Barstool Interview #2: Scott Mitchell

With more than three decades in the advertising industry, Scott Mitchell has been the driving force behind some of the industry’s most memorable campaigns.

Prior to joining OKRP as an executive producer in 2013, Scott worked on celebrated campaigns including those for Gatorade, Taco Bell and Coors Light — to name a few — and if there’s one through-line in every piece of work he puts out into the world, it’s his sense of musicality.

Just like an ad mixing perfectly with a musical track or the ear worm-like way his campaigns stick in your head long after they’re gone, Scott’s work builds upon his love for music and he approaches his work with a musician’s ear for detail.

We sat down with Scott for this week’s edition of Across The Table to talk about his career in advertising, how to adapt in an ever-changing industry and his love for the Grateful Dead.

You worked at FCB for almost three decades. So, was that your first job out of college?

I graduated in 1987 with a Bachelor’s Degree in communications and an emphasis in film and TV production. I got an internship right out of school at Harris Bank because during my last two years I worked doing corporate video from them, but I was the only person who knew how to edit at that time. It was a suit-and-tie job, and I didn’t want to come to work in a suit-and-tie, so I relegated myself to the edit suite where I would cut everything the team would shoot. I would just stay in the edit suit in a t-shirt and jeans all day long until I found a job. I spent the summer and a good chunk of the fall there, until I got hired at FCB as an in-house editor, promoted to producer a year later, then more promotions and I was there pretty much until I came to OKRP.

Was the editing all done with cutting and taping back then?

It was all analog — A-B roll on to ¾” tape. All of my college film projects included shooting on 16mm and editing with a razor blade and tape. We didn’t have Premiere or Avid — those things did not exist back then.

That transition from analog to digital editing is pretty small compared to some of the evolving aspects of advertising. How have you taught yourself to adapt to a lot of the changes in advertising?

You kind of have to learn along the way. If somebody comes up with something new, you just have to figure out how to do it. There are certain things they don’t teach you in film school, that you really have to figure out yourself. How do you create a dolly move when you can’t afford to rent a dolly? Your “DIY” ethos or “indie spirit” forces you to figure it out. Back then, it was really very cut-and-dry — we’re talking over 30 years ago. There was broadcast, print and radio. Nowadays, there’s always something new around the corner — new cameras, new plug-ins for editorial, new whatever — we need to adapt to the ever-changing technology. In the end though, we’re still trying to tell good stories.

You’ve worked on some pretty memorable campaigns over the years. Are there any specific campaigns or spots that really stand out to you?

I did a ton of work on Coors Light, Coors Banquet, Keystone. I did the original “Love Train” campaign for Coors. There are just so many spots I’ve worked on over the years that it’s hard to remember. Aside from the milestones in my kids’ lives, the years are marked by the jobs I’ve produced and where I was in the world. I did a lot of spots for sodas and other drinks and we introduced the world to blood, sweat and tears of the “Is It In You?” campaign for Gatorade back in the day. Honestly, too many commercials to count.

I would imagine seeing some of that work in public would be pretty cool. Since you’ve been doing it for so long, do you ever get jaded about seeing billboards with your work on it, or is it still pretty exciting for you to see?

No, I think when I was younger there was definitely some ego gratification when I’d see the work I’d produced out in the world. Bottom line — it’s still pretty exciting when I see work that I’ve personally produced out there. But as I get older, I’m more excited for the younger producers on my team when they get the work that they produced on the air — there’s a new gratification that comes with guiding them along the way. When we did our first Super Bowl spot at [OKRP], I called all my buddies and told them to check it out. So, there is still some excitement when I see my work out there. I’m not jaded, for me, I have the best job in the agency, ’cause I know that no two jobs are ever same and there’s always gonna be some problem that’s thrown your way that you’ll have to solve.

It seems like the job of a producer is always a bit of a mystery to people. Like in Hollywood, people know what the actors and directors do, but the producer always seems a little fuzzier. How would you describe the main duties of a producer?

To get it down to its most basic description, it’s all about taking an idea and making that idea into a reality. Tell a good story. You have to use all your skills/contacts to find the right people for the job. So it’s all about taking all of those things a client asks for and making that into something real.

I recently read this article in Ad Week that said agencies should focus more on producers instead of project managers. What do you see as the difference between working with producers versus project managers?

I think it’s interesting. Some account people would make really project managers and vice-versa, some project managers would make great account people. Producers are a different breed, with skill sets that some project managers don’t necessarily have. Producers have an innate sense of problem solving and how to create a workflow that makes things happen. The many creative teams I’ve worked with over the years always rely on their producers as a sounding board, helping to generate ideas, and figuring how to do the impossible. Producers are part of that creative team.

There’s a George Lois interview where he mentions if you watch 30 commercials on TV today, you won’t understand what 20 of those spots were trying to sell you. How are you able to produce work that sells to a consumer, while staying clever?

Well, you can take Chili’s for example — that’s a great campaign that is branded all the way through. But, it’s always really dependent on what the client is asking for. Obviously, we are bombarded between our mobile devices, our computers and even television. So, what I have noticed is that a lot of advertising has become very disposable. Like, if that’s not working, let’s throw something else on the air. If you think back to back in the day — if you were producing a spot — you might spend eight to 10 weeks making that spot, whereas today, we’re spending two weeks on a commercial that’ll get a three-month play. Back in the ’80s and ’90s it was a two-year play. There might’ve been more ads, but you’d be seeing them over and over again. Now, it works for a couple weeks and then it’s on to the next spot. So the ads don’t stick with you like they may have in the past.

Music seems to be an integral part of the kind of work OKRP looks to produce. Why do you think music is so important for creating a memorable ad?

I think music is vital. It’s just like your favorite film — music is one of the most important aspects of a great film. And, really, what we do is create 30-second short films. So it’s really the mise-en-scène — including the music — that’s very, very important. I’m a musician, so I have a deep love for music and I’m a music freak. So, music is always going to be an integral part of the type of work I try to put out. But also, sometimes spots don’t even need music. It’s all about finding what’s best for the work and what works in that moment.

You obviously have a love and knowledge of music. I wanted to talk a bit about a blog post you wrote on here about the joys of listening to an album all the way through. What makes you feel so strongly about this topic?

I love curating my own playlists for whatever mood I’m in, but everybody does that. The lost art of listening to an album from side A to side B — that is a real treasure. There are just so many songs you might’ve missed or hadn’t heard because people are so focused on singles and what’s popular. I do believe the resurgence of vinyl over the last decade has helped a bit, but it’s still a small portion of the music-listening audience. My youngest daughter is starting to amass her own collection of records, but she is still very much of that ilk of, “I’m gonna pick up the needle and put it to that song, ’cause I like that song.” But I think it’s the best, and I encourage everyone to go back and start listening to albums from start to finish.

In the post, you mention the Grateful Dead album Workingman’s Dead. That’s a band I find so interesting, from the different musical elements to the way they’ve branded themselves over the past 50 years. Would you consider yourself a Deadhead?

Definitely. I think everything that they do — even all of the Dick’s Picks and Road Trips series stuff — they were very meticulous with what they had done and creating their own brand. And there were times in the ’90s when they were not the best band in the world — and really, on any given day that might be the case. But, if you catch them on a night where they’re really on, it’s something else. Their music really infuses a lot of the different things I grew up with, though — there are jazz overtones, there’s Americana, there’s straight-ahead rock and roll. I love those lyrics. There’s just something about the singer/songwriter having a partner on the side — between Jerry [Garcia’s] writing partner and Bob Weir’s writing partner. They might just be my favorite band of all-time, that’s how much I enjoy their music.

I find it interesting how they’ve been able to keep going for such a long time. A lot of people say it’s hard to get into their music, but there are so many different eras within that 50-year span that I think it’s easy for people to find one specific period that works for them. Do you have any favorite era?

You know, when you read the stories about them, they’re just such an interesting band. Miles Davis opened up for them at the Fillmore West, and they were just blown away by his set ’cause it was just so out there. It was right around the Bitches Brew, so it was really electrified, funky jazz. So you can see different influences on their work over the years. There are little hints of that Miles Davis stuff, but they also take from folklore and all these different influences and make it their own. I understand why most people don’t get it, but once you find that sweet spot, it’s hard not to appreciate it. For me, it’s that ‘77–’78 era — that to me is the ultimate Dead. I’ve probably seen them 40 times since 1983 — mostly around Chicago and Indiana and I saw Jerry’s last three shows at Soldier Field, and that was pretty great.

You clearly like a variety of different styles. Is there any specific aspect of music that you really connect with — the lyrics, the beat?

I can find something in everything. I like the whole gestalt of it, really. There are certain things that move me. There are certain passages in songs that move me. There are certain solos that move me. I find that it’s hard to be an original artist today, so people are always trying to figure out that next big thing. I do like people who could actually sing and play. Bob Dylan and The Beatles ruined it for everybody, ’cause they can write, sing and play. But I’m just not into all this fabricated, over-produced stuff. There’s just no soul to it.

That idea of soul is something the agency puts a big emphasis on. When you’re producing ads, is it hard to find a certain sense of authenticity when you’re trying to sell something to a large audience?

I think it all depends on that big idea and all the work leading up to it. If you look at the Groupon spots, we really lucked out with someone like Tiffany Haddish. She is right for the time, she is right for the brand and she knows what she’s doing — plus she’s a huge Groupon fan. But, I really do believe that it gets down to the idea, and what we wanna do with that idea. If you look at that and figuring out how to really make things pop, that’s what we try to do. And we try to partner up with people who could bring our vision to life. I think it’s just about finding that balance of whiskey and bananas. The whiskey makes it cool and smooth, but the bananas keep things light and funny.