Walter Campbell on the Past, Present and Future of Advertising
The legendary creative, now creative head of business development at MPC London, reflects on the current state of the industry and why a move to MPC London makes sense.
Walter Campbell is the legendary creative behind some of the most highly awarded and critically celebrated commercials to hit screens.
His work for Guinness while at AMV BBDO includes Dream Club, Swimblack, Bet on Black and, of course, Surfer. Over the course of his career, he has also worked on Dunlop Unexpected plus campaigns for Volvo, Mercedes, Budweiser, and was the writer on Jonathan Glazer's cult hit 2013 film, Under the Skin... he is, in short, a master of advertising and filmmaking craft.
This year, though, Campbell took that craft away from an agency setting and started work at the London office of MPC, as creative head of business development. Below, he explains the decision for that move and his view of how the industry has changed - and continiues to change - as clients, agencies and production outfits navigate the present and the future of the advertising business.
Above: Guinness Dream Club
Your background is as a creative within an agency environment; why was a role at MPC appealing?
I have always worked closely with the people who craft the work; the directors, editors, sound designers, composers. In fact, every component that focuses the ambition for the idea, everyone who helps show it to its best advantage. That multi-faceted and connective force breeds a culture of expectation and growth.
The interface between people with those different skills can trigger real leaps forward in the work. That’s the energy that’s here at MPC by the bucket load: that palpable sense of expectation and ambition for each opportunity... and there are a lot of opportunities. That’s very compelling.
"The smart [agencies] are keeping a grip on what they have always done; not letting the core objective out of sight. That is the really clever adaptation, and that requires real skill. You have to keep the aircraft flying while you fix it."
How has the advertising landscape changed with regards to being at the forefront of the creative idea since you started in the business?
The biggest changes in the landscape of our industry are being driven, as ever, by our clients; specifically, what they value and what they are prepared to pay a premium for. The empowerment of every marketing department with data from Google, Facebook and the rest has not exactly lessened the value clients place on ideas but it has done away with the notion that those ideas have to come from agencies... for now. The creative process has, in theory, been democratised.
We can all see many clients ‘fixing’ the agency model they have long labelled ‘broken’ by taking their pick of planners and creatives and moving them in-house. So, instead of coming to our industry with briefs, now they come with campaign ideas. And what they more often need today is help refining their ideas and taking them into production.
"Tech in itself is useless; you still need a great idea, and a proper story."
That change has made it very hard for some agencies to own the relationship like they used to with certain clients (not all – some still follow the lead agency model); and as a result, many agencies don’t see the volume of briefs or the magnitude of budgets that once they could rely on.
They have responded, as pretty much everyone in the process has, by offering more services. Where once the boundaries between disciplines were clearly marked and respected, now they are blurred and stepped over daily. Everyone claims they can do everything.
In that new landscape, the best place for me to be is where problems get solved and things actually get made. I’ve worked with MPC, from my position as a creative at an agency, throughout my career. They are great creative problem solvers. And that’s what I do too. So, I guess in some ways, this is a natural home for me.
"The hardest thing for any business that is trying to adapt is the place they find themselves in at that moment. Like the old joke;
'Excuse me, do you know how I get to Liverpool?'
'Well I wouldn’t start from here.'"
What do you think has been the cause of those changes, and are they for the better?
In reality, it’s complex. It’s all in a state of flux so it’s dangerous to generalise since there will always be exceptions, but I think you can see two broad themes.
Firstly, the empowerment of clients through data, as we touched on before, which has caused them to question the value of their partners and suppliers. And secondly, the economy in general; this pervading climate of uncertainty and caution. Lower margins, the rise of procurement and the ensuing tighter control on spending from clients has prompted agencies to try and do more for less.
I would say you can see those two causes driving a lot of the changes we feel.
In a climate like that, the tendency is to be risk-averse and look for processes that feel more predictable. There is irony in that, however; that huge volume of data still hasn’t given clients a blueprint they can follow. There still isn’t a mechanical, repeatable process they can rely on and feel comfy with when it comes to marketing campaigns. They still have to make strategic, creative and financial leaps of faith even though the climate isn’t conducive to them. Belief still comes into the equation.
"That huge volume of data still hasn’t given clients a blueprint they can follow."
What are you hoping to be able to achieve at MPC that you might not be able to at an established agency?
I hope that established agencies and indeed new agencies achieve more and better, because in that atmosphere everyone’s challenge becomes positive. Our objective is always to produce stimulating work that engenders a climate of ambition. That’s what I hope to do at MPC; stimulate the makers here, at agencies and at brands, to make more and better work. We need more great work coming from more sources for our business to be genuinely thriving.
The potential we see is to spark more and more life into the system, bring more positive energy into the process. That is what the talent here invests in every day, on whichever project they are working on. MPC have always known how to craft the work. What people don’t know yet is that we also know how to make work that is effective, work that is memorable and moves people to act. I’m here to develop that side of things.
It’s a positive, proactive and crowd-pleasing endeavour. I want everyone to do better. We love to see great work coming out, every real creative does, because it opens the game up.
Look at the Premiership, better and better talent, playing in better organised clubs with greater and greater ambitions, and the quality of footy in this country is very, very entertaining and involving; the game and the business is very healthy.
"Agencies have always been adapting; that’s how they keep themselves relevant."
Is having access to - and experts in - new technology something that brands and creatives need more and more?
Yes. MPC is a tech company. Understanding technology is crucial to today’s market. In fact, it’s central to whatever you are doing in today’s world.
For me it can help in two specific ways:
Firstly, tech like AI can turbo-charge the process. It can power idea-generation. It can power production. Some of the tech we author can make things possible which weren’t possible before; so we can suspend disbelief in the viewer in more radical ways. The tech at MPC is like handing a writer or an editor or a director a machine gun: suddenly everything is far faster and vastly more potent.
Secondly, tech can help us reach our audience in more compelling ways. We can deliver the message or the experience to the customer in a way that is more engaging, perhaps because it is more relevant, more timely, more consistent or more immersive.
The key for me is to understand what is possible, and then bend that potential to our advantage.
But, a word of warning: tech in itself is useless; you still need a great idea, and a proper story. You need the talent to use the tech to full advantage and the care and craft to apply it deftly. That’s the real power from MPC: tech, talent and craft.
Above: Campbell's legendary Guinness spot, Surfer, directed by Jonathan Glazer.
Do you think agencies need to adapt their current ways of working to be as relevant as they need to be?
Agencies have always been adapting; that’s how they keep themselves relevant. Today the challenges are more diverse and they’re reconfiguring the systems almost job-by-job, trying to make their processes better/faster/cheaper. And the challenges keep coming.
The smart ones are also keeping a grip on what they have always done; not letting the core objective out of sight. That is the really clever adaptation, and that requires real skill. You have to keep the aircraft flying while you fix it.
The hardest thing for any business that is trying to adapt is the place they find themselves in at that moment. Like the old joke;
“Excuse me, do you know how I get to Liverpool?”
“Well I wouldn’t start from here.”
Their legacy, their reality informs what’s possible. Informs how far and how fast they can change. Sometimes a blank sheet of paper and a full sack of cash is easier to work with than a successful corporation with a book of business, as perhaps Sir Martin is finding out.
We’re adapting too. We face the same landscape and we have our own reality. But we’re starting from a very different place to our agency counterparts.
Do you think something like Guinness Surfer or Dunlop Unexpected [above] is now as likely to come out of somewhere like MPC as it is from AMV, BBH or any other creative agency?
It’s very simple; those films came from a culture that was asking all the right questions. Those great agencies you mention continue to do great work and I’m sure they always will, because that is why clients and the talent are there. It’s not that complicated. Intent is key.