Creatives Offscript: Aaron Duffy, SpecialGuest


By Assemble

February 15, 2022

Aaron Duffy was named the #1 Most Creative Person by Business Insider and has landed on similar lists for AdWeek and CreativityOnline. As a creative director, director and co-founder of New York based creative agency SpecialGuest, he’s stacked up multiple Cannes Lions and even a spot in MoMa with groundbreaking work for Google, Facebook, Spotify and more. In this episode, learn about how he used his influences in sculpting and the natural world to define his signature creative style.

Find this episode on Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Also available at Creatives Offscript.

Nate Watkin: Welcome to Creatives Offscript sponsored by Assemble, I am your host Nate Watkin and today we have a special guest from SpecialGuest, the aptly named New York based creative agency. The founder Aaron Duffy was named as the #1 most creative person in advertising by Business Insider, and also landed on AdWeek’s top 30 most creative people. With multiple Cannes Lions and a spot in MoMa, Aaron has become one of the most sought after young creatives in the industry, drawing inspiration from sculpting and the natural world, he’s created rule-bending work for the likes of Google, Facebook, Spotify, OKGO and more. So without further adieu, welcome to our show Aaron.

Aaron Duffy: Thanks, Nate. Good to be here.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. Excited to have you. So what we like to talk about on this show a lot is the journey of how you achieve such phenomenal success in your career, but really take it back to the beginning. So I'd love to start off just learning a little bit about your early years. When did you first realize you had a passion for creativity? And what were you drawn to most? Was it the camera? Was it writing, design? How did you get into the creative arts?

Aaron Duffy: There's a lot of things that I feel looking back I got excited about partially just because I felt like it was what I was good that. I think I hear that from a lot of creative people. I was not great academically, but I felt like I would get better responses from people when I would draw something or try and sculpt or build something that, it sounds superficial, but think sometimes you just are looking for whether the light in someone's eyes turns on when you do something. And for me, it was definitely more when I was making something than, say when I was reading, or writing, or doing something scientific or mathematical or things like that.

So I think so much of my life was steered in that direction. But also, I think part of it, I can draw back to even the family business that I came from growing up, which goes back about three generations. And its core is not like a creative company, but it's involved in the creative industry, is what was called a sort of music library, but basically licensing Broadway musicals.

And so my great-grandfather and my grandfather really got this business going in the early days of American musicals licensing those musicals to theater companies that wanted to do them. And so I grew up with a lot of those experiences going to musicals and sometimes being behind the scenes of production and of musicals and things like that. It was not a direction I ever thought I would want to go in, but it was kind of like a creative world to grow up around. So I give that a lot of credit too.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. That's a really cool upbringing to have, being around production and especially the theatrical elements. I know a lot of directors obviously have early influences, other directors or other films that they've seen, but I think you mentioned one of your earliest influences was actually Sesame Street. Can you tell me a little bit about Don't Eat the Picture?

Aaron Duffy: Yeah. Don't Eat the Picture, I sometimes ask people if they know it and it seems to be like a slightly more obscure Sesame Street production. I think it's a 45-minute... It was a 45 minute VHS that somehow, I guess, my parents had got ahold of growing up, I think probably bought it at the Metropolitan Museum because that's what it's about.

The characters or most main characters, when the story first starts, you meet them as they're leaving a day that they just had at the museum. So that's the beginning of the story. But then Big Bird realizes that his imaginary friend NOFO up is still in the museum. Heads back in the museum is closing. The rest of the characters follow to try and find him. And then they all get locked in there overnight. And the rest of the movie is about them being stuck in the museum, but also this sort of weird, surreal story of a Egyptian prince ghost trying to get to heaven.

It is very weird. It's very like, I think, eighties weird, but those are the things that I think are the most sort of like inspiring maybe. When you're little like that, you just sort of take it in stride. And I was also just very inspired by the sort of like puppet production and things like that, what was making all that stuff work, but it's both like a weird, imaginary puppet-driven story. And so I think Sesame Street has done that probably for so many people?

Nate Watkin: Yeah. I have to admit I've never seen it or heard of it.

Aaron Duffy: Yeah. It's weird. It's a really good one though. Especially if you know the met. Because they go into all these spaces and sing these songs about these parts of rooms in the museum. And if you have any sort of familiarity with it, it's kind of fun to look around. I remember thinking I wanted to do kind of like a similar format of that, but for Dia Beacon, someday, for very monumental minimalist art, I don't know. Maybe someday we'll try and get Sesame Street over there. But it's a fun film if anyone can find it.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. I got to check it out. And so growing up, for university, you went school at Washington University, what did you study there and how did your time there shape you as a creative person?

Aaron Duffy: Yeah. So Washington university in St. Louis. Technically, I was an illustration major, which was in the visual communications department. They call it communication design there today. But I also tried as hard as I could to have what would've been a sculpture minor. They really wanted us to focus. So they are not like giving out a sculpture minor as well. But I took as many classes and sort of sat around with the sculpture kids as much as I could as well so that I wasn't always on the computer as much and still making things with my hands.

And fortunately, everyone there is very supportive of these, trying to go these different routes and being multidisciplinary with things. And I didn't really know what I wanted to do while I was in my major there, but before I got into the major, I was steered a little bit towards advertising, you might say, when I studied abroad in Florence.

So even though I was really interested in sculpture and design, I had never thought of being involved in advertising exact. But while I was in Florence, I was really trying to experience a lot of the famous paintings and spaces and things like that in person that you would normally just be experiencing through a textbook, like an art history textbook. And one of the churches that I lived really close to was called Santa Croce. And it's one of the really famous early Renaissance churches that has a lot of frescoes by Giotto all over the walls.

And I think the more that I went back there, the more I was kind of learning from being there what it would've been like to be someone who lived at the time that Santa Croce was first built and Giotto first put those big frescoes on the walls and just thought it would be... They didn't have movie theaters at that time. You couldn't go and just see a Marvel film at that time, obviously.

And I imagined that people were probably going to these churches and just looking at these amazing paintings that were fairly action-packed. Like one of the ones in Santa Croce. So much of it's about the life of St. Francis. And there's this big panel of St. Francis getting scarred with the stigma [inaudible 00:09:09] by a floating Jesus on a cross shooting lasers into his hands. It's a like very... It's very action-packed?

And so I sort of imagine that those were like the Marvel movies of that time. So that's cool. That was something I thought was really exciting to create things like that. But at the same time, from being out there, we were learning a lot about what was funding a lot of that artwork. And the church was paying for it for a reason. And the royal families of those times, and the [inaudible 00:09:47] were commissioning this work for a reason.

And in that way, it wasn't just for entertainment or for arts sake, it was really there to bring people to the church or to maybe bring respect, let's say, to those royal families and have people look up to them, so to speak. So in that way, it was kind of like experiencing advertising that's not all that different from some advertising that we have today. And in that sort of a backwards way, I started thinking maybe that is what I want to do. Maybe I want to do things like that where, not work for the church necessarily, but to be commissioned to create amazing works of art basically. And I like to think that that's what we do.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. And you said that it's your goal to close the gap between commercial art and fine art as much as possible. What does that look like in achievement? What are you striving towards?

Aaron Duffy: Yeah, it's worth saying that for people listening to compare what we do to Giotto sound off base. These are the sort of renaissance masters, as we call them. I think there are masters in our advertising industry like that, but I don't think the direct comparison like that is exactly right. I don't know a lot of people in my industry that are painting like Giotto can. So I don't think it's like that kind of comparison.

I love going to see art for art's sake as well. So it's not any... The closing of the gap is not to say that there shouldn't be fine art as well, but I think that what we do in the advertising space is so sort of ubiquitous and gets into people's eyeballs and in their bloodstreams through osmosis, kind of, that the more creative and the more sort of thought-provoking, which is what I think so much art is for. The more that we can bring that to what we do and to our clients and things like that we get a much more inspiring landscape.

And so the more that we can close the gap between those things, the better. It depends on the client, obviously, but I think a lot of clients would benefit from having that kind of thought-provoking quality. And I think the brands that everyone knows and loves have that more thought-provoking and creative quality than maybe using more base advertising tactics that might work but are either not good for their brand or people don't actually like. It might work in the moment, but people don't like it in the long-term, say a kind of sex cells kind of perspective of things. Kind of like a base advertising quality. And I don't think it's very thought-provoking. It's much more manipulative than it is like creative and thought-provoking.

So that's sort of what I mean by trying to sort of close that gap so we're not thinking that necessarily that there has to be a distinct fine arts world and there has to be a distinct advertising world, that it can be much muddier than that. And I even think, since the days where I really started feeling that way and trying to apply that thinking, that it's really come to pass in the form of people's TikTok posts and things like that where it's really like mashed up a lot more.

I think those downsides of that too. I'm not really a fan of scenarios where people don't know if they're looking at an ad or they don't know that it's coming from a brand. I think that's sort of like an extra level of manipulation that is kind of unfortunate, because if the brand wants to put a message out there and create a work of art, they should want to stand behind it and want people to know that rather than doing it in this kind of under-the-table way.

So I think there's sort of like advertorial kind of things where you don't know whether you're reading an article or reading an ad. I feel like sneaky things like that can be kind of a bummer. So that's not really what I mean by closing the gap, not to do it in a sneaky way, but to do it in a way that's like, hey, I know this is coming from this brand and I really appreciate the brand for making that amazing thing.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. That's an interesting way to look at it. And I can really see that philosophy in your work now that reflect on it. But getting back to college briefly. So you're kind of unique in that you entered the industry as a director, but you didn't go to film school, you did go to an art school. But I'm curious how early on did you get into actual film directing, and who were your biggest early influences other than Sesame Street?

Aaron Duffy: Yeah. The influences that drove me to want to do more of that sort of inspiration I got in Florence were like the Michelle [Guanries 00:15:17] of the world, the [Dar Sams 00:15:19], the Chris Cunningham, like the Palm Directing series kinds of things really were inspiring to me at the time. And I think sometimes it was through music videos, sometimes it was through ads that were inspiring.

I really liked seeing those things and imagining how they were done. And when you're starting to imagine how they were done, you want to try and make them yourself. That felt like a really nice push. And then school, you're right, it was not a film school, hardly even any motion programs to speak of at the time. But there was one video teacher named [Peer Marton 00:16:05] that was a really big push and inspiration for me, who I keep up with still.

And I also went into illustration because in the art school it seemed like that was the best way for me to get some of my ideas on paper, or at least teach myself and have the school teach me how to get those ideas out a little bit better. And that turned out to be very helpful because it led me into being able to storyboard my ideas.

I was generally not really illustrating things very well as an individual illustration as I was meant to. I was more kind of thinking through things in a time-based way, as it turned out. And that turned into kind of a form of like illustration slash story boarding. And even though they weren't great, even in my opinion, they were enough to help people understand what that story was and get excited enough about it that I think eventually directing seemed at least plausible, because it's like, "Okay, you have ideas, and I understand of those ideas. And now you can tell me how a team can execute those."

Before I even got there though, I didn't even really know that the industry I'm in now existed while I was in school. And I think that's kind of like you don't know what you don't know, I guess, and I try and talk to students about this a lot too, to try and figure out what blind spots there are for where you can do your best work out there.

And for me, I got somewhat lucky that someone who had graduated three years earlier, named Lauren Hartstein had started working jobs in New York for some of the production companies like Loyalkasper and Brand New School and places like that. And she had just happened to come back to St. Louis for and stopped by our department. And there were maybe three or four of us that happened to be doing motion work or attempting to.

And so one of our teachers told her to talk to us. She sent me a bunch of links to different production companies like Siop is I remember she sent me, and brand new school. And then she also sent me a company called Lifelong Friendship Society that was doing just the weirdest, strangest things I'd ever seen, nothing that really felt like typical advertising, I felt. And I just decided, as soon as she sent me that, that I had to work for them somehow or at least intern for them.

And so this was like halfway through my senior year that my eyes were open to a world of animation and video production that was trying to push the limits of those things by being commissioned by brands to do it, essentially. And it just like brought a lot of the things that I was excited about together. And previously, I had just been thinking I might be doing op-ed editorial illustrations as a job. This was like a big shift in my mind about what I could be working on.

Lifelong Friendship Society was a studio in Brooklyn. They don't exist anymore, but I basically just emailed them until they responded to me, which was a lot of emails. And even then, they said I could come an intern and help organize their HTML site, just do things like that.

Nate Watkin: Yeah.

Aaron Duffy: And then eventually, they let me sort of help out with some things. I did stop motion on a cookie commercial for them. And then was able to learn after effects while working with them and compositing for ideas that I had. And I just... While I was working for them or interning for them, I happened to meet a woman named Claire Mitchell who was the, I think only employee at a fairly new company called 1stAveMachine at the time.

And I met her at a super bowl party. I told her what did and she told me I should meet her boss, who's now my partner Serge. Just a lot of lucky things, I guess, is part of that story. Lucky that I met Lauren Hartstein at Wash U., lucky that I met Claire. It's sort of like a sequence of events that were very helpful for me.

Yeah. And so you connect with 1stAveMachine and they invite you to come on board as their first director. Is that right?

Yeah, that's right. So 1stAveMachine at that time was Serge Patzak who was really the producer mind, and then Arvin Palep who was the director mind. It was really the two of them. And they had just recently started getting wrapped and for doing commercials by Patrice Claire. I think were when I met them were just starting to do some of those commercials, like did some Adidas work and were working on a Nissan piece.

And that's when... I think, because they were getting some of that work on, Serge asked me, after he saw some of my little videos I had made at school, if I would like to direct. And I'd never really thought about it, at least not that early, but I felt ready to try it. And one of the ways that he thought we could try it is by, he said, why don't you write an idea for a little short film?

And so I did that and I called it The SpecialGuest. And it was a story about a crochet man in a suit who has a suitcase that he opens and... No. It's a crochet man that scratches his head and has a little yarn worm that comes out of his head. And then he has a suitcase that becomes like a little park. And that little yarn character becomes a love interest for the crochet man. And then they get stuck in the suitcase, basically. It was just like a weird, surreal thing maybe like going back to some of the Sesame Street surrealism.

And that became sort of like the first thing that we made. And it somehow entered in and accepted into the Saatchi & Saatch New Director Showcase, which I guess is like one of those first sort of kickoff points for me.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. I think a lot of filmmakers and young directors coming out of film school or just at the beginning of their career are looking to get wrapped and get on that director's roster. So it's interesting how quickly you were able to, A, get on a roster right out of school, but then, B, begin doing serious major brand work.

I'm just curious, what do you think that the guys over at 1stAveMachine, what do you think they saw in you as this young, creative, fresh out of school that made them think we need to sign this guy, we need to get him on our roster? Was it a specific piece of work in your portfolio? Or what do you think it was?

Aaron Duffy: I remember Serge, and Arvin, and I talked about this a bit in the early days that... We were mostly animation. We weren't really doing any video work in the early days because, animation, we could get at least commercial quality stuff done in a studio space with some computers. Whereas video production is a pretty heavy lift, at least it was at that time. Quality cameras were not they are today. You were probably shooting on like a GL2 720 pixel wide thing at that time. And so you couldn't make a really good quality thing very easily in video production. You had to really ramp up for that.

And so we were mostly in animation. And Arvin is really a sort of computer graphics animation genius. That was the work that he was doing and getting noticed for. And I think we were trying to figure out what were other kinds of work like that that we could do for clients. And I didn't do... I knew a little bit of Maya at the time, but I didn't really do 3D work like that. I did mostly stop motion and crafted things.

And so I think part of what Serge is doing just very practically thinking is, let's create at least another kind of work stream so it's not all about 3D computer graphics. I'm sure it... Maybe there were other things that he liked, but the rep that we had was an animation rep as well. And so I think he was really just trying to give Patricia Claire creators like Arvin or like myself that had a sort of style or look that she could sell to agencies, which was her job as the rep. And that kind of worked pretty well early on.

Nate Watkin: And so your first spot that you officially direct Audi Unboxed goes and wins a can Gold Lion, what was that validation like so early in your career?

Aaron Duffy: Yeah. That was funny because when Serge and Arvin and I first met, I made that little short film, the SpecialGuest, and someone told me, hey, I got accepted into Sergei-Sergei New Director Showcase, which is a showcase that is sort of launched at [Canne 00:26:33] Lions.

And so someone said, you should go, it'll be fun. And so I got a ticket to go. And a producer that I knew introduced me to a Japanese production company that had a house there with an extra room. And they didn't speak English, but they were super nice and they brought a chef with them. So it was an amazing sort first Canne experience this house. Not far from the beach and a personal Japanese chef that they brought and really nice people. And so I just sort of crashed on this couch there for New Directors Showcase .

And one morning we woke up and they just turned their computer around and showed me a commercial that I had done had also just won the Lion. And I just didn't know what that was, to be honest, at the time. I was there. I didn't know it was entered. The agency probably entered it. And we weren't really focused on awards like that. I didn't know what Canne Lion was other than the Sergei showcase that it had been accepted into.

And I think it's good not to get too caught up in the awards stuff actually, but at the same time, I know that those kinds of things do help a career. I think it's kind of a balance, basically. I think the validation, to answer that question, doesn't so much come from whether it won a Canne Lion or not, but more that other clients that we were talking to started referencing it.

And I don't... Maybe they were referencing it because the award, I don't think so. I think it was more because of sort of like a style or quality. It was a very like tactile, playful, but kind of like strange combination of styles that I think people started reaching out for. And that did lead us towards some more work like that. The good work begets more work, I think not so much the case, it just like the award to beget more work.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. That's a crazy story you go to Canne for New Directors Showcase and you end up winning the whole award show with the Gold Lion.

Aaron Duffy: Well, no, no. So that's the thing. To be clear, I just didn't know what was, like I said, didn't know what was going on in the time. It won bronze. And I can't even remember what category it was for.

Nate Watkin: Got it.

Aaron Duffy: It definitely wasn't like a Grand Prior anything like that, but early days of like winning an award like that. I think at the time, I even just sort of thought like, oh, that's cool. I just didn't know if it was like, is that a good thing? I'm sure he thought it was, but we just weren't very focused on it.

Nate Watkin: It seems like the story of your careers had just moved so fast. And true to form, I believe after one year at 1stAveMachine, you went and launched your own creative agency, SpecialGuest, which you now run currently. Is that correct?

Aaron Duffy: Yeah, that's right. We actually launched it at the time as potentially the sort of like alt production company back then when we first started 1stAveMachine. And we sort of decided that we didn't want to confuse people too much back then by starting two companies. So we took the site down for a little bit, but then we then realized years later that we actually did want to revive the SpecialGuest name, but for the purposes of starting a creative agency rather than making it another production company. And that's what we are today.

Nate Watkin: And when you say we, was it your partners in 1stAveMachine that also launched SpecialGuest or is it a new business that you open?

Aaron Duffy: Yeah. So it's its own company completely, but the partners in it, myself and Sam and Serge and Arvin are the same partners in both. But they're separate companies.

Nate Watkin: Cool. So speaking of bridging the gap between art and commercial, going into the music video world, you did a music video for OK Go, which is one of the craziest practical effects videos I've ever seen, these amazing in-camera optical illusions that took home the MTV Award for Best V Effects. Watching that, it appears it was all shot in one take. Is that true? And if so, what was the level of difficulty?

Aaron Duffy: Yeah, it's all shot in one take. And we shot it... Which is like in a lot of their films is a very important thing for the OK Go team. I think I remember we shot it about 70 over the course of, I guess it was probably something about 30 hours or 35 hours or so.

Nate Watkin: Wow. Was there a sleep break in there?

Aaron Duffy: There was not. And that was, at that point, going on almost like a week without sleep, just to get the set [crosstalk 00:31:44] and stuff like that.

Nate Watkin: Crazy.

Aaron Duffy: Basically, the sort of timeframes of that project, was once we decided we wanted to do this together with Damien and OK Go is we had about a month to concept it and all the different moments we wanted. Then we had a month in the warehouse to build it. And at the end of that month was a week to practice with the band. And then basically 30 hours to shoot it.

Nate Watkin: Wow.

Aaron Duffy: So we shot it 77 times, but not.. I don't know how many of those times we actually made it all the way through the circuit, because there are some moments in there, for example, Dan, the drummer, has... Halfway through, he has a bunch of buckets of paint that get dumped on him. And the cleanup for that, we clocked it at around, took like between 15 and 20 minutes to clean him up so that he could be ready again to shoot from the beginning.

Aaron Duffy: And so I had to watch very closely to all the illusions and moments that were being captured ahead of that. And if anything didn't look right, then I would just stop us before we got to the paint so that we didn't have such a big cleanup turnaround. so we didn't necessarily shoot 77 times all the way through, but we did shoot it many times. Yeah.

Nate Watkin: And to limit the amount of paint going into his ear as well, I assume?

Aaron Duffy: Exactly. Yeah, is getting in his ear all the time and his mouth. They're like really... I mean, everyone can probably tell. They're just like a really amazing sports. And they love doing those things. And it's really not easy. It's really hard on them.

Nate Watkin: Yeah.

Aaron Duffy: But they're very dedicated and obviously have it a dozen times now. And really, I think some of the original viral YouTube hits from the beginning of YouTube.

Nate Watkin: The treadmill video, right? That's the video everybody remembers in the early YouTube days.

Aaron Duffy: Yeah.

Nate Watkin: And I know that took home the award for best VFX, but I'm curious, were there actually any visual effects in that or was everything done in camera?

Aaron Duffy: That's a great question. Because the MTV, the Music Video Awards, we went to it that year and... I mean, it's an awesome thing. They highlight and award different things. It's really more for the and stuff. I don't think they noticed so much that they gave a VFX Award to a music video that doesn't have a lot of VFX. I think they just sort of thought visually it was really great and they gave an award for that. And the ironic thing is Bob, my co-director, and I were sitting next to the Daniels, you know the Daniels?

Nate Watkin: Yes. Yeah, of course. Yeah.

Aaron Duffy: We were sitting next to them or like one row behind them at the award show. And they were getting best directors for music video that year for Turn Down for What, which obviously is just one of the best. And those guys do really amazing integrated visual effects.

Nate Watkin: Right. Right.

Aaron Duffy: So it's sort of like a bunch of music videos that are getting the geeky awards at the MTV VMAs. We got the Geeky Awards. And then the rest of the awards are like best artists. Those are the things that people care about. They don't really televise best directed or best VFX. Those are like the behind the scenes awards.

Nate Watkin: Cool. And so you came up in a world... I mean back in the early-200s, just getting back to the agency, the business side of things, you came up in a world where the roles very clearly defined. You had an agency that would develop a strategy, concept, brief, and then they would bring in the production company with a director to execute. Now those roles, of course, have been completely, blended agencies started becoming production companies, production companies started becoming agencies. I'm curious, what do you think the future of a creative company looks like?

Aaron Duffy: I think there's both blended and traditional going on. It's all out there now. And I think in general, I think that's just a good thing. There's just a lot more options for how to make stuff. And what I would add to the list that you started there is there's also brands that have amazing internal agencies. And some of them with really great internal production too.

So it's really on all levels. And then beyond that, you also have individuals on TikTok or Instagram or wherever they are that are like their own personal, amazing production companies for what they do. So it's really... From my point of view, I don't know that I can like completely answer what the perfect agency looks like other than what I feel like we're building at SpecialGuest, but I do sort of feel, and this goes back to sort of that closing the gap philosophy you mentioned earlier, is that what we end up with is just a lot more creativity everywhere, basically. Like when things get a little less siloed, people either feel less like they need to fit into a certain slot. Another way of looking at it, there's just way more slots.

Nate Watkin: Yeah.

Aaron Duffy: Way more creative slots to fit into. And I just think that's cool because there's maybe people even at brands now that never thought they would have a creative role that are now doing creative things. And I think if you allow me to bring it really far back, I think we're just creative creatures innately. I think it's like part of our evolution, is sort of like creative minds. And I think we can feel better in ourselves when we get to be creative and spend some of our day and time and brain power being creative.

There is a section of Noah Noah Harari's book Sapiens, where he sort of talks about the evolution, how humans and homo sapiens sort of came to be the way that they are. And a lot of it sort of comes back to how we communicate and the stories we tell ourselves and the things that we believe in-

Nate Watkin: Ideas.

Aaron Duffy: We're sort of a creature... Yeah. Ideas and believing in things that don't exist. Things like that that are sort of innately creative things. They drive us to do really terrible things, too. Like a lot of weaponry started from a creative place, like how can I make this.

Nate Watkin: Yeah.

Aaron Duffy: So I think there's, there's both sides to the coin, but I generally think, like in the sort of art form of creative and like making things. The more that we get to do the things like that, the better. And so I kind of hope for that for the industry.

Nate Watkin: So you've had an amazing career, obviously as a director and now as a creative running your own agency or creative shop or whatever that you would call it, how you would term it these days, what's next for you?

Aaron Duffy: So the thing that I'm most excited about is how we're growing SpecialGuest and how we're choosing to grow it. Which is, we think of as not a vertical growth, but more of a horizontal growth. For example, at the beginning of this year, we'll be opening our first SpecialGuest will get a studio in Spain. And that's going to be run by a team that I've been working with for a long time called this body Santa Cruz over there. And they're really amazing creatively with data and technology.

They do their own kind of thing that I always reach out to them when we're doing things with robotics or AI and things like that. And they're going to really be able to take the SpecialGuest ball and run with it on their end. And that's what I mean by horizontally. We're not hiring them as staff, we're letting them sort of.... They're starting their own SpecialGuest studio and taking some of the DNA of what we've started and starting their own thing.

And I'm been talking to other folks that I really believe in like that, that have their own thing that they're doing and starting their own version of SpecialGuest. And so can get the support system of he core SpecialGuest team, but be able to sort of essentially start your own boutique basically, your own boutique SpecialGuest. And I'm really excited about that, because I've never really... When I think about the classic traditional sort of signs of success of, say like an agency or a shop like us, I hear people saying things like, we went from a 15-person team to a 100-person team and I'm just like, oh God. That is not what I want.

Nate Watkin: Yeah.

Aaron Duffy: I don't want to manage in a 100-person team.

Nate Watkin: Yeah.

Aaron Duffy: And what I really believe in is creative leaders. And I want to figure out how to support them the way I felt supported throughout my life and like the story that you just went through as people come up. And I don't think it needs to be a behemoth to be successful. We've done successful work as a very small team. So I think that's the DNA that I want to spread to other areas rather than vertically stack everything.

Nate Watkin: That's really interesting. It's almost like you're turning special into a Dow, like a democratized global business. I love that. That's a very unique way to grow.

Aaron Duffy: Yeah, we're excited about it.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. Yeah. That is a exciting vision. And so looking back, what advice would you give to a 21-year-old you?

Aaron Duffy: Yeah. The thing that I always just come back to you, and I mentioned the family business at the start, is that... I mean, you're asking a hypothetical, but I also have a real answer to that, which is that my grandfather did tell me like, "Hey, whatever you do, just try and own what you do."

You can work for other folks. I think that that's good too, but try and like own a little piece of what you do and try and grow that. I think I've never thought of myself as an entrepreneur, and I don't think my grandfather really ever used the word entrepreneur, but I think what he and his father did, what I always like is probably the thing that I get most excited about in thinking about what I'm doing is they ran an opera company that produced traditional operas, like Italian operas, basically.

And they just got really excited about this things starting, which was like English operas, which were really musicals. But they weren't called though at the time. They were called English operas. And they were like, let's start a business around that, let's start an English opera company. And that in the very early days helped galvanized this whole, what is now the Broadway musical industry and things like that.

And I love that kind of thinking. So this sort of advice of like, think about what you do or love that is really special and how to own a little piece of that and grow that it is probably the advice I would give myself or give another 21-year-old.

And if you don't look at it that way, it's fine too, if you really love just working on other people's ideas. I do a ton of that. I do that all day. I love taking other people's ideas on our team or from our clients and running with them. But I also just get very excited about having this sort of entrepreneurial spirit too. I think a lot of creative people have that bone in their body.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. That's really great advice, especially for creatives and artists who maybe don't think that way, especially at a young age. So I think that's great advice. Awesome. Well, that wraps it up. Thank you so much for joining us. This was a extremely insightful interview. And it it's been really great chatting with you.

Aaron Duffy: Thanks, Nate. Yeah, it was super fun. Really appreciate it.

Nate Watkin: Awesome. Take care, Aaron.

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