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So You Want My Job? Creative director Casey McGrath on mixing whiskey with Kings of Leon

Night After Night’s chief creative officer Casey McGrath discusses advice and pifalls

Welcome to So You Want My Job? Each week, we ask the people working in some of the industry’s coolest jobs about how they got where they are. And, along the way, we dig into their philosophies, inspirations, processes and experiences.

Sit back and get inspired to pursue (or create) a job that’s just as exciting, a cornerstone of our bi-monthly newsletter (Working it Out) which maps the trends in the wider jobs market.

This week we speak to Night After Night’s chief creative officer Casey McGrath. As well as working with brands like Jameson Irish Whiskey, he is the creative director of rock band Kings of Leon.

What did you want to be when you growing up?

Movies and TV. Before I knew what a director or producer was, I knew I wanted to get in that box on the floor in the living room. I still have that obsession. As a kid, I watched everything from Days of Our Lives every day with my mom, to I Love Lucy and All in the Family reruns to all the classic films on TCM and everything in between. I loved it all.

We encounter many celebrities in our work, and the only time I was ever star-struck was when we interviewed Norman Lear for some Yahoo! project. I didn’t know it when I was a kid, but I guess I wanted to be him, or maybe Ron Howard, when I grew up. The way kids are now with video games or some people are with sports is me with TV and the movies. I still want in.

My job is adjacent to that industry. I did go to film school. I am a director. I will be on set next week. So, yes, it resembles it in a way. But, I would not say what I do, is what was in that kid’s mind’s eye.

How did you get your job? Would you do anything differently if you had a second chance?

I’ve never taken the usual route. My crooked path begins with school. I did a post-graduate year of high school, mainly to pull my shit together before going into college’s temptations and workload. I did well there and I got into a good school. I learned what focus and hard work could do, and then, when I got to college, I almost immediately dropped out. I’ve just always had a hard time with school.

I took a two-month film workshop in New York. It was a crash course style thing, requiring very long hours and tedious work, and I loved it. I stayed in the city for a while after that, bartending in some of the real hot spots in NYC nightlife at the time. I was a great bartender, and the money was very good. I came close to being pulled into the vortex of that world, but somehow, I stuck to the plan and moved to Vancouver for film school. This time school worked; I excelled and finished.

I returned to New York and worked as a PA in both the art and camera departments for TV commercials. Back then, there was still a ‘start in the mailroom’ approach to climbing the ladder and earning your way. I did it that way, it’s the best way, but those days are over. Before I knew it, I made the big time and was directing deodorant and kitty litter commercials. It actually wasn’t bad. Those productions were four times bigger than the majority of what we shoot today.

Eventually, I found my way into live music production and began working the festival circuit – Bonnaroo, ACL, Lollapalooza. I met my business partners there; we started our own production company and within a couple of years, we produced those concert films.

So... now I owned a production company, and that was it, I did it. Let‘s start making TV; mission accomplished. But, not quite.

We did make some TV, but then the world changed. YouTube came in and altered what ‘content’ meant. The places where the money came from moved. Brands quickly became a place where we were finding the best budgets. Marketing folks at those brands were the ones that told us we understood the role of branded content better than their agency.

Slowly but surely, we started to go direct to the clients. We began to hire people from the agency space – account people, strategists, art and copy teams. We were swept up in a current: the world was changing the way it entertained itself, and we woke up one day on the brand-driven side of things. We entered into the agency space through the side door because our production instincts could solve problems traditional agencies could not.

Today, ‘content’ is advertising and, while we are still young (clears throat), we are also the guys that were there in the beginning, and in many ways, were architects of the space.

So, we built a production company, and now I very much work in marketing, and many days are filled with things like writing brand strategy. Fun fact: marketing was my major in that college I barely went to. The joke is either on me or the system, but either way, it’s pretty funny. The brand world and the film and television world are still circling and sniffing each other and the lines continue to blur.

I still tell myself I’m in control of my unusual journey towards my Ron Howard dreams.

Ok, so what do you actually do? How would you explain your job to a taxi driver?

I still tell taxi drivers I work in production. I’ve never told someone I work in advertising. I actually love advertising, but I loved the the golden ‘Mikey likes it’ age; I am sad I missed that. I think that may have been my true calling, and it seems like the hours were manageable, and the money was great. While I would never say this to a cabbie – we connect brands to consumers through shared values campaigns. We don’t sell you a product you’ll like; we help you find a brand to join and to love.

Do your parents understand your job?

I actually think they do. They will go to a Kings of Leon live show I conceived and brought to life as an experience to help consumers connect more deeply with the ‘brand’ on stage. At that moment, I’ve taken my passion for music and film and my job of helping brands connect with fans and put it all together in an arena for them to see. They understand that. So, yes, they understand what I do.

What do you love most about your job?

I love that we’ve created a place where people let me do really important things that I technically don’t know how to do. It can be exhilarating.

When you look under the hood, it is pretty shocking how little variation there is and how uninspired these ‘creative’ fields are. I love it when people discover that we don’t have that lousy golf swing to unlearn; when they put their trust in our new model and ways of thinking and see their brands come back to life.

I love being the best at something, and Night After Night is the best at what we do. Our industry outsider lens is what’s needed right now, and I am thankful, in this crazy time, that I am left here feeling like our best days are ahead.

How would someone entering the industry go about getting your job now?

You can find your way to Night After Night through working in the music business, through production, through PR, through comedy writing, through an Ivy League MBA education, through art school… we have all those people at the company, and all of them do what I do for a living.

The only way to do what I do is to work where I work, and you can get here almost any way you choose. There is nothing we enjoy more than repurposing someone’s skills to solve a challenge in a new way.

What advice would you offer to others entering the advertising industry?

There is no substitute for experience, so just start working. Find good people and be nice to everyone because (well, you should). Anyone can shoot up the ranks overnight these days.

The industry also has a culture of hopping from agency to agency. It’s a weird game that prioritizes things like your job title and what rate you can demand etc.

Avoid those places and find somewhere with an exciting vision that you can contribute to and grow with over the long term. I think that’s the best way to find fulfillment in a business like this.

What would you say is the trait that best suits you for your role.

I always ask people if they have worked in a restaurant, on a set, or in live events – places where things are hectic, stakes are high and problems are unforeseeable and need to be fixed immediately. If you have the temperament and ‘multi-tasking’ instincts for those jobs – you’ll be fine.

Who should those who want your job read or listen to?

Interesting people, preferably at a bar and the later at night, the better. I have collected a truly incredible and eccentric cast of characters that I surround myself with from all walks of life. I can find any answer I will ever need in their stories if I listen closely and stay awake long enough to get to the good parts.

Last week we quizzed Rod Sobral global chief creative officer at Oliver about his route.

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