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Alan Pafenbach On the Spot

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Pafenbach, 48, once thought advertising was for lunatics. But after flirting with journalism in college, he decided instead to join the asylum. The opportunity to write and create spots—and get paid for it—intrigued him. His big break came in 1995, when he and Lance Jensen, his partner at Havas' Arnold, were tapped to lead the creative pitch for the lucrative Volkswagen account. Eight years later, Pafenbach continues to produce fresh ideas for VW, but he still thinks the industry is a bit insane.

Q. What inspired you to get into advertising?

A. When I was a kid, I liked to write stories, make movies and write comic strips. I did a couple of different things before I got into advertising, and when I did I realized that it was the only profession where I could do all those things and get paid.



What was your first ad?

I was in junior high school, and the local paper had a contest. I did an ad for a store that sold unfinished furniture. I drew a chair, and one leg had bark all over it and a twig hanging off of it. I won second place and $15 for it.



Who were your mentors?

Ron Lawner [chairman and chief creative officer at Arnold] gave me my biggest opportunity, which was to work on the VW pitch, and then the account. My other mentor was Gene Gilmore [creative director of CKG in Boston in the '80s]. Gene gave a lot of some of the best people in Boston their first jobs.



What's it like working with Ron?

Ron's a detail guy—he has amazing instincts. He's annoyingly right about so many things.



What work are you most proud of?

I like everything, but the one I'm still trying to beat is the "Pink Moon" commercial. Visually and emotionally, it's got all the stuff. I have a lot of close seconds. The VW convertible spot "Bubble Boy" is good. And I have a soft spot for a spot I did called "Big Day."



Name the last ad that made you think, "I wish I had done that."

I love that Nike spot with the chicken chasing the kid around—it's just so weird on so many levels, but it's also a really solid spot.



What's the smartest business decision you've ever made?

Deciding during the VW pitch that the advertising should go back to looking like VW advertising. There was a temptation to put my own stamp on it, but there was a heritage that should be respected.



If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?

I don't enjoy traveling. I don't like airports, and I'm a nervous flyer. If I could do everything in Boston I would.



What would you change about the industry?

There's something called the ad jock. These are people who confuse advertising with sports-—they know the names of every creative director like they were on baseball cards or something. I guess that kind of mentality is good if you're working on a beer account.



Is there a product that you would refuse to work on?

Cigarettes and dietary supplements. They're both basically dishonest.



Name one person you're dying to work with.

Christopher Walken. He's cool. I enjoy watching him. I like Kevin Spacey. I like actors who do little things, because I try to put that into our spots, very subtle things.



What was your most recent creative coup?

Convincing Jeff Lynne from ELO to redo "Mr. Blue Sky" for "Bubble Boy."



How did you convince him?

He just liked the commercial. A lot of artists are sensitive about what you're going to do [with their music], but we've had good luck. We do spots that aren't embarrassing.



Why did you choose that song?

It had the right structure, and it was a song that people kind of knew, but it wasn't a big hit. When it's not as well-known, it blends with the commercial better.



How do you keep Volkswagen work fresh after eight years of working on the account?

I encourage my people to look [for inspiration] outside of the world of advertising.



How do you get past a creative block?

I just talk about the topic incessantly until the answer pops out.



Do you drive a Beetle?

Yes. I'm about to take delivery on a new 2003 Turbo S. It's the really fast Beetle.



Was it hard to lose Lance as a partner when he left to launch Modernista!?

I've adjusted. I have a great team of people, and they've filled his shoes admirably.



Have you ever regretted a creative concept?

I was nervous about the VW spot where the guy licks the car door. It seemed like it might gross a lot of people out. [Then] I was in a cab and the driver said it was his favorite.



Give me three words to describe yourself.

Obsessive, compulsive and obsessive.



And three words others use to describe you?

Same as above.



What's your biggest fear?

Professionally, it's having a piece of work misunderstood or just not connecting.



You once read a book by Jerry Della Femina and concluded that advertising was for lunatics. Are you a lunatic?

Absolutely.