“My mother used to tell me that if you don't know how to dress for something, it’s better to over-dress than to under-dress,” Neistat says, picking at his cufflinks at the opening of his presentation at Spikes Asia. “So I figured I’d wear a tuxedo to this event, and no matter what, I’d be cool.”
The opening remark is met with an awkwardly timed reverberation from the sound system. Everyone in the audience has had their minds stretched in back-to-back sessions on humanising innovation and enticing creative and digital talent in a connected and data-driven world.
“So I tell stories,” Neistat says, changing tracks this time, “and I’m going to show you a video every time you guys start falling asleep like you are now.” The audience laughs. But for Neistat it’s a sure-fire move.
‘Bike Lanes’, the video he shows, has garnered over 13 million views. Shot on his mobile and edited in iMovie6, he knows from these metrics that it’s almost a guaranteed icebreaker.
Neistat hadn’t always been a famous YouTuber. He was firstly a high school dropout, runaway and “every parent's worse nightmare”, moving to New York with $800 and a 3-year-old son at the age of 21.
“I was living in people’s houses and sleeping on futon couches with strangers,” says Neistat. He had taken jobs as a dishwasher, bike messenger and single-handedly raised his son. Far from his dreams, it didn’t seem that things could get harder when 9/11 hit New York.
“I had these dead-end jobs, I wasn’t educated and then terrorists literally blew out my apartment near the [World] Trade Center," he says. "It couldn’t get any worse.” Without a place, his own father had called him, telling him to come home. Neistat decided to stick it out.
His first break came filming a movie about jumping mothballs on his kitchen top because he ‘”couldn’t afford actors” and he went on to produce ‘iPod’s Dirty Secret’ in 2003, which went viral in the pre-YouTube era.
His success attracted commercial opportunities with HBO that were “great for the profile” but ultimately unfulfilling. “Everyone called me crazy but all I wanted to do was make YouTube videos,” says Neistat.
This attitude would set the tone of his career. When he took on a major project for Nike, he realised he didn't want to shoot the commercials according to the agreed plan.
Instead Neistat “blew the entire Nike budget on a trip around the world.”
The resulting video was presented to shocked Nike executives, but they eventually asked Neistat to put it on his channel to see “how it goes”. It was an instant viral success.
In a mix of spontaneity and action-driven sequences, Neistat takes brand messages and personalises them into his own missions and causes, which audiences happen to love on the YouTube platform.
The audience at Spikes is awake now. Neistat is about to show his third video, one where he took a sum of Fox studio’s promotion budget for ‘the secret life of Walter Mitty” and donated it all to typhoon Haiyan victims in the Philliphines whilst producing a video about the journey that touched on themes in the major motion picture.
“I’m going to go overtime guys,” Neistat says to the audience, “but if I play this last video there’s no way they’re going to cut it off mid-way.”
There are wolf-whistles, cheers and shout outs from the crowd. “You see – I just broke the system.”
Campaign Asia’s Adrian Tse talked to Neistat about YouTubers in Asia, advice for brands that want to engage consumers, storytelling and motivation.
What do you think of YouTubers in Asia?
I’m always a bit embarrassed to say that I don’t have and have never had the relationship with other YouTubers that some people have with me. Now it’s something that I’d really like to change and do more of but up until now I just haven’t given it the kind of consideration I should have.
Are you interested to work more in the Asia-Pacific and why?
I’ll take any excuse to come out here! I mean you look at that Nike video I did and we came all the way out here just to get one shot that we thought would be fun. I love it out here and I’m searching for any opportunity that will bring me to Asia.
What do you think it takes to be successful on YouTube or the equivalents in Asia?
I think that different cultures respond to work differently and I don’t know what cultural aspects contribute to that but I certainly look at other YouTubers that are bigger in other parts of the world and I don’t understand their content at all. In the same vein when I look at the metrics of my work and where it’s viewed, it’s interesting for me to see who doesn’t view my work. I don't know that I understand it well enough to shape my work to appeal to a broader audience but I definitely think that universal appeal is something that’s extremely elusive, especially for me.
How have you been collaborating with other YouTubers?
Jack and Fin (Jack’s Gap) are very close friends of mine. Louis Cole is a great vlogger, Ben Brown’s another one. I haven’t done enough actual YouTube content with them but they’ve been on some of my other social channels. Jack Harries and I have talked about doing some collaboration for a while that is yet to come to fruition. But he’s a great kid and good friend of mine.
What would be your advice to brands that are trying to engage people?
I have a lot of gripes with advertising—the industry—not necessarily the work. I think there’s some wonderful work being made out there. But iterations or iterative creativity, which is a contradictory statement, is dangerous and I think television is guilty of that and advertising is definitely guilty of that.
If you want to find great ideas for advertising, then don’t look at other advertising. I can’t tell you how many briefs I’ve gotten that have 20 other commercials that they refer to. I mean, don't give me a brief that refers to ‘make it like this commercial’. If you want to come up with a great idea for a beautiful painting, don't look at Picassos. Go outside and experience the world. If you want to come up with a great story, don’t read Moby Dick, just go out and experience something in this world. And I think advertising should be the same way. If you want to come up with great ideas for great advertising, they should come from a truer place than other advertising. That’s certainly how I approach it and that has yielded my more successful work in the industry.
Your storytelling is framed around your personal experiences and what matters to you personally. Would you be interested in storytelling that stems more from your imagination?
That’s interesting. But the thing that’s most interesting to me is telling the stories that I know and the better I know a story, the better I can tell it. The work that I’m most proud of is probably that work that’s most personal to me because sharing an intimacy brings something that I have an innate, visceral understanding of. So when I think of fiction and things like that it’s just less attractive to me because that understanding and relationship isn’t there. And without that relationship I think I’d struggle to sort of drum up the enthusiasm that I can for some of my personal movies.
Could you tell me about your film influences and their impact on your work?
Werner Herzog is one of my favourites but not necessarily because of his movies—although ‘Little dieter needs to fly’ is in my top five films. He stands out more because of his book, Herzog on Herzog and the talks he’s given about his general approach to life and doing things, which has so many parallels to how I do things. You don’t wait for something to happen. You fucking force it to happen. If you can’t get permission to shoot in a location, you just make a fake permission slip or print out a location permit.
Herzog talks about if he were to start a film school there would be no cameras; they’d just teach people boxing and learning other languages and the application process would involve having to walk from Paris to Berlin while keeping a journal of the entire journey. And that’s how you’d apply to this school. That line of thought so closely mirrors everything that I believe in. It’s this idea that there’s no right or wrong way to do anything and that if there were a formula for success in the creative world, everyone would follow it because who doesn’t want to succeed like that? If you could teach that, everyone would just do it—I mean, if you want to be a car mechanic, I can teach you that path, but there’s no defined path to succeeding in this world and the Hunter Thompsons, Quentin Tarantinos and Herzogs of the world certainly embody that sentiment.
Your office in New York is beautiful and meticulous. Could you tell me about how it informs your work?
My production studio is a crazy-person’s place. It’s lunacy in there. But it’s not without purpose. Every stylistic decision is based on a functional ambition. I don't have the tools displayed because they look pretty; I have them placed in order of frequency of use because that is the most efficient way of having my tools out. But when you have function being the primary determining factor for the aesthetic, the yield after 11 years in the same physical space is that studio. When you keep pushing that you reach this point of diminishing return like I did about five years ago, but I’m still pushing it.
What’s a funny habit that you have that not many people are aware of?
My God, there are so many non-stop, idiosyncratic, nonsensical behavioural patterns in my daily life. Like I have to run. I run 10 miles a day—I ran this morning—but that’s not super interesting though. I wake up at the same time every day no matter what, which is 5:50 am, including this morning. Twelve hours of jetlag doesn't matter: 5:50 am I am up, no matter what. I have this almost irrational phobia of sleeping through daylight. I hate the idea that I might miss a moment of daylight. Holidays, weekends I’m always up before the sun because I don't want to miss a second of daylight.
What’s been your biggest motivation this year?
This is a big, big year. I spent the first half of this year at MIT working out of their media lab. And as a high school drop out, being invited to one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world was a pretty transformative experience for me. That was major. Getting married this year; that was a pretty big one. My wife’s pregnant—that’s a pretty fucking big one. My kid grew up this year—not the previous 16 years being a father—but this year he grew up and that was a big deal. But the truth is this year is just like every other year. I live my life as if there’s the biggest, meanest, scariest wolf chasing after me with blood dripping from his incisors and if I slow down for one fucking second that wolf is going to grab onto my ankle and be down to eat me alive. So I just keep going faster and faster and running further and further out of fear that the wolf might some day catch up to me. He hasn’t yet.