UNCONVENTIONAL ADVERTISING: MEET THE MOST AWARDED AD CLASS IN HISTORY
Interview by Mike O'Donnell
13 One Show Pencils this year. 7 consecutive ADC "School of the Year" awards. The numbers don't lie. Below, we talk to WNW Member Frank Anselmo about the "Unconventional Advertising" class he founded and teaches at The School of Visual Arts, and how he has a built a winning culture that looks likely to continue pushing fresh ideas and collecting more hardware. Offering insights into his teaching approach that he's never shared before, Anselmo calls out conventional advertising, shares some of his favorite "unconventional" ideas from his students, and opens up about the lessons he's learned from his students.
You founded the Unconventional Advertising program at SVA 11 years ago. What was the initial idea and goal?
I was first asked to teach an advertising class after three years working in the industry but turned it down. I wanted to first produce an extensive body of award-winning work to prove to myself I’ve earned the right to teach. When students are impressed by their professor’s work, you have the power to command a room with authority.
After seven years working at BBDO New York, the idea for a new type of ad class struck me. In the late 90’s-early 00’s, BBDO was known as a TV agency, but I was riding a streak of producing a string of non-TV ideas that were receiving global recognition. This work did not fit the standard mediums of the time. Some called them “non-traditional,” “innovative,“ or “unconventional.” There was not a category for this type of work. It was before digital became a standard medium. Ultimately one of my ideas won BBDO their first ever One Show Gold Pencil for a non-TV idea. It sparked other agency creatives to begin presenting all sorts of alternate media ideas. There was a newfound sense of hope that you could stand out without getting the great TV brief.
That unconventional work I produced would inspire the idea for a new type of class focused solely on unconventional ideas. A class where you can’t just do a print or digital ad. Your idea had to break new ground conceptually and also with the medium it lived in. Before I wrote my course proposal, I researched all the other ad schools in the world to see if anyone offered a class anything like this but none did. I submitted my proposal to The School of Visual Arts in New York and it was instantly greenlit. The Unconventional Advertising program now known globally as “The Most Awarded Ad Class In History” was born.
How has the initial idea evolved over the years?
Since day one, the mantra of the class has been the Bob Dylan lyric, “Those not being born are busy dying.” The program would have failed long ago if we did not constantly reinvent how existing mediums are used as well as invent completely new mediums for ideas to live. I designed the class so we’re never forcing ideas into predetermined mediums. We let the ideas tell us where they want to live. It’s a highly detailed, finished-piece class where having an original idea is only half the battle. Great ideas executed poorly look like bad ideas. Each year, the amount of time I spend developing strategies for class projects increases. I get excited knowing that before students begin working on an assignment, our strategic message is something interestingly different than anything you’ve ever heard that brand, product or service communicate.
When you think of conventional advertising, what comes to mind?
Anything that reminds me of anything I’ve seen before is conventional. At a recent award show, I saw a cool idea where a museum dinosaur exhibit comes to life while looking through your phone. The next time I see anything transform through a phone, it will have the stank of an idea I’ve already seen. The highest percentage of killed ideas in my class are digital ideas for that reason. When everyone in the world is using the same technology, ideas are going to feel too similar and easy. I see ad agencies frequently pump out the 2nd & 3rd versions of ideas we’ve already seen but wearing different makeup. In class, I use these rip-off ideas as examples to make sure students see right through knock-off ideas without being fooled by design. The bar is insanely high in the Unconventional Advertising class. Repeating anything anyone’s ever done professionally or as students is the kiss of death.
13 One Show Pencils this year. 7 consecutive ADC School of the Year Awards. These numbers aren’t a fluke and the list goes on. What’s your strategy when it comes to building a winning culture that can sustain its momentum year after year?
A lot of geekery, focus and insanity goes into the program. Each of the past eleven years has been its own era of work we’ve never created anything like. After the first 5 years, I learned the class has single-handedly won more One Show Pencils, ADC Cubes & Clio Statues than any entire school in the world. I’m not bragging. (Okay, maybe just a little) As insane as those results are to process, it’s more daunting trying to replicate results the following year. That’s why I only look back on our past work to show students what they can no longer do. I attack each new year like we’ve accomplished nothing great before and must make a name for ourselves. Joe DiMaggio was once asked how he got a hit in a record 56 consecutive games. His response was: “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time. I owe him my best.” That always stuck in my head. I’m constantly reminding myself new students have not seen the massive amount of award-winning work we’ve created the past 11 years. So each new year I hit the mental reset button so I know I’m giving students everything I’ve got. Somehow the past 5 years of the class shattered all the records we set previously.
There’s this great documentary called “Last Play at Shea” where a sequence of match-cuts show Billy Joel at the piano from when he was young through now. You see him go bald. Billy says something to the effect of “when you’re up there performing, your entire life of performances goes into that one single show. You’re giving the audience everything you’ve ever learned at that moment.” I never heard any artist put it like that. It’s exactly how I feel when I do the class each year. After dedicating over a decade of life with numerous late nights and bonus weekends helping students develop & execute ideas, the many thousands of critiques & revisions that led to all the award-winning work comes into play. I’m better now than I was last year because each year is so dense.
A bag that creates the illusion the customer has a Lego hand.
Since this is WNW, I’ll share three key things about the class I’ve never shared publicly:
GEEKERY: Before I did my very first class 11 years ago, I purchased every single One Show annual dating back to the 60’s. I spent the summer digesting every single ad in search of those which broke new ground in their time. I then manually scanned in the most innovative work one-by-one since none of that early work exists online. I put together the definitive, chronological, unconventional advertising presentation that’s become the nucleus of my program. Knowing the history is crucial since repeating it is the kiss of death. Each year the presentation has grown. Several agencies, award shows, and organizations have asked for a copy of the presentation. Each time, I respectfully decline since it’s something I created just for the students brave enough to take my class. Pimping it out would take away from one of the things that defines and sets the class apart.
FOCUS: In a class where the idea is king, I have a strict no-technology rule. Since the very first class, I’ve been collecting every student’s phone before starting each class. I’d never be able to stand up there and focus knowing any student would fathom even glancing at their phone during class. I’ve never seen myself as a teacher. I’m more of an awakener. Many have said I operate more like a sports coach in class. You can’t awaken and inspire someone who is distracted. I require students only bring their brains, ears, and eyes.
INSANITY: I’ve worked with numerous students and also professional creatives who work hard but never quite reach that next level of greatness. Working hard is not enough to stand out when many around the world are also working hard. You need to be insanely passionate. Young talent is not born passionate. They need to see it with their own eyes and hopefully it rubs off. That’s why in the second semester I do insane shit like hold full-week, all-day revision marathon sessions in the lab starting at 6AM on the weekend of Spring Break. When students first hear I do this, they look at me like I’m crazy–as they should. I turn down months of freelance creative director work that pays handsomely. Any sane person would not make such financial sacrifices. I was watching a Steve Jobs interview and he crystallized this notion: “If you don’t have passion, any rational person would give up. The ones who are successful loved what they did so they could persevere when it got very tough. The ones that didn’t love it, quit.” It gives me chills hearing that every time. YouTube “Steve Jobs rules for success” to hear the man speak those words. Simply amazing. Here’s to the crazy ones.
Motion-activated billboards blow air at pedestrians who pass by.
Of all the projects and campaigns concepted within your program, what are some that you think best sum up “unconventional advertising” and why?
Great question but it’s like asking me which are my favorite children–if I had hundreds. Working on The One Show Student Competition has been a tradition in my class every year and has led to some of our most innovative work. You can see all our past winning work on the One Show site. I’m a huge ambassador of that competition because everyone works on the same exact brief. It’s the purest competition.
There’s an idea that traveled way beyond a student piece. After Steve Jobs passed, I felt as the unconventional class it was our duty to do something for one of the most unconventional thinkers in history. Students presented many ideas, but I only felt strongly about one idea. We named it “The Steve Jobs Moment of Silence.” An 8-second silent audio file launched on iTunes and downloaded for 99¢. The 8 seconds symbolized the 8 years Steve Jobs fought pancreatic cancer and all the proceeds were donated to research. What really turned me on about this idea was that it’s a tribute that existed on the very device Steve Jobs created. After it became an official state-registered non-for-profit, it officially launched on iTunes. Amazingly, a junior team came up with this idea and just the three of us created & produced it soup-to-nuts through my company. I don’t think a junior team in any ad class in the world ever produced an idea from class that went on to win a professional One Show Pencil, ADC Cube, Clio Statue and D&AD. This idea has come to symbolize the unlimited potential of the class.
I see student ideas as being just as real as professionally produced work. Just because student ideas are not produced does not make the actual ideas any less real. Thanks to award shows, the great work from the class is documented on their sites for posterity just like agency work. Thanks to award show sites, agency creatives can no longer steal student work without embarrassing themselves.
*Some of Frank's favorite projects and campaigns from his past classes are featured throughout this article.
LENOVO “Projected Digital”
While watching movie trailers on YouTube, banner ads come alive to demonstrate this projection tablet.
Do you ever get jealous when your students come up with a brilliant idea and wish you had thought of it first?
No, because once I approve an idea, I’m instantly the creative director on their team. It’s a feeling of relief when someone comes in with a great idea since without ideas we’re dead. I don’t let any of my students touch a computer until they have an original idea. The average age of my students is 19-21. If I compare myself at that age with what my students are doing, then yes for sure I’m jealous with how advanced some students are today.
What lessons and tricks of the trade have you picked up from your full-timing and freelancing experiences, and then applied to your teachings?
In the very early days of The Beatles, they honed their performance skills in Hamburg playing numerous shows daily before ever entering a recording studio. Hamburg was their training ground. My decade at BBDO turned out to be the training ground for my class. I was lucky to be there at a time when I got to work with many of the greats who landed there like Gerry Graf, Eric Silver, David Lubars, Greg Hahn, etc.
But what’s inspired me and ultimately the class on a whole other level has been freelancing the past 8 years at over 50 agencies. You only learn a handful of things working at a handful of agencies. Thanks to freelancing I’ve added numerous weapons to the class artillery. One of my favorite WNW jobs was a month at Apple headquarters in Cupertino. When I got back and shared my experience with the class, I could see their eyes and ears expanding. It makes a huge difference to students knowing their professor is out there doing it as opposed to working at one agency your whole career reviewing your 401K.
What are the most important lessons that you have learned from your students?
When I first began teaching I thought the students who were the most cocky and tough were the ones who would survive my class, but I was completely wrong. In around my third year I noticed a pattern in the students creating award-winning work. The most sensitive ones became the stars. The most vulnerable students who take every single critique to heart are the ones who end up doing the most impressive work because they simply care more.
Do you see advertising as more complicated now than when you were coming up?
For sure. When I was a student, everyone focused on creating print ads. It was much harder to stand out since everyone was playing in the same sandbox. It was easier to see who were the talented ones. Today it’s distracting looking at books. Most students try riding the wave of using new technology in their work and student books end up blending into each other. I’m impressed when I see a really great print campaign today. It’s still the most challenging medium to stand out on a flat page.
Peel off these stickers and you’re taking part in the atrocity of skinning these animals alive.
How do you and your students determine which medium is right for an initial idea?
There’s not any one way. It’s intuitively inspired by the idea itself. Frequently when an idea is presented in class and works well in the medium it's presented in, I still stop and ask the class if it can be even stronger executed in a different medium. One year I had a student also execute a poster idea as a t-shirt. The poster got a merit at the One Show while the t-shirt version won a Gold. I let ideas tell me where they want to live.
Is WNW working for you? Have you gotten a good amount of work through the site so far?
For sure. Some of my most memorable gigs have come from WNW. Not to mention all the great creative partners I’ve met through WNW. In this freelance game, creatives must have a few go-to partners unless you’re already married to one partner. This way you can both help each other land jobs and bring each other into agencies.
In what ways has WNW enabled you to build on the success of this class?
I’ve turned down ECD level staff jobs to build the Unconventional Advertising program since I’d never be able to devote the required time to my students taking on a bigger role at an agency. Freelance jobs I’ve landed on WNW have given me the ability to both work at ad agencies and also run my ad program. With a staff job, the time I’d be able to offer students would be minimal. My classes are like two classes in one since we execute ideas to the finest detail. There’s no way to do it fast. Sometimes we go 100 revisions deep before we finish a single idea. I’ve never looked at a clock or an empty cup of coffee.
Who are some of the creatives from your Unconventional Advertising program that are producing really exciting work right now?
James Kuczynski holds the all-time student record by winning 6 One Show Pencils in my class–then went on to do amazing things at BBDO and beyond. Lauren Hom started her own company and does with lettering what Jimi Hendrix did with guitar. Jeseok Yi was in my very first class and is now one of the most famous guys in Korea with a book about him. It’s most gratifying to me when the thinking developed in the unconventional class inspires students to create beyond advertising.
Who are some other WNW members whose work you admire and why?
Jeff Greenspan’s work is brilliant. Everything he does has a message that’s delivered simply but in such a cleverly unexpected manner. Justin Gignac is also great. He did wantsforsale and NYC Garbage. No idea what the hell he’s done since.
BRADY CENTER “Cut Short”
Music videos of artists who were gunned down are posted on YouTube. Little do viewers know the videos will be abruptly cut short by bullets.
In your WNW bio, you describe yourself as a “Rock and Roll Historian.” What are 3-5 underrated rock albums that WNW members should go find immediately?
–The Clash’s Sandanista is a big double album with lots of random stuff but there are some real gems on it.
–The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper & Revolver always top the greatest albums list but Magical Mystery Tour has to be their most underrated album that would surely be any other band's greatest hour.
–Green Day’s 2nd album Kerplunk! which came out two years before their acclaimed breakout Dookie is such an inspired and perfectly produced album.
–The Beastie Boys Paul’s Boutique is usually the #1 choice of fans and rightfully so, but go back and listen to Hello Nasty straight through. It’s rare to hear a cohesive sounding album with a common audio thread, but all the tracks still sounding so diverse.
–Under Great White Northern Lights, a live album by The White Stripes, bewilders me that only 2 people are creating that big sound all with their hands and not any computer trickery.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Advertising creatives: if you really want to be a pure creative director in the full sense of the word, do a class. Leading a class is the only way you’ll ever focus 100% on creative without having to deal with business riff-raff and tons of meetings. Every year in my program I make decisions on over 30,000 ideas presented to me. Most creative directors don’t do that in a lifetime. Being a CD at an agency will be a walk in the park after running a concept-to-execution class. It’s being a creative director on steroids.
There’s definitely an attitude in the class that’s ultimately injected into the work which is unmistakably New York, the birthplace of creative advertising. I can’t imagine a class like this existing anywhere else in the world. I thank WNW for doing this first ever in-depth interview about this crazy thing that’s taken a huge chunk of my life the past decade. It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my professional career and made possible thanks to the Chairman of the department, the great Richard Wilde. I thank all the students who have traveled from all over the world just to take my class. Lastly I thank the great Luke Sullivan, author of the greatest advertising book ever written, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. I read it as a student and have since made it a requirement for all my students on the first day of class. As karma has it, Mr. Sullivan recently graced me with the incredible honor of being a contributor to the latest edition of this most legendary book. One of the highest honors I’ve ever received and I’m forever grateful. If you’re an ad creative and never read Hey Whipple, well... then you’re not an ad creative. Yeah, I said it!