Production Company of the Year: SMUGGLER

Patrick Milling-Smith is Co-Founder and CEO of SMUGGLER, one of the winners of the Production Company of the Year award at CICLOPE Festival 2022. Right before the end of the year, he chatted with us about the birth of the company (20 years ago!) and its evolution, and discussed some of their most recent projects and signings. 

You founded SMUGGLER, together with Brian Carmody, 20 years ago. What’s your favourite memory from your first days and weeks leading the company?

From the first days and weeks?! Hmm, I’m not sure my memory is good enough to remember the first weeks of March 2002. Honestly, it was all so new, the country, the market, we all felt like we were on a great adventure and were naive enough to go about it all in a very pure way. The fearlessness and the appetite for jumping into the unknown was and has always been a massive bedrock of the company’s culture. It’s something that we always want to protect and value immensely. The ethos of doing things you might not seem to have the right to be doing is and has always been an invigorating and energizing engine for SMUGGLER. From our staff to directors, everyone likes to be challenged.

The company is a testament to the “taking a leap into the unknown” mindset. We’ve been fortunate along the way and the swings brought some success and confidence to keep venturing out of the comfort zone. Not everything works out of course but to use a wiser man’s words, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts”. Everything we’ve tried to do along the way has always been of merit regardless of the result. I feel like we are an evolving sum of our learnings and the experience we value and lean on has been hard-earned.

What was the biggest challenge back then?

One of the earlier challenges was gaining the trust of some of the bigger agencies. The US is a market very much built on relationships. The other challenge, I suppose, was finding the most effective way to put a flag in the ground and let people know the company existed. Websites were not a thing and you couldn’t just shout the loudest on Instagram. We had to make good things to be relevant and find creative ways to approach every touch point or interaction with creatives, producers, and clients.

And what is the biggest challenge for a company that has just turned 20 and is among the most awarded and renowned in the world?

The challenge is to protect the sense of enthusiasm and excitement. We want to continue stoking the fires of possibility and protect the bombastic nativity that encourages everyone to dream big. The challenge is met with a hunger to make things that have a reason to exist. Work to be proud of.

At the end of the day, SMUGGLER is a collection of ambitious and curious people who have a shared love of film-making craft and quality. The collective ambition and mindset must be protected and encouraged. We are living in a golden age for creative opportunities.

What makes SMUGGLER different to other companies?

I’d like to believe there is a clearly defined culture. We value each other and care deeply about how we go about our business. We have a complementary mix of experience and appetite. The chemistry and balance amongst our offices and staff give everyone a great deal of surety and confidence.

It’s important to us that everyone at SMUGGLER has a belief that their ambitions and goals can be met and matched by the company at large.

Tell us about 2022 at SMUGGLER. What was the main goal this year?

We continued to build a rich and diverse group of people with varied experiences, viewpoints, and skill sets that are complementary to one another. Collectively we have a wide variety of goals and we feel that success is generally achieved by bringing everyone on the journey with you. “You are the company you keep”… We value people that value people and try to create an environment where respect and application are the expectation. It sounds a bit trite but when the foundation is that simple and clear, I think we can “have a go” at most things. My hope is that we can continue building the infrastructure and know-how to take on projects across a variety of mediums from commercials, film, immersive shows, and on, etc.

At CICLOPE Festival 2022, SMUGGLER was awarded for a couple of Apple commercials, “Escape from the Office” and “Data Auction“. Apple has a history of its own, but in general, how do you see the brands’ approach to film craft nowadays?

Some clients value craft immensely and have a great deal of respect for the process. Apple exemplifies that mindset.

Ultimately, Apple is a company built on innovation, craft, and importantly, storytelling. It’s in their DNA.

Tell us about Apple’s Underdogs’ series, that will surely be remembered for a long time. Did you expect it to become a successful series? What are the opportunities and risks of such a success?

I think everyone had an idea of where things could go after that first film but usually, the world conspires to get in the way. Apple is the most valuable company in the world for good reason. They hire talented people and they keep hold of them. They put great leadership in place and give a good degree of trust to people who have earned it and on the back of that, you can achieve a lot of things that others wouldn’t dream of. Anything is possible with a degree of consistency and confidence at the top of the pyramid. The strength of that work is an example of building the foundations of something right and believing in the power of storytelling. The agency had enough confidence in their scripts and idea with enough self-belief to bring in a director (Mark Molloy) early in the process to develop hand in hand as an actual creative partner. The end result of an approach and process like that is the opportunity to draw out real characters, sharp writing, considered casting choices, no competing agenda, and crew and actor chemistry. A shared mission. The best talent in the world will always have their hands tied without trust. We’ve always wanted to make advertising so confident that it wants to be the main attraction and not the interruption. That’s what I personally love about this series of films.

The directors’ duo rubberband. won a couple of awards too. What’s different about them?

The difference is heart. Jason and Simon go about their business with infectious purity and enthusiasm. You can feel the curiosity and sincerity in everything they make. They are on a real journey.

The talk they gave at the festival also gets to the core of what makes them who they are. They wrap themselves in what they do and commit in every way. They are on a hero’s journey to make things that deserve to be made and seen. And it sounds cliché but they really are just getting started.

How would you describe SMUGGLER’s roster?

Film-makers. Balanced, exciting, committed, diverse, innovative, good-looking, enthusiastic, loyal, authentic, tasteful, high character and quality.

There’s a genuine timelessness and tastefulness that we aspire to from a company perspective and we feel the roster is reflective of those ambitions.

What do you look for when you think of signing new talent?

Character, taste and a point of view. A sense of self, decency, and commitment.

What are the main skills a young director should develop to succeed in the industry and what role does the production company play in the process?

It’s different for each person, I think, but at its best, when a company and director are well matched, it’s the beginning of a long and winding journey of discovery built around a shared vision, appetite and honesty.

What are you most looking forward to in 2023?

To build on the momentum made from the Herculean effort everyone made in 2022. This year was possibly our most productive and exciting one in our two decades. Almost everyone on the roster and within the company grew and evolved. There are a lot of directors here ready to really make their mark.

I think the goal for every year is to create a new body of work that feels like you are evolving and growing. We tend to always look forward. There is a healthy creative restlessness for what’s next. What’s next is always the most exciting and keeps it interesting.