Guinness 'Surfer' creator on reclaiming the lost art of moving ads

Guinness 'Surfer' creator on reclaiming the lost art of moving ads

How often can we say we are truly moved by an ad? Walter Campbell says the secret is in the details.

In 1999, not long after the Guinness "Surfer" ad aired, the agency received a letter asking for a still image of the horses in the waves from the spot. The author behind the letter was suffering from a terminal illness in hospital. He wrote that he’d like the image because each time the ad came on it made him feel a little bit better. At the time, such a detailed and seriously profound request made me reflect deeply on the power advertising has. 

It made me realise that emotion isn’t always about tugging on heartstrings or evoking sweet memories, but about affirming something in the human psyche. It could mean making the heart beat faster, or awakening the mind to a new idea or feeling. It could mean creating a character that people love, telling a story they’d like to be a part of or just making the moment when an ad touches your life a bit more dynamic. It made me truly ponder the criteria by which good advertising should be judged: does it make you feel better? Does it at least make you feel something?

For me, the key component of creating an ad that moves people is a powerful idea, executed with creative integrity. Conversely, everything that scrimps and under-delivers on the potential of the idea undermines and dilutes the impact of the story or feeling.

In today’s constant buzz culture, a brand needs all the exceptionality it can muster to stand out. The ability of audiences to disconnect and turn to another source of entertainment has almost been put so front of mind that we seem to be enhancing our own lack of engagement in every way possible.

To turn the tide of distraction, brands need to be more potent and more willing to create differential work that runs deeper and carries more significance than the noise around it. Work must be more compelling than the programming running alongside it, more inspirational than the heroics on the news and more impactful than the latest tweet from Kanye West or Conor McGregor. It could mean creating stories that disrupt stagnant routines and open the mind to new possibilities.

Big ideas with exceptional outputs have the power to become indelible moments, split seconds that resonate with the recipient and affirm something deep within us. The work that owns the moment is the work that invariably sets the bar a little higher.

Our job is to create exceptional work and commit to the hard graft it will take to do so; whether that means a polish-up on an edit that doesn’t quite capture the magic of the moment or a week-long effects shoot. The objective should always be to bring a point of excellence to each and every task.

Tony Kaye, a significant director who drastically changed the way advertising works, put it very succinctly: "Everything is 51% of the whole." What he was saying doesn’t make mathematical sense, but the meaning was an emotional piece of logic. He meant that everything is a sum of its parts and that each component has a larger role to play outside its own autonomy. Every element becomes the most important one as they are all focused on the big idea. 

Everything that comes after the powerful idea must firmly support it – otherwise the impact of the story is diluted. Every element, no matter how seemingly small, must be treated as the most important in that very moment. And it is so true that you can have a great actor in a scene, but if it isn’t lit well or the words they are speaking aren’t well-crafted and profound, it can quickly become a damp squib. 

Look at a groundbreaking project such as Channel 4’s "We’re the superhumans". That next level of detail in every aspect of the craft in that commercial adds emotional power that connects with our human emotions. The visceral emotion we share with these people becomes an ineradicable moment, going deeper and sitting with the audience. It is this calibre of execution that makes big ideas so indelible. 

To briefly return to where we started, with "Surfer", there were a number of moments in which it was in danger of being dampened. Had we said OK to the original track, the spot would have been completely different. The track we had originally chosen didn't have the pulsing energy we knew it needed and I had already waded through 2,000 alternatives trying to find the one that did. Finally, we uncovered a track that wasn’t even released yet. I dared to ask the very successful band to let me tweak their track to build a little more crescendo into the end to squeeze every ounce of energy out of the moment. 

Had we not done so, perhaps the letter asking for a still image of the ad might have never been sent to us. Perhaps the ad may never have had that deep connection with some people, because we did not give the music the importance that we did everything else.

So how do we create work that wholly owns the moment, authentically moves people and breeds genuine connections?

We indulge our furiously inventive imaginations and our big ideas and we commit to making excellent work a reality. Everything we do makes up the whole; when each individual element is scrupulously examined, the potential to create blinding work is unparalleled. 

Walter Campbell is creative head of business development at MPC London

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