Different and Relevant

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Swimming upstream may get you noticed, but it doesn’t get much more extreme than reversing evolution. Fresh from scooping just about every accolade going, Ian Heartfield and Matt Doman argue that it’s not enough to do the best ad on television. You should aim to do the best thing on television.

A successful advert, proposes Ian, must be both different and relevant. Clearly, to stand out from the endless formulaic dross splashed across screens, spreads and billboards – and to stop us switching off, flipping over or walking by – there has to be that spark to jolt us out of our blissful numbness.

But peacocking and shock-and-awe tactics alone won’t sell products, and eventually we’ll become ever more desensitised – hence the need for relevance. Simple when you put it in black and white, but doing it well is a different story. And with portfolio highlights already including The Economist and The Samaritans, it was a brief for a certain black and white brand that really pushed this creative pair up to the next level.

Understandably, they’re a bit tired of talking about it. “A creative brain needs to do new stuff,” as Matt puts it: “Once it’s done it’s done, and you’re onto the next thing.” So I’ll tip it a cursory mention and move on. But ignore it I can’t: settling into a glittering legacy that includes the spot widely acknowledged as the Greatest of All Time – Surfer – their work for Guinness picked up more awards than any of its predecessors. And despite being a UK campaign, it spread virally and got the international community pretty excited.

Matt and Ian are a rare example of a traditional Art Director and Copywriter team that have stayed together since college, the product of a matter-of-fact ‘ain’t broke don’t fix it’ philosophy. “If we weren’t doing anything good, we’d be mad and foolish to carry on with it,” reasons Matt. “If it runs out of energy, we’ll do something else. A lot of people work on their own now – there are no rules anymore.”

Straight after the highlight of their career, it’s fair to say it wasn’t broke. But when the praises for noitulovE had finished raining in, they decided to refresh things and left Abbott Mead Vickers for Fallon – the people behind the year’s other award-magnet, the stunning coloured balls idea for Sony Bravia directed by Nicolai Fuglsig.

Such is the nature of the industry; an ongoing cycle of talent to avoid stagnation. McCann Erickson, Ogilvy & Mather and Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy have all enjoyed their creative input – AMV the biggest by a stretch, with three times as many teams as Fallon. “The time was right for us to leave,” reflects Ian. “The industry average is three years. Clients do stuff on a yearly basis; by the third year you’re ready to move on.”

At its best, British advertising leads the world. You’d be hard pushed to find such subtle humour, surrealism and cinematic vision elsewhere. But then, we would say that – it’s aimed at us. “I’m going to prefer British advertising because it talks to me in a way that wouldn’t be relevant in America,” reasons Matt. “Likewise, their stuff is less relevant to me.”

Still, we must be doing something right. In an international judging panel’s pick of the best advertising last year, the top five were from London. “We started doing advertising before a lot of countries,” is his theory. “We have to be more advanced because we’re more ad-literate. People expect more.”

Boundaries can help: without a box it’s hard to think outside of it, and the BACC keeps them on their toes. “When there’s something in your way you have to get around it, which leads to more creative thinking,” Ian suggests. “Maybe it is easy to chuck a granny out of a car, but if you can’t do that you have to think of more sophisticated ways to make people laugh.”

Let’s not forget what the industry’s all about, though – as a creative it’s all too easy to applaud an ad that ticks the same boxes that an experimental short or cult comedy might. Top up their production budget with a spot of blatant product placement and, for a discerning British audience at least, both of those would sacrifice kudos. But no amount of sweeping camera shots, razor-sharp wit and glittering post-production will appease the client if their ad doesn’t also build the brand and shift the merchandise.

“We are glorified door-to-door salesmen, and our job is to flog stuff,” is Matt’s simple summation. “If an ad is good and well-liked, and sells a lot of things, then industry awards should follow that. Not the other way around. Someone’s not going to afford you a reasonably healthy budget and put faith in you if you’re not giving them results.”

“The only reason we can make the films we love is because some client somewhere is putting a lot of money down in order to sell a product. That’s the whole reason we exist,” agrees Ian. Of course, some ads serve another purpose – and one that stands out from his childhood planted a picture of a ‘natural-born smoker’ with tiny nostrils and shrunken fingers into his subconscious. “I was absolutely terrified and never smoked,” he reveals. “I’d like to think that stopped some thirteen-year-old lad from picking up a cigarette.”

Years later, as it happened, he was to work on an anti-smoking brief of his own. “It was in a child’s handwriting: ‘If you smoke, I smoke,’” describes Matt. “And hearing people recite that in the supermarket, and knowing that it may have made someone stop and think twice, is a really good thing.”

While many aspiring directors or scriptwriters slip into advertising to make a few bucks before moving on, both stress that this is the medium that inspires them – a sense of belief and belonging that could explain why these creative pioneers, both still in their early thirties, have already enjoyed so much success. Whilst studying Graphic Design and Advertising at Buckinghamshire College, one particular tutor advised all his students not to go into an industry where 250 applicants fight for each place. But as Matt puts it, that was like telling a kid not to stick his finger in a plug socket.

“We just really like doing ads,” he shrugs. “That’s the reason we give over most of our lives to things that interrupt good programmes on telly, or good articles in magazines. You’ve got a TV or cinema screen, a website, a magazine or a building – a means of communicating with what could be millions of people – and you’re given this opportunity to tell them something. You’re competing with the best of everything, and you’re trying to steer people away from the story. You’ve got to stop them making the tea.”

That’s exactly what Surfer did to Ian – little did he know he’d be tasked with carrying on its legacy a few years down the line. “I was walking from the lounge to the kitchen, and the soundtrack started,” he recalls. “I stopped and stared.” Music is enormously important: try listening to the delicate beauty of Heartbeats by José González without avalanches of colour filling your mind, or Sammy Davis Jr’s Rhythm of Life without the world devolving before your eyes.

Back to those two key principles. If you’re shuffling towards the kettle, both songs are vibrant, exciting and poles apart from what usually fills the ad break. Turn round and the stunning visuals hit you – for the former an extravagant and ambitious one-take gamble, for the latter an extraordinary amount of post-production by anyone’s standards. It’s fair to say you have the viewers’ attention, and all it takes are the now legendary taglines to bring relevance – ‘Colour. Like no other’ and ‘Good things come to those who wait.’

Part of the unique appeal of the medium is the challenge of doing all that in an extremely tight timeframe. “I’m a big fan of the climate of discipline,” says Ian. “Telling a story in thirty seconds is an artform in itself.” And depending on the brief, you could be talking to anyone from a disgruntled teen to a discerning trendsetter – and you need to know your audience. “Most of my inspiration comes from sitting outside a coffee shop and listening to people’s conversations,” he confesses: “Just being a nosy bastard, really.”

Whether or not an ad literally tells a story, it needs to have a kernel that remains effective when all else is stripped away – which more often than not becomes its tagline. It has to pitch convincingly in a sentence: post-production and technology can add sheen, but at its core a great advert needs a great idea.

“Have an idea, then make it ten, twenty, thirty times better before you make it happen,” is Ian’s advice. “Don’t just see a technique and try to shoe-horn it into a product. You can get seduced into things looking really good, but not using them for the right reason.”

Similarly with new technology: to be effective, a medium should channel an idea; a means to an end, not the end itself. “The danger is that colleges tell students that people aren’t interested in big Press or TV ads. They want virals; web stuff; stunts; ambient things – if that’s what they get as feedback, then everyone does that by default. We’ve had students showing us stuff where there isn’t really an idea to start with. You can’t miss the idea out because the other stuff is easy.”

In fact, for new entrants scratching at the door of the industry, live by the principles of a successful advert: be different, so long as you can make it relevant. “A team a year above us at college spotted that no-one wanted to do radio advertising,” recalls Ian by way of example. “It was seen as a poor relation; no-one in London was working in radio.”

“They had no intention of doing it long-term but they did loads and loads of scripts, and sure enough got a job in a top London agency as the radio team. They got hired, half the other students didn’t, and when they were there they could move into other areas. They’ve done very well.” Surprisingly few creative people, he observes, apply the same lateral thought process to their career as they do to their work.

One of a shrinking number of creative teams still split into Art Director and Copywriter, they’re taking their own advice and swimming upstream – and with most colleges advising students to call themselves ‘concept teams’ they urge anyone coming up from underneath to maintain a point of difference wherever possible. “Think about selling yourself,” is Ian’s advice. “Obviously you need the work to back it up, but you can’t do anything in advertising unless you’ve got a job.”

© Nick Carson 2006. First published in Issue 5 of TEN4 magazine

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