Do we need to cry before we buy at Christmas?

December 18, 2014 / Features

By David Beattie

Brands have made a tradition of making people cry at Christmas, notices VCCP Creative Director David Beattie.

Every year I dabble with trying something new for Christmas. Maybe I’ll ditch the turkey in favour of another dry roasted meat. Maybe I’ll get all my shopping done early and avoid the last minute dash around Oxford Street. Maybe I’ll pace myself and not drink myself into a coma at every Christmas party. Maybe I’ll go somewhere hot and pretend that Christmas doesn’t even exist. But every year I have the same answer… I love my Christmas and it wouldn’t be Christmas without the traditions I have built up over the years. And for me, that includes the annual competition from advertisers to make the nation cry. And this year’s annual dropping of the ‘feelings bomb’ has been no different.

So, with the party season already taking its toll, the last minute shopping panic already setting in, and as I begin to prepare for a day of reindeer jumpers, copious amounts of food and drink and a snoozy Christmas afternoon – I asked myself do we need to cry to buy this Christmas.

Once again I looked to John Lewis to kick off the tear fest and they didn’t disappoint. Monty the Penguin’s heartfelt story of companionship hit the top of my cry-o-meter (sad soppy git that I am) and the production value was nothing short of what I have come to expect from a John Lewis Christmas ad. The warm and cosy feeling I expected was achieved. However, unlike last year’s Bear and the Hare story, it lacked the element of the unexpected that I was craving. Greedy, I know. And normally that wouldn’t matter, especially over Christmas where change for me is usually sacrilege. But I felt myself wanting more.

And ‘more’ for me was what Sainsbury’s delivered. Their tribute to fallen soldiers was both emotional and unexpected. The story was beautifully brought to life and - maybe because of my love for the beautiful game - hit me in the heart like a tonne of bricks. On first viewing I was a little taken aback. A famous but untold WW1 war story being used by a supermarket to sell its brand over Christmas… I wasn’t sure if it felt right at first. But on second, third, tenth viewing it was perfect. The story needed to be told and I for one thank Sainsbury’s for telling it. It was handled with the care, attention and all the love it deserved.

And the tear fest kept on coming. Boots has pulled on the heartstrings also, showing a family waking up in the early hours of Boxing Day so that they can celebrate it with their mum, a nurse who comes back from her night shift. A lovely story that brings to life the fact that people are the most important aspect of any Christmas. With many years of having to share my mum with her work on Christmas day, it really hit home.

Not all of this year’s ads needed to be new. The sound of Coca-Cola’s ‘Holidays are Coming’ and Toy’s R Us’ ‘Magical Place’ adverts being re-run are also a tradition I couldn’t live without. They have been a big part of growing up for me and every time I see them, or more specifically hear the music, it always reminds me of the excitement I felt around Christmas as a child. For me, it also proves that not everything has to be a heartwarming story and that a classic can create the same emotion - as long as you have a relationship with it previously.

But is all this crying really necessary? Sparkle, glitz and celebration are also powerful tools to use over the Christmas period. Marks and Spencer’s ‘Follow the Fairies’ and Argos’ ‘Get set for Advent’ are both great examples of how you can create excitement around a brand over Christmas without having to pull on people’s heartstrings.

Beautifully put together, Marks and Spencer’s ‘Follow the Fairies’ was pure sparkle - reminding me that luxury is a huge part of gift giving for Christmas.

And Argos’ ‘Get Set for Advent’ was a great example of how advertising can help people reappraise a brand through injecting a little energy and fun into its communications - even if I do miss their laminated book of dreams during the festive season. 

With all that said… talkability - or populating culture as we call it at VCCP - is a great indicator of how effective any advert is. So for me the ads that have created the most buzz – be it your parents discussing it over dinner, or friends chatting about it down the pub, people sharing it on Facebook or even the news and TV programmes referencing it as a feature story – are the ones that have succeeded, and the tearjerkers get the most coverage all the time.  Do we need to cry before we buy? Well, only time will tell, but if people are talking about it it’s cut through and thus half the job is done. I for one have made our annual dropping of the ‘feelings bomb’ a part of my Christmas tradition, and hope that advertisers’ competiveness to make the nation cry the hardest lasts for a very long time to come.     

David Beattie
Creative Director at VCCP - and Christmas softy

Do You Need a Penis to Direct Ads?

December 15, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

The Swedish One of Three initiative reminds us of the terrible gender imbalance in the global ad industry.

The Swedish advertising industry recently made a bold move for equality. Five years ago a survey found that out of 130 commercials directors in Sweden only six were women. By 2014 little progress had been made. The industry has responded by introducing the En av Tre (One of Three) initiative, which states that for each pitch between an advertising agency and production companies, at least one in three directors should be a woman. This was written into the Swedish production and agency associations’ joint pitch guidelines in October, setting a new standard.

In exploring the issue it feels like I’ve spoken to half the London advertising industry and I’ve encountered every opinion from “fucking brilliant” to “the most sexist thing I’ve ever heard.” Thankfully, while Sweden’s choice of solution divides opinion, everyone recognises the problem the ad industry faces.

The Swedish guideline is a radical reaction, but in the face of the inequality it’s hardly surprising. While advertising is a business that prides itself in being trendy and creative, its demographics tell a different story.

Joi Persson runs Swedish production company Folke Film and recently signed a second female director to his roster. He supports the initiative. “I think it’s good,” he says, “and, sadly enough, needed because it will be very hard to change, especially when the commercials industry is pretty conservative. You pretty much need to be a guy [who is] a friend of some other guy who works as a copywriter or art director.”

This boys’ club culture is global and the UK is no exception. Out of all the directors listed on the rosters of Advertising Producers Association member production companies just nine per cent are female. That's pathetic.

Toby Moore, a Creative Director at Wieden+Kennedy London, has only worked with one female director in his ten years in advertising. “That’s just strange,” he says. “But not so strange when I’ve never worked for a female ECD. And when our houses of parliament, sporting fields and boardroom tables are dominated by men.”

Feminism has taken some blows recently, resulting in a worrying trend for people starting sentences with “I’m not a feminist, but…”. But even the misogynists of Adland should be able to support One of Three’s sentiment because diversity is good for advertising. “Film, which relies on diversity of vision to keep the medium vibrant, needs more women directing that vision,” says Toby. “Without female directors, the medium suffers.”

Lindsey Clay, Chief Executive of Thinkbox, think it’s slightly more nuanced. “It’s not saying that just because you have a male director you will get a skewed, misogynistic view of women,” she says, “because that plainly isn’t true. But variety and diversity of point of view is a good thing and you get insights and reflections that you wouldn’t get from men.”

Of course directors should be selected on merit. A creative agency should choose the best director from the options available to bring their script to life. But when you look at the numbers, it seems impossible that this is the simple reality of how things currently work. Are nine out of ten scripts really best served by a male director?

The advertising industry is in some respects very meritocratic. Kai-Lu Hsiung, Managing Director of Ridley Scott Associates estimates that their runners are 50/50 male and female. “Ridley jokes that it’s like film school here sometimes because you find out quite early on what [aspect of filmmaking] they like. More of the women this time around want to start directing. So that’s a healthy thing, rather than going into wardrobe or something.” With no formal training required for many positions, the doors are open to anyone with the passion and intelligence for it. And the female voice is being heard in advertising, with women succeeding at every level – just not enough of them.

“We have to be very mindful to make sure we get a variety of people in [the ad industry] from different backgrounds,” says Kai. “It’s not just people you know. We’re trying to look for talent from all walks of life. That’s what keeps the business interesting and varied.”

Deputy Executive Creative Director at Grey London, Vicki Maguire, is familiar with the well-rehearsed arguments of this discussion. “Every time we have this debate in our office everybody trots out ‘it doesn’t matter who does the work as long as it’s good,’” she says, “but studies have proven like employs like. If you recognise what’s good within your department and you employ like then you are just going to dilute that influence pool.” She remembers when she first started at an agency “it was full of Oxbridge blokes and Northern men made good. So it wasn’t just gender. It was geographical as well.” We’ve made some progress since then, at least.

In a rational world, advertising would have no diversity issues. But people aren’t rational. Neuroscience has shown us that decisions are made on more of gut feeling and, since we are naturally clannish in nature, an industry built in sexist times by men selects men to continue the sexist business. This makes it tough for women at various levels. Firstly, in finding representation, secondly, in being chosen to pitch on scripts, and, thirdly, in winning those jobs.

To be clear, this is not the overt sexism of the Mad Men era, and we can be thankful for that. Much of it is subconscious. We have a set of norms that inform our decisions; ideas in our head of what a director (or copywriter, editor etc.) looks like. It seems likely that this influences how we evaluate people. Unfortunately this means everyone adds to the problem, even female creative directors who want to end sexism in advertising.

Another obstacle for women in advertising is the way their behaviour is perceived. To succeed as a commercials director you have to have a lot of meetings, which require confidence and leadership skills. Some people I spoke to suggested that traits that would be respected in a man are met with disapproval in a woman. It’s become a cliché that women with powerful roles are cast as “bossy” where no man would receive that label, but there’s truth to it. The way our gendered society creates men and women shapes our personalities.

Maybe girls don’t aspire to become directors, some of my interviewees suggested. “There’s a lack of ambition,” says Joanna Bailey, a director at Bare Films, “because maybe they’ve been brought up to believe that that could never be theirs.”

Lay on top of this the fact that female directors are often pigeonholed into a softer style and end up shooting ads for domestic and beauty brands – a force that’s hard to resist. “I did a lot of beauty advertising when I was younger,” remembers Sara Dunlop, a director at Rattling Stick, “and the odd ad comes through that’s great, fresh and new, but in that world it’s very difficult to do creative advertising. It’s too specific, like ‘what does this cream do?’ It hasn’t developed at all. For me it’s the scale of idea I want. And if you look at my reel it isn’t girly.” That involves saying no a lot, which she admits is hard. “Once you start saying no it’s like 21s. You keep turning over the cards and if the next card isn’t as good you’ve got to keep going.”

None of these obstacles are great for gender diversity in advertising. And, as the Swedes have concluded, the balance seems unlikely to tip on its own. Their answer has been the One of Three initiative, encouraging advertising agencies to at least consider female directors. “It gives them a way to change their bad habits and traditional ways of working,” says Henrik Eriksson, Chairman of Commercial Producers for the Swedish Film & TV Producers Association, who brought in the initiative.

Nothing like One of Three has been attempted in the advertising industry before, but similar examples of affirmative action are worth looking at. The Rooney Rule, introduced in 2003 to America’s National Football League, made it obligatory for teams to interview ethnic minority candidates for head coaching and senior roles. Within three years, the proportion of African American coaches had jumped from six to 22 per cent. 

Sweden have a track record for this kind of approach. Four of their major political parties have gender quotas to make sure men and women are represented equally. And they’re almost there on that front, with 45 per cent of seats in their parliament occupied by women.

Whether this is the right course of action for advertising remains to be seen. “It’s different with politicians,” says Kai. “You understand the fact that it’s reflecting society and therefore their opinions are important, whereas when you’re talking about creativity, it shouldn’t be about your sex. It should be about whether you’re a creative person.” Piling regulation onto the industry is a blunt instrument, and opinion is fiercely divided on the subject of positive discrimination. It’s suddenly a disadvantage to be a male director.

Some suggest a more subtle approach, based on encouraging and educating people on gender and celebrating the best female directors as role models. Daniel Bergmann, Chairman and EP of production company Stink, says he would love to see the outcome of One of Three, but he wants more initiatives in education and business to support female directors too. More female voices on award juries, opinion columns and at conferences. “There is a lot of positive focus on female business leadership,” he says, “but I feel there is definitely a gap for more contribution in these areas from female minds.”

No director would want to be given a script to pitch for on the basis of her gender. Benefiting from sexism is isn’t satisfying. “In pitching, [female directors] have got a better chance than a male, just by their sex. Is that fair?” asks Matthew Fone, President of Riff Raff. “Not really. But how else do you kickstart this? You have to go to this extreme level to make people aware. Natural progression just doesn’t happen. Why is that? It’s stupid.”

Unfortunately it’s easy to foresee some women being brought in on pitches as tokens now this new initiative is in effect. “If you feel like you’re just pitching and pitching, never in with a chance and just there because you’re the token woman, I think you’d feel pretty bad,” says Kai. Most of my interviewees agree. It’s a situation sure to leave a bad taste for all.

“I want to be there because my showreel’s good,” says Joanna. “I really don’t want to be there because of my gender. But on the other hand I absolutely recognise that it’s an issue. I love it when women come into the office and are good and I really want to see women do well.”

From a business perspective, some have speculated it could end up wasting production companies a lot of time, effort and money if their female directors keep pitching without converting those chances into work. And since directors’ treatments became the behemoth they are today, that could be a significant blow.

Another worry I heard from several my interviewees was that there wouldn’t be enough supply for the demand One of Three creates. They say the top flight of female directors are already working hard. Sara already spends a lot of time treating on scripts. “There’s definitely pitch fatigue if you’re doing treatment after treatment. And not being genuinely considered after that would be worse.” How will they find time to fit any more pitching into their schedule?

The hope is that production companies will stock this new market by finding and signing new female talent. With more chances to get on pitches, a more diverse roster has business advantages. We’re already seeing this take effect in Swedish production companies, who have known about the guideline’s introduction for months and responded by signing women to their directing rosters. “It’s a good opportunity to secure producers’ position of investing in talent,” says Henrik. “Suddenly producers are thinking ‘if I don’t have a female on my roster I won’t see some of the work in the business.’”

The obvious criticism here is that, again, those women are just tokens, signed on the basis of their gender rather than on merit. That’s true, and many of them will lack the talent to win jobs. As a production company owner, Joi accepts this risk. “That’s a responsibility that the production companies and agencies have to take,” he says. “We have to do it, as I see it.” Some producers will learn the hard way that quality still counts.

“Personally I wouldn’t want to be the nominal women that gets the job just because she’s a woman,” says director at Teepee Productions Nicole Volavka. “But putting someone on a pitch isn’t giving them the job. It’s just giving them a chance. A lot of the time I don’t think women are getting those chances.

“I think if you started to allow more women onto the pitches through positive discrimination, you might find that there’s a whole army of women who want that job very much more than the guys and will go all out and deliver a phenomenal pitch.” It feels likely that the quality will eventually come through as the new system stabilises.

Eventually. That’s the key to the One of Three philosophy. The change will cause problems and difficulties, but the need for gender equality is so deep that the Swedish ad industry is willing to work with them. These are all short-term problems set against a sexist tradition that predates advertising and a more equal, stimulating future.

Vicki recognises the trouble of strong-arming equality, but believes it will ultimately achieve a new, better equilibrium. “Once you’ve forced women into those jobs or at least got that balance right, then like any industry the good stay and the bad drop out. So first of all it’s good for gender and then it’s good for the industry.”

Once a proper gender balance is achieved we shouldn’t need guidelines like this. By the law of averages, more women pitching should translate into more directing ads. And not only for tampons and dresses, but for sports brands, cars and alcohol. “There will be a number of jobs where it was always going to go to Ringan [Ledwidge] and the other people are just pitch fodder,” Lindsey admits. “But there are the ones where they totally expect it to go to Ringan, but then suddenly they get a leftfield, completely different treatment that they weren’t expecting and it really suits them. They get a really good vibe from that partnership and [the female director will] get it.” That should help women build more interesting reels, which will bring them further success. And eventually, eventually, we should have prominent female role models for aspiring directors to admire. Then there should be more female directors.

Of course all this is hypothetical. My interviewees consistently expressed an interest in what kind of effect this change will have. Advertising will be watching the Swedish market closely, because whatever happens, the industry can learn from it.

Daniel is fascinated to see the outcome. “If exposed well and supported by agencies accepting scripts – from sport, automotive, and alcoholic beverages to fashion, music and luxury – then there is no reason why the balance between male and female directors going for roles for any brand cannot be achieved. If it is going to help drive change and impact on a global level, the initiative needs high exposure.”

Henrik believes this could be the beginning of a global shift towards equality in advertising. “If it becomes bigger than this, I think it can start a change, he says. “Not only in Sweden. I think we can improve other countries.”

A short recommendation in a regulatory document isn’t a revolution by itself, and the ad industry won’t reach its gender diversity promised land for many years. But having spoken to a cross-section of its professional population, one thing is clear – everyone is glad we’re talking about female directors. And they’re keen to make sure the conversation continues. After all, as one (obviously male) copywriter once wrote for his client, it’s good to talk.

High Five: December

December 5, 2014 / High Five

By Alex Reeves

Are you ready for Winter Consumerfest 2014? The best ads of the month might help.

Ding dong merrily on high! It’s that time of year again when capitalism goes into overdrive, with companies splurging huge chunks of their marketing budgets on schmaltzy nonsense to try to convince us to open our wallets for them. And all thanks to the birth of a Middle Eastern baby who may or may not have existed around two millennia ago. Cheers, Jesus.

We’ve certainly got a lot more yuletide marketing come yet, but here’s our rundown of the best efforts the ad industry made in November. Thankfully this year’s Christmas advertising isn’t all schmaltzy nonsense. Some of it’s just schmaltzy.

Brand: Freeview
Title: Left Behinds
Production Company: Rogue
Director: Sam Brown
Production Company Producer:  Kate Hitchings
Ad Agency: Leo Burnett London
Creative Directors: Richard Robinson, Graham Lakeland
Creatives: Rob Tenconi, Mark Franklin
Agency Producer: Becky O’Sullivan
Editing Company: Final Cut
Editor: James Rosen
Sound Company: Wave
Sound Designer: Aaron Reynolds
Post Production Company: Electric Theatre Collective

Freeview – Left Behinds

We’re quite used to this kind of advertising. Cuteness, everyday setting, clever CGI and a corker of a power ballad to burrow into your brain for the rest of the day. There’s certainly a formula at work here, but we shouldn’t let that fool us into thinking it’s bad. With some of the very best craftsmen realising the script, it’s ended up more than the sum of its parts – a charming film that warms the soul. And a nice Christmas present for Foreigner, without whose track the whole thing would be undermined. A masterstroke of licensing.


Brand: John Lewis
Title: Monty the Penguin
Production Company: Blink
Director: Dougal Wilson
Production Company Producer: Ewen Brown
Director of Photography: Joost Van Gelder
Ad Agency: adam&eveDDB
Creative Directors: Ben Priest, Emer Stamp Ben Tollett
Creatives: Daniel Fisher, Richard Brim
Agency Producers: Matt Craigie, Cave Ellson
Editing Company: Final Cut
Editor: Joe Guest
Sound Company: Factory
Sound Designers: Anthony Moore, Neil Johnson
Post Production Company: MPC

John Lewis – Monty the Penguin

The John Lewis Christmas Advert. Somehow, a fairly ordinary department store has managed to carve out a slice of Christmas tradition in Britain.  There are probably people who say “my Christmas starts with the John Lewis ad” (mercifully we haven’t met those people). This year’s offering delivers on so many levels. A wintery tearjerker in which a cute boy buys his cute penguin a cute mail-order bride. It’s heart-warming for the softies and easy to lampoon for the cynics, as the many parody responses have proven. Beautifully written and expertly made, it’s everything John Lewis asked for.


Brand: Maille
Title: Memorable Guest
Production Company: Outsider
Director: James Rouse
Ad Agency: adam&eveDDB
Creative Directors: Richard Brim, Daniel Fisher
Creatives: Alex Lucas, Jon Farley
Agency Producer: Jack Bayley
Editing Company: Work
Editor: Bill Smedley
Sound Company: Factory
Sound Designer: Anthony Moore
Post Production Company: Finish

Maille – Memorable Guest

It’s unclear whether many people will see this online film, which is a shame because it’s funny. Made very much to the old template of a ‘viral video’, its success will depend on the right people sharing it online (and how much seeding Maille pay for). James Rouse made his name doing willy jokes on the internet and he’s still one of the best at this art form, delivering his unmistakable brand of nuanced comic performance. Respect to Maille for buying this filth. For a mustard brand with heritage, it’s a leftfield strategy.


Brand: Sainsbury’s
Title: Christmas is for Sharing
Production Company: Rattling Stick
Director: Ringan Ledwidge
Production Company Producer: James Hatcher
Director of Photography: Alwin Kuchler
Ad Agency: AMV BBDO
Creative Directors: Alex Grieve, Adrian Rossi, Michael Durban, Tony Strong
Creative: Tim Riley
Agency Producers: Rebecca Scharf, Nikki Holbrow, Kate O’Mulloy
Editing Company: Work
Editor: Rich Orrick
Music Company: Woodwork Music
Sound Company: Wave
Sound Designer: Aaron Reynolds
Post Production Company: The Mill

Sainsbury’s – Christmas is for Sharing

As if people weren’t talking about the Christmas ads enough already, Sainsbury’s go and throw some controversy into the mix. We’ve all heard both sides of the argument over whether it’s in good taste or not, but it’s hard to deny that it’s a rousing piece of film about one of the most heartening moments in human history, set against a backdrop of one of the most horrifying moments in human history. Take the Sainsbury’s logo off the end we’d be united in support for this excellent piece of storytelling.


Brand: Think!
Title: Don’t Drink and Drive 50th Anniversary
Production Company: Rogue
Director: Mark Zilbert
Production Company Producer: James Howland
Director of Photography: Jaime Feliu-Torres
Ad Agency: AMV BBDO
Creative Directors: Steve Jones, Martin Loraine
Creatives: Mike Sutherland, Martin Loraine
Agency Producer: Nick Godden
Editing Company: Final Cut
Editor: James Rosen
Sound Company: Wave
Post Production Company: The Mill

Think! - Don’t Drink and Drive 50th Anniversary

This one’s definitely no schmaltzy nonsense, but’s still emotional. Christmas is all about tradition. Sadly, road accidents caused by drink driving are one seasonal custom that we’ve found hard to shake off, proven by the fact that the government have needed PSAs like this for 50 years. The idea here is actually very smart. It manages to get across a message we’ve heard too many times in a compelling way, and reminds us that for the emergency services, it’s not necessarily the most wonderful time of the year.


Blurred Lines: The Designer-Director

December 4, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Tom Hingston talks us through his unique flavour of graphic-influenced directing.

We hear it all the time: a new epoch is dawning. With the advent of the Information Age, everyone has had to re-evaluate their position in the world. Roles and priorities have shifted so drastically that many of our old definitions seem futile. The labels we put on people seem limiting in the face of the range of tasks we now perform in our working roles.

Tom Hingston is the embodiment of these blurring lines. The foundation of his career was as a graphic designer, but in recent years his work has spilled over into what we used to call directing. With his studio behind him (aptly dubbed Tom Hingston Studio), he’s represented on RSA Films’ Design roster. His position raises the question – what do we call his job?

The reality of today’s multimedia, multiplatform world is that creative briefs are never as simple as the posters, print campaigns and TVCs of the past. “There are so many other channels that need to be considered,” says Tom. With RSA – a company with a strong filmmaking pedigree – recently launching a dedicated roster of graphic designers, including Tom, it’s easy to see how these worlds are colliding.

So where does designing end and directing begin? Tom doesn’t bother making this distinction between visual channels. “For me, a contemporary visual designer is someone that can work in both print, digital and moving image. I think anyone working in this kind of area and taking a contemporary approach should be able to transfer their skillset and visual sensibilities to any one of those areas.”

Tom’s keen to stress that being able to work across media is nothing new. His design heroes – people like Robert Brownjohn and Saul Bass – were some of the graphic design greats, but they worked across disciplines too, working on projects from film to furniture.

Robert Brownjohn’s title sequence for From Russia with Love


The key difference is peoples’ attitudes to this jack-of-all-trades approach. Technology and converging media have gotten us used to people with multiple talents. It’s easier to learn various skills now and the equipment is not nearly so prohibitively priced. Creative hardware and software isn’t exclusive to individuals or organisations with deep pockets anymore, meaning normal people can make professional quality film, design or music from their bedrooms.

One effect of this democratising change is that clients have opened their minds too. “In the early years it took quite a lot of persuasion for clients to accept that you could do a bit of digital, or more moving image, even though your background is predominantly print,” remembers Tom. “I think that’s changing. Clients are much more open to the idea that one agency has the skillset to look after all aspects of a project.”

Tom didn’t grow up with ambitions to direct film, but was always interested in the visual arts. “For as long as I remember I’ve always wanted to do something visual. I think when you get to your early teens you realise that you’re not going to be able to have a job just drawing stuff, so the next best thing is graphic design.”

He studied graphic design at St Martins and when he left he went to work for Neville Brody, the original art director of The Face and Arena magazines, where he stayed for three years. Designing for clients from Sony Playstation to Deutsche Bank and working on film titles for Michael Mann, he describes it as a sort of pupillage. And it was the ideal place to learn. “It was really mixed and diverse projects and that definitely had a massive influence on me. You should strive not to be pigeonholed. Creatively it’s so much more interesting and rewarding to work across very different areas. And what you find is that if the breadth is that wide then all those things feed into one another.”

Saul Bass’ title sequence for Casino


When Tom got around to setting up his own studio 18 years ago, the backbone of his professional beliefs and ambitions had been formed. Diversity of styles and mediums became a central tenet of his work.

He produced some applauded work for prominent clients, but wasn’t content with always keeping his design static. “I always felt that there were certain projects where you’d have an idea and when you saw it in print it was frozen in this moment in time. You had aspirations for it to be more than that and moving image allows you to do that because you’re dealing in time as well. There’re more possibilities, greater depth.”

Title sequences were his first step in his transition from static design to moving imagery. Tom agrees it certainly didn’t count as proper directing, but it was certainly a stepping stone. “If you’re a graphic designer with a typographic strength, which I always was, the idea of that leaping off the page and moving is really exciting.”

It was also helpful due to the fact that it meant working with directors, often for months on end. Collaborating with people like Anthony Minghella, Joe Wright and Anton Corbijn, Tom gradually gained an understanding of filmmaking. This was one of the vital periods in giving him the confidence to make himself into a director. “You get more and more comfortable with the idea that maybe that’s something you could experiment [with] or try,” he says.

Having art directed stills for many years, collaborating with photographers to create visual worlds and campaigns, Tom’s foundation of skills was already strong before he first got behind a video camera. “I definitely see directing moving image as an evolution of that process in many ways,” he says. “A lot of the aspects of collaborating with a photographer or DOP to create something visual are incredibly similar.”

His first time working on film was for two Dior commercials in 2004, working with photographer Nick Knight. “That was the first time I was sat behind a camera, albeit with someone else.” He remembers the confidence he gained by being privy to the whole process during and after a live action shoot like that. “Your confidence grows, your ambition grows and the next stage is doing that on your own.”

That moment eventually came around in the form of a unique project for Nokia. They wanted films to display on the interior walls of their flagship stores around the world. “Each store had a kind of inner skin that was pixel based. They commissioned a whole series of image-makers and young filmmakers to create ambient content that would go onto these screens. It was a great project because it didn’t need to be branded, just whatever you produced needed to encapsulate the values of the brand.”

Tom and the studio produced three films – two live action and one animated. He didn’t see himself as a true director yet, but he was building confidence.

Since then Tom Hingston Studio has worked on more title sequences, campaign films for Farrell, Mappin & Webb, and three music videos – one for Robbie Williams and two for David Bowie. Tom really went in at the top when it came to his music video career.

The studio also worked on a huge project for British audio brand Naim that encapsulates everything this hybrid of designer-director promises. The brief was to bring their branding up to date and to create a dynamic, cross-platform launch for Naim’s first wireless system, mu-so. This included the brand website as well as a campaign film – the biggest commercial film project Tom’s worked on to date.

It was a massive job, entailing six months of development from the studio, working in collaboration with Davy Evans, the designer behind the most recent campaign for the xx. “It’s developing a really distinct, strong and contemporary visual language for a brand,” says Tom. The film is halfway between a music video and a graphic design project, “performance but with a strong graphic sensibility. Even the way the dancers were lit was very graphic, treating the form as a piece of design.”

The designer-director fusion is a welcome asset to the diverse landscape of commercial filmmaking, and Tom feels there’s a unique contribution to be made by filmmakers like himself. “Whatever I do will always have a really strong language and look. Colour and composition are both inherent in design and it’s a sensibility that you definitely take into filmmaking. I guess the difference between me and someone who’s come straight out of film school is that they would do something much more narrative based and the focus would be much more about the characters and dialogue and all of those strengths.”

That said, Tom’s keen to expand those parts of his work too. From his Farrell film to his work for Naim, he’s enjoyed working with performance. And says he’d like to do more storytelling with his films, rather than the pure aestheticism he often gets commissioned to do.

The vision of graphic design has often produced work that we’re happy to gaze at in awe, and while designers turning a hand to filmmaking may not be new, we should celebrate that it’s becoming more common in advertising. With companies like RSA opening dedicated design rosters and visual communication flowing more freely between platforms, we’re likely to see a lot more designer-directors like Tom.

Jumping the Fence: Josh Tenser

December 1, 2014 / Features

By Josh Tenser

ACNE London’s new Executive Producer knows that the walls between agencies and production must fall before interactive projects can reach their true potential.

So the Beak Street Bugle kindly asked me for my thoughts and opinions on the differing challenges faced by agency and production company producers making digital work.

For my part, I’ve been making websites and other interactive products for 18 years, either with my bare hands in the early days or by leading productions, teams or departments as a producer.

I’ve just joined ACNE London as Executive Producer and in the past I’ve held management roles in production at both ad agencies and production companies. From production director at Work Club to Head of Production at Stink Digital and most recently as Head of Interactive Production at BBH London.

At heart I’m a hands-on producer, I make things with and for people. I love craft. I love my medium and the ingrained ability it has to allow you to keep learning.

Over the past ten years most traditional creative agencies have tried to embrace interactive production. To diversify their output, to achieve revenue growth, to stay relevant, to deliver integrated campaigns.

I think it's always proven to be very difficult nut to crack as "digital" is still in its infancy compared to TV production. There just aren't the people around in agencies with decades of experience creating technical products, in anywhere near the same numbers as there are folks who are brilliant with TV. To compound this the technology landscape continues to shift making our world an ever moving feast.

Something I’ve observed many times is that often, very technically-minded people find it hard to flourish in an agency culture that deals in a much more abstract world of ideas and brands.

With that in mind I’ve always worked hard maintaining my technical and production skills but at the same time taking jobs where I get complete immersion in what it means to work in a world-class ad agency. I feel lucky to have had an eclectic career where I’ve been able to blend these two worlds.

In terms of challenges we face, this merging of worlds - technical and creative - needs absolute trust between agency people and production people.

The agency needs to intimately respect the complexities of interactive production. Things that look simple, that you take for granted like the apps on your phone or a blog you follow, can often take years of iterative development to become the pleasing product that’s used as a reference in a creative deck.

Agencies must try not pull the production company into a risky place of ambiguity and unrealistic expectations with their clients as advertising deadlines rarely support the ability to develop an Instagram or Tumblr.

Conversely, the production company has to respect the enormous amount of work agencies invest in getting their opportunities green-lit and that, whilst they are brilliant at certain things, they also need support and flexibility from the companies they work with. Working upstream as part of their team with full transparency is what agencies need from a true partner.

Enabling the environment for this process to flourish is the most satisfying part of my job and I always try to break down barriers between agency and production teams. I feel in a good position do this having spent so much time running productions from both sides of the fence.

I think the most destructive attitude to have is an "us and them" mentality. A successful job in an ever complex, constantly shifting medium requires a "one team" process. Dropping too much responsibility, expectation and general problem-solving downstream will break the product and everyone suffers – all the way though to the client. The same is true in reverse - not being proactive and transparent and not pushing knowledge and expertise up the chain starves key stakeholders of the information they need to make good decisions. Not communicating rigorously at all times risks delivering a product that's way wide of the mark of the commissioning parties' expectations.

Breaking down the divisions between the industry’s silos is particularly relevant in my new role at ACNE. ACNE itself is a collective – a diverse and brilliant talent pool making everything from high end fashion to kids toys with an ad agency and integrated production company sat in the middle of it all. Their mentality of collaboration, mixed disciplines, great talent, transparency and hard work is completely my style and that's what we'll aim to bring to every project we take on.

I think the key take out for me is collaboration and a shared vested interest in making the best work across everyone involved in the project.