On a Hollywood soundstage, Adam Lisagor walks an actor who looks like him through a set that looks like a living room. Sort of: The actor is a taller, skinnier doppelganger for the 33-year-old director, and the set, just a few modern pieces arrayed against bare walls, suggests less a living room than the Platonic ideal of one. The scene is slightly, stylishly unreal. At the moment, though, Lisagor isn't worrying about style. He's shooting a promo video for the streaming music service Rdio and wants the tone to be as real as he can make it. "You're going a little commercial," he softly chides the actor. "Take it down. Keep it dry."
Advertising takes place in half-worlds of its own devising, and this one is carefully crafted by Sandwich Video, which Lisagor runs out of his Los Angeles apartment. It has quietly, dryly become the premier producer of online product videos for web services and tech gadgets, cultivating a tone that perfectly reflects a generation of creators who are more interested in (or at least, more comfortable with) invention than hype.
It isn't anything Lisagor set out to do. In the spring of 2009, he was nine years out of the Tisch school at New York University, working as a commercial editor and nursing along an unprofitable un-career as an Internet celebrity (he's one-third of the podcast You Look Nice Today, which its creators call "a journal of emotional hygiene"). Lisagor and developer Cameron Hunt had made an iPhone app called Birdhouse. When it was about to hit the App Store, Lisagor realized it might be wise to promote it. So he set up in his backyard in Silver Lake and shot a two-minute promo video: simple, explanatory, and starring himself.
That should have been that. Then Genentech called, asking him to help it demo a new in-house app. " I was floored," Lisagor says. "I threw out a figure that was larger than any amount of money I'd ever made at once. And my contact said, 'Oh. I could probably just expense that on the credit card.' And I knew I'd made a huge mistake." Genentech was followed by Square, a new payment service started by Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey. Square led to Flipboard, Jawbone, Airbnb, and Groupon, among others—around 30 spots to date. Lisagor won't discuss revenue ("That would be uncouth," he deadpans, which is how he says most things), but he'll admit that production budgets have ballooned to 25 times what he had for that first Square video.
Adam Lisagor explains his company name
"I've always been fixated on the image of a person eating alone in a public place. It's so evocative—more so if the eater is on a park bench and even more so if the food being eaten is a sandwich. It's such a simple, delightful thing, the sandwich. The concept itself—incredibly efficient packaging to contain an infinite variety and combination of substance."
Video is a special word that takes on different nostalgic meaning depending on when you were raised. My generation tends to think of 'video' more as a tactile medium, with all its analog magnetic artifacts and imperfections. Today's generation thinks of video as synonymous with capturing a memory with an iPhone. And to call a production company 'Films' would be disingenuous. I don't intend to ever shoot on film."
His spare, formal visual style has remained consistent throughout. "I'm a big fan of symmetry," he says on the Rdio set, as he peers into a video monitor and positions his actor precisely dead center (Sandwich videos bear some stylistic similarity to the films of Wes Anderson, which Lisagor at once acknowledges and tries to bat away; he frets about being known simply as the guy whose stuff looks like Anderson's.) In this spot, Lisagor says, function follows form—the set's minimal, everywhere-and-nowhere look stands in for Rdio's clean design and anywhere-anytime functionality.
But his tone is his real strength. "I try to identify that thing in a product that matters most to me," Lisagor says. "I'll glom onto that element and try to recreate it in this linear story I'm telling." That calm, Billy Mays-free approach conveys an inherent trust. It assumes that the viewer is the kind of person smart enough to appreciate the product's value. That's exactly the kind of customer tech startups want, which does much to explain their love for him: Lisagor is sui generis—"the best and only one doing what he does," Dorsey says—and his promos blend "the aesthetics and techniques of advertising with the storytelling of an instructional video,"says Malthe Sigurdsson, Rdio VP of product design.
And as he helps small brands grow, he's profiting from their success. This summer, he shot his first spots for television, though he won't reveal the clients yet. The transition—from the sometimes-insular online world to the bigger, brasher universe of TV—might have been inevitable, but it still gives Lisagor pause. He's entering the land of oversell, after all, and he doesn't intend to change his voice to match. "It's going to be a brutal learning process," he says. "There's a crucial difference between doing these for the web and for TV. On the web, somebody's watching it because they were curious enough to click. On TV, you're always a disruption. You're a necessary evil, and all you can do is be the best necessary evil you can be."
A version of this article appeared in the September 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.