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“It was the end of 2017, coming into 2018,” explains Dan Mace from his office in Cape Town, “and that’s when I walked away. I decided I’d just had enough with advertising.”

THE END.

Actually, no, that’s not true at all. In many ways, that was the beginning.

I took the money I earned from [starring in] the commercial and I started making my own films.

If you ever dip your toe into the deep waters of YouTube then the chances are you’ll recognise the name Dan Mace. Or, if not the name, then maybe the films, because Mace is one of YouTube’s biggest (and getting bigger) content creators, with almost 730K subscribers.

Above: Dan Mace.


His videos are, like many on the platform, mainly to-camera pieces that cover elements of his life, his thoughts and the world around him. But unlike many other channels on YouTube, Mace’s skill as a director shines through and his videos are inventive, imaginative and skilfully produced.

He has just launched a new series on his channel which aims to rewrite the rules of what you can do on a video-based social media platform (more of which later), but how did Mace’s disaffection with the world of advertising lead to him becoming a social media star? To answer that we would need to go past the aforementioned beginning to what could narratively be described as the prologue.

I went out there with the intention of surfing and I spent most of my time on land, shooting.

Born in in South Africa, Mace picked up a video camera and started experimenting with it in his mid-teens after starring in a McDonald’s commercial and deciding that a life behind the lens would be more his thing. “I saw everybody working and I thought, ‘oh my God, that’s so much better than being in front of the camera’,” he says, “that’s exactly what I want to do. So, I took the money I earned from the commercial and I started making my own films, little music videos for people and stuff like that.”

McDonald's – McDonald's

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Above: Mace's introduction to commercials was as an actor in a South African McDonald's spot. 


Tube hopping

Filmmaking wasn’t the only hobby he had at that age though. He was – and still is – a dedicated surfer and at that time was sponsored by surf wear brand O’Neill, who asked him if he would be keen on making a documentary in Madagascar. “I went out there with the intention of surfing,” he says, “and I spent most of my time on land, shooting.”

Mace continued making surfing films for a while but used them to start building his own style and approach to the process. “I knew people would watch the films purely because of the surfing,” he says, “so I took the first two minutes or so for myself to create an intro. From that I started to get hungrier to develop a narrative, and starting thinking that maybe I was good enough to move on and try to tell different stories.”

I did... some really great stuff, some really terrible stuff. But the more I did, the more I started hating myself and I think it came down to the fact that I just wanted to do something more creative.

Before that though, was an interlude which saw Mace become one of the go-to guys for videoing events and parties. He says that, as much as anything, it was to feed his early-20s desire for a good night out, and was a great way to get a free ticket. His drinking over this period, and for a few years after, became a distraction, something he addresses in a video in 2018 (he’s now tee-total), but once he was able to concentrate his mind and body on the task at hand, his goal to become a director came back into focus and, in 2013 he started his own YouTube channel.

From feast to ad fatigue

His first video, entitled Press Play, Smile [below], which Mace says he’s embarrassed by now, but which he’s kept it on his channel, was about happiness and appreciation over negativity and resentment and is a pre-cursor to the type of content he still produces. The video got widely shared and that led to other offers and opportunities such as a documentary project for CNN. Then, in 2016 he picked up two silver awards at the Young Director Award which led to representation by South African production company Groundglass.

Janette [de Villiers, Groundglass’ founder] brought me in,” explains Mace, “and I had no idea about this world [advertising]. I didn’t accept Janette’s offer at first but then a friend who worked at BBDO in Jo’burg reached out to say that he had a project for [lager brand] Tusker which, if I helped him with beforehand, he’d single bid me the job.”

The ad [below] was a success and Mace threw himself into the business, working with de Villiers at Groundglass. “We did a lot of travelling, a big marketing push,” he explains “and then I was getting a lot of different offers.” 

I think directors on set shout a lot and often seem angry because they’re just trying to hold onto the little things that mattered to them from the idea in the first place.

Egg Films, another prominent South African production company, approached Mace and after garnering advice, he left Groundglass for there. “I know that’s a terrible thing to do to Janette,” he says, “but I went off and I joined Egg. “I did about eight ads there; some really great stuff, some really terrible stuff. But the more I did, the more I started hating myself and I think it came down to the fact that I just wanted to do something more creative.”

Tusker: Here's to the Us in Every Tusker

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Above: Mace's spot for Tusker.


Holding on to what matters

Mace describes a feeling, all too familiar with directors, of being worn down by the gradual erosion of a creative idea. “The whole process of being excited about an idea, then having to wait, then pitch, then lose, or win, then having most of what excited you about the idea stripped away, then having the budget slashed. I think directors on set shout a lot and often seem angry because they’re just trying to hold onto the little things that mattered to them from the idea in the first place.”

I knew that I wanted to grow my channel, and working alongside Casey [Neistat] would equal huge growth, as well as grow my understanding of YouTube.

“I’m not a hater on advertising,” he insists. “I don’t hate brands. We need brands. Where I am right now, on YouTube, we rely on brands in order to create films and keep going. But there’s so much red tape, so much structure… there’s just too much going on and it broke me to the point where I got up and left. I had no plan. That was the end of 2016.

And so, we come back to the beginning. In the ad world Mace was constantly wrestling with a sense of imposter syndrome, oscillating between being a great director who was winning work and making that work successfully, and a terrible director who was unemployed or making creatively empty spots. “The entire time, it’s confusing, and that’s why I fell for YouTube, because your responses are there, direct from the people who watch your work.”

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Above: Dan Mace, and some of the coverage he received from his Young Director Award win in 2016.


From SA to NYC and back again, bru

In January 2018 Mace decided to dedicate his time and his career to YouTube and at that point enlisted the help of one of YouTube’s biggest stars, Casey Neistat. Neistat, who has over 11 million subscribers to his YouTube channel, had contacted Mace previously after admiring his work, and had offered help if Mace ever decided to commit to YouTube fully. 

“I knew that I wanted to grow my channel,” says Mace, “and working alongside Casey would equal huge growth, as well as grow my understanding of YouTube and how to finish shit quickly. Casey’s got very rigid daily deadlines and he was very quickly able to teach me how to get rid of my good ideas to make space for the great ones.”

Mace moved to New York on April 1 of 2018 and began working with Neistat on his channel and the launch of his new company, 368, helping to make over 100 daily videos; “I’ve never been through an undertaking like that before,” he says.

It must be easier strapping 50 Go-Pros to yourself and trying to enter North Korea than it is trying to get an O1 visa.

Neistat soon encouraged Mace to start making videos for his own channel again, and from there his subscriber numbers quickly ballooned from 100K to 700K. However, a bump in the road appeared when, after a trip to Ireland in late 2018 Mace was stopped from re-entering the US due to an issue with his visa.

“I had to come back to South Africa and put a hold on all these plans I had,” he says. “Walking away from that was really hard but I knew that I didn’t want to let the dream die.” After an acrimonious falling out with Groundglass’s Janette de Villers, Mace and she made up [which he documented in another of his videos, below] and he established a space in de Villiers’ backyard called Bru Headquarters [Bru is a multi-purpose South African term of endearment, much like ‘mate’ in the UK, that Mace has used as the foundation of an online community] where he worked on his channel. 

After a long struggle Mace has now rectified his US visa situation (“It must be easier strapping 50 Go-Pros to yourself and trying to enter North Korea than it is trying to get an O1 visa”) and in the recent past has worked on brand videos with partners such as Adobe to create interesting and sometimes introspective content that serves his channel as much as the brand, but which create a revenue stream he’s now ploughing into what he refers to as Season Two.

Dan Mace – Mine Sniffing Rats

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Above: One of the films for which Mace won a Silver Screen award at the YDA in 2016.


The new Not Normal

Season Two sees the launch of a show called Not Normal [below] and is a bold new undertaking on his channel in which he aims to ramp up the collaborative relationship between YouTube creators and viewers. He has invited people from across the globe to plant ‘seeds’ (ideas) on a special site and, for the ones which Mace finds compelling, he’ll fly to where that person is and help them make their idea a reality within a week.

The show has two brand sponsors and Mace hopes to attract more in the future if the show is a success. “It’s such an interesting thing,” he says, “because we’re essentially trying to do something that would usually be on a TV network, but I love being in this position, where I have the ability to throw everything against the wall to see what sticks. It’s better than having to throw someone else’s shit against the wall.”

The time that we’re  in right now, it’s very much at the beginning of this content revolution, but we need now to  differentiate between what’s good and what’s terrible content.

When asked if he thinks brands will continue to gravitate towards content like his, and other social media content creators, he gives a rueful laugh; “I think, when people use the word ‘content’, they’re looking at viewers like these little, hungry monsters. Like they constantly  want to be fed content, regardless of how stupid or how creative. And brands just cut [existing, traditional commercials] down a million times to make the worst fucking content you’ve ever seen. But to them it’s still content, and it’s feeding people. The time that we’re  in right now, it’s very much at the beginning of this content revolution, but we need now to  differentiate between what’s good and what’s terrible content.”

It just didn’t make any sense to go and do something that I didn’t want to do. I’ve made it pretty clear to everybody that advertising isn’t my interest right now.

Mace plans to move to Los Angeles after Season Two wraps in September, where, as well as continuing to work on his YouTube channel, he will be writing a feature. As for the more traditional world of advertising, Mace hasn’t ruled anything out, but his focus is currently on his channel and the Not Normal show. 

“I mean,” he concludes, “it just didn’t make any sense to go and do something that I didn’t want to do. I’m still repped for commercials, and I get a board or two, but I’ve made it pretty clear to everybody that advertising isn’t my interest right now.”

You can see more of Mace's videos on his YouTube channel.

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