Mazen Fayad takes us through the ads that shaped his extraordinary career, which saw him moving from an award-winning creative to an award-winning director. What started out as a chat about ads, quickly turned into an introspective journey coloured with tremendous insight and admirable honesty.
The Ad that got me into advertising
Guinness ‘The Surfer’ by Jonathan Glazer. It wasn’t an ad, but a person narrating his fears and passions. They’re not selling beer. It was so beautifully filmed, so artistically done. For me, in the beginning ads were P&G, Head & Shoulders, side-by-side’s and hard sell. Then suddenly, in one minute - challenging the 30 seconds at the time - I have this Hawaiian surfer - who doesn’t relate to me whatsoever, not in culture nor nationality - being projected to me in the most artistic fashion ever. Just talking about the fears of riding this big Kahuna wave. I didn’t care about the surfer. I just thought: I can do something pretty. That wasn’t advertising, that was art.
My first real Ad
It was Head & Shoulders, a the time that Procter still had money. Or at least, admitted they had money (Smiles). They granted us 35.000 $ for an exploratory ad. So luckily, I had this creative partner, a Saudi guy, flamboyantly gay. He was the typical metrosexual, looking after his nose, his ears, his hair… Always wanting to look perfect. He shared an office with me, so the ad was inspired by him. The whole idea was: ‘You take care of you and we’ll take care of dandruff.’ As simple as that.
We were shooting back-to-back, a huge campaign for Pert Plus in Prague, with this great Cannes winning director Goran Milosovic. He only accepted to do the Pert Plus ads because of the Head & Shoulders script. Pert Plus was a 5-day shoot, which probably made him shitloads of money. But he didn’t care about that, He only did it to shoot that script. That’s how we got our first Cannes shortlist and our first Grand Prix in the region.
My breakthrough Ad
There are 2. The Head & Shoulders ad was my claim to fame. Exactly one year later, we did a campaign with Leo Burnett called ‘Saving Private Fruto.’ It was directed by Martin Kreiji, the multi Cannes winning director, who was behind IKEA, Heineken and Guinness. This was his first big spot. He was only 22 at the time. Again it won the Grand Prix at the IAA awards (International Advertising Awards, the forerunner of the Lynx). Another Grand Prix, two years in a row. That’s when I left advertising.
My Renaissance Ad
Why did I leave advertising? Because I looked at the creatives and I thought: they’re gonna die out. But who stays in advertising? The account directors who become CEOs. So I shifted and did my Master of Business Administration. Very funny, that was in 2003. I did my MBA in London and I went to New York to write my dissertation. As I was writing my thesis, I discovered the New York Film Academy. I had always been obsessed by filmmaking. Luckily, P&G used to be the client that shot the most. Every year I shot over 30 ads as a creative. So in five years, I had about 100 commercials where I had been on set. Which made me understand the dynamics of shooting and storytelling. I remember calling my dad from Time Square, telling him: “This is what I wanna do.” I was leaving everything, my MBA, my plan of becoming CEO … for a four weeks workshop to become not a film director, but a commercial director.
My breakthrough? A commercial for Estée Lauder. Actually, it was a Saudi company doing their first Arab perfume in collaboration with Estée Lauder, called Alphau by Bagabas. We wanted to give it international appeal so we shot it in Prague. Prague was a revelation. If you’re a good storyteller, you’re a good storyteller everywhere. But technically you have better people in other places that will help you to rise even further. After that I started working with foreign art directors and DOPs. I saw the quality of my image taken to a whole new level.
The work I’ve done in beauty is what catapulted me as a director. Like the Alfa commercial, the Patchi and the Roshan ad for Grey. A 2-minute corporate commercial shot over three days. Initially I was an art director, I was never a storyteller. That’s why I wanted to be a commercial director. I like beautiful things. I collect photography and art. I wanted to create art as a moving image. But I wasn’t a storyteller yet.
That happened five years ago, when I had a commercial with BBDO. They choose me because I was shooting a Patchi beauty commercial for them. So the production wanted to do it back-to-back and I liked the scripts. Those became the ‘Cheyef Halak’ campaign: a series of testimonials with people acting against their civil duties. You know, in Lebanon everything is chaotic. You have pedestrian bridges but people still prefer to cross the street. The ads didn’t have anything artistic, they were just raw interviews. They ended up winning four golds at the Lynx.
Everybody went: “So Mazen can do comedy now.” And with the comedy I learned to be a better storyteller. For comedy, I’m always scared to write treatments. For beauty you always find the right cast and location. I don’t need to write a treatment, I can make it look good. But I cannot make things look funny if I don’t prepare for it.
The Ad that never was
There are so many. Just right now, I was supposed to shoot something on Sunday. And I was doing it for free. But the client cancelled … after paying the 50%. That hurts. Still, I wouldn’t go into that. Now that I’m a storyteller, the ad I’ve never done is the trailer for a film I’ve never shot. This is where I’m supposed to be. Where every director is supposed to be.
Is that dream still valid? It has to be. Or else the dream of you starting this career is long gone and your life’s work is meaningless. You’ve worked throughout your life as a director, thinking of that film. Whether it’s a success or not a success, you HAVE to do it. If I never do a feature film, I can never call myself a proper director.
I could have been if I had been younger. Why? Because today I’m spoiled as a director. Do the math. I get 100.000 dollars to do a one-day shoot. I get 300.000 dollars to do a full length, 90 minutes feature. 90 minutes versus 90 seconds. Same budget. I’m freaking spoiled. Would I dare to do it? Yeah, but … there’s always that ‘but’. Because at the end of the day you’re only as good as your last fuck-up. And I’ve learned to surround myself with people who are as good or even better than me. I’m not sure I can afford to get them onboard. So then I have to surround myself with other people. (sighs) Maybe I need a wake-up call in my life to see where I am at this stage. Or else the industry will devour me. That’s being plain crude and honest.
The Ad I wish I had on my showreel
‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ feature film by Michel Gondry. Because it’s the right film that allows you to play with the techniques that you’ve learned in the business of commercials and apply them on a feature length storytelling format. For a lot of commercial directors, their claim to fame is often due to the small gimmicks they create. If you take those small gimmicks and apply them artistically on a long narrative, that gives you a character, an edge within the story. We’re not simply taking a screenplay and adapting it into a feature film. No, you’re adding your own touch and experience. I’d like to think that after 20 years in advertising, I can put a lot of added value to feature film work.