A Remit to Provoke

“You shouldn’t be in it unless you love ads,” declares 4Creative’s Richard Burdett. “If you’re lucky, once in your life you’ll be part of something great. I’ve been lucky enough to see that twice.” Interestingly, his examples flank a period of disillusionment and frustration with a stagnating industry that’s only recently shaking itself into shape.

First is a seminal moment in the history of advertising. The colossal smiling, winking face, splashed across a rich human canvas in vivid red, white and blue, that helped turn British Airways around while he was at Saatchi’s in 1989. The very picture of optimism: diverse cultures connected across an ever-shrinking globe.

Seventeen years later, visages of an altogether grittier nature: coalition soldiers, contorted in panic and despair beneath ghostly clown makeup as hollow Iraqi gunfire echoes around them. A trail for Iraq: the Bloody Circus – More4’s season of programming on the controversial conflict – while at 4Creative.
Fortunately for a man who grew bored with mainstream advertising over a decade ago, the environment in which he now finds himself at the head of Channel 4’s in-house agency – a role for which he was headhunted at Cannes to cover maternity leave, and has commanded ever since – is an “incredibly benign” incubator for great work.

“I have as my client possibly the only advertiser in the country with the guts to provoke every single time, and a remit to provoke,” he declares, citing a recent campaign that sat the cast of Shameless around the Last Supper table as a concept the BBC would have “stabbed to death hideously” after a string of committee meetings. “We know they’ll buy challenging work, so we’re not mitigating ideas before we even present them. And we’ve produced some pretty visceral images – but never gratuitous.”

One of Richard’s personal favourites is a Shameless poster where Frank Gallagher has ripped the ‘4’ logo off the wall and carried it off, leaving screw holes in the plaster. “It tells you nothing about Shameless and everything about Shameless; nothing about Channel 4 and everything about Channel 4,” he enthuses. “What other company would agree to have a space where their logo should be, and have it tucked under the arm of a villain?”

Likewise, you won’t find a morbidly obese Jamie Oliver wobbling after a bus, or Gordon Ramsey smashing junk food into mush with a baseball bat, in their respective shows. “Not one of our ads tells you the story of the show, but every one of them captures the spirit of the show,” reflects Richard. “I think that applies to any brand; that’s what advertising’s going to become. British Airways is a precursor of those; the first ad that didn’t say ‘our seat is bigger than their seat’ or some quantifiable element. It just owned an absolute generic of flying. You get to the other end, you meet people.”

It’s benign, but not too comfortable – Channel 4 can choose whether their in-house agency is best for the job, and 4Creative must pitch for work alongside rivals such as DDB, who handled the launch of More4. “There’s no coercion to use us, and they’re not cutting costs – we have incredibly healthy budgets.”

“Getting David LaChappelle to do Lost, we spent all the money you’d expect a big agency to spend. But we’re tiny: 18 people, split thirds between account handlers, production people and creatives. Then there’s massive use of freelancers, which means 35 people sitting in the office at any one time.”

Besides greater creative freedom from clients, Richard feels that a more democratic creative process all round can help ensure genuinely groundbreaking work. “The ad industry has an incredible division of labour,” he reflects. “Only an account man can do this, only a planner can do this, only a TV producer can do that. And I didn’t realise how debilitating that was until I came to a place where creativity is the job of everybody.”

Having worked on the other side of the divide, both at media agency CIA and selling airtime as Head of Sales at Discovery, Richard has seen plenty of noisy battles for the strategic high ground – and the resulting appreciation of what all parties want and need has helped build a culture of joined-up thinking.

“Direct marketing, ad agency, media agency, communications planning – everyone wants to boss the strategy,” he laments. “It’s like herding cats. As an industry we should never have allowed media to slip out of ad agencies. When I was there, the agencies could talk to the guys booking the space for a clear idea of what could and couldn’t be done. Now knowledge is fractured and fragmented.”

And in an increasingly multiplatform environment, so is the audience. Richard flags up the fact that Bullseye used to draw an audience of 23 million as something of an absurdity in the modern era – anything pulling in that many eyeballs on terrestrial television nowadays would be nothing short of a phenomenon. But while they may be carved into a greater number of niches, the numbers are still there.

“The television advertising industry has been useless at defending television,” he argues. “You’d think that nobody watches TV anymore, and everyone spends their life on the Internet. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are still fantastically robust, big numbers. But the sad truth is that most clients don’t want fantastic work. They want safe, box-ticking exercises. If you find someone that does, stick to them like glue.”

Richard took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Advertising in Birmingham, May 2007

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

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