Interview by Professor Mark Allen
Ask any advertising student (or professional) to name who’s on their career bucket list and most likely you’ll find Apple near the top. In the same league as brands like Nike, Volkswagen and Coke, the creative heavyweight from Cupertino consistently pumps out ads that are just as revolutionary as their products.
This September, Apple released its much-anticipated iPhone 11 Pro with a seriously beefed-up camera. To show off the device’s impressive new video capabilities, Apple asked TAI alumnus, Diego Contreras (’08), to create a short film for the official worldwide launch at the most recent Apple Keynote. With an iPhone 11 Pro and an extraordinary amount of talent, this is what he produced:
The new iPhone camera is incredible, no doubt. But one thing is even clearer to me: I still don’t expect my videos to look anywhere near this good—that is, unless Diego Contreras happens to be holding my iPhone.
I’ve kept up with Diego and his career ever since he was an art direction student of mine back in 2006–08. In addition to being a unique creative talent, he’s one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet. Whether it’s dinner when we find ourselves in the same city or giving advice to my advertising students via Skype, he always makes time in his busy schedule to catch up and give back.
One of my fondest memories of Diego was how he always found a way to have fun while working so hard. When he returned to our program as a senior, I asked him to lead our Fall Startup Meeting—our annual gathering of creative students after returning from summer break. Diego kicked off the event with a crazy video he shot and edited of him and a few other creative students wreaking havoc at a local grocery store on motorized carts. He even hosted a goofy awards show, featuring trophies that he made himself. He gave me the Vidal Sassoon Best Hair Award, made from an empty bottle of shampoo that he spray-painted gold. It was very much like Diego’s own version of The Dundie Awards. The point here is that Diego spent a ton of time creating a bunch of completely unnecessary content and made-up awards in order to foster a culture of fun and creativity around hard work. More than 10 years later, I still see the effects of Diego’s contribution to the culture of fun, hard work and camaraderie in our program.
Since graduating from SMU, Diego has worked for a truly impressive list of agencies. He started out as art director at Crispin, Porter + Bogusky in Boulder, then went to Anomaly in New York. He became an associate creative director at BBDO and then launched out on his own as a film and commercial director, currently working with Reset Content in LA. In light of his momentous project for Apple, I caught up with Diego and hit him with a barrage of questions:
What’s it like to do work for Apple—one of the most storied brands in the world, but especially within the world of Advertising?
It was honestly a bit of a dream come true. Two years ago, I had the chance to be a speaker at a film conference and I talked a little bit about the habit of putting your dreams on paper. I said sometimes it’s good to write down those things you want to achieve in life. I mentioned that since I started directing commercials, my dream was to eventually do one for Apple, PlayStation and Nike—and that once I crossed those brands off the list, then I could go on to pursue movies. Apple became a reality for me this year and the entire experience was a blast.
How is working with Apple different than other companies you’ve done work for?
I’ve always seen Apple as one of those companies that just seems a little out of reach. And I wondered how they managed to create such good advertising. And then meeting them I realized that a lot of it comes down to just how bold they are and how much trust they put in the creative people they hire. They don’t second guess themselves and just follow their instincts. And that’s rare in the ad industry. They gave me so much freedom as a director to just work and do things my way. They were supportive of all my ideas and just let me fly with it. That trust and creative freedom between all sides of the equation is what I believe leads to really good work.
What led to you doing this project for Apple?
I was invited to pitch on the project and compete against a set of very talented directors around the US and the world. Because of such a fast turnaround, they were going to pick the director for the project based on their reel and a couple phone calls. I connected really well with their team on the phone calls. But then I went ahead and did a director treatment, which is basically a visual presentation pitch, even though they hadn’t asked for one. And that helped me seal the deal. I stayed up till 7am working on it and got news the next day that the project was mine. Sometimes a little extra work and sacrifice leads to positive results!
What advice would you give the younger version of yourself who just got into the TAI creative program?
I’d tell myself to trust your instinct and never be afraid to be YOU. What you have to say and contribute to the world and to the creative industry is extremely valuable. Over time I’ve learned that the best creatives I know are people who have a unique voice and express something personal through their work. They’re not afraid to truly be themselves and pave their own path. And you can see and feel that in their work. They’re not trying to mimic or imitate what others have done before them. Doing that is what’s led to some of the biggest opportunities in my career. So I’d say, always go with your gut, follow your heart and do things differently. Even if that means failing or facing rejection.
Would your advice be different for the Senior in his/her final year of the program?
Then I would tell myself to just enjoy the ride and take it with a grain of salt. This job can be amazing and extremely rewarding, but it also can quickly become obsessive and take over your entire personal life. It’s easy to become a slave to your endlessly busy schedule. So, it’s very important to keep some perspective and know when to say “no”. When to pass on an opportunity to dedicate some time to yourself, your loved ones and your well-being. Because in the end, that is the most important thing we have in life. And sometimes saying “no” leads to even better opportunities down the road.
I’m glad you mentioned this. I’ve always pushed my students hard in order to prepare them for a tough, competitive industry, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also begun to have more conversations about work/life balance. Now that you’ve been doing this for a while—you’ve gotten married, you’ve become an uncle, you’ve traveled quite a bit on work projects—what kind of perspective has this given you with regard to work/life balance?
This is probably one of the most important topics that I still deal with a lot. I’m very obsessive with my work and it’s so easy for me to want to work all day and night. Often at the expense of my personal life. But over time I’ve learned the importance of knowing when to stop and put life first. You just gotta remember that this is just a job. It’s not your life. You are worth so much more than some banner ad or some shiny award you’ll forget about a week later. Do the work but strive to find the time to enjoy your personal life and spend quality time with those you love. They will appreciate and love you for it. Also, try to find inspiration outside of work and outside the ad world. After a year or so of work, I realized looking into those advertising books and annuals was the worst way to find inspiration. I started turning to art, music, film, nature, and life experiences. That stuff always leads to the most unique and original ideas.
In what ways did your experience at TAI prepare you for the career you’ve had?
TAI taught me all about the value of a good idea. The teachers at TAI were very concept heavy and, honestly, that’s the most valuable experience you can bring with you as you begin working as a creative in advertising, and even now for me as a film and commercial director. At TAI we’d have to write hundreds and hundreds of concepts and ideas on paper only to have one finally stand out from the pile and shine over the rest. This helped me create that internal filter that allows you to distinguish between what’s a good idea and a bad idea. And then we’d go all out on bringing that idea to life in the most beautiful way possible with a high level of polish. I put every concept and every scene I shoot through that exact same filter, and it inspires me to shoot things in a way that’s unique, different and fully my own. And hopefully, you strive to create work and ideas that have never been done before. Having high standards in these jobs, be it as a creative or filmmaker, is crucial.
They also taught me to work hard and that’s some of the best preparation you can have. All the countless late nights at school working on our ads paid off quickly once I jumped into my first real job at CP+B. The work hours there were crazy, but it wasn’t anything I wasn’t used to.
The heavy focus on highly polished art direction at SMU was huge too. My work always had a level of polish that made me stand out from the rest of the creatives at the agencies I was working in. Many of those art directors relied heavily on graphic designers to give a visual boost to their work but being able to handle that visual work on my own was a huge help in rising through the ranks faster and gaining bigger responsibilities.
As a follow-up to that, once you were sitting on the other side looking at student portfolios as an agency art director/creative director, was there anything that consistently seemed to be missing in student work?
I did lots of portfolio reviews at events like the One Show in NY and one thing that unfortunately seemed consistent was that many portfolios were lacking some focus. I was seeing so many books that had a ton of different executions on a somewhat ambiguous concept. I’d see pages and pages of digital and social media concepts with lots of captions and things to read. By the end of those books, I was still left wondering what the real concept was. It seemed like they had forgotten that they were making ads, and ads have to draw you in and stop you in your tracks—otherwise, they’re skipped.
I think the best books were the ones that had smart and simple ideas—straight and to the point. You could tell within seconds if someone was a great writer or art director. There were either some amazing and fun headlines or some beautifully crafted visuals. And that’s what creative directors are looking for. Smart, fun, and quick thinking.
Over the years I’ve also noticed a lot of student books that were more style over substance. It was work that looked stunningly beautiful and well-crafted, but when you really dissected the idea you realized there wasn’t much substance there. And I’m all about story and message over visuals. Pretty visuals can only get you so far, but a simple, good story and a clear message will always stand out in the end.
Our little creative program spent a lot of time together back in the day—when you think about that time and your classmates, what skills or characteristics were you envious of or admire most? What lessons did you learn from your classmates?
I learned so much from the good writers and admired how they were able to wrap up an idea so nicely with just a few words in ways images could never do. Some of the guys like Jeff Hodgson (still one of my best friends) could write a headline that felt like a straight punch in the face and it was always so fun to read those. I’ve always been more of a visual thinker and words never came that easily to me. It’s funny that most of my work as a student didn’t have any words in it. That’s where you learn to collaborate and get the best of both worlds. As I’ve moved into directing, I see the value in teaming up with amazing writers to really bring a story to life.
Unlike many Advertising programs, TAI is housed within the Meadows School of the Arts. How did this affect your education or even the way you approached your career?
I heard these words screamed once from one of the top creative executives at one of the best agencies in the world: “Advertising is not f****** art!!!” He was referring to the idea that, in the end, advertising is a business and you’re ultimately always selling some kind of product.
But my time at TAI and Meadows made me feel like everything we were creating was art. Yes, they were ads. But to me it was pure creative expression, and I felt like I was painting with words and art and design. I felt like every idea was telling a little story that would make someone laugh, learn, and have the power to stop someone in their tracks and truly think about something. And I’ve taken that mindset with me ever since—from the time I spent in ad agencies until now with the commercials I get to direct. I choose to believe that I’m still making art and I treat everything I do with the same level of love and care.
And yes, there are moments working with certain clients that you can’t help but agree with those words I overheard that day, but I choose to believe that what I’m doing is still art. And if I can inject the work with that same passion and soul you do with art, it is bound to be carried on to the final product.
Can you say something about how being an art director prepared you for making the transition to directing?
The biggest way was in how I learned to sell my ideas and package them in a way that could inspire others within seconds. As an art director, it was my job to make sure every idea looks so good it can sell through to a client. In a similar way, so much of directing comes down to winning a project with a stunning director treatment. Your chances of getting work live and die with these treatments. They are your one shot at making a great first impression. People will glance through that document and know within seconds whether they’re into it or not.
My time as a creative helped a ton with knowing how to communicate an idea through simple writing and clean, beautiful design so that no matter who’s reading it, they can immediately visualize and connect with the film. The same goes when hiring a team of collaborators to work on your film. It’s amazing how I’ve been lucky to work with some amazing cinematographers and production designers that committed to my projects based on how inspired they felt by a visual treatment. If you can inspire a team of talented people to rally on your side you’ve already won half the battle.
Could you have made the jump straight to directing right out of school?
I don’t think it would’ve been easy. I didn’t go to film school so it would have been difficult to learn much without the experience I gained from my time in advertising. There I learned to have a clear vision, a common goal that everyone on my team could rally behind and fight to achieve. The conceptual side is so important to commercials and basically any story. Having gone through the process of writing thousands of commercials, most of which were totally obliterated by creative directors, I learned that every frame in your story needs to have a purpose and tell a meaningful story, even at a short 30 seconds. I learned that filmmaking is so much more than just capturing pretty images; it’s about using story, music, visuals, and sound in harmony to create meaning.
What advice would you give students who are trying to make it into advertising as a creative?
1. You’re already good enough: This is a big one. It’s easy to think that you’re not good enough. Or ready to be a part of a great agency. You might think it’s going to be hard to break through the crowd when you’re competing against people that might be smarter than you. Or funnier. Or more creative, more artistic, better looking, or whatever. But you are! Some of the best ideas come when you’re willing to trust your gut and go for something that is weird and unique and yours alone. You gotta find your own voice and let that flow and not be afraid to get shut down.
2. Dream Big: When looking for a job, don’t be afraid to go after your dream agencies. Never settle for the easy options or the places that are closest to you. Before graduating, I made a list of my favorite 5 agencies in the US and for months I worked extremely hard to reach out to them. By graduation, I had offers from 3 of them (BBDO, Droga5, and CP+B). It seemed impossible but sometimes you gotta dream big and hope for the best!
Thanks for so many insightful answers, Diego! I’m sure our alums, professors and current students will enjoy reading what you’ve shared.