Bringing Production Into FOCUS

November 26, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

How the location production event could unite the disparate tribes of production.

A good producer is someone who can organise everything and everyone involved in making a film to within an inch of its life. And good organisation takes knowledge, particularly when you’re shooting somewhere unfamiliar.

Jean-Frédéric Garcia has been Managing Director of The Location Guide for over ten years now. For almost 20 years the publication has been an indispensable resource for anyone planning on shooting just about anywhere, providing all the essential pre-production resources needed for filming on location around the world.

Now they’ve started something new – an event with the same goals. On 14th and 15th December 2015, the London’s Business Design Centre will be host to FOCUS.

According to their website, FOCUS “is London’s first international trade show, summit and networking event for film, television and commercials”. That sounds ambitious, so we asked Jean-Frédéric what the big idea is.

The Beak Street Bugle: Where did the idea for a location production event in London come from?
Jean-Frédéric Garcia:
Over the years we’ve been going to the Location Trade Show in Los Angeles, organised by the AFCI, and almost every year people were asking us ‘why don’t you do one in London?’ With our contacts in location management and production across screen industries, we’re the natural link that can bring all the right people together.

We thought it was something interesting and were approached by several big event companies to do it in London, but wasn’t always the right time. I know that several other organisations and publications in the UK were thinking about doing an international production and location event in London. But because it’s a big venture and there’s always the risk of doing something that people are not going to attend. So nobody made it happen.

We’ve been toying around with the idea for a while but The Location Guide is a publishing company and we don’t have the expertise to do a big event, because it involves such a lot of organisation. If we were to do something we’d want to do it properly. We didn’t want to do five tables in a hotel reception.

Early last year we were introduced to LiveBuzz, a company that specialises in helping media owners plan their first event. We had lots of conversations and meetings. They liked the idea, the industry and people’s reaction to The Location Guide so much that they said ‘we want more than to help you; we want to do it with you.’ So that’s what happened. They believe in the project as much as we do and so FOCUS is a joint venture between LiveBuzz and The Location Guide.


BSB: Why do you think now is the right time for this kind of event?
London is the big production hub of Europe but nobody has ever done anything here that actually talks to all screen industries. Film, TV, the internet, commercials; everywhere in the world they used to be extremely separated. They used to have that silo mentality – you shoot one or another. However, when it comes to directors I can’t remember having met one who does commercials who doesn’t want to do a feature film.

Because of the explosion of content with the internet the whole industry is creating so much more now. It’s unbelievable how much is being made. And with that the old lines between film, TV and commercials are getting blurred. I’m not saying there’s no difference anymore, but the borders are not as clean cut as they used to be. And The Location Guide is perfectly placed to talk about that or to galvanise all of those people together because that’s what we’ve been doing since we became independent.

We always wanted to talk to all the screen industries because when it comes to film and location it doesn’t really matter whether you bring to the location a documentary, a feature film, a commercial, a TV series. It’s work that arrives in a certain place and you need to make sure crews work, eat, sleep and play.

It wasn’t always easy to make sure that everybody understood that we wanted to do something for all the screen industries, but we really wanted to transcend all of that because the audience will not care what format you are labelling your content as. If it is cool they will watch it. If it lasts two hours they will watch it. If they want to binge watch a TV series then they’re going to binge watch it. It’s not about airtime anymore because they don’t care about that. They just want to access whatever is good wherever they want whenever they want.


BSB: What are the benefits of bringing these industries together?
The aim has never really changed. We really wanted to use the platform of London to create an international event and to make sure that producers, production managers, location managers, executive producers etc. could all meet under one roof and benefit from the other industries.

Feature film people work so much with incentives, which is something that is just about to start in the commercial industry, but is very interesting to see how it worked for them and how now hardly any movie goes somewhere to shoot if there isn’t an incentive. Incentives have obviously spread to TV with all the high-end TV dramas. High-end TV dramas need money and sometimes they turn into very neat (or sometimes not so neat) branded content, which is more like advertising. Our objective was to make sure that all of the people would be able to talk together. And benefit from each other.

It’s also good for the London production industry to see what is out there. Many producers have the one production service company that they use in South Africa a lot because it’s great to shoot in South Africa. There’s no way around it, South Africa and Spain are massive countries to do service, but we wanted to show them that maybe they could consider other places and providers who are really keen on making the best job they possibly can for London or Europe.


BSB: What have been the main challenges?
We never went into this thinking it’s going to be easy. Obviously this is a commercial venture, and the two biggest challenges were to make this proposal viable for all parties concerned and to attract the right audience for the exhibitors.

A show without visitors is not a show. But I believe that we are on the right track to provide the audience. The figures look good so far. But have we overcome the challenge? I will only be able to tell you that afterwards.

It also looks like the producers are willing to travel for FOCUS too. 57 per cent of visitors registered come from the UK, 24 per cent from Europe and 19 per cent from the rest of the world. We always thought that the bulk would come from the UK, but that’s quite a good mix.

The conference [FOCUS Summit] is a massive beast. We’ve got really cool names to talk. It’s going to be extremely interesting. I can’t stand boring speakers at conferences. I prefer to go home and sleep. One of the things we decided early on is we will need to have speakers who are really engaging because that’s so important. It’s one day. It’s going to be full on but people really have to be engaged. That’s why it took us a bit longer to put the summit together because the speakers really need to be of a certain calibre within the industry.


BSB: How have your aims changed as you’ve put the event together?
I don’t think our objectives from the moment we started to where we are now have changed. I think it’s still the same – to create an alternative to the more corporate events that already exist in London.

We tried to remove as many barriers to entry as possible. It’s free. So whether you come for an hour or the day you’re not going to pay for anything. The second thing is we tried to schedule it in the least busy period of the year. In the second week of December the industry starts to relax a little. People are going out and catching up for Christmas drinks. We wanted to make sure people would not be abroad shooting a movie or something, so a fair amount of the industry would get to the show. We’re going to have a big bar lounge at the show to make sure that people will be able to catch up with their friends.

It’s in central London – N1 – not some out-of-the-way exhibition centre. We’re going to have a drinks reception on the opening night. On the second night we’re throwing a party with the APA, so we’ve tried to make it as networking-focused as possible. People will have a chance to meet and greet, renew contacts or make new ones.

Register now to visit FOCUS. 

What Epica Taught Me About The World

November 16, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Cultural learnings of the world for make benefit glorious industry of advertising.

I spent last week in a dark, soupy room in a Parisian conference room with a rabble of assorted journalists who had been assembled as the pre-selection jury for the Epica Awards. As the only creative prize awarded by journalists working for marketing and communications magazines around the world, I was proud to be part of it. It has a unique impartiality because nobody in that room had any personal connection to the work we were judging.

Over the week we voted on over 3,000 pieces of advertising. It was exhausting but enlightening. As Epica is a truly international award, we saw entries from the most unfamiliar markets (at least to this London ad industry journalist).

I noticed that not only was there good work coming from unexpected countries, but they also taught me a lot about the cultures that they were made in. Good advertising won’t work if it doesn’t understand its audience, so commercials are a brilliant tool for learning about the world.

I am saving you watching over 3,000 ads here, by bringing you the most interesting and odd ones that you won’t have seen.



Denmark isn’t making enough babies

Apparently the Danes need a bit of encouragement to make more Danes. There are also some good facts about sex in this campaign. People have 28% more sex in a sunny location on holiday and exercising together increases chances of having sex. Useful knowledge.



Kazakhstan needs to stand united

I don’t think I’m alone in saying I know very little about Kazakhstan. And I expect Borat wasn’t the most reliable documentary source on the subject. So it was interesting, if sad, to learn that they have serious racial tensions that the government are trying to soothe through nostalgia. This campaign harkens back to the hard times directly after the break-up of the USSR, when the nation pulled together to help each other. The hope is that reminding the people of their past unity will bring the different ethnic groups closer again.



Lebanon don’t like black cats
…But New Zealand do

Superstition is a funny one, but it’s hard to work out how the black cats being unlucky thing somehow morphed into them bringing good luck. Anyway, this is probably a fictional event, but it’s interesting to learn.\



Argentina’s mechanics are just like everyone else’s mechanics

Our international jury had a good laugh at these ones. They’re built on an observation that’s valid in every culture around the world – mechanics will always try and fleece you. There’s something reassuring about that.



The United Arab Emirates have similar taste in films to the West

This was just one execution from a very funny campaign for cinema chain Du. It’s interesting to know that people watch the same sorts of films on the shores of the Persian Gulf as they do in the West. And it’s good to know they find the same sorts of films ridiculous.



Norway is full of people with good intentions and unrealised dreams

I must admit I have a stereotype about Norwegians being offensively good-looking, outdoorsy, active sorts of people, so when this ad implied that some people don’t go through with their exciting hobbies, it made me feel a bit better about my own lazy lifestyle and lack of staying power.



Sweden have a very dark sense of humour

It probably has something to do with the dark winters they get, but a lot of the Swedish ads we saw were very gloomy. Even when they’re joking they keep it disturbing.



But they’re also pretty chill when it comes to sex and sexuality

The Swedes clearly take pride in their social equality and apparently don’t mind taking a subtle pop at Russia, which is undoubtedly a little behind on such issues.



Russia is a very macho country

This is just one of the many Russian ads we saw in which men were men, in the old-fashioned chest-beating, sausage-loving sort of way.



Egypt have a strange taboo around saying mothers’ names

To Westerners like me, this seems bizarre. None of jury had ever heard of this taboo before so it raised a number of eyebrows when we first saw it. My mum’s called Sarah by the way.



Thailand really push the boundaries of advertising

One of the great things about watching advertising from around the world is the abundance of WTF moments. This is one that stands out. Imagine a UK client agreeing to this idea.

The Shanghai London Advertising Forum 2015: Day 2

October 26, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

The second day of SLAF2015 was packed full of even more insights from the best of Chinese and global advertising thinkers.

After a stimulating day one of advertising east-meets-west thinking, the Sigma Film Club filled with advertising professionals from China and elsewhere for a second day of seminars.

First at the podium was Tim Lefroy, Chief Executive of the Advertising Association, and he began on a positive note, presenting statistics showing that trade between China and the UK has risen sharply in recent years, both in imports and exports.

He then moved on to explain to the uninitiated what the Advertising Association does – its goal to promote the role, rights and responsibility of advertising. He ran through the history of the association spanning more than a century. He also explained the role of the Advertising Standards Authority – the body that decides whether advertising is fit for the public.

Advertising is good for the British economy. This is a point that Tim and the Advertising Association have repeatedly made. Each £1 spent on advertising returns £6 to GDP.

But while ads are good for the economy, are they good for society? This is a question the Advertising Association has been focusing on more recently, as studies have shown more people now dislike advertising than like it. Tim suggested that this is because so much of it is pervasive, intrusive and often irrelevant.

Ultimately, he concluded that audiences just don’t like “crap creative”. Great creative work is the fundamental building block of trust, he said, before demonstrating the power of good creativity in ads from Lloyds Bank and the British Heart Foundation.

Jon Biggs, Creative Director at MediaMonks, hosted the next seminar, explaining how they stay at the forefront of interactive production. MediaMonks make digital “things”, as he put it. To begin with this was websites and banners, which are still in demand, but the scope has broadened to apps for absolutely everything, wearable technology, virtual reality, brain control devices, 3D holographics and all manner of science-fiction toys to play with.

To cover all this digital ground, the company have to employ hundreds of ‘monks’ with a broad range of skills in coding, design and UX, but also physical craftspeople.

He ran through their process of making an interactive film, a mainstay of their work, reminding us of a very low-tech medium – those ‘choose your own adventure’ books kids used to read, in which a narrative can be explored through various routes.

To create these narratives MediaMonks pair a film director with an interactive director, then draw on the pool of specialists the company has access to to put together a team. The key is to simply put all of these people in the same room, said Jon, as this gives everyone some ownership of the project.

Once everyone is together they throw ideas around and if they mess it up they just try another idea.

All of this is of course powered by the latest technology, but Jon stressed that true innovation looks for simplicity, like the gaming manta “easy to learn; difficult to master.”

Finally Jon demonstrated some of the most successful work MediaMonks has done – examples with outcomes that prove interactive production’s worth: IKEA, Where Good Days Start, which provoked 54% more visits on the beds and baths webpages over two months and adidas Nitrocharge Your Game, which helped to make the product the fastest selling football boot for adidas ever.

Switching to an eastern perspective, Andy Chan was next up to share his experiences of working with UK production – a situation he’s been in many times as ECD at FCB Shanghai. He admitted that clients are somewhat stingy in China and that budgets are low, but when has a budget ever been enough anywhere in the world?

He started with a list of reasons why working with UK production is great:
- World-class quality
- Global perspective
- Top-class creativity
- Highly professional
- Dedicated craftsmanship
- Pride in the work
- Breakthrough technology
- Trendsetters
- Award-winning
He topped this list off by saying UK production is Niu Bi (the bees’ knees).

But he balanced these points with some concerns. Local understanding is important to clients, who often doubt a foreign director or production company’s ability to understand cultural nuances. 

The usual system for UK directors shooting in China is to approach them through a Chinese production company, but Andy noted that this is not ideal, as Chinese production companies lack the years of expertise more common in London.

Through agreements between associations like the APA and IPA, the UK production industry is regulated, along with many other countries, as Andy was keen to point out. But China makes its own rules. Pile on top of that visa issues, tight schedules tight budgets and endless rounds of PPMs and working on Chinese ads can be exasperating.

He observed that the client / agency / production relationship in China is vertical, with demanding clients and usually five or six production companies pitching on a script, with treatments upfront.

The answer as he sees it is for UK production to respect Chinese culture, but to push for a better client / agency relationship while working there, aligning expectations as early as possible.

He also gave some advice for what to expect as a westerner shooting in China. His advice: be prepared to be arrested for no apparent reason, don’t annoy the locals, prepare to get lost in translation, don’t eat food offered to gods, be careful what you put in your mouth (particularly not rats), prepare for props to go missing and keep an open mind.

Finally, he summed up his tips for shooting in China in two words: flexibility and reactivity.

Andy’s practical tips were followed up with some more cultural ones by Tony Liu, Creative Chairman of M&C Saatchi aeiou, who delivered an amazingly compact history of China, describing the 3,000 years of self-sufficiency and inventiveness before the last 30 years of reform under Deng, during which China grew 103 times over. This has led to a culture insecurity, he said.

Not knowing something became an embarrassment and it became a taboo to ask questions. Discouraged creativity led to the shrinking of the right brain. Tony demonstrated this with a number of syndromes.

There's the 'Would You Like A Drink?' Syndrome, an analogy where it's asked:

Assistant: Would you like something to drink?

Director: Sure what do you have?

Assistant: Let me go back and check.

There's the 'Can you Show me a Reference?' Syndrome.

Because people don't believe or understand the power of imagination, reference becomes the brainless way to communicate.

There's the 'One Dollar Coke' syndrome.

If I ask you to get a coke for a dollar and you get me a coke for a dollar, you are of no use to me.

There's the 'Fresh & The Stale Apple' syndrome.

It's here where clients have a lack of trust, a lack of security, a lack of understanding, and a lack of experience. And of course there is always someone willing to do it cheaper.

Global VFX company MPC addressed us next. Having successfully opened a Chinese office, Steve Marolho, General Manager of MPC Shanghai, spoke about how hard it has been and the challenges that still lie ahead. After his colleague Dan Phillips showcased some of MPC’s top work (The Jungle Book, IKEA, Beds and John Lewis, Monty’s Christmas), he asked “when are we going to do work like that here?”

Noting that challenges of budgets and clients are the same everywhere, Steve made it clear that in China, there are more piled on top. Here are the main complaints from his “group therapy session”:
- Bandwidth and connectivity
Quite important to a global company working with huge file sizes
- Inverse bidding / pitch process
Bidding before anything is decided leads to a lot of guesswork
- Less time for pre-production
The pace of projects takes a human toll and limits development
- A lack of local high-end freelance talent
- The phantom deadline
“Does anybody ever know when it ends?”

But despite these, he admitted there are huge opportunities in China, with its buoyant market, international creatives and directors working there, home grown productions delivering international output, growth of integrated campaigns, an increased sophistication of the consumer market and higher demand for craft.

The next session, Shooting in the UK with Specialist Service Production Companies, started with Meriel Bunney-Gillies, Creative Development at LS Productions showcasing the vast location opportunities of Scotland, including all the castles and mountains that immediately spring to mind, but also the industrial and urban landscapes that might not be so obvious. With accommodation and surprisingly good transport solutions, she concluded that Scotland may not be as inaccessible as you think.

Henrique Goldman of Mango Films followed up with a similarly impressive showcase of Brazilian locations as well as some of their work out of London. His presentation included some remarkable testimonials from huge feature film directors, demonstrating the world-class quality of production services Mango Films provide. He finished by reminding everyone of the Olympics next year in Brazil, so looking to shoot in the country is particularly attractive.

BBH have been in Shanghai for 10 years now, and Johnny Tan, their ECD, gave a quick rundown of what they’ve achieved in that time. Firstly he wanted to clarify that the BBH icon is a sheep. Not a cow or a dog. For some reason the Chinese have a problem recognising this.

He made the admittedly pompous claim that BBH have been “pioneering new genres” throughout those years and quickly toned it down to “trying to do new shit,” which he equated to his daughter’s insistence on trying to make a laundry basket work as the next big mode of transport.

He ran through a list of case studies, starting with their online web series work for Johnnie Walker, on which the client said “Oh c’mon. How many people will bother to watch branded films online?” Johnny was glad to prove him wrong and web series have since developed into a mainstay of advertising in China.

He also demonstrated that branded music videos work in China, like Baileys / Shang Wen Jie and Harbin Beer / MC Hot Dog and Zhang Zheng Yue.

Johnny spoke about bringing new tones to boring categories and experimenting with new techniques such as recruiting rocket scientists to develop augmented reality experiences. He was also very proud to have resurrected Bruce Lee.

His advice to UK Production Companies wanting to partner up:
-  Positivity
-  Commit to pioneering together
-  Be flexible, be curious
-  Embrace the unique challenges
-  Create new properties together
-  Collaborate
-  Explore your talent in collaboration with ours

Chairman and CEO of Lowe China Kitty Lun had the enviable position of having been asked to brag about her agency’s success. As China’s most awarded advertising agency, it was her job to explain how they achieved this accomplishment. She spoke about their Human Traffic Signs campaign for Buick, which won them the majority of these awards. The arresting idea saw victims of road traffic accidents holding up road signs that drivers may otherwise ignore. 

This campaign catapulted Lowe China into the award shows, making them the first Chinese agency in the Gunn Report’s top ten agencies.

In answer to how they have risen to such prominence Kitty quoted David Abbott, who when asked what his secret to running a successful creative agency was, answered “Simple. I just hired the best people.”

She also focused on the “freedom of a tight brief”, noting that clients with clear aims lead to better creative solutions.

Building on the theme of cultural education for the day, Jimmy Lam, Vice Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of DDB China Group, offered a rundown of the most influential commercial films in Greater China’s history, with a moral to each story.


China loves red and gold, he asserted, and clients always want epic spectacles, no matter how low the budget. Marlboro’s huge Chinese New Year ad set the precedent for epicness (with plenty of red and gold) many years ago. 

Another thing Chinese clients love is the nostalgic romance. Great storytelling, basically, but a tad more cheesy than western audiences are used to. His example of this was Sovil et Titus’ massive campaign, The Flying Tigers

The Dawn of the Viral in Greater China was Nokia’s Bruce Lee Ping Pong video, and TC Bank’s Dream Rangers film showed that viral videos have no borders, as it became popular outside of Taiwan. 

Jimmy demonstrated the power of youthful love with a series for Extra called Flavours of Life. Apparently every 18- or 19-year-old in China loves this episodic campaign about a romantic motorbike road trip, featuring some strong female characters.

He concluded by saying foreigners who want to work in the Chinese advertising market should “know what touches the hearts of China.” If these ads are anything to go by, Chinese advertising is as concerned with emotional storytelling as the British ads.

Summing up the whole forum in a panel session were Jacqueline Zhang, Owner of Gwantsi, Tim Stephens, Interactive Media / Academic Consultant, Norman Tan, North Asia CCO for J. Walter Thompson Shanghai and Jonathan Lim, Creative Director at Grey Group Shanghai.

They began by discussing the Chinese preference for a local director due to convenience and understanding, followed by Asian directors and then directors from around the world.

In order to gain the trust of a Chinese agency or client, Norman suggested production companies should invest in shooting films with their directors in China. The first thing a director shoots is their Chinese reputation, so it is worth making a big effort to get this right.

Jonathan recognised that foreign talent is the first choice creatively, but noted that there are obstacles in making it work, number one for him being the speed of work in China.

Jacqueline, whose company Guantsi partners regularly with foreign production companies to work in China, was clear that the Chinese market is more ready than ever for Western production. Clients have seen foreign work from places like the UK online, so they now know what the best work looks like. But she noted that earning clients’ trust is vital. They want to work with UK talent now, and despite anxieties about payments and cultural misunderstandings, the Chinese market can only benefit from working with British production.

The Shanghai London Advertising Forum 2015: Day 1

October 22, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

The first day of SLAF2015 was packed full of insights from the best of Chinese and global advertising thinkers.

Photograph by Tim Stephens.


This week a delegation of many of the UK’s most capable and successful production, digital, interactive and VFX companies descended on Shanghai to meet China’s top advertising professionals. Organised by the Advertising Producers Association (APA), the Shanghai London Advertising Forum was a chance for these two advertising industries to collide at the Sigma Film Club on the bank of the Huangpu river and learn from one another about how to continue making great advertising together.

Steve Davies, the APA’s Chief Executive introduced the event, reminding the audience that the forum was a follow up on the 2007 SLAF, which many in Shanghai commended as one of the best advertising events in the city.

It led to concrete results too. APA members have since made £30m turnover in China.
But that success wasn’t automatic, Steve said. This business has only come from continuing to nurture and maintain good relationships with Chinese agencies.

Next Graham Fink kicked off the day’s presentations with style. A big name in British advertising, he has been Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy China since 2011, so he’s a sizable character and certainly grabbed the audience’s attention with his list, 10 Things I’ve Learnt About China:

1. Everything that I knew was of no use to me whatsoever
While giving a creative team in London a “bollocking” for bad work in front of their colleagues might motivate them to come back and try harder next time, losing face is too unbearable in Chinese culture. Graham found they are likely to resign if you use this managerial style here.

2. China is fucking big
There are many languages and regions and they all require different considerations when it comes to making advertising.

3. Speed
The Chinese can build a 33-storey building in 15 days. But it might fall over due to having no foundations. Speed comes at the expense of craft.

4. Guanxi
Strong personal relationships are an important cornerstone of Chinese business. You must build up trust and respect to do well.

5. Be a Pioneer
Chinese advertising is constantly breaking new ground, making it an exciting place to be working. Some of these firsts are simply knock-offs of other ideas though, but that's how great artists learn their craft.

6. Ways of Seeing
Chinese people have a different perspective, which can be very exciting in advertising.

7. Crazy shit happens
Graham told a story of how a billionaire client of his demanded Will Ferrell for a campaign at short notice. By some miracle they got him. But it turns out she meant Colin Farrell.

8. The Government Can't Tell the Difference Between Men and Women
Having caused mass hayfever by planting millions of female trees, the state gave them a sex change with hormone therapy.

9. It's a Beautiful Language
One example: The character ‘hao’, meaning good, is made up the ancient symbols for a woman and a child, because when a woman and child are together that’s good.

10. It's the Greatest Place on Earth
Graham is convinced Shanghai is the capital of the world, the new New York. He noted that it looks like the pictures of futuristic cities you drew when you were a child.

Andy Orrick took to the stage next with his poetic talk, The Power of Storytelling. As Chief of Stuff at world-class production house Rattling Stick, he’s well qualified to discuss the subject of spinning a yarn.

He reminisced about his teenage obsession with My Own Private Idaho, saying great stories like that mark people’s memories forever. If advertising tells moving stories, it can have emotional as well as financial power. Rattling Stick are in the emotion business, he stated.

Wrigley’s Sarah & Juan is “the most romantic movie of all time”, according to one online review. It also happens to be a chewing gum ad and it was produced by Rattling Stick.

Executive Producer of Stink China, Desmond Loh, showcased some of the top-class work produced by the global production network, who have had a Chinese office for several years now.

Chinese clients have difficulty trusting foreign directors, he said, because they don’t think they will understand the cultural nuances. Desmond explained how this can be overcome by making sure the premium global talent of Stink has access to local knowledge.

After a chatty lunch, Steve returned to simply list Ten Things to Love About London:

1. Soho community
A tiny area of central London contains a huge concentration of creative talent.

2. Advertising Effectiveness Awards
The IPA runs these, looking scientifically at whether campaigns achieve the clients’ objectives.

3. Contractual Foundations
The UK uses a standard contract between agencies and production companies. This would be very welcome to many who work in the Chinese market.

4. Trade associations
Bodies such as the APA, IPA and ISBA provide a strong foundation for business.

5. Great commercials
Steve showed impressive ads for Eurostar, Honda, Lurpak, Nike, The Sunday Times, Pot Noodle, Mulberry and the Guardian.

6. John Hegarty’s insights
“Advertising is 80% about the idea and 80% about the execution.”

7. Groudbreaking interactive work
The UK is home to some of the most innovative companies making non-traditional advertising on all sorts of screens.

8. Advertising Week Europe
Probably the best industry event in London, with a huge offering of thought leadership from advertising’s best brains.

9. World-class VFX companies
Many of the world’s largest global post houses have their roots in London, but now work across hundreds of other countries.

10. Truly global industry
A massive chunk of the work APA members do is for markets outside the UK, Steve concluded. There are many good reasons for that.

Speaking of worldwide outlooks, the next session was a panel of speakers from three of the world’s top visual effects companies, all with their origins in London. I moderated the panel, made up Hector Macleod, Founder and CEO of Glassworks, Joce Capper, Managing Director of Rushes and Thomas Gibson, Executive Producer at The Mill.

While coming from different perspectives, all agreed that Chinese agencies should not be afraid to approach them for any project. There are always solutions to the constraints of budgets, schedules and client demands. Each of them demonstrated how they had effectively brought their world-class expertise to Chinese work and showed off the staggering technological forces at their disposal.

The Forum was host to the uncontainable Simon Gosling next, who was there to extol the virtues of augmented and virtual reality in his role as CEO of Happy Finish. He marvelled at how fast the developments are in this field, with new examples coming every week. He shared his latest inspiration, Google Expeditions, with the audience, as well as innovative work for Honeywell’s, Becker beer and Lamborghini (who famously ‘don’t need to advertise’). A case study of their recent work for Subway showed the powerful reaction VR elicits.

Simon is evangelical about these new technologies and quoted Confucius to explain why. He said: “Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I might remember. Involve me and I will understand.”

Kevin Lee, ECD of Leagas Delaney Shanghai spoke next on the important question of How to Save the Idea When it is Bigger Than the Budget – a frequent problem working in the ambitious-but-thrifty Chinese ad market.

Speaking from experience, Kevin trotted off a list of tips and tricks to make modest budgets look a million dollars (figuratively speaking). Clever workarounds such as working in smaller Chinese cities, using physical talents over special effects, shooting one explosion with as many cameras as possible, and casting the client’s employees as actors can all save money while helping an idea reach its potential.

Meeting the Challenges of Budget Pressures was the rather daunting, eternally relevant title for the next talk, delivered by The Sweet Shop Managing Director Claire Davidson. She celebrated the talents of producers, the best of whom are experts in solving problems, many of which are to do with money. She made the worthwhile observation that nobody started working on million-dollar campaigns, so every good producer knows how to work with a low budget. When they were in school they had to cobble together films from friends, favours and whatever they had to hand.

That said, she did make it clear that smaller budgets obviously cause headaches for everyone. Even with a top producer, a lack of cash will cause suffering. She showcased a selection of work with varying budgets and consequently varying severity of headaches, but noted that some projects like their Coca-Cola Share a White Christmas campaign, are worth the pain of a limited budget.

The first day reached its climax with Nils Andersson, President and Chief Creative Officer for TBWA\Shanghai, told the audience to Fail Hard. He revealed that apparently you can’t get a job at Facebook without admitting to some sort of failure, because failure is natural.

Having worked in China for over ten years, he expressed his desire to see the country to become a world-class advertising market. And for this he said it must look to the world’s talent and pair it with local insight.

Using a few examples, he demonstrated how far China has come in this regard since 2004, when Motorola decided not to run an ad reflecting Chinese society in China. Apparently it was too realistic and not aspirational enough.

Nils demonstrated the distance the Chinese market has come since, through the incredible launch of GAP in China, starring Western and Chinese celebrities shot by Annie Leibovitz, to projecting babies faces onto illegal pollution for an air purifier client, brilliant illustrations for Penguin. His final example, the adidas #ThisIsMe campaign, shows how much more confident Chinese people are with their representation in advertising. The China it reveals is young, vibrant and confident – a strong message to end a brilliant first day of the forum on.

The State of Chinese Advertising

October 16, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

What does the ad industry in the world’s most populous country look like?

No business can ignore China. Now that one in every five humans is Chinese, that much is obvious. In 1979 the Communist Party of China legalised advertising as part of their Open Door Policy. Back then China’s economy was a small fish in the global capitalist pond. Now they’ve got the second largest economy in the world, with an advertising industry to match.

Ahead of next week’s Shanghai London Advertising Forum, the city's first joint advertising event between the British and Chinese ad industries since the first SLAF in 2007, we tried to gauge the state of Chinese advertising in 2015. We turned to two of China’s most successful creatives for help.

“It travels at a speed slightly faster than light,” says Graham Fink, Chief Creative Officer for Ogilvy China. “It really is 24/7 or maybe that should be 25/8.”

Examples of these time pressures can be shocking to our western sensibilities. Graham claims it isn’t unusual for clients to call an agency at 10pm and want work for the following day. But that’s how it is in China, as Graham accepts. “When they can construct a 33-storey building here in less than a week, then why can’t a client ask for three creative routes in a day?” It’s a fair point.

“It’s still a young business here,” says Nils Andersson, President and Chief Creative Officer at TBWA\Greater China, “but it’s changing quickly. China does everything at speed.”

“It's wild, pioneering, insane, glamorous, unruly, ever changing, and never, ever, ever, dull.” After four years working in the Middle Kingdom, Graham’s now an evangelist for Chinese creativity. “In fact, because of the speed, coupled with the fact that advertising here is still relatively young (compared to the West), it’s often possible to do very 'off the wall' creative work. I personally think there are 10 times the creative opportunities here than in London. Of course it’s very tough and can sometimes be very frustrating, but there’s also a constant feeling that you are a pioneer.”

The relative youth of the market can be seen in their legislation playing catch-up to advertising tactics. Last month it became illegal to use superlatives such as ‘the biggest’ or ‘the most’ in Chinese advertising, revealing that this was perceived as a problem in the first place.The creativity of their ad industry will likely benefit from such restrictions though, as more nuanced approaches will need to be found.  One needs only look to the ads made in the West after restrictions were imposed on tobacco advertising.

When launching in China in 2010 Gap's launch campaign paired Chinese and American stars.


If Chinese advertising is fast and furious, it’s only a reflection of the culture in general. “Social media is always trending,” says Graham. “Here it’s not just a way of communicating, it ’s a way of life. Your typically normal Chinese citizen is very humble, quiet and reserved. But on social media, they take on a different personality. Things get very noisy online.”

When Graham came to China, four years ago, he says Weibo (Chinese Twitter) was massive, but WeChat, a messaging service similar to WhatsApp, has since overtaken it. “E-mail is old news,” he boldly states. “In fact most people in the agency don’t even use it.”

“Social media channels have become indispensable to the young Chinese, who have become immersed in their mobile worlds,” agrees Nils. “Also, young start-ups are emerging all over the country.”

Keeping up with the culture is a huge challenge for agencies, and the topics discussed range enormously. “From the latest news at Alibaba, to a firework explosion, to dogs wearing stockings and high heels,” says Graham.

“Trends change faster than you can type it into your mobile phone,” he says. “We have a social media trend spotter in the agency and her WeChat makes my phone glow white hot.”

While the West has been advertising for much longer, the Chinese ad industry doesn’t deserve to be patronised. Their best work is some of the best in the world.

Nils throws out a few examples: “The GAP launch work, and the Adidas #thisisme campaigns are two that stick in my mind for things with real scale and world class quality. And just recently the Penguin Audio Books Mic campaign, and the Buick road safety work are also great quality pieces.”

Graham reminds us of more celebrated Chinese work. JWT Shanghai’s Heaven and Hell poster for Samsonite won China’s first ever Grand Prix at Cannes Lions in 2011 and Chinese work has been frequently awarded on the global stage ever since. 2012 brought Ogilvy & Mather Shanghai a Grand Prix for #CokeHands and they won a bundle more gongs this year for their Visit Britain campaign (which is genuinely funny to an English-speaker).

Coca-Cola Hands, probably the most celebrated Chinese advertisement of all time.


“But some of the most influential work doesn’t necessarily win at Cannes,” says Graham. “It’s often very local and wouldn’t be understood by a Western audience, neither culturally or linguistically. The work for Yihaodian or Suning for example. Exactly.”

It’s a point that WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell drove home recently when he stressed that the world’s largest advertising holding company remained “bullish” on China

"My sense is the local companies are doing better than the multinationals,” he said in a conference call to investors, reported in AdWeek, “partly because multinationals are seeing pressure put on operations around the world," he said. "I think actually the fact that we have a strong local business helps. Our strong local business – which is about 40% of the business -- buttresses us."

Realistically, China’s advertising industry has still got a way to go before it rivals markets like the UK on a global scale. “A lot of work that clients ask for tends to be very rational and literal, says Graham. “Analogies often don’t work very well, especially in lower tier cities. And often just using a celebrity, any celebrity, can work wonders. Whether they are relative to the brand or not. And sometimes the same celebrity will do ads for competing brands.”

Nils is honest about the Chinese industry’s weaknesses too. “There is often a pure sales-driven mentality, instead of making more emotional connection between consumer and brand,” he says. But he’s optimistic. “I do think there is a change happening now, as the country moves towards a domestic demand driven economy. All brands are facing the fact that distribution is no longer king. Now you have to stand for something.”

“The level of craft skills is nowhere near as apparent as, say, in the UK,” Graham confesses. “And car commercials especially, all look exactly the same.”

Graham’s hopeful that the APA’s visit for SLAF 2015 will be useful on this front. “I think where the APA can help make significant change is by educating agencies and clients about the value of craft skills and levels of production. To show what is possible and how to achieve it.

“There is a huge desire to do world class work in China, but most people don’t know how.  This change is not going to happen overnight and will take more than a few visits by companies like the APA, but by more and more good people coming out here, sharing examples, ideas and teachings, that process can speed up enormously.”

Nils partially agrees. “As the market develops so the need for better quality rises,” he says. “However, that can't be at the expense of local insight, which a Chinese director brings.”

We’ve heard a lot of foreboding forecasts about the Chinese economy in recent months, but the recent economic dip doesn’t worry many involved in Chinese advertising. According to eMarketer, Chinese adspend will total a mere $71.05 billion this year, up 13 per cent—a slight slowdown versus last year's 15.9 per cent growth. That growth is still huge by most people’s standards and the potential for Western creative industries to work with this exciting market is considerable.

Graham often tells people, “this is the new New York. It’s where the action is. Everything is increasing: From more UK post houses setting up here to more films being shot each month.”

TeamHW, a WPP team, have in fact just done two very big jobs for Huawei phones with Smuggler and RSA in the UK. “The results have been spectacular,” he says. “Not just by the level of craft skills, but the way these films have been received. More and more agencies are setting up here, both overseas and local and so the demand is going to keep going up.”

The Shanghai London Advertising Forum will be taking place at the Sigma Film Club, Shanghai on the 20th-21st October 2015.

Entry to the event is free to Chinese agencies, production companies and advertisers – simply email to register.

Under the Influence: Tomas Skoging

October 9, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

The ACNE co-founder gives us a glimpse into his varied and colourful inspirations.

It’s almost 20 years since Swedish director Tomas Skoging set up ACNE with Jonny Johansson, Jesper Kouthoofd and Mats Johansson in Stockholm. Since then the studio has become a global force in advertising and filmmaking, with offices in Berlin, London and Los Angeles and Tomas has directed commercials for huge clients including Nike, Evian and Unicef.

Being Swedish, we know where his inherent sense of style comes from, but we asked him to list five things that influence and inspire his work. Here are his choices.

Filip Nilsson

“He is my new partner in crime. And I love him. Forsman & Bodenfors are one of the most successful agencies in the world over the last ten years. He was running that agency as the ECD for more than 20 years. He built that. He’s a creative and cultural leader that inspired the agency towards all their success.

Two or three years ago he quit his job because he wanted to do something else and we started to talk about being together in directing. He moved to Paris for two years, then he called me late this spring and said ‘I’m moving back [to Sweden]. Shall we do this?’

‘Yeah. Fucking hell let’s do it!’

So me and him will partner up as co-directors. We have more than two decades of experience. I have my craftsmanship in graphic design and have mostly been filmmaking for the last 15 years, so combining my skills with his idea-driven agency-side experience of just making the best ideas work, I think that’s the best combination I can imagine. We both love great ideas and storytelling.

When we get our heads together and talk about ideas and filmmaking, I think his brain is such a compliment to mine. When I read a script I easily get lost in the visuals or this amazing detail or character. That’s not always the quickest way to the message. Filip’s mind is super sharp like a laser beam to the message – how to tell a story in the most effective way.

That inspires me a lot because I think I’m pretty good at this, but hell no, I have a lot to learn from this guy. And he has a lot to learn from me when it comes to the craftsmanship and making it work, that’s why I think the combination is so great.

We also like to challenge the way we’re working. We just want to be closer to the creative core at the agencies. Because many times it’s like the directors are over here and the creatives are over here. Then we have these layers and layers and layers of agency producers and producers. I just want to sit in the same room, to be close to the creative and solve it together with the agency and not make it so complicated. We’ll sit in a room together and solve this thing.”

Tim Burton

“For me he personifies the feeling of ‘I want to be that man.’ What I find amazing is he started to do this as a kid and he’s been so focused in coming from stop motion and that’s what I started to do when I was a kid. I had my first camera. My dad was not allowed in the garage anymore. He had to have his car out throughout the harsh winters and I built my studio in the garage and started to do my stop motion stuff, making all sorts of weird stories.

He’s coming from stop motion, filmmaking and he’s an artist too. Have you seen all his illustrations where he’s creating all his characters?

He has this weird mind. I just adore him and his world of storytelling. I can’t even think of anyone else that does everything himself when it comes to creating stories, creating the characters, creating the roles and then making it happen. He’s like a one-man band.

All of his films have a surreal darkness, but it’s a fun darkness and a crazy darkness.

Looking at his body of work it’s amazing to see. He’s just having a shit load of fun with his sketchbook or when he’s on a shoot or putting up this world in front of the camera and everything kind of melts together in the frame. It must be amazing to be him.

That’s exactly how it should be. Parts of you should never grow up.

Minus his love for musicals. No one is perfect. I don’t really like that. It’s just annoying. Sometimes I think it’s fun but that’s something he always comes back to. He loves musicals.

I would quite often refer to Sleepy Hollow. That one for me contains all the things I like. It’s a historical piece with all these textures in the wardrobe and the characters and it’s comedy at the same time because the characters and the story and are just weird and funny. It’s a beautiful tone within a fantastic, cinematic package. Everything is so beautiful about it. The darkness is there. That movie has everything. And there is no one singing.”

Gregory Crewdson

“He’s a guy I always come back to. What I find amazing with this guy is it’s like you have a feature film in one shot. Every shot is so beautifully made. It’s empty and it’s silent and it just explodes at the same time with emotions. There is something happening after this and you never know what happened before it. That’s what makes it so special.

Maybe he’s just messing with us. Let’s just put this car here and some sort of strange man in his underwear and there is a lit window over here and some phone in the background. And he’s standing there looking at some empty briefcase.

It’s a thing I admire. I might use some of his references for one out of ten jobs because it’s so surreal. I just like to lose myself in watching these fantastic pictures.

To see behind the scenes how he’s producing them, every shot is like shooting a movie scene. He’s got so many people involved even if it’s just a still. It’s very complicated and an extremely expensive production I would think.

His prints are enormous. They’re super big, like one and a half, two metres. They’re extremely expensive. But I will buy one. I’ve already looked it up and there are some art auctions or galleries that you can find some of his work in. I would rather buy one of these than a Porsche. Check back in three years and we’ll see if it’s on my wall.”

Charles Burns

“He’s a comic book illustrator and artist. Being a kid I thought I was supposed to be an illustrator. So I thought that was my future and I was in my room doing these drawings all the time.

I read comic books all the time as a kid. I had metres of them. Every penny I saved I took my bike to the store and bought new ones. I was reading them all the time.

I bought my first comic book when I was six. I remember that so clearly. I saved my coins so I could finally buy my own. It was from the 50s, Prince Valiant. It’s a Medieval setting, King Arthur, out-dated but also amazing. I had all the Prince Valiant books.

I remember trying to imitate the techniques. Of course it never worked and I was frustrated. No one could explain to me as kid he didn’t have those kinds of pens, he had pencils and inks and I had to sit there with my stupid childish pens and trying to make sharp lines. It didn’t work and no one could tell me why.

Watching these guys, they’re spending so much time on detail. It’s like reading a movie. They’re like moviemakers with a pen. Every frame is so well laid out and thought through in a perfect way. The framing, the layout and everything is perfect. And these amazing details. Every line is just perfect.

His work is very dark, but funny, stupid. In my everyday work this does not influence me. On a daily basis it’s hard for me to apply Charles Burns on scripts I get. But it thrills me in a way to lose myself in these amazing worlds.

I actually just bought two originals from Charles Burns - 'before and after' pictures from Black Hole [pictured above] - from Adam Baumgold Gallery in New York.”

Playing Adventure Games

“Just for relaxation, I’d rather do that. Many people spend hours watching the latest Netflix stuff. ‘Have you seen True Detective?’ ‘Have you seen Interstellar?’ Blah blah blah. Hey. It’s great, of course, but I’d rather flick on my PlayStation and spend four hours playing an amazing adventure game. Then I’m IN the movie. Someone has scripted it for me, but a really good game can really suck you in.

I’m very picky with what I’m playing. Usually I play very atmospheric kinds of games. The kind where I can sit back and just walk around in this world for an hour without even having to do something.

I’ve been playing the latest Assassin’s Creed for example in the French Revolution. How they crafted Paris with all the characters, the wind and weather. You can smell the stench through the TV almost. All these dirty characters with rotten teeth and the rats. It’s amazing just jumping across the rooftops of Paris in the late 1780s. I get lost in that world.

Sandbox is the word, like I don’t know how many hours of Skyrim I have played, but I can just run up and find myself atop a snowy mountain and this choir of men starts to sing and you see the northern lights. You’re in the movie instead of sitting on the sofa half asleep watching it.

It ties into being a kid, being part of an amazing world. If it’s well crafted it really pulls you in. It’s a drug.”

Have a look for these influences on Tomas’ reel

Shanghai’s Best Advertising Event is Near

October 7, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Eight years on from the APA’s first Shanghai London Advertising Forum, why are APA members are going back for more?

On October 20th and 21st influential figures from the UK advertising production community will converge in the world’s largest city for the Shanghai London Advertising Forum 2015. They will be joining the top Chinese advertising agencies and production companies to learn about each other, to learn about opportunities and challenges ahead of them and to find ways of working together that will benefit both them and the agencies’ clients.

The event is organised by the Advertising Producers Association, and is the latest in a series of visits to overseas attended by the trade body’s members. The first SLAF took place in 2007, with over 30 delegates from London’s production community visiting Shanghai to meet with China’s leading advertising agencies. This was followed up two years later with the Beijing London Advertising Forum.

The APA has been organising overseas events for its members for over ten years now, inspired by the interest its membership takes in exploring foreign markets. APA Chief Executive Steve Davies explains this interest as twofold: “First, the ultra competitive London market means there aren’t enough good scripts to go around. Secondly, good scripts and good work is originating from many countries that did not do so previously.”

While it may seem odd for competitors to attend such events together, it’s the best way for these companies to learn and build future business abroad. Steve explains that while APA members are “successful, entrepreneurial and admired around the world for the quality of their work,” they also run on tight business models, keeping their base as small as possible to manage through the peaks and troughs of project-based income. This means they struggle to explore new markets they are interested in alone. They often lack the budget, time or manpower to justify organising such an expedition.

Steve explains how the APA picks up the slack here: “A week long event, with the opportunity to meet and hear from every important agency in a new market, with everything set up for them and the only demand on them being a week out of the office, provides them with an opportunity to connect with new markets they are interested in.”

“It seemed to be a no-brainer,” says Tim Katz, Managing Partner of Knucklehead, speaking about the 2007 Shanghai forum. “To have access to an organised sales trip into an almost un-explored territory that had a growing economy and a booming advertising sector. What did we have to lose?” Knucklehead have since done significant work for the Chinese market and will be attending again this year.

The critical mass of delegates on such a trip is also a substantial advantage. With an array of some of the most successful APA members coming together in one delegation, the attraction for Chinese agencies was bigger. Managing Director of RSA Asia John Payne, who was in the process of setting up their new Asia office at the time of SLAF 2007, remembers the clout that the 33-strong group commanded. “It was a natural progression to building on those early meetings with the presence of other APA members,” he says, “as it would add weight to our collective and genuine interest of wanting to do business with Chinese agencies and their clients.”

It’s glaringly obvious now why British production companies would be interested in the Chinese market. As Steve points out, “we used to provide all the stats but that isn’t necessary now.” It is the second largest advertising market in the world, it has grown by 16.6% per year on average for the last five years and spending on advertising is circa US$80 billion per year.

The extent of this rapid growth is tangible to anyone who visits the world’s most populous country. Tim remembers one moment during the 2007 event that crystallised this idea. “I was standing in the bar of the Grand Hyatt hotel, a gazillion floors up, watching a 24-hour construction crew working on the skyscraper opposite. They were adding a floor a week. It seemed to sum up the economic explosion that was happening in China, and made being there feel very much like the right place to be at the time.”

Daniel Bergmann, Managing Partner of Stink, visited Shanghai with the APA in 2007. Stink have several offices around the world, including one in Shanghai, which they had launched around that time. “I decided to open in China and Brazil as part of a growth strategy for Stink. The basic reasons are few and quite obvious,” he lists them: “Firstly, more business opportunities – China is a huge and interesting market. Secondly, cultural and creative inspiration. Finally, coming to a growing market early on is incredible as we are part of a new era.”

The Chinese ad industry is not only a huge attraction to UK companies. The relationship is reciprocated, as the warm welcome the APA members received in both Shanghai in 2007 and Beijing in 2009 attests to. “Agencies in China are keen to engage with UK production,” stresses Steve, “and ambitious to increase their knowledge of which production companies have a real ability to deliver the very good quality of work they want for their clients.”

“You can see the objectives and results of both events from the reports,” says Steve. “Some of the ECDs we’ll be seeing this time – who remain as enthusiastic as ever to be able to access UK production expertise – remember our 2007 event as the best advertising event that has taken place in Shanghai.”

The advisory board for this year’s event is comprised of well-regarded British and Chinese business leaders alike:

Andy Chan – ECD FCB, Shanghai
Andy Orrick – Chief of Stuff, Rattling Stick London
Daniel Bergmann – Founder, Stink Shanghai and London
Graham Fink – Chief Creative Officer, Ogilvy Shanghai
Jimmy Lam – Vice Chairman and CCO, DDB China
Johnny Tan – Chief Creative Officer, BBH Shanghai
Judy Hill – Executive Producer, Nexus London
Kevin Lee – ECD Leagas Delaney, Shanghai
Kitty Lun – Chairman and CEO, Lowe and Partners China
Michael McDermott – Executive Producer, Gung-Ho Films
Nils Andersson – President and Chief Creative Officer Greater China, TBWA\Shanghai Norman Tan – North Asia Chief Creative Officer, China Chairman, JWT
Sheena Jeng – Chair and Chief Creative Officer, Publicis China
Steve Davies – Chief Executive, APA (Chairman)
Tim Katz – Managing Partner, Knucklehead London
Yang Yeo – Executive Creative Director, W+K Shanghai

Their commitment to supporting SLAF 2015 shows that advertising professionals on both sides of the world are enthusiastic about building and maintaining these global business relationships.

It’s no surprise that the Chinese market is interested in accessing British talent. “As ever, the quality of the talent we can offer is the big draw,” says Tim. “Be it directors, production, technicians, VFX, music and sound, Chinese agencies acknowledge that we can add value to their productions and deliver great films.” Daniel notes that in his experience, overseas markets particularly respect the UK production industry its focus on quality and its dedication to nurturing talent.

The numbers back this feeling up. Delegates from the UK who took part in the 2007 forum generated £30 million in production turnover in the 15 months that followed the event.

It worked in 2007, but why go back? The answer is simple, according to Steve. “UK production companies and Chinese agencies have developed a lot of work. There are some obstacles though,” he says. “and it is good to explore these together as the potential quantity of work in China is huge and growing. Eight years is a long time in advertising, particularly in China, so it will be interesting to see those changes and learn from them and adjust our offering to Chinese agencies based on that learning.”


The Shanghai London Advertising Forum will be taking place at the Sigma Film Club, Shanghai on the 20th-21st October 2015. 

Entry to the event is free to Chinese agencies, production companies and advertisers – simply email to register.


What Makes Colourists So Special?

September 29, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Do these strange inhabitants of dark grading suites deserve our adoration?

Of all the bewildering job titles in advertising and film production, the colourist is the most curious. On the face of it, their job is fairly straightforward – to make the colours on a film look the best they can. The tricky part is how they do it.

It has been said that they are the stars of post production, cherished by their companies and jealously coveted by competitors. According to Televisual’s 2014 Salary Survey, they earn an average of £78,500 a year, more than the average managing director earns, and the top ones take home considerably more than that average. But where does this veneration come from and do they really deserve it? We spoke to four of the most celebrated colourists in London about why they think people treat them like some kind of sorcerers.

They know what people think of them and the way they are treated by their companies. “You hear it in pubs,” says George K of MPC. “We’re treated like superstars. Some think we’re overrated. Maybe we are.” His colleague at MPC, Jean-Clement Soret agrees. “The colourist is now the big magician. The guy who reveals the image in its full glory.” But it’s hard for them to know what people really think. “You get told lots of things when you’re working in any company,” says Seamus O’Kane of The Mill. “They’re dependent on people performing well and feeling happy, so you do sometimes feel like you’re being overtly cossetted and buttered up.”

The most striking thing about the role is the air of mystery a mention of colour grading evokes. “It’s always been seen as a slightly black art,” says Paul Harrison of Finish. “I think it’s a bit impenetrable.” This must be due in some part to the environment colourists work in. Their suites are their own personal bat caves – dark, expensively decorated sanctuaries, custom built to suit their needs and those of their clients; the sharpest of screens at one end of the room, the softest of sofas at the other. And in between, endless buttons, knobs, sliders and gadgets, incomprehensible to mere mortals.

George remembers his curiosity for all this since before he started grading. He used to walk past the dark suites, peer in and wonder what was going on in there. “It was kind of magical,” he remembers. Now he knows those secrets, but admits it’s hard to explain, “my mum and dad still don’t know what I do. I guess if you haven’t got the technical knowhow it’s difficult to explain what you actually do.”

Seamus still doesn’t fully understand what makes good colour grading, despite being repeatedly counted among the top handful of UK colourists. “It does almost seem like sorcery,” he says. “At the end everyone’s happy, but no one actually knows why.”

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” wrote sci-fi legend Arthur C. Clarke, famously, and magical analogies are understandable when you consider the powerful devices and software colourists work with.

It’s not only technology that creates that magic though. Graders are much more than technicians working the buttons on a big machine. They’re artists helping to make moving images more powerful. It’s a woolly process, full of vagaries and gut feelings, as Seamus admits. “Colour is an intangible, very unquantifiable thing. You can have all the mood boards in the world, all the expectations of how it’s going to be, but somehow it just looks right.”

Advertising, indeed all film, wants much more than a realistic representation of colour. Colourists’ talents lie in manipulating the hues, lightness, saturations and contrasts to create the most evocative images possible, building layers of nuance and emotion on the raw footage. “It’s about creating atmosphere and mood,” says Paul. “It’s there most of the time. We just have to bring it out.”

On top of this there’s the challenge, particularly relevant to those colourists working in advertising, of dealing with a suite full of people with different opinions. Sometimes a grading suite can contain a director, a DOP, creatives, creative directors, and even clients. There’s something about too many cooks to be said in that situation.

It’s a particular kind of person that can sit in the middle of seven people criticising your work, but it’s important to remember who’s boss. Humility is a must, no matter how revered a colourist may be. Seamus is philosophical about it. “If you’re too fragile it’s not going to go well. You’ve got to take it and make something else and ultimately convince them that what you’ve done is good for them.”

A good colourist must also have to have a talent for diplomacy, as the many voices in the suite often clash. “Sometimes you get real disagreements,” says George. “You’ve got to learn when to pipe up and when not to.” Balancing these opinions, working out where allegiances lie and who has the final say are all key.

That said it’s important to know when to say no politely and convincingly. The sofa dwellers may think they know best, but a good colourist can show them the full potential of an image. Jean-Clement notes that sometimes people say they’re happy with the flat offline footage, straight off the camera. “They got used to the offline and think it is what serves the piece,” he says. “I have to make a call as to whether I should respect their choice or push them somewhere they didn’t imagine they could go.”

On top of all this a colourist must also be a translator. Lay advertising people don’t speak the language of colour, so graders have to work out what they mean. Seamus finds it amusing. “There are generic terms like ‘warm’ and ‘cold’, but you hear things like ‘fizz more red’, ‘a tad’, ‘a natch.’” George gets ‘fluffy’, ‘muddy’ and ‘milky’ a lot. “A lot of them contradict,” he says. “‘I want it soft but contrasty.’ Fortunately, sometimes they bring you references.”

Some of these skills rely on raw talent, or a certain kind of personality. It’s probably true that only a small handful of people have the right combination of attributes to make it work. But it also takes years to become a successful colourist, which is why the top ones are all at least the wrong side of 30, if not much older.

Experience is vital for learning what works. There are so many variables and every grade provides a unique set. There is no easy way to learn, the colourists say. You just have to practice your craft. “When you’ve been doing this for a number of years, any film that is brought to you, you know straight away how it’s going to work,” says Jean-Clement.

Some solutions are to do with the science and psychology of colour (Jean-Clement says that if someone wants something more blue, sometimes adding yellow next to it does the job). Others are subtle tricks of diplomacy, like George knowing when to step into a tense disagreement and when to stay out of it.

Trust is a vital factor. The grade is a kind of choke point in the process of making a commercial. Over its months of gestation, any given ad has had dozens of people working on it. By the time it reaches the colourist all of these creative contributors have a vested interest in how it turns out. The grade can have a huge effect on the final result and yet it rests on the shoulders of one person, often on one day in the suite. “It’s quite a high pressure job,” says Jean-Clement. “It’s very rewarding and interesting and I enjoy it very much, but every day is a big day.” There’s a lot riding on that person, so agencies and directors need to know they can trust their colourist.

Once that working relationship exists with a colourist it’s a powerful force and a valuable resource. It can minimise the many aforementioned challenges of a grade, smoothing them over. George has certain direcotrs that come to his suite, put their feet up and ask for ‘the usual’. “They know that you know best,” he says, “because you know what can or can’t be fixed or whether a certain something can go a certain way.” It’s hard to earn this trust, but it’s also difficult to break.

That’s why grading is such a personal process. The weight of all this rests not on the back of a company’s reputation, but on the relationships a colourist builds and maintains. “People like to have someone to idolise,” says Jean-Clement. “Colourists are an ideal one because it’s pretty much a one-man show. Of course you take everyone’s opinion into consideration but in the end it’s a very personal craft. You can give the same image to five different colourists and get five different results.”

People in advertising enjoy the grade. The culmination of a months-long process for some, it’s nice to sit in a comfortable room and see your vision bloom into its full potential. “For the fist time in [sometimes] a year they’re seeing on screen what they’ve shot is going to look like,” says Seamus. It’s the big reveal, and the colourist is master of ceremonies. “You take all the energy in the room and you’re a conduit,” says Paul.

If done right, the grade can be a good experience for everyone. “Someone once told me it’s like a sanctuary,” says Jean-Clement. A good atmosphere, relaxing and luxurious, thanks to the armies of attentive runners VFX houses employ.

“Every day is a bit like a long-haul flight,” says Seamus. And an expensive one at that. “You’re sitting in a room for 12 hours or so getting very well attended. If you want some coffee or something to eat you pick up the phone and ask. If you think the room’s too hot you make a phone call. So you can act like a rock star every day.”

But colourists aren’t rock stars, and they know it. “You walk out the door and you’re Joe Public,” says Seamus. “If I were sat at home sending my wife for coffee it would not be popular.” He finds it funny that people he knows from the suite don’t recognise him on the street.

George is similarly grounded. “It always brings me down to earth then I go on holiday and no one actually gives a shit what I do for a living. It’s not that important to people.”

People might talk about colourists like Premier League footballers, but their glamour is limited. Ultimately, they’re a bunch of well-paid geeks sitting in dark rooms all day. And they know it. “The secret is not to take it so seriously,” says Seamus. “If you believe you’re fantastic and wonderful, you’re probably not.”