The World: Palme d'Or winner vows to improve, not expand

MJZ's co-founder David Zander talks about money, directors and why he is happy to remain small, James Hamilton writes.

Winning the coveted Cannes Lions Palme d'Or for the most successful production company at the festival two years on the bounce is no mean feat. Winning it when you're a US company, there are no US gold Lions and your London office (with its "balls" spot for Sony) is a de facto competitor - at least in the eyes of the festival organisers - is altogether more impressive.

MJZ pulled off the coup this year thanks to a wide range of shortlisted ads, a peppering of silvers and a healthy number of bronzes. Has quantity triumphed over quality in the 2006 Palme d'Or?

"We kind of took it on volume," the MJZ co-founder David Zander says. "It's reasonably good volume, but we'll take what we can get."

MJZ won three silver Lions in total. One for the "dust" ad for Gap, shot by the film director Spike Jonze and created by Crispin Porter & Bogusky, and a brace for "concert" and "doctor" - two ads created by DDB Los Angeles for the Ameriquest mortgage brand, both shot by Craig Gillespie.

Its haul of 12 bronze Lions included Jonze's campaign for Miller Lite, created by Y&R Chicago, and two ads for Coke Zero, created by Crispin Porter and directed by Tom Kuntz. Reasonably good volume indeed.

Zander's CV is built on the bedrock of production company sales in New York. After a failed attempt at a production company in the late 80s, he teamed up with the directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel (the co-creators of The Max Headroom Show) to launch MJZ in 1989. The London office, headed by the former Leagas Delaney and Bartle Bogle Hegarty head of TV Debbie Turner, opened in 2000.

Zander argues that the company owes its success to three distinct periods of growth. "There was Rocky's reinvention and Craig Gillespie's blast off - he came in with a pretty good reel and just rocketed. Then there was Marcus Nispel joining - he was everywhere, doing every kind of work. And then there's the signing of the rest of the guys - Spike Jonze, Dante Ariola, Kuntz & Maguire, Fredrik Bond, Matthias van Heijningen, Nicolai Fuglsig and Rupert Saunders." He rattles them off without pausing for breath.

Ah, yes, the signings. The wider industry view of Zander is one of a man whose ambition to create a world-class production company is second only to his ability to wield a chequebook and pen. MJZ, they say, has bought success, offering directors lucrative signing fees to join its roster.

At the time, and particularly in the UK, where directors tended to be loyal to their production companies, Zander's aggressive signing of Fredrik Bond from the now-defunct Harry Nash in 2002 caused uproar in the production community. "When Zander arrived in the UK he was largely unknown, so he opened his chequebook and tried to buy in directors," one UK production company head says.

"They were very unpopular with both agencies and production companies. Fortunately they've realised that we play with a straight bat in the UK and after winning the Palme d'Or twice, they no longer need to buy in their talent."

In the US, where the golden handshake approach to signing directors is more commonplace, MJZ's rivals are more circumspect.

"David's done a really fine job of shaping his company. He's acquired very significant talent and has done a good job of managing them and supporting them in their careers," the @radical.media chairman and chief executive, Jon Kamen, says. But he warns: "The ad industry just wants the talent it wants, when it wants it. But they may pay the price for those acquisitions. It hasn't helped keep costs down."

Zander dismisses the notion that he has bought talent. "I don't think people ever really join for money, it's about chemistry. At this level, directors are going to do fine in the money department. They're interested only in the work. If they start thinking about the money, the passion slips and you see it in the work."

Nor will he accept the criticism that his London office is merely a lilypad for his US roster. "I think that's a little naive. They could live on Mars. As long as they can write, speak and do their job, it doesn't matter where they live."

Zander has tended to avoid meddling with the UK office, opting to leave it in Turner's capable hands. "It's something I've stayed away from because I don't think Americans are hugged and kissed when they come into London. It's been Debbie's gig," he says.

The London office is certainly doing well - seventh in the top ten most-awarded production companies at Cannes this year and the winner of two golds for "balls".

"I don't think the lilypad criticism is fair," Turner adds. "We've a big presence in London; we're doing a lot of big work. That's an old impression of US offices in London."

Is Zander tempted to open other offices, creating an MJZ network in the process? His response is a firm "no". "The biggest markets are the US and the UK. If you focus on those, other markets will bring you work. We're not trying to take over the world. We're a medium-sized company and we want to stay below 20 directors. We just want to improve what we have."

TOP TEN AT CANNES 2006
1 MJZ - Los Angeles, New York
2= Stink - London
2= Hungry Man - Los Angeles, New York
4 Phenomena - Bangkok
5 Gorgeous - London
6 Moxie Pictures - Los Angeles, New York
7 MJZ - London
8 Kleinman Productions - London
9= Biscuit Filmworks - Los Angeles
9= Plaza Films - Sydney
9= Academy Films - London

Note: Companies are ranked by the number of shortlisted and
award-winning ads they produced.

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