The War on the Mundane

August 27, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Johnny Hardstaff’s honourable struggle against unmemorable advertising.

It’s not hard to work out why Johnny Hardstaff got into advertising. Growing up in the midlands, he was banned from watching commercial television as a child, so there was always a mystique around it for him. “I’d find my dad late at night watching ITV and loving it,” he remembers.

Now one of RSA Films’ top class directors, he admits the company’s namesake was also a big contributor to his early fascination with commercial filmmaking. He remembers seeing Chanel’s Share the Fantasy commercials, directed by Ridley Scott. “They came on and you were just sat there looking at these amazing fantasy worlds,” he says. “You don’t know who makes it. I think you think gods make it, or some strange mythical creatures like unicorns.”

Johnny’s sense of wonder for fantasy worlds has its influence on his latest work. His recent ads for Honda, Kenco and the Royal Marines all have an air of the supernatural about them. They’re also all remarkably memorable commercials. For him, saving advertising from the mundane is a war. He’s on the front lines, but he’s been picking his battles carefully, working only on the scripts he can push in the right direction.

“For my part, my plan is always to make advertising that the viewer could not have expected but actively wants to watch,” he explains. “It’s an ad, so it has to more than pay them back for their time invested in watching it. I think it helps that I actively like the advertising forum as much as I do.”

His latest work for Honda, Hot & Cold, is a bizarre jumble of visual ideas, nothing like a stereotypical car ad. “Right now car advertising is mostly generic and sanitised,” he says, pulling no punches. But just to make sure it stands out, this one has skeletons, music played backwards and what Johnny describes as the “stupid and painstaking process” of deep freezing automobiles and burning out cameras trying to constantly record the thawing very, very, slowly.

But that’s not what makes it stands out, according to the director. “I think Hot & Cold has a tone, a feeling that is very different to everything around it. It was born out of fun and play, and a great collaboration between very strong creative directors and creatives at Wieden+Kennedy, a strong client and myself, and that comes through I hope. We all took the pursuit of lightness incredibly seriously.”

It relies heavily on a wider language that the agency have crafted for Honda over the years. “They’ve taught us to read it and speak it,” he says. “It’s playful and assured, hand made and agreeably individual. It’s very human advertising and people like that. And it renders more conventional ‘safe’ advertising wholly impotent.”

The ad he shot for Kenco’s Coffee Vs Gangs campaign is a dreamlike vision of poverty and violence in Central America, overlaid with evocative animated tattoos designed by Rebecca Strickson to add a sense of magic. It’s exactly Johnny thinks advertising should be – captivating, risky and original, and shooting it was a unique experience too.

The film’s purpose is to promote the Coffee Vs Gangs programme, which has taken young Hondurans at risk of getting involved in a life of crime and taught them how to become coffee farmers, along with some basic maths and English.

It’s a welcome initiative. Life in Honduras, where Kenco grow their coffee, can be brutal. “The mortality rate is through the roof,” says Johnny. “Everybody joins [one of] two gangs. It’s ferocious. Google ‘Honduras gangs’ or something and it’s just pictures of heads on bonnets.”

It turns out the commercial had to be shot in Costa Rica rather than Honduras. “It’s impossible to get insured to go to that country,” Johnny says. The guys at RSA tried to call the British consulate there but couldn’t get hold of them, apparently because it had closed down. “It’s a warzone,” he says. It’s too dangerous to have a British consulate or embassy there.

The slums in San Jose, where they shot, weren’t much safer though. Their location manager was robbed at gunpoint and Johnny says they were forbidden to walk down certain streets for fear of straying into dangerous gang territory.

Despite that, he was shocked by how accommodating the locals were. “The people were lovely,” he says. “Even though they’ve got corrugated iron for walls and tea towels for curtains, I swear they’re happier than we are.”

The cast were all local slum-dwellers, which no doubt adds the to the realism of the film. The main kid lives with his mother. His house burnt down around a year ago. “What’s great is the money he gets from doing this ad will probably pay his mum’s rent for like the next three years,” says Johnny.

From an advertising perspective, Kenco are pushing things forward exactly how Johnny thinks brands should be. “It’s great that Kenco are having the balls to do this,” he says. “For a coffee brand. It’s not an edgy category by any stretch of the imagination.” This is heavily tattooed gang members, guns and rap music. No pack shot. No squeaky-clean ideal family or well-heeled celebrity reclining in his plush condo sipping coffee. There’s barely even any copy to explain the concept.

“In a landscape where everything is unmemorable, they’ve created something people do remember,” says Johnny. He sees this sort of thing as an antidote to the vast majority of advertising. “The client has become overly conscious and therefore conservative about how they’re perceived, whereas they should be trusting the agencies and directors and listening more and they’ll be in a wholly more thrilling environment.” On top of all that, it’s actually helping people. “If the idea is a benevolent initiative then even better,” he says.

As part of RSA’s newly launched design roster, Johnny hopes that the jobs coming his way will get even more diverse. He originally studied graphic design at St Martins and is all for the melding of styles and mediums.  “It’s really interesting when things become a hybrid or you get sensibilities coming through,” he says.

As someone with a very strong aesthetic style, it was interesting to see Johnny’s recent film for the Royal Marines was fairly light on the animation. While not exactly naturalistic, it was an overall sense of foreboding that made it stand out from the bizarrely friendly tone the military usually takes for recruitment. “There was an even darker cut,” he reveals. We’d love to see that.

In a jaded industry of bitter veterans, Johnny has hope that advertising can still inspire the wonder he felt as a kid in the midlands, watching Ridley Scott’s creations. “People may bemoan this mundane advertising landscape,” he says, “but there are still very smart clients who will actively want to differentiate themselves from all the dross. They come with a very different set of expectations, and that’s exclusively where I like to play. Kenco, I hope, in some way attests to this. In a smaller way, hopefully Honda does too. The Royal Marines film is more traditional on paper, and military recruitment is a tricky forum within which to be progressive, but still we managed to push things a little and speak to its target audience in a language they actually understand and appreciate.”

But no director can rely on daring scripts to land on his lap. The stuff that truly stands out has to be fought for.  “Mostly you have to actively help engender these opportunities by changing the process,” he explains. “Most people and organisations are averse to changing the process, but when you do really interesting things happen. Anything to disrupt the mundanity. So you get involved early. You help develop the creative. Quite often now you help sell the idea to the client. Whatever it takes.”

Jumping the Fence: Nyall Cook

August 20, 2014 / Features

By Nyall Cook

In our new series on poachers-turned-gamekeepers, Nyall Cook reflects on his transition from agency creative to director.

Nyall Cook
Was: Creative at Glue Isobar
Now: Director at Habana Creative


I recently completed my first commercial job as a director. It was for Tefal. The film is nice. It’s sweet, charming and even a little funny. Well, I hope so. See that’s what I’ve found the most challenging aspect of directing… actually pulling off your vision. My name is Nyall Cook, ex-agency creative, wannabe director.

I’m by no means the first creative to leave behind the brainstorms, internal politics, and leftover meeting food of agency life to chase a dream. Far from it. But I am the only one I know, out of the ‘recession generation’ of pre-30 year old creatives. So for now I have no one to directly relate to about making the jump from Keynote King to a behind-the-camera maestro.

To be honest, I’ve always been slightly in awe of the directors I’ve worked with. I owe my entire ‘creative reel’ to them. They took my scripts and scamps, and turned them into something magical. You see, being a creative is an awesome job, but also a tough one. You need to be relentless yet diplomatic. Fighting for ideas; yet taking criticism on the chin. The amount of work that goes in before directors are called in is staggering. I’ve always wanted to make ads. I got into advertising to make ads. But little did I know all those years ago, on the placement round, that I’d be assigned to a back row seat.

So, in September last year, I left big agency life to pursue a new path. It’s been hard, and slow to start, but an incredibly rewarding journey. I consider myself very lucky to bag this first commercial job. Any ‘young’ director would.

Interestingly, I’m now actually a partner at a production company, Habana Creative, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee commercial work. First off, I had to build a reel, and that isn’t fast or cheap. Secondly, I’ve never studied filmmaking, and had underestimated the immense technical understanding you need – I’d always had professionals to look after this for me - I had to learn a lot on the spot - thank you, personal projects.

So when the script came in, and the budget was pretty low, I took the opportunity. As helping directors with their treatments is part of my current role, I felt at home writing my own. I love writing treatments – I built a career writing creative presentations, and they’re not too dissimilar.

The tight budget actually became a bit of bonus for me, as it gave me lots of creative freedom to tell the story I wanted to tell. I feel setting the tone of your spot, and seeing it through to execution, is one of the most crucial aspects of a director’s responsibilities. And getting agencies and clients to agree to it, and share your vision, can be even harder.  

My first experience of this came when I had to present my treatment to Tefal. As a creative I took pleasure in presenting director’s treatments – as the good ones improve and build upon your idea – so naturally I wanted to present my own to the clients. Luckily the agency agreed. I think my years of presenting concepts were a real benefit here as the whole thing went smoothly.

Onto production… One of the aspects of my new job that I love the most is how collaborative it is. As an agency creative it’s easy to sometimes feel like the world is against you. But with directing it seems people always want to help you out - your producer, your casting director, your DoP, all the way through to your talent on the day. Brilliant. I also love the attention to detail as a director; I’m really keen on art direction and styling (I actually styled the spot) and loved creating my own little world. I found it all incredibly creatively fulfilling. 

Looking back on it now, I never fully appreciated the diverse skill sets a director needs. You have to be a good writer, a visual storyteller, direct acting, spot talent, lead a crew, collaborate with agencies and clients, and then there’s all your post-production responsibilities. It’s like piecing together a complicated puzzle, and if one piece doesn’t fit – you’re screwed. Directing is one of the most hands-on yet visionary jobs I can think of. Any good creative is a visionary, but making the jump to director involves technical understanding and craftsmanship. This can be tricky to grasp at first, but having the right people around you helps massively.

I loved the pace of my first commercial job, compared to slogging it out for 5 months on one campaign as a creative. But with pace comes an end. And now it’s all over. Although I help run Habana Creative, I don’t know exactly where my next commercial gig might come from. Opportunities don’t land on my desk daily anymore. It’s all about fighting for each and everyone one now. But if they’re anywhere near as rewarding as my first ad, I’m happy to fight for them all.

Essentially I think are pros and cons to working as a creative before directing. I fully understand the process of advertising; which agencies love. I get new trends, technologies and of course concepts, which I hope to add to. I grew up in this industry, but this could also be seen as a negative. Creatives love directors that will add an unexpected brilliance to their work, perhaps learnt from other industries; shooting promos, films, documentaries, and art installations – you name it. But then again I’ve got time to try my hand at all of these. And look forward to doing so.

Don’t Borrow Music Culture. Nurture It.

August 15, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Brands have always rented cool from the music world. It’s time they started building it.

The relationship brands and their agencies have with music is usually simple: find the perfect song to set off a commercial and get a licence for it. That’s the bread-and-butter of Chris Clark’s job. As Senior Music Producer at Leo Burnett in Chicago, it’s his responsibility to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of music and negotiate with record labels to get tracks licenced. When it works, it’s great. But Chris, along with many more people in the borderlands between brands and music, wants more than just licensing.

The far more exciting proposition is for brands and musical artists to partner and build relationships – to create something together way more powerful than just playing some music over some pictures. As he put it when I met him in Cannes, too much interaction between brands and music is “borrowing interest rather than participating in culture. It’s two totally different things.” This comment mirrors the title of the workshop he was a part of, which championed the latter for the good of the advertising and music industries alike. 

Thankfully for people like Chris, this is the kind of thing agencies and brands are beginning to explore and he admits they’re getting better. But having seen it done well, he has a lot of ideas on how to make it work. And the key, he says, is getting a balance between a brand’s business interests and the personal interests of the artist.

One North Star the advertising world can look to for guidance is Pharrell Williams – somewhat of an icon of the moment. He recently struck a deal with Adidas that ticks all the boxes. With his links to fashion, street culture and skate culture he’s exactly the sort of ambassador the sports brand drool over. Equally, Adidas have their own associations to music style that runs all the way back to Run DMC. Pharrell is personally passionate about environmental sustainability and has his own company called Bionic Yarn, who turn recyclable materials in to thread to make clothes from. The recent partnership consists of Bionic Yarn making the clothes for Pharrell’s Adidas Originals line – what a perfect fit.

In the Venn diagram of the brand’s values and the artist’s values, the aim is to find a match like this with as much overlap as possible. It may seem obvious, but an organic, two-way relationship of mutual benefit is the goal. That way it seems genuine and avoids that awkward feel of an artist being given a wheelbarrow of cash to promote a brand they don’t care about.

Of course a brand can simply to take a ride on an artist’s social metrics and influence. It’s tempting to go for the big numbers, but this is advertising – it’s an arcane and subtle art – it’s hard to make a simple case for the most efficient technique.

“People have to evaluate things that way and they’re going to,” admits Chris, “but that said there are still opportunities and artists or styles of music out there that may reflect what your brand is actually about. It’s looking at what your brand’s story is, what it stands for and then figuring out what out there in the culture – what thing, genre, or artist – is the right one to potentially partner with, collaborate and create something.”

Chris’ job is to make sure brands are paired with the right artists, not only the most famous ones. It’s about knowing the principles and tastes of these people and what their artistic contributions represent. “Depending on who is approaching an artist, sometimes people haven’t done their homework,” he says. “Sometimes people are literally just saying ‘what are their social metrics? They’re in the top five. Let’s go to them.’ That’s a human being! An artist. They stand for something. Their music stands for something. It’s not the right way to approach it.”

It’s also important to remember that despite living in an age of manufactured fame built on uncertain talent, real creativity is still, thankfully, vital to music. Artists are creatives, so why shouldn’t agencies include them in the creative process? “An artist can collaborate just like your art director and copywriter, sitting at a desk hitting their heads against it,” Chris asserts. “Artists are willing to sit down and try to do something cool, because that’s all they do. They’re just trying to stay relevant, stay artistic, stay true to themselves.”

After all, they have built brands for themselves already.  Their musical output, their media profile, their appearance – all these things contribute to a public idea of what they represent – and in this age of social media many of them have built this completely independently of record labels or managers. To rise to prominence in today’s musical landscape takes an acute awareness of brand marketing.

Ne-Yo, who Chris shared the stage with at this year’s Cannes Lions, is a personal embodiment of a brand. Chris explains the brand the pop singer has built: “whenever anyone says his name it’s style, sophistication, sexy, well-dressed, a casual demeanour, humble but the right amount of flash. That’s what I think immediately when I think of him. That’s a brand. He created that. His music and art follow suit. But based on what he’s built he has to choose the right marketing for his product.”

One way to make sure a partnership is genuine is to find an artist who genuinely already supports the brand. This may seem to fit in the traditional celebrity endorsement category, which is cheesy on Bruce Forsythe levels, but done right it can be a strong foundation for a genuine collaboration with that artist – a conversation they are happy to have.

Cosmetics company Mac have worked with Kiwi singer-songwriter sensation Lorde recently, building on the helpful fact that Lorde absolutely loves Mac cosmetics. She’s just developed and launched a new range with them, taking the partnership much further than straight endorsement. It’s smart – while film stars and models have traditionally graced billboards, advertisers have recently started to figure out that music artists have more dedicated fans, even tribes like Directioners, Little Monsters, the Beygency.

The job of people like Chris is to find these authentic partnerships and let everyone know who would be willing to work with what brand.

One point that may not seem obvious here is that working between the spaces of brands and music doesn’t have to be about harnessing the power of A-listers. Converse is an example Chris gives to illustrate a brand that has an honest place in music culture without the need for big names. It’s not all about numbers of fans, as hard as it may be to convince clients of that.

It all started for Converse back in the ‘70s. Scuzzy New York punks – the Ramones and co – wore their affordable shoes because they were broke. Since then they’ve been on the feet of every scuzzy rock band from AC/DC to Nirvana. It took a while for the brand to catch on, but their history validates them as participants in music culture – not only a brand trying to borrow its aura of cool.

“That’s the nice thing about it,” says Chris. “To try to participate as a brand in music culture doesn’t have to be with an A-list artist. It could be embracing a genre or a scene. It could be embracing a group of artists who are all doing something similar.”

For brands to become part of the music world is easier today. With it becoming increasingly hard to make money out of music, there’s space for that deficit to be filled by money from business. But straight sponsorship should be avoided, suggests Chris. What he’s after is heartfelt support of an artistic industry that needs the help.

If a product is allowing people to experience music, collaborating and nurturing creativity, that’s how a brand can earn the respect of music fans. Converse run Rubber Tracks Studio in Brooklyn, New York, where emerging bands can come and record for free – something extremely valuable to the music community that has made Converse the brand it is today. Similarly Red Bull have the Red Bull Music Academy, schools teaching people who want to make an impact on the music industry. The coolest brands are already doing it, but there’s space for much more. 

“You have to create something outside of just a message,” says Chris. “And if you are creating something that can be experienced within a certain culture and you understand the culture, good for you, you’re a braver brand than most.”

Signed: Nicolas Davenel

August 15, 2014 / Signed/Unsigned

By The Beak Street Bugle

Able&Baker sign a French image-maker with a savage, motorized aesthetic.

Breton director Nicolas Davenel is the latest young spark to join the burgeoning ranks of Able&Baker.

Having started his career in film as an editor, Nicolas first moved behind the camera to direct a stop-motion video for French garage rock outfit The Parisians – a process he looks back on the long and painstaking process of assembling it in post-production.

From there on Nicolas worked on various projects, some more commercial than others, with varying degrees of creative freedom and room for experimentation, from music videos to fashion films, online content and TVCs.

His fascination with all things motorized – particularly those on two wheels – is apparent in his video for Birdy Nam Nam’s Defiant Order, which stages an adolescent romance narrative within a real suburban bike gang. He’s also in production on Live Fast // Ride Slow, a feature documentary about US moped gangs.

Watch some of his work here:

High Five: August

August 14, 2014 / High Five

By Alex Reeves

A handful of ads that prove brave is best.

The advertising industry talks about bravery and risk a lot these days. Without risk-taking, the argument goes, your good work will never be great. There’s a lot of truth in that, as our pick of this month’s best advertising demonstrates. None of these films would have been made if the clients, agencies and production companies had been afraid of doing something courageous and different.

Brand: Ikea

Title: Beds

Production Company: MJZ

Director: Juan Cabral

Production Company Producer: Stephen Johnson

Director of Photography: Eric Gautier

Ad Agency: Mother

Editing Company: Work

Editor: Neil Smith

Sound Company: 750mph

Sound Designer: Sam Ashwell

Post Production Company: MPC

Ikea - Beds

Appropriating Shakespeare to sell furniture is a ballsy move, riddled with risks. Not least the chance that it will just go over everyone’s heads. But it’s better to overestimate than patronise your audience, right? Anyway, the lofty rhetoric about the ephemeral nature of human experience is matched very nicely by the esoteric visuals brought together by Juan Cabral. It stands out, both visually and aurally. And in advertising, that’s one of the most vital battles won.


Brand: Imperial War Museum

Title: Flight of the Stories

Production Company: Aardman

Director: Darren Dubicki

Production Company Producer: Helen Argo

Ad Agency: Johnny Fearless

Art Director: Pia Knight

Copywriter: Paul Domenet

Agency Producer: Christian Lobo

Music Company: Soviet Science

Sound Company: GCRS

Sound Designer: Ben Leeves

Post Production Companies: Aardman, Big Buoy

Imperial War Museum – Flight of the Stories

Befitting of one of Britain’s most illustrious museums, this film has reserve, class and dignity. Considering the unprecedented horrors soldiers fighting in the trenches of the First World War faced, it’s powerful that the selected quotations are so optimistic. With an intriguing style of animation illustrating the metaphor, it’s a distinctive piece that sets off the idea quite poetically.


Brand: Johnnie Walker

Title: The Gentlemen’s Wager

Production Company: RSA Films

Director: Jake Scott

Production Company Producers: Jules Daly and Tracie Norfleet

Director of Photography: John Mathiesson, ASC

Ad Agency: Anomaly

Creatives: Mike Byrne, Dave Douglass

Agency Producer: Winslow Dennis

Editing Company: Peep Show

Editor: Andrea MacArthur

Music Company: Eclectic

Composers: Smith & Elms

Sound Company: Heard City

Sound Designer: Cory Melious

Post Production Company: The Mill

Johnnie Walker – The Gentleman’s Wager

Let’s be honest. Jude Law’s starring role makes this short film’s success a bit of a forgone conclusion. Once they had the name, they didn’t need to put much effort into making a film. Thankfully, RSA have bothered to make the effort though. And for a film about a man doing a dance, it’s pretty epic. With a clearly aspirational audience in mind, it might be a bit beguiling to most of us, (the way the 1% live…) but it’s a sumptuous piece of filmmaking and, importantly, it doesn’t feel like an ad.


Brand: Royal Marines

Title: They Come from the Sea

Production Company: RSA Films

Director: Johnny Hardstaff

Production Company Producer: Ben Link

Ad Agency: WCRS

Creative Director: Billy Faithfull

Creatives: Katy Hopkins, Steve Hawthorne

Agency Producer: Lizzie Mabbott

Editing Company: The Whitehouse

Editor: John Smith

Sound Company: Wave

Sound Designer: Joe Mount

Post Production Company: MPC

Royal Marines – They Come from the Sea

The best thing about this is the contrast to the optimistic, sometimes even patronising tone we see repeatedly in other armed forces’ recruitment ads. It doesn’t completely disguise the dark side of the military, making the Royal Marines seem more like a mythical band of ninjas rather than sanctimonious heroes of the free world, which is brave on the part of the client. The fear of their victim is tangible, and it’s down to the filmmaking talent of Johnny Hardstaff that makes it so nightmarish. Refreshingly sinister.


Brand: Three

Title: We’re Sorry

Production Company: Hungryman

Director: Ric Cantor

Production Company Producer: Jack Beardsley

Director of Photography: Mike George

Ad Agency: Wieden+Kennedy London

Creative Directors: Scott Dungate, Graeme Douglas

Art Director: Greg Kouts

Copywriter: Anthony Atkinson

Agency Producer: Michelle Brough

Editing Company: Ten Three

Editor: Billy Mead

Music Company: Finger Music

Sound Company: Finger Music

Sound Designer: Tom Joyce

Post Production Company: Time Based Arts

Three – We’re Sorry

Some of the best ad campaigns in history have turned a negative into a positive. It’s clever of Wieden+Kennedy to admit the downside of Three’s new feature, allowing its customers to use their UK allowance in 16 foreign counties. The fake apology is another familiar trope, but that shouldn’t take away from the brilliance of this campaign. It’s genuinely amusing and the point about the product is clearly made. Plus, it’s a message we can all get behind: stop holiday spam. Here, here.