When Seth Epstein and Dexton Deboree set out to buy waning Los Angeles–based design company Stardust, they hardly knew each other and they had only 24 hours in which to pull off the purchase. At the twelfth hour, the deal appeared to be falling apart, so they took a leap. And they ended up buying not only the Los Angeles office, but also the New York annex. There were no endless meetings, mapping out pros and cons. No itemized lists of financials and year-over-year numbers. They didn’t have the assurance of years of working together, seeing each other through fat times and thin. Hardly a recipe for success.
Although both had been working off and on as freelancers for Stardust, they’d collaborated on only one or two projects—Deboree as executive producer/managing director and Epstein as creative director. But that was the extent of their relationship. When Stardust began to falter and was in danger of closing, Deboree and Epstein decided to try to buy it. “There’s the way you think it’s supposed to go, and then there’s the way it goes,” Epstein says with a laugh. “Dex and I had to come together and align within 24 hours. When the whole thing was going to collapse, we made it happen in a way that was magical and unpredictable. We got to work, and we couldn’t overanalyze it. We have this thing now. We had both been around a fair amount of time. We got together for 30 days after work and started the envisioning process.”
“While it was a really big risk, I think the alternative was as much of a risk and downside as well,” says Deboree. “We realized, wait a second. The model of traditional advertising is so broken down. We wanted to start something from scratch. A brand called Ahnu contacted us and said, ‘We don’t have any money, but we have a great brand. We need something from soup to nuts. Do you think you can do that?’ And that was the spark. It was our first ‘aha’ moment when we did a project taking a new kind of lean approach.”
Now, more than four years in, Los York is thriving, having transformed the Stardust discipline from design to content generation and execution, using practices as impulsive and intuitive as the firm’s beginnings. Stocked with creatives, producers and a roster of directors, its method is a paradigm that’s working. One big switch from the traditional: for a company whose clients include Apple, BMW, Nike/Jordan, Samsung, Sonos, Wilson Sporting Goods Company and ad agencies, Los York has surprisingly few layers of personnel. Like none.
Still based in Los Angeles and New York (hence the name, although that’s not the whole story), Los York’s staffers hold hyphenated titles: senior account director–executive producer. Creative director–director of photography–editor. They run lean, fast and often without exact parameters for a project, which will usually be seen on TV and in digital and social spaces. “A traditional ad agency is like a Navy warship. Tons of people, hard to turn,” Epstein says. “We’re the Navy SEALS. We need it done, we need it done quietly and we need to know it will work. We really get to the heart of it.” The agency does 80 percent of its projects directly with clients, and 20 percent through ad agencies.
Back to the name: “Los York” has more meaning than just the two cities it resides in. “Seth and I had this idea that creative has its own ZIP code,” Deboree explains. “So we started batting this idea back and forth: Instead of it being that we physically have an office in Los Angeles and New York, what if, as a creative, you’re a citizen of a creative world, you’re part of a community? Global nomads for the arts. The dimension where great ideas arrive.”
When Nike’s Jordan Brand first reached out to Los York, Deboree seemed a perfect fit to concept and direct. In this world of hyphenates, he’s a heady one: jock-producer-director-filmmaker-poet. Who better to understand the science and art of the highly gifted athlete? Michael Jordan, also a hyphenate, epitomized the athlete-entrepreneur. The huge hit Air Jordan had debuted in 1984. Not one to simply lend his famous handle, Jordan was vocal about the design of the shoe and its subsequent variations. In late 1997, Nike officially launched the Jordan Brand.
Right from the start, Deboree and the brand melded. “I was in a Jordan [Brand] meeting,” he recalls, “and they asked me to stay afterward. They wanted to know if I would write a short film about Jordan and Bugs Bunny. Why they asked me is completely bizarre. They had no idea that I spent all of my time off writing, that before I directed, I had worked as a producer as my day job, but what I really wanted to do was write and make films.”
Back when Deboree was a journalist, he wrote day and night—paycheck by day and his own work by night. “All that writing was too much,” he says. “I wanted to focus only on my own stuff. So I looked for a job in production. A friend got me into Rock Paper Scissors as a production assistant. I got to see the work of David Fincher, Spike Jonze—there was this creative force, and I could feel it. They wanted me to be an editor. I talked them into letting me produce. I wanted to learn how to produce my own writing.”
So this request from Jordan was welcome—but also scary. “They told me what they were thinking, what they wanted the short to do, and I left for my plane home. By the time I landed, I had the script. I sent it, and they liked it. It was called ‘Hare Jordan.’ Three months later, they asked me to come to a recording session at Warner Brothers. I got there and found out I was supposed to direct the talent for the script I had written.” So besides writing and directing digital films and social and experiential projects for Jordan Brand and Los York’s other clients, Deboree was now co-directing a full-length documentary he wrote, partnering with Nike and the Jordan Brand.
As Jordan Brand’s global director of advertising, Desmond Marzette has worked with Los York for three years. “It was already agency of record for digital. Right away, I saw [the team’s] agility. I consider them collaborative partners. They’re able to quickly consume a brief, ideate and pick up a camera. They work in about a third of the time as other agencies, and they do it enthusiastically and professionally.”
One of Los York’s earliest projects came from WeChat, the text- and voice-messaging app headquartered in China. “They came to us and said, ‘We have a product and a soccer star,’” Epstein remembers. “Any time companies like this want to introduce a new product, they think they should show people the number of pixels and the type of processors. But, in fact, the majority are buying a brand because they want to belong to the tribe.”
So Los York used the app to showcase personal aspects of the lives of two celebrity soccer players, Brazilian Neymar da Silva Santos Jr. (known as Neymar) and Argentinian Lionel Messi, both of whom play for Barcelona. The WeChat campaigns, directed by Epstein, showed Neymar talking about signing a contract with Barcelona and being halfway around the world from his friends, and Messi’s campaign was about his newborn.
The results were two soccer stars having genial, fun interactions on the international text and call platform. They were, at once, relevant and engaging—and all the while, they delivered straight-up product demos.
Epstein, who had worked in traditional advertising and had founded the motion graphics company FUEL, had never directed celebrity athletes. He sought advice from a photographer friend known for working with luminaries. “He said, ‘First of all, they’re there to do a job,’” Epstein remembers. “‘Time is always short, and they want to know that you know what you’re doing. Introduce yourself with “What time do you need to leave? I will get you out of here on time.”’ And something I’ve noticed in working with all the athletes I’ve worked with—they relish pushing it. They have this work ethic of thriving when they’re called to do what they do. We love to surround ourselves with people like them, people who are world class.”
Many projects at Los York have moving finish lines. A job might come in as a social campaign, but by the time the Los York team conceives and envisions what could happen, the job has expanded to a digital film, an experiential installation and who knows what else. Group account director and executive producer Susan Lee, who heads up Los York’s New York office, explains, “Budgets need to be split up all different ways. The budget has to be smaller, but the creative still has to be amazing. Everything’s changing. Now, with all the ways people are digesting content, the model has changed completely.”
“In the fall, we did a campaign for Tictail, a Swedish e-commerce platform,” adds Adam Flanagan, creative director in the New York office. “We shot in New York, Paris and Stockholm. Tictail wanted to do a lot with the budget. Here’s where Los York really works. We were able to create a campaign and do a lot more than a traditional agency.”
“Our clients are a broad range,” says creative director Serge Kirsanov, also at the New York office “But the ask is always: ‘Can you expand this into social, experiential? What else can you do to the idea to make it more relevant in the culture?’ So we ask ourselves: How do we investigate and elevate the brand? Our ideas are not going to be constrained by boundaries. Our clients understand that, and they expect it. We are all aligned in our taste and what we want to make. We’re constantly learning. Everything is a learning process for us. I think that’s how we stay young.” ca