“It was chance, although working for Paula really set me up in ways I could not have foreseen,” he says. He worked for Scher and Terry Koppel for three years, plus but interned for them his senior year at SVA. “They were the only bosses I ever knew,” he recently told me while discussing his new book, On Broadway: From Rent to Revolution (Rizzoli). After three years, he started doing entertainment work, first as a solo freelancer and then founded Spot Design, which included Naomi Mizusaki of Supermarket, Rymn Massand, Kevin Brainard, Frank Harkins, Vinny Sainato and James Spindler. I love origin stories, so I asked Hodges to tell me the story of how SpotCo went from his kitchen table to a top entertainment agency.
So, how did you put this agency together?
We did work for Swatch, MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, Sony music, and eventually Geffen, soon to be Dreamworks Records and a creative director named Robin Sloane. We did an Aerosmith Greatest Hits package for Geffen, then Lisa Loeb’s CD among others. And David Geffen had a occasional penchant for investing in Broadway, I have been told. He invested in Rent. They didn’t have a graphic identity, and of course he knew whatever the show did would be his album cover, and he wanted a rock n roll album cover. So I was sent by Geffen to the agency that did the launch to meet my clients—Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum. I saw the show that night off-Broadway, a week after it had opened and was already a sensation. I picked up my tickets standing behind Wendy Wasserstein.
The next day, I wrote a note to Kevin and Jeffrey with my thoughts. I told them I felt that making a super rock ‘n roll graphic was not what was needed, that rock ‘n roll people were not just going to become Broadway fans overnight due to a graphic. They needed to be clear to position it as a musical—but a new kind of musical—the un-musical. I had gone to theater since I was in High school. I grew up in the Hudson Valley and could take the train to NYC for concerts and theater. But I was not a super fan, it was just part of my arts palette. It always felt to me that the marketing of those shows felt very dated, and didn’t seem targeted to me. When Rent came along, I was 33. I had the money to go to a Broadway show, I was not a rock ‘n roll 19 year old. So I was the perfect audience to actually target—the “lapsed Catholic” of Broadway show going. Later, it would be clear to me what a gift it was marketing to myself for a start. I got better at imagining other audiences that were not me—but for Rent, I just used my own feelings as a barometer.
And what an icon it became . . .
We used Amy Guip to shoot portraits of the cast. We took the NY Times ad and made a very white ad, a shock at the time, and very un-Broadway. And the show became a sensation. That same year, I was asked to do Chicago, the musical. We approached it completely differently, but it also became a sensation. I am really proud of both solutions, but I am certain if they had not been the financial successes they were, I would not have been asked to keep working in Broadway. But once they succeeded, many more jobs came our way.
From there, we made the decision to become an ad agency. Jeffrey Seller, co-producer of Rent and current producer of Hamilton suggested it to me. I was somewhat hesitant about becoming an agency. But Jeffrey pointed out they had paid the agencies that had used our work on Chicago and Rent three times what they had paid us as a design studio. So we took the plunge. We closed on a Friday as SpotDesign with five employees and a week later we re-opened as SpotCo with twelve, and we were an ad agency.
On Broadway, your book devoted to decades of output, is incredible for the familiar and iconic work that was produced by SpotCo. Was it difficult to, shall we say, alter the SOP of Broadway producers for showing their star power?
In the beginning, we didn’t know what SOP was, so in that sense it was easy. We had no idea how it should be done, so we were free to “innovate” which was really just us doing it our way. But after that, I had to constantly encourage (beg, convince, wheedle, seduce,befriend, you name it) producers to take risks. I said this incredibly pretentious thing early on, “You have to pierce the consumer’s veil of indifference”. But it’s true – people are numb to ads. You have to take risks to be effective, and that is how we tried to convince clients to take those graphic risks.
As for the question of using star imagery, we both changed the paradigm, and ran that change into the ground. When we started, using photography to create mood it was unheard of. Everyone told me we were crazy to shoot the casts of Chicago and Rent, as they were almost all unknowns. But I wanted those posters to be supercharged with the energy of those shows, and the casts were the engines. Also, using photography seem to modernize the work. And so many photographers were interested. Later, I was able to show how using someone like Roz Chast could set up a comedy better than a photo of Linda Lavin. Phillip Seymour Hoffman I shot twice, and the first time he was fearful of his face on a poster (True West), and the second, he flat out refused to approve his image (Long Days Journey Into Night), saying he thought plays should not be done with photos. Bradley Cooper was a co-producer and said flat out, “not my face please”.
But with more and more movie stars on Broadway I think we have created a new monster. We started being able to use photography much like illustration–to create a unique mood. Now, people just want the face there as big as possible to sell, regardless of the artistry, or even the appropriateness of that image. And of course these actors are often on set in Slovenia, and we don’t have budgets to shoot abroad, which further complicates things. But the good news is the actors want it done beautifully – they are your ally to artfulness.
Along those lines, what did you have to learn and what did you have to do, to become not just a viable player but a sought after one in this field, which already had a couple of top competitors?
When we started there were five agencies doing this work. Now there are three, and for quite a while there were only two, including us. The winnowing of the field was entirely due to clients leaving agencies holding the bag financially–that was chilling. We had to learn to be fiscally responsible. We now have 140 employees. We certainly had a lot to learn about a firm that grew that dynamically, and we are definitely still learning. We had to learn to buy media, and navigate the turn from print to digital everyone has faced.
Most of all, we had to learn how to build brands that sold tickets from day one–before day one. We started as designers, but my clients do not see me as a Creative Director, they see me as a marketer. We have helped sell 30 million dollars in tickets over the last 20 years, and worked on eight Pulitzer Prize winning shows. We have represented the Tony Award winner for Best Musical the last nine years in a row, and last year, amazingly, every single Tony Award winner was from a show we represented. It’s all very braggy, but what I mean to say is we had to become partners in creating the success of these shows. We had to sell tickets, and support the worldwide growth of these brands we were launching. And everyone is a product launch from scratch.
This answer could go on for miles, but as a print designers, we had to become good at digital, radio and television. That was a very large leap, and a thrilling one. We had to learn to coordinate our work with a press representative’s campaign. We had to learn to help win Tony Awards–I think we were a leader in the idea that there really was a way to pursue those–not just because you want to win, but because it does a great deal in adding to your financial success. But most of all, we had to learn about what I call the Event, and the Non-Event. The Event is how you describe a show to a friend or colleague in a way that is accurate but will get them excited. The Non-Event is whatever happens if you do nothing. It took me a long time, but I came to realize that everything has a non-event without considering the story you wish to tell. Hillary Clinton is shrill and secretive. Donald Trump is a bigoted bully. OR – Hillary Clinton is prepared and experienced, Donald Trump is a change element. Every show has a plain and blunt description that has some truth to it, but is limiting what the show will be. For Hamilton, it’s Hip Hop History. Yes, that is true, but it limits who wants to go, and in fact is not how you would describe it to a friend you wanted to share your excitement with. I realized our job was to understand before a project began what the Non-Event was, where the potholes in road were, and what the Event should be. It needs to be accurate and not just a coat of paint to work – and that’s the joy of it. We learned to express the most exciting thing about a show, that was also true and contagious. Once you find that sweet spot, people take your brand – your look, your feel, your storytelling, and they self select and forward on. That is what creates success.
The book shows a lot of steps, missteps and successes. What was the process like to get something through a gauntlet of what are now called stakeholders?
A show is backed by a team of investors, on average 15 or so clients at the table. These people have often not worked with each other in this particular grouping before. Their board room is my conference room. They meet once a week to review where we are and what is next. The dynamic of the room is wildly varied. Some people say a lot, some little. Some people come often, some rarely. Some groups get along, some don’t. Some have marketing experience, most do not. Famous people can be in the room. Oprah Winfrey, Harvey Weinstein, Edgar Bronfman, Scott Rudin. Big personalities. And frankly, every producer has vary degrees of entitlements based on whatever put them in the financial position to be in the room to begin with. So you have to learn to be a bit of a guidance counselor. You have to identify who the leaders are within the group and try and support them and build trust. You have to be candid, or no one trusts you. You have to stay calm when everyone is loosing their cool, or reacting out of panic. You have to spend their money like it was your own. You have to admit mistakes quickly. And probably most of all, you have to allow clients to feel an idea was a shared experience.
What would you consider the most risqué or standards-challenging poster(s) done by SpotCo?
The Vagina Monologues. When we started, no one would say the word Vagina. Newspapers would not take the ads. Some Chicago imagery was deemed too dirty, and some images were banned in towns across the country. We all kind of enjoyed that.
We all know what the purpose of theater advertising is. But what special quality is affixed to the poster? And what is demanded to spotlight that quality?
The poster needs to express the personality of the piece. It needs to help people decide if it’s for them. But I do think if the play is scary, the poster should be scary. If the play is funny, the poster needs to be funny. If the thing is big, the brand needs to feel the same. I always think you are making an emotional promise – come to this work and we will make you feel like THIS. So it needs to be above all else emotional, and accurate. Promise something that isn’t there, and you are dead in three days.
For me, it also has to have beautiful typography, or I hope to never release it–that’s just a point of pride, and a tip of the hat to my mentors Carin Goldberg, Terry Koppel and Paula Scher.
RENT is one of many behavioral triggers. See those stencils and you know exactly what you’re seeing. What else has done that?
Well, I think the black and white and red of Chicago is recognizable all over the world. Hamilton will probably be the next one that does it. I saw a porn movie graphic just the other day that was a version of our logo.
What has not worked as you planned?
In the book, I show how Lucky Guy was not the poster I wanted. But really that just represents hundreds of posters that had the edges sanded off a bit, till they were less than they could have been. And there were shows I wish I could have figured out how to get to run longer, and we all tried. Suessical, Catch Me If You Can, The Laramie Project. You get blamed for the failures, applauded for the successes, but our work may not or may have been a substantial part of it’s success. It’s a bit of Alchemy. So you have to learn to roll with the punches.
On a larger level, I think there is still a divide within the design community between commercial successes and elite design. I sometimes feel our work is taken less seriously because it is seen so widely. And the folks who solve both those problems–fine design and mass success, those are my design idols–Stephen Doyle, Michael Beirut, Stefan Sagmeister, Chip Kidd, Stanley Hainsworth.
What do you think the future of the poster is in light of all the other media at our disposal?
It depends what you want to call a poster. If it’s 24 x 36 on paper, well I think they are already meant to be a collectable rather than a hard working communicator. But to me a poster is an expression of storytelling, a delivery of voice and content. A web home page is a kind of poster to me. A book cover is most certainly a teeny tiny poster when it sits on Amazon. I see no end to that work being needed.
What are you up to now?
I took a year or two off, having sold SpotCo. I wrote the book, I “recovered” as a friend called it. But I love design, and frankly was doing too little of it running a 140 person company. So this fall I am starting a new design studio called Drew & Co.. I expect to work on entertainment brands with some of the close friends I have built over the last 30 years. I am going to keep it small–very much in the scale and scope of SpotDesign, from way back when. I am hoping you can go home again, but this time with a metaphorical pool out back.
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