They think of themselves not as an ad agency but „as a manufacturer of creative content, business models, and branded relationships across multiple platforms.“ They’re in the business of “creating 360º brand experiences through storytelling and compelling interactive technology. Their collective experience, according to Smith, is heavily rooted in sports, art, entertainment, and emerging culture. Among the major brands Jimmy Smith has worked for during his 20+ years in the ad business are Nike, Pepsi and Gatorade. Hermann Vaske spoke to the multiple award-winner in Cannes.
What are your creative influences?
Creative influences, absolutely: Jesus Christ. I mean, as number one with a bullet. Through him, my mom and my dad. And then, one of my best stories is Bootsy Collins. When I was growing up, I used to be dancing to Bootsy Collins’ music, right? And I had never met him before. One of his songs was “Stretchin’ Out (In A Rubber Band),” and I was combing through all of Bootsy’s records, all of George Clinton’s records, all of which is Parliament-Funkadelic – both Bootsy and George are Parliament-Funkadelic – and one of his songs, like I said, was “Stretchin’ Out (In A Rubber Band).” And it starts out: “Hallelujah. They call me Casper. But not the friendly ghost but the Holy Ghost. Dig!” And this is the 70s, we’re jamming and we’re grooving, so, half a million years later, I’m working on a Nike project and I meet one of my creative muses, Bootsy, and George Clinton, and I’m so blown away we do this cool thing. And then, some years after that, I was getting my hair done, getting my dreads, this twenty-something-year-old woman is doing my dreads, twisting them up, washing my hair, and my ringtone was Bootsy Collins’ “Stretchin’ Out (In A Rubber Band).” And it comes on and she goes: “Uh, what’s that Caspar record?” And I said: “Caspar record? I don’t know anything about Caspar, it’s just Bootsy.” She said: “I don’t know who Bootsy is but that’s a Caspar record.” And I start thinking about going: “He does say: ‘Hallelujah. Holy Ghost’ and so on and so forth, right?” And I’m going: “Shit, that is a Caspar record!” So I call him up, I say: “Boo, ‘Stretchin’ Out’ was a Caspar record?” And he’s like: “Yeah, Jimmy, you know, we just couldn’t come out and say it right then so we put in a code.” And I said: “Damn. We were jamming to a Caspar record.” So that’s why I always go back to God, to the folks that I know, that I work with, like Bootsy … and, yeah, that’s what’s up.
Yeah, the Caspar record, I mean, the guy who just died, who was in “Earth, Wind & Fire,” you know?
Yes. You know, for a lot of people – sometimes, it’s kinda cliché for them but I don’t care what anybody says. At the end of the day, whether you believe or don’t believe, it is the Creator who has given you that idea. All ideas come from the Creator.
How was working with Bootsy Collins on the Nike project?
Uncle Boot is one of the funkiest, dopest, illest, most off-the-skillet, most LIT musicians I’ve ever met. Every time I’m with him. I learn something. He drops these simple pieces of wisdom, like for instance … he once asked me what I wanted musically for a TV campaign, and I said something like, “The sky’s the limit, Boot!” He said, “Well, Jimmy, the sky shouldn’t be the limit, because if the sky’s the limit … then there’s a limit.” So that’s what it was – and is – like working with Boot. There are no limits. He’ll create rock, funk, soul, classical, hip-hop, gospel, reggae, country, EDM … and everything in-between, plus music that needs a new classification. He’s a baaaaaaaaad man.
Yeah, but it’s interesting, this metaphysical spiritual connection. Did you go to church when you where young?
Absolutely, yeah. I went to church from the age of ... I don’t even remember when I wasn’t going to church. And the cool thing about that was, you know, the planet of a foundation, and then … but the interesting thing was I didn’t understand the Bible because it was the King James version. So I just knew the basics: Jesus Christ died on a cross, rose from the dead for our sins, which is all you need to know if you believe. But when I started, at some point the NIV came out. And, then, I was all of the sudden able to understand because it was in plain English. And, yeah, it wasn’t the “King’s English” from back in the day, it wasn’t King James’ English, it was like modern-day English and, finally, I could understand a lot of the things that were going on.
Do you pray?
Often. Every day. Multiple times a day most of the time.
Yeah, so… I think that with this magical moment here with the sun disappearing over the Mediterranean Sea, that is a nice set-up to talk about these deeper meanings of life, no?
Absolutely. You know, one of the things … I don’t know if you were there when I was talking about this but one of these inspiring things: I just opened up Amusement Park like in 2011 and it has been tough sailing from 2011 all the way to 2014; and then, when we got to 2015, things started to take off. But during these tough times I was reading this article and it was about, uhm, Biosphere 2, which was this facility in Arizona. And it was, like, this rich guy built this facility as a scientific experiment … The experiment was: Could we live on the moon if we built a facility which had all the things that we have on earth in case the world goes to hell due to global warming and so on? So Biosphere 2 had an ocean, a mini-ocean obviously, they could grow their own food, and they put eight people in there – four women, four men – for two years. And one of the things they discovered was: they started growing trees and the trees would go to a certain height and then they’d collapse. They just shut down. And they couldn’t figure out what was going on, why they weren’t growing. And what they discovered and realized was: they don’t have any wind. Wind creates stress-wood, so every single day a tree is growing it’s getting blown this way, it’s getting blown that way, it’s getting blown this way ... And every micro-inch of its growth is developing what they call “stress-wood.” And that’s what allows the tree to get to, you know, like a redwood, to get to 400 or 500 feet and whatnot. And I said: “Wow! So this stress that I’m under with Amusement Park, trying to get it off the ground, that’s nothing but God making me stronger. Making me able to stand the pressures of everyday life, of everyday business, and so on and so forth, and without that, you know, a lot of people look at it when they are stressed – sometimes it is stress that you are causing upon yourself, right?” Oftentimes, it is stuff that you’re doing to yourself but if it is something you aren’t doing to yourself and it is something you have no control over, don’t look at it as God trying to put you out. He is allowing things to happen to you to make you stronger. And he’s never gonna allow anything to happen to you that you can’t withstand. And so I embrace stress-wood. I mean, I can’t say that I’m overjoyed by it, but at least when it happens I know I’m being made stronger and not being made weaker, and that affects creativity. So when you’re standing up, fighting for a great idea, a lot of people just get into this: “Oh, you worked at Wieden+Kennedy; oh, you worked at BBDO; oh, you worked with Lee Clow and TBWA – so it must have been easy.” But I’m like: “No.” There is stress-wood at those places as well and what I noticed is: those who withstood the pressures to cave in … you know, not to fight as hard for great work, those are the ones where you look at reels and you’re like: “Well, alright. Alright.” But those who fought for great work, more often than not, they ended up with great work.
Let’s talk about your agency – you know, how did it all happen?
I started Amusement Park in 2011 and for why that happened you have to go back to the early 1990s. I worked at a small agency called “Muse, Caldeira and Chin” and there was this black, Joe Muse, José Caldeira, Mexican, and David Chin, Chinese. So you walk along those halls and they’d be speaking … it was like twenty-something different languages at any one time being spoken: Spanish, Japanese, Mandarin, and so on, and it was the first multicultural ad agency of its kind. And it was really mad, super stimulating, and I had a sliver of Nike, just a real, real small piece of Nike, and I was the resident black guy for all of urban American boys in the ‘hood for Nike. Well, there weren’t that many blacks back in those days, and Wieden+Kennedy was producing the work and whatnot, and obviously Wieden+Kennedy is like possibly the Mount Rushmore of ad agencies. But anyway, Scott Bedbury, who was the head of Nike advertising, would come and show me some of the storyboards that Wieden was working on and, you know, asked me my thoughts and whatever. And one of the things he showed me was Air Jordan, I believe David Jenkins was the art director on that. I mean, I’m like, “Who am I to look at Wieden+Kennedy’s work for Nike?” I mean, Nike, Wieden +Kennedy were killing it. Killing it. But anyway, every once in a while they would show me some stuff and Scott showed me Air Jordan. And Air Jordan was, uhm, it was just a storyboard, it was Bugs Bunny and basketball and Michael Jordan. And they asked me what I thought and I said to Scott Bedburry, I said: “Dude, what has basketball and Michael Jordan got to do with Bugs Bunny? It’s stupid, I wouldn’t do it.” Praise the Lord for them that they didn’t listen to me because the thing blew up. I mean, it was huge and Warner Brothers, which owned Bugs Bunny, was trying to convince Nike to change it into a feature film. But Nike didn’t wanna do it, Phil didn’t wanna do it, his quote was: “We just make shoes.” They said it could make a hundred million dollars at the box office and instead of people waiting to see your commercials on TV, they’ll pay you money to go to the movie theatre to watch your 90-minute ad. So you’ll make money off of that movie as well as it’ll do what great advertisement does, which is sell products. And they didn’t understand. They understand it now but, back then, it was kind of a revolutionary thought. So, after a while, Warner Brothers just says: “Screw that, we’re gonna make the movie anyway. We’ll make it without Nike, we’ll make it without Jim and Wieden+Kennedy.” So, anyway, they made the movie, and Warner Brothers changed the name to “Space Jam.” And the thing made 283 million at the box office, 3.5 billion in merchandising – you know, T-shirts, pencils, and so forth, a total of close to four billion dollars. And Nike at the time was a six-billion-dollar company. So I’m this young copywriter and I’m blown away. They made close to 4 billion dollars off of a TV commercial. So just one advertising, traditional advertising idea made almost the same amount as the size of a company as Nike. This is back in 1996.
So, me as a young writer, I’m like: “I just thought we were making these little 30-second ads and they give us these fake awards not even made out of gold, not even made out of real silver,” and I’m like, “I want some of that!” And the client should want some of that, too, because they are monetizing the content that they’re already creating and developing and already putting in millions of dollars. We’re just doing these little 30-second spots, 60-second spots, and we go to Cannes, we go to the One Show, and so on, and we win these little Gold Pencils and Gold Lions. But this is bigger than that!” So I thought a company’s job was to obviously remain true to who they are, which can be expressed in multiple forms, not just in a doggone TV commercial but in every form of art, whether it’s music, whether it’s a videogame, whether it’s a movie, these joints called the “Space Jams,” whatever it is. You can express the brand, monetize that, and still have a solid product. And since that day, the Air Jordan 11 is still the most popular Air Jordan ever. So it obviously worked from a product-selling perspective and it obviously worked – and would have worked for Nike in terms of monetizing their content.
So that laid the groundwork for what Amusement Park is. So, along my journey, I got into Wieden+Kennedy, I was there for over ten years. While I was there, EA Sports saw some of my work and wanted me to help them make a videogame so I worked on “NBA Street 2” – wait, yeah, I worked on “NBA Street,” the co-creation of it. Then a book publisher came along and wanted to turn some of the work into my and Jon J.’s work, I call him Dr. J. “I wanna turn your work into a book.” So I am sitting seeing all this stuff happening, right? And Dan Wieden paid for one of my graphic novels, Peace-Out – so peace and love to Dan Wieden, and this just continued to happen. Finally, I left there, went to BBDO, did a thing called “Instead Death” where we took the Black Eyed Peas and made mini-movies out of them. And David Lubars was able to sell that to Mars for Snickers. Then, I came to work with Lee Clow for Gatorade … And my point is: it just kept happening. It got over on Gatorade and me and Lee and the team, Steve and Bran, and so on and so forth, Janta, Dan, and, you know, it was a bunch of contributors to all of this; and one thing that came out of there, which is one of the things that blew up at the One Show and at Cannes, is Gatorade Replay, a TV show. And I said: Instead of doing that by accident, why not do it on purpose? Why not think out the ecoystem for how something should live as an entertainment piece, as a movie, as a TV show, as a book, as a videogame, and so on. And that’s when I opened up Amusement Park. A long answer to your question.
You mentioned you had great mentors. Who stands out?
That’s the thing about mentors. They all stand out. That’s why they’re called mentors! I could listen to these cats talk damn near 24 hours straight: Lewis Williams, Alma Hopkins and Tom Burrell (Burrell Communications); Al Hawkins and Gwen Dawkins (FCB); Jo Muse (Muse Agency); Dan Wieden, David Kennedy, John Jay, Susan Hoffman, Jim Riswold (W+K); Scott Bedbury (Nike); Andrew Robertson and David Lubars (BBDO); Lee Clow (Chiat/Day); Michael Roth (IPG); Jon Kamen and Frank Scherma (Radical Media); Joe Pytka and Bootsy Collins.
What did you learn from Lee Clow?
Great clients get what they deserve: ridiculously great work. However, some clients are not as deserving. Doesn’t matter. Lee taught me that no matter how big of a nincompoop a client may be, do your absolute best for that brand until the wheels fall off (i.e., until he/she fires you). In other words, don’t stoop to a nincompoop’s level. The nincompoop won’t last but the brand will. Thanks to Lee, I learned patience, and that (in the context of advertising) nothing is bigger or more important than the idea. (Somehow that’s become a lost art!) Great creatives are every bit as strategic as planners, strategists and account folks … creatives simply express the strategy via a big idea. Behind every great creative is a dope spouse. (Shout out to Ilene!) Creatives who are the truth don’t have to flaunt it. All they have to do … is be.
When you started, what was the first important work that you did?
When I worked at Burrell Communications, I did my first important work for Jack Daniel’s magazine.
Why was it important?
I was a junior writer. It was one of my first pieces of work I ever got produced and my boss, Alma Hopkins, went on and on about how well written it was.
Which pieces of work at other agencies were important for you?
At FCB/Chicago, I did a commercial for Frito-Lay called “Mousetrap.” It was for some cheddar cheese chips and the first TV spot I ever got produced. And I still laugh when I think about the giant mousetrap clipping the goofy human trying to steal the chips from the mousetrap.
At Wieden+Kennedy, I would like to mention “City Attack” for Nike. The City Attack work that John Jay and I created featured NYC and LA streetball legends such as Pee Wee Kirkland, Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond, “Jumpin’” Jackie Jackson, and Raymond Lewis. This work spawned “Freestyle,” “Roswell Rayguns,” “Book of Dimes,” “Nike Battlegrounds,” the award-winning book “Soul of the Game,” and EA Sports’s videogame NBA Street.
What about the Snickers stuff you did for BBDO?
It was the first branded entertainment piece that I co-created with Vann Graves at BBDO. And it tested out my theory for how to blow out a film into a TV show, videogame, clothing line, action figures, etc. The client killed the extensions, but the point was we had contracts ready to go from the various vendors that would have made money for the client, BBDO, and for the creators.
Another highlight was G campaign for Gatorade. Why? First, I got to work with Lee Clow. And second, the campaign was created by writers, art directors, designers and creative directors who were handpicked by me and Lee, and who were black, white, Asian, and Hispanic. Proving what should have been obvious to anyone.
So what motivated you to open your own agency?
So, as a young writer I was like: “I got to figure out how to get that.” So, when I got into Wieden+Kennedy, I was there for, like, ten years and it was awesome, it was beautiful, Dan Wieden, Jim Briswall, Jon J … and the women there – Evan Monroe, Jenny Chan, Charlotte More. It was bananas. I loved working at that place. And while I was there people would keep coming up and saying: “Hey Jimmy, we saw your and Jon’s print ads for Nike and we wanna turn that into a coffee-table book.” And I’m like … me and Jon are like: “Okay.” And Jon Huet was the photographer on it and the title of the book was “The Soul of the Game.” The thing sold out, it’s in museums in Europe; it’s in the basketball hall of fame. Then, EA Sports saw some of my basketball work and I got this phone call from Will Mosel, who was at EA Sports at that time, saying: “Hey Jimmy, we saw your TV commercials, we want you to work on these videogames with us.” And I said: “Oh, you want me to do the ads?” And they said: “No, we want you to actually co-create the videogame with us based on the aesthetic of street basketball.” And I said: “I’m down with that. Let’s do that!” So it became NBA Street, which then became FIFA Street, which then became NFL Street. I only worked on the basketball stuff but it became a franchise. An ad campaign basically once again became a moneymaker. So I left Wieden, went to BBDO, worked with David Lubars, who’s off the scale of his will, and the next thing you know, we’re doing these mini-movies, mini digital movies with the Black Eyed Peas called “Instead Death” for Snickers. That blows up. Move on to Chiat, TBWA’s Chiat in LA but, you know, we call it Chiat. Working with my mentor from afar, I never met him. Well, I met him a couple of times but always went to work with him – but now I’m sitting here up there with Lee Clow. And we did together … along with the team we created the “G” campaign, that’s why Gatorade has a G logo and so on and so forth. And out of that, Steve Howard, Brad Anderson came to me with that idea. I forgot what it was called – it wasn’t called “Gatorade Replay”, it was called something else, and, you know, you did what great directors do: you help them to get there and they got there in space and it was called “Gatorade Replay.” And we had people from all across, you know, the major movie studios wanting to turn that into a movie campaign. Not a movie campaign, a movie. Disney, Warner Brothers, Universal, Sony, you name it. “Can we turn that into a movie, can we turn that into a movie?” And I had this good friend of mine, Gregory Allen Howard, who wrote “Remember the Titans,” which at that time was the largest, the biggest football movie in history, the biggest-grossing football movie in history. He wanted to write a “Gatorade Replay” movie. I couldn’t get it done. Absolutely up there to speak to anybody who’d listen at Chiat, anybody who would listen at Gatorade. I said: “Dude, we got the guy who wrote ‘Remember the Titans,’ he wants to write ‘Gatorade Replay,’ let’s turn this into a movie.” Anyway, everything got a bit out of shape, folks got in the way – not Lee, obviously, Lee was Lee – and I desperately wanted to do it. It couldn’t happen. So I said: “Instead of making these things on accident, let’s do it on purpose.” And there were enough plans out there, the majority of them won’t do it, but there are enough plans that will get it. And will understand the need and the benefit to them to monetize the content and to share in the ownership of that content. So, I created along with my partners, Bobby Ware, Ed Collins, Mike Wiseman, … we created this thing called “Amusement Park.” Started off as “Amusement Park Entertainment” and …
How did you decide on the name?
Well, hold on. Let me first say what it is because this is important. So it started off as “Amusement Park Entertainment” and the person who put up the money for it was the company, IPG, thanks to Michael Roth. I’ve only been dealing with creative geniuses and Michael Roth is a business genius. So that added on to my repertoire, just not only doing creative work, but understanding the business side. And Michael got it immediately and he’s … IPG is a minority owner of Amusement Park. And we called it “Amusement Park” because AP is … how do I say it …? When I was a kid, Walt Disney, Disneyland, Disney World, it was a place where you thought anything could happen, anything was possible. And when you go to those theme parks, they have Tomorrowland, they have Frontierland, and so forth … Fantasyland. And that’s what I thought Amusement Park was because we were gonna create more than just TV commercials. We were gonna make videogames, we’re gonna make TV shows, we’re gonna make music. And so now, till this day, we have “Amusement Park Inc.,” which is the traditional advertising arm; “Amusement Park Music,” where we have our record label; “Amusement Park Entertainment,” where we created that TV show in which that guy jumped out of a plane without a parachute, no wing-suit, nothing but the clothes on his back; and, now, we have APQ with Dr. David Martin where we’re gonna revolutionize how you view and interact with content. And I’m mad excited about that.
Who were your collaborators?
Without Michael Roth, the CEO and chairman of IPG, there would be no Amusement Park. He’s the one who put up the money for it and one of the minority owners in Amusement Park. But some of the work we’ve done was “Bigger Than Us” with Damian Lillard. Damian Lillard plays for the Portland Trail Blazers and, unfortunately, there has been a lot of violence against African-Americans, either from, you know, police officers or from blacks on blacks or whites on blacks and so on and so forth; and we wanted to do something that brought peace to the racial … yeah, talking about the racial harmony in the US. And so, as I said, Damian Lillard is a basketball player, and they say basketball players can’t rap, that they couldn’t rap their way out of a paper bag. Dane Dollar, Damian Lillard, aka Damian Lillard, is different. He can rap so we created this music video for JBL called “Bigger Than Us” that is a socially conscious rap record which has blown up on the internet, on YouTube and Facebook and so on.
Could you tell me about your JBL commercial?
On the JBL work we had Steph Curry, Damian Lillard. Damian Lillard did the music and we produced the music and, you know, we launched Amusement Park Music with that. And Steph Curry was the actual actor in the piece. And Joe Pty., legendary, dope ass Joe Pytka, directed it and he killed. I mean he killed it. Could have been better, not anything that he did but some things that we wanted to add into it that some folks got a little nervous about, but this is one of my all-time favorites. And one of the things we do with a lot of the work that we do is, you know, it has a bigger meaning than just selling some product or other … It got big.
What other work from Amusement Park stands out?
I would like to mention “Heaven Sent” for our client Stride Gun. A man did something that had never ever been done before in history. As I mentioned just now, Luke Aikins intentionally jumped out of a plane from five miles up with no parachute, no wing-suit, and landed safely … live on national TV.
So, with all the great stuff you’ve done: What is the driving force behind it? Why are you creative?
The driving force behind what I do is hard to articulate and the bottom line is: I can only attribute it to God. And that is the beginning and in anything that I do is Jesus Christ. That’s where the ideas come from, that’s where the inspiration comes from, and it’s about making sure I don’t screw up what that idea is. But I wouldn’t be anything without Christ and He’s the ultimate Creator, through him all things are created. So … you know, biblically speaking, that nothing in the world … there is nothing in the world that’s new. This has all been done before. So how He expressed that creativity was through a bird, through a dinosaur, through the planet earth, through water, through whatever; there are things in there that you take out, or He sends to you these ideas, the things that have already been done. But a lot of people take that the wrong way, and they’ll say: “Everything’s been done before,” and what they mean is: “Just because you did this in 2015 and it was probably done in 2010 and then done the year before and the year before and the year before that …” That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about finding these ideas and building off of these ideas from, like, the Egyptian times or from the Roman times or from the da Vinci times, and you … they built off of something, you’re building off of that and taking it to another level. So your job is to listen to the Lord and then, what I tell my creatives is: “If it’s been done before, you wanna find that thing that has only been done once and it was done in, like, 5000 B.C. (laughs). You know, not that thing that was done last year or the year before. or the year before or the year before that – anything within the last hundred years you don’t wanna do.”
Is Jesus Christ responsible for all of that?
In my mind, I was put here by Jesus Christ. That’s the beginning and end of everything. So everything I’m doing, I’m doing to serve Him. I’m doing to express, as best as I can as a human, what He wants the rest of the world to know. And it’s not just me by myself; it’s everybody. Everybody is here to do that, whether they know or they don’t, they’re here to express His message, His gospel, and so forth. His love. So, any of the ideas that I come up with, they come from Him. ‘Cause nothing, it’s written in the Bible, nothing is new. Nothing has not been done before. But then some people take that the wrong way: “Then if nothing’s been done before, what does it matter?” No, I don’t mean it like that. I mean: What’s been done before? When the Wright brothers built a plane, well, birds had already been flying so they didn’t create anything, birds already flew. So that’s nothing new. When Columbus discovered America, he wouldn’t really discover America. He didn’t create America, the Indians were already there. The Native Americans were already there. And so on and so forth. So when we sent a satellite, when the Russians first sent a satellite up in space, well, satellites already existed; the moon is essentially a satellite. So there is nothing new. What your job is as an advertising marketing creative, is to create things, in my book inspired by the Lord, and that haven’t been done, I’d like to say, since 4000 B.C., 1000 B.C. – something that, if you’re alive today, you have not seen before.
So there is a spiritual, metaphysical source, that is a reason for your creativity?
One hundred percent.
In a recent interview, you mentioned the topic of racism in the communication industry. Did you experience racism in advertising?
Unfortunately, yes. It’s not like folks were wearing white robes, but getting into the industry was a bitch. One ad agency discovered I was black and rescinded the offer. When I was at Burrell, my ideas were considered too white for the black consumer market by the various clients. Then, when I was at general market agencies, my ideas were considered too black. For a while there I couldn’t win! So I prayed to Jesus. He took care of it. Oh, there are still racist incidences. But not enough to stop God’s plans. How can we solve the problem and improve the situation? Real simple. If you are not a racist … hire black and brown people.