London focus: In the court of King Davud
Davud Karbassioun discusses his journey from Eurotrash kid to powering some of the finest spots of recent years.
A quick search on shots.net for the work of BBH London brings up, as you might expect, a cornucopia of creative highlights. Links to work for Levi’s, Audi, The Guardian, Lynx and Barnardo’s means further links to directing luminaries such as Ringan Ledwidge, Rupert Sanders, Johnny Green and Daniel Kleinman, plus various outstanding creative talents at BBH. But on a huge selection of those spots sits the name Davud Karbassioun. As head of film at BBH, Karbassioun has overseen some of the most critically, commercially and creatively successful television commercials in the UK.
It could all have been so different. Like many in this industry, Karbassioun had no plans to enter advertising. He was, in fact, very nearly a civil engineer. The son of an Iranian father and a Welsh mother, Karbassioun grew up in Austria, where his father was a nuclear safety inspector for the UN. Describing himself as a typical Eurotrash kid – “where your mates were like the Security Council at the United Nations” – he developed a love for film and the moving image from watching MTV and various English language movies on VHS, which his parents gave him to help with his now-perfect English.
After school, he had no idea what he wanted to do, so followed his father’s lead and studied civil engineering at university in the UK. “I didn’t really even know what civil engineering was,” laughs Karbassioun. “He told me it was something to do with building bridges and it sounded interesting, so I did it.” And he was good at it. After his degree he gained a Masters and was about to embark on the process of becoming chartered when the university sent him on some work placements. “I really enjoyed my time studying,” he says. “It was hard work but interesting and enjoyable, but those work placements changed my mind. The engineers I met were so miserable and felt so sorry for themselves all the time, so undervalued, there was a real bitterness. It got to me and I realised I wasn’t sure if this was the right world for me.”
Engineering’s loss was advertising’s gain and when Bruce Haines, the then chairman of Leagas Delaney and Karbassioun’s godfather, asked if he would like to work in the TV department of the agency, Karbassioun jumped at the chance. “It was after a short time there,” he explains, “that I realised I had this real passion for film, and for filmmakers, and wanted to work with amazing people like Michel Gondry, David Fincher and Spike Jonze. I just realised that this was the best job in the world.”
In 2003, after a few years at Leagas Delaney, Karbassioun joined BBH and hasn’t looked back. The passion he has for his job is obvious, but so too is his modesty. More than once he dismisses his own involvement with or contribution to a project to deflect praise onto the creatives, the director or the line producer; “I’d say [my role] is one of a curator,” he says, before adding with a laugh: “Though that makes it sound really important and it’s not. I’m just someone who kind of keeps an eye on all our film output.”
But that eye seems to be extremely well honed and his ability to spot, employ and build relationships with talented people has reaped many rewards. “Agency producers are only as good as their partnerships, and the work we produce is only as good as the people we bring to the table,” he states. “Bringing in a director who has an original take on something, an interesting technique or an incredible skill is something that really drives us [at BBH]. There’s a great quote that John [Hegarty] has repeated over the years: ‘Every great piece of work is 80 per cent idea and 80 per cent execution’.”
Working at BBH, says Karbassioun, carries a lot of responsibility. He is very aware of the filmic heritage of the agency and he, and all those who work there, are constantly trying to live up to it. “With the best pieces of work, the ones that people really engage with, you can almost feel the love that went into them,” he says. “Like when Nike Write the Future came out; it was an amazing bit of communication and you could see all the details. They could have left half of them out and it still would have been amazing but it was important for them to get everything spot on. To me, that’s what craft is about.”
The best jobs he has worked on in his career, says Karbassioun, are “the ones that I’ve been shitting my pants about”. The fact that it is a scary proposition or a seemingly impossible job is what makes him excited. “I think there are some producers who see a script and say, ‘well, that’s just going to be impossible, we can’t do it’, and so it is, and they can’t,” he says. “But if you see that script and say, ‘that’s just going to be impossible, so how are we going to do it?’ Now that’s exciting.”
In the recent past, when most advertising companies were still struggling with the introduction of digital engagement, viral advertising and online viewing, Karbassioun admits to there being “a moment of confusion” as to how the production department of an agency should move forward. BBH has always placed high production values and craft at the heart of the agency and when small, seemingly cheap, ‘real-life’ viral films came into fashion there was some consternation. That, says Karbassioun, seems to have passed. “I think what’s been demonstrated in the past couple of years in the UK is that clients have really started to re-invest in the power of a big TV spot. And even if it’s not ‘big’, I think the one thing you know with film is that, however it’s used, there is something magical and engaging about a beautiful piece of film.”
Despite his love and knowledge of film and filmmakers, Karbassioun is not convinced that directing is really for him. Though he’s not completely ruled it out, he doesn’t believe he would be particularly good at it and is more than happy to continue working with some of the best commercial directing talent in the world. He raves about some of the amazing people he has teamed up with and how focused and obsessive about details they all are, mentioning his highly fruitful relationship with Rattling Stick director Ringan Ledwidge [profiled in this issue on page 24] whom he has collaborated with on many occasions. He says that of all the jobs he’s worked on, probably his favourite is the Ledwidge-directed Levi’s spot, Dangerous Liaisons. “There was something special about that film,” he says, “it was sort of the last great Levi’s film we made for them.” He mentions how he would really like to work with Spike Jonze at some point – “you can never second-guess what he’s going to come up with next but you can always sense him in everything he does.”
Karbassioun says that the most important part of his job is enthusiasm. He again deflects any notion of a set of inherent skills he may possess, or any specific abilities he displays on a project, for the simpler explanation of being enthusiastic and organised. “Yeah, I think that being enthusiastic and simply enjoying it is the most important part of this job,” he states. “That’s what carries you through. That and being organised. Having a Plan B, a Plan C, D and E for everything is the foundation. Oh, and being scared. I think all the best producers are scared. Always. Even when people are high-fiving after the film’s gone out I’m always paranoid that the station will play the offline version.” So the fact that his name, nestled among all the other credited talent on shots.net, seems to be trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, is very much like the man himself; “I’m an agency producer,” he says, “when no one’s paying any attention to you or patting you on the back, that’s when you know it’s going well. As soon as you’re in the limelight, that’s when you need to start worrying.”
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