CARL MALLIA: THE HUMAN BEHIND "ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS"
From a small island in the middle of the Mediterranean to the crowded colossus of New York, WNW Member and Copywriter #5260 Carl Mallia has traveled a long way to find success in advertising. He recently spoke to us about the support of trusting clients, fortunate timing, and still having no idea what he's doing. Carl shared his insights specifically through the lens of his most recent project for Android, "Rock, Paper, Scissors", which was an Ad of the Day and fan favorite during the Oscars. The ad, which packs an anti-bullying message in bringing three well-known competitors to life, has surpassed 7 million views. "When advertising crosses the line between selling and entertaining, it’s a pretty amazing and unique experience to be a part of." Carl also shared his take on freelancing: "You get a real sense of what agencies are like, before committing to anything long-term... It’s a little like dating–freelance gives you the chance to play the field and see if there’s a really great match out there."
Tell us about your creative background. Who is Carl Mallia and how did he get here?
I grew up on a small island in the middle of the Mediterranean called Malta, and moved to a slightly bigger island when I was about 12, called England. I first studied Law but graduated with a degree in Journalism and had no idea what I was doing. So I decided to apply for a Masters in Advertising & Marketing Strategy as it sounded pretty interesting, and far more impressive than “unemployed.” While studying, I interned at a small agency in London where I first learned that the term “copywriting” wasn’t just a misspelt legal term. When I graduated, they hired me.
Since then I’ve worked at agencies of all shapes and sizes in London, Beirut, Dubai, and New York. I’ve made lots of different kinds of work. I've been fortunate to pick up several awards, and even more fortunate to meet some wonderful people along the way. But I still have no idea what I’m doing.
Tell us about the “Rock, Paper, Scissors” ad you created for Android. How did you get involved?
Like plenty of things in life (especially freelancing), getting on the brief came down to one thing: good timing. I was just finishing up another project and happened to be in the right place at the right time.
I was working without a partner at the time, so after I got briefed I just went off and locked myself in a room for a couple of days and thought about all the ways to bring the line, “be together, not the same” to life. It was the most open brief I think I’ve ever worked on: challenging, but a lot of fun. I’m a bit of an animation nerd (Hayao Miyazaki and John Lasseter are huge inspirations) and I love storytelling, so approaching it like some kind of Aesop’s fable–where cute and palatable characters could be used as a device to convey such a strong message–felt like a sweet spot.
When did you realize you were onto something special?
I’m not sure you ever really know you’re onto something special until it’s out in the world and you see the way people react. But it definitely felt like it had potential from quite an early stage. Whenever I explained the idea to anyone, even people who didn’t work in advertising (especially people who didn’t work in advertising), I could see them getting excited about it. I think the fact that we all know the game of “rock, paper, scissors” but have never really seen them brought to life, combined with such a powerful and important message, felt very unique and struck a chord with people. At a time when the world seems to be filled with so much hatred and tension between different people, countries and cultures, it was nice to be able to remind people that being different can, and should, be a wonderful thing.
I guess the moment I fully realized it was something special was when I saw the Internet reacting, and the attention it received. When advertising crosses the line between selling and entertaining it’s a pretty amazing and unique experience to be a part of. Oh, and when “Thug Life” shared it, that was a different kind of special.
Did you envision a John Hughes 80s vibe from the start, or did that come later with the music?
Definitely not. In fact, the first time I heard the track on the edit I was totally against it. Even our editor, Dave Slade, who found the track and put it on it the first place, never thought it would make it all the way. In my mind, we were always going to end up with some type of Pixar-esque score, or a remake of a well-known track, like John Lewis or Chipotle do so well. But the longer we kept trying to beat John Parr’s “Man in Motion”, the more it became apparent that it was the perfect track to use. The 80s vibe really adds that layer of nostalgia to the film and has that feel-good factor that makes you want to throw your fist up in the air at the end, à la The Breakfast Club. We’re just fortunate that we had such amazing clients who were willing to take the risk, and I’m fortunate that everyone else on the team realized that it was the right track to use way before I did.
"Our clients, who I can’t speak more highly of, approved an edit before any characters had arms, legs, eyes, mouths, or noses. Wait, they still don’t have noses."
Any unexpected challenges working on this ad?
Our director, Conor Finnegan, has a really interesting and unique animation style where all the characters are actually shot practically, before animating all the arms, legs, and facial expressions in post. The characters you see in the film were actually real pieces of paper, or real scissors, etc. So I think one of the biggest challenges for everyone was just having to use our imagination for so long and place so much trust in the process. Our clients, who I can’t speak more highly of, approved an edit before any characters had arms, legs, eyes, mouths, or noses. Wait, they still don’t have noses.
The other biggest challenge was time. Or rather, lack of it. Due to the cultural conversation around diversity and the Oscars, we knew that’s when we wanted to be on air. But thanks to an incredible production team (both Droga5 & Nexus) who did not stop working, we managed to hit our deadline. Just.
What project in your book makes you the proudest?
I’m very proud of the way this project turned out, but I think for one reason or another, I’m proud of everything in my book. That’s not to say that I think every piece in my book is great, but usually if there’s something I’m proud of about a project, I’ll put it in. Although that said, when I look back at work, I usually just mostly see the flaws and ways it could have been improved. So once the project is done, I’ll upload it onto my site, and just move onto the next one. And just try and make sure this next project becomes the thing I’m most proud of.
What are you working on now?
I just took a week off and went to Mexico where I spent most of my time working on my tan, and trying to perfect my chili-to-taco ratio. I’m almost there.
I’m also about to start a short-term freelance gig here in NYC, so I’m looking forward to that. As a creative problem solver it’s great to be able to go into an agency and try to tackle new problems from a fresh perspective.
And I always like to have a side project or two on the go. Right now I’m working on an illustrated book about strange idioms with a copywriter friend in Sydney and an illustrator friend in London.
"A very wise friend of mine once told me there are three salaries for an advertising creative: 1) the money that gets deposited in your bank every month, 2) the work you make, and 3) what you learn. I think as long as you’ve got at least two out of the three happening at one time, you’re in a good spot."
What are some of the pros and cons of being a freelance copywriter versus a full-time copywriter?
A very wise friend of mine once told me there are three salaries for an advertising creative: 1) the money that gets deposited in your bank every month, 2) the work you make, and 3) what you learn. I think as long as you’ve got at least two out of the three happening at one time, you’re in a good spot. Freelance or full-time.
That said, I think there are definitely some specific pros and cons about freelance life. I love to travel so being able to take time off between gigs and have control over that side of things is a very nice feeling. Another big pro is that you get a real sense of what agencies are like, before committing to anything long-term... It’s a little like dating–freelance gives you the chance to play the field and see if there’s a really great match out there.
What are some top tips you can offer creatives, based on your experiences as both a full-time copywriter at a top agency and now as a freelancer hustling on your own?
To a large extent, I think you kind of have to approach your freelance gigs as if you’re working there full-time. Even though you might not necessarily see the project through, or you may just be coming in to cover someone while they’re away, it’s important to be fully invested in every project and just try add as much value as you can.
Other than that, most of the tips would be very similar. Patience, networking, working hard. The old maxim “work hard and be nice to people” always feels rather pertinent and a good rule to live by. Try to surround yourself with good people, try to have fun, and don’t take things too seriously. It really is just advertising. Although a lot of that is definitely easier said than done.
Who are some WNW members you most admire, and why?
Oh man, there’s way too many. This could be a loooong list, but I’ll try to keep it short-ish. I definitely have to mention my better half, Rai Halim. Not only will I get in trouble if I don’t–she’s also far more talented than I. And just generally the best human I’ve ever met.
Other than that, it’s probably worth mentioning a few incredibly talented art directors who I’ve been very very fortunate to partner with: Jordan Young, Sarah Kraus, Bianca Guimarães, and Joaquin Salim.
As well as partners, since I’ve been in the US I’ve also been very fortunate to work with some amazing Creative Directors who I really admire and have learned–and continue to learn–a lot from. Jordan Kramer, Donnell Johnson, Jon Zast, and Jon Randazzo who are on WnW. And Andy Carrigan, Sherrod Melvin, Jim Therkalsen, Dan Morales, and Jill Applebaum, who are not. Yet.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Yes. If anyone in New York knows where to get a decent British Sunday Roast, please don’t be a stranger. I’m desperate for a Yorkshire pudding. Or some pastizzi.