STORYTELLERS INTERVIEW NO.10: JOHNNIE SEMERAD

October 30th, 2017
Johnnie Semerad, founder and Creative Director of Quietman, has helped to craft the vision of top-level brands such as Pepsi, GE, FedEx, Fox Sports, the NBA and HBO, to name a few.  With roots as a Flame-based, high-end visual effects company, Johnnie and long-time collaborator EP Carey Gattyan have evolved Quietman to become a high-end, full-service creative boutique. Now twenty-two years (and countless Super Bowl spots) later, Quietman is known coast-to-coast as a quietly confident collective with a trophy case in danger of collapsing. Here’s our interview with the Quietman himself.

Hey Johnnie. Please walk us through the founding of Quietman.

Johnnie: It started as just me and a Flame. I subleased the room where they kept the ping pong table at Crew Cuts and made it my Flame room. We had 6 weeks of work right off the bat. Advertising legend/director Joe Pytka “discovered” me while working on an NBA Finals Pepsi spot featuring Shaquille O’Neal.

Pytka had shot Shaq running from right to left. He wanted to flip the shot to have him running left to right, but then his number would be backwards. The people he originally awarded the job said they couldn’t do it, but I knocked it out in 4 hours.

YouTube Preview Image

Johnnie: That was the beginning of a great relationship with Pytka. It started with The Beatles “Free As A Bird” music video. That was one of those down-to-the-wire jobs, we finished it minutes before it aired on ABC. The rest of that year we ended up doing 6 spots, including a Super Bowl spot. So after being open only 6 months, we won 2 Clios and a Grammy.

When did you know you had found your “calling”?

Johnnie: I went to Pratt as a fine arts major and my scholarship required me to find an internship. I went to Charlex in New York on a super busy day and they hired me on the spot, and I stayed for 10 years.

I started compositing on the Paintbox. That’s rudimentary now, but at the time it was state of the art. I transitioned from Paintbox to Henry to Harry to Flame. When I met the Flame, I knew that was the one for me.

Johnnie during the Charlex-era

Your mentors, or the people that most inspired you, did they come from the art side or the business side?

Johnnie: Charles and Ray Eames always inspired me. They didn’t just do one thing, Charles Eames was always evolving himself and his company as an artist.

That progression is something I’ve always tried to instill at Quietman. Quietman was a great idea 22 years ago, but it has to be a new idea every 6 months. I believe you constantly need to reinvest and reinvent.

When we started, we were super specialized, we did FX on Super Bowl spots. Creatively, it’s great but from a business point of view, it limits things to 3 months a year. It’s like owning a Halloween or a Christmas store.

Ha! So how many Super Bowl spots has Quietman worked on to date?

Johnnie: I stopped counting at 150. In our 22 years of being open, we’ve never gone a year without having at least one spot air on Super Bowl Sunday. And it’s still exciting to work on them, it’s the ultimate commercial.

YouTube Preview Image

So from the origin of Quietman to now – what’s changed?

Johnnie: When Quietman started, there was virtually no New York-based competition. We’ve had to evolve as more competition has come in. Since we added live action to our offering in 2007, we’ve been able to take on 360 campaigns. We’re constantly trying to upgrade our directors, and build artists that can handle the broadcast, print, social, the whole campaign. One continuous message is always more successful.

How do you feel about the requirement for a brand to create share-worthy content for social media?

Johnnie: I love the freedom that comes with working on social media content. The challenge of how to emotionally engage across Instagram, Facebook, or just an image, and have that message be unified across all the different platforms… there’s less restrictions, you can be a bit wackier.

It’s obvious that you and Carey have a yin-yang balance to your creative/business dynamic.

Johnnie: Artists need practical, normal people on the team to coax us out of hiding. I’ve always said, “Don’t ask me to be reasonable.” Carey is my anchor to reality. She’s my editor, personally and creatively – she listens to my 20 bad ideas to get to my one good idea.

Carey Gattyan [Quietman EP/Partner]: If there is a seedling of an idea, Johnnie will be one of the first people to pursue it with whatever new technology is emerging.

Johnnie had one of the first 3D printers ever made. We worked on a Beneful campaign that featured a Rube Goldberg machine with dogs and Beneful products. Johnnie printed out the props to pre-viz the entire spot with the 3D department so that it went off without a hitch.

Johnnie: I was just doing my job as a Creative Director. Whatever I’m working on, it’s my job to make that brand famous.

When a client walks through the door, they know you and Carey have their back…

Johnnie: That’s been a conscious decision. Most production companies you don’t know who owns or runs it, but here the buck stops at Carey and me.

Carey: There’s no B-team. We’ve kept the community spirit and that sense of loyalty to do the best job for the brand. And a lot of people respond to that.

Johnnie: And simply put, commercials and campaigns are what we’re really good at. We’re high-end artisans…We’re not the McDonald’s of VFX, we’re the Spago of VFX.

Carey & Johnnie