The man behind the videos of Airbnb, Square and Groupon: Interview with Adam Lisagor from Sandwich Video
This is the 7th interview in a series called the Startup Videos Interviews. In this series, we will be interviewing top motion designers, creative agencies, directors and animators to give you the inside scoop on the people behind the explainer videos we showcase here. Today we're bringing you an interview of Adam Lisagor from Sandwich Video. Adam is the creative genius behind pretty much all the hottest startup videos including Flipboard, AirBnb, Square, Groupon, Jawbone, Warby Parker and many more.
> Let’s start with most important question of them all: Are you obsessed with sandwiches? How did you come up with this name for your company?
I’m not obsessed with sandwiches, but food does bring me inordinate amounts of joy, and a sandwich is such an elegant, simple, efficient delivery mechanism that is infinitely configurable, and therefore works as a loose metaphor for the pieces of video that my company likes to make—simple, small, efficient delivery of a tasty and hopefully nutritious message. (Rationalizing the name was an afterthought, to be clear. I just like the idea of a sandwich and it worked well as a name.)
> How did Sandwich Video get started?
I’d been working in post-production for years and was becoming bored and disillusioned with it, right around the time that the iPhone SDK came out and it became possible to make tools for my favorite device. I paired up with a friend to make an app for Twitter called Birdhouse, and with all the talk being about figuring out how to cleverly market on your own rather than relying on the App Store, I went off and shot a little video to promote it.
During this time, most of the demo videos you’d see were very dry screencasts made as an afterthought by engineers, and the traditional ad industry had little to no interest in tackling the market of software product with as much creative vigor as the rest of their client work. So I found a little niche there that expanded pretty quickly.
The success of my Birdhouse video caught the attention of other tech companies, and when the work started coming regularly enough for me to quit the post-production work, I incorporated as Sandwich Video and worked from my apartment’s second bedroom until about 18 months later when it was time to hire my first employee and get a real office.
> Square, Flipboard, Jawbone, Airbnb, Rdio, … you really worked with some of the coolest startups... could you give us hints on who’s next on the list?
The coolest startups tend to be the ones you haven’t heard of yet. I’m in a unique position to hear what can be traditionally thought of as pitches from hundreds of nascent companies with new products, sort of similar to a VC but without the money. And I get better at identifying what kinds of products are going to work well, which ones serve a real need, and which ones only exist because they’re attempting to follow a trend. But all this is to say that privacy with my client list is pretty important.
This is also to say that some really big companies still know how to innovate in really intimate ways, which is always a great challenge for big companies. It’s what’s known as The Innovator’s Dilemma. So my work is equally split between the small companies or developers you’ve never heard of and the big brands that have sectioned off a small department and invested some of their capital in more agile and creative ways.
> When a company gets a video from Adam Lisagor, not only do they get an exceptional creative piece, but they also get an extra “trendy” edge just by the fact that you’re behind it. So, how did this “celebrity” changed your ability to charge your clients and what’s the budget like for a startup right now to get a video from you?
I’d hate to think that any client would come to me because of a perceived trend rather than the quality of our work. When I seek out contractors, I do so because a proven measure of success in their past work. And one thing I never promise is statistics or viewership. I can only promise that our video will make the product look as good as it is, will make it appealing to a potential user or customer and present it in the best light. That in itself has value, and our clients come to us because they recognize that value. So I prefer to think of it as reputation rather than celebrity. It’s true, I can claim a marginal amount of celebrity in certain circles, but I rarely trade on that in determining budgets. If I’m going in front of the camera, that’s a different story. But in those cases, when I put myself on camera, it’s because I’ve decided that my voice will be effective in the communicating of the message.
But yes, my budgets are higher because my work has value. It’s simple economics, and most people have an inherent understanding of the logic behind that.
> We’re afraid that one day TV commercials industry will get their hands on you and you’ll disappear from the tech/startup world...could that ever happen?
Coincidentally, last week, the documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock announced that he’d started a new commercial production company, and that he’d invited me to join as one of the charter directors. I’d been approached before, by a few different commercial production companies, but the offer had never been so interesting to me simply because I come from the traditional commercial production background and I spend those years as witness to all the broken parts of the process. And I swore that as a developing filmmaker (with quite a lot to learn, I have to add) I would avoid like the plague being drawn into the traditional workings of advertising production. When Morgan Spurlock’s producing partner Keith Calder told me about the company, Warpaint, and what they’d hoped to achieve and how they’d hoped to operate, it made sense to me that they’d be protective of my style of working, and would nurture what makes me an outsider to the industry. It was of crucial importance to me that Sandwich Video would continue to thrive separate from whatever new directorial efforts were involved with Warpaint, and they are respectful of that.
Like I said, I have a lot to learn, and I’m deathly afraid of moving too fast in any one direction and harming my reputation. In the HBO show Boardwalk Empire, the character Arnold Rothstein has a line that has stuck deep inside my brain since I saw it. He sais “A reputation takes a lifetime to build...and only seconds to destroy.”
> Can you tell us about your creative/production process? What’s your process? How long does it take from start to finish?
On average, it takes about six to eight weeks from beginning to end, depending on a lot of factors. I typically have about seven things going at once, in various stages of the process, between the projects I direct and the projects my team directs that I oversee.
It begins with a conversation with the client, where I hear how they like to think of their product. Then, I spend time with the product and reconcile how I feel about it, and how I make sense of what it is and how it would fit into my life. If I’m lucky, an idea for how to best illustrate the essence of the product comes to me in a flash. I always prefer when that inspiration strikes because I know it’s come from a good place where I haven’t had to strain too much or force any particular treatment. But I end up with something that I can write down in a few paragraphs of text, maybe a couple of links to help convey the intent.
Once the client signs off, to show me that they grasp the direction I’d like to go in and are comfortable with that direction, I generate a script—sometimes on my own, sometimes with a copywriter to collaborate with. The client weighs in on the specifics of how their product is being described, whether it fits with their messaging strategy, and then we get into the nitty gritty of making the thing, where I work with a lot of talented people here in Los Angeles, the seasoned pros who do production for a living and know how to make things look and sound great. Typically, a day to three days of shooting (depending on travel requirements) and then a few weeks in post-production.
I used to do all the post myself, but that’s the biggest bottleneck for me taking on a lot of work at once, so after searching pretty exhaustively, I’ve found a couple of people and teams that I love to work with as often as possible. Since I come from a post background, I love the collaborative aspects of that. And since I come from a music background, I love the collaborative aspects of that. The director’s job at all parts of the process is to identify his or her reactions to every element of the work in progress and determine how to address those reactions. It’s wonderful, to get to make things. No one should ever stop making things, and to get to make things with others is an enormous privilege.
> Do you have complete freedom with your clients?
I have varying degrees of freedom and varying degrees of trust from my clients. Typically, the higher the budget, the more of a risk they’re taking. But that’s not always the correlation. There have been a few instances with the bigger clients where it becomes clear that part of their success has been due to a confidence in working with collaborators. It’s a self-confidence that comes from knowing your product is great, and knowing that allowing some freedom for exploration will have a hugely positive impact.
> What are your criteria when selecting new projects/clients?
I select products and clients based on a nebulous matrix of criteria including how cool the product is or how much potential I see for future coolness, how innovative the team of people behind it, how confident the team is and how clear in their vision, how well they communicate from that first email, whether they seem to be tied in to their company from the top down or whether they are somewhere in the middle and have been instructed to contact me about potential work. I won’t hide the fact that I make snap judgements based on the quality of writing in that first bit of communication. If the writing is clumsy, it says certain things about the company and the culture of the company. If the writing is thoughtful, I know the vision is clear and it will be easier for me to generate excitement about the work.
Specific budget is less important to me than value. If the company has less budget, but I know that they value the work, it’s more fun for me to work with them. If they have no sense of why the work has value or they display more of an attitude of “my cousin has a DSLR and says he can make a video for $3,000” then I know that there’s a gap in understanding the value of good work, and I’ll politely decline the work. If a company sends an RFP (request for proposal) where I’m invited to pitch in competition with other “vendors” (telltale sign of a corporate mindset when they call you a vendor), I will politely decline the work. It’s no fun for me to have to convince a client to work with me when I’m in the fortunate position of clients contacting me who are already convinced of my value.
I apply this rule in the people I work with, too. I only want to hire people who want to work with me, and preferably if they have identified the value of working with me before they even knew it could happen. That way, you can ensure that everyone is excited to show up and work every day, which is the difference between a life of contentment and a crummy job.
> Favorite video you’ve worked on so far?
Small Demons was a fun one for me because it was the first time that so much of the creative vision was based on post-production techniques I couldn’t do myself, and it was a revelation for me to be able to work with someone, my regular editor/vfx supervisor Gregory Nussbaum at Pictures in a Row, so comfortably and gratifyingly.
I realized that it’s possible to work with people with enormously positive spirits at every part of the process—even the post-production part—and it solidified for me how important that is to the work. And I include the client in that equation as well. The client on that job was such a joy to work with—he knew the value of the work and dedicated the budget to support it, he trusted the vision because he was confident in the vision behind his product, and the result turned out to be one of my favorite things I’ve gotten to make.
> If you had to share one ultimate bit of wisdom that you’ve learnt over the years what would it be?
Get really good at knowing what you want and knowing how to communicate that. When you’re on set or in the edit room and there are many people waiting to move onto the next step of their job, which is to help achieve your vision, the biggest and most respectful thing you can do for them is to be clear about what you want. Even if it’s not entirely clear whether it’s the right thing, as long the people around you believe that it’s the thing you think is best, they’ll feel better about helping you and they’ll respect you for having helped them do their work quicker so they can go home and be with their friends and family.
> What advice would you give a startup looking to make a good video? What are the “must haves” and pitfalls to avoid?
Be courageous with your methods. The ambition shouldn’t be to do what you’ve seen done successfully before, the ambition should be to do something unique to you—something with all of your company’s character in it. I have plenty of clients coming to me and saying that they like how this one video that they saw makes people emotional because it tells a personal story, and the video went viral, so they perceive that to be a huge replicable success, and they suggest attempting to reproduce it. But that will come off as inorganic because they’re approaching it from the wrong angle. I like to challenge the clients I work with to see if they can envision a human embodiment of their product—even naming a celebrity can be useful. Figure out what makes you different from the rest, and capitalize on that.
> According to you, what are the trends for 2012 in the video space for tech companies and startups?
I think that marketing for tech companies and startups will become more clever and effective and approach some of the sensibilities of traditional marketing in the best ways. It’s almost as though we’ve spent a couple of years figuring out how to replicate production standards in traditional commercials, and now it’s time to figure out how to introduce characters that are more compelling, in order to serve what can be authentic illustrations of our products.
There’s a lot of crap out there and there are increasingly large amounts of good video being produced. I always say that the best tech product videos being made are the ones people are making for their Kickstarter campaigns, and that’s because those are the ones that people are willing to take risks on. So companies will become more willing to bare themselves in their choices, and bolder with how they represent themselves. And people are getting better at using the tools, which makes us all look good.
> What is missing, or what would you like see in the industry right now?
There’s a misunderstanding from the client side about what things cost, and I think that some real education could take place to alleviate some of that. Because people from the tech industry have limited exposure to how production works, there’s some erroneous thinking about what makes things look good.
Even though most of my stuff has involved high-end cameras with twenty or more people running around behind the camera to support lights and stuff, I still encounter clients who are under the impression that there are two people behind the camera, shooting with a DSLR, and that the locations come for free. So to them, if I’m submitting a budget of $50,000, they will wrongly believe that $1,000 of that goes into shooting (because I obviously already own my Canon 7D, right?) and then maybe a couple grand to edit on Final Cut Pro, and the rest goes into my pocket just because I have an ego and a car payment to make. This is not the case. It’s surprising how much things cost, what the value of having skilled people on set to help the day go fast enough to do it in a day, how much locations cost, how much permits cost (permits? why would you need permits? shoot it on an iPhone for free) and that weeks of post-production costs money.
I’m in the process of putting together a small section of my company’s website to show a few pictures of behind-the-scenes how big the camera is, how many lights have to be rented and how many adult professional workers it takes to make something look good enough to put on your company’s homepage. I don’t want to be obnoxious about it, but there has to be a little bit transparency about why videos don’t cost a thousand dollars.
> What’s your favourite startups at the moment?
The ones we don’t know about yet.
> What's the one web video that you didn't make but you wish you did?
One that doesn’t exist that I missed the opportunity to make? Dropbox is one of my favorite products in the world—I run my whole business on it. And what’s most intriguing to me about Dropbox is that I was using Dropbox for two years before I even understood how to correctly use Dropbox. Meaning I had not been properly educated about the product, and it’s such a monumental concept to get, that there is still a huge gap in understanding about how it works. So when they contacted me (on two separate occasions over the past 18 months) to start the conversation about doing a video, I got really, really excited.
Both times, communication slipped and priorities got shifted and they’re such an engineer-driven company that doing the video just became less and less important to them. I had a concept I was really proud of, that I think could have help a lot of people extract all the value from the product. So when that went away (both times), I felt a huge amount of disappointment.
> The question you’re tired of being asked?
Where does the name “lonelysandwich” come from? That’s the only one I can think of. Other than that, I’m an open book and I love being given the opportunity to talk about my work in a forum where people are interested in hearing it. So thank you for this.
> How much free time do you have in a week and how do you like to spend it?
I don’t have a lot of free time. When you own a company and are fully invested in it and love what you do, part of your work become recreation. This is both good and bad. It’s wonderful to love what you do professionally. It’s not wonderful when it comes at the expense of other important facets of your life. I love to hang out with my girlfriend. She’s my best friend. And I love to remember a time when I hung out with my friends more. But priorities shift, and will continue to do so.
> Any other news? Projects you're working on? Plans for the next few months?
I’m working on a startup with my girlfriend Roxana Altamirano. She has a web presence herself, with her quite successful project Nerd Boyfriend (nerdboyfriend.com) and she’s my full-time casting director on all my videos. So we are working on something in the tech space that we’re both having a lot of fun doing, and we’ve brought on some of my talented developer/designer friends to put all the pieces together with the taste they’ve built their reputations on. It’s going to be a fun future.
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