Frank Anselmo: Unconventional Advertising

Frank Anselmo is an ADC Young Gun, founder and executive creative director of KNARF and founder of the increasingly amazing Unconventional Advertising program at the School of Visual Arts, which won School of the Year honors at the ADC awards this year. We sat down with Frank to talk about the success of his educational program and his upcoming speaking event at the SoHo Apple Store.

How does SVA keep winning school of the year?

We don’t execute anything that’s not a great idea first. We work hard in crafting an idea conceptually before we execute it physically. I don’t let any student touch a computer unless they have a great idea first. Which is rough, because I have some students that have gone most of the year without ever touching a computer. But it’s about ideas first

You handle the unconventional advertising program, correct?

I founded it in 2006. The basic premise is for students and their portfolios to stand out when they go for a job interview. A lot of students are going to have good work in the traditional mediums – even interactive has become traditional – we go beyond interactive, beyond print, beyond tv. It’s more about inventing than it is creating – finding a new way to promote brands, products and services that does not fall under a known category

Could you give me an example?

Sure, there was an idea that did really well and was awarded pretty much everywhere for Mini. They were focusing on customization. This team came up with this really nifty idea – basically they’d get a white Mini and custom paint it so it looked like the classic ‘paint by numbers’ pattern everywhere: on the rim, on the doorhandles, the lights – all over the car with different numbers. The actual car was parked in different parking spots with the message on the windshield.

It was a really simple way to demonstrate customization options, and you’re seeing it right on the car. I can’t think of any way to get closer to communicating what the brand wanted to get across – it’s right there on the car.

How does this fit in with a student’s portfolio?

We go through all their ideas and put the ones that are the most diverse together. At some point we take the ideas that are strongest and try to integrate them. So students have print ads and web, but we always start with unconventional, because that’s the best way to surprise a creative director.

Tell me about your current work.

I have my own ad agency now called KNARF. I’ve been working on it since 2006 and it’s growing. I spent a decade working at ad agencies and you have to go through all the layers before you sell work. Now if a client likes something, we start making it the next morning. The instant creative gratification makes all the work worthwhile.

I took a year to freelance at many dozens of different ad agencies, so I could work on more brands and also see how different agencies and creative directors operate. That’s been invaluable for me while building my company, because now I bring all that experience to my clients.

Did you see some completely different styles?

Oh yeah – different client demands, different flexibility. The most amazing thing to me is how much impact one person has at an agency. A great creative director makes the whole agency.

You have an upcoming speaking event at Apple Store SoHo on July 25, give us a preview

I don’t want to make it a show and tell type thing, I want to dig a little deeper. I want to focus on my SVA program, because I think that’s more fun and more inspiring. Most of my students are like 20 years old and they’re doing the most incredible work. I looked back at my old sketchbooks and files and found the beginnings of some of these ideas that ended up getting produced and won awards. It’s interesting to see how the ideas start out, and I’ve done the same thing with my students – I have early sketches of concepts so you can see it come full circle.

How does your own work influence your teaching?

I was very lucky to produce dozens of forms of unconventional advertising. I’ve been fortunate enough to produce this work, and it only made sense to start a class. I researched all the other schools around the world, and no one else offered a class like that. I presented it to Richard Wilde, the Chairman of Advertising and Graphic Design at SVA and he loved it and gave me the green light instantly.

So you’re teaching what you’ve learned.

It’s weird to say teaching, because it’s not like there’s a textbook. I’m always challenging myself because I can sort of steer students and instill sensibilities, but anything I’ve learned is locked up and put away. If we’re going to push forward and create something truly innovative, I can’t look back at what I’ve done.

I do like four big classes with about ten students in each class. So I figured out that if each team presents five ideas a week, if you multiply it by the eight months of the school year… I see over 3,000 ideas in eight months. I don’t know creative directors that see that many ideas. So it makes me a much better creative director professionally.

I don’t draw the line between being a creative director professionally and being an instructor. If anything I’m more of a creative director as an instructor. When you’re a creative director at an ad agency, you’re also directing business, office politics and other things. But to be a true creative director – I’ve never felt that as much as I do with my class.

Out of the 3000 ideas, what was your favorite from the last year?

That’s the hardest question you can ask me, because there are so many that I love! It’s like picking which is my favorite child! We spend so much time on these ideas, so many revisions!

Okay, there’s an idea for global knives that a team had. It was a very simple idea, basically a promotional item. It was a slinky, and on the outside there was a fruit or vegetable printed. When you spread the slinky apart the fruit became little slices and on the back was the global knives logo and a great little line that said “precisely precise”. I thought that was a neat small-scale idea, but very memorable.

But there are so many. We set a record at the One Show this year. My class alone (not to brag, it’s just a fact) beat every other entire ad school in the world. In all different mediums, in package design, logo, interactive, innovative.

The students work with whatever they need?

We let the concept dictate what medium the idea will be executed in, we don’t force it. I think one day the ad industry will wake up and discover this era was just a phase. Everyone talks about integrated all the time ‘Oh you’ve got to integrate the idea, you’ve got to make it print and make it outdoor and web, social media, TV’… some ideas don’t want to be integrated. When you force an idea into a medium the results are not good. We never force ideas.

People don’t walk around after seeing a commercial that they loved on TV and look at a poster or billboard and say, “hey this doesn’t fit into that campaign I saw on tv!” People don’t look at advertising like that. We really just focus on the best ideas, and if they work together, great, and if not we let it be and just move on.

Where did the Unconventional Advertising program start?The first unconventional thing that I ever produced is how everything started. It’s a good example of how my class works: I was working on television commercials for Guinness, and my partner and I came up with this idea. It was a matchbook for Guinness, a simple thing – two rows of five matches with black sticks to represent the guinness and creamy heads to represent the top. Gerry Graf was my creative director at the time and he loved and sold it to the client.

This was back in 2001 and it was just TV, print and radio then, it wasn’t even about the internet. In the year 2000 advertising was still very simple. So to do some promotional item was unconventional for then. That ended up winning at the One Show and D&AD and the Art Directors Club – my first Cube! – it pretty much swept the award shows. And it was this little thing that was smaller than the awards it won! That was an eye-opener to me: that you could stand out as a creative person without doing a million dollar commercial. It’s about the idea.

Give me a definition of unconventional advertising

Something that doesn’t remind me of anything I’ve ever seen in my life. That doesn’t even vaguely remind me of something I’ve seen in my life, and it has to be surprising and memorable. The more it feels like entertainment, the more people will remember it and the more effective it will be. People don’t like advertising but they love entertainment

Think about it: a high percentage of advertising is funny, I’d say 80% tries to be funny. It’s no coincidence that’s been the most effective form of advertising when done well. Now you can be emotional if you have a product that has an emotion to it, but you’ve really got to do something that gets under their skins and it’s not easy to do. Those are the two spectrums: emotional or make someone laugh. Think of movies – we watch funny and sad movies, it still falls under entertainment.

It’s amazing how successful this program has been

The program has grown so much that people treat it like my full time job, and I run it that way but it’s not! I’m lucky to be working with great people – Richard Wilde, he’s the best. He deserves all the credit. There’s very few people that when I have a crazy idea for something will pretty much say ‘yes’ all the time because they trust you. And that’s when great things happen, because when you put restrictions on creative people all of a sudden they lose their motivation. Richard was a creative guy before he was an educator, so he gets it. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be doing it

Like the one creative director that makes all the difference, right?

Exactly, and if I could be that person to someone, it’s all worth it!