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Tool and the Future of Creative Production: Q&A With President Dustin Callif

Jordan Kelley, Content Director,

The way we as consumers engage with personal entertainment, our devices, and even one another has experienced a massive forced evolution in the last two years. And while it might seem impossible for the industries we rely on to facilitate the evolution of the ways in which that content is created, where it comes from, and how it reaches us, companies like Tool of North America are taking calculated steps to do just that. By trend watching and engineering resources that make it easier for their clients to collaborate with and exchange learnings with today's creators, venture into brand new storytelling mediums, and extend stories beyond devices and into experiences, Tool is ushering the companies they serve into a future that is rapidly being realized. Brand Storytelling caught up with Tool of North America President Dustin Callif to discuss how the creative production partner is leveraging the entertainment tools of tomorrow to tell client stories today:

How have you seen Tool change and grow over the course of your tenure there?

What I love about the size of Tool is that we can be nimble and make changes to the business model on a yearly basis. Each year we make some strategic changes that allow the company to be better positioned. For example, in this past year, we made two key strategic decisions that we’re excited about. First, we launched our creators division - a roster designed to help prominent creators make the leap to commercial directing. The move helped to strengthen our foothold as a resource for brands looking to produce best-in-class content, no matter the format and platform. We’re excited about being at the forefront for the future of commercial directing and we see a bright future in our collaboration and mentorship of these creators.

Second, we began investing in software such as live-streaming platform Hovercast. At Tool, we are always in the pursuit of innovation and leveraging the best technology platforms. We decided it would be smart to take a software-based approach to production, allowing our clients to have platforms that help differentiate their campaigns while offering efficiencies of scale.

What is the philosophy at Tool when it comes to making brand-funded content and entertainment?

It’s our responsibility to serve two clients: The brand - making sure we communicate their message and deliver on their objectives, and the audience - we want to create something that is memorable and worthy of their attention.

What is the Experience Group at Tool? How does it work?

We approach advertising as an opportunity for brands to create a cultural moment. In 2009, Tool decided to add experiential and digital capabilities to our already established content chops. This opened up a wide world of creativity, allowing us to help brands create cultural moments with interactive videos, VR, AR, AI, and IRL events. I would say what differentiates us from our production partners is that with our experience group we live at the intersection of technology, storytelling, and experience, allowing us to create unique brand moments - the kind of moments that people want to talk about and experience. By adding this group, we are able to continue creating new ways for brands to stay innovative and connect with their consumers.

What does your process of sourcing great directorial talent look like?

We represent a wide range of talent, from live-action directors to TikTok creators to creative technologists. The common thread is that these are all creatives who have done something extraordinary in their given specialty, providing a unique perspective for creating branded content. Sourcing amazing talent comes down to consuming as much varied media as possible, from films to Vimeo to TikTok, in addition to the awards circuit. It’s very important to us that we’re using our platform to help break underrepresented talent.This means going beyond our normal circles to find that special talent that may not have the traditional three spot reel. We strive to continuously push the industry to get behind these directors and support them in creating meaningful commercial work that will grow their careers.

What’s your position on the future of non-interruptive advertising?

My position is the same as when I first started with Tool in 2009 and we founded the experience group at Tool. People don’t want the same old advertising experience and on the flip side, brands are looking for new ways to connect with consumers. This is a great space to play in, providing us the opportunity to connect brands with talent and opportunities that they may not be familiar with, giving us the ability to create something new and fresh. It’s super rewarding to help lead our clients into new territory (e.g. WebAR, Metaverse) and then, if we’ve done our job, watching the swell of press and social conversation happen around it.

Most recently, we collaborated with Verizon and R/GA to create a first-of-its-kind treasure hunt hidden in the Metaverse called H1DD3N. This was a large-scale AR installation that allowed users to experience a magical playground to find the Hidden iPhone 13. Every year there are new evolved ways for brands to connect with audiences and we are thrilled to be at the forefront of helping brands activate in ways that get people talking.

What does the process for determining what style of storytelling suits a brand’s needs best look like?

We have a 2-3 week discovery phase that has proven very successful in our collaboration with clients. It typically starts with a creative insight that allows our creative and tech teams to concept an experience that ladders back to a brand story. The mechanism we use to tell this (e.g. AR) is our creative special sauce that lets us use creative technology and experience as our canvas. The key to our collaboration is that we’re sharing WIP thinking every few days to encourage our clients to riff with us and open a conversation. This allows us to move rapidly and align on a creative strategy and concept that can move into production within a few weeks.

What is the last great piece of brand-funded entertainment coming from Tool that you enjoyed or comes to mind?

I’m very excited about a new branded web series we’re creating with Upwork called CoLab. It’s an episodic series that showcases how the freelance talent on Upwork’s marketplace can be partnered with brands to serve as an extension of their team and rapidly produce an amazing project. There is plenty of testimonial and case study type content for B2B brands currently in the marketplace, but we wanted to create something that would connect with people and businesses that is also entertaining. We brought on a producer from "Shark Tank” and crafted a series that shows the journey of a “dream team” of freelancers being partnered with entrepreneur and Top Chef winner Kristen Kish. Together they worked towards creating a culinary journal that reflects the self-journey that kids go through in identifying themselves. The proceeds of the journal are going towards the support of What’sInTheMirror? - a 501c3 organization that provides mental health awareness to communities of color through art, advocacy, and affirming care with a focus on women, youth, and LGBTQIA+ persons.

I’m excited about this series because we’re taking cues from the entertainment industry and rooting the business problems we’re solving to support real societal needs. You can check out the series here.

What’s next for Tool?

We will continue to evolve our model by identifying the most relevant talent for the next generation of advertising content (e.g. Metaverse) and figuring out this whole hybrid model of working!


About Dustin Callif

Dustin leads the day-to-day management of Tool, a creative production partner working with the world's most recognized brands, ad agencies and entertainment studios across content, experience and creative technology executions. Tool's mission is to help clients concept and produce creative marketing that achieves earned attention.

Working with clients such as Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, Facebook, Netflix, Google, Under Armour, Landrover, Intel, Starbucks, Nike, and others, Dustin’s projects have been recognized with numerous awards, including at the Emmys (2x), Cannes Lions (Palmes d'Or 2016 Winner), The Webby Awards, AICP Next, Clio Awards, One Show, SXSW, Ciclope, FWA, Awwwards, MTV VMAs, AICP, OMMA and Davey Awards. Dustin maintains an active presence in the interactive advertising and marketing industry, serving as a judge for the Emmy, Webby Awards, Effie Awards, and AICP Next Awards.

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