gets credit for how good it is.

Good point. Thank you very much for taking the time to share your insights.

You're welcome.