Tonight, the British advertising industry will converge on One Marylebone, once a 19th-Century church, for a very different sort of worship. The people of Adland will be out in force to celebrate the good work they all do (and to neck a few cocktails along the way too). For a solid hour hundreds of them will sit down to witness the unveiling of the 2013 APA Collection – a showcase of the most inspiring work created by the UK’s production companies and agencies in the past year.
You’ll have to wait until the premiere to find out who’s made it into the final selection, but to whet your appetite we spoke to some of the judges, who tirelessly trawled through the hours of entries to hand-pick the highest quality work for the showcase.
There was a lot to get through, admits Rupert Reynolds-Maclean, an Executive Producer at Independent, “especially as there’s more and more [online] content work getting included [in the entries],” he notes. “It’s not just 30 and 60 second spots anymore.” Now it’s a test of endurance.
“It’s quite gruelling,” says Rob Steiner, Executive Producer at Crispin Porter + Bogusky. He admits it was hard to keep focus after watching dozens of commercials, even though were good. “A bit like watching too much Breaking Bad,” he suggests for a comparison.
Another difficulty was choosing the right critical hat to put on. When you work in advertising and talk about it all the time it can be hard to see things as they are intended – for the audiences they are targeting. “I always try to judge from an audience point-of-view, outside from what’s fashionable” says Leila Bartlam, Head of Film at Havas Worldwide London.
Tim Page, Head of Broadcast at RKCR/Y&R, has a similar method. He ties to bring a fresh pair of eyes and asks three things: “is it grabbing my attention; is it telling me salient points about the product; and is it entertaining me?”
It was tough. One judge amassed six pages of notes, which is a fair bit considering it’s a multiple-choice rating system. But they got through it and were glad to be a part of the process.
“It was really nice to see everything,” says Rupert. “Sometimes when you’re busy you miss what’s come out, so it’s nice to have a little recap.”
Going into the judging this year, expectations weren’t at an all-time high. It’s no secret that production companies and agencies alike have felt their creativity throttled over the past few years.
We’re not in a heyday of advertising, admits Tim. “I think clients aren’t being quite as brave as they could be,” he says. “Or, arguably, some agencies aren’t being quite as brave as with their clients as they could be. Everyone’s a bit financially conscious at the moment. I don’t think anybody’s doing anything particularly wrong or the talent’s not there or we’re all becoming ultra-conservative. I think it’s a confidence thing.”
Before he started judging Hector Macleod, CEO of Glassworks, expected the entries to be disappointing. “Not because anyone’s worse at doing anything,” he stresses, “just because the appetite for risk and adventure is gone and that’s where great commercials come from. In this climate that’s not where people’s priorities are. The big organizations and big agencies have just squeezed their suppliers and as the big flannel gets wringed, we’re the water coming out of it.”
But ultimately Hector, like many of the judges, was pleasantly surprised. “I think this year it’s surprising how much good work there is,” he says. “When you see it all concentrated like that in front of you. It gives you faith. There’s been a lot of good stuff.”
Several judges remember that last year’s Collection was particularly good, but despite that they were impressed with the standard of entries put before them this time around. After watching the whole batch Rupert says he felt invigorated. “I was worried that this year’s work was lacking compared to the year before,” he says, “but I feel like the collection is just as strong as it was for the past couple of years.”
Rob was equally enthralled by the entries. “If I didn’t work in the industry and I sat down and watched those ads I would be very impressed,” he considers. “And despite the fact that I do work in the industry, I sit and watch those ads and I’m still impressed, even knowing what I know.”
Leila’s feelings on the work were more muted. “Whilst I don’t think there are as many good spots as last year,” she says, “the ones that are good are really exceptional.” She admired the work for John Lewis, Three Mobile, Vodafone and Virgin Atlantic, which she thinks displayed a refreshingly high level of craft and she loved how some of these harkened back to a time when creativity in TV advertising was all. “It made me feel very good about the industry,” she says.
Tim points out that the APA Collection serves as a gauge for the industry’s health, but says that he feels the level has dropped this year in terms of stand-out remarkable commercials. “The ideas and the bravery isn’t quite as sharp as it has been,” he says, “but the quality in terms of production is still there and always will be because there are some very good people in this country doing it. The craft around the British advertising industry is still exemplary.”
It is of course important to note that the APA Collection is a decidedly British affair – every film featured has a link to a British company or agency. It’s something for the UK to be proud of.
Tim Stephens, Media Director for the British European Design Group and Consultant to the University of the Arts, London, was not only a judge this year, but also showed off the APA Collection earlier this year at an advertising festival in Siberia, where he says there is a huge interest in British advertising. As somebody who knows various foreign advertising markets well, he thinks we often take for granted the level of quality that the Collection displays as it represents the British industry around the world.
“One expects a high standard,” he says. “In general the sequence of events that leads to the production of commercials in this country is tempered by the fact that people know their markets and know exactly how far to go. In other markets like China they are not aware of where they should pitch in the marketplace, so some of the advertising is really dire and some is extraordinary.”
Rob agrees that the Collection provokes a kind of patriotic pride in him every year. “Each time I see it, it reminds me of how incredible London is a centre of production,” he says. “It also reminds me why an agency like CP+B, who have done well in America, are here – to be in the position where they can buy some of these directors and make these commercials. It’s a hub of incredible talent.”
So what does Britain have to show off about this year? Rupert was glad to see a feast of visually focused film. “I think as we go on we get an increased awareness of the craft,” he says, “and it feels like there are more creatives working with the director on giving something really visually compelling, along with the written word.”
He also thinks this year will follow the trend that’s picked up in recent years for more online branded content being showcased. “It’s really good to see so much content,” he says – as Executive Producer of online film specialists Indy8 he’s particularly interested in this sector. “And especially the level of work that’s going into long-form advertising,” he adds. “It’s good to see that agencies are embracing it as well.”
“In the past it got chucked to a junior director, but I think now [clients and agencies] are just as interested in the bigger name directors getting involved in doing a five-minute film instead of a 60- or 90-second one.”
Clearly, this kind of work does still bring the young blood through, as Hector noticed watching the entries. “That is where people are taking risks more because there are less rules around it,” he says, “and it’s bringing in some really interesting directors.”
The impact of branded content is definitely being felt in many ways, as Leila points out. “There’s a lot of talk about online content and how those films are made for the audience,” she says. “They’re made as stories and what we’re seeing is that TV advertising is emulating that and it’s becoming more about engaging the audience in the story, rather than in a product-led way.”
This is all speculation, of course, albeit well-informed – the judges don’t know what’s got into the Collection yet either and are eager themselves to see what’s made the final grade. But whoever is chosen, one thing is certain. Tonight will be a good party.
“It’s one of my favourite nights of the year,” concludes Leila. “If there’s one thing I don’t want to miss it’s the APA Show. It’s a great night of celebration with all the right people and all the right discussions happening. And the format of showing all the ads is great. It’s one of the best.”
The APA Collection will be premiered at tonight's APA Show at One Marylebone, which begins with a drinks reception at 7pm.