GS&P Vet Explains How His New Agency Runs on Improv Comedy

By Patrick Coffee 

Paul Charney left his gig as a creative director at GS&P in 2013 for the most traditional reason–he wanted to start his own shop. The resulting agency didn’t last, though, and in seeking inspiration for the next endeavor he turned instead to a personal hobby: improv and sketch comedy.

Charney started the Funworks project in his native San Francisco more than a year ago with the help of former GS&P/VB&P accounts guy Kenny White. Over the summer, we posted on ECD Craig Mangan leaving BBDO San Francisco after leading its creative department for three years, and now we know where he went: to help launch Funworks with Charney and White.

So what’s the idea behind the new “creative agency built around extreme collaboration and design thinking?”

“We collaborate much more with clients by bringing them into the writers’ room; it’s akin to how sketch/improv works. The other wrinkle: the people in the room are actually sketch/improv people. They’re not ad people, to be blunt.”

Reps for clients who seek out Funworks (their business comes from networking rather than formal pitches) sit in on three-hour “writers’ room”-style sessions with the aforementioned comedy people and the Funworks team, which currently includes several creatives in addition to Charney and Mangan. These creatives will later “flesh out” the ideas developed during these sessions with the help of the clients.

Charney calls them “workshops,” and they typify an approach that’s very different from an old school model in which “Clients give a brief, the agency puts two creatives in a room to awkwardly stare at each other for two weeks, and the client crosses their fingers hoping they’ll guess right.”

What kind of brands does Charney work with? HP, for one. Here’s a spot Funworks recently created for the computer company.

A taste of Upright Citizens Brigade, no?

As Charney tells us, Funworks is less about indulging in improv tendencies than helping clients do more with less, with “less” in this case applying to both time and money.

“We get the client to bring 8-10 people (some of whom are outside the marketing group) to the workshop. The comedians aren’t ad people, so they keep everyone honest…we save weeks and even months of time by getting in the room together and being honest about it.”

To speed up the process even more, Charney says, “We eliminated account services by having the client in the room”–and the comedians are freelancers brought in to help the CMOs’ ideas meet the creatives’ ideas and live happily ever after. He argues that these jokers are inherently less attached to creative concepts than ad folks, so they’re more flexible and less backstabby.

“As a creative, you’re rewarded for owning an idea that you can’t share with anyone else because it’s your career.

I will never work with better talent than I did at GS&P…but I didn’t get to work WITH them because I was always competing against them.”

He also says that Funworks aims to overcome one of the oldest stumbling blocks in advertising: clients who shoot down the best ideas.

“One of my favorite GS&P clients gave me two pieces of advice: ask a client what their pain is, then shut up for a second and LISTEN. Now I see that he was completely right.”

The idea is that, if the agency works together with the client from the beginning, there will be less push/pull and pressure on the two or three creative leaders who are expected to sell a given concept. Funworks also looks to do away with the longstanding “dynamic duo” trope:

“What always drove me nuts [in my agency work] was the whole writer/art director thing: that’s a construct left over from the ’40s and ’50s when people were coming up with ideas for billboards. Media is so much more complex now; people are executing against a technology and sometimes skip the ‘what’s the idea?’ part.”

Here’s another example of a digital spot that Funworks created for Pax, a company that produces…yes…vaporizers.

Most of Funworks’ spots are comedic, which makes sense because they’re largely based on Charney’s background in improv. But he tells us that he turns to the comedians “more for their fast minds” than their comedy chops, adding, “I’m paying them to do what they like to do: sit in a room with other people and come up with funny stuff. They don’t want to work in advertising and make a banner ad, but agencies are like, ‘that’s how we pay for you.'”

Will this new approach work? Charney clarifies that Funworks does not aim to be an old-school agency of record, and it’s not competing directly against bigger creative shops. “I think we are an alternative,” he says, “and sometimes we can be a supplement.” But they may handle “soup-to-nuts and production” duties as well.

This obviously isn’t something that every client will buy. “The approach works for us because it feels true to our history,” says Charney. “I presume there are all types of other approaches out there.”

So there are. And here’s one last example of his company’s style in a spot created for messaging service HipChat.