'Skip ad, Skip ad industry, Skip brand: We're in trouble. But trouble is inspiring'

Uncommon Creative Studio founder Nils Leonard and his peers discuss how and why we must take ownership of creating the industry that we want.

"You cannot find peace by avoiding life."
Virginia Woolf

If you want every phone ring to howl, the opening of every email to come with a little glip of sick in your mouth and handshakes to actually matter, then start your own company. It’s wicked. Uncommon Creative Studio, a company I started with fellow vom swallowers Lucy Jameson and Natalie Graeme, is eight months old as I write this. 

The ridiculous, heightened state I feel now was not how I was feeling when I quit my old job to start Uncommon. Alongside the feeling of groundhog year that, I reckon, almost anyone can experience when they’ve been somewhere too long with too little change, I became aware of a new trouble. Like a black thrill at the edge of every conversation, a low hum behind the usual agency spaff and talk of global design toolkits. Like the exciting tingle before a painful ruck, this feeling wasn’t all bad, but the facts were speaking for themselves.

 People are paying money to avoid what we spend our lives making. Let’s leave the research and data around the public’s ever-declining love of ads to the excellent Jameson and, instead, give ourselves a black eye with Banksy’s beautiful summation of our industry: "People are taking the piss out of you every day. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are the advertisers and they are laughing at you." 

And then there’s that button…

If enough of us skipped an ad, we could skip a whole industry.

I’ve always believed that the Skip Ad button was a brilliant opportunity for our industry – a totem on every piece of content we might crave, telling us that the real world would rather wear meat than watch ads. But Skip Ad is a powerful motivator. If the Skip Ad button is robbing us of attention and our clients of revenue, I’ve certainly got my money back by using it to make other stuff happen. I’ve used the Skip Ad button to provoke and inspire new shapes of work, to remind clients to hold the line in moments of doubt, and wrung it in the face of creatives, like the flannel of a manky child, to stick a rocket up comfortable writing. Also, while Skip Ad can seem like bad news, it’s always a relief to know your enemy. The industry (albeit slowly) finally seems like it’s getting its head around the change needed.

But imagine for a second that the Skip Ad button was sent to invade Earth by alien forces intent on destruction. While the toothless masses cheer because some culturally powerful work like "Fearless girl" has fought back the alien horde, we cut to the sad loner standing by a shiny truck and he suddenly looks up, pants filling with shit, and realises that Skip Ad was just the scout party of a much larger force: Skip Brand. Cue the low pan, background explosions and a slow-motion face of resignation from a trucker that’s just shat himself.

Three-quarters of brands could disappear from the face of the earth and no-one would care. I used to convince myself that while people were skipping ads most of them actually loved brands. They don’t. This realisation is why Uncommon exists.

I

"Entrepreneurs look for broken things that matter to people."
Daniel Hegarty

Ikea’s head of sustainability said that he thought we’d reached "peak stuff". A simple idea: we have enough things now. We have wardrobes full of clothes we don’t wear, fridges full of food we never eat, grab-bags of crisps our children struggle to finish and drawers full of dead technology. Like a waiter looking the other way while he serves you, most brands just keep filling up the bowl, regardless of our actual desires. It’s not that we all want for nothing, it’s more that our relationship with products, and the brands that create them, is changing.

Repair is a radical act. These words, front and centre of the window as I walked past Patagonia’s store in Covent Garden the other day, cemented for me this evolution in our appetites. When did we get to a point where repair was alien to us? Where we expected the products in our lives to have the life span of a wasp. Now, we want things to last longer, to be better made and to be better for us. And, perhaps, with the brands that provide these products, we’ll be happy to foster longer, more powerful relationships.

Skip ad. Skip ad industry. Skip brand. We’re in trouble.

But trouble is inspiring.

Humans respond well to threat. Think of any time you’ve been caught lying: if someone took the first excuse that came into your mind to explain your way out of the situation, and put it on paper, it would win you a Pencil as black as your soul.

We are at our most creative when we’re in the shit.

The truth is that the best brands are always reacting to the world around them.

Some of the world’s most powerful brands are born of trouble.

The music industry was ripping everyone off, so Spotify.

Renting property was a minefield, so Airbnb.

Local taxis were rank and unsafe, so Uber.

Big banks were pissing everyone off, so Monzo.

Cable TV was drip-feeding content like a crack dealer, so Netflix.

Frustration is one of the world’s best creative briefs and you don’t see people skipping the brands above in a hurry.

But it’s not just brands that do good and those from the West Coast that get to matter. Any brand can matter, as long as the people behind it really want it to. I was asked a question once by the chief marketer of one of the world’s most creatively respected brands: how do we go from being a brand that sells people stuff to being a brand that people wish existed? 

It’s a question that’s always pushed me on his brief and every brief since, without him knowing it. Brands are just buildings full of people and, however iconic the logo, they don’t come with powerful, motivating questions baked in, someone has to ask them. Or not, in the case of the brands we’re all skipping. 

For our sanity, the brand alone is never enough of a brief. The fantasy and the direction of the brand is always the most powerful brief and that is set by a human voice, a human ambition, a personal investment and a personal need to see it succeed. The best clients I’ve ever worked with have needed a shared ambition more than a brand onion.

II 

"They say their enemies did them a favour though. They had to fight for themselves.
They are still fighting. Having to stick together
– against critics, abusers and hostile neighbours
– helped them create their own world."
Jonathan Jones on Gilbert and George

When did it become OK to leave our best thinking on the floor?

Call a pitch to mind: we cluster our best people, push aside everything else and, for a brief and wonderful time, allow ourselves to have a fantasy for the brand in mind. We take the gloves off. What could it really be? What passion could it furl? How could it help? Change? Matter? And then we present our thinking. Sometimes you’ll lock eyes with the client and know you’ve smashed it. A true and beautiful ride through fire, you are Thelma, she’s Louise. And then sometimes they’ll be like: "Yes thanks for that, I enjoyed it greatly but didn’t see how this was going to optimise our targeted social, so…"

The truth here is that the real crime isn’t whether we win or lose. It’s that we leave our most free, powerful and necessary thinking on the floor and go looking for another way to be dependent. What are we like?

There’s another version of pitching. It’s called fundraising and, instead of dancing for free for a month, you have one meeting and then they give you the money to make your dreams come true.

Starting a brand isn’t easy, but it is fun. And it’s the only way you get to look a client in the eye and really understand what they’re on about. Brands are ideas. Just like ads are. Never mind creating culture, the truth is that in this new world we don’t yet have a clear role. It is ours to define. Have a go. We must rethink the distance between our day jobs and our dreams.

III 

"Legislation won’t start a riot.
But the right song can make someone pick up a chair."
Saul Williams

We talk a lot about purpose in our game but what’s yours?

I don’t mean that of your company. I mean yours. Your fire. As a woman. As a man. As powerful, intelligent energy in hot skin. Because that’s what’s really going to change it all. 

For the ad industry to respond well to threat it must feel threatened. We must feel this shift in the world and what it desires. We must take it personally.

Forget discipline or department. These are words for anyone who fancies it. Are you tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful? Are you dependent on people less ambitious than you to make your dreams come true?

This is on you.

Print the posters you wish you could steal.

Shoot the films you wish you could watch.

Create the brands you wish existed.

Make the industry you wish you worked in.

"It has been a beautiful fight. Still is."
Charles Bukowski

Richard Brim

Chief creative officer, Adam & Eve/DDB

DON’T EXPLAIN, ENTERTAIN

Advertising has always had to be part of culture. The first advertising was scribbling on the walls. Advertising was the songs you would sing in the playground. It’s the Michelin stars for restaurants, which come from Michelin Tyres. 

Guinness’ ‘Surfer’ penetrated culture. So did Apple’s latest ad directed by Spike Jonze. When John Lewis’ ‘The long wait’ came out, it gave people something to talk about. Then look at something like Channel 4’s ‘Superhumans’ for the Paralympics, which changed perceptions of people. Skittles turned white to celebrate Pride month and the LGBT community. Danny Boyle used Harvey Nichols’ ‘Shoplifters’ ad in his Trainspotting sequel. 

"We should have been doing that from day one"

I love Mother’s ‘FCK’ apology ad for KFC – people were talking about that and saw it in the real world. Our work for CALM – the Project 84 statues – was also spoken about in the real world. Not everybody can penetrate culture, but you’ve got to give it a go. 

Everyone needs to shut the fuck up about storytelling and all these buzzwords. We should have been doing that from day one. 

Shouting at people nowadays is no longer the way, but the best ads have never shouted at anybody. They’ve always just entertained. 

There’s a resilience in the UK; there’s a slight underdog spirit. The UK will always be in the conversation, but we have to make sure it’s leading the conversation. One thing we need to do, as a nation and as an industry, is unite a bit more, and back each other up. 

We’ve got to make this industry attractive enough to retain the best talent.

David Kolbusz

Chief creative officer, Droga5 London

BE EVERYWHERE

Advertising has always been part of UK culture and played an integral role. It’s why I love this market. 

The only thing that has changed is that the channels through which we communicate have diversified. As a consequence, we need to insert ourselves culturally into every place a brand interacts with people. The more spaces a brand advertises in, the more we need to do what we have always done. We need to be everywhere in some capacity. 

We are starting to understand the rules of engagement better, and to make forays into these different types of communication. The things that generate a lot of noise and do well in award shows are generally ad agencies speaking to other agencies and to chief marketers, rather than to actual people.  

"All the scared old white men, who are longing for the days since past, are now being pushed out in favour of a new generation"

There is no new normal. We are never going to be able to settle into an agency model that can do everything for everyone. The second you do, another channel will pop up and someone else will become an expert. 

What makes the UK special is the fact that people don’t actively hate advertising. If you ask a cab driver which ads he loves, he’s not going to say: ‘Fuck advertising.’ He’ll think about it. I heard someone say that advertising in the UK is the last rung on the entertainment ladder, but it’s still a rung. In the US, meanwhile, it’s one step up from shoe salesman. 

For a long time, fear and nostalgia have been the hallmarks of the ruling class of the UK advertising industry. But all the scared, old white men who are longing for the days since past are now being pushed out in favour of a new generation. You have a new crop of people who don’t immediately go: ‘What’s the TV ad? What’s the print ad?’

Ian Heartfield

Joint executive creative director, Bartle Bogle Hegarty London

BE UNIQUE

From Levi’s ‘Laundrette’ getting men to ditch Y-fronts in favour of boxer shorts, to kids in the playground air-drumming, thanks to Cadbury’s ‘Gorilla’, there is a vast range in what we mean when we say work that ‘creates culture’. 

The one thing that determines whether something has an impact on our day-to-day lives or not, is whether it’s any good. I’m not sure it’s any more complicated than that. 

I didn’t dare smoke after having the bejeezus scared out of me by the ‘Natural born smoker’ commercial when I was in my teens. My friends changed their drinking habits and listened to Leftfield after seeing Guinness’ ‘Surfer’. Again, great ideas, brilliantly executed and, most importantly of all, both utterly original. 

"If you want to influence culture, you need to bring something to the party that hasn’t been seen before"

If you want to influence culture, you need to bring something to the national (or global) party that hasn’t been seen before.  

These days I wonder whether we, as an industry, are mostly reflecting culture, capturing the moment and playing it back to the audience rather than turning their heads and taking them in a totally new direction. 

One of my favourite pieces of work this year is Nike’s ‘Nothing beats a Londoner’, but I’m not sure even this awesome piece of work creates culture; I think it merely reflects it back at us. 

The answer? Simple. Make something we’ve never seen before.

Chaka Sobhani

Chief creative officer, Leo Burnett London

FIND MEANING

To make culture is the ambition of any sort of creative endeavour that’s worth its weight. The toughest thing in the world is to make something that means something.

This has parallels to when I worked at ITV, trying to create programmes and conversations that people connected with. 

Advertising at its best reflects culture, becomes part of culture, and moves it along. That’s the endeavour of creativity in all its different guises – music, art, literature, film. They’re all there to create a reaction and a connection. It’s the toughest thing to do that at scale, and that’s when you hit that incredible, golden moment, where you’ve touched on something that means something to large numbers of people and that they want to engage in. 

"It’s so easy to be negative and to say it’s all shit. Well you know what, use that bloody energy"

I always have to stay hopeful. We’re all doing our best but, of course, we can do better. Can you imagine a state where we all say: ‘Yep, we’ve done this now, we’re brilliant?’ 

Pop stars and politicians don’t have that luxury. Nobody obtains that and keeps it. It’s a constant task. We’ve got to make that really important in everything we do. 

What’s more important is the intent of what we’re creating, and making sure our discussions are always about what is the bigger value and purpose in a wider, cultural world. 

Advertising is an incredible platform to be able to tell your stories and get your creativity out there. It still is. It’s so easy to be negative and to say it’s all shit. Well you know what, use that bloody energy and let’s get into how we make it better, relevant and more interesting. That will breed and breed and breed.

Caroline Pay

Incoming creative director, Headspace

REWRITE THE RULES

The way I like to think about advertising is borrowing from culture, elevating whatever that may be, thenpaying it back even better. Like a beautiful, additive, generous circle.

 The UK has always been a leader in the creative industries. We’re such a mixed bag that it creates a special kind of dynamic that means we’re always pushing the boundaries. Historically, we’ve always been pioneers and I think that’s the same now.  Look at work that’s shaped culture recently, like Wieden & Kennedy’s ‘Nothing beats a Londoner’ – that could only have come from the UK.

 Look at what’s happening in London right now – you have some of the best chief creative officers running some of the best agencies in the world. It’s a new generation of rule-breakers. We don’t want to do what’s been done before. We won’t do as we’re told. We’ve inherited an industry that needs to radically change – yesterday – so we’re going to have to break it to fix it. There’s never been a better time to join the industry because it’s never needed more fresh, radical thinking. More energy. More young blood to turbo-boost it to where and how it needs to be.

"We’ve inherited an industry that needs to radically change, so we’re going to have to break it to fix it"

Hermeti Balarin

Partner, Mother London

LISTEN TO CABBIES AND HAIRDRESSERS

From the moment I landed on these isles 15 years ago, I’ve been in awe at how much culturally influential work there is around at any given time. From drumming gorillas selling chocolate, to price-comparison meerkats, ‘Pimm’s o’clock’, Peter Kay’s ‘’av it!’,  ‘You’ve been Tango’d’, 118 118, ‘You’re so Moneysupermarket’, the John Lewis Christmas ads and everything in between. But anyone who knows anything, knows that culture is the way to go. If you’re not making culture, you’re not making anything. By all means get seduced by industry awards, but care more about what taxi drivers and hairdressers think.

"If you’re not making culture, you’re not making anything"

Laura Jordan Bambach

Creative partner, Mr President

REMOVE THE BLINKERS

There’s a reckoning in advertising. I’ve always been a massive believer that creativity lives beyond a medium. Advertising has fallen into a very narrow box in terms of what brands need to be successful in the world. When people think of advertising, they think of a narrow tunnel of what can be produced. There is so much more that we can offer as creative businesses to help brands grow. 

Creative people can break out of this and look at where the fundamental problems are: is the brand speaking in a singular voice? Does it have big creative ideas? Sometimes the solution will be an amazing piece of film with a soundtrack, and sometimes it will be changing the product itself. It’s simplifying the brand so that it’s easier to understand, and then applying that to all these channels. What we’re seeing is a much more strategic view of creativity and great ideas falling off the back of that. That’s where you get into culture and under the skin of the brand. 

"Creativity is the most incredible power that humans have, and what separates us from robots"

Whether that’s called advertising or not, I don’t know. The terminology has become really stuck. We’re creative agencies, not advertising agencies. 

The UK is the home of traditional advertising. There’s still something to be said for the craft that comes from here, but also for the new players kicking against that trend. There is a greater richness and depth between what people are doing on two sides. There’s a lot of great tradition, but also a lot that allows you to go against it. 

The industry has been blinkered to creativity’s strength. Creativity is the most incredible power that humans have, and what separates us from robots. Clients are now ready to hear that conversation. There are businesses willing to work in that way. If you go to the right place or do the right things, you’ll have an opportunity to really shift culture and make the world a better place, in a way that’s bigger than just an ad.

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