More Empty Platitudes About Branded Content

March 6, 2017 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Why are we still having conferences about this vague subject?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An all-encompassing formula to creativity. Nailed it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comedy Advertising Should be Funny

January 31, 2017 / Features

By Alex Reeves

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

What is it About French Advertising?

January 26, 2017 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Paris agencies discuss the unique power of their advertising community.

The London ad community can be a bit navel gazing at times. As a hub that’s admired for the quality of the work it puts out, it’s easy to forget about the other good stuff out there, especially from outside the Anglophone world. And since Brexit happened (although the fun’s really only just begun with that one!), global eyes are paying more attention to markets across the Channel.

There’s something special about the French advertising industry. The country is host to the business’ most important festival and award show in Cannes and is consistently one of the most awarded markets there. Last year France took fifth place, making it the second most awarded nation in Europe after the UK. That kind of international influence is noteworthy, considering about 660 million more people speak English than French worldwide.

So what makes France so dominant? While visiting in Paris recently, I decided to ask a selection of French agencies what about their country helps them to do it so well.

At first they thought it was a stupid question. It is a bit. Advertising works on the same principles the world over. This is the 21st Century – everything is globalised and the same business principles often apply everywhere. “I don’t know if there is a real difference between French advertising and the rest of the world,” ponders Olivier Apers, Executive Creative Director at BETC. “I don’t know if our advertising tastes French.”

Obviously we couldn’t stop there though. We need to go deeper, Inception style. So let’s start by gathering some raw materials: the best of French advertising – and the Frenchest of good advertising. For the most part big French brands, no matter how international their markets, use famous French agencies.

Publicis and Havas are the leviathans of the market, but BETC are the agency du jour for that contemporary French flavour. New Zealander Mark Forgan, Creative Director at Rosapark, came to France seven years ago and from his foreigner’s perspective BETC is the peak of French advertising today. “It’s typically French but international,” he says. “I feel like it’s the point where fashion meets advertising. It’s really modern. Even when they do Evian, although it’s quite international it has a bit of French taste to it. Then they have CANAL+ and of course Air France.”

Air France is about as French as it gets, according to everyone I speak to in Paris. “It’s selling the French lifestyle,” suggests Bruno Lee, Deputy Managing Director at Sid Lee. Frenchness is their product.

Evian is an example we can perhaps learn more from. Their relationship with BETC goes back to 1994, and since then it has stuck with the same strategy, trying to own the idea of youthfulness. This thread continues today, and their babies have become iconic. The campaigns are more than a little weird, but they work. This demonstrates something that French agencies do better than anyone – long-term development of a creative concept. It takes perseverance and conviction that most agencies fail to demonstrate. “It’s typically French,” says Olivier. “And maybe that’s our own particularity regarding the agency and the French market. We do not try to reinvent a strategy each year for a brand. When we find something that we believe in, we like to build on it.”

What about the bad side of French advertising? I asked what the lowest common denominator was. Those clichés particular to French culture? It was easier for Mark and Jamie Standen, his creative partner at Rosapark, with their immigrant perspective. “When you turn on the TV in a hotel, in the UK you see a bunch of ads for short term loans,” says Jamie. “In America it’s pharmaceutical ads. In France it’s mass-produced food like cheese or yogurt.” He describes the typical scene of two women by a swimming pool enthusing about how surprisingly delicious their 0%-fat yogurt is. Bruno agrees that dairy products are particularly guilty. “If there is a French cliché of advertising it would be for this sort of brand,” he says. “Like people enjoying a yogurt in a really ecstatic way, or kids in the countryside watching farmers milk cows.”

But even ads for these mass-produced brands don’t feel cheap in the way British or American commercials often do. “In America, it’s like someone’s yelling at me all the time from the TV,” says Mark. And one explanation for this is the common assumption that the French are more attuned to style than other countries. “The reason we were attracted to come and work in Paris in the beginning was because they did advertising with such precision,” he says. “The art direction and look of everything was incredible.”

It seems impossible for the French to ignore design. “Our approach is to work like advertising designers,” says Olivier. “To imagine what the core message for each communication is, but at the same time what is the style, what is the mood?”

Paris is famous for its style, and there’s no way the ad industry there is letting go of that reputation. Art direction is paramount.

French creatives have the attitude to fit this reputation, too. Somehow they’ve escaped the shame that seems to hang around a career in advertising for the Anglophone world. The old line “please don’t tell my mother I work in advertising – she thinks I play piano in a brothel” wouldn’t make sense in a Paris agency, where creatives consider themselves legitimate artists, despite the commercial ends of their work.

“A lot of creative teams see themselves like poets of daily life,” says Bruno. “That’s probably an important part of the DNA of the French market. The culture of the creative is totally different from places like London, the Nordic countries [or] the US. Here you feel that being a creative is a gift, not work.”

Mark and Jamie have witnessed this difference. “In New Zealand and Australia people would never consider themselves artists,” says Jamie, “because in those countries it would be too pretentious to imagine. Here that’s not a problem.”

So the French take their advertising seriously. I get the impression that Olivier, the Frenchest of my interviewees, considers my line of questioning a little frivolous. He’s right. And maybe that’s just how Brits approach advertising. We have to make a joke to justify our selling. The French do funny advertising too, of course, but it’s less subtle. “The French don’t get irony,” says Mark. “[They] need to know when to laugh.”

Culturally, the French retain a value that’s generally dying out in our collaborative, Silicon Valley influenced business landscape – the culture of competition, even within companies. “I think in France there is still the notion of getting respect for a fight,” says Bruno. “It’s a culture of confrontation.” This can be between clients and account teams, fighting for the right idea, between account teams and creative teams or creatives and strategists.

“You hear stories about teams being too scared to print their work because another team might steal their ideas,” says Jamie. Of course, all the agencies I visit tell me they’re totally collaborative – exceptions that prove the rule, I’m sure – but it’s easy to see why it might work. When you’ve fought for an idea, it’s been rigorously stress-tested, so is hopefully more effective.

Then there’s Paris itself. A city with so much allure it has its own psychological disorder. And ad agencies there are proud of their home’s electricity, drawing people in like moths to a neon windmill. It’s always been a city synonymous with fashion, film, music and art.

Even BETC, who recently moved to the underprivileged suburb of Pantin to build their own creative neighbourhood, remain proud Parisians. “We keep our link to Paris because [it’s a] very powerful battery,” says Olivier. “It’s necessary for us to go back to take a little bit of the electricity of the city.” Creative ideas need fuel, and there’s plenty in France’s capital to stoke those fires.

Paris isn’t like other capital cities though, because it’s so dominant compared to other French cities. In the USA the big agencies are spread between New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland, and elsewhere. In the UK we even have a few notable ones outside of London, and historically our culture has been spread throughout the various cities. Paris doesn’t have that kind of competition. “France is dominated by Paris,” says Jamie.

Maybe that’s why French advertising has such a strong identity. Practically everyone who creates culture works within a few miles of one another. And that spot on the map has become a stylish, artistic nexus.

French advertising is special. It’s fun to try and work out why, but that secret ingredient remains a certain je ne sais quoi to me. One thing is certain – it deserves more attention from the English-speaking world.

Don’t Moan, Organise!

January 24, 2017 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Not happy with the way the world’s changing? Advertising professionals are far from powerless.

Rodney Rascona thinks the advertising industry could do much more good. A veteran commercials director and photographer at production company Squire London, he wants to help the expert communicators of this industry to step up for the good of humanity. The shocks of 2016 made the world look bleak. We need to turn that around as a creative community, he suggests.

For 17 years he’s worked all over the developing world to bring the harsh realities of people’s lives to light. He’s documented the 2004 Southeast Asia Tsunami, the Haitian earthquake, the Somali / Kenyan exodus, Ethiopian famine, post-genocide Rwanda, women’s rights issues in Congo, the Phillippines typhoon Haiyan and has been involved with several NGOs along the way.

In recent years he’s been working with a United Nations Foundation initiative called the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. He directed Black Inside for them – three short documentaries in Keyna, India and Peru, highlighting the importance of clean cooking equipment to women’s health.

Red Dirt Road, his short about one woman’s journey to escape the oppressive garment industry in Cambodia, established a link to the issue that he continues to explore. He’s currently working on a feature-length film on the subject called White Silk, taking a wider angle on the exploitation that is so ubiquitous.

“When you work in relief and development you end up involved with these large ethical questions,” he says. “In White Silk it’s ‘can the Western world accept that for them to get a £5 blouse at Primark there’s a whole generation of women in the developing world subsisting on $50 a month with no hope for the future?’ They become beasts of burden to the western consumer to provide that £5 blouse.”

He’s been spending time in Mexico City recently too, poised this season to direct four feature documentaries on hip hop culture, and in between all this he returns to London where his films are stitched together and post-produced with producer Phil Tidy.

Rodney’s been a professional photographer for over 30 years, and started in an altogether glossier sector, doing portraits and car advertising around the planet for international advertising and design teams. In fact, his transition to humanitarianism started with him being up for a LIFE Eisie award in New York for work on the return of the BUG for Volkswagen in 2000.

The ceremony was packed with photojournalistic heavyweights with Sebastião Salgado’s keynote speech hitting home: “Senior image makers need to be working on serious work,” Rodney recalls. “The world needs serious professional photographers, not someone just out of university or someone who just bought a camera.” “I thought what the hell? I’m an advertising guy. I don’t have access to that.”

Later that night Rodney was introduced by respected photojournalist David Burnett, to the famous Brazilian photographer and asked him for advice on photographing human issues in the developing world. He received three tips:
1. Beware of people with short fingers;
2. Before you go to a village drink half a bottle of wine. It doesn’t matter if the images are slightly out of focus but it will relax you;
3. When you’re done, drink the other half.

The next day the phone rang. It was an NGO on the other end asking Rodney to “find famine” in Ethiopia. Since then photographing and directing in the developing world has been his raison d’être.

“In the year 2000, my first assignment for a major NGO, I was sent to a desert pitch in the Ethiopian desert with an assessment team to document the tragic fallout from drought, and ended up taking photographs of children who were starving to death,” he says. “If you work on stuff like that it’s with you all the time – the images the sounds never leave you, but you can’t not want to do it more because its become part of you now, part of your DNA – your life changed forever.”

17 years later, he understands what Salgado meant about applying yourself to serious causes. An advertising professional, he’ll still shoot glossy advertising briefs very happily, his conscience salved elsewhere, but he lives for the more meaningful work.

Having collected likeminded senior image-makers – producers, editors, post-production experts etc. - Rodney’s found the best talent to surround himself with in his ethical endeavours. “I want to be plugged into the people that want to make a change,” he says. “I’ve been blessed that I have that access because whether a project has money or not, thankfully with my producer Phil Tidy, it gets made.” People want to be involved with whatever he’s doing because he’s talented and the causes he’s involved with are fulfilling to work on.

But the world needs more people like this. An Englishman who grew up as a Republican in the USA, last year was the first time Rodney’s voted Democrat. The shifts in the world that Donald Trump represents are too horrific for him to countenance. “He’s been elected President on a racist, bigoted, misogynistic, narcissistic platform with few tangible solutions to global or domestic ills,” he despairs.

“We’ve just seen probably the most cataclysmic shift of our time. If anybody thinks that Trump being elected President isn’t going to affect the world, this is the guy that’s got millions of people lined up to be deported. How are we supposed to receive him? Pretend he didn’t mean what he said? The people who put him in office will expect him to do all those things.

“Regardless of your political view, I believe we can come together, be part of compelling projects where we celebrate cultural diversity, uncover social problems needing a voice and lend a creative heart to the on-going discourse surrounding the social issues of our time.” 

Rodney’s not defeatist though. He wants more people in advertising to step up and respond to the global issues that Trump signifies. “This is a call to action,” he says. “More than ever we need to have a big voice against bigotry, racism and persecution of migrants and refugees. Advertising producers and senior image-makers need to take on major issues. There’s not a lot of money in it but we have the ability to create really impactful messages.”

After 9/11 the Ad Council made a film in response to the atrocious attack. Titled I Am An American, it presented a diverse and defiant America as people of all ages, ethnicities and religions declared “I am an American” to the camera. There was no budget and no client, and Rodney finds it inspiring. “It was work done for the greater good,” he says. “We don’t need a client. The human population is the client.”

Rodney knows the talent and resources are out there, and that people are willing to face up to the challenges of our time. You’ve all seen your advertising friends ranting on social media, despairing the shifts in our world that Brexit and Trump symbolise. If those people organised, they could create messages to counteract these negative trends.

“Assuredly there are dark clouds above us but let’s see this as a call to action,” says Rodney. “A new year now, let’s have a round table meeting, invite leading filmmakers, photographers, producers, creatives, editors, all of us within the creative supply chain. Let’s not wait for something to happen, a client, a budget or motivation. Let’s recognize what the serious messages of our times are. Racism? Bigotry? The fact that some children under five are going to sleep hungry in Hackney? To offset some of this all we have to do is to organize and start creating poignant work and putting it into the community.”

London, where Rodney is based, is the ideal place to mount this response. “It’s worth talking about the collective capability within the creative community here,” he says. “One of the largest exports from London is creativity and so with this in mind, we have the ability to create honest work that people will possibly pay attention to. Instead of taking our frustrations to online chat, let’s do something face to face where we all will benefit. Shots published a feature article I wrote a couple of years ago on a similar set of thoughts where being involved on the social challenges of our times is good for creatives, agencies and clients alike.

“We’re standing on the banks of a stream. It has been flowing for all eternity in the same way. It goes round trees and rocks and follows the same path. As creatives we can stand on the bank and watch this. But if we take just one step out into that stream it changes its path. It stops around our feet. It gurgles, bubbles, goes in different directions just because of that one step. It’s incumbent on creatives to do this, to take the risk. We’re the gatekeepers of creative messages that can bring change, create empathy and compassion for others lives and along the way, educate the rest of us. We’re the ones that bring those messages together.

“For 17 years I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to leverage my image making skills to help raise awareness to serious issues – mostly in tough places around the globe, and so I’d like to play my part here at home too. So see this as a soft appeal, a friendly invitation if you will, to the other like minded creatives to help us breathe life into human challenges many face within the community. Just maybe a group of producers, filmmakers, photographers, writers, advertisers…mature professionals and the young guns among us, collectively with a bigger voice, may help to offset the sense of helplessness and hopelessness many of us feel as a direct result of the current political climate we are forced to endure.

“Perhaps it’s time to step up. Dig deep, share ideas, be advocates, maybe a bit of a zealot in spirit - and to play our part, do our best as creatives for the greater good.”

Pushing AR Forward with the Obamas

December 14, 2016 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Nexus Studios’ augmented reality experience for the White House is a big step forward.

We are coming towards the end of a US presidency that’s been almost universally admired by the creative and communications industries. Barack Obama’s administration has been the techiest ever and (drone killings aside) much of that technology has been used for good. The White House quietly recruited the finest minds in tech from places like Google and Facebook and used their big brains to improve government services and solve American citizens’ problems.

The latest example of the Obama team’s technophilia comes in the form of an augmented reality experience called 1600.

Created by Nexus Studios’ innovative Interactive Arts division and featuring animation and design from Nexus Studios director Jack Cunningham, the free mobile app allows the public to explore the White House. The experience tracks a stunningly intricate AR animation off a one-dollar bill and tells the story of one year in the administration.

We spoke to Luke Ritchie, Head of Interactive arts at Nexus Studios, about why this project is such an important moment in the timeline of AR.

The Beak Street Bugle: How did the White House approach you?
Luke Ritchie:
We’ve been doing a fair number of AR and VR projects in the last few years and one that caught notable attention at the White House was The New Yorker, which was an AR experience we did with Christoph Niemann, quite a well-known illustrator who does covers for them. We got to work with him on the innovation issue in May. It’s a cute little experience that starts off in 2D, which is amazing, and then breaks into 3D.

The White House had seen that experience through gave us a phone call to see if we would be interested in working on developing an AR experience for them.

BSB: What was the brief?
To begin with it was pretty loose. They were very interested in a message about the White House’s role in democracy.

President Obama and his administration, and Michelle Obama, had been working very hard to try and dispel myths about the building itself.  They’ve done lots of interesting things, from opening up rooms that were previously closed, inviting everyone to have a festival on the lawn of the White House for South By South Lawn. You could Google Street View through all the rooms and stuff.

The key word that went around was transparency. The hope for the project was to enlighten people about what goes on there.

I guess there was always an educational angle right from the start, but it was always to be bathed in a creative experience first. It was meant to captivate you visually and then take you on a journey and if you walked away learning something from it then that would be an added benefit.

BSB: How did it develop from there?
It didn’t begin on a dollar note. We did explore doing something on the tour itself. We talked about using the building façade as a marker to scan on, so you could stand outside the building and then you could see inside it.

Then as the project grew there was a requirement for it to reach more people, and that’s when we started trying to think what everybody has that doesn’t cost them anything to buy and is fully accessible by most Americans. And we landed on a dollar bill.

It was actually a 20-dollar bill to begin with because the White House is on the 20-dollar bill. As visual storytellers we had the idea of the White House emerging out of the bill, which would have been really great, but it was fairly pointed out that a lot more people have access to a dollar bill.

BSB: How do you think it compares to other AR experiences out there?
I think in general it’s still early days in AR. We had an opportunity to experience AR a few years ago, but the problems back then were we didn’t have the tracking potential back then, or camera lenses, or software, and we definitely didn’t have the power that we have in a mobiles now. Most people didn’t even know what a game engine was five years ago. So it was a different place.

Remember QR codes and the importance of the contrast and definition? AR has a much more magical ability now. Lots of things can be markers that never could be before. That is a real opening point in terms of how advertisers may decide to use it because there’s a lot more freedom there.

There’s a lot of pressure coming into a job like this with the amount of people that are going to see it. It does need to look as good as it can within the limitations. So I’m pleased with some of the shaders we’ve built and the optimisation to get as many characters animating and moving as possible. I think we’ve made some real advances there.

People from a technical background are surprised by the quality of the render. They didn’t realise we could do things like that now. We worked extremely hard to make sure that was the case.

The other bit is, I think, still early stages but we are getting into narrative storytelling in AR. We’ll see a lot more of it if we all end up wearing headsets [like the Microsoft HoloLens]. You know that scene in Her where the character steps out of the wall? You have things like that because you can use the physical room you’re inside. And I hope that the White House is an interesting step in that direction.

Even though it’s loose enough for you to navigate around and explore, it’s a year in the White House and there are events unfolding, so it has a structure to it and we do encourage you to keep looking, keep exploring, do it again. See if you found all the presidents or not, open the Oval Office or touch the roof of the White House. There are elements in there for exploration.

Hopefully it stands as a benchmark for other AR projects that can come. And I genuinely think it can. I know that once I introduce it to a lot of people they always talk to me about how shit the last experience they saw was.

BSB: What were the biggest challenges?
The technical challenges are always there the minute you want to try and push the boundaries. If I’m building for the newest iPad it’s a lot easier, but if I’m building it for more or less everyone in America to access it without a problem, then I have to work to older devices too. It needs to look as amazing on an iPhone 7 as it does on an iPhone 5.

The pressure to create something good for that kind of a stage was extremely important. You know it needs to be good.

We have a lot of love for Obama and his administration and I think there was a pressure of making sure that it represented him well and this notion of transparency that they were working on. We obviously didn’t anticipate the future, so it ended up having a bit more relevance.

One thing we did was build a pause week into the schedule so everyone stopped and we reassessed and talked about whether we were happy with it, where it was at that point and what changes we might want to make in the remaining four weeks of the job.

That was vital because I think we’d managed to answer a lot of what the White House needed but we hadn’t managed to get the charm and sense of humour into it yet.

Another thing we did that was really important was by the end of the first week we had the app built. It was a crude, square, White-House-looking building with a few bouncy 2D characters in it. What that allowed everyone to do was to allow all the stakeholders on the job to have the app and then week-by-week we all get to review it in the app, not on 36-inch screens in the studio.

I thought that was brilliant because it allowed everyone to have a go in the evening in their kitchen, have a think and in the morning they might come back with more thoughts.

BSB: What have people’s reactions been like?
You never know, but we’d hoped it would have a relatively large release because the White House were going to talk about it. I think the hopes outside of that were to do with mainstream people trying it out and learning a bit about AR.

We’ve seen teachers in classrooms showing their kids. The majority of people don’t know where the Oval Office is. Maybe this project, if it is seen by millions, would almost guarantee that everyone knows that at least. And from the WHHA’s point of view that would be a huge thing.

It’s obviously been picked up a lot by people from Sky News in the UK to Jimmy Fallon in the US. That’s been great. I don’t think we could have hoped for a better result.

BSB: What has this project taught you about the direction interactive technology is moving in?
I recently saw an article which I’m sure there will be a few of, which is all about how 2016 was meant to be the year of VR, but it was actually the year of AR. That rang very true.

AR is much more social and it doesn’t require any expensive hardware. There are big implications there for why it can be so useful for messaging.

I’m a big fan of the next phase, which is much more about computer vision and [the technology] understanding our environment. If you look at the concept art on the Microsoft Hololens website, I think that begins to get you excited about what the potential is. I can absolutely see the storytelling possibilities for us.

That will be interesting. Right now I still think it’s much more interesting how that’s relevant to the mobile. Google Tango is an amazing bit of kit that’s now in the Lenovo phone. And that allows us to remove the marker [the dollar bill in 1600’s case], so I can look around the room and it understands what a person is because it can track the skeleton. It understands what a door, wall or table is.

We talk a lot about how it’s important that things like Pokemon Go happened because they raise everyone’s interest and investment into an area. So you can guarantee that just from that one hit there’ll be ten more coming.

When I asked the White House why AR, the answer was because they’d tried everything else but didn’t know how to access millions of people with low to no investment. I don’t think it’s gimmicky. I think good AR experiences have a place because they don’t require any investment from the user. Right now if everyone’s getting close to Christmas and thinking ‘Oh my God. Am I going to spend 1,500 quid on a VR setup?’

This is an easy way to reach a lot of people and it still has the emerging technology feel. It still is exciting. It’s not like everyone has seen AR. It’s still in its infancy and it comes with that excitement.

I’m pitching to everyone but I’d love to do a graphic novel. You could stare at the page, follow a 2D story, when you touch it it animates or comes to life and you watch it. Or maybe your character breaks out into 3D, opens the book and turns the page for you and you follow them to the next page. There are some really unique opportunities in that space for storytelling. A lot of AR has been pointing it at this thing, seeing a 3D thing appear and that’s it. Now we’re getting into the area where I can delve deeper; I can explore something or touch on something to open another window and dive into that and have another experience.

I think that gets away from it being gimmicky at that point because whatever you want to do you can do. That’s the point. Everything is interactive and you can engage with whatever you want.

Why Ad Production Needs to Find its FOCUS

November 29, 2016 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Clara Le explains why commercials production companies should head to Islington next week.

You may think the industry has enough conferences and shows for all its many facets but Clara Le, Commercial Director of The Location Guide, has noticed a gap. “All the shows have their own perspectives on the industry, but nobody talks about pre-production,” she says.

That is until The Location Guide launched FOCUS last year – ‘the meeting place for international production,’ as they describe it. And this year they will be back at Islington’s Business Design Centre on 6th and 7th December to make sure pre-production gets the attention it deserves. Clara is always evangelising about how key this is. “I keep telling people the most important part of the production is definitely the pre-production,” she says. “Getting everything lined up – where to shoot, who to shoot with, which incentives you can connect with etc.” With over 150 exhibitors from over 40 countries – service companies, national film commissions, hotels and the like – production professionals will be able to find answers to all of these questions.

FOCUS’s description of itself as ‘the meeting place for international production’ is telling. It’s not specific to any particular silo of production for a reason, despite the fact that commercials, TV and film production companies tend to inhabit different circles. Clara is keen for the commercials production world to mix with the worlds of TV and film. She thinks it would do them good. “Most production companies cross over,” she points out. “They do online video for brands, commercials and sometimes TV. I’ve met people who say they’d like to get into TV and film but don’t know how to do it, how to access filming incentives and find co-production partners.”

The idea of visiting suppliers and potential partners at an exhibition centre isn’t what advertising production is used to, whereas film markets at festivals have made it second nature to their big-screen counterparts. “The film and TV industries will actively keep up to date with filming incentives, who can supply the best services and how co-production treaties work in different countries,” says Clara. “Commercials production isn’t used to that. It’s a different mindset.” That’s something FOCUS hopes to change.

It’s only the second year for the event, but The Location Guide hope for the show to become part of the ad industry’s calendar. Positioned at the beginning of December, Clara realises it has to be a fun event as well as an informative one. “It’s Christmas. Everybody likes to go out for a drink, so we’ve created free bars, there are lots of happy hours during the day, lots of countries have their own drinks receptions happening at their booths. We’re hosting a party with the APA. We’re also doing a big drinks reception on Tuesday night.”

Building on the successful content they put on last year, there will be many more seminars and panels this year, on subjects including green production, shooting on low budgets in London and how to work with China. Jason Stone of David Reviews will be hosting a special Craftworks session packed full of content and I’ll be hosting a panel called The Phenomenon of the Christmas Commercial with some of the people behind our favourite festive spots.

In response to feedback, the show is also much more UK focused this year. “In light of Brexit we wanted to sell the UK,” says Clara. “We’ve got all these people coming to London. We want to show that we’re really proud to be based here.” With all ten UK film offices attending the show, it’s a great chance to remind ourselves how world-leading British production is and will continue to be, despite the result of the EU referendum.

So why should production companies take the time to go all the way up to Islington (the horror!) to this free conference? “Production companies need to keep evolving to keep up with the market,” says Clara. “And the only way to do that is to mix with people and ideas from outside of your industry. You’ll learn a lot from other people and from the seminars. There are drinks as well. It’s a social event. You’ll learn new things, network, hang out with your peers and meet new people too.”


FOCUS is completely free to attend. Register here for access to the whole FOCUS programme.

Mr Gammon: Master Craftsman

November 21, 2016 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Insight into one of the many specialists it takes to make a good ad.

Photograph by Jonathan Daniel Pryce  ©JDPryce


One of the most striking things about filmmaking in advertising is the vast armies assembled of specialists in many different skills that each shoot musters. There are a hundred different crafts in the industry. One of the great things about the British Arrows CRAFT awards is that these craftspeople are celebrated where other awards might pass them by.

Mr Gammon is one such craftsman. One of the industry’s best costume designers, he won the award for Best Costume / Wardrobe in 2014 for his incredible work on the Guinness Sappeurs ad. With this year’s CRAFT winners being announced this Wednesday night, we chatted to Mr Gammon to work out what sort of person it takes to win such an accolade.



The Beak Street Bugle: How would you describe your craft to a member of the public?
Mr Gammon: 
There are many heads to the beast of being a costume designer in commercials. One of them is the political liaison between agency, client and director. You’re an extension of the director as well as being his or her ambassador, as well as setting a tone for the actors when they’re first cast on the job.

When people know that you’re a costume designer, often when it’s a detergent commercial and it’s a mum and dad in jeans and T-shirts, they would often think ‘what did you actually do?’ But the beauty of a good costume designer is to look like you were never there at all.

Often it’s not a case of going out and buying a bunch of stuff, but seeing who they’ve cast as an actor and thinking about who the characters are. The great thing for me is that there are so many different kinds of scripts. You could be doing science fiction, a horde of Vikings or even a horde of zombies. Often it’s about working to budget, facilitating so it goes how the agency and production company want it to go. And you’re trying to push it as much as possible. There’s a great craft to all of that.


BSB: What sort of person makes a good costume designer?
Someone who’s got the patience of a saint, who can wear his hat at a jaunty angle and has a wry or dry sense of humour. If you’re doing a job with a cast of thousands you need to be able to push people in the right direction.

For example I did a Bond job for Tom Kuntz in Croatia where I had to motivate my local Croatian costume department. We had about 400 in the cast. A lot of them had never done a commercial before and I was trying to make it look chic and Italian with bright colours and make sure the costumes reflected Lake Como and the locations we wanted it to look like. So I’m there on crowd days trying to motivate my team at three in the morning, trying to get everyone ready for six in the morning, trying to wrangle people whose English might not be very good. Then once you’ve done all of that you have to go off to agency and client and make sure they’re happy, do a bit of finessing if you need to, to try and get it nailed.


BSB: Whose craftsmanship do you most admire?
I could list an entire crew. Or I could list the craftsmen, model makers, tailors and machinists I work with who carve my drawings into the work I’m known for. But what I do admire is the craft of cinematographers like Martin Ruhe, Tim Maurice Jones, Stephen Keith-Roach. Artists all, capturing light and filming our work to look the best it possibly can.

If you look at someone like Dave Lee, production designer. He’s the master of massive sets and props, creating the worlds that I can plonk my costumes in. I love the synergy of working with a brilliant production designer.

It’s the other people that you work with that make the work so beautiful. There’s no point in my costumes looking good if the lighting’s shit.


BSB: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve done this year?
I worked on a drama for ITV called Dark Heart. The brilliant thing about that was that not only do I help fill the content that goes between the dramas, I’m now helping create the dramas themselves. It’s like working on both sides of the coin. That was a marvellous job to work on. It was great to prove to people who don’t work in commercials that the vision could extend to two hours. As much as I love science fiction and Vikings and period costume, it’s also nice to prove that I can do red carpet and look after big celebrities and deal with the politics of that as well.

I also did hordes of zombies for Tom Kuntz and eBay. That was part of a 15-year relationship I’ve had with Tom for some of the most wonderful jobs that I’ve worked on. I really enjoyed doing that.


BSB: What are your goals for 2017?
When I’m truly happy is when you give me a cast of thousands with a difficult agency and difficult client. I always look forward to those challenges.

I’d love to do more science fiction. It’s always been a personal passion of mine. When I was a kid the stuff I was inspired by got me into costume and fashion. The idea of something that was otherworldly but would still be wearable today. And coming up with something where you’re taking something from one era and putting it together with something else, surfing on the waves of time travel.

I love designing stuff that’s three dimensional. Give me a brief to design a fighting astronaut. More of that is what I’d love to see next year.


Check out Mr Gammon's work on his website or have a look at his Instagram feed.

SPARKing Conversation (and Hopefully More)

November 16, 2016 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Could CHI&Partners’ new recruitment scheme help create advertising diversity?

Every advertising conference for the last two or three years seems to have featured some discussion on diversity. Like so many industries, and shamefully more so than many, Adland has done poorly to welcome enough women and people from minority ethnic or underprivileged backgrounds into its ranks. Finally the agencies are starting to take tangible steps to remedy this though, and CHI&Partners’ new initiative is one that might help.

About a month ago they announced their new entry-level recruitment scheme, SPARK – appealing to ambitious people from all backgrounds to apply to come and work at the agency.

From school-leavers and young people with vocational as well as university training, to those moving into advertising from other industries, SPARK aims to attract diverse new talent to the agency – building on its skillsets and culture, and bringing new experience and thinking to its creative output.

The agency has stripped requests for CVs and photos from its application process. Instead, applicants are simply asked to answer four creative and strategic questions before coming to meet the team in November. A number of candidates will then be selected to begin working with CHI&Partners in January 2017, with another intake following in September 2017.

Applications were open last month. The selection process is underway and by 12th December successful candidates will be awarded places.

We asked Chief Executive and Partner Sarah Golding about the impact she hopes the scheme will make.

The Beak Street Bugle: Why did you decide to start SPARK?
Sarah Golding:
Not to be glib, but the world is changing. All ad agencies have traditionally hired graduates at entry level, but we’ve recently found – and you read about it in the news – that more and more bright young people are turning away from university, so only hiring graduates is limiting our talent pool in a way that maybe it didn’t 20 years ago. Bright minds can exist anywhere. We want the most creative and ambitious people out there in our industry, and in particular in our agency, regardless of their education or background.

It’s quite interesting when I think about my daughter. I did go to university and I never would have dreamed of not going. It was my way of getting out of Blackburn. I went to a really good university and I’m sure I got a great job because of that. But if I think about Florence today, who’s six, I’m not sure that she will have a better future if she goes to a great university. The world has moved on. It’s important that the advertising industry continues to attract the best creative talent that there is out there. That’s what I want this programme to ensure.

Also, we wanted to do our bit to promote diversity in the industry. You’ll probably have read that the IPA has set various targets – 40% of senior roles in agencies to be filled by women in 2020, and 15% of all roles to be filled by people from BAME backgrounds. I sit on the IPA council so of course I signed the agency up for that. But I wanted to do more as an agency, which is why we’ve removed photos and CVs from the SPARK application process.

If you’re going to continue to be relevant to a client as an agency you need to represent all aspects of society. And how can you be sure that you do get all those aspects of society if it’s not reflected in the agency? Our clients are selling to modern Britain so it’s essential that the agency is made up of modern Britain.

BSB: What have been the biggest obstacles to promoting that diversity in the industry?
There have been a few things. One is awareness. Everyone knows what a doctor does or what a teacher does, but working in an ad agency isn’t an obvious career for anyone growing up. My parents do not understand what I do at all. I think often unless you actually know someone in an agency it’s not a career that would cross your mind.

Access to work experience is another. Work experience is a great route into the industry, but only a very select section of the population can afford to work for free, which is what is expected too often. If you don’t have parental support it’s not a realistic option.

There’s always been that ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,’ I’m afraid to say. And I’m not saying that is unique to advertising by any means. But how many times have I been asked to interview a friend of a friend or a client’s son or daughter? I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Therefore it’s not a surprise that we end up with an industry full of people from similar backgrounds.

Advertising leaders in agencies today are a very similar bunch, who come from similar backgrounds, who have followed a very similar educational path. I hope that if other agencies embrace our vision of diversity then the leaders of the future will be a properly diverse set of people, bringing different life experiences to the table. And that will help keep the industry fresh and relevant.

BSB: What have you done to make sure a diverse set of people is made aware of SPARK in the first place?
We’re communicating SPARK on all of our social platforms but we’re also reaching out more directly. For example we’re working with the Prince’s Trust to actively communicate the scheme to their database of young people. We’ve also been reaching out to colleges in traditionally underprivileged areas.

We had an open evening before the launch and it had only been out on our social channels for about a week and the agency was full of people. It was interesting how diverse a group that was, not just in terms of ethnicity, but also age. We had some people who hadn’t gone to university, who were still teenaged, some who were university or college age and some who had been working for ten years but had always wanted to get into this industry.

The recruitment process has become very lazy. People haven’t got time. It’s cyclical. It’s gets to that time of year and companies roll out the old recruitment programme. And some of them haven’t changed in decades.

Part of this is also about helping us to up-skill for the future. I think all agencies need to up-skill in areas where they haven’t historically been strong – tech, data analytics; we all need to embrace channel-agnostic creativity and collaborative work. This also enables that because it’s allowing you to fish in new talent ponds.


BSB: What can successful candidates expect?
We make sure everyone here learns on the job. So whatever department you’re in, you’re client facing almost from the get-go. We’ll put them into a pretty extensive training programme, which we pull together here across our group of agencies. It will also include enrolment in the IPA Foundation Certificate. Everyone will have a mentor in the agency for career development, but also a more informal body to support their transition into what could be their first full-time job, or just their transition into advertising from, potentially, another industry.

BSB: What do you think about positive discrimination or quota systems to push the diversity figures up?
SG: There are agencies or businesses that have historically been male dominated. I’m a female Chief Executive of a top agency. My board of partners is 50/50 male and female. I’ve got a creative department that’s got as many women in as it’s got men, so I don’t feel that I have to positively discriminate. However, I totally understand why people are doing that because you create a richer agency culture with both genders, diverse backgrounds, diverse skillsets. That makes for a more valuable creative culture. I want the best for the job, but I’m lucky because I’m in a pretty well balanced agency from a male-female perspective. I don’t think currently we’re a well balanced agency from a background perspective, hence the SPARK initiative.

At the end of the day I want this industry and my agency to get their share of the best creative talent out there and in order to do that you have to look everywhere.