Why Cannes Is Ready to Fall in Love With the World’s Biggest Asshole

The story behind one of The Martin Agency's top Cannes contenders

Would you be surprised to know that one of advertising’s greatest heroes in the last year is also known as the “world’s biggest asshole”?

In a PSA for Donate Life, The Martin Agency explores the life of Coleman F. Sweeney (the aforementioned asshole). Long story short Sweeney is completely horrible to everyone–a true asshole– but for some reason he signed up to be an organ donor and in death, saved many lives.

The story swept across the internet and managed to accomplish its original goal of getting more millennial men to become organ donors. The story boosted organ donation registrations from 149 per day up to 1,022. It also won three Lions—gold, silver and bronze—in the Lions Health festival at Cannes this weekend, and is poised for more trophies as the week goes on.

In the video above Joe Alexander, chief creative officer for The Martin Agency, discusses what the PSA hoped to accomplish. We also spoke with directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck of Furlined about how the whole film came together.

Adweek: How did you guys get involved in making this PSA for Donate Life?
Will Speck: Furlined brought this to us because Wade Alger [group creative director at The Martin Agency] had brought it up to one of our New York people. It was in the very early stages. They just sort of asked if we would be interested in doing a PSA. We are always looking for great things to lend ourselves to, and the second we read the deck, we were very engaged, intrigued and amused by the idea, and the phrase itself that any asshole can save a life. That was very sticky to us.

Josh Gordon: Intrinsic in the deck was the idea to appeal to a young millennial male audience and kind of pushing the project and pushing the outrageousness of it. The great thing about the deck was it was a lot of research about what the target was, and obviously there was that very sticky idea that Will mentioned, which was the tagline. There wasn’t a script. What the agency was really coming to us early to do was develop a script and come up with not only the scenarios, but with the voiceover and the structure. We loved that because that was permission to indulge in our voice and really try to craft something that would break through the clutter. Throughout the process, they were cheerleaders, and everything we came back to them with and asked, “Is this too much?” they would sort of go, “We don’t know. Let’s try it.” There was a real spirit of take their core idea and really build it out into something unique.

Some of the scenes are a little outrageous and push the boundaries, like when Coleman picks up a pair of women’s underwear off of the floor at the dry cleaners. Did you find it difficult to walk that line of making something shocking versus off-putting?
Speck: We were a little worried. The idea for us was, the further you take [Coleman] in one direction, the more surprising and unexpected it’s going to be. There is something that we were tasked with, which is, this wasn’t for broadcast, there wasn’t a huge media buy behind it. It was really something that was supposed to be found and discovered online, traded and hopefully some momentum and awareness about organ donation could happen as a consequence. For us, doing things that made us a little uncomfortable and pushed the boundaries of where the Coleman character could go was something we wanted to explore. We shot a couple of things we didn’t include, or included in some different ways. We wanted to create a character who really enjoyed this. It wasn’t a disposition that was inherited. It was something he embraced with glee and almost with some sport.

Thomas Jane is a great fit for the Coleman character. How involved were you in the casting?
Gordon: The Martin Agency, in a great way, really gave us an enormous amount of freedom. We gave them a list of people who we thought would be right for the role. There was no cast before we joined on.

Speck: Thomas [Jane] was at the top of our list because we wanted to find somebody who was an actor that we always wanted to work with and who we really respect. We also wanted someone who didn’t bring so much celebrity that it felt like a stunt or you didn’t believe or allow yourself to take the journey that this was a real character. He struck a really good balance between someone who is brilliantly talented and has done a bunch of great things but wasn’t right at the top of the collective unconscious.

What was the greatest challenge in making this PSA?
Gordon: Honestly, it was just the logistics. There was no money. We developed this with Love Child, which is a company associated with Furlined that is interested in doing projects like this. We donated our time and in fact invested some money in it because we believed in it. Really, it was about calling in a lot of favors. All the crew pretty much worked for free, and we had a very tight production window. It was all about how do we tell a three-minute story essentially as a mini movie with thin resources. Once we produced it, it was convincing Donate Life that this was a good idea, because when we delivered it to them, it was exactly as everyone had imagined it and yet when you see it up on its feet, it is a little intimidating to put out there. It was a real testament to their bravery that they put it out there pretty much unchanged.

Each time you go back and watch it, you can find something new, some small detail you never noticed before. What are your favorite moments or details?
Speck: For me, it’s the Halloween scene. There is this feeling as parents … you have anxiety letting your kids go to any house. There was a moment on the day where we were just running and gunning, trying to get as many scenarios together. We were right next to the hospital, and there was this house that looked like the kind of place Coleman would live, but he doesn’t really have a costume. What’s he going to give out? There was a lot of conversation around what his version of Halloween was. We ended up just having it be a bathrobe and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. We could have gone from there about every holiday and how he celebrates it. For me, that was a great moment because it came together so spontaneously.

Gordon: For me, it’s odd but it’s the old woman at the end when she is cleaning up the dog poop that he hated in the first scene. There was a rose growing naturally in the backyard of this house we shot at in the Valley, and we showed up that morning and crafted that shot where we pull back and suddenly the rose is there. It’s one of those accidents that you never plan for, but when you’re working off instinct you get these little gifts. There’s something about the beauty in the midst of this sort of mundane ugliness of real life that I thought was really nice.