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.”

HAVE WE LOST THE PLOT?

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 is...it'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.

WHAT DO YOU WANT?

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.

WHAT. DO. YOU. WANT?
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.

I WANT TO MAKE THINGS PEOPLE WANT.

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.

A Pint With… Lee Pavey

March 31, 2017 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Knocking some jars back with Mr. Electric.

Photography by Nipon Ravel.


I was relieved when Lee Pavey suggested The Sun and 13 Cantons for our rendezvous. With some practice, I could probably spit at it from my desk.

The choice wasn’t just for my benefit though. Since they started five years ago Electric Theatre Collective have employed three people who worked behind this bar and moulded them into valuable soldiers on the front lines of visual effects. We necked two pints of Edison British Pilsner (relevant, we thought) from the Electric Bear Brewing Co. with relish, nattering away and engaging in some colourful Soho people-watching (we think we saw Danny Boyle saunter past at one point).

...This pub was my introduction to Soho. I got my first job just down the road at Glassworks. All my mates in the industry come here. It’s been our regular haunt for about 20 years. It didn’t used to be so cool. It was a dive back then. There’d always be someone up to something.”

...Spurs are finally allowing me to come to work happy on a Monday.
They don’t lose every week anymore, so I can hold my head high when I walk into the office. I used to start the week a little bit tender.”

...I always dreamt I’d work on Star Wars. In my first runner interview the company told me they were about to work on the new Star Wars film. I thought it was destiny. I didn’t get the job. I’ve worked on a Nissan commercial with stormtroopers in and a Star Wars and Adidas collaboration, but that’s the closest I’ve come.”

...I couldn’t believe my luck when I got my first running job at Glassworks. At the time they were working with immensely talented people, on huge pop videos for the Spice Girls and George Michael. I was working at Marks & Spencer’s before and I refused to quit my job there, just in case. I used to come to the office in my black and green uniform. One day Hector told me not to turn up wearing it anymore. I eventually trusted him and let go. Amazingly, they never fired me.”

...Being a runner was the most amazing job. I was getting paid to hang out with interesting people and learn loads of skills, getting the chance to learn every aspect of the business. I didn’t want to move on. I met loads of people who are still in the industry. Now they’re directors, agency producers or heads of TV.”

...I’m anti Vanilla ads. So many are forgettable. At Electric it’s really important that real people – not the ad industry bubble – are talking about the stuff we work on. I want it to have a cultural impact.“

...People don’t realise how much work VFX is. Nobody queries the cost of building physical things, but when someone’s making something on a computer people expect it’s free. It undervalues the skill and craft of people in visual effects.”

...I believe in specialists. I believe in the client-agency relationship and the agency- production company part. I believe in editors, graders, sound designers. We’re all skilled craftspeople. That is really important. If we start to detach parts and those industries disappear, that’s bad for the industry. We could do everything at Electric. We could get an editor, but they wouldn’t be as good as someone at Work or Final Cut. You wouldn’t go to a suit tailor and ask him to make a pair of shoes. You go to the best craftspeople and you get what you pay for.”

...Oasis at Knebworth was a unique moment in cultural history. I was there. It was the last gig that will ever be like that – the last coming together on that scale. It was 250,000 people over two days who all lived one type of life.”

...Some young directors now would have been megastar directors 20 years ago. How can you make something great for five grand? Then how do you keep doing that time after time? They’re making stuff that’s baffling. At the UKMVAs there’s a category for budget music videos. And they look like they cost half a million pounds.”

...I love my ridiculous dog. She’s a British Bulldog called Tubbs, after the character in the League of Gentlemen. She’s annoying – needy, difficult and expensive to keep – but also the most amazing thing in the whole world.”

...People rely on VFX to make their bad ideas look better. If an ad’s a stinker, it’s a stinker. We can’t save it. We can make it better, but the idea needs to be great. It’s more important than ever to have a great idea.”

...I keep fit by boxing on Golden Square. Every Wednesday at 10:15. It’s not worth watching, but people can come. Being fat doesn’t suit me. I
just get a belly and look like Mr Potato Head. And gym’s boring. So I started boxing with this guy Honest Frank. It gives me a calmness, just concentrating on hitting something. I can’t pick my phone up either, which is liberating.”

...My job is the best. I get paid to run a company with my best friends. We have a good time. We make great work. And we’re proud of what we’ve done. We don’t want to own the world. But what we do, we want to do really well.”

Lee Pavey is Co-Founder and Producer at Electric Theatre Collective.

What Advertisers Should Know About Agency In-House Production Units

March 24, 2017 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Is this more ‘streamlined’ model for or against clients interests?

The rise of the in-house production unit at advertising agencies has been one of the more lively issues in the industry in the past few years, with passionate views on both sides. One session at Advertising Week Europe on Tuesday 21st March called What Advertisers Should Know About Agency In-House Production Units attempted to distil these arguments down for clients, and called on a relevant panel to discuss it.

Moderated by Dominic Mills, Columnist for Mediatel, the panel consisted of Steve Davies, CEO of the Advertising Producers Association, Sylvaine Mella, Bureau Member of the French Association des Producteurs de Films Publicitaires, Tina Fegent, Marketing Procurement Consultant and Chair of the CIPS Marketing Knowledge Group, Claire Randall, Creative Production Consultant and Philipp Schuster, Business Partner for Global Procurement Marketing Agencies at Bayer.

Dominic began by summarising the situation. “Some see these agency in-house units as just another way for agencies to make money,” he said. “Others that it is a free market and agencies can offer their services as viably as anyone else and, in some cases, perhaps offer services not only cheaper but maybe faster and perhaps even more user friendly. But on the other side we have those that believe agencies are acting dishonourably, seeking alternative bids from independents and then winning the work themselves. Judge and jury on their own bid, you might say.

“In the US this has taken a serious twist with a number of agencies under investigation by the Department of Justice for bid rigging. People could go to jail. They did 20 years ago in a previous Department of Justice investigation.“

With the stakes established, the panel were invited to describe the general pressures their respective parts of the industry are concerned by.

Steve and Sylvain stressed the increased quantity of content demanded by clients, paired with the same budgetary constraints and fast turnovers production has always wrestled with.

Tina explained clients’ demands for more streamlined and effective structures within agencies, while Claire noted one of the major motivators for agencies ramping up their production offerings – money. “We are seeing a move away from having an agency of record,” she said. “A lot of brands are working with a creative agency on a project-by-project basis, which is putting pressure on agency fees, which is why I think they’re looking for other ways to drive revenue.”

Philipp’s client perspective was that the decoupling and diverse business models that have hit the industry have increased choice for brands for how they buy advertising. “There are endless options,” he said. “To have choice is always good, but you have to pick the right option for you and that’s more and more difficult.”

The panel agreed that relationships are more opaque than they need to be and stressed that this needs to change. “It’s an oversupplied market,” said Tina. “Agencies haven’t been clear about what options are available. This lends itself to the role of procurement, making sure we understand the supply chain.”

But brands don’t question their supply chain often enough, suggested Claire, provided their agency is delivering quality, cost-effectiveness and on-time delivery.

Nobody is condemning the notion of in-house production outright. “It’s entirely up to a client how they spend their money and it’s up to an agency how they structure their business,” said Steve. “But the issue is whether they compete fairly. We don’t think they are when they bid themselves against independent companies. That is bad for clients because what appears to be an open competition in the open market isn’t.”

When asked whether he thought the bid rigging the US DOJ is investigating was happening in the UK, Steve said no, but that’s not required to make the system unfair. Agencies can withhold information from production companies or skip the negotiation phase and accept their first price. “There’s nothing illegal about that,” he said, “but you’re creating and environment where you are both player and referee There are so many ways in which agencies can favour themselves without doing anything as crass as entering into a criminal conspiracy with another organisation.”

He reiterated the APA’s public stance on the issue – that “an agency should be able to decide whether it’s going to do the work itself or whether it’s going to bid it out to the production community, but not both.”

This is unnecessary, as Claire saw it. She suggested that there are ways to fairly accept both in-house and external bids: “For example, different deadlines so that the agency has to make their bid prior to the external bids, or the bids go direct to the client, or to procurement, or to the production consultant, so that it’s an even playing field.”

Steve disagreed, arguing that if bids are judged by another party the value of judging a treatment and budget on its creative value to the idea is lost. That is a huge role of the creative agency that must not be bypassed.

Philipp expressed his concern for any possible unfairness. “That someone is judging their own bid doesn’t make sense,” he said. “We have to set up a process where this is not possible. Or bring in some independent body to make sure the referee is a referee, and not also a player. That’s critical.”

Some agencies feel insulted that their integrity is being questioned here. They claim they would never favour their own bid unfairly. Steve said he understood this. “But although I have faith in their personal integrity, I just don’t think that’s possible. Things have to not just be fair, but be seen to be fair. That’s why the chairman of the National Lottery can’t enter the lottery.”

Of course the pressure to move more production in-house is a revenue-driven one, not a creative decision. Steve noted that these demands usually come from agencies’ financial leadership, but while responding to business challenges by taking on new work is a good way to grow, clients should see the inevitable risk that an agency will decide who does a production based on its own interests, rather than their clients.

Ultimately the market will deliver the best value for the client, Steve argued. There are too many companies competing for this work and production companies have to fight on two fronts: with their treatments, in order to demonstrate the most compelling creative solutions their directors can envisage, as well as on price. “In any over-competitive market you can cannot put your prices up,” he said. “You have to put them bid as low as you can just to win the work. That’s what clients should take confidence from.”

Sylvaine added that production companies are uniquely positioned to support emerging directing talent. “That’s something that may be difficult,” she said. “You might not find it in an in-house production company at an advertising agency. It has been our role forever and I think we’ve done it pretty well. It’s really important to keep that love for the craft that we have as the producer. Most of the time we’re also able to invest in music videos that are not bringing in any money, but are bringing new talent that the advertising world is eager to use.”

That may be less of a hardheaded business argument, but we’re not talking about buying pig iron here – this is the creative industry. Tina noted that “the right procurement person” should take that into account.

It’s ironic that the session was hosted on the IPA Centenary Stage. The British agency and production associations haven’t been able to get on the same page on this issue since the APA called for the IPA to issue a best practice statement suggesting agencies should not bit themselves against the independent sector. Some agencies have vowed never to do this, but others insist there’s nothing wrong with it, and the IPA have so far refused to take a stand either way. APA member companies have decided not to bid against in-house production units, “so in a sense it doesn’t matter whether there is third-party approval,” said Steve.

But he does feel agencies should do their bit to reassure their clients of their integrity. “I would like to publicly ask WPP and Omnicom to say that their agencies won’t bid themselves or their own network in-house companies against independent companies,” he said.

The “spectre at the feast,” as Dominic put it, was the in-house production units that clients have now begun setting up. “There are new models popping up every other month,” said Philipp, the client voice here. “So there will always be a debate about it. We’re in a vibrant and lively exchange all the time. And we need to figure out the best way.”

What is Good Casting?

March 15, 2017 / Features

By Alex Reeves

We ask a few of the industry’s best what it takes to find the right talent.

I’ve said “the casting is good” in many a High Five review. But what do I actually mean by that? I hadn’t really thought about it until recently.

Apparently I’m not alone here. Casting directors are used to being overlooked and misunderstood. There is still no Academy Award for casting, making it the only main title of credit without an Oscar category. And the BAFTAs are equally guilty of this oversight.

The inaugural Casting Directors Association Awards will announce its winners on Friday 17th March. The CDA Casting Awards 2017 are the first awards in Europe to celebrate this underappreciated art. With winners in each category judged by an independent panel of expert, industry judges, the awards hope to pave the way forward for appreciating this undervalued craft. The ceremony is taking place in Farringdon, London and will be hosted by comic actress and writer Sally Phillips, whose credits include Miranda, Smack the Pony, Radio 4’s Clare in the Community and the Bridget Jones films.

I decided to speak to some of the nominated casting directors to understand what makes good casting directors and why they should be celebrated.

Tree Petts is nominated for Best Casting of a UK Commercial (Worcester Bosch - The Long Day) and Best Casting of an International Commericial (Seat - Imaginary Friend). Also Chairperson of the CDA, she feels everyone can appreciate good casting because it’s so noticeable on film. “When you watch something as a lay person, you’re not looking at the background, the art department,” she says. “That infuses the feel. You’re looking at the casting. That’s what you immediately see – the actors.” No matter your technical knowledge of film, you can recognise good acting when you see it. And it’s casting directors who make sure the right actors get cast.

Shakyra Dowling, who is nominated in both the Short Film (The Nest) and Feature Film (Spaceship) categories, describes the magic of the moment when great casting happens. “The excitement is when magic happens in the casting suite,” she says. “You lock eyes with the director and you know that that this the right person. You know that you’ve found what you’ve been looking for.”

There’s a certain degree of intuition to casting that’s hard to explain, it seems. “A good casting director will read a script and have inspiration about who they’re going to talk about with the director,” says Shakyra. “It’s your job to ‘have a good eye.’ It’s talent spotting, I suppose – understanding who will work in a film.”

‘The eye’ is definitely a phrase casting directors like to use. “It’s basically seeing something in somebody that they may not even see themselves at the point and thinking ‘this person’s got something that we can work with,’” explains Tree. “Various people have ‘the eye’ in various walks of the entertainment industry. It’s about seeing something in somebody that can be developed.”

Casting directors pride themselves on finding talent that goes on to do great things. “Oh, God, I really love that,” says Tree. She remembers watching  a production of Othello many years ago. “There was a relative unknown on the stage who I felt blew Ewan McGregor off the stage. And his name was Tom Hiddleston. The person that cast him, I guess new out of drama school at that point, had seen something in him and that’s ‘the eye.’”

Shakyra demonstrated her ‘eye’ with the short she was nominated for, The Nest, for which she cast Amy Bowden. She saw something in her. “And it wasn’t just me,” she says, “because now she’s with one of the biggest agencies in the UK and is working constantly. That’s when you know.”

One of the other intuitive arts of a good casting director is providing the director with options he or she may not have considered. Like so many heads of department, their job is to provide the director with creative expertise. “A good casting director will put in a wildcard that doesn’t exactly fit the director’s brief, but actually from reading the treatment and script we think this person is really good,” says Tree. “And quite often they get the part. So even though the parameters are around what the director wants, you can open it up a bit.”

Diversity and representation are delicate issues among casting directors. They’re understandably wary of crowbarring diversity into a cast that feels unrealistic, but sometimes it can be an inspiration. Shakyra remembers reading a script with 36 male and only two female characters. “When I read it I said to the director ‘it’s not great on diversity. What do you think of changing this male character to a female?’ He found it so inspiring. He hadn’t even thought about it but loved the idea. So you have quite a lot of influence in making important decisions.”

The CDA will, in fact, be presenting a special Diversity Award, sponsored by Casting Networks, on Friday. Judging this special award will be a panel from UK Equity headed by their Equalities and Diversity Organiser, Hamida Ali.

But a casting director can only rely on his or her intuition so far. It has to be underpinned by knowledge. Amanda Tabak, who is nominated in the Best Street Casting Commercial (The Co-Op – Ask) and Short Film (Balcony) categories, remembers once having to cast a Chinese man in his 80s who plays drums. That’s quite a specific brief, but she managed to meet it by speaking to all the Chinese communities in London. Knowing where to look is key.

“When I started I was amassing knowledge,” says Amanda.  Now she has a huge reservoir of experience on where to find certain types of talent. “Someone will just intuitively spring to mind from the library of people in my brain that I’m sure is going to be right for it and, invariably, they are.”

Of course, there are go-to agencies with the best actors, but Tree insists that good casting is about unearthing those hidden gems. “I think it’s about keeping an open mind,” she says. “There are really good people that aren’t represented by the top agents. I think really good casting directors have to keep their eyes open. If I have to go through 2,000 suggestions to find 20 people to come into a casting, I will give myself that extra work just to open the field up.”

It’s also important to understand the director, too. No mean feat, as Shakyra knows. “They might say ‘a bit like Cillian Murphy but not. If you mixed him with Harrison Ford. That’s how I see this character.’ And I know exactly what they’re talking about,” she says. “We have to find that person.”

“I think it’s a combination of knowledge, gut feeling and organisation,” says Amanda. “You have to be super organised. If someone calls me up on Tuesday and wants to do a casting on Thursday, where I need to get 30 people to come in, and they’ve all got to bring something to the table.”

Casting directors are one of the many kinds of specialists a film director relies upon to make the best film possible. They aren’t technical specialists with an arcane piece of equipment that nobody else understands. Casting a subtle art, combining instinct, knowledge and a good helping of common sense. That’s probably why they’ve been somewhat overlooked by the filmmaking establishment. But this wrong will be righted and on Friday London will appreciate the greatest talents within the craft.

More Empty Platitudes About Branded Content

March 6, 2017 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Why are we still having conferences about this vague subject?

What’s left to say about branded content? On Thursday 2nd March the Branded Content Marketing Association hosted One Extraordinary Day in Branded Content – a conference that promised “a unique opportunity to hear from and connect with the leaders of the Branded Content business.” And it left me thinking we’ve genuinely heard it all now.

Nestled into a modest, grey room on the periphery of the ExCel centre while BVE, the giant media conference, raged on in the main exhibition space, the BCMA’s event did deliver on part of its promise. The line-up was promising, including two knights – Sir John Hegarty, British advertising’s most prolific rent-a-quote luminary, and Sir Peter Bazalgette, Chairman of ITV – as well as senior professionals from respectable creative agencies, media agencies, research companies and even a few clients.

The BCMA’s CEO Andrew Canter introduced the day’s proceedings, encouraging us to use the event’s hashtag #lovebrandedcontent. Not a sentiment many people want to be associating themselves with, as one attendee identified early on.

First up, a “breakfast table chat” with Sir Peter Bazelgette, interviewed by Gary Knight, Commercial Content Director of ITV. ‘Baz’ was a laugh, inexplicably blessing us with a rendition of late 1950s advertising jingles at one point. Ultimately, the conversation was irrelevant though. Two commercial TV grandees spouting clichés about how important the creative industries are, how great the media landscape is with all these hip young things like Netflix and Amazon Prime entering the game (they stressed that TV’s not dead though!) and how good old-fashioned TVCs are branded content too. Most of it was hard to argue with, but no great revelations.

Next up was Neil Boorman, Content Director at Mother London, who chose to focus on branded content’s problems. Fair enough. It’s got a few.

He reminded us that everyone is making content these days. YouTubers, for example. He went on to extol the virtues of arch-gamer and YouTuber Pewdiepie, who was recently disgraced for including the message “death to all Jews” in one of his videos. Paired with his passion for Reddit and his Richard Spencer haircut, he should be careful people don’t mistake him for one of the ‘alt-right’. That might be a bit too edgy for his East London agency.

So everyone makes good content these days, he argued, except brands. As we’ve heard at a good few conferences, people don’t want to talk about brands or use their hashtags, they definitely don’t want to delve into the rich heritage of a brand on an expensive website.

One of Neil’s points resonated with the whole day. Red Bull and their Stratos stunt are still wheeled out as the best example of good branded content. It happened in 2012.

Neil did try to end on a positive though, which boiled down to: there are gaps for people to make great content; why shouldn’t brands provide it?

Sir John Hegarty, BBH Founder and Chairman of Electric Glue, leapt to the stage next to talk creativity. Everyone in this industry has heard him make speeches like this before. The amazing thing is that he always finds a new combination of words to do it. You know the drill. He told some anecdotes , settling on six semi-random abstract nouns as the “pillars of creativity”:
Strategy
Truth
Difference
Culture
Irreverence
Juxtaposition.

An all-encompassing formula to creativity. Nailed it.

The day’s first panel session was moderated by Andy Gulliman, Ex-Worldwide Film and Content Director for Saatchi & Saatchi and now Founder of Gulliman Films. He was joined by James Hayr, Head of Commercial Partnerships for the Endemol Shine Group, Andy Holland, Head of Production & Talent at Drum and Alastair Humphreys, adventurer and author. Their discussion was broad. They had a good ruck about whether Fosters bringing Alan Partridge back for the web series Mid Morning Matters was a good piece of branded content, agreed that different kinds of agencies need to cooperate rather than chase the same parts of a client’s marketing budget, and asserted that branded content works best for long-term brand building.

Barbara Matijasic’s presentation was baffling. She’s Marketing Manager at Edition Digital and spoke about the power of a “content hub” and why you should make sure you put all your content on as many social media platforms as possible. It felt a little patronising. I think she was trying to sell us something, but I could be wrong.

The afternoon promised to be L’Oreal section - “here comes the science bit!” It kicked off with Jane Christian, Head of Business Science at MediaCom and Tom Curtis, Managing Partner and Head of MediaCom Beyond Advertising to address ROI. As we’ve heard ad nauseum, nobody knows which half of their marketing budget is working. Jane and Tom admitted they had no “holy grail” and they didn’t. They spoke about the educated guesses MediaCom make to work out how much money their branded content makes for their clients. Surprise, surprise! Profits are more important to clients than “impressions”.

The media owners were up next. In a panel chaired by Clare O’Brien, Head of Industry Programmes at IAB UK, consisting of Tim Bleakley, CEO at Ocean Outdoor, Karen Stacey, CEO at Digital Cinema Media, Abby Carvosso, Group MD, Advertising at Bauer Media, Adam Harris, Director of Custom Solutions, Europe at Twitch and Tim Mines (AKA Spamfish), a gamer with over 130,000 dedicated followers on the live streaming platform. The debate mostly consisted of each panellist flying the flag for their medium of choice as the number-one branded content platform, punctuated by more clichés: content needs to be great and authentic and relevant to its audience.

One worrying side note: Adam remarked that out of a room of apparently serious marketing professionals, he had spent the day repeatedly explaining what Twitch was. The live streaming platform was bought by Amazon in 2014 for almost $1 billion. Its audience is undeniably on the young side, but you’d think that business story alone would be enough to earn it some recognition.

Eleanor Thornton-Firkin, Head of Content and Creative Development at Ipsos Connect provided the outsider’s perspective, backed up by research, which turned out to reinforce what everyone else has been saying for years: most branded content is crap, there’s too much of it, it tends to be an afterthought for CMOs and it’s difficult to know what works. She did have some insightful case studies to hand though – For example, Lexus’ hoverboard stunt changed 51% of people’s brand expectations and 71% were into it. Why? It was “super cool” and not too heavily branded.

Finally, the clients took to the stage with Tom Curtis courageously reprising as moderator. Leah Davis, Head of Marketing for Team GB and the British Olympic Association and Scott Wilkinson, Head of VOOM, Brand, Acquisitions and Digital at Virgin Media Business, were here to predict the future of branded content in a 20-minute “fireside chat”. Expectations set, they got stuck in, ready, as Tom put it, to “think, drink and breathe branded content.” After a spirited back-and-forth they landed on some conclusions: everything marketeers do is branded content, don’t fall into “the crap trap”, it must be as good as non-branded content, platforms and mediums will change, but the creative idea must come first.

I suppose part of me knew that was the kind of insight a conference like this would deliver. I think everyone knows, broadly, how brands should be approaching content. And when you’ve been to a couple of events like this you’ve heard it all. There really is no silver bullet, but I’m sure marketing professionals will continue to pay £499 (not including VAT) to reassure themselves that’s still the case. Even if it means inevitably hearing the same old guff for the umpteenth time.

Comedy Advertising Should be Funny

January 31, 2017 / Features

By Alex Reeves

A BAFTA-winning comedy writer on how to make advertising that actually makes people laugh.

It’s pretty common that we’ll watch a film that clearly fits into the category of ‘comedy ads’, but doesn’t provoke even slightest tittle of a laugh. Somehow it’s become acceptable for advertising to be less funny than other forms of comedy.

We’ve been enjoying the current series of Revolting – BBC Two’s new satirical sketch series – and were excited to find out that one of the writers on the show, Joe Wade, is also the Co-Founder and Managing Director of the agency Don’t Panic London. They’ve made some very high profile work for Greenpeace, Save the Children and PETA in recent years.

We wanted to see what Joe, as a BAFTA-winning comedy writer thought of British comedy advertising’s low standards, so we called him for a chat.

 

The Beak Street Bugle: Why are comedy ads so rarely actually funny? How do they get signed off?
Joe Wade:
The threshold is low. I think one reason is you are asking people who are not comedy writers to come up with comedy. That is a different skill in many ways. They’re sort of related but if you’re an advertising professional, I don’t know why you’re expected to be funny. That’s a slightly different thing.

So one thing we tend to do is have comedy writers from TV to help us on our ad work, to try and make things more genuinely funny.

The difference will be in terms of how that manifests itself in the process. Somebody who comes from a TV comedy background will tend to think ‘is this a funny set-up or scenario?’ and then somebody else might have to come along and go ‘where’s the brand?’ You can do it that way round. That will probably result in something funnier, whereas advertising professionals often start with ‘what can we do to make this deliver against brand objectives?’ then ‘can we make it funny?’

There were funnier ads in the past and it’s interesting to note things like the Smash Martians. I used to think in the old days you probably just used to write it on the back of a fag packet round the corner from the pitch, then you’d go in and they’d obviously say yes because they thought you were some kind of creative genius. But actually that wasn’t the case at all. That advert was meticulously researched and tested really well with housewives, who where the intended market at that point. So it wasn’t as wild as that at all.

That was by BMP, which is in a circuitous way now adam&eveDDB, who are known for their extremely emotional adverts and have never really attempted anything funny.

 

BSB: Why do you think emotional advertising is so much more popular than comedy?
JW:
I think another potential trend is people want to create things that are shareable and they feel that highly emotive adverts that make you want to weep are the most shareable. And kind of forgetting online behaviour. Some of the biggest Facebook publishers are like The LAD Bible – I think in September last year they had about three billion views – and most of that is humour. So there’s definitely an appetite for it there.

In America the picture’s slightly different because with the Super Bowl everyone tries to do a funny ad. The two that did well [in 2016] – number one was the Doritos one with the ultrasound. 

It’s not hilarious but it was at least a bit shocking. The other one that did well was the Mountain Dew one – Puppymonkeybaby.

Unruly wrote a white paper about it. 22% of felt less positively about Mountain Dew after watching that advert. So it went badly. But among its key audience – Millennial males – 58% of people felt really positive about it. And it was the 7th most shared ad at last year’s Super Bowl.

 

BSB: That requires some bravery from clients though, right?
JW:
The thing about humour is you can’t be too bothered if it turns off a lot of people or a lot of people find it in bad taste. If you work out who your audience is and a more hard-hitting humorous approach would work, then you may have to risk offending older women, for instance.

There were a few ads that went really badly like that Volkswagen ad, where they had a [white Amercian man with a] really stereotypical Jamaican accent in it and it was called out as racist. A few have backfired and that’s a big fear for a lot of clients.

Another factor is the sheep-like mentality of the industry. Clients have seen John Lewis and they just say ‘do me a John Lewis.’ That’s why you’ve had so many emotional adverts.

I think there is possibly a real thing that is if you’re going for a global ad you’re on safer ground with emotions than with humour. Humour tends to be a bit more regional. A good example of a humorous ad that was done really well was the Mac V PC campaign. The reason that was good is they weren’t hugely funny, but it was a very simple format to replicate and in every country they did them with a regional sensibility using regional talent.

That was a good way to answer the problems of that regional element. I think you could do an effective global campaign and make it region specific.

Another factor as to why we’re in this position is with the awards in advertising, you tend to get awards for emotional rather than funny advertising. In our slightly rudimentary research, last year in Cannes 13 Lions were given to funny ads and 44 to more emotional ads. I think agencies are aware of that. And we’ve tended to do much better out of the emotional adverts than we have with anything funny.

 

BSB: How are Don’t Panic set up to do things differently?
JW:
As an agency we tend not to do ads as such. We do often ask ourselves ‘how is this different from an advert?’ If you want to create work that’s storytelling [that’s designed to go] viral, you might get a better story arc out of it if you were looking to writers who weren’t only advertising copywriters. And the same thing would apply to drama as well.

That’s not necessarily new. There has been a bit of fluidity between those who have written commissioned content versus adverts, or famously people like novelists who have written for Hollywood.

I think we’re lucky because as an agency we started making viral videos for ourselves and then began to do commercial work. So the mindset in the agency is like ‘is this shareable?’ first, then we work back from there. I think that’s a big help.

BSB: Revolting feels a lot like its stunt-based predecessor, The Revolution Will be Televised. Is it essentially just a rebrand or do you see it as distinct?
JW:
It started off being a lot more scripted and then people wanted us to do the stunt-y stuff as well, so we ended up bringing more of that into it. In some of the sketches, I think the ones that we are most keen on are the ones that are scripted and then it goes into stunts. I really like the tax office one [the VR Tax Simulator sketch in Episode 1], where there’s an amusing idea behind the scripted segment and then it ends up with a minor stunt on Eric Schmidt. 

The big difference from Revolution is there are the scripted bits. We like to work more on how those two things fit together. It’s a really nice way of doing things.

 

BSB: How different is that from writing for a commercial client?
JW:
For us, the difference is less than it would be for a traditional agency because we came from doing that sort of stunts and then we commercialised it. We’ve developed that a long way from stunts by doing proper narrative things commercially.

We do a lot of cause-related work for charities. So given that the comedy in Revolting is satirising stuff but also focusing on issues, for us to go from that to working with charities is not much of a stretch.

I think what we’re trying to do with the cause-related stuff is not preach to the converted all the time. If you take a more traditional approach to these issues you would have a sad child staring at the camera sort of thing and hope that people will be touched enough to hand some money over.

We don’t really do that kind of thing. We have an awareness of what wouldn’t interest people and trying to approach it from a different angle. I guess the comedy angle helps with that.

What we’re trying to do with Revolting is present issues that you may read about in the Guardian but in a different kind of way so a broader audience may be interested in them.

As an agency one of our priorities is to work with more brands and another priority is to do more funny work. I think we do need to work with more brands to make that a reality because we can’t pitch funny ideas to a lot of our charity clients. Child abuse isn’t funny, and neither is people suffering in Syria. So we’ll need more brand clients to be able to do more funny stuff. We think there’s an opportunity there given that the whole industry’s got a bit weepy. And with the political reality of Trump and Brexit, people don’t want emotional ads the whole time.