Ancient Wisdom

October 21, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

The History of Advertising Trust reminds us why we should protect the past to improve the future of our industry.

The advertising industry’s obsession with the future is inevitable. The new is exciting, cool and interesting – everything advertisers want to be – and if they’re going to be communicating in a relevant way, agencies need to be on the cutting edge of culture. But this obsession is also a dangerous one. It results in acute amnesia. The past is quickly disregarded in favour of the next big thing and lessons are often left unlearned in the wake.

The History of Advertising Trust (HAT) has been fighting to restore balance to the industry since 1976, reminding them that a look in the rear view mirror every so often can be a valuable thing. They also handily provide them with a big mirror to do so.

HAT’s job is to protect and represent the heritage of advertising, to preserve the story of its development and the best work through the ages. Their archive of millions of relics from the advertising world is fascinating and ever growing, stored in temperature-controlled, low-acidity conditions at their facility in Norfolk. It’s a potentially a rich source of inspiration for new generations and a fascinating treasure trove to dig through.

There’s a lot more than just ads at HAT’s archive. Their collection also encompasses the context in which they were created, including such fascinating artefacts as the notepads and sketches that went into their creation, telling the stories from behind the scenes. There are even contracts for famous talents and correspondence between clients and agencies, fleshing out the history of the social dynamics of the industry.

“Although formats change the ideas are what really matter,” asserts Chloe Veale, Director of the Trust. And while HAT’s collection is vast and exciting, she and her team are always keen to grow it and fill in the gaps in the communications tapestry.

Their facility is full of gadgetry and gizmos for converting old formats into stuff that can be digitally archived and backed up, but it’s painstaking work putting old 35mm film and transparencies onto hard drives as it often has to be done in real time.

The end goal of all this is to reduce the impact of that geographical barrier between the metro-centric British advertising industry and HAT’s base of operations in Norfolk by cataloguing everything online in a digital format. That’s a huge job, especially for a charity with limited access to funding, but it’s one they’re handling at a steady pace with the support of the idustry.

Channelling their efforts into this digitization and opening the doors of its archive wider to the industry is testament to the fact that HAT is no dusty repository where ads go to be catalogued and forgotten; it’s an active, participatory part of an industry that desperately needs to learn from its past in order to produce the best work.

They’ve built their archives by gathering material from a plethora of sources and as lovers of history they relish this. “We rescue material,” says Chloe, “but we’d prefer a working relationship. The hardest thing is to make sure we’re getting the fresh stuff that’s being produced today. We’ve got to keep feeding the archive with stuff that’s current.”

It’s a paradox, but while technology has given us all the tools to preserve our work easily by building our own digital archive, it has also taken away the structures and disciplines that physical cataloguing demanded. The notes a creative made while coming up with the next historic ad are likely in a folder in a hard drive somewhere, but where exactly is up to that creative’s personal filing system – and calling it a system may be giving it too much credit. “We’d like agencies to send us their digital records,” explains Chloe, “but a lot of them wouldn’t know how to access them. The digital world is a great asset for information but it’s also extremely expensive to have all the back-up storage.”

HAT want to nurture a two-way relationship with agencies. Ultimately they need cooperation in constantly building their archive, but it all goes towards the greater goal of strengthening the industry as a whole.  “It’s all about relationships, the whole business,” says Chloe. “And we’re here to help everybody. We’re a service, not a museum. This is living heritage. We’re still creating it and it’s here to be drawn upon.”

Ultimately, in a world obsessed with immediacy and cost cutting, HAT can save agencies and production companies time and money, by smoothing the process of research. They have shelves rammed full of guard books that detail the entire chronologies of brands’ advertising histories. They’ve gathered together material from disparate sources – from head offices, local factories and outlets, agencies and even ex-creatives’ lofts and boiler rooms – to fill in the gaps in brands’ timelines of communication.

It’s all in one place and available for their clients to access and they can deal with lines of enquiry where Google would hit a brick wall. HAT have recently been working on a project called Saving the 70s, producing compilation reels of 1970s advertising and collecting anecdotes, photographs and ephemera from the era, but Chloe is confident they could virtually cover any timeframe or theme people are interested in.

“You can’t catalogue ideas,” she admits, “but you can catalogue slogans, language, images, products and brands. When [agencies] are saying ‘give us everything you’ve got on salad cream since the 1930s’ we can do it."

At Advertising Week Europe earlier this year, The History of Advertising Trust screened Risk and Responsibility (http://www.campaignlive.co.uk/news/1154210/), a witty deconstruction of the client-account manager-agency dynamic featuring now legendary ad men Ronnie Kirkwood, Jeremy Bullmore, Sam Rothenstein and David Bernstein. You can’t find it on the internet, but the sketch from 1966 hilariously depicts a pair of risk-averse clients reducing Ogilvy’s iconic The Man in the Hathaway Shirt ad to a pile of bland rubbish. It’s message is as relevant now as it was then – risks must be taken in order to stand out, and clients will need some persuading to take these risks. The battles of the industry then are still raging.

We may have immersive online brand experiences and creative technologists coding our advertising now, but the core principles of the industry still hold. That’s why we should pay attentions to The History of Advertising Trust and the wealth of knowledge held within their archive. We’ll never be so enlightened that we cannot learn from the past.

Under the Influence: Arno Salters

October 8, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

The absurd inspirations of Caviar’s zaniest Franco-British director.

No director is an island. And as much as they claim they pull their ideas directly out of their genius brains, the vast majority of creative ideas are, in fact, pilfered from other people’s work and combined with other stuff to disguise their genesis. That’s why we do this series – to try and trace the lineage of directors’ output.

Arno Salters, who recently signed to Caviar, has some truly odd commercials on his reel, often playing with the laws of physics. We wanted to understand what goes into a head to get this sort of thing out, so asked him to talk about five of his biggest influences.

Taking the Metro

“I live in Paris, and when you live here you either drive a moped or you take the Metro. I do the latter.

There’s a lot of frowning that goes on down there, but if you look beyond that it’s a great source of inspiration. You get to observe every single layer of society up close, and come face to face with characters of such strangeness that you couldn’t write them into a screenplay without readers feedbacking ‘I don’t buy that character.’

Some of the observational virtues have diminished in recent years with the advent of smartphones. People tend to hide behind Candy Crush or 2048 rather than putting their personalities out there for all to see. But if you look close enough, you still find plenty of inspiration in the occasional awkward co-worker conversation, the pick-up line falling flat, the preppy guy pulling out a spray can and quickly doing a gangsta-looking graffiti on the wall, or even the busker I once saw who hummed while ‘performing’ public masturbation for spare change - perv with a sense of humor (I have yet to find a place for that character in one of my commercials...).

The Metro also has a way of forcing you into decisions that define you bluntly as either Nice Guy or Dick: ‘Should I take a minute to help this mother get her stroller up the stairs?’ ‘Should I interrupt my book to give change to this homeless dude?’ ‘Shall I actively not recognise that guy I met last week who really loves to talk about video game design?’ Or perhaps the most common: ‘Shall I pretend I didn’t notice this other person was going for that seat and quickly maneuver my way there first?’”

Monty Python

“When I was a kid one summer they played the entire Flying Circus in English on French TV. I recorded every episode on VHS and watched them over and over. I can’t think of anything so free form on TV today. Social commentary and philosophical meanderings wrapped in a fat layer of completely unfiltered comedic randomness.

So when I veer towards comedy, my mind often drifts towards Socrates scoring a header against the German philosophers, Graham Chapman wearing a massive fake nose, or John Cleese and Michael Palin in the argument clinic.

As a sidenote, special shout-out to The Goon Show, an amazing radio show from the 50s featuring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan and which feels like a spiritual predecessor to Monty Python.”

Rashomon

“I read that when Rashomon played at the 1951 Venice Festival, Kurosawa was asked by a journalist what the film meant. His answer was that if he could answer that question in a couple sentences, he wouldn’t have bothered making the film.

Think I’m gonna start using that line on clients.”

Absurdist Literature

“I don’t read that much fiction but when I do it’s got to have some absurdity to it. Here are three that I love.

The Nose (1835) by Gogol, where a man wakes up only to find his nose has disappeared from his face. As he goes on a hunt for it, he finds that his nose has realised all of his own personal ambitions and climbed the ranks in19th century Russia.

Basically Russia’s 19th century equivalent to Charlie Kaufman.

Baron in the Trees (1957) by Italo Calvino, where a boy from an Italian aristocratic family has a tantrum and decides to go live in the trees for the rest of his life.

Always thought Terry Gilliam would eventually turn it into a film.

American Desert (2004) by Percival Everett, where a man gets his head cut off in a car accident. After morticians sew it back on for his eternal rest, the man wakes up at his funeral, sending the world in a panic.

Everett’s the head of the English department at USC. Gives me renewed faith in the US college system."

My Kids’ Drawings

“I’m sorry; I swear this is not me being a cheesy proud dad. It’s just that kids come up with some of the most amazing avant-garde shit. I’ve been inspired more than once by my girls’ concepts. Here are three examples:

1. ‘He’s trying to grab the red guy but he can’t because he doesn’t have any hands’ You can’t help but feel really sorry for the blue guy. He looks majorly bummed. But then again, if he did have arms what was he gonna do to the red guy?

2. ‘Bird looking at you’
Stop looking at me with a raised eyebrow, bird. I didn’t do nuthin’.

3. ‘Its a Rainbow that’s attacking a princess’ – Pixar have approached us about buying the rights to this one. I just hope the princess keeps that hairstyle if it ever does get adapted.”

Have a look for these influences on Arno's reel.

Creating Creatives

October 7, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

How does the one oddball ad school consistently produce talented advertising professionals?

The School of Communication Arts is weird. Based on an upper floor of an old converted church in Brixton, there’s a distinctive community centre vibe about it. The studio is scruffy and open plan, with tables dotted around and groups of students working animatedly around laptops and notepads in casual groups. It couldn’t be further from the dusty libraries and lecture theatres of a traditional university. Yet it competes with every university in the country offering training in advertising. In fact, it beats them all. About 80 per cent of the school’s students get a job at a top-100 agency within six months of completing the course.

The school prides itself in being different from universities and its appearance is a clue. The atmosphere feels closer to an advertising agency than to a place of study. Having met the Dean, Marc Lewis, we’re sure that’s no accident. He told us exactly what SCA is and why, now in its sixth intake, he believes it’s the best place to prepare people for a career in creativity.

But how can creativity be taught? Many would see it as an innate talent – you’ve either got it or you don’t – but Marc and his school would disagree.

"I don't think creativity is any more innate than something like English,” says recent graduate Will Wells, currently on a placement at Wieden+Kennedy. “And yet this sense that creativity is unteachable prevails. Maybe it's perpetuated by 'creative' people worried at the thought that everyone can do it. I think it's a shame that a lot of people don't think they're creative at all; they convince themselves they don't have a capacity for it and so continues the notion that you're either creative or you're not. Luckily Marc doesn't share this view.” It’s helpful to think of creativity as a muscle, and SCA works it every day of the course.

Oli Rogers, another recent graduate now on a placement at AMV BBDO agrees that creativity is more than a genetic gift. “Creativity can absolutely be taught,” he says, “but not by being sat in a classroom or writing a load of essays. Obviously you need some talent to start off with, but hard work and perseverance make up about 95 per cent of advertising.”

Marc explains how these attitudes are put into practice at SCA. “It’s a very intense course,” he says. That sounds like an understatement. A three-year degree packed into ten months in the studio, followed by six months of placements is a daunting prospect, but the delivery of learning is completely different too. Their website reads: “We don’t behave like students, we are out-of-work creatives who want to become the very best talent of their generation. We don’t use text-books. There are no exams. We laugh at the idea of a dissertation.”

Based on the idea that the best way to learn a job is to do it, students at SCA work on briefs and stunts from day one. Like advertising professionals, not students. Along the way they receive advice and criticism from mentors working with them, drawn from a pool of over 700 industry professionals working in the industry, from copywriters to user experience experts.

Adam Newby, Will’s creative partner, insists that having done both undergraduate and masters degrees beforehand, nothing compares to SCA. “The course pushes you,” he says, “finds your limits. The teaching method – all mentors – may seem chaotic, but the course is put together with precision. While we were given a lot of freedom, there were some strict rules in place that drilled professionalism into us. We had to be at school by nine every morning, school hours ran the same as agency hours, the workload was huge and deadlines were deadlines. The course really does crunch three years into one.”

By the end of a frantic year they come to Portfolio Day, where their work is exhibited to perspective employers from agencies and six months’ worth of placements are arranged, which often lead to full-time jobs.

Naturally, Marc is proud of the school’s success in starting careers, but it’s easy to see why the school is top rated by the industry – it’s a part of it. “I think a lot of our secret sauce is how plugged in we are to our industry,” he says. A social enterprise owned by advertising agencies, their involvement with the people who work in advertising is far deeper than simply as source of graduates.

The school is supported by over 100 companies, mostly ad agencies, but there are experiential agencies, music agencies, media owners and tech companies in the family too. “They give us either money, knowledge or people,” explains Marc. “Those three things help us to create what we create.”

Money is vital, of course. Their financial sponsors keep the lights on and fund the scholarships – an integral part of the school’s ethos. Of 38 students in this year’s intake, he tells us that 11 are on scholarships. “That’s really important for us,” he says, “because we’re a very undiverse industry. We’re a very elite school but we want to be a very inclusive school.”

Redressing the imbalances of gender, class and ethnicity are goals the school is keen on pursuing, but they realise that you can’t entice people into an industry they have no idea exists. To tackle this, SCA recently started working with Commercial Break – an initiative that gives opportunities to underprivileged teenagers early on – while they’re still at school – so they can start working towards careers in communications early. Two of SCA’s current intake came from this programme – no giant leap, but a start in making sure the best talent flowing into advertising is from every background possible.

In fact, the school’s distinctive selection process is based partially upon their thirst for diversity. They say on their website, “We honestly couldn’t care less about your A-level results or your swimming certificates.” They select purely on character.

Oli describes the admissions process as “unlike anything I’ve experienced. An impromptu phone call several months after my online application, loaded with off-the-cuff questions ranging from the newspaper I read to stuff I did in my spare time,” he recalls. “After this stage I was invited to an interview day where I was instructed to ‘show my creativity on stage in four minutes.’ It was vague to say the least. I ended up making an omelette and then spent several gruelling hours working on a creative brief whilst being taken aside every now and then to answer questions from the in-house mentors. The end of the day was great. We were thrust in front of the current intake and asked to interrogate them about every single little detail about the school: good or bad. I respected Marc for that. I felt we got honest answers and I knew from then on that this was the school for me.”

Marc’s proud of the process. “We can come to a more accurate decision than ‘were they lucky enough to have come from a family that can get them into a good enough school, for example’ I don’t know that I agree that good grades necessarily make somebody bright. They might be able to store and regurgitate knowledge really well, but it doesn’t necessarily make them intelligent in the dimension that we’re looking for.”

SCA also relies on the industry for is knowledge. The school’s curriculum is run as a wiki and is continually changing according to what agencies are saying. “The industry are constantly feeding back to us what they want emerging talent to learn,” says Marc, “and our job is to aggregate or curate that knowledge, then transcribe it into an experience for the students. We’ll make sure the students are learning what agencies are telling us is currently relevant.”

Then the third way the industry supports the school is with people. The school maintains a network of over 700 volunteers, mostly from advertising agencies, who have signed up and committed to donating at least one day a year pro bono to come and share their knowledge and mentor the students.

Despite the careers they’ve started over their five years of teaching, SCA is still alone in its approach to teaching creativity. Marc wishes there were copycats out there though. “We want there to be a school like this for animation or creating video games or architecture. There should be lots of schools like this and I think one of my major frustrations is the inertia of industries coming forward to put money in a hat and start something like this. It’s so important for us as an industry PLC to create social enterprises that share the responsibility for preparing the next generation so that we can compete against our counterparts in Europe or America or India or wherever. So we would encourage it.”

Free-flowing creativity is misunderstood. One thing that SCA makes clear is that creatives are not born; they’re made. And, in Marc and his school’s view, a degree doth not a creative make, which is why students don’t receive any official qualification from the School of Communication arts, only the skills that earn them jobs. “The school makes you professional,” says Adam. “Despite its openness it really does create no-nonsense, hard-working creatives, used to a heavy workload. Juggling briefs is nothing new to an SCA grad. Neither are long hours.” What more could agencies ask for?

Directions to Direction: Ivana Bobic

September 24, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Her films may be cool, but this director’s past has made her a shameless geek.

Ivana Bobic watched Alien when she was about five years old. “My dad explained it was just cheese coming out of the guy,” she says. “I don’t remember being particularly scared so I think my threshold for horror and action was quite high.” From there she grew up with a fervent love for film (particular favourites as a kid were Indiana Jones and Top Gun). It’s put her in good stead. She’s now an award-winning director of short films, music videos and commercials, directing tough, stylish video on both the Park Village and Able & Baker rosters.

Her route to directing wasn’t straightforward (it never is), but she got off to a good start quite early. Aged 18 she became a runner, because that’s what you do when you want to work in film.

“I didn’t really know what was going on,” she admits, but she soon learned. Her first shoot was on was for a short film at Pinewood, next to the 007 stage, no less – almost too much for a teenaged action movie admirer.

Her career in filmmaking progressed steadily. She was only running for half a day before she was promoted to video assists. She did well enough to get asked back, so she must have done something right.

As it turns out, the video assist role was a great vantage point from which to learn about filmmaking. Ivana soon became close to the camera department and loved the work she did. “It’s quite demanding and fiddly [but] it’s super geeky,” she says, “and secretly that’s what I’m into. I was really obsessed with knowing how things work.”

Sitting next to the director and quietly watching the process was how she learnt the fundamentals and soon she was working on set for loads of promos and commercials with the camera crew. “I didn’t get paid loads but I did it quite regularly on all sorts of different productions,” she says. She started to do jobs in all corners of production, from art department to production assisting, but it was always video assist she enjoyed the most.

Ivana has no doubt that experience on set was how she learnt enough to become the director she is today. “I have a huge respect for the well-oiled machine of the set with really specific people doing things they’re really talented at,” she says. Having that vast spectrum of specialised talent to go and speak to as a resource wasn’t wasted on her.

Soon after her first forays into film, Ivana had begun a foundation course at Central Saint Martins that led into a graphic design degree at the London College of Communication. She found it interesting and it taught her aesthetic rules which you can see being used and (more interestingly) broken in her films, but her love for moving image was already cemented by then. “I knew I wanted to do film because I didn’t mind waking up at five in the morning and going and doing crazy stuff [for it],” she says. She remembers the horrible hours, menial labour and unglamorous locations as a sort of test. If none of it bothered her then she must be onto something.

By her third year of university, Ivana had worked enough in film to realise she might want to become a director. So she decided to make her own film to see how it went. “It was hugely embarrassing and nobody will ever see it,” she says. “I was just trying to figure things out and you learn a lot by practice.”

Eventually she made a short film that she was happy with. It was called The Priest and was really made as to educate herself in directing. “I was trying to figure out some way of doing something with no dialogue, on landscape, one actor – the most minimalistic thing we could do as an exercise,” she explains.

Ivana managed to convince Rain Li to work as director of photography on the film, despite the fact she had to fly over from LA, where she was shooting a feature. She was shocked that Rain, who’d worked with people like Jim Jarmusch, was interested in collaborating with her, but it worked out immensely well and the pair have in fact worked together on many projects since. “That was the clinching point,” she says. “I [already] knew I wanted to work in film. After making The Priest I knew I wanted to direct. There are so many things you can do in film, but for me the ability to be able to work with every department, everyone, is exciting.”

From that point on Ivana kept a steady stream of directing going, including films and live visuals for a band called S.C.U.M., which was a new challenge. She also started working on fashion films for Stella McCartney. “I had two completely different things going on at the same time,” she says, “but both involved me shooting and editing on my own and being a one-girl band.”

But she missed working with bigger crews when she worked alone. A good director isn’t a dictator, as she sees it. “I think one of the biggest things I’ve learnt through the way that I’ve got my way into making films is to have a clear vision, but to know when to collaborate, let go and trust people. Because they know what they’re doing.”

Stella McCartney was her first foray into directing on commercial briefs, although being a fashion brand, she admits the experience was very free-flowing. “We learnt as we went along,” she says.

One thing that struck her about working in fashion was the breakneck pace. With each collection a brand changes violently in style – “it might be hip hop orientated and then the next season is really floral and feminine,” she says – but she found that to be a good lesson. “I think having all those different views of what a brand or collection can be can be is good for learning how to work in advertising. Fast is not necessarily always good but it can be a good challenge.”

After a period directing in the music and fashion spheres, Ivana was glad to return to short films. She had the chance to shoot one in Belgrade, where she had spent the first five years of her childhood, and was happy to do proper storytelling again. The film was called In the Night, and working with Rain again, shooting on a 4K Epic and with a big crew, Ivana was glad to make this shift in tone.

That film got Ivana some well-deserved attention and she was asked to do a trailer for the London Short Film Festival, as well as an exhibition at the festival itself. The most exciting part was that it was a proper cinema trailer, to be distributed in cinemas all over London for a couple of months. The exposure was too tempting for her.

Working with editor Ben Campbell, she was keen on making sure the film had a strong rhythm and together they became obsessed with getting the most out of sound design. “I’ve found that how you can incorporate sound and image is interesting,” she says “- that you’re not just illustrating the picture with sound; you’re creating a whole different thing. We had so much fun with that, putting in things that weren’t there, making stuff that was fun and humorous and dark and atmospheric all at once.” It ended up winning a Music and Sound award for best sound design in cinema advertising, which Ivana is immensely proud of. “It is so good because it’s a very techy, geeky award,” she says.

The past year or so has been intensive. Having worked with all sorts of clients semi-freelance she ended up realising she’d be stronger with a production company behind her. Her next big film was a project for Russian department store Au Pont Rouge and it was a job that would have been impossible without Able & Baker, who produced it. She describes the brief as “a full-blown car chase thriller running round all over St Petersburg with stunt cars and big units.”

As a female director, Ivana’s keen not to get bundled into the corner so many women do – directing delicate commercials with children and beauty products – and this project was exactly right for proving a sexist industry that she can do tough and high-octane as well as beautiful and human. Her upbringing on action films served her well and it’s left her wanting more of this kind of thing. “I love getting to play with cars,” she says. “I definitely at some point want to do a car ad.”

With those two projects on her reel, Ivana was back in her groove working with big crews, but with no agency, she could exercise more freedom interpreting the brief.

Her most recent commercial project was different. Working with AKQA and Nivea was a great chance for to do something closer to a normal commercial production. Working with the real-life talent of a ballerina was right up her street too, bringing a toughness to an art form that’s traditionally very gentle, playing on the tension between grace and power. Again, she got a bit geeky. “I wanted to have these quite technical match cuts between the two [the tough side and the soft side] so she is always existing on both sides,” she says. With a strong vision from the agency, Ivana didn’t have to worry about the idea, but she enjoyed being able to delve into the details of the lighting, the grade, the sound design and the music.

And she's only getting more technical as she goes on. Her latest music video for The Kooks saw her develop a completely unprecendented technique with DOP Jake Scott, building a giant human zoetrope using a strobe light to act as a shutter.

 

Ivana’s love for directing comes from her respect for all the other professionals she works with and she’s let this shape her style. Now working on and pitching for more commercial jobs alongside the music and fashion, she’s keen to collaborate with people who really know their trade. "It's all about confidence and knowing what you want," she's learned, "but also learning when to let go."

Jumping the Fence: Neal Handley

September 22, 2014 / Features

By Neal Handley

An Englishman in New York.

Neal Handley
Was: Account Director at various advertising agencies
Now: Head of Business Development at Pipe Dreams 

I have a confession to make.
I’m an ex-agency account man.
I don’t know how many of us there are in production land or if there is a stigma attached to it but it sounds like the sort of thing I should confess to. Possibly apologise for?

Perhaps it was 10 years of life in agencies that instilled this sense of unease in me? The years of my agency producer rolling their eyes when I explained the latest insane client request or being held at arm’s length from genius directors and brutally honest location managers etc. etc. but it did feel as though, when I jumped the fence to a production company, I was a bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Now I’ve been this side for a while I have started to question something.  Are the production and the account management roles really that different? After all, if they are done properly they are both about (among other things) building relationships, generating trust and ultimately guiding the brand client to the best creative solution possible.

So here’s a slightly fudged and probably more than slightly biased take on what I’ve learned in my decade on the agency side of the fence and my fleeting 12 months on the production side. A view from the other side while I can still remember it and before I get completely assimilated into the production way of thinking.

I have a theory that every great producer is already a good account man but they just don’t know it, or care to acknowledge it.

For instance here are four golden rules of client liaison that get bandied about the average agency account management department, sometimes worded in different ways but all essentially the same and, I would argue, they are all patently obvious and instinctive to the best producers.

1. Detail is king
This is a mantra to most account men, especially in the early years. If you don’t count the number of attendees at a meeting you might run out of biscuits or there might not be enough copies of the document. Harrowing enough, but if producers didn’t adhere to this rule from the outset of their careers, artists would turn up at London Victoria while the crew are ready to shoot in Manchester Victoria, a US casting would happen on  6th July rather than the 7th June and shoots would regularly be drastically over budget.

Detail is the day-to-day currency of the producer and the account manager alike.
It’s just a lot more noticeable and potentially expensive if a producer drops the ball.

2. Under promise, over deliver
Again, this seems almost axiomatic in most agencies and barely a day goes by without hearing it, or at least sensing it being said somewhere in the building by a wise old account handler to their graduate charge.

But it instinctively seems to be at loggerheads with an equally ubiquitous piece of advice; ‘Never say no to a client’ – if client expectations are unreasonably high how can you ever over deliver?

Conversely, there is a widely held belief amongst account men that a producer’s default response is ‘No’. As long as this is the case, and production companies continue to play bad cop to the account management good cop by defending their budgets to the bitter end, the awkward conversations can all happen up front rather than further down the line or even after delivery, and minor production ‘miracles’ can still be pulled out of the hat when possible to surprise and delight the client.

3. Add value
It might be less obvious how this can be the remit of the producer but there are plenty of ways that great producers go above and beyond the call of duty. From knowing the brand inside out so that a mistake on the product shot is picked up before the client or the account team even notice, to remembering that the brand CEO has a phobia of bare feet so ensuring they are cropped out of shot (this one happened on one of the last ads I was involved in from the agency side).

Adding value isn’t a mystical power, it’s about being interested and interesting and anyone who is good at their job should be able to do it and do it often.

4. Be a partner not just a supplier
Account teams are always looking to elevate their relationship with clients to a business partnership where the client will consult them on all manner of business problems in addition to advertising – to become truly indispensible to the marketing team. Knowing the client’s business inside out is integral to this process and that includes their business goals, ways of working and internal politics.

This is instinctive to a good producer. Knowing how certain CDs like their scripts to be visualised, what level of client facing duty different agencies / clients might expect etc. is part of doing a good job and the quickest route to repeat business.
It might have been that back in the day the best way to get in with an agency was to foot the bill for long lunches or other little (less wholesome?) enticements but, in this day of transparency, it is just as likely to be the result of a savvy producer knowing the ins and outs of how the agency works and working with those idiosyncrasies to smooth the process.

I guess what I’m saying is, while the average account manager might be apprehensive of the mysterious world of production, with its brown envelopes stuffed with money and crews of thousands, and it might be tempting for producers to think of account handlers as slack jawed yes men, it might also be useful to recognise the fact that there are parallels in the roles even though the worlds they operate in are very different.

When working at their best the account handler is the practical face of the client and the agency while the producer is the reasoned face of the director and crew.

Neither of them ‘make the stuff’ but they ‘make the stuff happen which makes the stuff’ and while it would be easy to say they are the glue that holds the process together I think it would be more accurate to say they are more like the Velcro that binds the two distinct parts of a production. Briefly. Before they are ripped apart and put back together next time they are needed.

There you go – producers and account managers are the Velcro of adland. Which of them is the rough, spikey side and which is the soft fluffy side you can debate amongst yourselves...

Backing the Underdog

September 4, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Why the Ibiza Music Video Festival is supporting the browbeaten music video industry.

For two days in October just after the tourist season finishes, as Balearic revellers slink off the island to nurse their party wounds, the Ibiza Music Video Festival appears, bringing with it an altogether more diverse crowd – anyone and everyone with an interest in music videos, from record label commissioners to aspiring young filmmakers. With day tickets only €30 and €50 for the full festival, with offers on accommodation too, it’s a few notches more inclusive than other festivals in the industry.

Now in its second year, it promises to pack as much content as possible into those two days, including workshops on practically every aspect of music video production and promotion from industry leaders, an award ceremony to celebrate the best work in the medium internationally and plenty of room for rubbing shoulders too.

Rupert Bryan, a director who also runs the production company Motion Picture House, and his collaborative partner Elizabeth Fear, launched the festival last year. “It’s not that complicated,” he says. “It’s just getting good, interesting people together and telling them ‘share your knowledge, share your skills, let some other people know about it, give them your time and maybe get a job out of it.’”

But simple doesn’t always mean easy. Rupert’s willing to admit that building a unique global event from the ground up is no easy task. So many different variables have to line up for it to work, he explains, with panels, workshops, submissions, flights and accommodation to organise. “It’s like trying to piece this massive puzzle together,” he says. “You kind of know what the end is going to look like, but all the bits are absolutely everywhere and it’s taking far too long.”

Meanwhile, he’s also trying to run a production company, making the festival organising an uphill struggle, trying to grab moments for it whenever he can. “When something good happens, that motivates you,” he says. “Then you suddenly realise you’ve got all the other 980 things you’ve got to be doing.”

The biggest challenge for the event is funding. As great as the idea is, it won’t get far without some capital behind it. That’s no great surprise though because music videos are hardly the most lucrative medium these days. Decades on from the heyday of MTV, the promo is downtrodden and somewhat sidelined by the production industry.

But that’s sort of the point for Rupert. He relishes the challenge to build something despite this adversity. “Let’s choose a business where there’s no money,” he suggests. “Let’s choose a business where people don’t want to support it because they think there’s no value in it. Brilliant idea.” Despite his sarcasm, he’s genuinely defiant. He’s done crazy things like this before, once organising a concert in the middle of the Costa Rican rainforest for no good reason.

It’s not normal for someone to want to do this kind of thing, but the idea of creating something unique that people enjoy exhilarates Rupert. “Every time I catch a glimpse I stop for a second and go ‘we’re actually doing this.’”

In a time when music videos are at a low ebb, both financially and in terms of industry support, Rupert’s attempts to build this festival are simply his expression of love for a medium he’s always had a passion for. His first ventures into filmmaking were putting music to moving image and he still directs videos when he can find the time. “Oddly I think the first music video I did was when I was about 14 or 15 to a John Barry score,” he remembers. “I still enjoy it but it takes so much time and effort that I couldn’t make a living from it.”

People in production have generally still got big love for music videos. If they didn’t none would get made, considering the piles of favours that budgets demand are pulled in for each one, the long hours working in unglamorous locations without the luxuries of a commercial shoot. The contrast is quite stark to Rupert. “Doing a music video it’s 18 hours and you’re on the coast and it’s wet and you’ve just got some biscuits,” he laughs. “And you’ve got to carry on.”

People do though. An animator might dedicate two weeks of his life to a track because they love it so much. “That’s something they’re really proud of,” says Rupert. “In a commercial sense that would have been their wages for three years.” That’s what music videos do to people.

The sheer man-hours put into these projects are remarkable. For a three-minute video it could be 20 or 30 people dedicating a day or two of their life, often for little or no pay, to make something creative and exciting. “How much creative time gets spent that doesn’t get recognised,” he wonders. “If we can recognise a little bit of that, that can only be a good thing.”

It’s incredible that anyone would bother until you remember how fun, creative and cool the medium is. “It’s actually great fun,” Rupert insists. “Ask the costume designer at three o’clock in the morning when she’s been standing in the cold in the woods. But cut to that three-minute version two weeks later and you forget all the pain.” That’s why music video still attracts so much talent.

The music video has been on a tumultuous ride since the age when the Gondrys and Romaneks of the world first ran riot, but despite the decline in budgets, many changes have helped the medium. With the relentless march of technology, access to entry has been made easier. The tools you need to make a music video can be cheap, allowing bedroom auteurs to emerge. “Someone with a 5D, a good set of lenses, understands light, with a little playback system,” suggests Rupert. “Suddenly you can get something good. They can have a go at it.”

And that’s another reason the music video genre is so vibrant these days. With video sharing an integral part of online behaviour, three-minute videos about music are ideally poised to spread. Remember, Gangnam Style – the most popular thing on the internet ever – was a music video.

From this perspective, music video has never been riper for an event like the Ibiza Music Video Festival. The passion is there, along with the talent. The festival has no fee to enter work, so even the smallest-time of directors can get their work considered. But, in part due to that, all that’s missing is the money.

This is mirrored in Rupert’s experience. He and his team have been inundated with entries this year from around the world – almost triple last year’s number. And the quality has blown Rupert away. “This is incredible stuff,” he says.

“When I’m looking our budget and our deficit sometimes I think ‘why the hell are we doing this?’” admits Rupert “It’s a challenge but I’m determined to make it work. We’ve come so far. It’s a good idea. But sometimes good ideas don’t pay the bills.”

Rupert’s hope isn’t just to put on a good festival for his own satisfaction. With the right people involved he hopes the Ibiza Music Video Festival can drive the medium forward in all sorts of ways. With awards to support people in their careers, the newest talent will be allowed to flow into the industry with greater ease.

And maybe it’s a vain hope, but Rupert suggests it might even bring more interest and thus more cash into the music video. “Ultimately the music video is undervalued,” he believes. “There are lots out there, but the ones that grab your attention and make you want to watch it again – planning and normally a lot of experience goes into those.”

 

Find out more and buy tickets on the Ibiza Music Video Festival website.

The War on the Mundane

August 27, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Johnny Hardstaff’s honourable struggle against unmemorable advertising.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jumping the Fence: Nyall Cook

August 20, 2014 / Features

By Nyall Cook

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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