Andeer Interviews: Mitch Apley
April 26, 2018 by Screenmag
In the first in a series of interviews, Chicago's Will Andeer sits down with Mitch Apley for a wide-ranging discussion into his career and experiences.
Cheers, Mitch, good to see you. So tell me, how did you get into advertising?
I never wanted to get into advertising, I always hated commercials as a kid. There were no DVRs so the only choice was to sit there watching the same commercial 63 times. But I loved movies, so I went to film school. I ran the film department in high school. I was the only guy who knew how VHS cues. I learned how to run it freshman year and then the instructor left. So I ended up teaching the film class for three years. Music videos and other fun stuff, like blowing shit up, but nobody got arrested.
I got into Northwestern. Pretty good film program. I thought I wanted to act at first and did an integrated arts major, which allowed me to do some acting. I wasn’t a very good actor, however. I make my kids laugh. Did four years at Northwestern. Did a bunch of films. Buddied up with the cage guy so we could borrow the gear on weekend and shoot some rogue stuff. We did a stop motion animation piece called “Robert, Portrait of a Legend”. Back when rock ‘n roll and VH1 behind the Music stuff was still kind of new. So we had this clay animation character named Robert and we got some kid with a British accent to read all these lines, and we got a bunch of artists and did this whole twelve minute piece. Twelve frames a seconds, we recorded the V/O and filmed him talking and we stepped through to see what shape his mouth was in for each shot. As old school as you can possibly get. Chris Finnegan was the lead animator on it and he went on to do Celebrity Deathmatch and now he is on Robot Chicken, so he’s made a career of stop motion animation, but that was his first thing. I was a camera operator on it, so it was just cool. So we made that film and a few others.
While I was at Northwestern I got an internship at a place called PostFX, which does not exist anymore. It was one of the big shops in town at the time and it was when they were switching from analog to digital. I think I interned there for about two years. Pulling cable and wiring big edit suites. So I went from Northwestern, where they were being really stingy with the gear, to the huge wonderland at the time. They were shooting stop motion and getting paid. So it felt like a good home.
I freelanced for a while. Teleprompter was like my main gig. I was making cash doing teleprompter. The owner of one of the companies I worked with told me, “all I needed was a vehicle that’s big enough to haul this gear”. So I went home to Nebraska and bought a Relient K station wagon with wood side panels for $500 and I could put the gear in the back. So I spent almost that whole summer working non-stop and I would get other side jobs doing camera assist and things like that.
Later that year, PostFx had an assistant editor position opening and, since I had actually built most of the rooms, I obviously knew how most of that stuff worked and so I got the gig. I went from assistant editor to editor to director and then general manager by the time I left. I took a leave of absence in 2002. By that time I was editor/director and, at that time, I had been working with Bill Curtis and was doing some exploration in Saudi Arabia. It was a personal project that I started pre-911 and I had done all this research and had gotten all these contacts about the Bedouin tribe. The last nomadic tribe on earth. Then things happened and it sorta fell apart and then 911 happened and I got a call from Bill and it sounded like this: “ Hey, don’t you have some contacts in Saudi Arabia? Maybe we can go over there and find out why those fuckers hate us so much.” So,believe it or not, that sales pitch didn’t go over so well with my Saudi contacts!
A year later, it took a year to sorta get it all figured out, we flew over for three weeks in September of 2002. We made a two hour documentary that aired on A&E network that following April called “Saudi Arabia, a Complicated Aly”.
Coming back from that, around that same time period, Abelson Taylor was still a rather small agency. They needed video production and didn’t really have anything in-house. My sales person at the time said to me, “Hey, you have to go over to Abelson Taylor”, so I went over and it was Ed St. Peter and Scott Hansen at the time and my laptop stopped working. My DVD didn’t work and was failing, so I just kinda sat there and talked for half an hour and ended up walking out with three jobs. So they became one of my best clients and, over the course of the next ten years. I mean, I was doing pretty good business with Abelson Taylor.
In 2005, Resolution digital studios was built and it was basically just a shell. At the time, my wife was pregnant. I was getting ready to be a father and I had been at PostFX for ten years, if you included the internships. So I went out interviewing. Just went over there and on my way to the interview I walked through the stage where they filmed the R Kelly music video, “Trapped in the Closet”. I got into the elevator and there was a midget standing there with a shotgun and I thought to myself,”What is happening?!” I went upstairs, did the interview and, like I said, it was just a shell, but I told them what I thought I could do with it and I eventually got the job. My first day I showed up late. Nobody was at the front desk. I walked around the building to the other side and they buzzed me in and I was like,”Hey!” The place was completely empty. When I was there on the interview it was filled with people, but they were all outside people. So when I showed up on my first day, no one was there. I could have gotten there at noon and it wouldn’t have mattered. It was kinda great. I was executive producer and they were,like,”take this building and make us some money, Mitch”. So I hired some staff and got some business in there. But, really, the first year was about buying couches, pens and artwork. Then, after that, Abelson Taylor and some of my other clients came over. Pretty soon, we were doing a few million dollars a year in business. We had 25 people on staff, so things were pretty good. Then the recession hit and we got even more crazy with business because we were a one-stop shop and it made more sense at the time. It was great.
We did some independent feature films that were cool and some other things like that.
So we were doing cool, interesting stuff at RDS and Ed St Peters called me from Abelson Taylor in 2009 and said, “Why don’t you come work here?” and I was sorta like, “no, I don’t really like advertising. Plus, everytime I talk with you guys, you sound miserable”. I was doing all this cool work and thought, “why bother?”. Then, in 2010, the effects of the recession started to really kick in. I had to let go of about a third of the staff and it was brutal. So a little bit later, summer of 2011, I made the call and said if they still had a role for me, I would be willing. They said,”When can you start?”. I was literally out on a shoot when this happened. Anyway, August 22, 2011, was my first day at Abelson Taylor. It was weird when I started because I knew most of the people, but I knew them as clients. That took about six months to get used to, plus, going from a competitor of the production and editorial companies to being a potential client was an adjustment, as well. That adjustment, I think, was sorta felt on both sides. There were a few funny moments.”Yeah I’m available for lunch on Tuesdays” - I try not to take advantage.
When I started at Abelson Taylor it was an interactive production department. After Ed left, they decided to make Broadcast one thing and digital another. Keep the channels separate.
So if I were to ask, “What inspired you to get into advertising?”, the answer would be that you weren’t really inspired you just kinda ended up here.
Well, not really. Its storytelling, really. I have always loved storytelling. I remember going to camp and listening to this guy tell the best stories, I thought to myself, ”that’s incredible!” So that’s where it all comes from. Crazy campfire stories. And I thought films were the coolest way to tell stories, but, now, you can tell a story with almost anything. To me, it’s kind of a unique challenge to say, OK, I have 60 seconds, or I have one image and how can I move someone to action?
I have always been kind of a documentary guy and, at first, pharma wasn't all that interesting, but, now that I have been doing it a while and we have been exploring what’s out there on the edge, that’s a little bit invigorating. Simply because there are genuine people trying to solve genuine problems. Telling stories about that is really rewarding.
How long have you been at Abelson Taylor?
6 ½ years
I often hear the canned response from most people when talking about production or advertising in general that “Things are changing” This is where I say in my mind “ Yeah, but what exactly does that mean?” Since you’ve been in the business long enough, what’s changing?
Well, as far as film and video production goes, it’s been completely democratized. When I got into this, it was so hard to make anything. You have to expose the film right. When I was doing the stop animation piece I ruined an entire take - eight hours of filming. I have no idea what happened, but when the film came back, it was black. So I was clicking all day long and six animators were working.
Now, the stuff you have on your phone is ten times more powerful than anything anybody had before 2003. Slow motion. If you wanted to do slow motion, you were renting a $5,000 a day camera and blowing through $10,000 worth of film and processing and still wouldn’t be sure it was going to work. Now,it’s all on your phone, and you can post that up to Instagram and the whole family can see your kids jumping in the leaves for free. So what that has translated to, as far as advertising goes, is that everybody thinks they know how to do this stuff. The reality is, though, that there is still is a need for professional-level talent, if you’re doing professional level work. Part of my job is helping clients know when they can get away with the low end or go full up pro. When you have a broadcast TV spot, you are not just competing with your competitors, your are competing with every other broadcast TV spot. But, if it’s an online how-to video, are you gonna shoot it with a phone? No, but you don’t have to get too crazy. So that is a big difference, because it used to be that it was all expensive, all the time, no matter what. Now, there ways to do things cheaper and, part of the reason, is that the demand for video has gone through the roof.
That must be right because I’ve mentioned to outside friends that there isn’t as much money in advertising as there use to be and they say, “But I see commercials all the time”.
APLEY: Yeah, we went from broadcast TV to cable and now we have online and thousands of channels. So they typically don’t spend a million dollars in one place anymore - it gets spread across all of these other things.
The other thing is that marketers, themselves, feel like they understand production to the point that they have started to take some of this stuff over. The only problem with that is that they don’t maybe know all the pitfalls associated with it. For example, talent rights, image rights, music rights and all these things you have to keep track of. Coordinating with vendors and so on.
If you ask what’s changing, things are changing all the time. Now we have artificial intelligence that is capable of doing creative work and it will be interesting to see how that plays into things.
ANDEER: I hope not much!
ANDEER: So, Mitch, you are going to Africa, Where and why?
In 2016 we went over to Kenya. Abelson Taylor. Dale Taylor has been supporting Heifer International for most of his life. His daughter was really into it and he just never stopped donating. A few years ago I asked him if he’d ever gone over there. He said, “No, why would I do that?”, and I said, “Well, we could make a video about what they’re doing, which would make your dollars go further.” He said, “Ok, I can get behind that”. Fall of 2016 we went over to Kenya and interviewed a bunch of farmers. We were on a different farm everyday, and, at the end of it, we went back to the same women three days in a row. Her name was Rose. We got this great stuff out of Rose. The program is called the East Africa Dairy Development Program, which is one of many things Heifers is doing, but it’s been a huge success over there. Literally hundreds of thousands of famers that they’re helping to develop their dairy output. At the time we thought we were going to Tanzania, but ended up going to Kenya. We found out later the reason why was that the Tanzania program wasn’t nearly as far along as the Kenya one.
After we got back from Kenya, we starting talking about doing something else as a follow up. We started talking to them about helping with in-country advertising in Tanzania to see if we could help drive demand. The problem with the Dairy Development Program is that, if nobody drinks milk, you can produce all you want but it’s going to get wasted. Half the team has been working on this. It’s like a Got Milk campaign for Tanzania. So we have a bunch of ad-like objects that we are taking over there. Based on a bunch of coordination and feedback we’ve gotten from people in the country and Heifer International. I mean we’re an ad agency but we’re in Midwest America and we realize that there might be some language and culture differences and all these different things. So we’re doing a lot of research on what drives people to make decisions over there. Working with market research firms and so on.
Now we’ve got a handful of these ads and that half of the team is going to focus groups, testing and market research to see what type of messaging actually works so they can come back and work on a campaign and roll it out in country that will hopefully get consumers to buy more milk.
Because that is the other side of this equation. This storytelling side is “my side”. I‘m going over there with Joel Witmer, who’s like a shooter/editor but he is really a genius storyteller, as well. Matt Vogel is coming with us as our sound guy. The three of us are going over to the smaller farm part of Tanzania and we’re gonna be in the southern highlands. Right now we are either going to be telling a very small story about one family that is participating in the program - possibly through the eyes of one of their children - who has the farm with the cow and is learning from Heifer. We want to follow them to the hub where all the milk gets collected and then to the milk processing factory where it gets turned into saleable things like cheese or yogurts. Then all the way into this school dairy program. Or, if we can’t find a family that works, we will be doing a high level overview on how this whole process bring economic stability to the region
Will Andeer is a creative rep for charlieuniformtango. His column ANDEER INTERVIEWS appears in SCREEN monthly. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.