Greg Popp On The Spot

DDB Chicago group executive producer Greg Popp has come full circle. After growing up in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs, Popp, 42, aspiring to become a director, studied film at Northwestern University. His first job: location manager on John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. That experience, which included guarding garbage on the set, drove Popp into advertising. During 18 years at DDB, Popp has overseen spot production for clients such as Anheuser-Busch and Frito-Lay. In 2002, he began directing spots, including Bud Light’s gold Lion-winning “Real Men of Genius.”

Q. You and [group cd John Immesote] co-directed a lot of Budweiser spots. How will things change now that he’s left DDB?

A. Nothing changes. I would continue to embrace a collaborative approach with a creative director and/or writer of any spot that I’m directing, the same way I did with John. I always had a large role in the staging of the action, storyboarding, working with the director of photography. At the point where we were engaged with the actors, John had a significant role as well. I’m just going to treat the creatives I work with in the same way I treated him in that capacity.

Do you have any desire to go off and do something more independent?

I’m getting to do that now, and I’m getting to do that on an “A” client. It allows me to work with others and learn from them. I’ve had other people on the outside tell me that it’s a unique situation and it’s a special one and it’s one to be fortunate to have. As a producer I get to work with stuff that’s more visual, and in that capacity I still get to learn and then apply what I learn to what I do when I get to direct.

“Real Men” started as a radio campaign. What were the hurdles in taking it to TV?

Filmically we decided to approach a style that was a bit overcranked and overacted. It was a way to celebrate beer ads of the past that were about work/reward and a heightened sense of everyday reality. The second half of the campaign was dealing with the singer, Dave Bickler, who was the original singer for Survivor. We thought we’d want to feature him on-camera, kind of like a “We Are the World” event where there’s a sense a celebrity’s been brought into an event and he’s earnestly singing about something that if you step back is a silly moment. Every bit of this performance suggests a very worthy cause, but the lyrics suggest otherwise.

What work are you most proud of?

My first gold Lion, the Clydesdale “Football” spot that was done back in 1995. For Anheuser-Busch to allow the Clydesdales to do something, for the first time ever, [more] than just pull a beer wagon was a major step for them. It was a significant budget and a distant shoot. And it was in the early days of CGI. It required an amazing step by everybody to trust that these horses wouldn’t look silly or dopey. It’s one of those times where everything just comes together and your conviction and belief really pays off. It’s still on the air to this day.

What was the last ad that made you think, “I wish I had done that”?

I always feel that way, actually. Noam Murro’s Starbucks spot, which has the Survivor guys following the guy around. It cracks me up. I love the parody lyrics. I love the performance. I like the fact that it looks like some odd Behind the Music meets Spinal Tap.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career?

Steve Dickstein, who was the president of Propaganda in its glory years and is with Partizan. I learned three things from him. You can never be aware enough of what’s going on around you. Never look at your work as finished or good enough—always hope for an opportunity to do better. Then finally, the whole Propaganda model was, Collaborate with people who don’t do what you do. Don’t feel comfortable with someone who comes from exactly your creative background. My second gold Lion for Budweiser was a comedy spot from a guy who almost has no sense of humor. But he brought a lot of perspective and filmic style to a spot that really benefitted from it.

Do you have a motto?

I do. It was carved into a stone by Diane McArter at Omaha [Pictures]. She gave it to me because she heard me say it and believed it contributed positively to the projects we worked on. It says, “Leave no stone unturned.”

How do you get past a creative block?

I immerse myself in other endeavors that don’t have to pay the rent. I have a recording studio in my basement, and I play in a band. I can do anything I want when I do that. It’s not hindered by success or failure, and as a result it really opens my mind up.

What’s your biggest fear?

As a TiVo owner, I’m aware of how easy it is to zap ads. I used to see every spot that I produced on television. Now I rarely see them anymore, either because I have TiVo, or watch HBO, or spend my time on the computer. It’s evolving, and it’s going to be very important for those of us who want to survive in this business to evolve with it.

What would be your dream assignment?

I’ve actually already had that. I was given the opportunity to explore the branded-content stuff for Anheuser-Busch and shot some eight-minute films for them. They were written by the agency, created and produced by the agency, and A-B had the confidence and trust in us to do it without a whole lot of supervision or meddling.

Now that you’ve achieved that, what’s next?

I debuted in my rock band at Wise Fools Pub two weeks ago. I gotta be a rock star.