Mark Gross takes the Highdive into creating spots for Super Bowl LVI

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(Highdive Chief Creative Officer, Mark Gross)

We are now less than 100 days away from Super Bowl LVI. Seventy-five to be exact. While the first quarter of the Big Game has yet to be played, ad agencies, across the country, are in the fourth quarter of pre-production, or even production, for their showcase work.

From the Budweiser heydays of DDB to high-profile McDonald’s creative from Leo Burnett, Chicago has a great history of delivering commercials that rank high – or win – in USA Today’s Super Bowl Ad Meter. Carrying on the tradition of advertising that sells and entertains, is Highdive.

From the Emmy-nominated Bill Murray/Jeep spot to the hilarious Tracy Morgan/Rocket Mortgage campaign, the agency, created by former DDBers Mark Gross and Chad Broude, has a track record of generating fearless advertising that other creatives are jealous of. The agency roster boasts high-level brands such as JEEP, Nike, Maserati and Marriott.

Take an even deeper dive into the agency philosophy, and you’ll find that they adhere to the philosophies of Patrick Lencioni and Brené Brown, among others: Performance comes from maximizing both Productivity and Positivity.

With Super Bowl around the corner, we thought it was a good time to check in with Highdive Chief Creative Officer, Mark Gross, and see what the agency is cooking up.

Mark, for many agencies this is the last quarter for presenting their Super Bowl spots. How many rounds internally do you go through when you are creating something for say Rocket Mortgage or JEEP? After a client has seen it, how many more rounds do you go through before you finally settle on a spot?

It differs by client and project, but on average, we’ll have 3 to 4 internal reviews before presenting to a client. For every project, we start by looking at a tremendous amount of new work and then we spend countless hours honing and re-writing. It’s these initial rounds where a lot of the magic happens.

Between the first client presentation and heading into production, there are countless touchpoints and collaborations. During these rounds there’s much work to be done including honing the work, vetting celebrities, seeking a director and production partner and making final script changes.

What do you believe are the key ingredients for a successful Super Bowl spot? Everyone believes it’s humor but humor is subjective. On the game some are hit, others are miss.

We don’t believe an ad has to have humor, but history proves that it helps with likability. From our past successful Super Bowl experience we believe there is a list of ingredients that make for a winning ad:

  1. The obvious but often overlooked rule is keep it simple. Simplicity helps with clarity of message.
  2. Great storytelling makes a great ad. When it comes to novels, movies, plays, ads, people love being told a great story. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact. Simply Google it. “Listening to a good story lights up the same part of the brain as when one experiences pleasure. Stories therefore excite neurons that make dopamine. This affects emotions, movements and sensations of pleasure and pain.” 
  3. Surprise people by doing something that’s never been done before. Being original is paramount. 
  4. Make sure your idea is relatable. The story should be based on a great insight that viewers can relate to and identify with. Like a great story or joke, you want consumers to identify with your ad and say to themselves, “Ha, that’s so funny,  I’ve been there before, that’s me.”

How much pressure do you feel to deliver a huge spot for the Super Bowl after an Emmy nomination and having campaigns in the top 5 for the last few years?

No more pressure than we feel on a daily basis. Whether we’re pitching a new brand, trying to do award-winning work, placing number one on the Super Bowl, dealing with setbacks, staying culturally relevant, making sure employees are feeling challenged and happy or running the day-to-day business – it’s all a lot of pressure. That’s the advertising paradox: you must learn to tolerate the struggles in order to enjoy the successes.  

Tracy Morgan in Rocket Mortgage Super Bowl spot, 2021

Who is Highdive really? We don’t want surface BS. Who are you guys really? What scares you? What gets your engines going?

We can honestly say that we’re not bullshitters at Highdive so we won’t bullshit you. What scares us? Doing mediocre work. Every time we look at a blank page we’re scared. Simply attempting to do breakthrough work is scary.

But that’s the thrill of writing great ads; the fear that you’ll spend weeks coming up with something and in the end – it stinks. What gets us fired up? Winning. Winning pitches, winning by making our clients successful, winning by establishing a great reputation in the ad community, winning by making our employees happy and challenged, winning awards. We don’t do it for personal recognition or fame. We do it because we love making great work and helping those around us do the same. 

You most likely created a classic spot of the decade with the Bill Murray JEEP spot? Will you ever top it again?

Saying that we can’t one day top some of our best work would be giving up in a way, right? It might take us a few years, but we think we have a few more magic ads in us somewhere. Topping ourselves every year is certainly a motivator. But if 20 years from now we haven’t topped Groundhog Day, we’re okay with that. In some way it proves that it was a classic ad. 

Bill Murray in JEEP Super Bowl spot, 2020.

The late Cliff Freeman was a disciple of humor. And Cliff Freeman and Partners certainly had their brand of humor. What is Highdive a disciple of?

If your goal is to create great advertising you have to be a disciple of Bill Bernbach. His philosophies and style are still relevant today. One of his many quotes we love is: “In communications, familiarity breeds apathy.”

Do clients get in their own way, especially when it comes to the Super Bowl?

Honestly, we’ve experienced quite the opposite. When working on the Super Bowl our client and agency relationships have made the work better. Historically we’ve all been on the same page and have had the same goal – win the Super Bowl. Had we not had good collaboration we wouldn’t have been successful.

What is the Highdive creative process?

We don’t have a magic sauce. However, one thing that has helped our success is that Chad and I are very close to all of the work that comes out of Highdive. 

We also use the “swing harder philosophy”. We bring 10 ideas to the table instead of just one and partner with the client to nail down the best idea for the brand. A lot of great agencies have the “bring one idea” philosophy. We don’t. We bring a lot of ideas because we believe the client should have a larger part of the creative process. They live and breathe the brand all day, every day. By showing just one idea, you almost completely remove them from the process. 

Also, we’re always asking how we can make this better right up to the last minute before a creative presentation. The voice in our heads sounds like this: Is that funny enough? Does it need another line? What if we changed the ending? Is this on strategy? Is it simple enough? Is the song right? Can we trim the script here? Will people talk about this? Has it been done before? Will this make a good press headline?

Jason Momoa in Rocket Mortgage Super Bowl spot, 2020

Would you let your kids into advertising as it is today? Or when you first started?

Absolutely. Advertising has so many opportunities to grow and develop a long-lasting career. While hard, it’s incredibly fun. You get to work with creative, smart, talented people. You’re constantly challenged. You get to be creative and solve hard problems. You can positively influence people’s lives. Advertising will never die and it’s still a pronominal way to earn a living. What else would you rather do, neurosurgery? Don’t answer that.  

How do you choose which creative team to work on a project?

Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses so often it’s matching the right talent with the right project. At Highdive we’ve done a great job of hiring multi-talented creatives that can do many things well. This way we’re able to allow all of our creatives to work on multiple brands and various projects.


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There are a ton of advertising awards within the industry, but with so many creative people does it become frustrating that the general public doesn’t recognize who does what?

That’s why we love doing well in the Super Bowl or being nominated for an Emmy. It’s a thrill to know that our work is being appreciated outside of our insular industry. It is unfortunate that talented creatives are for the most part, unrecognized artists. If you want fame, you have to leave the ad game and choose another creative field like James Patterson or Steve Levitan.


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Shriekfest


Colin Costello is the West Coast Editor of Reel 360. Contact him at colin@reel360.com or follow him on Twitter at @colinthewriter1

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