The Man Who Blew Things Up

This is apropos nothing, but I think you’ll like it, so hang tight.

Advertising has given me many things. A career, a raft of good friends, a body of work I’m proud of, and a sense of accomplishment. Sure, I’d like to have climbed higher, and had a shot at a few more iconic brands. But for the most part, the journey’s been wild, rewarding and fun.

Said journey has also been laden with anecdotes, often scarcely believable. These moments and memories are the ones that come back most readily when I look back over a vocation spanning close to 30 years. 

If the reader will indulge me, I’d like to start sharing some of these tales. They’re not necessarily bursting with earth-shattering insights, but if they raise a chuckle, an eyebrow, or a nod of recognition, then they’ll have done their job.

So here without further ado is the first one, and, as the title suggests, it comes with a few fireworks.

More years ago than I care to remember, I shot a series of TV spots out in California. 

We’d flown into LAX and spent the evening in Santa Monica going over the boards with the production company at Shutters – as you do. The following morning, we headed out for Ventura County, where we were scheduled to shoot on a farm for three days.

It being California, it was warm and sunny; it being me, I’d forgotten to bring my sunglasses. 

The prospect of spending three days squinting into the sun held no appeal, so I asked my travel companions to keep an eye out for a surf shop in Malibu.

We spied one overlooking the beach. My friends hit the McDonald’s next door, and I stepped up to the store alone. 

I entered into subterranean darkness. There was not a soul in the place, not even, on first inspection, an owner.  Then out of the gloom, a figure emerged.

Taut, lean, tan of face, with tell-tale white goggle patches around his eyes and a grizzled thatch of sea-salt encrusted hair perched upon his head, he looked every bit the surf shop owner who lives to surf every hour he’s not in the store.  

Pleasantries exchanged, he pointed me to a rack of glasses that sat on the counter before us.

I hemmed and hawed a bit, grabbed a pair that sufficed and prepared to check out. It was here that the small talk took a turn and things got interesting.

SURFER: “So what brings you to Malibu?”

ME: “I work in advertising. I’m on my way to Ventura County to shoot a couple of TV spots on one of the farms.”

SURFER: “Cool. I work in advertising, too.”

ME: Oh, yeah, what is it you do?”

SURFER: “I blow things up.”

Here a pause. 

Sensing a raft of questions, he moved to put me out of my misery.

SURFER: “Want to see some of my work?”


He disappeared into the murk and was back in a thrice with a MacBook. A couple of clicks later, he spun it around and gave me the setup and pitch.

He was an explosives expert. Working on movies mostly. When the warehouse goes up in an almighty ball of fire with the hero desperately scrabbling for cover, chances are it’s his finger on the detonator. Since a big movie took him away from his beloved surf for months at a time, he had recently moved into commercial work for ad agencies – short turnaround, decent payday, way more surfing.  

What he was about to show me was a spot for Farmers Insurance. The concept centered on the potentially catastrophic effects of a gas leak; a worse-case-scenario number that required him to send an archetypal all-American residence up in flames.

By an incredible stroke of luck, he’d found the perfect house on the Desperate Housewives lot at Warner Brothers. Surplus to requirements at the end of the previous season, it was ripe for blowing to smithereens.

The self-same house sat on the screen before me, a prelude to a showreel of raw footage. 

It was rigged to the gills with dynamite. For authenticity, he’d insisted the home be filled with all the accouterments of everyday life: furniture, beds, sofas, tables, chairs, toilets, baths, soap dishes, kettles, litter tray – everything. As exploding houses go, this would be legit.

And choreographed. This guy knew where every last splinter would be going. 

The tour de force would be the chimney stack. Independently rigged, it was set to launch into the evening sky like a Saturn rocket setting off from Cape Canaveral. 

Outside no less than 13 cameras stood ready to capture the action. 12 in a semi-circle around the house with a 4-story high crane dead center to catch the aerial view. 

The peanut gallery – producer, client, agency team, and presumably medic and fire marshall –  were stationed in a bunker close, but not too close, to the impending inferno. 

He gave me a tacit look that said, “Ready?”

I nodded my ascent, and he hit the space bar.

With a crack and a flash of light, the whole thing went up. Windows blew out, doors disintegrated, detritus and fragments flew everywhere. 

Right on cue, the chimney stack blazed past the camera on the crane.

It was everything he said it would be.

And it was all over in less than 30 seconds.

I was later informed that the whole thing had cost a quarter of a million dollars. 

We watched it back from every conceivable angle and in the full majesty of slo-mo.

It was magnificent every time.

There was nothing more to say. 

He did indeed work in advertising, and he did indeed blow things up. 


I paid for my glasses, thanked the man, and was off. Better for my visit and with a hell of a story to relate to my colleagues on the way up to the farm.

A farm, incidentally, that would supply an equally weird and wonderful tale just a few days later.

Another anecdote for another day.

Crap Ad Syndrome: 10 Tell-Tale Signs

Your new campaign/ad/video is ready. 

Dollars have been spent, media has been placed, and expectations are high. 

But will it work? 

Ah, the multi-million dollar question.

Who knows? Advertising is an unquantifiable beast at the best of times and a wholly subjective one to boot,

What I can tell you is that if your heroic effort has succumbed to any of the ten suck points listed below, it hasn’t got a hope in hell.

Ok, get your pencils out and let’s see how you fair.

There was never any buy-in on the brief This is a biggie from the get-go. The brief is the tablet of stone by which all is judged. It should set the direction of the communication, guide the creative process and be the touchstone for whether the work is strategically sound, creatively impactful and ready to go to market. It needs to be kept to a single page, and both agency and client need to be on it.

The client has given the agency “direction” Yeah, I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Client direction is, after all, code for “do my idea” and that rarely works. All you’re doing is putting the brakes on minds trained to take base elements and turn them in gold. Best let the agency do what agencies do best: come up with great ideas. 

The work has gone through more than 3 rounds of revisions Anything more than 3 and there’s a substantive flaw in the brief. (See #1) It usually means there was never a consensus on what needs to be accomplished, and the vagueness and woolliness of the original brief are starting to show through in the ideas. No good can come from pushing on regardless and hoping for the best – best step back, re-focus, re-write the brief and start over.

More than 3 people are approving it One point to contact with ultimate say-so on either side of the client-agency relationship. That’s all you need. Anything more leads to mixed, diluted messaging that tries to accommodate too many opinions and points of view. An ad or initiative that seeks to say too many things fails to say anything at all.

The Creative Director doesn’t have the final say There’s a reason he or she is called the Creative Director – they’re the person best able to direct the creative and assume the role of guide and touchstone. In the best relationships, the client has absolute faith in their agency CD’s judgment. In its absence, client seniority usually takes precedence – again resulting in a mixed bag of potential outcomes. Take away: If you don’t believe in your Creative Director, replace them with someone you do. Failing that, let them do what they’ve been hired to do.

It’s been focus-grouped Never a good sign. A crutch for the marketing director who’s unsure of themselves, focus groups essentially cede the position of Creative Director to the loudest, most persuasive voice in the room. They usually hog the M&Ms, too. Not good. If you look for nuances rather than definitive analysis, then they maybe hold a modicum of value. But I’m not convinced. Bad idea.

 It lacks impact So much for the politics of the ad, now let’s get to the nitty-gritty of what it looks like. Impact is the first rule of advertising regardless of media. TV, social, print,  radio, if it lacks impact, it means that one thing: No one’s going to see it. And if no one sees it, everything else is a complete waste of time.

It doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable Impactful work signals its presence by generating a feeling of uncertainty in the pit of your stomach. This is because the work is fresh and unfamiliar and, as a consequence, you have no compass with which to pre-judge it. Conversely, a feeling of quiet satisfaction means your ad is a homogenous glob of same-old, sameness and you’re in big trouble.

It’s trying to say to many things at once Is your ad predicted on a single-minded thought provocatively executed? Or is a bloated amalgam of mixed messages, each desperately trying to shout over each other? If it’s the latter, save your money, your ad’s dead on arrival.

It looks like everything else in its category Uh-oh, sounds like you may have created a piece of safe advertising – an ad that desperately wants to look, feel and act like all its competitors when, in truth, what it needs to do is the exact opposite. Safe advertising is predicated on fear. And fear is a guarantee of failure.

So how did we get on?

If it’s any consolation, most ads exhibit some, if not all, of these tenets.

It’s why only 4% of ads are ever remembered favorably.

On a positive note, think of the ads that are memorable, command attention, talk persuasively and stay in the memory?

How many of those fall foul of the no-nos cited above?