When he looks at his career, Richard Brim considers his Christmas advertising to be his proudest achievement. The irony of this is not lost on the Adam & Eve/DDB chief creative officer, who describes himself as a "nice Jewish boy from Manchester".
"Christmas has become my thing," Brim says and, in a way, the festive ad is also what made A&E/DDB. The agency that turned John Lewis’ Christmas campaign into a cornerstone of the season has kept its own winning streak going into 2017. It was named Agency of the Year at the British Arrows last week and was the second-most-awarded agency globally at D&AD in April. In 2016, it was crowned Campaign’s Advertising Agency of the Year for the third consecutive time and was the world’s most-awarded agency, according to The Gunn Report, with a prize haul including two Cannes Grands Prix.
But the agency and Brim, who took over the creative helm from co-founder Ben Priest last year, are entering a new phase. Brim is among A&E/DDB’s next generation of leaders, promoted alongside Tammy Einav, Mat Goff and Alex Hesz when three of the founders took group roles to grow the shop into a micro-network. The agency opened in New York last year to serve new client Samsung and, since then, Brim has spent a lot of time travelling between London and the new office in Lower Manhattan, which has about 20 employees.
Now that the shop has planted one foot outside the UK, the pressure is on him to continue stoking the creative fire that has made A&E/DDB the country’s hottest agency. Brim claims the "shape of the work we’re doing is different now" and he is determined to keep pushing the envelope.
Writing in Campaign earlier this year, A&E/DDB group chief strategy officer David Golding said the industry was splitting in two, with the companies that create culture separating from those that make marketing collateral driven by data. He placed their agency in the former category and Brim agrees: "Advertising at its best should be part of culture. People who are just waking up and saying that – it’s bullshit. It has been like that from day one – we just have more tools now."
He points to examples such as A&E/DDB’s H&M 2016 Christmas ad, which was directed by Wes Anderson. This year, Danny Boyle’s T2 Trainspotting repurposed footage from A&E/DDB’s award-winning "Shoplifters" ad for Harvey Nichols. Tesco recently ordered three million white Skittles packets, which the agency created last year for a Pride in London campaign. "Everyone is whinging on about entertainment but we actually do it," Brim says. "I’m as proud of that – if not prouder – than I am of [John Lewis’ 2016 Christmas ad] ‘Buster’ because it’s much harder to do."
Brim leads a 60-strong creative department, which comprises more traditional teams as well as those who "hate advertising", he says. "All teams should hate advertising. That breed of people who love a 30-second TV ad – I never meet people like that any more. You’re not born loving advertising, you’re born loving ideas or solving problems. My job is to make sure people have fun doing it."
Einav, the joint chief executive, describes Brim as "a force of energy" who never sits still and encourages teams by using his favourite adjective – "ace". "He’s really involved in the work but has a nice lightness of touch," she says. "There’s no ego."
Daniel Fisher, Brim’s former creative partner, who is now executive creative director at The Martin Agency London, calls his old colleague "a people’s creative director". "He’s very anti the whole big-cheese ECD thing, with the big office and his awards displayed on the shelf," Fisher says. "He’s a genuine human being and always finds time for people, treating everyone – from placement teams to star creatives – the same."
Brim’s leadership philosophy is to give teams autonomy and "take away problems". His goal is for every creative to end the year with at least one piece of work they’re proud of. "Awards are brilliant but we can’t take them too seriously," he says. "Protecting the department from that anxiety is my job." Despite all of A&E/DDB’s accolades, Brim "hates the limelight". He shies away from the image of a creative leader revered as a demigod. "We sell stuff, we’re not rock stars," he says. "That’s liberating as a creative. It’s not a bad thing, selling stuff – it’s a basic human behaviour. It’s only advertising, so let’s just do it the best way we can."
Five ads that made Brim’s career
Shelter ‘House of cards’ (2009)
Brim and former creative partner Daniel Fisher spent seven years at Leo Burnett, where they created Shelter’s award-winning "House of cards" campaign. The ads showed homes made from playing cards to warn that Britain’s property market was on the verge of collapse. Artists and designers, including Dame Vivienne Westwood, Damien Hirst and Alexander McQueen, created playing cards for an exhibition that were later auctioned off by Sotheby’s and sold in limited-edition packs at Harrods. The film, which featured a Radiohead track, was played at the Glastonbury Festival.
Brim recalls coming up with a flurry of ideas with Fisher. After presenting the work, their creative director Jonathan Burley said: "Do one thing at your best, then put it aside and do the next thing."
"That was a great lesson," Brim says. It resulted in their first appearance at Cannes, where "House of cards" won gold and silver Lions.
The Sunday Times ‘Rich List’ (2012)
Brim and Fisher moved to CHI & Partners for about a year to work under Burley again. While there, they had a crack at the campaign to promote The Sunday Times’ annual Rich List. The ads resized celebrities, including JK Rowling and the Harry Potter movie actors, the royal family and the Dragons’ Den panellists, according to their wealth.
The ads used stock footage and were "more about the idea than the money spent. They sort of looked shit but that was the point," Brim says. Despite its lack of polish, the campaign scooped two golds at Cannes and two Grands Prix at Eurobest, where Sir John Hegarty called the work "nearly perfect".
Harvey Nichols ‘Sorry, I spent it on myself’ (2013)
In 2013, Brim and Fisher moved to A&E/DDB after receiving a call from Ben Priest, then executive creative director. It was the year after Adam & Eve merged with DDB and, at that time, the agency felt "very transactional", Brim recalls: "There was this sense of ‘Are you DDB or are you Adam & Eve?’ and we were neither. We thought we’d work on Harvey Nichols, Volkswagen and John Lewis ads, and then assess our options."
Brim and Fisher were just weeks into their new jobs when they got the Harvey Nichols Christmas brief. The resulting ad, a cheeky film in which people give their loved ones rubbish gifts while spending money on themselves, stood out from the festive crowd by ditching Christmas clichés.
Months later, the campaign was entered at Cannes but Brim and Fisher did not expect to win. They each had newborn babies and cancelled their flights to the south of France. But the day before the festival, they scrambled to change their plans at the last minute because the campaign had started scooping awards. The duo ended up taking home four Grands Prix among their haul.
"It took us by surprise," Brim says. "There was a moment when I knew everything had changed. There was a real togetherness because it was bigger than anything that had happened before."
At the time of their Cannes success, Brim had begun working on the "Monty’s Christmas" campaign for John Lewis. "That period was when I fell in love with the agency," he says. "It started a lot of fun. When people start enjoying stuff, they do better."
John Lewis ‘Monty’s Christmas’(2014)
"There’s no brief in the agency like it," Brim says of the John Lewis Christmas campaign. "The pressure is horrific."
At their first attempt to crack the mother of all briefs, Brim had written about 40 unsuccessful scripts with Fisher. Tammy Einav, who was then managing director, told Brim they had three more days to do it. Brim and Fisher camped out at a Mayfair pub that had a roaring fire in the summertime, where they came up with the idea of a boy and a monkey. "But then we thought: what if it was a penguin? Everybody loves penguins," he says.
The client also loved the idea and the team signed up long-time collaborator Dougal Wilson to direct the film. The finished product, a heart-warming story about a boy and his penguin friend Monty, picked up the Cannes Film Craft Grand Prix in 2015 and Grand Prix for Creative Effectiveness in 2016. It was the most watched and talked-about Christmas ad of the season and went down as one of the retailer’s most effective and profitable campaigns.
John Lewis ‘Tiny dancer’(2015)
John Lewis might be known for its Christmas ads but its insurance brand had a viral success in the middle of the year with "Tiny dancer", in which a girl prances clumsily around her house to the Elton John song. It had a different tone to the retailer’s Christmas spots.
This was one of Brim’s first ads as executive creative director, which he became that year. It was also the first ad that had no direct involvement from the agency founders. "That was fucking petrifying. You take this legacy of great work and you don’t want to fuck it up," he says. "But when you realise you haven’t – and they say ‘well done’ – it’s a massive relief."