Lifting Standards in Mexico

May 30, 2017 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Fighting corruption, stereotypes and creative lethargy, one production at a time.

Photograph by Lewis More O'Ferrall.


The Lift has grander aims than most production service companies. They don’t just want to service jobs. Managing Partner Avelino Rodríguez has been on a crusade for almost a decade to change how the filmmaking world sees Mexico.

Avelino’s life in production service began with a slowly dawning realisation while filmmaking in his native Mexico. An assistant director on commercials and a producer for feature films, he began to notice the potential Mexico had as a service destination. With its massive catalogue of locations, top talent and low costs, he knew it should be attracting way more foreign production than it was.

“Mexico was very specialised for features,” he says, “but for quick turnarounds and the timing of commercials, it wasn’t that developed. That was the gap.”

He started drawing up business models. Soon he heard about two Mexicans in Barcelona who ran a big production service company called The Lift. They were looking to expand to their home country. Avelino was the man to help them. This was 2005. Eventually The Lift would become a Mexico-only company and Avelino would take over as Managing Partner.

The immediate task at hand was building Mexico into a more attractive destination for international production. A priority was tackling the widespread corruption in Mexico City – something locals took for granted that Avelino felt deterred international producers.

“Our first projects were very difficult in that respect,” he says. “I remember one where the cost of the police was $7,000[US] a day.” They had no choice but to pay up if they wanted to shoot in the city. “For us [that] was very natural, but when you’re working with someone from abroad and they see you bribing the cops they feel it’s very unsafe.”

Because of the hierarchy within the police structure, it was very common to have two or three interventions from cops wanting a bribe to allow a shoot on location. There was no documented process for permitting or for what constituted a proper production that met all the criteria to be able to shoot on location, this was convenient for cops who could easily “sanction” productions on a subjective basis.

Avelino began working closely with the mayor, reporting every person paying bribes, how much and where the money was going. He helped local government set up a film commission to combat the corruption, tightening up regulations around permits and making sure they were issued quickly enough for producers to make use of them.

This was a huge step forward. “The film commission had authority over anyone else in the city because they had a direct mandate from the mayor,” he explains.

The Lift had a big shoot on the day the commission came into being. They wanted to start at 6am but the commission wouldn’t be active until noon. They’d resolved not to pay any bribes that day, so the police held them up all morning. Precisely at midday the cops received a command over the radio. “We started to shoot with no corruption from that day onwards,” says Avelino.

With the film commission came streamlined permitting processes and validation from a government entity that would decide whether to green-light a production prior to a shoot, not during. If a production met all the criteria (a comprehensive shooting schedule, logistics mapping etc.) the permit (a physical document) was given and cops no longer had authority to shut down or boycott a production.

It now takes a maximum of two days to turn around permits to shoot on the streets of Mexico City. “We’re really happy working on that,” he says, “preparing the city and sometimes other parts of the country to make it more friendly and less scary.”

That was nine years ago now, but the crusade to make Mexico a more attractive production destination continues. And it reaches much further than just rooting out corruption. The Lift work closely with another local government body called City Lab to develop the international image of Mexico City.

“When we started the image was very old,” says Avelino. “We were this big square in the middle of nowhere with some old buildings. We made a big effort as creative industries to start to change the Mexico City brand.”

There were several misconceptions that made people reluctant to choose it as a production destination. One by one Avelino and The Lift have been trying to combat the idea that Mexico is corrupt and dangerous to shoot in, that there are no professional crews there, or no professional equipment, that Mexico has a limited geographical variety or that it’s hard to cast international projects because Mexico has only one race of people.

There are a few cultural stereotypes to take on, as well. Avelino reels them off: “Mexico only has tacos and tequila. The culture is boring; there’s only pyramids and deserts. The only creative industry in Mexico is rudimentary arts and crafts.”

It’s come a long way. “Mexican chefs started to become more renowned internationally,” he says. “Now you have younger people in the creative community and it’s all going in parallel, so the city has become very cosmopolitan. The directors really love it. It has been a common effort to fight these misconceptions.”

Avelino’s keen to create international advocates for his country. He wants directors and producers to give Mexico a try because they so often go home and tell everyone how positive their experiences were.

“All these efforts are paying off,” he says. “For some people it’s even better than shooting in Los Angeles. But it’s still a growing thing. I don’t think you can compare LA to Mexico City in terms of equipment or technology, but in terms of crews and attitudes they really love it.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Donald Trump could be helping Mexico become the filmmaking destination Avelino hopes it will be. Since 2015, The Lift have had more than double the projects coming in from the US. Due to Trump’s election, Mexico is better value for money than ever.

Mexico has also been experiencing a boom of foreign production since 2015. “The James Bond film had a lot to do with that,” says Avelino. “It sort of put Mexico back on the map as a solid production destination. We have been part of this boom by providing top-of-the-line production experiences for our foreign clients. If they have a good experience, they go back to their countries and share those experiences with other people in the business. This is very good for us and for the country. It’s also a very solid way to fight those misconceptions.”

Since they made Audi Warm Up in 2006 together, London production powerhouse Blink would become instrumental in putting The Lift and Mexico on the map for UK production companies. Later in 2008 came another big opportunity from Blink in a project for Cadbury directed by Juan Cabral.

Other breakthrough projects from the UK are the first projects they produced for Academy Films in 2011 directed by Martin de Thurah, a couple of music videos for Feist, and their first two projects for Rattling Stick directed by Sara Dunlop. During 2016 and 2017 they produced two large-scale projects for Academy Films and Nike directed by FKA Twigs. “UK projects have always made our company better,” says Avelino. “They’ve always made us step up our game and challenged us on every level.”

You can forgive Avelino for waxing lyrical about his home country when you hear what it has to offer. A tri-coastal nation, Mexico offers staggering diversity of locations. “The Pacific has the rolling sands, the Caribbean has the turquoise waters and the Gulf [of Mexico] is more industrial, with ports and spectacular highways,” he says.

Then there’s the capital itself, which never ceases to surprise: “For example, Mexico City is the biggest producer of broccoli in Mexico. We export broccoli, cactus, flowers, so within the city there is agriculture.”

Then there’s the diverse architecture that comes from over 700 years of history. “You have Indians trying to tear down a cathedral that was built on top of a pyramid,” he says. “A cycle ride I really like is from there going all the way up into the hills, passing all the stages of the city until you get to the very modern part. You can see right from the Aztecs until now.”

Mexico’s not quite the filmmaking utopia he hopes for yet, though.

Casting is a particular challenge. Mexico’s population doesn’t have the ethnic diversity of somewhere like London, so getting a broad range of people together can be tricky. “We always pull it off and there are always possibilities,” he says, “but if you want a big diverse, international vignette commercial then you’ll struggle.”

The Lift are trying to combat this, too. They’ve rented out extra office space to host their own casting facilities and are talking to managers, agents, street casting and casting directors to make sure they have enough talent at their fingertips. Also the city is becoming more cosmopolitan every second so new and diverse cultures are populating the city each year.

The local advertising industry is a disappointment for Avelino. Mexico’s advertising market is worth around $110 million (US) a year, but he estimates that around 80 per cent of that is spent on product-focused, demonstrational ads with low production values. “You only have 10 to 15 projects a year which are over a million dollar investments,” he says. Naturally, The Lift focus on these scripts, where they can encourage an international director to come and make the most of that budget. But they’re too few and far between.

Mexican agencies aren’t strong enough to confidently sell the best ideas to clients, he theorises. “There’s a lot of work to do because they get very scared. It’s a market where clients are pitching accounts out to 20 different agencies.”

One reason for this is that agencies in Mexico have never managed to organise into one association to protect the quality of the work they do. “It’s an absolutely client-controlled industry. Creative is secondary and not so well regarded,” says Avelino.

And clients aren’t secure enough to show creative courage either. “Once clients start to work with a director that really delivers they don’t want anyone else,” he says. “They’re under a lot of pressure for their KPIs. They don’t want new ideas because they’re scared they might lose part of the market they already won with their previous commercials. There’s a lot of fear of losing their jobs. They live under that pressure.”

All of these complaints just make Avelino more convinced of production service as the solution. “I believe that in order to change, we need new international players to come. That brings you a new perspective and new ideas.”

Avelino and The Lift are doing what they can to elevate the quality of Mexican advertising craft. They’re introducing international best practice where possible. He thinks they’re making progress. “As long as we’re able to get the best projects we can bring the best producers and directors to Mexico. The good work always inspires people. They see they can do it better and then they make better films.”

Unsigned: Matthew Sterling

May 29, 2017 / Signed/Unsigned

By The Beak Street Bugle

A confident first few steps into filmmaking.

Matthew Sterling grew up with a Blockbuster video store down the road, which explains a lot about what he’s ended up doing. His mum would take him every Friday to pick three movies to rent over the weekend. It became almost a religious act, he remembers.

He’s gained his filmmaking craft through a combination of YouTube tutorials, special features on DVDs and going out with his best friend on weekends to make short films or silly little videos. But he’s had a formal film education too. Having studied film at college, for the last three years he’s been studying Film and Television at university.

Matthew's only just graduating this year, but he’s been making strong first steps into his career. Last year he did a spout of work with Caviar, Knucklehead and Pulse, which opened up opportunities for him and helped to push his work.

For a director in such an early stage he’s received some impressive attention. He’s recently been selected for the straight 8 official London selection and will have a short film / music video premiered on the big screen in July. He’s also won VOTD twice so far this year – good signals that he’s one to watch.

He's keen to work on a few more music videos as well as starting to make his way into commercials. He’s also a massive fan of short-form narrative content and always trying to make something work, but he recognises how hard short films are and wants to make sure he does them justice.

Watch some of his work here:

High Five: May

May 10, 2017 / High Five

By Alex Reeves

Advertising on its best behaviour before the summer silly season.

The sun is finally peeking out. The industry’s already psyching itself up for Cannes. And they’re on their best behaviour churning out the best advertising to earn that week on the French Riviera. This month’s best advertising is slick, stylish and smart.

Brand: Carlsberg
Title: The Danish Way
Production Company: Stink
Director: Martin Krejci
Production Company Producer: Charlotte Woodhead
Ad Agency: Fold7
Chief Creative Officer: Ryan Newey
Executive Creative Director: Simon Learman
Creative: Lucy Aston
Agency Producers: Imogen Bell, Felicity Cruickshank
Editing Company: Marshall Street Editors
Editor: Tim Thornton-Allan
Sound Company: Factory
Sound Designer: Anthony Moore
Visual Effects Company: MPC

Carlsberg – The Danish Way

It’s been a slow, dawning realisation, but it might just be possible that beer brands have outgrown the football-and-pizza lad culture that the 90s thrust masculinity into. Very few lagers now take a Nuts magazine tone with their audiences. Carlsberg, being at a lower price point than most of their competitors, clung onto it for a while. Now we welcome them to the world of aspirational advertising. And what better face for it than suave Mads Mikkelsen cycling through a series of chic locations?

Brand: Lucozade
Title: Anthony Joshua
Production Company: Smuggler
Director: Christopher Hewitt
Production Company Producer: Adam Evans
Director of Photography: Matthias Rudh
Ad Agency: Grey London
Creative Director: Dominic Goldman
Agency Producer: Jacqueline Dobrin
Editing Company: Final Cut
Editor: Daniel Sherwen
Sound Company: Wave
Sound Designer: Jack Sedgwick
Visual Effects Company: MPC

Lucozade – Anthony Joshua

This is exactly the sort of script you want your agency to pitch to you if you’re a client with an interest in sports. It’s an emotional, rags-to-riches story of sport transforming a troubled life, with world-class star sporting talent at its centre. Christopher Hewitt tells it beautifully. As he proved with his documentary about Islington Boxing Club, he can portray the sport gorgeously, littering the action shots with heaps of emotion.


Brand: Spotify
Title: Dinner
Production Company: Biscuit Filmworks
Director: Matt Devine
Production Company Producer: Cynthia Angel
Ad Agency: Spotify
Creative Director: Alex Bodman
Creatives: Alexandra Sobieski, Rajeev Basu
Agency Producer: Belinda Lopez
Editing Company: Cosmo Street
Editor: Dave Otte
Visual Effects Company: Cosmo Street

Spotify - Dinner

A 30-second comedy performance script about family awkwardness – the absolute bread and butter of funny ads. But it’s done with such flair! Matt Devine has taken the simple idea, put the right cast to it and got brilliant performances out of them. He’s making Spotify’s presumably quite modest budget go far.


Title: 15 Minute Makeover
Production Company: Bootleg Films
Director: A Very Successful Business
Production Company Producer: Greg Jordan
Director of Photography: Gareth Ward
Ad Agency: Don’t Panic London
Creative Director: Ali Griggs
Agency Producers: Josh Clarricoats, Sam Adams
Editor: Joel Winsor
Sound Company: Factory
Sound Designers: Neil Johnson, Mark Hills

UNISON – 15 Minute Makeover

The truth at the heart of this film is heart-wrenchingly sad. But Don’t Panic are exactly the sort of agency that can get that message across in an amusing way. They know exactly how to judge tone. Brought to life by directing duo A Very Successful Business, who get every daytime TV makeover show trope spot on, it’s a bittersweet romp and makes a powerful point.


Brand: Zoopla
Title: Crab World
Production Company: Riff Raff
Director: Augusto Sola
Production Company Producer: Jane Tredget
Director of Photography: Doug Allan
Ad Agency: 101
Executive Creative Directors: Mark Elwood, Augusto Sola
Creatives: Ryan Delehanty, Jack Willoughby, Serhan Asim, Greg Stekelman
Agency Producer: Sarah Marcon (Royle Productions)
Editing Company: Final Cut
Editor: Ed Cheesman
Sound Company: 750mph
Sound Designer: Sam Ashwell
Visual Effects Company: MPC

Zoopla – Crab World

This is one of the few ads with a genuinely interesting behind-the-scenes story. As 101 would admit, the whole hermit crab moving house metaphor is an obvious one. It’s amazing nobody’s landed on it before. But choosing to do it with real crabs rather than CGI was a smart choice. Thanks to proper nature cameraman Doug Allen, they look just like something from a David Attenborough documentary. An impressive piece of work.

Truth, Trust and Perspective

May 9, 2017 / Features

By Alex Reeves

This year’s Future of Advertising… in One Afternoon was less techie and more theoretical than the name might suggest.

Photograph by Rodney Rascona.

"Grandfather and Child" Tsunami survivors in Banda Ache, Northern Sumatra

"The road past this mans house leads straight to the ocean. That's the path the raging water took, stripping the earth of every living thing-of any sight or sound-of anything natural. There were no flowers blooming, no birds left singing. He recounted being on his scooter when he looked to the sea and saw waves that were "as high as the palm trees" coming towards him. He grabbed his grandson and literally outran the oncoming torrent, escaping to the hills that surround his village. A single man with a single child who were very lucky to have survived that day..knowing what it meant to run for your lives."



The APA’s Future of Advertising… in One Afternoon provides a compact package of thought leadership every year. This year, it was particularly thoughtful, at times even philosophical.

What better way to kick off an afternoon of existential pondering than by putting it all in context? Journalist Dominic Mills’ fireside chat with Advertising Association Chief Executive Stephen Woodford was all about Brexit and what it means for citizens of British Adland, former duchy of European Adland.

Stephen admitted that understanding Brexit’s implications – a challenge for most experts – is made eve more difficult by the fact that around 90 per cent of the ad industry voted to remain in the EU last year. But we must try, because its implications will continue for years to come and will reach into the smallest details of our lives.

There’s plenty of doom and gloom surrounding us on this subject. It’s easy to slip and fall in, so Stephen carefully steered through the discussion, focusing on the positives.

Surprisingly, 2016’s last quarter was the best ever for the UK advertising industry. And while Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris are keen to market themselves as the new leading creative hubs of the Europe, Brexit hasn’t automatically stripped London of that title. With its unparalleled creative heritage and uniquely multicultural composition, London’s ad industry will be hard to kill off. Besides, the billions of pounds that the UK exports in advertising to EU markets like France and Germany will be hard ties to break.

Stephen seemed confident that the advertising’s power in the British economy – a large percentage of GDP – means negotiations won’t be able to ignore this business and its interests. It will get worse before it gets better, he conceded, but the UK’s place in advertising will be hard to erase.

Arif Haq from Contagious Communications spent his 20 minutes on the popular pastime of blaming clients. Having once worked as one, he claimed some sort of justification for this. The best ideas will never get signed off, he claimed, and spent his presentation explaining why not.

Firstly, clients lack imagination. It’s not their fault, he said. Human brains don’t like creativity, even when our mouths say we do. He shared some research to back up the idea that we are biased against really creative ideas.

Great creative ideas are terrifying to clients. They’re too similar to exactly the sort of ideas that should never be signed off. People certainly don’t know how to sell them to their bosses, even if they like them personally.

Clients are also unprepared to deal with true creativity, he said. Looking at the funding that goes into training, the amount focused on execution is miniscule, compared to the strategic end of things. The right execution of an idea is vital, and how to do it right is largely a mystery to clients. Arif argued that the Pepsi debacle was a problem of execution, not because of an inherently bad idea. With more attention paid to casting and the details, it may just have worked for them. Personally, I don’t buy this, but it’s an interesting perspective.

Clients definitely need expertise in craft. Many big ones, like P&G, are suggesting that fewer, better ads provide more efficiency. Production companies are uniquely placed to help them create culture, he said. They’re the ones to illuminate clients’ blind spots.

Tom Wiltshire, New Business Director of party-streaming platform Boiler Room told his brand’s story first – how in six years they’ve grown from throwing illegal parties to filling the void that MTV left in youth culture when it became a trashy reality TV channel.

Boiler Room have the keys to underground youth culture and they’re willing to give brands access to that audience, but only on their terms. By putting the emphasis on real artists and their ideas, Boiler Room help their brand partners to provide content that their audiences actually want to engage with, rather than intrusive branding that leaves a bad taste. His presentation was a demonstration of how brands should be approaching partnerships with media owners and culture, with trust and authenticity.

Edelman’s Toby Gunton might not seem the most obvious choice for an advertising conference with a production slant, but he noted that there’s a growing grey area between the two areas. His talk focused on some research they’ve been conducting every year since 2000 – the Edelman Trust Barometer.

2017 is a notable year for them. We are in a “crisis of trust”, the research shows. Trust for institutions is at an all-time low. For the first time in their survey, respondents’ trust for all four types – NGOs, business, media and government – fell.

According to the Barometer, people only trust search engines and ‘people like themselves’ now. Apparently, Michael Gove was right when he said Britain has had enough of experts.

Depressing as it may be, these are creative insights that help us to understand our audiences, which should lead to sharper, more appropriate advertising. For example, with media institutions lacking trust, owned media is on roughly the same level. Maybe it’s time for brands to fulfil that prophecy from years of conferences and become broadcasters in their own right. They might become the more trustworthy voice.

Freeformers’ Lucy Lyall Grant next made the case for reverse mentorship, which is basically what it sounds like – younger people teaching and advising their elders. Aside from sorting out your parents’ internet troubles, Lucy stressed how important it is for senior businesspeople to understand their younger workforces, and increasingly their young audiences and consumers. It’s a thought that many businesses could benefit from taking some time to consider.

There aren’t many more future-obsessed companies than Google, so a 20-minute tirade from Andy Kinsella, Head of Production at their Creative Lab, lived up to the day’s title.  He started with a few quotes to inspire and amuse and fessed up that Google is actually not full of sorcerers. The people there perform normal roles – designers, producers, developers etc. – but they do so with a different focus. One thing Google aims to do is try to “create” the future, rather than just predicting it, and the projects he showcased suggested that is true.

From Project Soli, which uses a scaled down version of radar to sense contactless hand gestures, to something as simple but quality-of-life improving as Gboard, putting search into other apps, everything was looking to a future where technology helps us to live easier lives. It’s not just privileged westerners that benefit, either. Andy talked about how in 36 hours Google were able to help set up the Refugee Info Hub website to help refugees arriving in Europe. To date it has assisted over 100,000 people arriving on boats in places like Lesbos.

Everything Andy showed was fast, playful and new, a masterclass in how a future-facing company behaves.

What is the truth about Britain? This was the question answered by ‘recovering anthropologist’ Rodney Collins from McCann Truth. In line with the existential themes of the day, his presentation focused on the bigger themes. Also backed up by lots of research, he presented the country we live in, how different parts of the public feel about globalisation and how there is are huge tensions between opposing viewpoints.

The general British sentiment, he summarised, is “I’m fine, we’re fucked.” He described the different ways people view Britain and compared them to brands people consider representative of the UK – as a castle keep (John Lewis), fields of green (The National Trust) or a sailing boat (Virgin). Again, a strategic long view that could inform all sorts of productive thinking.

To close the day, Rodney Rascona took a further step back from advertising, appealing to our morals and humanity. An advertising photographer “trying to give something back”, he told the story of his personal trajectory. Once he shot glossy pictures to sell cars. Now he documents the lives of some of the most troubled and unfortunate people on the planet for various NGOs and good causes.

He spoke about how to develop a new way of seeing the world and implored the world-leading image-makers in the room to do something with their talents to help humanity as a whole. We live in troubled times, as some of the day’s sessions alluded to, but people in advertising have the skills and resources at their fingertips to affect change for the better.

The whole day amounted to a necessary reset in perspective. Advertising people can easily lose sight of the wider world while they focus on the detail in a pre-production meeting. It’s useful to be reminded of the context into which their work fits. People and stories are everywhere and insights of all varieties can be applied to make your work better.

Reinstating the Obvious

May 5, 2017 / Features

By Alex Reeves

D&AD Festival was a timely reminder of how simple creativity can be.

Ad industry conferences and ‘festivals’ of creativity are often predictable. Particularly if, like me, you exceed the recommended dose of a couple a year. It’s no surprise, really. How often can really big, game changing ideas come along in one industry? When the same speakers do the same spiel at several events this feeling is only amplified.

Last week’s D&AD Festival was only in its second year, but they’ve carefully avoided the common pitfalls of similar events by booking people who are engaging and creative first. If what they had to say was directly relevant to advertising as well, that was a bonus.

I’ve listened to lots of nebulous talks on the subject of creativity and they often descend into the sort of truisms that wouldn’t look out of place on your less successful friends’ Facebook feeds. “Keep Calm and Content is King.” The speakers I listened to at D&AD steered clear of this territory though, firstly because they were genuinely creative people who’ve proven themselves in their fields and secondly because they had concrete advice rather than vapid sound bites.

Alexandra Taylor, a genuine creative icon behind the sort of campaigns that are familiar and effective decades on, kept her advice simple, telling some of her best anecdotes around the theme of “Horror Stories & Industry Fuck Ups”.

Admittedly, she started with a sound bite. But a good one from her mentor Paul Arden: “if you work from knowledge you are not going anywhere new.” She proceeded to illustrate exactly how one does that. How a casting fuck up unexpectedly changed the idea at the last minute but made the final ad all the more impactful. How her brutal honesty with the egotistical Tyen helped him take exactly the photo that the campaign needed. How her DIY attitude to a prohibitively small budget and lack of photographic expertise helped her conceive an idea that stood out from the pack. How running out of time on a shoot in Thailand motivated her to turn all the water machines on full-blast, just to see what happened. As it turns out, it got her the shot that made that campaign resonate with people.

The festival’s focus on creativity in general, rather than just within the advertising bubble, injected lots of life into their programme. Refinery29 Founder Piera Luisa Gelardi was a whirlwind of American enthusiasm throughout her session. That might sound nauseating to some of you awkward Brits (she DID get us all up on our feet to do an exercise she learnt at her improvisation class), but the content of her presentation was honest and concrete enough that anyone could take something from it. Her philosophy, “be the most you” is definitely motivational-poster territory, but she backed it up with enough home truths and vulnerability for it to feel genuinely empowering.

Very much on the design side of the D&AD fence, Craig Oldham didn’t even attempt to talk about advertising in his session, “Tools of Protest”. Instead, he delighted his audience with a slideshow of the best creative approaches from decades of social dissidence, from 1960s Parisian graffiti to the experiential activism of Charlie Craggs’ Nail Transphobia. It was like nutritious food for creativity that could fuel all sorts of ideas, cheerily served up by a sweary Northerner.

We don’t live in the 80s anymore. Greed isn’t good and brands without a moral compass pay for it. People don’t feel good about just doing advertising anymore. Naturally, there was a lot of discussion of “capitalism with a conscience.”

To summarise: it’s necessary. Thomas Kolster, author of Goodvertising, told us to “Stop Selling Shit”, highlighting the amount of unnecessary consumption that advertising has always driven – the sort of consumption that’s filling seabirds with plastic. We’re a self-obsessed, uncaring industry, he said, and we’re hypocritical too. He noted that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was on the cover of Time talking sustainability while his company cleverly pays hardly any taxes.

People can smell companies’ bullshit and act on it en masse. And it’s notable how often brands miss the mark on the social and political front. Wieden + Kennedy CCO Colleen DeCourcy noted that while Nike invoking the spirit of revolution in 1987 worked for them, similar tactics in 2017, co-opting social issues have been disastrous.

It’s difficult to maximise profits for your shareholders while doing the right thing and generally changing the world for the better. You could say that’s an inherent flaw with capitalism. Steve Vranakis of Google cringed at the idea of people forcing purpose onto brands without justification and showed how even a gargantuan (“don’t be evil”) corporation like Google can find appropriate ways to help humanity. He showcased three projects that Google took part in to help make children in developing countries’ voices heard, offer refugees in Lesbos basic services and aid Indian women in getting online. Each example used techniques that were a natural fit for Google, and each seemed to have made a positive difference to people’s lives.

Of course, they serve a marketing purpose too – to “remind the world what they love about Google.” And the business motivations for capitalism with a conscience were repeated all week. The well-rehearsed Unilever line that sustainable brands grow faster than ordinary brands got a lot of airtime. Companies are now seeing the benefits of their corporate social responsibility in their bottom lines. Be prepared for more misjudged disasters, though, because it’s murky water.

With the Pepsi fiasco fresh in people’s minds, there was a lot of talk about brands awkwardly co-opting culture. Frederik Andersen of Vice Media admitted that working in the creative industry can be soul destroying, but one of the obvious ways of coping with that is by doing things of substance – genuinely contributing to culture, rather than milking it for its commercial value. Then your brand will have a real foundation to fall back on if they ever come under scrutiny.

Lots of the week’s sessions were refreshing because they didn’t mind stating the obvious. Rather than going out of their way to prove they had a new, groundbreaking formula for success that nobody’s thought of, they just reassured us that the central tenets of creativity remain the same. Anna Higgs of NOWNESS made a point of this, repeatedly admitting that she was stating the obvious: that putting the creative first is how you stand out and that great talent is the foundation of great work.

Despite all the talk about data, algorithms and audiences’ attention spans, NOWNESS have built their platform on faith in their own editorial standards. Making things they believe in, surprising their audiences rather than pandering to what the data says gets the most clicks. The beautiful works of film art she showed, some of which were made for brands, encapsulated what the festival was about: honest creative principles executed with vision, without the clever-clogs post rationalisation our industry is up to its neck in.

How to Catch Lightning in a Bottle

May 2, 2017 / Features

By Colleen DeCourcy

Here's what Wieden+Kennedy's Global Chief Creative Officer had to say at last week's D&AD Festival.

[This is a transcript of Colleen DeCourcy's presentation from last week's D&AD Festival. We thought it was so invigorating that we had to publish it in full for a wider audience.]


The title of this talk is “How to Catch Lightning in a Bottle” because that’s what we do when we do this thing right. The “lightning” is something fundamentally true and it’s powerful and elusive and you’ve managed to catch it and hold it long enough to show it to the world. And the world goes….”ahhhh…” And that’s the goal. That’s the job. If you’re not setting yourself up to be a person or a place that can do that, well, you might just as well go home.

Everything else is just a distraction.

The talk was written to be about the “how” but I’ve been here all week judging advertising work and I’m feeling a bit agitated about what I’ve seen and so, now it’s been re-written to be all about the “distraction.”


Every once in awhile you have a moment where you worry you may have lost the plot.
You’re not sure what you’re doing or why.
You’re not sure what the right next step is or when to take it.
You look around and you're not sure if you love the work you're seeing.
You're not sure who sees the good work you like.
You're not sure where the clients are.

For 15 years we’ve been talking about the disruption of the advertising industry but I’ve never felt it more than I feel it today. I look at a lot of the work and I feel like we’ve become confused about what the job is.

Marc Andreesen of Andreesen Horowitz says disruptive innovation is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the modern world. Clayton Christensen says it comes down to one thing: more people having access to tools that used to be available only to people with lots of money or skill.

The printing press put the monks out of business, the camera put portrait painters out of business, Instagram took Kodak out of business and iPhones took cameras out of business. Progress is direct access to the means of getting to an end. A shortening of the distance from A to B. Friction taken out of the process.

But here’s the thing - the end, the end hasn’t changed. Lightning in a bottle is still the end goal. We just have to take the friction out of getting to it. I have every indicator I need to make me believe that (despite popular complaints from account people to the contrary) the creative process is not where the friction's the infrastructure.

Infrastructure disruption is not just happening to advertising. It’s happening all around us. Most relevant, it's happening to music and television and movies. Chance The Rapper didn’t need a record label. In fact, records didn’t need a record store, and music didn’t need records. That’s “taking the friction out of the process.”

But we still have Chance’s music.

Hollywood said “OH this is going to kill creativity.” But it doesn't appear that it is. Hollywood is in a panic because Netflix and Amazon are stealing all of Hollywood’s actors and writers because they are paying them more and giving them better briefs. Because Netflix and Amazon didn’t kill the ideas….they just killed the system it used to take to make them. They've accelerated the opportunities to get work made by using data instead of infrastructure. The costs they took out were the costs of the studio system. They didn’t kill creativity, they killed the studios that used to have the monopoly on ideas because it was really expensive to make a movie and a lot of them failed. Now, check out the Netflix Originals tab. It's shockingly alright. Data and a tsunami of auteurist talent means friction of delivery can be 86’d. Serialized content is having a creative renaissance. The television industry’s disruption has actually intensified its creative output.

But our industry? It seems to be going in the opposite direction. We’re heavying up on buildings and holdings and media and programmatic. Marketers are building themselves huge internal marketing department machines to drive around in. Holding companies are growing so big that they can’t even see their own dicks anymore and instead they’re setting up purpose-built mini-agencies like Elbow United.

If you open Campaign or Advertising Age there’s a pretty consistent party line on how fucked we are and many rational points of view on how we should be innovating. The trades are more than happy to publish those because there’s not enough creative work being made to keep them in business just reporting on the work.

There are a million sensible reasons to be reasonable and pragmatic and follow those smart people. Except, sensible reasons are the wrong reasons, common sense is, well, common... and reasonable pragmatism is the final act of people who believe they have lost the battle.

I don’t believe we have lost.

The best asset an agency can have is an artist who sees the world through their own strange and magical lense. The brand is an additive to that. That's the fastest route to catching lightning.

If you follow the examples immediately in front of us, we’re back in a golden age of auteurism. We need to double down on what we’re good at and get some of the infrastructure out of this business.

After 35 years and eight offices opened, Wieden+Kennedy still only employs about 1,300 people. Most high schools are bigger than that. Our costs are the costs of housing and paying for the talent and the work. We add a bit of a premium because our best ideas scale themselves. That’s the surcharge for the aesthetic pleasure machine. The money mostly goes into the work. That's why the work is good. We’re not easy, but we’re transparent and we’re small.

So, we’re not an elephantine holding company living in a world that’s facing a shakedown on what it takes to deliver commercial creativity. For that, I'm grateful. But still, I worry. I feel hungry and wanting.


I ask myself that question all the time.

It’s a stupidly simple question, but it helps cut through the bullshit. It’s the kind of question that ignores everything except what really matters. I ask it of the people we’re supposed to be selling things to and I asked myself that question recently while researching what other advertising companies say about themselves. I was gob-smacked and confused by what I found while looking for the answer.

So I read the claims and asked myself the question…

You want to never stop looking ahead?
You want to be strategically driven?
Digitally native?
Humanity obsessed?
You want to be industry-leading?
You want to explore and evolve?
You want create cultural impact?
You want to go where the status is far from quo?
You want to do some zagging?
Or maybe you want connected specialism?
You want to be customer-obsessed?
You want best-in-class?
You want to work with or for the world’s most awarded and effective advertising agency?

Is that it?

You want to join an industry formerly known as advertising?

I don’t fucking want any of that and I can guarantee you that there isn’t a money-in-their-pocket, stuff-buying human in the teeming masses of people on the high street right now that gives a fuck either.

That question triggers more glorious chaos in humanity than all of civilization could ever imagine.
It’s the most human of questions.
It’s a dangerous question.
Because humans are non­stop, all­continuous, totally nude, triple X, wanting machines.


You think we’d be pretty good at that by now.

You think we’d be pretty good at understanding what want feels like, what forms it takes, how to tap it, how to give it. Because, it's the single biggest qualification for our job.

But making stuff people want is really hard.

We do our best work on hate. Hate can fuel our desire to make our immediate world a better place. It’s the rock W+K was founded on. Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, hated advertising and we still do. But, recently, what used to be a healthy hate for this weird business seems to fuel a self­-destructive lack of confidence, deep frustration, self-­loathing, and then more hate. Why?

We have a saying at the agency ­ “We’re at our best when we’re in the eye of the cultural storm.” In setting an industry example of doing that, we’ve managed to clear a direct path to some pretty shitty things that are now happening in the world of Advertising:

[You can probably figure out where that kind of advertising has led us to, 30 years on.]

Why do we increasingly feel impotent to make great advertising? Because this business is getting too shallow and too wide. Advertising feels like it’s drifting further away from us. Drifting away from original ideas and further into truisms. Away from imagination and into science. Research takes brands into places in culture that they have no authority to be. Because marketers want to harness some of the buzz of the revolution. Stop.

Nike, Revolution proved that pushing ourselves towards ideas that feel uncomfortable is where you find gold. People remember that ad because it was shocking. It didn't feel “good.” It didn't feel like advertising. It looked like shit. It was electric. Like a car crash—people couldn't look away. Its lesson, to the extent that the wisdom earned from these things, is portable: never go for polish when you can break the mold. Fulfill the want that no one knew they had.

For the record, this is what youth looks like when they’re protesting:

If you want to take your brand swimming naked in culture, to be in the eye of the storm, if you want to play with lightning, it’s best you don’t forget Bibi. If you're going in you go in for real. Know where the hurt is. Touch that. Don't gloss it. Be raw and original and human.

[Colleen’s next video isn’t online anywhere, but she described it. It’s a shot of a white jockstrap hanging in front of a black backdrop.]
The jockstrap sets on fire. It’s just one long shot, panning around it as it goes up and at the very end Aretha Franklin starts to sing and then it cuts out and it just says “Nike Women’s”.

That commercial was killed before it ever got out of the presentation room. Nike asked if Wieden really wanted to give the finger to the entire male sports complex. That was 1994. The women that presented that, they did. There was no making that less aggressive towards male athletes. So, it had to be scrapped. You can’t co­opt dissent and then tidy it all up. Eventually the agency and Nike figured out the messaging and made a canon of work for women.

It’s hard to give the world what it wants before it knows it wants it. That question—“What do you want?”—asked of ourselves, of consumers, audiences, people, is the central question of our business, at least the business of Wieden+Kennedy.

And, sometimes, when everything’s right, something or someone can come along with a thing that is so simple, that taps into the bottomless reservoir of want in humanity, and the world goes fucking crazy. We love that feeling. We believe in that feeling. That is lightning in a bottle.

We spend too much time focusing on inputs and outputs. You can do coverage, you can achieve a channel first, you can be social, you can do programmatic, you can make sure your message is everywhere, but real creativity at scale? You have to take leaps for that. Disruptive thinking, scaled, is lightning in a bottle.

Powerful creative ideas that change hearts and businesses require a leap. They require a leap in the minds of their makers, who make connections that no one else thought to make, and, crucially, they require a leap from the marketers who back them. Not blind, not reckless, not uninformed, but a leap nonetheless—a willingness to recognize that creative breakthroughs often seem improbable, until they become inevitable.

We agitate and break through, and create human meaning and connection with creativity.
The world wants frictionless transactions, efficiency.
Creativity needs agitation, friction, opposites, collisions, explosions, emotions, the unruly.

We use the work to say something bigger. Work that creates conversation and lives in the real world not the ad world.

It’s a good time, this particular, challenging period in our industry, and in our world, to remind ourselves of the power of raw creativity, and what it takes for creative companies to conjure and harness it. Best­in­class, relationship­driven, integrated, digital­innovation­operations­technology­process companies can’t do that. Companies devoted to creativity can. Agitation, meaning, the unexpected — these are the things that can truly ignite a culture.

As for Wieden+Kennedy?
I think we're an improbability. Lightning, caught.

There have always been flashes of danger in the history of the agency that felt so scary and so right all at the same time. We’ve followed our gut. We’ve made mistakes. We’ve searched for and stood beside clients who stuck with the journey because they understand that it's a long haul, over time, to greatness.

That's the reason why creative people feel a sense of purpose at Wieden+Kennedy. The goals are clear:
1. Catch Lightning
2. Hold on to it
3. Find (client) partners who aspire to that. Keep them close and keep them dangerous.