Meet the LA agency who is shaking things up, down and sometimes out of planes without a parachute…
Founded in 2011 Amusement Park was set up with the express intention of changing the existing advertising model to allow for alternative creative content opportunities – ones that people would choose to watch and experience. What’s incredibly refreshing to hear when talking to founder, Chairman and CCO, Jimmy Smith, is that there’s no buzzwords when it comes to how he describes his company, just a real passion for making exciting advertising that transcends traditional boundaries.
Talking to LBB’s Phoebe Siggins, Jimmy explains why Walt Disney got him into advertising, and what it’s like to throw a man out of a plane, without a parachute, at 25,000 feet…!
Having previously worked for some of the world’s top creative agencies on huge brand accounts, Jimmy explains that the catalyst for starting his own agency was that he felt that lucrative creative opportunities were missed because the agencies he worked at had no claim on the work they created. When setting up transmedia agency, Amusement Park, his goal was always for the agency to co-own creative with the brands.
“It may seem selfish for the agency to want to own part of the creative but in fact it serves the brand,”
“It may seem selfish for the agency to want to own part of the creative but in fact it serves the brand,” adds Jimmy. “It gives them all of these various possibilities for the work to exist where they wouldn’t have the time or resources to exploit them, themselves. Did you know that Space Jam was originally a commercial? Wieden+Kennedy created it for Nike. Warner Brothers, who own Bugs Bunny wanted to turn it into a movie and Nike didn’t. So Warner Brothers went and did it without Wieden+Kennedy or Nike and it made about $230 million at the box office and $3.5 billion in merchandising. That was twenty years ago. If Wieden+Kennedy had co-owned that, they would have been able to get so much out of it, not only for themselves but for Nike!”
One of the incredible assets co-owned by Amusement Park is Heaven Sent for Stride Gum (Mondelēz International). Perhaps one of the most daring pieces of branded entertainment ever made, the agency orchestrated the first ever parachute-less, wing suit-less sky dive with Luke Aikins. The carefully planned jump was made at 25,000 feet and was a huge success, striking anticipation and awe not only across the US but around the world.
The idea came to fruition when Amusement Park approached Fox on behalf of Mondelēz about a potential stunt project. The network were keen for something big, a world-record that had never been attempted before. Seeking the advice of old friend and aero-nautical expert, Chris Talley, Jimmy and Amusement Park began the hunt for someone brave and skilled enough to attempt the jump – Luke Aikins.
“Chris Talley came to me with five or so ideas. Red Bull had recently performed a sky dive from the edge of space. Chris suggested that it would be possible to do a jump without a parachute or wing suit and we knew that’s what we wanted to do. To this day I can’t remember what the other four were! When we found Luke, he initially told us he wasn’t the guy for the job but he could train whoever did it. Halfway through the call he told us he’d changed his mind and wanted to make history, not just train history.”
Inquiring as to the logistics of the landing itself, Jimmy explains rigorous testing was carried out on the net which caught Aikins.
“We had to find a net that wouldn’t turn him into ice cubes! It had to be soft and sturdy. We calculated that Luke would hit the net at approximately 120mph, terminal velocity. We tested loads of different materials and had test dummies dropped in to them. One day the 250lb dummy went straight through the net. Luckily Luke was calm and assured us this is what the tests were for.”
Jimmy continues to explain that Aikins hadn’t once landed in the net himself until the day of the stunt.
“He maybe did over 200 jumps with a parachute. Until the day of the jump, he would pull his parachute 1000ft above the net. On the day, in order for him to seek out the drop zone from the sky, he had a GPS and we had lights on the ground that signalled if he was within the landing area or not. He was basically acting as a human plane, guiding himself into the correct area.”
One of the biggest challenges on the day, was interference from the union. Last minute they forbid Aikins from performing the jump unless he had an emergency parachute. However, having practised to land without one throughout the whole process, Aikins felt that wearing the parachute could be incredibly dangerous on landing. The extra 25lbs could snap his spinal cord. A nerve-wracking ten minutes before the jump, the union retracted the restrictions and Aikins performed the world’s first parachute-less sky dive.
“On the day, I was praying to Jesus, ‘let’s get him down safely’,” professes Jimmy. “It was such an adrenaline fuelled moment for us all. It was bananas. When you work in an agency, you are constantly appealing to earn a brand’s trust but never before this point have I asked a client to trust me with somebody’s life – live on air.
"When you work in an agency, you are constantly appealing to earn a brand’s trust but never before this point have I asked a client to trust me with somebody’s life – live on air. "
With a playful, adrenaline-packed streak coursing through the veins of Amusement Park, I ask Jimmy if he thinks the work they have been creating is becoming bigger than he’d ever anticipated.
“I hadn’t thought about it that way but it is snowballing. I knew I’d always wanted to make content for TV but we’re doing stuff I never dreamed of. We’ve also got our tech arm now, Amusement Park Queue, and our Record Label."
Another fascinating project hails from Amusement Park’s record label. With athlete and rapper Dame D.O.L.L.A (AKA Damian Lillard of the Portland Trailblazers) Amusement Park developed a full-length song and music video, ‘Bigger Than Us’, for headphone brand JBL. The campaign gave a social voice to a small brand and caused positive social change across the USA.
When it comes to speaking about the company as a whole, Jimmy describes that fun and endless possibility are really the driving factors behind the company name.
“As a kid, amusement parks always gave me the feeling that anything was possible. Walt Disney was a huge inspiration for me. I watched all the documentaries about him, read up on him and learned his history. I grew up in a neighbourhood that was fairly racist. I was pretty much the only black kid that lived there. I had to entertain myself a lot of the time. I entered that wonderful world of Walt Disney and felt that anything was possible. I didn’t want to create an ad agency where it was all ‘no, no, no’. I wanted to create an environment where anyone could step in and feel like they can do something that’s never been done before.”
Jimmy is a huge advocate of diversity in the industry, something that rings true to the core of his company.
“Our motto is ‘No Assholes Allowed',”
“Our motto is ‘No Assholes Allowed',” Jimmy chuckles. “We don’t care what race, colour or creed you come from, if you’re good, you’re good. If you’re white, black, blue, purple and you’re dope, and I’ve got a position open for you, I’ll hire you. I think a lot of agencies say they do this but I’m not sure it’s true. Here when we say that we do it, we do it.”
Amusement parks aren’t only fun and free, they’re also something all the family can enjoy and it’s certainly that way for Jimmy Smith. Five of Jimmy’s family members and his high school room mate all work at Amusement Park and they’re perhaps the most talented bunch I’ve ever heard of!
“Yeah we’ve got the whole gang up in here,” laughs Jimmy. “My brother, Poetri [Director of Creative & Development] is a Tony award-winning poet. He is also an Emmy award-winner. My sister Dee [Deirdre Smith - Director of Creative & Development], is an actress and has been in all types of TV shows. She also has a band called Welcome Home and is an award-winning advertiser to boot. My sons Rel and Sequel, write, produce, edit, they do it all and they’ve already won some advertising awards in their short career. My wife Smoke [Manager of Creative Services] is what balances everything in terms of numbers. Numbers are not my thing. Although she’s been hanging around us too long and she’s well into creative too. She recently sold in a huge idea for a music video that should do really well. Also we’re not blood family but we certainly are family, my roommate from Michigan State, Bobby Ware, I’ve known him since I was 19 and he was my partner who founded Amusement Park with me. As far as I can go back, everyone around me was always doing something pretty creative.”
Tying off the conversation with a snapshot of LA, before Jimmy heads off to his first meeting of the day, he says, “I think LA is on its way to becoming the capital. The tech industry here is huge and with advertising moving more and more into the entertainment sphere, it’s the perfect breeding culture. LA has always been the centre of the world’s entertainment industry. The talent is here too; shops like CAA, David & Goliath, 72andSunny. There’s also the sun.”