BROCK KIRBY WRITES THE ATLANTIC'S FIRST CAMPAIGN
IN A DECADE
Interview by Mike O'Donnell
The only thing better than a Michael K. Williams performance is four Michael K. Williams performances. That is what's on display in "Question Your Answers," The Atlantic's first campaign in over a decade. Williams looks toward the camera and asks, "You think I'm being typecast?" It's not for the viewer to answer, but instead for the multiple personas that Williams has played over the years. The following exchange definitely earns the campaign's slogan, as he navigates and breaks down his truths. While Williams does an incredible job of juggling four distinct versions of himself, much of the credit also goes to WNW Member and lead writer Brock Kirby. Below, Brock tells us how he wound up working on this dream job with Wieden+Kennedy. "A great agency with great CDs calls and says, 'We have one of your favorite actors paired up with an awesome brand. Want to write a script with no time constraints?' Uh, yeah, I can do that."
Brock also gives us some insight into the creative challenges and breakthroughs that came with tackling this script: "I’m not an actor. I’m not black. I’ve never been typecast in the same sense that he’s been typecast. The challenge for me was to figure out how I could draw parallels in my own life, and empathize with him. Ultimately, his worldview, his quest to seek the truth and be comfortable with not finding concrete answers, was what I connected with."
Tell us a little bit about your creative background. Who is Brock Kirby and how did he get here?
I was a journalism major at the University of Oregon. I wanted to write for Men’s Health. I had a lot more meat in my head at that point. Deborah Morrison (Distinguished Professor of advertising at the U of O) convinced me that advertising might be better fit. Maybe she was right? Or maybe I missed my calling writing articles about shredded abs? We’ll never know.
How would you describe your writing style? Do you recognize a signature style that links all of your projects, or do you try to excuse yourself and approach each project as its own entity?
I find dogma of any kind to be ridiculous. I also know, for sure, that you have to believe in something or you slip into deep depression. Everything is paradox. With every project I attack the “truth” in a brief, satirizing it and outright refuting it in hopes of finding something I can believe in. Thankfully, for everyone, I got to skip that entire process with this project. I’ve never received a brief/platform that so clearly reflected my own view of the world.
How did “Question Your Answers,” the newest campaign for The Atlantic, come about? What was the brief you were given?
This project had been at WK NYC for awhile before I got a call. The CDs, Jaclyn Crowley and Al Merry, had already cracked the big idea with the main client, Sam Rosen. The idea was to have notable personalities debate hard questions amongst their many selves. Al took a CD job at WK Amsterdam while they were reaching out to talent. So I got the call after they found out they had secured Michael K. Williams. All they needed was the question MKW would ask himself, a script, and some tagline exploration. It’s like a dream call really. A great agency with great CDs calls and says, “We have one of your favorite actors paired up with an awesome brand. Want to write a script with no time constraints?” Uh, yeah, I can do that.
Was there any added pressure, knowing that this was The Atlantic’s first brand campaign in over a decade?
Not for me. I try not to think about stuff like that. Besides, there are so many other people capable of shouldering that anxiety. If the broader team was feeling pressure, it was tough to tell. The creative environment was delightful from client to CDs to ECDS. Even Samantha Wagner, the account lead on the project, showed no hint of stress. And Alison Hill, the producer tasked with pulling off some magic, didn’t break a sweat.
Which typecast role did you first encounter Michael K. Williams in? Omar Little from The Wire? Chalky White from Boardwalk Empire?
Omar. And he was absolutely phenomenal. I think he’s such a transcendent talent he’s able to take any role and add a level of depth that steers it away from a paint-by-numbers stereotype. He also chooses roles that are incredibly well-written.
Can you share any creative challenges or breakthroughs you encountered while writing this script?
I’m not an actor. I’m not black. I’ve never been typecast in the same sense that he’s been typecast. The challenge for me was to figure out how I could draw parallels in my own life, and empathize with him. Ultimately, his worldview, his quest to seek the truth and be comfortable with not finding concrete answers, was what I connected with.
What did you think of Michael K. Williams’s performance, and the manner in which he juggled these four distinctive personas?
He is an absolute master of his craft. I’ve never seen anything like it. Jaclyn and I gave some write-ups for each persona. But Michael took that framework and worked with David Shane to name each character, and really differentiate the parts of himself. He didn’t come in with the mindset that this was some “ad.” It felt like he gave it the same amount of dedication that he gives to all of his work. We were all blown away watching him do his thing on set.
Did Michael K. Williams have any particular feedback or suggestions to incorporate his personal concerns about typecasting that you wouldn’t otherwise know about?
His enthusiasm for the script gave us confidence. There wasn’t a lot of back and forth on it. But he contributed greatly when it came to really distinguishing the characters from one another. From the wardrobe selection, to his delivery, to the smoothie he’s drinking, he added a lot of beautiful nuance to each version of himself.
How much of this was written in your newly built backyard writing shed?
All of it. Besides the usual sparks of genius from David and Michael and Jaclyn on set.
What are a couple lessons you learned working on this that you can share with fellow writers?
I think the crew that I got to work with on this was special. It just reaffirms that in order to make something you love, you need extraordinary agency leadership (Karl Lieberman and Neal Arthur) and extraordinary clients.
Anything else you’d like to add?