HOW TO HUSTLE: ZACH HILDER
From his beginnings as a music journalist for MTV to his days at Publicis & Hal Riney, where he built a portfolio on the fly, WNW Member #3715 Zach Hilder has always embodied the hustle necessary to build a career as a creative. Now, Zach has helped launch an agency from the ground up, fittingly titled Hustle. Their founding client? Beats by Dre.
Zach takes us through some of his biggest accomplishments, such as the #STRAIGHTOUTTA campaign, Call of Duty's "The Replacer" short films, and the "Fuck Photoshop" pencil. As Zach Hilder says, "HUSTLE is really more than a name. We move fast and we work hard. You have to if you want to move at the speed of culture."
You started your career as a music journalist for MTV. What was that like? How’d you make the transition to copywriter?
I covered the Chicago music scene for MTV.com. It was the late 90's. The Pumpkins still had some heat. But Chicago wasn’t exactly a hotbed for music back then. I would get backstage and interview bands at local shows like The Double Door or the Elbo Room but also on the big tours when they came through like HORDE Fest and Lilith Fair. Strangely enough I got to be close with Barenaked Ladies – and it was right when their “Chickity-China-the Chinese-Chicken” song blew up. It’s too strange and embarrassing to make up… unfortunately. But that’s where I learned to write. While I loved it and was way into music, I always felt like I was reporting about people being creative instead of actually being creative myself.
My Mom knew someone who worked at Publicis & Hal Riney at the time. Every other agency told me I had to go to Miami Ad School to build a portfolio because I didn’t have anything but my MTV writing samples. But Riney took me in as a production intern. I managed to weasel my way onto a couple of briefs and started writing ads for them. Some of my work helped them win a pitch for a retirement home of all things. They hired me as a Jr. Copywriter in the fall – without a book. It’s crazy to think about now but I spent the first 5 years of my career building my portfolio, taught myself Photoshop, and would stay late creating fake ads as if I had went to ad school.
HUSTLE has a certain amount of mystery surrounding it. Can you pull back the curtain a bit and give us some background: what it is, when you started, who's involved, and what you’ve been working on?
HUSTLE is an offshoot of R/GA with Beats by Dre as its founding client. And what an incredible founding client to have. We now have HUSTLE shops in both London and Shanghai in addition to our LA office. This city is going through quite a renaissance these days. It feels like LA is where entertainment meets tech meets everyone who’s sick of New York. That combination makes for some really interesting opportunities.
It must be tough to name an ad agency. How did you guys choose HUSTLE?
Honestly it was really hard. It’s kind of like naming a band. No one can agree. All the good names are taken. And your chance of picking something you regret is pretty high.
So what it came down to is we wanted to pick a name that we could live up to everyday and that for us was HUSTLE. It captured for us both our spirit and our desire. HUSTLE really is more than a name. We move fast and we work hard. You have to if you want to “move at the speed of culture.” We shot, edited and finished a two-minute Marcus Mariota Beats film in 5 days to have it on air for the NFL Draft. That takes teamwork and a lot of honest conversations with ourselves and our client. Yeah it takes dedication, but it’s very rewarding when the plan comes together. We had four of the first five players in the NFL Draft take their phone calls from their new teams live on ESPN in a pair of Beats headphones. The same first round that was sponsored by Bose. That’s the kind of work that defines HUSTLE.
What’s been the biggest challenge in starting HUSTLE?
We haven’t had the luxury of time. We’ve grown by 40 people in the last year. So for us, the biggest challenge is creating culture. That’s not something you can fake or manufacture. It has to be true and your team from top to bottom needs to believe it. For us, it starts with honesty. My partner Will Esparza and I try to be as transparent as possible with our guys. We also want everyone to have a point of view, creative or not. We also have a saying, “entrepreneurs, not employees.” For us, this speaks to always looking for an opportunity, not just doing what’s expected. We want people to come to HUSTLE to do the work of their lives. And that’s a shared responsibility.
The "Hear What You Want" campaign for Beats By Dre redefines the idea of noise-cancelling headphones. You’ve featured a lot of athletes, how do you decide who to work with?
Hear What You Want has always been a reflection on what’s really happening in culture. We do a lot of research. We become experts on these athletes. We talk to these athletes, their agents and their families on the phone, in their hotels and in some cases go to their homes to get their stories. We want to know what really drives them? What keeps them up at night? We want to tell a personal story only Beats can tell. So for Hear What You Want, it has to be true. The athlete needs to be surrounded by noise, which could be from a big moment like Richard Sherman in a playoff game or it can be brought on by their personality like Draymond Green. But it has to be true and we work really hard to make sure it is. That means not every athlete can get a Hear What You Want film.
Who do you turn up to cancel all the noise?
WU-TANG, again and again. Ricky Rozay aka The Teflon Don aka The Fresh David Koresh. Also been way into the new A$AP album.
Did you have a feeling the #STRAIGHTOUTTA campaign was going to blow up like it did?
No one knew. I know I didn’t. I think that’s because I had such a personal connection to the album. I would listen to Straight Outta Compton on repeat in my parents’ basement in Glenview, Illinois when I was 13 years old. I knew all the words to every song and I didn’t know why at the time, but I really connected with the album. Now I realize – after seeing the response to the campaign – that a lot of people connected to the album like I did. It was so raw and so true, that it didn’t matter if you had ever been to or even knew what Compton was. It was an emotion these guys put into a song to be proud of your hometown. And everybody could get behind that.
What was your reaction to the public’s response to #STRAIGHTOUTTA?
It was pretty awesome to watch what they did with the meme. They took the meaning and twisted it completely. It went from being from somewhere to being out of something. All of the sudden, all of these culture jabbing memes popped up from 50 Cent being “Straight Outta Money,” to Cosby being “Straight Outta Quaaludes” to Kobe being “Straight Outta Teammates.” Then the White House dropped the now infamous “Straight Outta Uranium” meme on Iran. Damn Obama, that’s cold…
Which project in your career are you proudest of?
I don’t think I have a proudest moment. I think the whole thing has made me proud and it continues to. I’ve given so much of my life to advertising, but it’s given me back so much. I’ve made so many friends, met my wife and traveled the world because of advertising. Yeah there are tough days but at the end of the day, this is a pretty rad job.
What was it like to tell LeBron’s story about coming home to Cleveland?
When we started working on the assignment, LeBron was still in Miami. We had different creative in place and we’re working his people to find a place to shoot him – Florida, Brazil and even China. Then suddenly he announced he was returning to the Cavs so we immediately rewrote the film to tell his coming home story. We shifted the entire production and two days later we were on the ground with LeBron in Akron shooting him in his high school. It was a project that LeBron was so involved in, he told us things that he had never talked about publically, like watching his childhood home being demolished in front of him when he was 2 years old. While we were editing we would fly back to Akron to meet with his Mom to hear more of these really emotional stories. We even shot his flashback scenes in the actual apartment he grew up in Spring Hill as a teenager. But yeah, I’m a Bulls fan.
You subverted the role of promotional merchandise by fixing the following two words onto pencils: Fuck Photoshop. Are you still getting “Fuck Photoshop” pencil checks in the mail?
The “Fuck Photoshop” money has petered out a bit. I sold probably 3000 of them across the world, which is insane when you think about it. Who knew that many people hated photoshop? Or used pencils?
You were a writer on the Call of Duty campaign "The Replacer". What was the behind-the-scenes like?
The guys at 72 have killed it on that franchise. I was lucky enough to work on it for a bit on “The Replacer” films. Easily the highlight for me and pretty much my lifetime was playing JB Smoove at ping pong. We were recording pick-up lines and JB said he had game. I do own my own ping pong paddle so I wanted to see what kinda game he had. He was good for not playing in a long time. Eventually the recording studio shut us down because JB was shouting too much and I was probably sweating too much.
What advice would you pass on to your high school self?
I probably would’ve told myself to be taller.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
It’s weird. I don’t think I ever wanted to be anything, which maybe makes me perfect for advertising? I always said if advertising didn’t work out that I’d want to be a cable guy. There’s something very freeing about riding around all day in a van, wearing a jumpsuit, hearing what I want.