From rock’n’roll to advertising. Getting to know Minneapolis Art Producer Sally Mars

Buenos Aires 2007
Sally Mars was the very first producer I met when I was an assistant account executive right out of college.  The shoot we produced together was for Polaroid and was the first business trip I ever took.  Those few days in Minneapolis provided my  first look into the world of professional photography.  I am not sure Sally ever knew it but  that shoot and her involvement influenced me when the time came to decide between advertising or photography.  Thank you for that Sally.  I have never looked back.

Over the years Sally and I have kept in touch and I have watched as she has worn many hats and worn them all well.  Our paths (well actually emails) crossed recently and she brought me up to speed on what she has been up to these past few years.  Her career path is beyond impressive and very innovative.  I knew what she had to share would be perfect for our blog and was thrilled when she agreed to the interview with Alison McCreery of POP Blog.

Here is what she shared:

What did you “want to be when you grew up?”  Are you surprised where you ended up?

I was born with a great love of animals and my earliest career-type aspiration was to be a veterinarian—this until I seventh grade biology class, when I could not bring myself to dissect a frog.  At that point, my dream officially became “being an artist.”  This remains my dream.

I think of the Commercial Art world as a somewhat typical domain for aspiring artists, or for those who once aspired as such.  I think of the production field as a rather natural career path for those who are personally inspired by realizing the creative visions of others.

While I never in my upbringing or formal Arts education encountered the term “Producer” nor the idea of creative work being “produced,” had I, and had I some notion of the role and the personal assets particular to it, no, I would not have been surprised by the course of my career.  But as it stands, yes I am, since I never knew such a calling even existed.

What was that first moment of inspiration when you knew you would work in a creative position?

In first grade, I had a poem published in a school journal.  In sixth grade, I won an award for writing.  I was always “a good drawer.” Praise is reinforcement.  So I think I knew very early that I would endeavor in a creative capacity.  I think my mother recognized this too.  It made her nervous, the seeming impracticality of it.  She nudged me toward creative fields with titles she understood:  Interior Decorator, Personal Shopper, Textile Designer.  I’ve never taken direction effectively…thus a Fine Arts education (and standing aspirations), and thus Producer versus Art Director or Commercial Photographer.

You are working in print and broadcast art buying and production in addition to art direction on video. What was your career path once you landed at an agency? How did your diverse freelance career evolve?

I was working on the vendor side—first  in broadcast as a line producer, then as Studio Manager for various respected photographers – when Fallon (then Fallon McElligott) called quite out of the blue and asked if I’d come talk to them about Art Buying (as the position was known then).  This was the mid-90s in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Fallon was the cat’s meow, the pinnacle.  I had never worked with Fallon in any capacity, and had never worked at an agency or “corporate” job more generally.  To this day, I am left to ponder this stroke of good luck!  I was given the opportunity to build a department during a period of great work and international growth.  Agency President and Chief Creative Officer Bill Westbrook was an inspiring and empowering leader.  I joined Fallon more or less when he did, and departed more or less when he did.  While my agency experience was amazing in so many ways, after a five-year tenure I was ready to begin a freelance career.

My first post-agency gig was Art Buying.  My second gig was producing a still shoot for the renowned Clint Clemens.  Mirroring my Fallon experience, I had never worked with Clint, and marvel at my pure luck!  With this association and credential, I produced the world over for many of the industry’s most creative photographers.

Things change.  For one, the economy changed…producers weren’t being flown around like they once were, or at least I wasn’t being flown around like I once was.  But moreover, I wasn’t as keen on traveling as I had once been.  In fact, I was becoming downright homesick, and any desire to be away for weeks at a time had utterly left me.

Being based in a mid-sized market like Minneapolis, diversity is a great asset.  I was able to return to Broadcast Production and Art Production as a means of staying busy right here at home.

And while Fallon would on occasion send me out in the role of “Executional Art Director” (meaning, I would art direct a photo shoot specifically), a subsequent agency client recognized—through our production collaboration—my more “creative” attributes, and empowered me to formally serve as Creative Director on a project.  And with that opportunity and validation, I have been able to provide another service to my clients.

Are your talents being needed in ways that you didn’t expect?

Sometimes.  Typically, I find I am a student of each photographer’s or director’s or agency’s particular style and experience.  But there are occasions where I am more in the role of the teacher, and it is on these occasions that I find my personal experience as a photographer or art director utilized when I might not have expected it to be.

How did you end up in production?

My production life began post-college in Colorado.  I was working at a record store in Boulder, and made the acquaintance of a certain rock promoter.  This promoter asked me if I’d be interested in working with him as a production assistant, and I jumped at the chance—it seemed so glamorous to me at the time.  The promoter himself did not drive, so my first gig was driving him around.  Next I was asked to drive to the airport and pick up the band, in this case Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers—reggae was very big in those parts around then!

I picked them up and we headed to the venue.  On the way, they asked to stop at K-Mart.  So we did.  Someone then handed me a huge wad of bills and asked if I would please go in and buy them a gun.  It was a fist-full of money!  I said, “I’m sorry, but I stole a car when I was 16.  I have a felony.  I can’t buy a gun.”  The guy shrugged, and we got to the venue early.

Over dinner later that night, the promoter asked me:  “So, did they ask you to buy them a gun?”  My jaw must have dropped.  I said, “Yes.”

“Well,” he said, “Did you buy it?”

“No.”  I told him what I did.

“Did you really steal a car?” he asked me.  I said I did not, but I didn’t want to buy a gun.  Instant promotion!  Apparently, it’s a thing…the reggae acts always ask the P.A. to buy them a gun—either they’re star-struck, or cornered, or going for the $500.00 the talent pays them to do it.

Anyhow, that was my start in production.  I started with stage production for small clubs and venues, and quickly wound up working 18,000 seat arenas.  It was long hours and a lot of cash money, but it also exposed a lot of…unseemliness.  I found I was becoming really cynical.  It was time for a change.

I had a music industry contact that knew of an opening in Minnesota.  I relocated there in 1987.  Within a year, the Twins had won the world series, I’d fallen in love with Chris, and I had made the transition of stage to broadcast production, working then as a line producer.

I heard about a photographer who might be looking for a studio manager, and I called him every few weeks for nearly a year…eventually he told me to come in for an interview.  He hired me.  And I’ve been producing commercial photography ever since.

Lobos, Argentina 2007

What do you love about Minneapolis?

I could tell you it’s the integration of nature and city.  I could tell you about how a lake opens a vista, allowing for views that are impossible in their absence.  I could tell you it’s because I love winter, or because I love summer.  But really what I love about Minneapolis is its culture.  People are polite and civic minded.  Art is present, and valued.  There are people from all over the world living and working here, it has an international feel that I think very few people expect.  I live in the city proper.  I see hawks in my neighborhood daily and eagles on occasion.  I can walk rather quickly to a lake, or a movie theater.

But more importantly, on such a walk I make eye contact strangers, and we each say hello, and wouldn’t dream of not saying hello.  Minnesotans chat in elevators, and say thank you when a server refills their water glass.  They won’t so quickly invite you to dinner—intimacy has to be earned.  But they’ll help you shovel out your car after the plow comes through, and will climb back up the steps they just walked down to open the post office door when your arms are full.  I moved to Minnesota a pessimistic and cynical person.  After 25 years here, I believe strongly in the inherent goodness of humankind.  That’s why I love it here.

Did you always love photography?

I’ve always loved seeing, and considering the world visually.  This didn’t necessarily translate into a love of photography specifically until a bit later in life, post-college actually.  It was falling in love with a camera that taught me about photography.  Making my own pictures helped me see photography as a means of pure, personal expression.  That’s when I started to love it, and why.

Growing up, what were your creative interests?

I loved to draw.  I loved to arrange things, from my stuffed animals to my bedroom furniture to food on a plate.  I loved to paint and write.  I played instruments in band and orchestra.  I was in a rock band during and after college.  My mother was naturally artistic but born in the wrong era—she expressed herself through cooking and was a professional chef.  I had no interest in that.  I wanted to make something permanent and lasting, something one could keep.  I had a college boyfriend who was interested in photography and that was my introduction to it.  He shot landscapes.  I’d set poems on fire and photograph them.  Once revealed, my relationship with the camera has been enduring.

How have your life experiences influenced your job choice?

My mother’s talents were squandered by the social conventions of her time.  In response to this, my mother raised my sister and I to be independent women.  My father’s work ethic was his single most pronounced quality—well, work ethic, and kindness.  I think it is these life experiences that have most profoundly influenced my career.

Have you always loved photography and how do you keep the same level of inspiration you had when you started your job?

I would reckon I have an even greater enthusiasm for photography now versus when I started—I know more about what’s hard to do and what’s easier to do than it used to be.  I know what photography is capable of and how many variables are working against a photograph being great, or even being created at all.  I may marvel less at some genres that once awed me and more at some genres I once might have dismissed.  But inspiration is constant.  The list of photographers I aspire to work with only grows.

How do you not compromise creativity while finding a workable budget?

Well, sometimes creativity may be compromised somewhat.  The goal is to minimize the necessary creative compromise.  My rule of thumb is to emphasize that everything is negotiable.  Maybe we trade total number of locations for total number of talent, or vise versa.  Maybe we focus on actual, required usage rather than applying fiscal assets to unnecessary or uncommitted rights.  Maybe we offer greater creative freedom in lieu of more money.  I try always to be very honest with both clients and vendors and to communicate very directly.  I believe this has always served my projects well.

What one word describes your working style?  Is it different than when you first started?

Efficient.  When I park my car, I am thinking about where I need to go next and thus which way my parked car should be pointing.  I wear a watch.  I don’t use a tablet because it doesn’t have a keyboard.  I always dress for the weather.  I’ve always been this way.  ‘Nuff said!

How do you describe your job to your mother or someone not in our industry?

I’m not the architect or the physical builder of the house (so to speak)—I’m the general contractor.  I take a look at the plans and figure out the costs, then hire the right people to put it together.  Only for photographs, not houses.

Where do you look for inspiration? Stay inspired?

There is little as inspiring to me as the artist who makes a photograph not for compensation or recognition or for any other reason than a passion and necessity for making it.  The fact that people could be doing any of a hundred other things but instead of or despite those hundred other things chose to make art…that inspires me endlessly.  I marvel at the simple truth of this.  It is this pure and often compulsive passion I am always looking for, and try to bring to my projects.  To this end, my single favorite print resource is SHOTS and my favorite blog is Lens Scratch.  But I utilize all sorts of resources, including PhotoServe, CA, PDN…museums, galleries, magazines, feature films…and am constantly (critically) viewing advertising in all its forms, considering what’s great, what isn’t, and why.    

What do you think is important to do in your personal time to keep you inspired at work?

Take time away from it.  If my work overwhelms my life at large, it is inevitable that I will become frustrated, and frustration is not inspiring.  Sheltering certain aspects of my life from my work allows the work to be an outlet rather than a dam.

What do you love about your job?

Creative collaboration, realizing a vision, the freedom to pursue projects and to work with partners that inspire me and constantly learn about new things.

What about the industry/your job is exciting right now? What are the biggest changes you are seeing?

For me personally, most exciting is the opportunity to diversify my role—the variety is joyful and stimulating.  In terms of changes, the push for fiscal economy has opened the door for a sort of professional multi-tasking that I adore.  I can be hired by an agency as an Art Producer and see the project through as Photo Producer.  I can work as Broadcast Producer and Creative Director simultaneously on a single assignment.  Counter this, I am seeing more creative teams—Art Director and Copywriter both—on photo shoots, and I love this trend….collaboration rules.

If you could change one thing in the creative industry right now, what would that be?

I miss the optimism of trust.  I’d like to see more of that, and less of the pessimism of mistrust that I see more frequently these days.  Trust makes for a better creative product, and a more enjoyable process in attaining it.

If you could tell photographers one thing, what would it be?

Retain the passion.

Favorite way to spend a Sunday?

Sleeping until noon, finally getting dressed at 3, walking dogs, seeing a movie or a baseball game, then making art late into the night.

 One thing people reading this would find surprising about you?

I actually hate talking about myself.

If you weren’t an art buyer/producer/consultant, what would you do?

I’d like to be an artist.  In my next life, I’d like to be a scientist.  Wait.  I still shoot film and use a darkroom.  So I guess that’s sort of what I’m doing now!

What at the moment do you see happening in the culture that you find inspiring or interesting?

I see a culture of young people interested in cooperation, acceptance, and environmental stewardship.  It’s just a matter of time until these people are our legislators.

Do you have any photos of your work that you are willing to share? 

My personal work is posted on—writing and photo essays. These images are from a series on The Yucatan. The series are all accompanied by writing.

I placed my hand upon my heart.

If the Earth were to do this,
It would place its hand on

The Yucatan.

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Creative hobbies or practices?

My heart is in the fine art world. I’m a fine art photographer and a writer, and endeavor consistently at both.  I don’t have a career goal per se in that realm.  My life in advertising has infused each—through experiences, observation, and a more abstract sort of enabling.

I co-host Minneapolis Photography Center’s  F-Stop Group with renowned photographer Tom Arndt. F-Stop is a photo community and critique group. We meet, show work and engage in discourse about the work presented as well as broader issues in contemporary photography. We have a guest come in each month and present to the group.  At the last meeting, it was the photo curator from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts discussing contemporary curatorial trends.  I’ll be teaching an aesthetics-based class at the center this winter.

So fine art is my great passion—viewing it, discussing it, making it, helping or encouraging others to make it.

My husband is an accomplished painter, and it is my great privilege to live around his work and to witness its creation.  He’s also a filmmaker, and in this medium we’ve collaborated: “Flowers for Jupiter,” which I wrote and Chris animated, did well in the festival circuit last year.  This year, Chris’s film “In Hanford,” which I helped edit, will screen at Sundance.

I love advertising because it’s a great way to make a living with fun, smart people.  I learn  much by observing other photographers. The variety of products, settings and other variables mean I get learn a bit about all kinds of interesting places and things I would not otherwise encounter.

When I worked at Fallon, I was traveling so much and wanted to get something personally valuable to me out of it.  I started documenting hotel rooms in 1999 and have documented every hotel room I’ve slept in for last 13 years. So every time I’m on an ad assignment, I have the opportunity to create a fine art work for myself as well.

Los Angeles 2007 2 Los Angeles 2007

I’ve also produced a feature film, various shorts, events and have produced books. When people need something put together, that’s what I do. I don’t even put it together myself!  But I’m resourceful, and either know or figure out just who to call.

Latest discovery?

A little hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant called Andale.

On your home office walls?

Original photography by Joel-Peter Witkin, Keith Carter, O. Winston Link, Stephen Shapiro, more.  Paintings by Chris Mars, Stanislaw Beksinski, The Clayton Brothers, Jeff Soto, others.  And various sports memorabilia—I’m a big baseball fan.


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