In the lengthy history of advertising, only a few actors have become virtually inseparable from the campaigns they starred in.
Clara “Where’s the Beef?” Peller. Jonathan “The Most Interesting Man in the World” Goldsmith. Stephanie “Flo” Courtney.
And, of course, Isaiah “Old Spice Guy” Mustafa. His luxuriant voice, svelte physique and signature swagger have been unforgettable since his first “Hello, ladies” in 2010.
It’s the role of a lifetime, but as such roles often are, it has provided Mustafa with obstacles as well as opportunities. Between landing the Old Spice role and a key part in 2019’s massively successful It: Chapter 2, Mustafa faced periods of career uncertainty and self-doubt.
In lieu of a traditional April Fools’ Day prank, Adweek this year decided to surprise rising ad talents by inviting them into what they thought was a Zoom interview, then bringing in special VIP guests from across the industry.
Mustafa volunteered to take part, and the resulting video of his chat with creatives Mary Buzbee and Lauren Meadows of Birmingham, Ala., agency Lewis Communications covers a wide range of lessons he learned along a fascinating career that began unexpectedly with the NFL and led to major success on screens of all sizes.
As Mustafa explains in the video, about two years into his role as the Old Spice Guy, he began to feel like his acting options were being limited by the pop culture success of his ads.
“From 2012 to about 2015, I didn’t really have a direction,” he said. “I didn’t have a show I was on. I was still under contract with Old Spice, but there were no new spots or anything. I was just kind of floating out there. And it can work on you. You begin to question yourself: What am I doing? What am I not doing right?”
Mustafa said he even reached out to former Wieden + Kennedy copywriter Eric Kallman, who’d written the Old Spice ads before moving on to other agencies (eventually founding Erich & Kallman). But the response made Mustafa realize his well-known role might be difficult to escape.
“I was like, ‘Is there anything there I can help you with or work on?'” Mustafa recalled. “And [Kallman] said, ‘I’d love for you to help me with stuff, but if I put you in a spot, you’ll sell deodorant.’ He was telling the truth, and it hurt to hear that. But when he said that, it opened my eyes.”
Mustafa said that time in his career led him to challenge himself to pursue new creative outlets and focus on defining goals that would truly make him feel fulfilled.
“Those are the moments you need to really take the opportunity to do some introspection,” he said. “‘What is it I want to do? What are the goals I want to achieve?’ Not, ‘How do I want people to hire me?’ or ‘How do I want people to perceive me?’ But ‘What do I want to do?'”
Mustafa said the key is to “dig into yourself.”
“What is it you love? What is it you’re passionate about?” he asked the creatives. “You feel that fire. It feels good to do something you’re passionate about. There’s nothing that feels better than doing something you actually like doing.”
Here’s a look back at Mustafa’s famed original Old Spice ad, followed by two of his ad appearances in 2020: