How to keep advertising relevant? Go back to moving people

How to keep advertising relevant? Go back to moving people

Following last night's inaugural Brand Film Festival London, co-chair of judges Nils Leonard says we must accept the world hates advertising in its traditional form and aspire to a different, more ambitious style of storytelling.

Paolo Nutini fucked it all up.

For a while now, a few of us have been racing to use a speech from Charlie Chaplin’s mainly unheard-of spoken film The Great Dictator. Then some tool whacks the Inception soundtrack behind it on YouTube, a few more people watch it and the next thing you know it graces the breakdown section of the chart-topping Iron Sky by the Lilliputian lothario of soul pop, our mate Paolo. All this, of course, meaning that none of us ad slags could possibly use this powerful sermon for our own, or our clients’, gains any more.

The best bit is a part where, mid-rant, Chaplin, in full flow as a tender, subversive Hitler, breathes with full lips: "We think too much and we feel too little." It’s electric and has always set the hairs at north on my arms. 

We’ve forgotten to do the one thing advertising’s really good at: move people

In our game, it could be said that we’ve all been guilty of thinking too much. But thinking about what? Working out how to remove ourselves from the equation? Working out how to sap the production process of any magic? Working out how to continue advertising’s much-hated role as interruptive force in people’s lives with precision annoyance? The truth is we’ve forgotten to do the one thing that advertising is really good at: move people. And I’m not just talking about moving consumers. I’m talking about us. 

While the rise of data, programmatic and artificial intelligence cannot be ignored, who wakes up, stretches and says: "Fuck me I feel good. I’m going to smash some properly segmented Facebook copy today?" No-one. We have forgotten to inspire ourselves. To push ourselves forward. We have forgotten the cardinal rule: that we are our most important client.

While it may sometimes feel like a race to the most targeted and efficient form of the industry as it is, having recently run an agency of 500 or so brilliant people I can tell you it couldn’t be further from what we all actually need. We need to find the fire again.

So to all the talented agency folk doing the dance, persuading and pleading with their clients to be braver, to be more creative, to try the new way, I give you the magic bullet. To all the CMOs, CEOs and business leaders convincing their organisations that the time for change is now, and that how they organise themselves publicly, the cultures they foster and the messages they place in the world must adapt or die, do I have the opening slide for you.

The skip ad button. 

Nothing convinces like the truth, and the truth is that the real world hates advertising.

This small button at the start of everything we really want to watch is no small thing.

Is it skip ad or skip ad industry?

TGI has been asking people the same question since 1990 – a great question: "Do you look forward to the ads on TV as much as the programmes?" From around 1991 to 1998, we loved the ads as much as the shows, and Guinness "Surfer" ticked and tocked just before Robot Wars to the smiling faces of millions of viewers. Fast forward to 2017 and we are in negative equity. Wake up. People are paying money to avoid what we make. 

But this is a good-news story. The need for change is no longer just a raspy beg lost in the big meeting room with the weird-coloured chairs or eulogised by a creative director in the Campaign Year Ahead article – it is necessary. The fear of failure that held us back from creating new shapes of idea is overshadowed now by something far worse – the fear of being irrelevant. The healthy fear of becoming more noise, not new noise. So the gloves are off. We can, and should, make anything as long as it isn’t ads. Of course, the best ads have never felt like ads.

Branded content is the worst term in the world for a brilliant new type of creative idea.

What is it? No idea, but I can tell you what it isn’t. It’s not normal, expected, boring or what your mum would call an advert. It’s not industry-pleasing, invisible-in-the-real-world creative circle jerking, either. It’s new. It has scale. It probably appears on channels real people enjoy or in your Facebook feed posted by mates and makes you wince with envy.

It mirrors legitimate entertainment by being sought out, not serving itself on a programmatic missile into your social life. And, most of all, it is effective like no ad could be, achieving a reach and depth of message a 30-second spot on Dave could only dream of.

On our journey to the Brand Film Festival, there have been some branded-content blockbusters. The feature film Somers Town for Eurostar was huge and Mother at its fearless best. Sainsbury’s switched up the festive season with the incredible Christmas in a Day from Ridley Scott, Kevin Macdonald and crew (I challenge anyone to watch that soldier come home and not lose their shit) and we all refer to the excellent BMW Films as a best-in-class example of online branded content despite its age.

Christmas in a Day
Somers Town: the film, funded by Eurostar, was conceived by Mother and directed by Shane Meadows

One award I was chuffed to win is the British Comedy Award at Grey London for a show called The Angina Monologues. A non-advertising award for a stage and TV show that we managed to air on Christmas Day. It wasn’t perfect but it was an hour of heart-disease education seven million people were happy to watch fronted by the late and more than great Victoria Wood.

The best new ideas create new awards because we don’t have categories for the properly original. It has taken a while but, 15 years after BMW Films, we have branded content categories in all of the major shows. Seven years after The Angina Monologues, enter the Brand Film Festival.

BMW Films: Clive Owen starred in series 15 years ago

The Brand Film Festival will do good things here in the UK and there is some good work in it this year. The smart partnerships with The Lad Bible and Vice will reach new audiences and the 50 Cent hostel smash has enough restraint to work, but the truth is that the very best examples of branded content today aren’t taking home the trophies in the Brand Film Festival.

The best example of branded film today is the Lego Movie franchise.

They didn’t enter.

This asks some questions of all of us.

Why didn’t they enter? Don’t they care about this show?

Why didn’t they enter? Do they care about any show? 

The truth is that Lego didn’t look at branded content as a creative platform for marketing. It looked at branded content as an opportunity for its entire business. Never mind it being a two-hour ad for a physical toy, The Lego Batman Movie made $55m in a weekend.

One day, a kid is going to say "Mummy, Mummy, Lego makes actual physical toys!" and we all have to promise to not hold our head in our hands.

The Lego Batman Movie: made $55m in a weekend

It takes trusting and powerful relationships to make great work. But even more so in this space. Never mind the thinking, do you have the relationships to create something properly special?

Asking the right questions of our brand partners might hurt.

Are we really going to make great branded content with you, or are you going to do it yourselves?

Are we going to be scrabbling around with what’s left of a marketing budget to make something better than a 30-second ad while someone else in the mix is developing the next weekend’s blockbuster?

But asking the right questions, no matter how tough, could be the answer.

Are we giving this brilliant, business-changing idea to the right people? Will they make it happen?

Could we do this ourselves?

And then the question the most talented people in your agency want an answer to:

Are we dependent on people less ambitious than us to make our dreams come true?

That’s not a question for branded content.

It’s a question for agencies that care about their future.

Brand, film and furniture violence

Leonard (left) grills director and fellow jury co-chair Nicolas Winding Refn (right)

Are you trying to shock us?

Not intentionally. Why do you ask?

Should brands really get involved in films?

I would say the future of any kind of advertising depends on its ability to incorporate itself into entertainment.

Can anything a brand puts out ever have the power of a ‘pure’ film?

If I answered that, I would sound like such an asshole.

Are there any brands you wish you could work with?

I haven’t come across any, but I have my own social conscience that dictates what I do or don’t. 

You have such a powerful aesthetic in your work, as do some other directors. Do you think some brands would fit best with certain directors?

I’m sure there are certain brands and film-makers that speak similar languages, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s interesting.  

What qualities does a brand team or chief marketing officer need to make a great film?


If you were going to cast somebody to play Dov Charney, founder of American Apparel, in a lube, sweat and leggings tale of its rise and fall, who would it be?

I have no idea.

Film or digital?


Coke or Pepsi?

I don’t drink soft drinks.

Acne or Prada?

For sure, Prada.

What is your favourite tech?

My telephone.

What is your favourite drink with good news?

I don’t drink alcohol. 

There is now a lot of talk about diversity and equality in the brand world, which was very white and very male. Does that matter? Can diversity lead to better ideas?

More diversity = more creativity. 

Are awards bullshit? If not, which ones matter most?

It’s always nice to be appreciated by the industry of your choosing.  

How can someone starting out become awesome?

Do exactly what you want to do.

Would you do it all again? If not, what?

A long time ago, I learned that you should not think about what you have done, but think more about what you haven’t.

Who would you most like to influence?

I’ve never thought about it.

Who gets a white-knuckled hug?

My family.

Who gets beaten with a chair leg?

I have to admit, I get very frustrated with a lot of politicians. 

Please give the ad industry a message in one sentence?

To survive and take advantage of the digital revolution and the future that it will create, you need unapologetic individual singularity.  

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