The Drum meets Ryan Reynolds: why the hell is a movie star running an ad agency?
A string of viral hits has seen Ryan Reynolds arise as the advertising personality we never knew we wanted or needed. We know where he’s come from, but where’s he going? And why has a movie star ended up here in the first place?
There’s something vaguely comforting about the image of Ryan Reynolds as a startup agency founder.
There’s the shot of the Hollywood actor frantically scribbling out lines of copy and pelting them into the trash bin of a windowless WeWork.
There’s the scene where the literal sexiest man in the world washes Sharpie stains off his fingers after a 9pm brainstorming session produced no good ideas. There’s a cut to the 23rd best Canadian of all time knocking back a scotch with the bartender after he lost out to Wieden+Kennedy again.
The reality is less dramatic and the character much less tortured.
Reynolds launched Maximum Effort Productions with ex-McCann creative George Dewey after their low-budget marketing for the low-budget Deadpool took in $783m at the box office. Formalizing the partnership in 2018, the duo has since hired a small bi-coastal team to produce their subversive creative ideas.
Dewey heads up the office on the West Coast while Reynolds is based out east. In this respect they have carved out a thoroughly modern creative partnership, where ideas are largely exchanged and developed over text message.
“Either he will take the first pass and I'll write over him, or I will take the first pass and he’ll write back to me,” explains Dewey. “And then when we feel like it's in a decent shape, we'll start sharing it with our other small group of trusted cohorts who think about the reality of bringing it to life.”
The relationship between actor and ad man is more nuanced than student and master, despite Reynolds caveating a fair amount of his opinions with the fact he’s “still learning” the streets of ad land. Still, he knows enough to realize he’s in a pretty lucky position as a creative.
He’s the owner of his two biggest clients (Aviation Gin and Mint Mobile) and linked to much of the entertainment marketing work that comes through the door. That means there’s no painful pitching process, and no push back on budgets, which are still kept to Deadpool levels of modest.
“We don't have a tremendous amount of red tape to cut through,” says Reynolds. “[Maximum] is ostensibly very small. There isn't a lot of bureaucracy or bullshit that we need to get [through for] approvals.
“We just have the ability to be nimble and go. A lot of it's just about speed, more than anything.”
Speed is gathered from a number of places – Dewey and Reynolds’ ability to pull in last-minute favors being one. But perhaps the most salient is Maximum’s ambivalence when it comes to perfection.
Working under self-imposed deadlines and budgets under the $1m mark means expensive set builds are swapped out for local locations and scripts are whittled down to the bare bones of the ideas. At Maximum, achievability takes precedent over wildly elaborate creative.
“I think you have to have an ability or willingness to not be overly precious about everything,” reckons Reynolds. “You have to be comfortable with showing your mistakes and your triumphs.
“I mean, I've worked in movies with $150m budgets, and the problems are almost identical to movies with a $10m budget. There's never enough time and there's never enough money. And the movies I've worked on that have less or fewer resources at their disposal seem to be a little bit more creatively fulfilling just because you have to lean on character a little bit more than spectacle. I think the same may apply in the ad world.”
But now the company has what Reynolds would call an “uptown problem”: more work is coming in and the agency now is having to protect its endearing scrappiness as it grows.
The bosses recently split the company into the Maximum Effort Productions and Maximum Effort Marketing and are planning to hire a number of people for the latter. Rather than replicating the hierarchical models of his agency past, Dewey is doing all he can to build out an organization “so flat and so bold” that it’s able to continue turning around ideas in the space of days.
“We're very committed to creating an environment that is trust-based,” says Dewey. “I think a lot of organizations try to be ‘creative first’ and then reality – or clients, or something – gets in the way.
“[Being] trust-based is very important ... If you know the person you're working with has the mindset and the expertise and the commitment that you have, it's both liberating and invigorating.”
The partners are hiring from a wide pool of talent in a wide range of places. Unable and unwilling to call Maximum an agency or a studio or any other industry term, Dewey settles on “a cadre of creative people who work together but who don't necessarily have to work together in the physical world”.
Reynolds, meanwhile, is clearer on what he doesn’t want: “A bunch of clones that look like George and me. I would like people that have a wildly different perspective and are ready to share that.”
Maximum hopes its client list will become more diverse soon, too. Reynolds’ investment in wireless provider Mint Mobile was one step to balancing out the portfolio (“They have absolutely no relation on God's green earth, gin and telecom”) but now the company is readying to service more external brands.
The duo likes the sound of working with “underdog” companies, as well as pulling in more work from entertainment marketing. But Maximum’s also after the work of bigger companies, and it’s put itself in a sort of unique, creative training camp to get them.
“We do these thought experiments,” explains Reynolds. “Like, let’s throw up any kind of company and let's see how fast we can come up with an inventive and new marketing campaign that usurps expectation and is really fun.
“There's been a few of those where I thought, ‘Wow, if we were actually able to do that, it's almost worth pitching that company’. But we've yet to pull the trigger on those.”
“First and foremost, there has to be a good culture match,” says Dewey, mulling over his client list of the future. “Having spent 16 years in advertising, you run across a lot of people who just have lost some of the joy in what they do, and we don't want that.
“Part of the reason I think that our work is getting noticed is that there is a tremendous amount of joy that Ryan and I have just texting each other and coming up with the ideas.”
There are many things that are different about Maximum but it’s this – the palpable delight that Dewey and Reynolds get from working together – that’s the most unique.
Reynolds calls it the best working relationship of his 27-year career. Dewey, who’s worked with the greats at McCann and Twentieth Century Fox and even SpaceX, says being the president of Maximum is his dream job. And the output is nothing but a reflection of their love of nailing the zeitgeist to the wall together.
“A lot of the stuff that we're doing isn’t led by cynicism or snark,” says Reynolds. “It's led by joyfulness.
“We love the idea of bringing people together. We love having that kind of outlook as a company as well. So, it's been pretty fun. And think there's plenty of room for optimism in the world right now.”
Ryan Reynolds, Hollywood actor and literal sexiest man in the world, says he loves marketing. And when was the last time you heard someone say that?