Creatives Offscript: Joel Kaplan, MUH-TAY-ZIK


By Assemble

August 17, 2022

Joel Kaplan is the Executive Creative Director and Partner at MUH-TAY-ZIK/HOF-FER, and has been behind award-winning campaigns for Netflix, Nike and Burger King, helped launch the iconic franchise Halo, and even directed films for Hulu.

In this episode we follow Joel's career path as he tells us about going from temp receptionist at an ad agency to partner at one of the most well known firms in the industry.

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

Nate Watkin: Joel Kaplan is the Executive Creative Director and partner at M/H. With over 20 years in the ad industry, he's helped launch iconic brands like Halo, directed films for Hulu, and taken home trophies like the Cannes Titanium Lion, One Show Best In Show, and the Grand Clio. Welcome to our show, Joel.

Joel Kaplan: Hi, thanks for having me.

Nate Watkin: Absolutely. So going back to the early days, I noticed looking at your resume, that you went to school for both recording arts and copywriting. Just curious, when you were 18 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Joel Kaplan: When I was 18, I wanted to be a music producer. That was what I thought I was going to do. That's what I was messing around with at home. I had keyboards and turntables and basically banging on things and making noises. I was generally just that annoying noise-making person. I grew up in Illinois and part of my goal was to study music and study recording and I was ready to move as far from Illinois as I could. I needed something different. So, I moved to LA and studied recording arts at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Nate Watkin: Nice. Yeah. It's interesting. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a music producer as well. I used to, I'm trying to think of the software, back then, it was Reason and Fruity Loops, these softwares. Did you use the same ones back in the day?

Joel Kaplan: Yeah, there was all that kind of stuff. Everyone was getting more powerful computers. And this was that early day where you could download free software and you were converting things. And then I got to school and started learning Pro Tools and built a Pro Tools rig, which I still think is great for recording, but isn't necessarily your home production software even today.

But it was getting easy in the way that today you think about how filmmaking, there's so many tools available to people at home, whether you're filming on an iPhone or not, you could be a filmmaker. It was just starting that way with audio where you could be a producer at home. And that was pretty exciting and accessible.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. What kind of music production were you into genre-wise?

Joel Kaplan: Oh, I was doing a little bit of everything. At the time I liked house music and acid jazz, and just the idea of putting together found materials and creating something that made people's feet move was pretty awesome. And that was because recording like a rock group, you needed mics, you needed all these other things I didn't have. You needed studio space.

Whereas if you just wanted to create a house track, you were finding loops online and you could use Rubberduck and sample things off of your CD player, your record player. So, it seemed like a more doable thing when I first started. And then when I got into recording and had studio access, we started recording musicians, real musicians. And then you didn't just need mics, you needed people who really knew how to play well, which was a whole other thing.

Nate Watkin: And so, after college, I mean, you had a very unique career path to eventually becoming a creative director. Tell us about your early jobs?

Joel Kaplan: Oh, I worked all sorts of jobs. I mean, there's two kinds of people in advertising, right? There's the people who always knew they were going to go into advertising. They had a family member or a friend or something told them, "Oh, advertising as a career. You'd be interested in it." There's that kind of person. The other kind of person is someone who just bounced around and made weird shit until eventually they woke up one day and they were in advertising.

I'm more the latter, right? I just didn't know what I was going to do. I just know I wanted to make things. I was making recordings, or I was working as an after-school kind of program teacher in the LA Unified School District where I would teach poetry classes to fifth through seventh graders. I worked in restaurants. I was a cook. I was in construction. I did all these different things that in hindsight, all were building something or making something. They all led to some results.

I bounced around for a long time and then found myself as a receptionist at an ad agency down in Los Angeles. And that's where it all kind of clicked. That's the first time I actually saw advertising from the inside and saw what agencies were and what creatives did. And I was able to point and go, "Oh, y'all are doing what I've been trying to find. I didn't know that was a job." I didn't really know, now I see what it is. And that's really interesting. And I was lucky enough to have a lot of people at that agency that were kind and brought me along and invited me to meetings and explained what it was and showed me what it was.

Nate Watkin: And so aside from advertising predating your first ad job, what was your favorite job?

Joel Kaplan: Oh, that's a good question. What was my favorite job before advertising? Oh man, I got to think about that. I worked in Blockbuster when that was still a thing. That was not my favorite job, but I kind of loved working at Blockbuster just late nights and shooting the shit with people that was fun. I think it might have been cooking, cooking in restaurants. I really liked cooking in restaurants. I like being in the kitchen and I like the speed of it and the dynamic of it. And I liked that when you're cooking in a restaurant, especially when... I didn't go to cooking school. I wasn't a chef. I was just a cook at different restaurants.

But every time you worked at a restaurant; you would learn something. Someone was doing a different technique or a different restaurant, or you were learning how to taste something differently. I thought that was really cool. I loved being in restaurants.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. I mean it's an art, right? I mean, you're being creative.

Joel Kaplan: I think we think about it that way now at the time you were just a degenerate who they didn't want to put as a waiter in front of people. I mean, I went into a restaurant to get a job, it must have been my junior year in high school. I went into this nice Italian restaurant, and I figured I should get a waiting job because I wanted more money. It was the summer after my sophomore, junior year in high school, I wanted to make good money that summer.

So, I went into this great Italian restaurant in my hometown that I liked, and I applied for a waiter job, and they said, "We don't have any waiter jobs, but we've got this job in the kitchen at lunch where someone's got to work the ovens." There's all these different stations, right? There's a grill station and there's the sous chef who's leading everything. And the pastry chef and they didn't have anyone who was going to make the pizzas and the lasagnas and all this kind of stuff. And so, they hired me because they asked me a couple of questions and basically determined I wasn't a complete degenerate and they let me work the ovens.

And I just learned so much that summer. And the kitchen is, I mean, I want to say brotherhood, but it's not just a brotherhood. It's kind of a brotherhood, sisterhood. It's just this crew you're on a crew. You're a part of the crew. And I loved being a part of the crew. I love that when everyone was fighting, you were still on the same team and when food was going out, everyone was celebrating. And when things got hard, you were all in the trenches, but it was just, you were really a part of something. And that was cool. That was a really fun vibe. Even when things got crazy. And you were in over your head, it was just a fun vibe.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. Sounds a little like advertising. No?

Joel Kaplan: It does. I don't know if everyone has this, but when I look back on my old jobs, there's a lot of stuff in each one of those that has gone into helping me understand or deal with situations in advertising. Whether it's the pressure or being on the crew or, I mean, even in recording the act of having to bring together all these great musicians that maybe don't always play together and you're trying to get them to make something together and you're sitting in the room going, "Hey, give me a little bit more of this." Or "Hey, that's awesome. Everyone follow that person." That's kind of a creative director job.

I didn't know it at the time. It all just seemed different and discrete at the time. But now you look back and go, "Oh, I learned that there. I learned that there." Even working in a kitchen as a low-level cook in a kitchen, you are learning a lot and getting yelled at by people that know way more than you do that preps you for those early jobs in advertising where you've got to move fast. And there's someone who's trying to get you to do it right. And you've got to just listen a little bit.

Nate Watkin: Well, I can relate I always tell people my favorite real job, quote-unquote aside from the companies that I've founded in terms of being an employee was at a pizza restaurant when I was back home from college one summer. And it was, I think everybody that worked there was one of my friends that was back home from college. And that was a fun job. So, I can relate to making pizzas and being in the kitchen.

Joel Kaplan: Where'd you grow up? Where was the pizza restaurant?

Nate Watkin: Colorado Springs, Colorado is where that was. Yeah. So middle America.

Joel Kaplan: Gotcha. Oh, I mean I'm from Illinois. We would call Colorado pretty far west.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. I like to think of Colorado as like honorary Midwest, but I don't know how the Illinois people would feel about that. So, in those jobs, I'm curious, aside from what you had already mentioned about preparing you for your career, but in terms of the way that you think about creative and the way that you think about campaigns, how did those experiences early in your career inform the way that you approach creative?

Joel Kaplan: I think everyone who is a creative is a collection of the different influences, experiences, things you've learned, right? You grow up in Southern Miami and work at galleries. You are going to bring a certain mentality to your creative. You grow up in Portland, you're really into Nike gear and you grow up watching Japanimation. You're going to have this whole other take on creative.

So, I think for all of us, the jobs you work, the places you live, the films you watch, those create what you think of as your approach to creativity. Having been in music production, having been very into hip hop and acid jazz and house music, having loved to go to like art museums and stuff like that, all of that stuff led into me becoming the kind of writer that I am.

I taught after-school poetry classes, I'm not a great poet, I just would teach fifth graders how this song actually is the same kind of structure as this classical poem. And they would go, "Oh my gosh, those things relate. I didn't know they related." That's the kind of creative I think I've grown into, someone who's trying to connect two things that are kind of disparate that people don't always relate to one another and tried to make those into something new and whole.

I think designers, you can see early on in a designer's career, you can see their influences much clearer. You get into writing you don't see those influences as clearly until a little bit later on when you're really designing worlds and building worlds in your writing and in your scripting and stuff like that a little more. You could tell who watched a lot of Wes Anderson.

Nate Watkin: Right.

Joel Kaplan: Do you know what I mean?

Nate Watkin: Yeah.

Joel Kaplan: I watched a lot of Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller and that kind of stuff. So, I've got a different take on it from someone who was watching all Coppola or all Tarantino.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. Would you say your perspective is a little more Americana? A little more in touch with the everyday American?

Joel Kaplan: I think so. I think I tend to do more human, every person kind of things, more than... Some people are like, "I do crazy big comedy over the top comedy." My stuff tends to be more human. I think it goes back to growing up in the Midwest, this idea of, "Hey, let's just be honest with what people really go through." I really like the idea of honesty in the humor that we do. We talk a lot in the agency about weirdness, what is the weirdness of a situation? Or other places we'll say what's the tension of the situation or what's the provocative thought.

What we're all really saying is, "What's the aspect of humanity that we all know is true, but we never talk about?" You look at Christmas advertising, right? Everyone tries to act like Christmas is a special time. And there's lights everywhere and there's trees everywhere and families come together, and they love each other. And it's great.

Whereas the reality of Christmas is your grandmother is sitting there at noon, drinking a gin and tonic out of a juice glass, right? We're all trying really hard not to talk about how our sister lost her fourth job because it's just going to make grandma mad, but we all know she lost her fourth job, but we're all trying to live up to this expectation of Norman Rockwell. Well, when you're just honest with your work, you talk about how your sister lost her job. Not because it's depressing, but because that's what families really do around the holidays.

You eventually collapse into a topic that no one wanted to talk about. And that's what makes you a family that you're going to go ahead and talk about it. I don't know. Maybe that's because I'm Jewish as well. Jews tend to just put things out in the open and then battle them out. We don't kind of keep things. It's not a waspy thing, we don't keep things bottled up and pretend it doesn't happen. It all spills out.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. Right. And so, you mentioned you kind of by chance landed this job as a receptionist and found out about this whole world of advertising, and sounds like a really supportive environment where people were willing to help you learn. But how did you make that jump from receptionist to copywriter? I'm sure a lot of people go to school to be a copywriter. And just curious, how did that happen?

Joel Kaplan: I had been writing, I had been writing screenplays. I lived in LA. My roommate was a screenwriting major when I was in college. So, we had written screenplays. We had written, I'll go ahead and call them Ferris Bueller knockoffs, like the kid who no one expects anything from who ends up making it work, gets into college, becomes a hero, blah, blah, blah. We had been writing scripts and we had been writing short stories and poetry and all these other random things. So, when I ended up as a receptionist at this agency and I started seeing what the people did, I kind of segmented it in my head, and in fact, the agency was segmented this way at the time, into two groups, which was art direction and writing.

I am not an art director. I just am not. I describe things visually, I describe things like an art director, but I'm not good with those tools. I'm good with words I can argue, I can sit down and make a point and make someone interested in the point and discuss the point and come at it from all these different angles. But if I sat down and tried to design it, I would never be able to do that in a compelling way. I'm just naturally someone who is able to discuss and debate and those kinds of things.

So, writing made a lot of sense to me because it was a chance for you to sit down and describe your thoughts in a compelling way. Basically, how do I describe these in a short, compelling burst of words? And that made a lot of sense. And when I started meeting the different art directors and writers and they were explaining what they did, I just naturally was able to have that conversation with the writers, what they would talk about, landed solidly in my brain. I was like, "Oh, I understand that."

So, it felt like the natural path as I started looking at becoming a creative, I knew that would be the path I would take. And I don't know if it was the right path like this was perfect for me or if I just thought that was easier for me, to be honest, I was like, "If I'm going to get into this, I've already gone to undergrad. I need to figure out how to get this career in line." That's the path I can see choosing because I understand it the most right off the bat.

So, the creatives kind of walked me through it. I took every creative in the agency out to lunch. I asked every one of them and this took months, I asked every one of them, "How did you get where you are? How do you do what you do? Because I want to do that." And they explained it to me and almost all of them had gone back to ad school and had put their jobs or whatever it is on the side for a little bit and focused on their book.

And I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to go back to school. I had finished college. I had plenty of debt. The idea of going back to a college program was not something I wanted to do. But after I talked to all of these creatives and realized that was the path that they had done, that got them to the place they were at the fastest, I kind of resolved to go back to school.

So, I applied to ad schools, got in, I mean, if anyone's applied to ad schools, you realize it's not the hardest thing to get in. But I got in San Francisco at Miami Ad School San Francisco, and the reason I was interested in that is I always wanted to live in San Francisco. I was in LA; I had never lived in San Francisco. It seemed like an awesome city. This was right after the dot-com boom, and pretty much right after the dot-com bust as well. And it just seemed like a city that was awesome. So, I got in, I moved up to San Francisco, and got official with studying again.

Nate Watkin: How was it back then, by the way? I lived in San Francisco recently for about five months and have my own opinions. But I mean, I feel like at the turn of the century there, the early 2000s, San Francisco really was this incredibly cool place to be.

Joel Kaplan: San Francisco was what I always thought cities were supposed to be. I grew up south of Chicago. So, my version of a city, of a big city was Chicago, which was gritty. Everyone taking public transportation, great restaurants, darkness to it, in my head, cities had a darkness, New York in my head had a darkness that balanced out the big, glitzy lights. Chicago had a darkness. I moved to San Francisco, and the darkness didn't feel urban, like a New York alleyway. It wasn't that kind of darkness.

The darkness was the weather. And that was it. It didn't feel dangerous. It didn't feel scary. It felt like this artistic place where everything was allowed. And that was a really permissive place to be. To be studying and to be trying to become a creative, because you were just embraced, the city embraced you. You could be poor at the time, which I was very, very poor, and find a scene.

You could find open galleries that were serving wine on Thursdays or beers, or you could find $2 beer nights in these little dive bars and for an expensive city, it felt like you had found these little gems. And when you went to the open galleries with the free wine, or when you went to the $2 beer nights, you found yourself with all the other people like you. Artistic people that were trying to make a go of it and hadn't yet. And that was a hell of a community.

I mean, you felt like you were part of something, you weren't a loner and that's a good scene. And even the tech people at the time, it wasn't heavily financed, big upside tech. It was people that had been involved in tech and it had collapsed on them in 2000, 2001, and they were all trying to regroup. They were all licking their wounds, but they still wanted to make something. So that community was everywhere, that vibe of potential was everywhere. We know it can happen. It's happened before it's going to happen again. We're all working towards something.

Nate Watkin: Yeah, really random movie reference here. But 40 Days and 40 Nights is like one of those movies from, I think it was the nineties or early 2000s that was set in San Francisco. And I just remember watching that and thinking they made San Francisco look so cool in that movie. Everybody worked at some creative company and the city was full of young professionals and my version of San Francisco living there was not quite like that. And so, I'm always just curious of what San Francisco was like 20 years ago, which is why I ask.

Joel Kaplan: It was awesome. I fell in love with it. The problem with San Francisco is so many people have come and fallen in love with it and then tried to hold it too close to their hearts that they've strangled it a bit and they've made it...

Nate Watkin: Yeah.

Joel Kaplan: Yeah. It's definitely been held too tightly and strangled, and it needs to be loosened up again and just allowed to become something different. It doesn't always have to be the same thing.

Nate Watkin: Yeah.

Joel Kaplan: But I will say, having lived in different places, there's always a vibe when you're young in a certain town, there's a conversation that happens. If you're in DC, the conversation is, "What do you do in government?" Everyone somehow is connected to government. Even if you're not working in government, you work at a cafe that's near the Capital and whatever. There's always some conversation about government. When you're in LA it is the entertainment industry. And that could be everything from, "Are you an actor?" To, "Are you a producer to do you valet cars? And have you seen any stars?" To whatever.

In New York, it's, "How did you get this place? How'd you get this place? How did you get this place?" In San Francisco, the conversation at the time was, "What are you making? What are you working on?" Because everyone was working on something, no one had quite made it, but everyone was in the process of making it. Whatever it was, it didn't matter what it was, a tech thing, a creative thing, a gallery opening, a degree. Everyone was making something.

So, to be in the middle of a journey without having reached a destination felt very right. And I still think that is the main question just right now, you're surrounded by a lot of people that have made things and have made cash or had moved on. It's not all potential, it's a mix. At the time it just felt like everyone was in the process. And there was so much excitement about what happens when we all hit that it just fueled you.

Nate Watkin: Yeah, yeah. I can definitely picture that in those early days. So, moving back to your career, so you get a job at AKQA, which at the time was one of the first true digital marketing agencies. And it seemed like a really exciting time to be there. What were your best experiences there? Best campaigns you worked on?

Joel Kaplan: AKQA was pretty awesome when I first joined because it felt like the Wild West. I had gone to school; I had worked in an agency and my expectation of agencies before I got to AKQA was very traditional. You did TV spots, you did billboards. When you went to ad school, you worked on print pieces. I don't know if we ever had an assignment to do any digital work at all, actually.

So, I get out of school, I start looking around, I started temping at a creative temp agency and they place me at AKQA on an early Sprite assignment. And my first thought was, "I got to get out of here fast." Because this is advertising this is digital work and I want to be doing TV spots. And I had this preconceived notion in my head I had this prejudice about what advertising was.

And I started working it at AKQA, and it was like baptism by fire. I learned right away that what I had in my head as advertising was just this small little wedge of what goes out into the world. I had in my head that when you are an advertising maker, you make a specific thing, a traditional thing. I didn't call it traditional at the time I just called it advertising.

And what I learned really quickly by working at AKQA with some of these really smart people and really smart clients was, "Wait a minute, what if advertising didn't have a boundary to what you make? What if what you're putting out, doesn't have to look or sound like other bits of advertising? It doesn't just have to fit on a TV screen or on a billboard." And that landed with a huge weight in my mind, that just hit that made a lot of sense very quickly.

And so, I transformed from someone who didn't want to be stuck in digital advertising within two months to someone who wanted this job more than anything. I was like, "I'm a temp. I'm a freelancer. I'm a low-level writer working on this Sprite assignment." To by month three, I'm like, "I am going to get this job." By month three I was assigned to write a script for LeBron in his rookie year for this project where... I mean, LeBron was going to do this digital project where we had created this mixer that anyone can use to create and mix a song for LeBron that would be his Sprite theme song.

And the whole thing was going to be done online and then the song would be voted on, on Myspace. I mean, it is really weird, but at the time I'm like, "I had been a music producer." I'm like, "I get to use that? I get to bring in this idea of making music and then work with LeBron. One of the most talked about young talents in the NBA and in history. And we're making a video for him." And by the time this project was done, I was like, "Wait a minute. I thought advertising was videos or billboards. And I just touched on every single aspect of media with one project. And I couldn't have done that anywhere else. I wouldn't have been allowed to do that at a traditional agency."

Nate Watkin: Yeah.

Joel Kaplan: So then from that moment on, I was like, "This is awesome. I want to learn this kind of thing where there's no limits. It doesn't only have to go in one place. Doesn't have to look like one thing." And it was the Wild West because clients didn't really know that they were coming in going, what do we do? The brief didn't come in saying, "I want you to be this. Or I want you to go into this area." The brief would come in and it was just like someone shrugging going, "I don't know, digital?"

And you got to define that and go back to them with these crazy ideas. And they loved it because no one thought that way. So AKQA was like boot camp and possibility. And that was awesome for all the people that were there, were really good people, smart people, all of them gone on to do great things. And it just was the right point in time at the right place. I feel very lucky to have ended up there when I did.

Nate Watkin: And it's crazy because it kind of feels like history repeating itself, that we're in the Wild West, all of a sudden all over again. Right. If you look at Web 3 and everything that's happening now, the opportunities that have expanded even more.

Joel Kaplan: Well. Yeah. I mean, what's crazy now is you realize there's always a Wild West, right? And the question is, "What's your relationship to it?" Digital was the Wild West in the mid-2000s. Then experiential branded entertainment, all that kind of stuff became the Wild West. Then social became the Wild West. Now it's Web 3/immersive environment/NFT is the Wild West. And every time you go into a new era of thinking, "Okay, where are we going next?" 90% of the areas that you're thinking about, and of the things you're playing with are going to die off. They're going to fall away. They're not going to be relevant, but 10% of those things are just going to explode.

Nate Watkin: Yeah.

Joel Kaplan: Are NFT is going to be relevant going forward? Yeah. Not in the way we're talking about them today. Not in this digital art piece that you're owning and buying on weird parts of the web and then turning around and flipping and all that kind of crap.

No, but the idea of blockchain supporting how you act or the environments that you're playing in will look more and more like the Sandbox or Roblox or whatever that happens to be, yeah. It's all going to evolve it's going to change. It's going to be different than we expect. But 10% of that is going to dominate the next 10 years of interaction. And the same way that when Facebook first came out or MySpace or Friendster, you could easily discredit it.

Nate Watkin: Yeah.

Joel Kaplan: But man, what a behemoth some of those places became, the power that they wielded. The amount of time we spent, that's crazy. There's always a Wild West, the hard part is figuring out what 10% are going to survive. What 10% of that space is going to end up legitimizing?

Nate Watkin: So, after AKQA, you had a few stints at various agencies. What about M/H stuck? Like when you began at M/H, how did you know that this was the place that you belonged?

Joel Kaplan: I got introduced to the founder of M/H, John Matejczyk through a friend of ours. I was freelancing around after having worked at a number of agencies. And I went in and met John and right away, I was really struck by how John in the culture of the place were designed to be fluid. And what I mean is they didn't have a thing. AKQA's thing was digital. You need to figure out digital, you come to us. When I worked at Crispin, the thing was, we make brands rock stars, that was the point. That was the tone.

When I worked at Pereira & O'Dell it was about a kind of branded entertainment, how do we make a piece of entertainment out of this brand that doesn't feel like a commercial, right? Everyone had a bit of a thing. I went to M/H, and they go, "Hey, the world is so big that all these different things we've made in the past are valid. I don't want to tell you which one to make. That's your relationship with the client. That's your relationship with the work? Here's how you have that relationship. Here's how you have that conversation."

So, I got there and instead of talking about exactly what the work should be, it was about how do you work with one another to come up with the best stuff, regardless of what it is. It was about the relationship. It was about the teams. It was about the culture and the agency. And I loved that because I had been in so many places where we had this goal, this North Star of what the work should be, that when M/H said, "No, that goal is just making it as awesome as possible, regardless of what it is." That felt like the right transition at the right time.

If it wanted to be social, we're going to do the coolest social. If it wanted to be traditional, we're going to do the coolest traditional. But we don't go in there saying we're an expert on any one of those things, because our job is to learn along with you.

Nate Watkin: And you've overseen some amazing campaigns there. One of them I saw was creating 3000 pieces of content per year for Netflix. Can you tell me more about that? And what you were creating in that campaign?

Joel Kaplan: Yeah. Netflix, we won the Netflix social AOR account early on. I would say early in the whole legitimacy of social as a marketing output, not just as a place where you put other assets, but what if social was our primary place of interacting? We won that account with Netflix, and we established that the job of the agency was to create what your persona was in social. Meaning, I don't want you just to be a brand, this traditional brand. And then you say, "Okay, now act like that traditional brand in social."

We went in and said, "Great, you have a brand, you have a traditional brand. That's not the same thing you are on social. Because social's a whole different series of places and platforms, people have different expectations. They don't just want different lengths of content." Meaning don't just take your commercials and make them shorter. They want a whole different way to go back and forth. And that led to Netflix kind of going, "Yes. Beautiful."

And it worked with Netflix because they were a collection of different types of content to begin with. They had deals with every network and movie. And you got to remember early on in the Netflix world, when they were starting to convert from sending you a DVD to letting you just log in, it was like you had this magic chest of content in front of you. You hadn't had that before that point. Do you know what I mean?

We now have such a glut of content that we can access on every device we have; we take it for granted. But you forget that when you first got a Netflix account, you would look over at some point and go, "Holy shit, I can watch anything?" And that is an immersive brand to get into. We talked to Netflix about how that brand should act on social and they loved it. And that led to us basically saying, we are entertainment's biggest fan. We're not a corporation. We're not a studio. We're not behind the scenes. We're a fan just like you.

And that meant we acted just like other fans. We created fan art. We created posters that looked like they were made from other fans. It all looked like digital stuff that had been shared around by people playing with Photoshop. And it felt very familiar to fans who were online, experiencing all this glut of content for the first time. All of a sudden, it wasn't just creating a zine on their own or making a poster or drawing in their notebook. Fans of content could share with the entire world that they love to show in a weird way, or that they loved the characters from Grease, or that they loved the second season of Orange Is the New Black or whatever it is.

And so, we started putting out content on their feeds about 3,000 pieces a year. That just acted as if Netflix was the biggest fan of their content that you can imagine. Every single thing we put out felt like the world's biggest fan of that show or that episode or that season, or that character made it. And so, every other fan online was like, "Hey, they get us." And that resonated really, really well.

The key was we could never default to being a studio. You couldn't ever turn around and go, "Okay, now let's release the behind-the-scenes footage, a short cut of behind-the-scenes footage of the show." Because we've got access, because then you would just become a studio. You would become a star, you needed to be a fan. How would a fan do this?

Nate Watkin: That's interesting.

Joel Kaplan: And that was the conversion to thinking about social. If you're talking about Wild Wests, the conversion to thinking about how do we attack this Wild West? And it happened to click really well. And it just worked, it worked with all the fans.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. So, you turned their social persona into a movie fan?

Joel Kaplan: Yeah. We created the persona and then helped them figure out how that persona can attack every platform and every reactive moment that came up.

And that was a full team working pretty much around the clock. Everything from community managers, listening to what the fans were saying to the studios, telling us what's coming up as if we were at upfronts or any sort of fan event where people were discussing things. And we just had a full team constantly pumping out ideas. And one out of every 10 of those ideas would go forward. Sometimes you'd be like, "Okay, we just heard about this. It's coming out in a day. Or we just heard that this is going to happen. Or this star of a favorite show just did this. How do we react to it?" And within 24 hours, we'd be out there in the same way fans were out there.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. I love that. Speaking of crazy ideas, what do you think is the craziest idea you ever came up with that actually made it into production? The one that you were shocked that the client approved it.

Joel Kaplan: Oh, interesting. The craziest one... So, I think the craziest thing that maybe the client ever approved was I think it was probably Whopper Sacrifice. I mean, Facebook was established. yet still young. Facebook didn't have so many rules as a platform of what you could and couldn't do. The rules were kind of being written, and we had a brief from Burger King to prove that people loved the Whopper, but that was kind of it, they loved the Whopper. We had research that proved they loved the Whopper and this and that and the other, but there was a group of us that had been working on it and coming up with tons of ideas for this thing.

And one of those ideas was, "What if you loved the Whopper more than you loved your online friends? What if you could sacrifice your online friendships for a Whopper?" And we ended up presenting and I mean, the whole team, there's a lot of people working on these briefs, ended up presenting something like 150 pages of ideas to the client. And they bought some of them. And the rest of them fell by the wayside. And then things went into production, and we didn't hear anything about two slides that were in the middle of the deck called Whopper Sacrifice. And we were like, "Of course, I mean, we said we were going to cancel people's online friendships. We get it."

And it was something like three months later when a project manager stopped by and was like, "Hey, by the way, we're going to start producing this thing where you're going to cancel friendships."

Nate Watkin: Wow.

Joel Kaplan: We're like, "Really? I thought that got killed." They're like, "No, no, no, it didn't get killed. It just got put aside. And people have been marinating, and now's the time to do it." I was amazed with that. I was amazed with the idea that the client would go down that road. It felt really right, we all knew it felt right, but you're used to having a lot of clients say no to things because of fear. They don't want pushback. They don't want blowback by fans or they don't want blowback by platforms.

To have the client go, "No, no, no, this is going to be awesome." But the key is you can't just cancel friendships you got to make sure everyone knows you're canceling friendships. That was awesome. So that was maybe the thing I was most surprised probably because I didn't think it had sold for months. And then all of a sudden it was in production.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. Amazing. I love that. And so, some quick questions here, what would you say is the most influential book you've ever read or film that you've ever seen?

Joel Kaplan: I mean, this is going to sound like a fricking nerd answer, but Dune was probably the most influential book I ever read.

Nate Watkin: Oh, okay. I thought you-

Joel Kaplan: And I read it.

Nate Watkin: I thought you were going to say the movie that just came out, which was amazing, by the way.

Joel Kaplan: Yeah. The movie was amazing. I read the book when I was 16, which is that era of reading books where you put so much weight and importance on it. And the thing was heady, and it was weird, and it psychological and it was religious, and it was all these things. And I didn't know that books could be like that. Weird enough, this is going to sound messed up, but reading Dune is kind of like you're not sober for certain parts of it because it's messing with your brain and the wiring of your brain in certain ways.

And that blew me away. Because it wasn't even like you were reading Kinsey or something where it was supposed to mess with your brain. It was just someone writing this book and its ideas kind of morphed the way I thought for a little bit. I was blown away by that, all of a sudden, it's the kind of book where you start wearing different clothes or doing some dumb shit like that or listening to music. So that book blew my mind and you're right, the movie is really good. The movie is solid.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. I'm a little embarrassed to say, I never actually read the book. I'm a pretty avid reader, but definitely will have to go back and read that now. Especially after seeing the movie.

Joel Kaplan: I was just traveling this week, with our team to a client back east and I went downstairs to breakfast and my creative director is sitting down there and he's reading a book and I'm like, "Oh, what are you reading?" And he holds it up and it was Dune. And he said, "I know I've never read it." And I want to watch the movie, but I got to read it first. I was like, "Yes." I was applauding him. "That's awesome. Love that book."

But I think it's one of those books where you either nerd out and it transforms your life, or you want nothing to do with it. Some people feel that way about Rush, the band Rush. They think it's the stupidest, most overproduced, overwrought thing. Or it's the most genius intricate thing they've ever been a part of.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. So, beyond that, moving on, what's something that you're really passionate about?

Joel Kaplan: The outdoors. I am very, very passionate about the outdoors, camping being in the forests, walking along streams, we go out and hike, and mountain bike and fish quite a bit. In fact, next week, we're going up for a full week up into the mountains in Northern California, in the middle of nowhere.

Nate Watkin: Nice.

Joel Kaplan: And I don't know if it's the idea of the quiet or the solitude or the beauty or just... It actually means more to me than it ever has before. Every year being outside means more and more to me. And I think it's because your phone doesn't work. We're so connected, we're so established, we're so easy to reach. There's screens and messages in front of us constantly that to get to a place where none of that can reach you where you have to focus on what's in front of you or the person you're with, is one of the most clarifying things imaginable. I love it.

I think some people find it very isolating nowadays. Some people cannot go up and just hike through a trail in the middle of nowhere because the isolation is intimidating for them. I find it just absolutely like freedom. Just not having anyone else around but the person you are with not having any connection. It forces you to focus in a way that you don't get much anymore.

Nate Watkin: All right. I'm going to throw a tough one at you here. But if you could put any one message on a billboard that everyone would see, what would it be?

Joel Kaplan: I think if I could put any one message on a billboard, it would be, be good to people. You hear all these times now, you do, you take care of you. You got to take care of yourself. You got to strip other people out of your life if they're toxic. All that stuff is good. Those are all good messages. But I think it's made us selfish. I like the message of, be good to people. Not because you're supposed to be good to people that are assholes, that's not what I'm saying. I'm just saying, if you're feeling good, send that out. If you're not feeling good, ask for something from other people so you can feel good.

But it's about the back and forth. It's about being a part of something with other people. I think if you only focus on yourself, you can get really myopic and selfish. And I think that leads to splintered groups. I think it leads to people not having bigger conversations, not knowing how to compromise. Be good to one another, be good to people.

Nate Watkin: I like that. And last one here, looking back on your career, what advice would you give to a 20-year-old you?

Joel Kaplan: Just be a sponge. I give that advice to a lot of young people and that is, be a sponge. Take it all in. Right now, when you're young, it's about learning and soaking it up and being a part of as much as you possibly can. You can pull from all those experiences later; you can decide which paths are the right paths and which places are the most efficient and which ones are worth the extra effort later.

Right now, just take it in, take in absolutely everything you can. See it and do it and hear it and feel it and it doesn't matter right now what's right and wrong. It's about building that base of knowledge of how you can feel so many different ways, or how you can make other people feel so many different ways and knowing those experiences and knowing all those bits of inspiration, it just builds a gigantic base and a big quiver of things you can pull out of later. Don't be myopic, just be a sponge.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. And it sounds like that's coming from your own experience, just having such a diverse background with so many different experiences throughout your career. So that is great advice. Yeah. Well, thank you so much for joining us. This has been a very interesting interview. Really enjoyed learning more about your career. So, thank you for the time.

Joel Kaplan: Nate, thanks for having me on and talking with me.

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