Steve Amato Strikes Back

LOS ANGELES Before leaving TBWA\Chiat\Day to found Omelet in Los Angeles with Shervin Samari, Ryan Fey and Mark Vega, Steve Amato, 35, was a New York playwright, producer and Sandy Meisner-trained actor. He’s also been a copywriter at Adlhoch Creative, worked on reality shows and honed his ad chops at Deutsch and later at Chiat.

That skill set is coming in handy these days, as the shop was designed to mix work for hire with agency-developed intellectual properties.

During the current writers’ strike, Amato has even been pitching his clients, which include NBC and Fox.

Q: How does living in Los Angeles compare to New York?
A: Los Angeles actually has a lot more avenues of expression. It is vibrant here. I like to say that I learned everything about the world in New York, but in less than a year I learned more about myself here.

What brought you to Bruce Adlhoch?
My wife had worked on one of their commercials and recommended me for a job [in 1999]. My first job in advertising was doing the weekly circular for Bristol Farms. Bruce made me attach a joke to everything (no puns allowed) and only paid me for jokes he would use. It was really disruptive and inventive of him. And I had to think of a lot of outside-the-box vegetable jokes.

How did acting the Meisner acting method prepare you for the ad business?
Sandy would teach you to make experience personal, make it make sense for you. He used to say, “Act before you think.” Translating that to advertising, I can identify with the business challenge of clients or put myself in the mind-set of the consumer and experience what it would be like to be berated with something you don’t care about.

What was your first television job?
One of my producer friends brought me in to the Reality Check reality TV show on MTV. It followed kids coming out of journalism school and covering their first real stories. They spent a ton of money on the pilot, but at the end of the day they were scared to put the people we selected for the show on the air because they didn’t look like MTV kids. The network wasn’t calling the shots; they were afraid the advertisers wouldn’t support it. That was one of my biggest epiphanies: They’re just doing these shows to win the favor of brands. That’s when I decided television was not a good use of my time. I had to go to where people were making the creative decisions that ultimately influence culture.

So that led you to Deutsch and then Chiat?
Yes. When I first heard of Deutsch, I thought it was a bank. Deutsch was a new business machine at the time. And I learned about sticking to your guns and selling one idea three ways. [Chiat] was one of the most innovative agencies in the world. And they were starting to get the brands to fund original intellectual property, and that’s what started me on the nontraditional path to founding Omelet.

What is the differentiator at Omelet, at least conceptually?
An independent shop that does full-service advertising and branding, hatched to create media-neutral experiences and get results in the process. We believe our business is our clients’ problems, and creative is just a way to solve them. The business model is half work for hire, and the other half owning and exploiting original intellectual property, in conjunction with co-owners or on our own.

Has the concept migrated since you launched almost two years ago?
No, we really believe that’s what makes sense for problem solving, based on the idea that the collective is better than the individual and that we’re training like-minded entrepreneurs.

How has Omelet met your expectations?
The industry’s ability to embrace a new model: not just the ability to sell ideas, but also the ability to bring on talent that gets behind the idea of collaboration. It has only just begun. There are lots of opportunities sitting in front of us.

What hasn’t met your expectations?
The capability of the media. Clients are still investing heavily in upfronts, for example. That puts us in a good position, but it is a confusing time. The writers’ strike won’t help that. I’m divided, very sympathetic to the position of the writers and to the networks and studios. Half of our business model is about the struggle to maintain ownership of ideas, but brands paying huge amounts during upfronts to reach declining audiences doesn’t seem quite right, either. The answer lies with consumers; it’s about where the ideas land.

Do you see a solution?
Marketing is the entertainment. We are focusing on alternate formats, non-scripted shows, hybrids, where we don’t write dialogue per se but the dramatic situations. I know we have made headway during the strike. The networks will have to reach out to the nontraditional ways of entertaining, such as exploiting online.

What’s the best business decision you’ve ever made?
To walk away from tradition and start Omelet; the choice of partners; and having this idea of a collective that is more “open source.” We’ve hired smart people so we can hear from smart people rather than having smart people we can yell at.

How will your branded content differ from earlier agency efforts?
First, it will be self-funded. It will use new technologies, social network sites, but with an Omelet slant and a strategic POV. We’re interested in new content deals. So we’re pitching reality shows, and if the networks want to take that to the next level, we can offer it to brands. We will own and run the show, giving us a much longer cycle of involvement, and not necessarily depend on A-list talent. We have a hybrid-scripted program in process.

What’s the difference between that and other agencies’ branded content?
Most agencies can’t be as nimble because of the overhead. And a lot of relationships with the brand don’t allow them to own the intellectual property they create, not to mention handle the level of risk. But Wieden and Crispin are absolutely cracking the code. I feel like they are doing the right things for their clients. At the end of the day, their success will make it easier for us to better service our clients our way. If we are invested in reaching consumers and pushing the needle, that will be better than just punching a clock.

Why did you call the agency Omelet?
We would meet at a diner at 6 a.m. in Marina del Rey and plan the revolution. One day, someone said, let’s call it Omelet. We laughed out loud and realized that we could own that. And, in the end, it relates to the Che [Guevara] quote that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.

Omelet’s early clients included Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Xbox Live, and Nestle’s Baby Ruth and Stouffers brands, but what has been your favorite effort so far?
The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf is a great local client. They challenged us with making them cool again. So we did this “Mascot roommate” campaign. The idea was that a college roommate had a job dressed like a giant Ice Blended [frozen coffee drink]. So we started this Web site where the fictitious roommates were dedicated to getting him fired from the job and terrorizing him, kidnapping him, etc. So it’s all these college pranks. It’s fun, funny, edgy. We never told the world it was an assignment. CNN called it a most popular viral video—and didn’t know whether it was real or not. After the segment they produced, there were literally hundreds of thousands of hits. It was viral enough before viral became oversaturated. That was Omelet winning on creativity.

Tell me about your green marketing efforts
We did a “Green is Universal” campaign for NBC Universal. It involved a Web site [greenisuniversal.com], broadcast design elements. We’re very excited about it because from the beginning I’ve felt strongly about this and it’s a shared enthusiasm at the agency. In fact, this year we’re partnering with other companies to throw a green Christmas party at a Bel Air mansion.
Everyone here is politically conscious and entrepreneurial. We’re not about cashing out on “green marketing,” but see how we can invest in responsibility. The opportunities will come to us, as they did in the NBC Universal deal.

What was unusual about your work on the Mercenaries 2 game?
In this case we were working directly for the developer’s team, who was trying to get publishers excited about it. So we created a Mercenaries brand book, a Maxim-like lifestyle magazine for mercenaries. Eventually it was used to brief agencies. We created a short film that was supposedly a real mercenary coming to Pandemic BioWares’ offices in Westwood to teach the developers the truth and, of course, causing chaos. The campaign got buyers excited. The title was bought by Electronic Arts as a major title, and EA ended up buying Pandemic BioWare for something like $860 million. We’re going to be reaching out to other developers based on the success of the model.

Is Omelet where it should be?
We’ve grown from six to 30 full-time employees in the last year. One of our first employees has just celebrated his first year. So it’s been smart growth.

What are three words you would use to describe yourself?
Nimble, innovative and collaborative.

What are three words others would use to describe you?
Thought provoking, 360, strategic.

Who have you learned the most from so far?
Mark Vega. And I have a lot of respect for everyone at Chiat\Day—especially Rob [Schwartz], Carisa [Bianchi] and Lee [Clow].

What’s the first advertisement you remember seeing?
In truth it was probably a G.I. Joe commercial. But one that always stuck with me is the Indian looking at the highway [an anti-pollution PSA]. I don’t remember the tagline, but I remember the way it made me feel.

Who is your greatest creative influence?
[Filmmaker] Mike Leigh, for his approach to the creative process, and his ability to let go and trust the people that he’s put in place to create the future of his process.

How do you get past a creative block?
As an agency, we will have what we call a “briefstorm.” We get a ton of people in the room and come up with ideas. We work with people who are our partners. That helps the creative process.

What grabs your attention on TV today?
Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm. I watch Man vs. Wild with my wife. I’m totally into Lost.

What recent work made you think you’d like to have done it?
Crispin’s video game for Xbox Live for Burger King. That type of integration didn’t feel like a departure for the brand.

What’s your pet peeve?
Ego, the inability to see past your own nose. Collaborate, stay open to the possibility that ideas can always get better.