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Just Add Water's Secret to Success is Found in Keeping Things Simple

Anthony Vagnoni

Partners Enrico Madonna, Jonathan Levy and Joe DeFillips bring an experienced touch to post while adding state of the art services, talent and style.


From the early days of Betty Crocker to the modern allure of Starbuck's Via, one thing has been consistent: often, when you want to make something great, all you need do is just add water.
 
This simple rule was the ticket to convenience, speed and efficiency, and often resulted in more or less instant gratification.  It quickly became so ubiquitous in the marketing lexicon – such an accepted figure of speech – that it became slang for a shortcut to fun. Looking for a party? Just add water.
 
In a lot of respects, this was the idea that drove a handful of New York editors and their executive producer colleague to launch their own editorial boutique. Today, when you watch a procession of TV spots for brands like Macy's and wonder how they turn out such a tremendous volume of upbeat, breathlessly-paced ads and promos, you'll know the secret: Just Add Water.
 
That's the name of the editorial and post studio that was formed in 1998 when Editors Enrico Madonna, Jonathan Levy and Francis Zuccarello teamed up with EP Joe DeFilipps and hung out their shingle. The partners had first started working together at the New York post house Eventime, which eventually merged into a larger shop called Cabana.
 
The decision to go on their own, says Madonna, was driven by "our desire to create a more relaxed and casual work environment; one where ideas can thrive and where quality is a priority, but also where it could be done in a more low-key setting."
 
The Just Add Water partners are quite serious when they say they pay equal attention to the mood as well as the work.  "Our atmosphere may be relaxed, but we stress the creative, and we hold ourselves to very high standards of accuracy," says Levy. "All of us came up under David Dee, and he could be a tyrant, but we learned how to do things the right way. It was an amazing training ground."
 
"Our company was created with a very non-corporate personality," adds Madonna.  "The vibe is cool and calm for anyone who works here." The studio's client lounge is integrated into the work area, he points out, with a layout designed to be a comfortable, stress-free setting. "This all makes for an environment more conducive to creativity," he notes. "A lot of our clients love to just come by for a drink or hang out and have lunch, even if they're not currently on a project with us!"
 
The Just Add Water name itself came about when the soon-to-be partners were bouncing around ideas one night after work. The phrase leapt out from a newspaper ad, and it rang a bell: "It was a simple solution for a complicated time," DeFilipps recalls. "And it's true. Simple solutions like this often make life so much easier."
 
Making things easy seems to be the Just Add Water mantra; certainly it's what has guided the company for the past 15 years as it's quietly but steadily expanded.  Today Just Add Water is home to editors Madonna and Levy as well as Peggy Pardo and Scott Pelzel. Zuccarello is no longer a partner but is still an active editor there and who is prominently represented on the roster.  The company's capabilities have expanded as well to include two Autodesk Smoke systems, eight Avid Symphony Editing suites and four After Effects graphics stations, Madonna points out, as well as table tennis for recreation.
 
They share space with a state of the art color grading studio, Out of the Blue, which is housed one flight up above their offices, as well as an audio mixing and recording studio, Mixopolis, all in a midtown building on 47th Street just off of Fifth Avenue.
 
Just Add Water's client mix runs the gamut from fashion and beauty to financial services, package goods, technology, automotive, pharmaceutical and more, Madonna explains. The studio handles much of the promotional work for Macy's, producing literally hundreds of spots a year tied to an endless variety of sales, promotions, apparel and product lines. As with any studio that works regularly in the cauldron of retail advertising, meeting demanding expectations is a big part of their appeal.
 
"We're a bit old school in that we believe that if the client wants something, you say yes," says DeFilipps. "From there you do your best to make it happen. In fact, I don't think we've ever said no to anything. Clients need to trust that whatever they need, we're going to be able to pull it off."
 
"We have a wide spectrum of talent with very diverse backgrounds in editing," says Madonna about the roster at Just Add Water.  "We can handle just about anything they throw at us." And not just in English; the shop has been editing Spanish-language spots for years, as well as creating multicultural adaptations for clients with global brands.
 
One of Just Add Water's more recent additions is Sarah Cortese, their motion graphics, visual effects and design artist. "She's an important new component of our studio," says Levy, "and brings animation, design and effects in-house. She's a great addition to our roster."
 
Madonna says that Cortese' skills, coupled with the Smoke editors Taylor Vavra and Rob Cabana, allows Just Add Water "to take complicated projects through to finishing, all under one roof."  Another benefit is their close collaboration with Out of the Blue; Madonna credits their colorist, Micah Kirz, as being one of the best, as is Mixopolis' Engineer/Mixer Mitch Raboy. "All these talents in one place make the post production process for our clients totally seamless and worry-free," he says.
 
"And having all these tools means we can try lots of different things knowing that we're working with teams that are right down the hall," adds Levy.  "For an editor, it gives you tremendous flexibility."
 
DeFilipps sees the studio's commitment to building its effects and design capabilities as an investment, both in the company and its client service capabilities.  "There's never been an 'hourly rate' mentality here," he says. "Our goal is to provide as full a breadth of services as possible in a way that's flexible. We don't nickel and dime clients; rather, we find a way to make their budgets work."
 
One of the shifts DeFilipps and his partners have seen over the years is the move towards more client-direct work in the post production space.  In addition to its Macy's work, which typically goes through Macy's promotional agency, Carl Byrd & Co., they work regularly with Dassault, the giant French aerospace and technology company, and are beginning to work for Fruit of the Loom. For the latter they've done more than just editing, helping them stage events and shooting original content for in-house and internet use as well as providing them with digital asset management services for their apparel photography and footage.
 
For Dassault, Just Add Water has produced a range of work, including TV spots that run in Europe, according to Ralph Aceti, Dassaul's Director of Communications. Aceti says that after Dassault took its advertising in-house, his relationship with Just Add Water deepened, and he got to work with them more closely. It's been a rewarding experience. "I've never had a second thought about the quality of the work they've been doing for us," he says. "It was always, 'What do you need?,' and then they'd put it together."
 
DeFilipps sees this kind of work as serving several purposes. First, it complements the agency work they've traditionally done, which has become a more competitive arena with the advent of in-house post and the continuing downward pressure on budgets. 
 
It's also building relationships with new clients, which he feels is equally important. He points out that one of the hallmarks of the Just Add Water partners is that they've historically had long-term relationships with brands, and he sees that continuing, even if the nature of the work they're doing for these clients has changed.
 
One example of that kind of changing relationship would be the work they've done with Speck; he first started editing with the guys when he was a creative director at JWT in New York. He later worked at Brouillard and Merkley before embarking on the freelance life.
 
Ted Speck, a former Creative Director at JWT who's been a longtime client, recalls when the partners first launched Just Add Water. "They had this feeling of total freedom, and I felt that way, too," he recalls. "It's a great place to work and a great place to edit. I can't tell you how many times I walked in there looking for a rough cut and walked out with one that felt like a finished spot."
 
Speck can confirm that the joint exudes this relaxed aura of professionalism. "They just get the work done," he says. "They've never once missed a beat."
 
H. Robert Greenbaum spent 20 years at BBDO, leaving as a Sr. V.P./Creative Director before moving over to the client side when he joined Burlington, the fashion retailer, as Executive Creative Director.  He's worked with Madonna and Levy throughout his career. "These guys are just great," he says. "They're home for me."
 
What does he like about them?  Let him tell you:  "First off, they give you a great edit. You never have to brace yourself for the rough cut. And they stick with it; they know how to put in the time and have a real determined work ethic. They have a great dialogue with their clients, too; they listen, they know how to meet your needs and they work within your budget."
 
On top of that, Greenbaum says, is the fact that they're all the nicest guys in the world. "I mean, I've given them my Jets tickets," he says with a laugh. "It's always wonderful to work with them, and you never have to worry about a thing. They make it comfortable. It's hard work and the hours are crazy, but they always make it great."
 
Madonna says one of the more gratifying realizations for the partners is that they've stayed on the cutting edge throughout their careers.  "We started with a very strict culture that was always about striving to do better than the average editor out there," he recalls. "We were always pushing ourselves to the next level in creative editing. We like to believe that the younger editors who've joined us in recent years also have that drive to do better than before."
 
Indeed, focusing on the next generation of Just Add Water talent is an area that all three partners are interested in pursuing.  "We have a lot of young talent here, and they've got a great energy," says Levy.  "They give us a whole other vibe."
 
Madonna says he's looking forward to the future, as tumultuous as the industry may be. "Experience and talent make a good team," he points out. "We get it, and we get it done right. I think our outlook is bright. It's my hope that our future clients see us in this light, and give us the opportunity to create great spots and films for them as well."

 

 Chapter 1: KYLE...       Chapter 2: JustAddWater       Chapter 3: CharlieTango...       Chapter 4: Showcase...

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