Matt Vescovo On The Spot

Freelance art director Vescovo has worked at several high-profile New York shops—BBDO, Cliff Freeman and Partners, Fallon—but his biggest success in the ad world started out as a personal art project. After MTV’s in-house promo department turned his “Instructoart” pieces into animated spots last year, 35-year-old Vescovo has been cleaning up at the awards shows. The work, which demonstrates such tasks as how to properly remove a pubic hair from a piece of soap, won a coveted yellow Pencil at the D&AD among other awards. A new round of spots is currently airing on MTV.

Q. Are you surprised by the positive reaction to “Instuctoart” at the awards shows?

A. I’m completely surprised, because this is something that I was just doing initially for fun. I honestly had no grand plan.

You’re actually a painter?

Yeah. I’d always done stuff on the side, and on a few occasions I took a sabbatical just to focus on painting. My father-in-law, who is also an artist, saw a gallery down in Asbury Park that he called “out there,” and he thought they would appreciate my stuff. He encouraged me to take it more seriously. They really responded to it and wanted me to have a show. That was the same time I went freelance, so it was perfect timing.

You used to be a musician as well?

I played trumpet for 14 or 15 years, through college [at Syracuse]. I majored in advertising, but I had a minor in music. I thought about becoming a musician. But it seemed like advertising gave me a chance to be creative but wasn’t as big a compromise as, let’s say, playing at a wedding or a bar mitzvah.

How did Instructoart come about?

I see these things as important life lessons! A lot of people do these things incorrectly, like trying to scrape pubic hair off soap, and they get it embedded under their nail. I felt it was my duty to step in. I’ve always been attracted to that airline-pamphlet type of illustration. And at some point I came up with the term “Instructoart,” a funny combination of two words that don’t seem to belong together.

How did you hook up with MTV?

I created a Web site, where I had a bio page. I wrote as a joke that art frees me up from the crass commercialism of my chosen profession and I hope that one day Instructoart would turn into a full-length feature or a line of toys, “and station IDs for MTV.” I wrote it as a joke. After I wrote it, I thought, “Maybe it could work for MTV.” I wasn’t sure how, but it seemed like it lined up with who they are. A friend knew someone at MTV, Mike Bellino, and he was huge in making the promos happen, because you can’t just walk in with your little print-outs. He wound up showing it to Kevin Mackall, the head of promos for MTV.

How do you evolve the campaign?

It started out as educating people on how to do things that we all do. There were one or two spots in the first round that also made a social commentary. It allowed me, in the second round, to do ones that pushed it further away. There was also gay marriage this second round, which was timely. That opens doors, because anything in the news is fair game.

What inspired you to get into advertising?

As a kid I saw a spot for Wendy’s, “Russian Fashion Show” [by Cliff Freeman]. I realized it was funnier than the show I was watching.

How did you end up getting hired by Cliff Freeman?

My partner [Steve Dildarian, now a copywriter at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners] and I were working at BBDO and we just got swallowed up at that place. We were 21 or 22. No one noticed us. What we started to do, which probably wasn’t the best idea, but after we would put in a full week at BBDO, we would freelance. Agencies would call us on Friday, we’d present Sunday night or Monday. We didn’t know what else to do, because we weren’t selling anything at BBDO. We freelanced on a pitch for Cliff Freeman, and we did a campaign that wound up being the recommended campaign in the meeting. They didn’t win the business, but they wanted us to freelance again. But at that point, things started to go a little bit better for us at BBDO. So then when we said no to [Freeman], that’s when they gave us an offer.

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

When I left BBDO, when I told them about the offer from Cliff, which was less money than what I was making there, the guy said, “Let us put a package together.” I said, “No, I don’t even want to hear what it could be, because I might make the wrong decision.” I think [staying there] would have been a big mistake, because so much happened for myself and Steve when we went to Cliff.

What’s your dream assignment?

I’m not being a brown-noser, but this MTV project is it. I feel like they just let people do what they know how to do, they don’t really meddle. I’ve shown them 15 promos, and they haven’t changed a frame yet. I’m waiting for something to go wrong, because it doesn’t seem like it should be like this.

What advice would you give someone starting out in the business?

Find out what it is that makes you different as a person. Lots of people don’t think about themselves that way. They may even see something as a negative that could be a strength. It’s that unique quality that’s really going to separate you, and you gotta try to figure out how it’s going to work for you.

What would you be doing if you weren’t in advertising?

A professional bowler. All this work that I’m doing is eating into my bowling time.