Uncommon's ECD Talks Powerful Ideas, Positivity and Political Turmoil
Sam Walker examines work that has inspired him this year, as well as tackling how Brexit, Trump and political lies have - and will - affect advertising.
In general, do you think 2018 has been a good year for creative advertising?
I think there have been a few standout pieces as opposed to it being a stellar year, but there’s been some great stuff nevertheless. I think the difference between the bravest work – and the success it has had – and the vast majority of bland advertising should give agencies and marketeers confidence to throw bigger punches.
"In the UK, at least, there have been a number of big readjustments, mergers and some huge names disappearing which were quite shocking in their scale and speed."
What piece or pieces of work have impressed you most over the last year?
Bloodnormal is a super bold strategy and brilliantly executed by Daniel Wolfe, who’s at the top of his game at the moment.
Nothing Beats a Londoner is fresh and new. It doesn’t feel constrained by the rationality almost all other ads seem to feel the need to conform to. What’s so great about being overly rational anyway?
And I love The Truth campaign for the New York Times. It’s bigger than just an ad. It actually feels important in the context of Fake News, Trump, Brexit and the disinformation from InfoWars, Breitbart and the like.
Above:The New York Times' Truth campaign, The Truth is Hard
"Who wants to be creating the brands no one gives a shit about?"
The changing landscape of the industry - within agencies, production companies and clients - continues to be at the forefront of industry minds; how has that situation evolved in last 12 months and how has it affected the work?
I don’t know; I think the industry ties itself in knots quite a lot and spends too much time time navel-gazing and talking about itself. There seem to be more and more conferences talking about the future of this or the future of that, and fiddling while the house is burning down around us. It’s all about the work and creating brands that people actually care about.
In the UK, at least, there have been a number of big readjustments, mergers and some huge names disappearing which were quite shocking in their scale and speed. If it forces us all to be nimbler and hit harder creatively that’s no bad thing in the long run.
"For the last seven or so years agencies seem to have been desperate to throw away their value. An idea can take two minutes or two months to come up with but its value is in its effect on the brand and the public."
Is the term ‘traditional’ now just a euphemism for ‘outdated’; do agencies – old and new – need to reappraise their approach to the industry and how they engage audiences?
For a few years the zeitgeist was all digital and there was a frenzy around it all. And then it was all ‘content’. But now digital and content are normal and it’s calmed down a bit. I’m not sure what ‘traditional’ is anymore, in the sense that everyone does digital and experiential and PR and content one way or another, so I think it’s a false dichotomy.
It’s really just down to how good you are. For the last seven or so years agencies seem to have been desperate to throw away their value. An idea can take two minutes or two months to come up with but its value is in its effect on the brand and the public. How much is the word ‘truth’ worth to the New York Times? It’s as powerful today as it would have been a hundred years ago.
"I remember one client I worked with many moons ago saying “with my normal person hat on I love it, but when I put my marketing hat on I’m not sure”, which kind of sums up the problem with a large proportion of the industry."
How does Uncommon set itself apart from other advertising companies and why is that the best approach?
We build brands that people in the real world actually wish existed. People wouldn’t care if three quarters of brands in the world disappeared tomorrow. Which is either terrifying or a massive opportunity depending which way you look at it. It’s also the fun bit right? Who wants to be creating the brands no one gives a shit about?
Our work for Habito (the online mortgage broker) features a man literally having his intestines ripped out, followed by his soul, to show the choice between getting a mortgage the regular way or with Habito. It’s either Hell or Habito. At any point in that process the client could have watered down the execution but, all credit to them, they didn’t, and their bravery has been rewarded.
I remember one client I worked with many moons ago saying “with my normal person hat on I love it, but when I put my marketing hat on I’m not sure”, which kind of sums up the problem with a large proportion of the industry. Marketing and ‘real people’ should not be artificially separated. Be bold and the public will thank you. And as the best client I ever worked with said when I complemented her on her bravery, “what’s the point of not being bold? It’s no fun and it doesn’t work”.
Above: One of Uncommon's spots for Habito.
The Trump presidency and the fallout from Brexit have dominated headlines this year; how do you think those situations have impacted on the advertising industry?
I think they’re having a negative impact on the economy and therefore advertising and I don’t think we’ve even got started yet, unfortunately. With Trump the level of anger in America is reaching fever pitch and depending on which way it goes, the direction of travel is about to be set for the next few decades.
Troubled economies tend to have the effect of making the work blander as agencies and marketeers retreat and try not to rock the boat, but it is huge opportunity for those willing to take risks. The clients who double down on creativity will reap even more rewards in difficult financial times.
Like with Patagonia; what a great brand. They’re not just pretending, they’re doing it and putting their money where their mouth is. Trump’s tax cuts saved them $10million and they’re investing the lot back into environmental causes. That’s proper. And you know what, it will pay back.
"In the UK we’ve declared war on ourselves in the form of Brexit and if it goes through the ensuing recession is likely to be bad for advertising as it will be for the whole country."
Above: The infamous 'Brexit bus' and the claim that the NHS would benefit from Brexit.
In the UK we’ve declared war on ourselves in the form of Brexit and if it goes through the ensuing recession is likely to be bad for advertising as it will be for the whole country.
Frankly, a positive effect that should come out of the fraudulent Brexit campaign (but won’t) is for the rules around political advertising to be tightened. Or how about we actually have some rules? It seems insane to me that you have to substantiate every claim you make in advertising, for washing powder, for banks, for ANYTHING, except when you advertise for an election or political party, in which case you can lie as much as you want.
How can a democracy function if there’s no requirement to tell the truth? It’s one instance where, if the advertising industry got together and demanded a change, maybe we could end up being the good guys for once. Imagine a system where you could trust every political commercial because it had already been through a system of checks and balances to stop it from misleading the public. Wouldn’t that be incredible?
"How can a democracy function if there’s no requirement to tell the truth?"
Diversity continues to be at the centre of industry discussions; do you think advertising is doing enough to promote a diverse range of people within the business? What more could/should be done?
There’s still a lot of work to be done to achieve genuine diversity across the industry, with gender, race, sexuality, age, and privilege; all areas that need to be addressed.
Advertising, and media in general, is heavily dominated by the more privileged sections of society and with the changes to university funding and recent welfare cuts this seems destined to only get worse.
What do you think the biggest talking points of 2019 might be?
Trump, Brexit, diversity, climate change and fascism. The world is going through a very dangerous time and if we don’t start doing something about it soon we’re all going to be in a lot of trouble.
Above: President Trump.
What do you think advertising’s New Year’s resolution should be?
Create brands that people actually care about. Don’t get lost in jargon or the latest buzzword. The best campaigns are still just brilliant ideas whatever the medium.
What will be your own New Year’s resolution, work-related or otherwise?
Life’s short, take risks and do the best I can.