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Sitting in late February sunshine in London, Mike Maguire is taking a break from editing a new commercial, reflecting upon his recent history of making people laugh. 

“Last year was a good area of where I like to operate in,” he says. “A little bit of absurdity, a little bit of dry humour, where you don’t necessarily see it coming.”

I owe everything in my life to advertising, I really do.

One of his favourites – a solid 10 on the absurd scale – is his ad for Fisherman’s Friend [below], (for Canadian agency Giants & Gentlemen), featuring a grizzled mariner telling a tall tale from the deck of his fishing boat, and a distinctly unrealistic Great White shark. Maguire felt instantly at home with the material. “I grew up on the water, catching bait fish for the local bait tackle shop,” he says. “When I saw the script of the old salt telling the story, and then the guy came in to casting… I was happy.”

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Fisherman's Friend – Fish Stories - Long Lost Brothers

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Fisherman's Friend – Fish Stories - Clown Fish

The fact that they only had the budget to use a basic shark head prop, then have the fisherman’s brothers flying out of its mouth, did not faze him. “The agency asked me: ‘will this work?’. I said: ‘Will it work? It’s fuckin’ perfect! We’ll get some mannequins, wire, and pull them out.’ And you make something look great from a shoestring budget.” 

Joe responded by charging him bed and board at home. “He says, ‘It’ll be $600 a month’. I say, ‘I could live in Manhattan for that.’ He says, ‘Well, what’s stopping ya?’

This enjoyably cartoonish ad is very Mike Maguire – arguably the sort of thing he is best known for. But he has many other strings to his bow. For instance, his recent spot for Washington Lottery is a good-looking petrolhead comedy – shot like an 80s John Hughes movie – where the boy-racer driver of a Lamborghini is also the pizza delivery man, living out his lottery win dream.    

Fallsview Casino – Moving Day

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For his campaign for Fallsview Casino, where the characters end up regretting not taking their chance to visit the resort, the dialogue was improvised. In Moving Day [above], Maguire says the most effective dialogue to emphasise his hapless hero’s misery was added during the edit, read by a couple of runners. “Fortune favours the prepared,” he says. “But in my career, it’s also a case of 'fortune favours the ability to be Irish and tell a good story'.” 

In the first week a couple of coupon ads came through, and Tom says: ‘I think these could be funny’. I thought, this kid is on my level. For the next 12 years we were thick as thieves.

This 49-year-old New Yorker certainly tells a good story. Spending a couple of hours in his company is to be regaled with fascinating yarns from his life and career. The son of a New York fireman and school bus driver, he grew up in a solidly Irish American community in Long Island. He was surrounded, he says, by some very funny people. “If people in my high school had discovered commercial directing I wouldn’t have stood a chance.” 

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Rold Gold – Rainbow

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Go Daddy – Your Big Idea

That wisecracking Irish-American wit has manifested itself in all sorts of ways. Maguire is among a generation of comedy directors who popularised a new level of cartoonish buffoonery in American advertising a decade or so ago. It is best expressed recently in his work for pretzel brand Rold Gold [above], and Go Daddy, where the characters range from merely unsympathetic to outrageously obnoxious, resulting in very funny commercials.

Then there is more cinematic comedy, with ads like IKEA’s Time For Change, where a couple updating their outdoor furniture come under attack from their own garden gnomes; or Cobra Beer’s The Boss [below], with an absurd concept wrapped in James Bond-style production values; and for the post-apocalyptic scenario of Hyundai’s Chop Shop, the sharp comedy comes from deadpan dialogue and performance.

Cobra – Cobra: The Boss

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Maguire says that his greatest comedy inspiration has been Mel Brooks. “Anything he touched - Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Silent Movie… It was so outlandish, but so smart, and it always looked good. I think, whether I knew it or not, I’ve tried to emulate that formula.” 

Maguire is also an adman to his bootstraps. “I owe everything in my life to advertising, I really do,” he says. And it took considerable tenacity and chutzpah just to get through the door in the first place.

Some of the things we got up to, you’d never be able to get away with it now.

After college, unable to decide what career he wanted, at his father Joe’s suggestion, he took the fireman’s test and “aced it”. But he quit the academy after just one day. When he told Joe about it, along with his intention of trying to break into advertising, Joe responded by charging him bed and board at home. “He says, ‘It’ll be $600 a month’. I say, ‘I could live in Manhattan for that.’ He says, ‘Well, what’s stopping ya?’”

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A year or so later, having turned an unpaid internship into a junior job in traffic at a New York agency, and having signed up for classes at School of Visual Arts, his first key moment was sending his SVA portfolio to the bosses of his favourite agencies with a memorable cover letter, employing what he calls “the law of 3s in comedy". He placed two sets of photos of famous agency founders with their sons, who also happened to be the creative heads at their agencies: David Deutsch, Founder, and Danny Deutsch, Executive Creative Director; and Joe Bacall, Founder, and Jay Bacall, ECD. 

Every notion you have of raising a son is gone – his first date, throwing a ball, coming for advice. It’s almost like a mourning period.

“Then I wrote: ‘Joe Maguire – fireman. Mike Maguire – shit out of luck’. Then I added: ‘Some guys have all the luck. The rest of us have portfolios'.” 

It certainly got him noticed. Of several job offers that followed, he took the one he wanted, at Kirshenbaum & Bond, a creative powerhouse in US advertising in the 90s, to become a junior copywriter – and took a pay cut in the process. Later he was introduced to Tom Kuntz, an art director who had just joined from JWT, and they were put together.

MTV – Ben With Madonna (Thursday)

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Above: Mike Maguire; a life through a lens.


“In the first week a couple of coupon ads came through, and Tom says: ‘I think these could be funny’. I thought, this kid is on my level. For the next 12 years we were thick as thieves.”

Maguire and Kuntz  blazed a trail at K&B. Then they became writers at MTV, and finally they took off as a highly successful co-directing partnership. Their directing break came when they wrote an ad for Ben Stiller, who was hosting the MTV Video Music Awards that year, and Madonna [above]. When the usual director was unavailable they were drafted in to direct, with no previous experience. The result – where Stiller goes to Madonna’s house and thinks he’s invited for dinner, but then discovers he’s actually her babysitter – won a One Show Gold pencil.

“The day after, the phone was ringing off the hook,” he says. Kuntz and Maguire (as they became known) signed to Propaganda Films, and immediately started winning pitches for ads for Volkswagen, Mercedes, and more. Their irresistible progress in commercials was accompanied by a move into music videos, directing the brilliantly wacky clip for The Avalanches’ Frontier Psychiatrist, and outrageous clips for Detroit band Electric Six’s Danger High Voltage [below] and Gay Bar. Later they moved to MJZ.

Electric 6 – Danger! High Voltage (Music Video)

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“Some of the things we got up to, you’d never be able to get away with it now,” muses Maguire. “But it came from a good place. We loved advertising. And we loved each other, and the people we were working with.” But the partnership finally foundered on The Onion Movie, a sketch-style feature spun-off from the satirical website. Protracted in the making, it ended up a critical and commercial failure. “It just gutted me. I took Tom and David [Zander, boss of MJZ] aside and said. ‘If this is the fucking apex of directing, then I don’t know whether it’s for me'.”

Maguire’s subsequent sabbatical saw him move to Goodby Silverstein in San Francisco as Associate Creative Director. But after a few months he found himself solo directing for the first time, on a Goodby spot for Comcast Labs. “That came out and the production companies started calling again,” he says.

Creatives always want to do great work. I know how hard it is. 

For the past decade or so, Maguire has been solo directing, with ads for Fed Ex, Kellogg’s, Monster.com, Planet Fitness and more. But this heart-on-sleeve Irish-American reveals that it’s what has happened outside his professional life that has really defined him in this period. Five years ago, his son, Henry, was diagnosed with autism, which he admits hit him hard. “Every notion you have of raising a son is gone – his first date, throwing a ball, coming for advice. It’s almost like a mourning period.” And in terms of his directing he says he “went into survival mode”.

He recalls the father of another autistic boy taking him aside and saying: “Firstly, it’s going to get better. Secondly, at some point you’ll look back and think, ‘I wouldn’t change a thing’. And I was like: ‘I may be with you on the first one, but the second…?’”

Now, he says, 10-year-old Henry is doing great. “He plays piano, he surfs, he climbs. He’s gorgeous. He’s funny as fuck.” And Maguire is now involved in supporting other parents in LA with autistic children. “I act as a liaison for people who are just getting their diagnosis [at the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Institute, where he is also on the board of directors]. I’m their first point of contact and now I tell them, ‘it’s going to get better’.”

Smart comedy will always find a way. And, every-once-in-a-while, they allow me to do it.

The next hammer blow was his beloved dad Joe passing away a few years ago. But he says he started to get his mojo back when he hooked up with director Harold Einstein, who had opened Dummy as a small production outfit based in Venice. “[Harold is] probably the smartest guy I ever met in advertising. It was like having a mentor, even though he’s younger than me. After that we started doing work that I was proud of again.”

At Dummy no more, Maguire is now with Skunk in the US, and Outsider in the UK. And as he heads back to edit his ads for a new Nivea sunscreen product, for FCB Inferno in London, and shot in South Africa, he is both realistic and bullish about the future of advertising, and comedy.

“Creatives always want to do great work. I know how hard it is. Show me a focus group, I’ll show you a bunch of people who’ll tell you what’s on their mind. When they come head-to-head [with creative], it causes a reverberation on the process, and that can a bummer.

“But smart comedy will always find a way. And, every-once-in-a-while, they allow me to do it.”

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