On the night of the Oscars last February, during the red carpet coverage on E!, Nordstrom aired a striking two-minute ad called "An Open Mind Is the Best Look."
Very artfully made, it was like nothing else on TV that night.
It was created by Droga5 New York and Martin de Thurah of Epoch Films. The agency had come to the 45-year-old Danish director with the concept of emphasizing Nordstrom's connection to people—its customers and employees. The Droga creatives had suggested depicting a celebration of humanity, of people coming together regardless of age, gender or color. In the end, however, the narrative arc of the piece didn’t reveal itself until much later in the process.
De Thurah began by street-casting. He interviewed all the talent and found out who they were. Inspired by their stories, he wrote tiny narratives for each of them, which he filmed—capturing footage for the vignettes you see in the finished piece.
But not until he was sitting in the edit with the agency, and with Peter Brandt of Work Editorial, did the director realize they needed to change direction. Droga5 had scripted a voiceover, but something about the power of the acting teacher's dialogue—which had been improvised on the spot—grabbed de Thurah. It just felt more immediate and real.
"She was a theater instructor who had brought some books by Dickens," de Thurah tells Muse, recalling the shoot day. "I asked her if she could do improv, because I thought it aligned with the idea of human interaction in a direct but elevated way. This was not thought to be the backbone of spot, but in editing I asked Peter to use it as the foundation. This was different than we expected, but it became a point of intrigue that could glue everything together."
Anyone who's toiled over a voiceover for a 30-second spot, never mind a two-minute piece for Oscar night, knows it can't have been easy for the agency creatives to shift course so dramatically. But they felt the energy, too, and saw the opportunity to put greater meaning and beauty into the piece.
"Sitting in the edit, we were all just like, wow. It felt like life," says Alexander Nowak, who was then executive creative director of Droga5 New York (he has since been promoted to global head of art). "It was so meaningful, and I think a beautiful example of how we work with Martin. Or look at the middle section of the piece, where the improv teacher snaps and everything is like a freeze moment. That also shows life in its most beautiful but also real version."
"We had to take this new leap into the idea together and fight for it," de Thurah says of the shift in plans. "We were in it together, and it brought the project further into all walks of life."
Anchored by the poetic voiceover, the spot is notable for other elements of craft. The storytelling is oblique. The shots hint at narratives only half-grasped. Not everything is spelled out. There are plenty of gaps for the viewer to fill in. It's not the typical approach to making a spot, but it feels cinematic and is undeniably evocative.
"The shot toward the end where you see the cowboys dancing around a tree at night—what does that mean?" says Nowak. "It's just a beautiful thing that adds so much richness to the idea of what life is. The best work—in advertising or not—is work which evokes emotion. Happiness, sometimes a bit of sadness. Martin is just a master of doing this. That's the beauty of it."
Liquifying the Butter
What makes a great partnership between an ad agency and a director?
Each instance is different, of course, but there are commonalities—from the critical if largely ineffable factors like artistic vision and style, through to the more specific preferences around the nature of the collaborative process. Regardless, some partnerships are clearly simpatico from the beginning. And the best of them manage a consistency that can last for years across numerous projects.
Droga5's relationship with de Thurah is one such example. Over the last decade, the agency and director have teamed up on one remarkable film after another—six in all. Hennessy's "The Man Who Couldn't Slow Down" and "The Ride" (the latter featuring Nas). Under Armour's "Rule Yourself" spots with Michael Phelps and the USA gymnastics team. Chase's "Mama Said Knock You Out" with Serena Williams. The Nordstrom spot. All powerful pieces of film—artful, cinematic and emotional.
What is it about their partnership that produces such consistently great work?
At the core, both sides say, is a kind of shared vision. Directors are, in some sense, hired guns tasked with bringing the agency's ideas to life. But more than most, Droga5 and de Thurah see the production process—and the craft of filmmaking generally—as a place where new ideas and new meanings can emerge collaboratively. In this process, idea and execution are roughly equal partners. And while a simple, solid creative idea is critical to any advertising, the way it's executed, particularly in film, can determine whether it connects with the viewer at all.
Perhaps their most important point of connection is that they are open-minded and willing to change. The Droga creatives don't come to de Thurah with fixed ideas. Rather, they have the backbone of an idea—and they work together, from the initial meeting to the shoot itself, to discover the best way to communicate it.
"We work in advertising, not fine art, so obviously we want to give our clients and our team a good idea of what we are about to do before we do it," says Nowak, who's been involved in five of the six productions with the director (he didn't work on Chase). "But there is always something extra that comes in production. Every little detail is important. That is very special for Martin, and also for us as a collective. He somehow really understands our vision. When you have a great partnership, like we have with Martin, magic can happen."
"We have done many great projects together," de Thurah agrees. "We have the spirit of being a team based on mutual curiosity and humility. We want to have an adventurous process." Critical to that, he says, is maintaining this collaborative space where ideas can move—where all parties are open to change. As de Thurah memorably puts it, you have to be able to "liquify the butter."
In practice, this means having lengthy discussions upfront about the idea, and how it could be communicated through visuals and story—and then following those threads of meaning wherever they might lead.
"We talk about the backbone of the concept, and we work around that," says Nowak. "This can mean a lot of things. It can mean talking about each scene of the film. Talking about specific locations. We talk a lot about references. They don't have to be references to film. It can be a photo. It can be a poem. We try to build on our thoughts, and really get in the mindset of each other. Then we figure out a way to make it into an interesting story arc."
He adds: "We look at how to start the film, what goes up and down, where the pinnacle is, where it goes down again. Sometimes it's about the music—a piece of music to set a mood can be very, very important. Like with the Phelps piece [for Under Armour, which used "The Last Goodbye" by the Kills]. This is where you really need a partner you can trust and work with very closely—to have the same sensibility."
"I need to find something I'm intrigued by, personally. Otherwise, I cannot steer the boat and put my wonder into it," de Thurah says of his connection to the material. "I try to be on a search within what we are doing. If it's about being maniacally obsessed with something, I search there. If it's about being a poet, I search there. I always have to leave the trail to open up the story."
As much as preparation is critical, an enormous amount can change on set, too, or even in the edit—sometimes, particularly in the edit, as De Thurah often doesn't know quite what he captured at the shoot until later anyway.
"For me, a big part is how you weave all these impossible fragments together from all the little true moments you find along the way [during filming]—the musicality of it, graphically, the motion, who looks at who," de Thurah says. "You can do impossible things in the edit. This, to me, is always the great joy."
The Complexity of Life
Beyond a commitment to open collaboration and the patience to let the story reveal itself, Droga5 and de Thurah also see eye to eye on another aspect of filmmaking—how craft itself creates meaning in a piece of film. There is often a sense in advertising that the creative idea supplies all the meaning, while the execution is perfunctory. But all good creatives know how a director can elevate a piece.
For de Thurah, often this means approaching storytelling from an angle instead of straight on. It means including shots that might not further the narrative but which add texture—details that could seem superfluous, but enrich the psychology of the story, create emotion, deepen the meaning of the piece and result in evocative worlds that feel real to the viewer.
To Nowak, it's about creating something lifelike—something literally more like life.
"We work in the world of life. We want to depict life," Nowak says. "There are shots in the films we've done together which are not hardcore selling. In the first Hennessy spot we did about [1920s racing motorist] Malcolm Campbell, we portrayed his wife standing in a field. You don't need that shot. But it's so important for the viewer, to make it compelling and make it what life is. Life is not simple. It's a bit more complex."
In a way, the nature of the execution mirrors that of the ideation. Just as the agency doesn't supply de Thurah with fixed ideas, likewise de Thurah doesn't give the audience all the answers. The gaps are where the audience can come in, fill in some of the missing pieces, and feel the mystery and richness evocative of life itself.
"It's why our films are maybe be a bit more emotional than others," says Nowak. "You give 95 percent to the viewer, and for the last 5 percent, the viewer can close the loop."
Or think of it in terms of architecture.
"If you ask an architect to build a house for you," says Nowak, "and they give you this perfectly rendered, computer-generated thing with all the textures and the materials and the colors, the perfect picture of what the end result will be—there is nothing you can bring to it yourself," he says. "Sometimes it's nicer to have a black-and-white sketch, an outline of how big it is and where the stairs are. Then you can fantasize a little bit about how it will look at the end."
Searching for Michael Phelps and Serena Williams
Droga5 and de Thurah's most famous co-production is the Michael Phelps spot for Under Armour. It was named the best ad of 2016 by Adweek, and it may be as close to perfect as an advertising film can get. With its unexpected take on elite competition, its elegiac music and evocative visuals, it's another beautiful meditation on life—this time, the mostly unglimpsed private struggle of a very public athlete.
De Thurah credits Droga5 for laying the perfect groundwork. "The framing of this from Droga5 was the brilliance—what you do in the dark is what brings you to the light—how much sacrifice there is when you are an elite performer," he says. "I tried to have a cinematic approach to Phelps' training and being observed. And then there was the endless lane in the pool as a grounding theme, the never-ending training."
There are several magical moments—Phelps bleakly contemplating the leaf-strewn pool, and shivering in the chill of the Arizona night.
"Looking at the pond and seeing leaves on it—that doesn't sell the idea that he's working out, or show off a feature of the product. But it does something. It works because it depicts some whole other life," says Nowak.
There's also the Kills song—a lovely, languid track in 3/4 time, which gives the spot its "beautiful waltz" of rhythmic repetition. It all combines beautifully to tell a totally fresh story about a public figure everyone thought they already new.
Droga5 and de Thurah's other big celebrity spot—2018's "Mama Said Knock You Out" for Chase, starring Serena Williams—took a similar approach. Nowak didn't work on that project, but he instantly recognized the director's imprint on it. The idea is one thing—having Williams recite LL Cool J's lyrics as a kind of comeback anthem—but giving it weight and meaning in the execution is another.
"I had this smile on my face when I saw it," Nowak says. "There's a shot where you see water on the floor—the camera is following a stream of water outside. You cut to a shot of the wind kicking up, and you see palm trees. Again, these shots aren't showcasing a face or a character. They invite all the other circumstances around it—nature and all these other elements of life. Also, she's speaking, not really singing, the lyrics. It's that craftsmanship. It's good to have the idea as your foundation, but the idea is not the execution. Building around it is the other side of the coin."
For de Thurah, the goal was to capture an intimacy that would make Williams' journey through motherhood and back to tennis feel immediate and real. "I recall recording Serena in a little room in the house—very quiet and simple. Almost whispering," he says. "The spot was supposed to be very, very simple, but I filmed some other scenes in the three and a half hours we had her. We wanted to find a feeling of vulnerability."
Developing Trust With Hennessy
Nowak is the first to admit this kind of filmmaking isn't right for every brand every time. But for companies like Under Armour, Nordstrom and Hennessy, which often look to tell a larger story and not just hawk a product, an expressive piece of film can work wonders.
"As much as I love all the other mediums these days—experiential and all that—film is still a beautiful way to transport the consumer and evoke emotion, to trigger something," says Nowak. "If they feel something, if they feel they're being heard, they will share it and talk about it. Who said you can only get excited by a movie in the theater or by a picture on the wall? Why can't you get excited or touched by a piece of advertising, a piece which is associated to a brand?"
It is critical, of course, that clients feel the same. If there isn't that trust in the relationship, rarely will anything good happen. In fact, de Thurah says the alignment between agency and client is in some ways the most critical piece of the equation.
"It's the one factor that makes a project have potential or not," he says. "If the client is nervous, the projects always tend to stray in a more conservative way. On the first call, feel the connection between the agency and client first. If it's nervous, run away."
Droga5 has developed that level of trust with Hennessy over the years. In fact, the cognac brand was the first client that Nowak worked on at Droga with Felix Richter, his longtime creative partner (who was recently named co-chief creative officer, with Tim Gordon, of Droga5 New York).
"It's been eight years together. It's a long, long journey from the first film we did," says Nowak. "It's very crucial to have this trust, which brings me to consistency, too. Sometimes a brand having good consistency in how they talk about their message is quite nice as well. Not every season do you have to change from red to blue, from this topic to that topic."
That first Hennessy film, "The Man Who Couldn't Slow Down," from 2013, was also Droga5's first project with de Thurah. Together, they drilled down into Malcolm Campbell's psyche—his obsession with racing. It was a period piece, but it was as much about getting into Campbell's head as it was building out a vintage world.
"The spot was based on a real event that took place in Daytona Beach in the '30s," de Thurah says. "The story had to be the journey into an obsessed mind. It had to be about focus. It was so much fun to try to find the subjective layers of his passion. The climax was important—how to make it about what's inside him. I recall how much we spoke about the VO, the foundation of the story, how we create meaning. And then Felix found some lectures held by Viktor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust and who wrote a book [Man's Search for Meaning] on how man creates meaning."
The audio of Frankl became the VO track.
De Thurah and Droga5 worked together on a second spot for Hennessy in 2014, this one featuring Nas, and also very much anchored by a voiceover. It used a subway train as a device to travel through the decades that influenced the rapper's art.
"This was a trickier one," says de Thurah. "We had to take the story of an observer, a writer, a poet—traveling from Queens to Manhattan—and ask, what does he see? We embedded a lot of the history of New York. And somehow, the subtlety is the beauty of it. Each carriage is another era."
To Nowak, there's a powerful humanity in the Nas piece, similar to the Nordstrom piece in some ways. "It's a very good example of this idea that you're not alone in the world, that you interact with so many different people day in and day out. And you connect with them," he says. "It was quite striking, in that film, to see the eye connection between people, how they look at each other. It was just fantastic."
The Power of Craft
It's refreshing to hear a creative director give credit to the execution for so much of the success of his projects. But Nowak points out that lots of breakthrough film work in advertising lately has hinged on the execution. Just look at Droga5's own campaign for The New York Times, widely considered the best film work of the past year. It's a masterclass in editing.
"They're pieces of pure craftsmanship," Nowak says. "You can make that New York Times work in 200 different ways, but they were lucky enough to find the sweet spot. 'Viva la Vulva' is also another beautiful example. If you do that in a very different way, you might not get it right."
This idea—of trusting the craft to evolve and elevate a piece of work beyond anything imagined at the beginning—is at the core of Droga5 and Martin de Thurah's triumphs together. There is no real road map to making this work—each project is different—but signposts will emerge through the process of searching for them together.
"We talk about advertising these days, and it's not necessarily the easiest time, where everything has to be quite quickly done," says Nowak. "At the same time, in my opinion, it's one of the most amazing times right now. You can get so many opportunities to really make a stand and be different, to dig a bit deeper and find a nugget and a creative idea you can build on. And then, working on the craftsmanship of every little detail. You look at everything. You look at the wardrobe, every color counts, every little thing counts. Every edit counts. Every second. That is something which is very true, especially for Martin and Felix and myself."
For his part, de Thurah is characteristically poetic with his advice for how to approach advertising today. "Create a space where ideas can move," he says. "Liquify the butter. Be open in this way. Stupid ideas can be the best ideas. Find your own vision. Other people's ideas might be better than yours. Give hugs. Learn to disagree. A team can discover together. Eat well. Find impossible things. Sneak in things when the agency and client sleep. Why do things go wrong? They do. Sometimes they just do."
Now, go fill in the gaps.