Becoming A Creative Polymath: How A Commercials Company Conquered Broadway

The much-discussed notion of creative convergence is a reality for Smuggler, the commercials production company that produced the Tony-winning show Once.

Becoming A Creative Polymath: How A Commercials Company Conquered Broadway

They didn’t even like musicals. But that didn’t stop Patrick Milling-Smith and Brian Carmody from producing the Tony-winning juggernaut called Once.


Ten years after starting commercials production company Smuggler, the two have expanded the creative scope of their business beyond advertising work for Nike, Honda, Puma and other global brands and into the realms of film and theater. The shop’s first musical–based on the Academy Award-winning film–nabbed eight Tonys last month and is getting set to launch internationally in Toronto, London and Ireland next year.

Brian Carmody and Patrick Milling-Smith. Photo: Brian Jackson

“We didn’t want to ruin this great film by doing a big jazz hands New York musical that we’d all be a little embarrassed about,” says Milling-Smith. “We’re not rushing out to see Mamma Mia or whatever else. There’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just never been our thing. So we wanted to make this an acoustic show and work to keep the authenticity of this little Irish film intact.”

The boards of Broadway seem a creative universe away from the world of advertising, where Smuggler is an established, and awarded, player. The company is a perennial presence at ad awards shows like the Cannes Lions, which has twice awarded Smuggler production company of the year honors. Its advertising hits have included the Etrade Baby, Burger King’s “Whopper Freakout” and Starburst’s inimitable dancing lad. So how does a company known for these brand creations (and for spray-painting Air Force One), break into an exclusive club like Broadway? According to Milling-Smith it all stems from the company’s ongoing battle with boredom.

“We’re constantly asking what we can do to make our jobs more interesting,” says Milling-Smith. “From trying things like the online shopping channel Honeyshed [the short-lived online content/shopping hub, a partnership with agency Droga5 and backed by Publicis] a few years ago, to short films, there’s always something we’re always having a go at and we’re continually swinging for it. The expectations are never massively high but if it’s something that gets us creatively excited then we’re willing to give it a go.”

Another one of those projects is the upcoming film Greetings from Tim Buckley, about the late singer Jeff Buckley, who died in 1997. It was through that the seeds of Once were originally sown. Smuggler was working on the project with producer Fred Zollo, whom through they met Broadway producer Barbara Broccoli. Broccoli served as the company’s entree into the world of Broadway and optioned the film with Smuggler and Zollo, but they still needed a story. Their first choice was playwright Enda Walsh, who also wrote the Steve McQueen film Hunger.

“We were pretty sure he’d say no because his body of work had been so dark,” says Milling-Smith. “But he came back to say he was really hooked by the music and would love to write it. That was the real beginning for us where we thought this thing might have a real chance of becoming something we’d go see and something we’d certainly be proud of.”


From there it snowballed, from getting their dream director in John Tiffany to critical and audience acclaim off-Broadway to landing in their ideal Broadway location, the Jacobs Theater. “It’s been a really magical run from the start,” says Milling-Smith. “It’s all developed really organically.”

Once was actually the second Broadway show from Smuggler to make it to theaters; the first was Seminar, a play written by Theresa Rebeck and starring Alan Rickman that ran from November 2011 to May of this year. Among Smuggler’s current projects are a theater adaptation of Robert Evans’ story The Kid Stays in the Picture penned by Academy Award-winning writer William Monahan, and a film adaptation of the Booker Prize-winning novel by Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger. Safe to say there’s a big difference between berries n’ cream and producing a Broadway musical or feature film, but Milling-Smith says Smuggler’s creative diversity is what allows it the freedom to go in a variety of directions.

“If we were out and out theater producers we’d be needing to get a show up this fall, living and dying by that, but we don’t need to do it like that,” he says. “We’re lucky enough to have The Kid Stays in the Picture, which is something we’re very excited about, but we have a good business making TV commercials so we can really step back and not talk ourselves into producing something we probably shouldn’t be doing.”

While plenty of soothsayers have been sounding the death knell for the TV ad for years now, Milling-Smith doesn’t see Smuggler’s pursuit of creative diversity as a necessity driven by a flagging industry. Just as commercial or music video directors reach a point where their experience merits a shot at a feature film, the same can be said for producers. “There is a need for ambitious and creative people to step out of their comfort zones and evolve,” says Milling-Smith. “We’re all evolving our craft, and taking the lessons from our past experience and trying to apply them to new creative outlets.”

He also credits the company’s recent success to its ability over the years to recruit and keep talent, one he says simply boils down to trust. “Our mantra is ‘We’re in the director business,’” he says. “We by default always take the director’s side. That’s who we signed on, that’s who we trust. You feel like you’ve already won when you get the director you want on the right job. For ‘Once,’ when John Tiffany signed on for Enda’s book, that was the big win. We could’ve gone so wrong and in so many other directions, but it all turned out so perfect. So you give your directors your trust and hopefully we’ll have more instances like this and be rewarded for that faith.”


It doesn’t mean that trust isn’t often tested. For Once, Tiffany wanted to extend the stage out into the audience in a way that would cut about 50 seats from the almost 1000-seat theater. “As a producer, a part of you can see how that translates into potential lost revenue,” says Milling-Smith. “Or you can see what he’s saying is true for maintaining an intimate setting and then you have a full house eight nights a week and go on to win eight Tonys.”

The success of Once has boosted the profile of Smuggler beyond the Cannes Lions set and put a little swag in its step for future non-commercial projects. But Milling-Smith says it hasn’t taken any focus off its core business or changed the company’s modus operandi.

“Good commercial production is being able to attract interesting talent that’s always evolving, always changing, as well as being able to take on production tasks that may seem impossible,” he says. “Some of the same team working on Once would’ve worked on the Air Force One Ecko thing we did back in the day. Since the start there’s been a kind of anarchic, never say never, feeling through the company that keeps things exciting and keeps people motivated and interested. And Once is another example of that. I hope it makes our core business stronger, reinforcing the idea that if someone comes to us with a challenge, there’s never an automatic ‘No’.”


About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.