This year was a milestone for the @radical.media CEO. First he turned 50. Then, in October, he and Frank Scherma celebrated their production company's 10th anniversary with an exhibition at the Art Directors Club in New York. A high-school dropout, Kamen began working for photographers at age 16 before switching to commercials. Since 1993, @radical has produced memorable work for clients including Budweiser, Nike, Miller and ESPN, as well as entertainment projects such as Concert for George, a tribute to George Harrison. But underneath it all, he remains little Jonny Kamen.
Q. Is this where you thought @radical would be when you started it 10 years ago?
A. The reality is, in the past 10 years, a lot has changed, and a lot has stayed the same. Plenty of people told us we should get rid of this old business of ours of making television commercials and go for pure digital play, that TV as we knew it was going to be over. Fortunately for us, we decided they were wrong, and we hung in there.
As one of the first people to tout branded content, what do you think about the industry's movement in that direction?
I don't think the whole industry is going to move in that direction. It's a new frontier. ... I'm always reminded of the great old Barneys commercial with kids playing on steps in Brooklyn. They asked each one of them, "Fiorello, what are you going to be?" And he says, "I'm going to be mayor of this great city." "How about you, Louis?" And he said, "I'm going to be a trumpet player." And Joe talked about being a baseball player. And then they said, "How about you, Barney? What are you going to do?" And he says, "Well, gee, I guess you'll all need clothes."
And you're like Barney?
Yeah. They're all going to need clothes, of one sort or another. Fortunately, we're in the business of producing content—whether it's 30 seconds, one hour, two hours or even print and design for other media.
What's your relationship with Frank like?
Barney Rubble and Fred Flintstone. I'm not sure who is who. ... Frank came on as a partner because I needed somebody to save me from myself, and he continues to do so almost every day. In many ways, I'm sometimes the dreamer, and he's the pragmatist who gets everything done.
Why the name @radical.media?
I was looking for something that signified change. I was reading The New York Times, and Edwin Artzt, chairman of P&G at the time, was lambasting the 4A's or the ANA at one of the annual conventions. He proclaimed it was going to take some radical new company to navigate the waters of change that were going to take place in the business of media, and it just dawned on me. It motivates us. It allows us to think freely. And it encourages people to come to us with new ideas. In an odd way, the name had a purpose. It's not a cutesy surfer-dude name but something that gave us a little bit of a focus.
What is your reaction to Ford's recent cost-cutting production guidelines?
To me, none of that is new. I think you can't blame them for wanting to get the most efficiencies out of the business. It may mean we have to try to make them realize that dictating those kinds of terms is not necessarily the way in which you would achieve the best results. Look at the history of our work for ESPN or even Miller beer. It was the spirit of cooperation and recognizing that we needed to be inventive in the way we produced jobs. And that's still the way we prefer to work. We don't respond well to being dictated to.
Any favorite spots you've produced?
The ones we've done for the least amount of money, the littlest ideas we've been able to execute, whether they were for a public service or a great brand. ... The early work for ESPN, the work for Nike, Nike basketball, NYC. A lot of the work for Miller beer.
How did you get into this line of work?
I started out wanting to be a photographer. Worked in the print business when print was dying and there wouldn't be any more print and it was all going to be television. I worked for Steve Horne in the early '70s and got an opportunity to be exposed to the television world. I was still fairly young and stupid, and it looked quite glamorous to me.
Did you ever go back to school?
I have gone back—to teach. At Columbia, at NYU, the School of Visual Arts. I did go to the School of Visual Arts when it wasn't quite a college for about a year, but I dropped out of that as well. My kids remind me all the time. I can't get any respect at home for that.
If you weren't in advertising, what would you be doing?
Plumbing. It's another service job.
What was the last ad that made you think, "I wish I'd done that"?
Well, I'm a glutton. I wish I'd done 'em all.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?
Look forward. Look out. Make sure that you're constantly immersing yourself in knowledge and experiencing life.
What are three words you'd use to describe yourself?
Little Jonny Kamen.
It keeps you humble. That's who I was when I was growing up, and I haven't grown up.