The Interview Series // 23 (Part One)

daniel

“Have you ever played the Legend of Zelda? That’s what getting a job in advertising is like.” This, my precocious and talented friends, is exactly the sort of nerdy but insightful advice you’re likely to get from Daniel Bremmer (http://peachfuzz NULL.net/), especially after two shots of Absinthe, three cocktails and a round of Coopers. We met to conduct this interview on a beautiful summer’s evening in a quaint Brooklyn establishment, and sat talking shit for hours. We talked about highschool, the New York ad industry, the Obama campaign, the Legend of Zelda and even the merits of not having sex. You see, Daniel’s a 35-year-old kid from California, freelancing in New York City, trying his hardest to save the world, and has something to say about everything. Which he’s allowed to, for he’s pretty much worked on everything, everywhere, from Microsoft to Prius to Coke and Obama. He’s also just launched a site to save health care in the U.S. named notatable.org (http://www NULL.notatable NULL.org/). But! Let. Me. Tell. You! That stuff didn’t matter after a particularly potent round of cocktails. You know what did? Talking to strangers sitting next to us, that’s what! Which we did for so long, we totally forgot we were there to do an interview, until Daniel remembered, and things got interesting…

Daniel: Alright! Start! What do you want to ask?

Junior: Ugh. I don’t even know anymore.

D: Come on! I’m the one that’s supposed to be drunk, not you.

Jr: I know!

D: You should have been sober. You should have been drinking coffee.

Jr: No, no! I’m all good! I swear! Alright, alright. I usually like to start with a quick rundown of where you started out, what you wanted to do, how you got into uni, and then the job, you know…

D: My life story?

Jr: Well… *Hiccup* …Yeah, I guess. Quick though! Two hundred words or less!

D: Ha, OK. I’ll try. I grew up in Orange County. It was a very conservative place. My parents are somewhat hippy. We grew food in the backyard. We had pet chickens. I went to Space Camp (http://www NULL.spacecamp NULL.com/). My Dad was an engineer. My Mother was a teacher. I was the oldest child. Very idealistic. Tragedy struck. I had a brother die when I was in fourth grade. He was six months old. He was a baby. Really bad. I had a bad time in school after that. Wanted to take a class in Graphic Design, which wasn’t what it was called, it was some weird word. I signed up because I heard you got to make t-shirts. And I wanted to make t-shirts for bands I liked.

Jr: What bands were you listening to?

D: Well me and my friends were into this weird mix. There weren’t enough kids in my high school to have different alternative scenes. This was before Nirvana came out with Nevermind. Like, right before. Because we didn’t have enough alternative kids, we had to combine all the high schools together. All the kids would go to the goth club wearing black. Then the next week we’d go to the shoegaze concert, and we’d all be wearing corduroys and creepers. It was all the same kids. There weren’t enough kids to have different scenes; so all the kids who were into cool shit from all the different high schools were one scene.

Jr: And where was this? California?

D: Huntington Beach. A little conservative beach town.

Jr: Is this like The O.C (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=yMGyl-l3qqc)? The TV show?

D: Yeah, that’s set in Newport Beach, which borders Huntington Beach.

Jr: So all the cool alternative kids made their own scene…

D: It wasn’t cool though! What we did became cool after we graduated. While we were doing it, it was super dorky.

Jr: So shoegaze and goth was super dorky.

D: Super dorky. Everybody liked bad hair metal and R&B.

Jr: I think this is a good opportunity to talk about schooling. A lot of high school students read these things you know. So what were you like at school?

D: Well I never did my homework. I was a horrible student. I loved to learn and I was a gifted kid. I was in honors, but I nearly got kicked out as a freshman for skipping class.

Jr: So did you have a problem with focus? Was that what it was?

D: Well it was all my fault, in retrospect. I didn’t have the discipline to do it. But when you really look at it, I knew that I knew the subject material. The teacher knew that I knew the material. I knew that the teacher knew that I knew the material… Everybody knew. And I wasn’t allowed to just cut through the bullshit. No one was allowed to do that. Because you had to jump through these hoops. And that just seemed stupid. I couldn’t comprehend how that mattered. In life, especially. And sadly, at the end of the day, it didn’t matter at all.

Jr: Yeah it doesn’t matter, but it does matter! Because it’s all about discipline and focus and sitting down and doing the work.

D: But you know what? I am a disciplined and focused motherfucker today. I remember I had a freelancer, while I was working at SS+K (http://www NULL.ssk NULL.com/) on a project, and he wanted to go home. It was ten o’clock, there was shit to be done, and I couldn’t understand. I said, “You’re trying to go home? What the fuck is wrong with you? It’s not done. It’s only ten o’clock. Grow a pair.”

Jr: Heh, yeah, grow a pair.

D: “We’re doing shit. Grow the fuck up. If you want to do shit then we need to do it right.” So when it comes to that level of focus and discipline on my projects, I’m incredibly dedicated. I guess at the time, teenage me never saw the value of jumping through hoops to prove something. So anyways, you can edit all that out. No one cares about that.

Jr: But I do think it’s important! Think about the kids! They need to know this stuff. They should feel they’re not alone and so on.

D: Yeah, I guess so. Anyway, fast forward a bit and I went to Community College after High School, got into design, I wasn’t that good, the dot-com thing came around and suddenly I was being paid a lot of money. I still wasn’t very good. But I could learn html and I was a really mediocre designer. This was the late nineties.

I DJ’d at a college radio station. I used to write for music magazines. I used to promote concerts. I was really involved in the underground music scene in Southern California. That was my life. It was through music that I discovered art and design.

And then I worked my way into a really crappy Orange County ad agency called Priscomm. I was their web guy. And I saw this guy Jimmy who was the Creative Director and his job was to look at a business problem and come up with ideas that became ads, which I would then make into websites. So I thought, “So he just sits around and thinks… And comes up with ideas… And gets to pay rent that way? You can do that? That’s an option?” So I took a night class in advertising, fell in love with it, and then it all started.

Jr: How old were you when you took a night class?

D: Maybe mid twenties? Like 25. Maybe 26?

Jr: You were 26 when you realized you wanted to do advertising?

D: Yeah. I had no idea that I could do that.

Jr: You know what the funny thing about that is. I know a whole bunch of 21, 22, 23 year olds that feel like they are over, they’re too old, by the time they get into advertising.

D: Dude, I just stopped getting carded at bars and I’m 35. It’s the beard.

Jr: Ha.

D: I don’t know. I don’t know what to tell you.

Jr: I think this is the biggest problem with juniors. They think that their time is up by 25.

D: Sprout a pair. When I started at Art Center College of Design, the average age was 24. It very quickly changed. Now it’s down to like 18 or 19 years because of funding problems. But it used to be that it was a second career. For most of the people I know that are really good, it’s a second career.

Jr: Well that’s what we’re kinda hearing. That back in the day when the mavericks were running the industry it was full of misfits. The dudes from Brooklyn who didn’t know what to do with their lives but were super smart and street savvy and could sell anything to anyone. Apparently they were the guys who were getting into advertising. And now it’s become full of a lot of fresh-faced marketing kids straight out of uni who think they can change the world with a social media strategy.

D: All we need is smart people who are willing to call bullshit on everything. I have this issue. I’m freelancing at a large agency right now, I’m not going to say who they are… but you meet these people, and some of them are brilliant. It’s a large agency with a very good reputation. But sometimes you meet a person and you think, “Why are you here?” It’s filled with people who don’t understand how people communicate today. It’s like they still live in the old days of two creative guys sitting in a room who had an idea of what the world should be because they had these great lifestyles. They saw movies and did drugs at work and got paid big salaries to talk about their ideas all day. They had these ideas about what the world should be like and they turned them into awesome 30 or 60 second commercials and big lavish print ads that they shot in exotic locations. That’s over. That world still exists in some way, but it’s not relevant anymore.

Most people in America don’t live that life. They deal with real problems. They have their own ideas. They’re used to a different type of communication where they don’t suck down what the TV tells them anymore. They tell the TV what they want to watch. And when they don’t like it, they fast-forward or they skip it, right? They don’t even fucking look at paper anymore. They do once in a while, but if it’s not relevant to them then they don’t care.

The world of media and communication is dramatically changing and advertising works within that world. The skills that we have of, ‘I am a Copywriter. This guy is an Art Director. We get together and come up with ideas and they’re gonna look pretty and sound nice,’ is not necessarily the skill set that people who use social media, a medium that allows these people to express their ideas and control what they want, resonate with. Sometimes it is. Because I think all those people will sit down, even the most jaded among us, close the laptop, turn off the lights and watch a great fucking show. So that still exists on some level. But for the general majority of advertising, we need to figure out what these people want. What these people are interested in. We need to find a way to make our work relevant to them. I don’t think that’s the way advertising works today, and I don’t think the way we teach people to make advertising is relevant anymore. It’s fucking dumb.

Jr: And most definitely in New York!

D: New York is the worst! I have to live it! I sat in a room the other day to talk about a campaign for a large company’s effort in the health care industry, and it’s in a good way, they actually make things to improve health care. But I counted fourteen people in the conference room.

Jr: Wow! Fourteen! That’s fucked!

D: I know! Only four of them were involved in the ideation of what was happening. The meeting took about two hours. Nothing was accomplished. Which means this large American company was paying for fourteen people to sit around and feel important. For what? That’s what New York is.

Jr: OK, so, Obama. You need to tell me about Obama, start to finish.

D: Am I going to be forever known as the guy who did some work on Obama? Did I peak on November 4th, 2008? Am I over?

Jr: Well generally when we interview someone, we want to have a popular hook that people can associate with. So we’re tagging you with Obama.

D: So it’s not just my winning personality?

Jr: No. Not at all.

D: Ha. OK. Well, I will have to sadly disappoint you by saying that I worked on only one part of a six-agency effort to get the guy elected. This is how pathetic my little slice of history is.

Jr: But it’s still very important!

D: Well yes. Having said that, it was still the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life, the greatest thing I’ve ever been a part of, and the greatest change I’ve ever had a piece of. It’s the best thing I’ve done, according to Kantian ethics… Are you familiar with Kant?

Jr: You mean Emmanuel Kant (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Kant), the 18th-century German philosopher from the Prussian city of Königsberg widely known as the last influential philosopher of modern Europe?

D: Yes, that guy. So, according to Kantian ethics, the best contribution to society I’ve ever made is getting this dude elected. My part of getting this dude elected was an ad campaign to get young people to get off their fucking ass and register to vote.

Jr: Because you knew that they’d vote Obama, right?

D: Totally. Our data said that 70 percent of the people aged 18 to 35 were going to vote for Obama. We had to make the idea of voting relevant to these people. We also knew that young people don’t believe that politics is a way of getting something done. Our insider challenge was to say, “If you show up and vote, it is a worthwhile way to accomplish the things that you already want of out life. The things that you want for the future.”

They don’t feel that voting actually accomplishes dick squat. They feel it’s been proven that it doesn’t. So the challenge was to register as many of them as possible.

Another problem we had was that the entire process is outdated nonsense. Every state has different laws. You need to buy a stamp, a postage stamp, to register to vote! You can’t do it online. It’s stupid. So we had to overcome all this shit. The bottom line was, ‘How do we make registering as relevant as possible and how do we register as many of them as possible?

Well, the easiest way to do it is through a website. Anyone who’s young knows how to use the web. All they care about is ‘Give me a fucking URL and I’ll take care of it.’ That became Voteforchange.com. (Editors note: Which is no longer online, sorry kiddies.)

Jr: And as little clicks as possible.

D: Yes, exactly. I’m sure someone else on the Obama campaign thought of that name as well, but my partner Peter Cortez and I came up with the name and they liked it. A guy named Scott Thomas (http://simplescott NULL.com/) was the information architect of the site. He was also the design director for Obama For America (http://www NULL.barackobama NULL.com/). He’s the one that took the Sol Sender (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=etEP1Bhgui0) icon and cleaned up the type. He was responsible for most of the look of the Obama campaign. He’s the one that brought in Shepard Fairey (http://obeygiant NULL.com/).

Jr: Sounds like he’s the bro to know. So voteforchange.com…

D: Yeah, the tagline for the site was, “Everything you need to register and vote”. Most of the campaign was Peter and I working 18 hours a day in a room. It was a lot of BO, bad sushi, and favors from awesomely talented people. We sent out questionnaires from a Gmail address to everyone we knew. We didn’t tie it to the Obama campaign at all, a lot of the stuff we didn’t even tell our own bosses, because we knew if we told our bosses they would have to go get approval, and we didn’t have time for that, so we just did a lot of shit fly-by-night.

So we set up this Gmail account and sent out these petitions to everybody we knew. We wanted to know, “Why is it worthwhile for you to vote? What are you going to get out of it? What do you expect to happen?” We got back hundreds of responses from all over the country. We got a lot of people from other countries, but we couldn’t use their stuff. We took all the interesting responses, broke them down into probably seven or eight categories of why you would vote. We built these buckets and filled them with responses that were good. Then we reached out to a lot of poster artists. We had two artists that were instrumental in getting everybody else. On the West Coast it was Brian Flynn of Hybrid Design (http://www NULL.hybrid-design NULL.com/). On the East Coast it was Tristan Eaton of Thunderdog Studios (http://www NULL.thunderdogstudios NULL.com/).

posters

Jr: So these guys do music posters and stuff?

D: Yes. These are the guys who are big fucking dogs in their scene. Then it was all about our fantasy file. Who are all the designers you’ve always wanted to work with? We just emailed everyone, called everyone. And you know, it was just me and Peter in the office, the air conditioning shuts off at seven or eight, the funk kicks in, the smell of the old sushi boxes too, and you just go. You call all your East Coast peeps until it’s ten o’clock and it’s getting kind of late. Then you start calling West Coast peeps until about one. And you’re calling everybody and you’re briefing people constantly. We’d brief someone and say, ‘Health care: The issues are X, Y, and Z. Obama’s platform is 1, 2, and 3. Here’s three different headlines that should be able to work with the image you’re going to create. Show us your sketches.’

posters2

Jr: So was everything you got back good? Or did you have to refine some things?

D: Almost everything was good. There were a few people that we couldn’t use, not very many, I think at the end 18 artists did about 22 or 23 pieces that were published. All the artists worked for free, nobody got paid.

Jr: Nobody got paid?

D: Not a penny.

Jr: So how’d you do that?

D: We tried to get honorariums but we told them upfront that they had to be willing to do this for the love and the glory. We had exactly one guy tell us no because of the money.

Jr: Really?

D: Yeah, then he called us back and said yes. The only people who said no were people who were just physically overbooked. If people were already yelling at them for work and they were overbooked.

Jr: And then Obammy won!

D: Then he won! Success. Best thing I ever did.

(Editors note: If you wanna get something super cool, Scott Thomas has made a book filled with all the Obama design stuff, featuring Daniel’s posters and the voteforchange.com website. Buy it here (http://www NULL.kickstarter NULL.com/projects/simplescott/designing-obama).)

Jr: So, OK, we’ve been drinking now for how long? Let’s jump into the nitty gritty shit and see what happens. What’s your advice for juniors?

D: Well, if you’re a junior, all you’ve got to do is start working. Make good shit. Be a smart person. Be nice. And hopefully that’ll work out.

Jr: I know this. And a lot of others know this. But for a lot of people it’s about getting that first ‘foot in the door’ or whatever.

D: Have you played The Legend of Zelda? On Nintendo?

Jr: Umm…

D: You haven’t played fucking Zelda?

Jr: I’ve had a fiddle.

D: Ha. I should slap you.

(Turns to the person sitting next to him.)

D: Have you played the legend of Zelda?

Random 1: A little while ago.

Random 2: I have.

D: Then I only need to slap one of you.

Random 2: I remember the Nintendo cheat.

D: Oh Yeah?

Random 2 and D simultaneously: Up. Up. Down. Down. Left. Right. Left. Right. B. A. B. A. Select Start.

D: Yes!

Jr: Oh my god. You guys are total nerds. So what’s the importance of Zelda anyway?

Random 2: Yeah what’s the significance?

D: Well remember how in Zelda, when you wanted to get something accomplished, you had to go through these weird adventures that seemed like they had nothing to do with anything? If you wanted to beat some bad guy, you had to go find a leaf, give it to an old man, get a potion, take it to a lady, she’ll make you some arrows. Then you have to take the arrows to a dungeon, and shoot a guy with the arrows. Right?

Random 2: Yeah!

D: Well that’s what getting a job in advertising is like.

Jr: Hahahaha. Woah.

D: It’s exactly the same. Exactly the same! You’ve got to have teachers, they need to be smart, and they have to get you and like you. Then you’ve got to work fucking hard and you’ve got to be smart. If you don’t work hard and you’re not smart then you’re a piece of shit. But if you’re one of the smart hard working people, your teacher will recognize that and will introduce you to somebody. Then you start going on these little ‘go sees’, you know, while you’re trying to get a foot in the door. You meet these people and you say, “Hey, man, you work in advertising. I want to work in advertising. What do you think about X, Y, and Z? How does this work? You did blah blah blah, what was that like?” Cause you don’t know. I didn’t fucking know. I still don’t know most of this shit. So you ask all these questions and they answer you. And they feel smart for answering you. Once you’ve asked them enough questions and whatever, you say, “Is there anyone else I should talk to? Maybe at another agency?” And they say yes or no. Then you ask them if they can recommend some people. You know, say, “Do you know anybody at this place or that place?” And then they say, “Actually I do.” I did this in London. I got people to pick up their phone and make calls to people on their cell phone. Numbers you’ll never get. Once you meet that first smart connected person, and he or she likes you, they’ll make a couple of calls for you. Then you’ll meet a couple more people, and the next thing you know you’re meeting people, meeting people, meeting people. Then all of a sudden, somebody knows of a job. Or an internship. And if your work is good, and you’re a nice personable person, why not offer you a gig? Even if it’s an internship, which is how you prove to everybody in the building how smart and good you are.

Jr: Wow. Yes. You make yourself invaluable.

D: You have to be good though. You have to give a fuck, you have to work hard, and you need to be good. If you do that, then you’ll be fine, especially if you’re a social person.

Jr: That really is very good advice. You are such a nerd though.

D: Ha, yeah. But you know, when Zelda came out for Nintendo GameCube, while I was in school, everything else suffered.

Jr: It always does with video games.

D: My TV and my GameCube were going all hours of the day. It was either me or my roommate taking turns playing. So when one person was doing homework, going to school or taking a nap, the other person was playing.

Jr: It happens to the best of us.

D: It was good though. It was like a religious experience.

Jr: How long did you do this for?

D: I don’t know–too long. Then I became the student president. That was a bad idea. Don’t do that.

Jr: Ha, OK. That’s good advice. Do not become student president.

D: Do not become student president at Art Center, do not play video games, and do not have sex.

Jr: Hold on. Do not have sex?

D: Be chaste.

Jr: What? What’s the theory? Why?

D: You have bigger things to worry about than sex. Chastity is important…

Jr: Why? I don’t understand.

D: Because if you’re dealing with relationships, you’re not dealing with your work or your ideas, and your not dealing with your life. I do think there’s some connection between the creative and the procreative. That sex and creativity are linked. It’s the urge. There’s a common passion, a common energy. When you’re still developing one of them, you don’t want to drain it with the other one.

Jr: Actually that sounds like a pretty interesting point. What about masturbation?

D: It’s a good stress reliever.

Jr: Yes. It’s not procreation either.

D: It’s not procreation, there’s not another person there, and there’s no one else’s feelings to deal with. That’s the thing that sucks.

Jr: Yeah, don’t deal with feelings. They get in the way.

D: No, you should deal with feelings! You should be a sensitive person. But you should know that if you involve somebody else in that part of your life, especially if you’re a male and you’re dealing with a female, she’s going to have an opinion and feelings about your chosen activities. So your choice is to either be a dick, which is not good, or to deal with those, which is very time consuming.

Jr: Yes that’s a hard bargain. Be a dick, or give up your career/creative time to deal with your shit. So don’t get involved?

D: Don’t get involved. Work on your shit. Ride your bicycle. Don’t have sex. Work hard. Be nice. Pay attention. What else? That’s kinda it. Oh, and don’t buy dumb shit.

(And as usual we spoke for way too long and Daniel had way too much good shit to say. So hang in there for Part 2. It’s got everything to do with not buying dumb shit, knowing which companies are helping the world, and how you can retain your soul. Coming soooooooon.)