"I look for avenues that the creatives haven’t thought about. Then, if we’re laughing on the phone, it’s good. If we’re not, we probably shouldn’t do the thing"
Brendan Gibbons is perhaps best known as the filmmaker behind Progressive Insurance’s popular campaign featuring iconic spokesperson Flo, and the quirky cast of characters on her team. Brendan’s style of striking visuals, honest performances and smart humour has been a driving force behind countless commercial campaigns - and a body of work brimming with vivid characters and unexpected twists.
Brendan’s client list includes brands such as Wendy’s, Nissan, Spectrum, Toyota, ESPN, Snickers, Ally Bank, Mastercard, Sony and the PGA. He has drawn comedic performances out of a variety of celebrity talent, from sports stars like LeBron James and Peyton Manning to entertainment icons like David Duchovny and Steven Seagal. His natural wit and cinematic playfulness have led to many memorable spots, like Shaquille O’Neal playing his childhood self for Wix.com in 'Beard Mojo', or a muscle-bound cow for Applegate’s 'What’s in Your Hot Dog' campaign.
Brendan has received a long string of industry honours from the D&AD, Effies, Webbys, Cannes, CLIOS, AICP and One Show. In his seven plus years working with Arnold/Boston on Progressive, Brendan has captured every imaginable genre - perfume ads, ‘80s sitcoms, soap operas, horror films, ‘50s black and white, after-school specials and romantic comedies. He’s even helped actress Stephanie Courtney inhabit not just Flo, but her entire extended family. Other highlights of Brendan’s work include partnering with creator / writer Joel Surnow ('24', 'The Kennedys') on 'Stop the Madness', a short film series that takes a never-seen-before satirical look at the intractable issue of gun safety in schools. He has also written and directed narrative features (the Occupy Wall Street satire Preoccupied), the world’s first comedic virtual reality short (Red Velvet) and multiple short films.
Brendan first worked as a political writer and screenwriter, and began his career in advertising as an award-winning copywriter and creative director. He burst onto the directing scene with campaigns for CNN, Comedy Central and The Tribeca Film Festival. Outside of directing, Brendan is a musician whose songs have appeared in commercials and films. He divides his time between New York and Los Angeles.
Name: Brendan Gibbons
Location: Venice, CA
Repped by / in: Station Film
Awards: AICP, Webbys, D&AD, Effies, Cannes Lions, CLIOS, One Show
Q > What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?
Brendan Gibbons > I like scripts that have a hook, a surprise, and do it all with the fewest words. There’s tension – say, the threat of harm or the promise of sex. Then the story turns in an unexpected way. But the more space on the page, the better. Two thirds of a page is cool. Half a page is better. Two lines is perfect.
Q > How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?
Brendan > I look for avenues that the creatives haven’t thought about. Then, if we’re laughing on the phone, it’s good. If we’re not, we probably shouldn’t do the thing. In the treatment, I try to give people an idea of what a collaboration will feel like. Hopefully it’s an invitation to go on a fun trip together. Sometimes I’ll include a picture of my dog. She’s a good wing man on a trip.
Q > If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with / don’t have a big affinity with or a market you're new to, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?
Brendan > My job is to find the humanity at the heart of a story. And humanity is pretty universal, whatever the strategy or context of the ad. I trust the folks who’ve done the research.
Q > For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?
Brendan > My producers are my partners from the beginning. We are wrestling the thing together. But on shoot days, it’s the DP. I come from a big Irish family. We show love and respect by making fun of each other. On shoot days, the person I make fun of the most is the DP. Non-shoot days, it’s my line producer. When we’re not in production, it’s my dog. She handles it best out of the three.
Q > What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?
Brendan > For the past four years, my animating force has been the existential quagmire of hate we’ve found ourselves in. I have a big sign hanging on my wall with a very cult-y logo for an organisation called “Optimists International.” I’ve already said too much about them, but … every time I’ve looked at the sign recently, I’ve felt unworthy. But change is coming. Who knows if things will get better, given the absurdity of our cultural disdain. But I feel a little hope again. And you know what Andy Dufresne said about hope. So I think I’d like to explore satire through a more optimistic lens. I suppose I could have just said satire.
Q > What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?
Brendan > I don’t really think I know what people really think about my work. That’s a twisted sentence, but it needs all the words in it. I guess I might kinda know what they might get wrong about me. But again, the odds of me being right aren’t the best. (Still with me?) I suppose what people get wrong is they might think I’m more normal than I actually am. Those feelings might be dispelled were they to read this answer.
Q > Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?
Brendan > There are cost consultants in the process, hovering somewhere way up in the sky. I stay focused on what we’re trying to do with the resources we’ve got. It’s a lot more fun down in the weeds.
Q > What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?
Brendan > One morning I was driving to set when traffic just stopped. My call time had me in the exact wrong spot when it happened. The actors and crew made it up the 405 before me. Agency and client got an alert to take another route. So I practiced my 'serenity now' exercises while everyone waited for about four hours. When I got there I gathered the group of about 100 together and told them the story about the dead body someone dropped into traffic from an overpass. Then we stepped on the gas. We made our day ‘cause sometimes a little inspiration goes a long way. So I guess it wasn’t really a production problem. I blame the agency.
Q > How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?
Brendan > I’m not a fan of the concept of protecting the idea from the people who had the idea. But the creatives made this thing out of nothing. I’ll go to the mat for my perspective and point of view. But I’m not here to protect the idea from them. It’s their idea. I’m here to help them get where they want to go with it. I do have some ideas that could be cool, though. Let’s just see where those might lead, right? Maybe try that one, see what happens? We can try it in the edit …
Q > What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?
Brendan > Hell yeah. Beyond the obvious karmic benefit of helping create opportunities for people, I’m down to talk about myself with anyone who’ll listen.
Q > How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work into the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time?
Brendan > I hope the silver linings we’re finding stick around. If we go back to whatever used to be normal, we’ll be missing whatever this time has to teach us. That being said, what I do hasn’t changed much. I rarely see clients and creatives in person now. But technology keeps us in contact. I will say that this time has made me even more appreciative that I get to make stuff for a living. If my sense of gratitude ever starts to dip, it’ll be time to ride out to the desert for good.
Q > Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working (and, equally, to what degree is it possible to do so)?
Brendan > The joy, struggle and purpose lie in the doing of the thing, not where it winds up. We just change the aspect ratio here and there when needed.
Q > What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work (e.g. virtual production, interactive storytelling, AI / data-driven visuals etc)?
Brendan > A few years back, we made what I think was the first virtual reality comedy short. For a second, people were like: “You’re gonna be at the forefront of VR.” Which felt a bit alarming. I’m not really interested in being at the forefront of a technology. A good story’s a good story.
Q > Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why?
Brendan > I like a story that pulls you into a time / a place / a universe that feels both intriguing and familiar. Then the story flips the power structure in a way that makes you laugh. These pieces feel like that to me. If you don’t think they’re funny, it was probably the mix.
- 'The Naked Truth About Freedom' PSA
- '#EFF2020', Public Inc
- 'Mooscles', Applegate
- 'Step Jamie', Progressive