It takes a brave individual to strike out and set up their own ad agency. It takes an even braver one to set up their own ad agency when their wife has just given birth. Andy Fowler is just such a man. The founder of independent London agency Brothers and Sisters spends five minutes with LBB's Editor, Gabrielle Lott, where he discusses trans-media storytelling, investing in youth and why opening an agency with a new-born daughter in tow might have been the stupidest and wisest thing he’s ever done.
LBB> Brothers and Sisters started almost six years ago. In your own words; you ‘quit your job and your wife had a little girl in the same week’ – how did that come about?
AF> I started Brothers and Sisters in the same month that my daughter was born. I’m a pretty impulsive person. I’d been thinking about setting up an agency for a while and the moment just felt right. My wife gave birth to our daughter Missy in November 2005 and on Christmas Eve I took the key to a tiny office off of Portobello Road – it had two desks. Because Portobello Road was near my house, I naively thought that, that I’d be able to work from 9-5, put my daughter to bed and then go back to work, which of course never happened. I became completely consumed and obsessed with this thing and I had bills to pay.
LBB> I really like the following quote on your site: “consumer doesn't cut it, people are dreamers”. Is this the motto you’ve built the agency around and can you explain this chain of thought to us?
AF> Despite the fact that we work in the creative industry, most marketing treats people as if they are mindless morons walking around ready to be manipulated. ‘Consumerist’ is a horrible word isn’t it? It is completely anti-human. It’s just a horrible, soulless word.
I think that the best brands and marketing, in some shape or form, help to connect people with their dreams. People aren’t consumers, they’re dreamers. Each day we all walk around trying to make a better life for ourselves. That’s why we go to work every day. Great brands, like Coca Cola which is about being an individual and Levi’s, which is about being a rebel; they somehow take you one step closer to making your dreams come true. In its most emotional form, I believe that is what advertising and marketing is about.
LBB> So how did you actually get into advertising?
AF> The story I always tell is that… I was the creative director for the big TV company Sky TV. I was there for about nine years, and worked my way up from the kid who made the tea and rolled the auto cue. It was an incredibly exciting place to be in the mid-90s.
I had read History and Politics at university and didn't really have any idea what I wanted to do. I didn't know anything about the creative industry but I knew I loved writing. This was pre-Internet. I went to the library and got the addresses of all of the TV companies in Britain – that sounds so ridiculous now. And I wrote a letter, with a pen and a piece of paper, to all of the TV companies in Britain to try and get some work experience. I didn't really know what I wanted to do but TV sounded quite interesting and badly wanted to get away from the West Midlands. My parents had just got divorced and it was, understandably, a bad time. The only company that answered the letter was Sky Sports. I love sports, and they said “If you’re ever in London, you must pop in and do a week’s work experience”. Obviously I rang them the next day and told them that I happened to be in London the next week! A total lie obviously.
The only person I knew that lived in London was my kind of sister-in-law. She lived in a place called Southgate, which is at the very top of the Piccadilly line and Sky TV was right at the end of that line by Heathrow. I had to ride the whole length of the line everyday - about two hours, it was fucking dreadful. After a week of work experience, I thought “this is pretty cool”. Then after about four weeks I said “you better start paying me!”
In the nine years that I was there, I had done a lot of different jobs. It’s such a fast-paced and dynamic place to be and I learned so many things in such a short space of time. I imagine it’s opposite of the BBC, which is notoriously structured. At Sky, if you wanted to do something you could just teach yourself and go for it. I ended up in the in-house agency making programme trailers. By the time I got to the creative director position, I was involved in a lot of agency selection processes and working collaboratively with them. Not having come from an agency background I was amazed by how poorly big ad agencies judged their relationship with Sky. It was almost patronising. They spoke to Sky as if they were a bank or a building society that had no idea how to entertain - whereas in reality Sky produces so much entertainment day-in-day-out.
To cut a long story short, my negative experiences with big agencies gave me the idea for starting Brothers and Sisters. I had a lot of very creative friends. I felt that what I had been lacking when I was working with big agencies was a collaborative working process. I was frustrated that I always felt that I was kept apart from the creative process. I could never understand why there were so layers of agency people in the room. They would always disappear for two weeks and come back with an answer – I never really felt part of that process.
Another reason for starting Brothers and Sisters was that I was used to having my own department of people that could write, think and art direct, and who could also make stuff. If we wanted to make the final product ourselves, then we could do that. We don't always do that, of course. We’re not so arrogant that we think we can make everything ourselves because we still work with big production companies and great directors, but it’s nice to have the skills in house too.
LBB> You did a presentation for IPA, and in that you discussed the various media that are out there at the moment. You’re quoted as saying “every media has a part to play, nothing is dying, nothing is redundant – just their roles have changed”…
AF> I really believe that if you have the right mind-set, this is the beginning of the second golden age of advertising. If you have good ideas, there are so many different ways to bring them to life. All this talk about new media and older media is bullshit to be honest. No media has died; it’s just that the role of certain channels has changed. Anyone that thinks a poster is the be-all-and-end-all of a campaign is living in the past. The poster is now used to amplify an idea or announce an event. Technology and new media allows us to do such extraordinary things – it’s mind-blowing.
As part of our creative presentations, we have this idea called ‘dream layer’. The idea of that is that technology allows brands to give people experiences that they couldn't even have dreamed of ten years ago. Technology can provide a secondary layer over our everyday life, almost giving us an alternative experience. For example, a couple of years ago we did a project called Street Museum.
The app gave you a map of London, and as you walked around it guided you to certain locations. And as you stood in Carnaby Street, you would hold your phone up and it would overlay a historical photograph of exactly where you were standing. It’s just incredible because nobody had seen that view of Carnaby Street for a hundred years. It only existed in your imagination. Every media has a role to play and the emotional use of technology is something we find really exciting.
LBB> You said that the people that will shine in the future are those that have more than one talent or different skillsets that they can use. How do you go about finding that kind of person for Brothers and Sisters?
AF> I guess we try and find creative people who are very open-minded. We host open days for young creative. If they just show us posters and TV ads, then you can probably identify that their reference points revolve around advertising and that’s their ambition.
I had a guy called Harv Bains, who was a creative. He did about six months with us in 2011. Why did I love him? He came to talk to me with a scrapbook of ideas. There were a few ads in there but it was just a brain dump of the creative inner workings of his mind. There were some brilliant little product ideas in there. I remember he had a crazy idea for a pen lid that was just genius, and great little social media ideas to change the world and charity. The breadth of his creative thinking was brilliant. It was so entrepreneurial… He actually described himself as ‘copywriter and entrepreneur’. As pretentious as that they may seem, I loved it and it was apt. He was looking to use his creativity to do good and interesting things for the world.
LBB> Do you have any involvement with colleges or universities?
AF> This is something I’m quite passionate about because I think most agencies tend to develop relationships with design-based or advertising colleges and universities. To me, those people are already well on the road to the industry.
We’re good friends with a girl called Katy from D&AD. She asked us to spend a day with her at Holloway University about a year ago, with the Inner City Further Education Colleges. We met 16-17 year olds who were generally from an under-privileged inner-city background. They were creative students, but with many of them, you just couldn’t see how they were going to get on the first rung of the ladder. There is a lot of wasted talent there, because sadly now it’s the richer kids that can afford to do the six month placements. Since then we have been trying to find the right London inner-city further educational college that we can partner with. We’ve had a few meetings in the last few weeks in Hammersmith, Southwark.
Why there? Because Brothers and Sisters launched in Ladbroke Grove. It’s a very inspiring and creative area, but a very mixed one. I feel that we spent the first two years of our lives there, did really well, moved out and never really put anything back into that community. I’m really determined to form a bond with a London college in that area. It will be worth it even if we just help a few kids who are really talented to find a way into the industry. We are going to put together a scheme for about 10 students, whose tutors believe that they’ve got the potential. It won’t just be about getting into advertising, it can be anything creative – fashion, design, wherever the students wish to be. We want to try and find them mentors. That’s the dream, I guess.
LBB> How important are awards to Brothers and Sisters?
AF> If I am honest, they are not very important. There’s two different ways to be motivated, I think. You can either be motivated to win awards or motivated to try and do work that creates culture. You want to try and do stuff that makes a real difference in the world. If the only motivation you have to come to work five days a week is to win a bit of silverware - that almost seems quite sad. We’re privileged enough to work in an incredibly exciting industry at a time of phenomenal change where you can make stuff that makes a difference, that influences cultures and creates ripples, and even gets our mums talking. We only enter a few of the high profile awards – we don't see it as a massive priority, to be honest.
LBB> You’ve gained eight new clients this year. Sky was your original client and they’ve stuck with you.
AF> Yeah, us and WCRS are their two main agencies, we do half and they do half.
LBB> Has there been any work from the past 12 months that has really resonated with you and that you’re really proud of?
AF> We got a ‘dream’ project this year, which was also our first global project – for the launch of the massive video game Resident Evil 6. That was the ideal project for a number of reasons. Firstly we work in quite a sanitised industry – we spend most of our lives selling products that people don't really want, let’s be honest: washing powders and toothpastes and stuff. What’s amazing about the gaming industry is that the fans have such a voracious appetite for these games and really want to take part in the campaigns.
The second great thing is that the subject matter was so dark. In this industry, when do you ever get to touch up on that subject matter? Everything you do is normally so safe, careful and controlled, and this was a world of horror. Our clients were incredibly brave. From the pitch, which we won last year, they immediately said they wanted to do something different. If it was to be one of the biggest gaming events of 2012, we needed to do something totally off the wall.
This was an opportunity to do something which has been in the ether for years but no one has ever really managed to do: trans-media storytelling. This myth or phrase that has never really been realised, finally we were able to do.
We won the pitch by rolling out a nine-month narrative on our boardroom table, which showed how, over the course of the campaign, we would weave the story around and between different media. I’m delighted to say that ten months later we’ve actually managed to pull it off. It was a real joy. Over the course of ten months, the only signpost we had to get out was the announcement of the launch in January. The campaign began by speaking to the hard-core fans. We approached them on an anonymous, conspiracy website. The whole thing reach its crescendo with big films and augmented reality gaming. There was a coherent story that ran throughout the whole thing – it was like writing a film.
We also just did a project for Spotify, which was called ‘The Mood of the Nation’. We realised that Spotify must have such an incredibly rich stream of data concerning what people are listening to at any given moment. The music you listen to shows how you’re feeling – music is like the window to the soul. We thought that if you had Spotify’s data, surely you could prove, at any given moment, whether one city was happier than another. When I spoke to JC Decaux they loved it so much that we got loads of free inventory – which helped them build the perfect case study of what their screen network is capable of. Every day for two weeks, Spotify gave us data from British cities, such as the top 50 tracks, 50 albums, artists of the day and so on. We took it and used the big vision screens in train stations in major cities to broadcast these little nuggets of information about what people were listening to. We used the data emotionally. We analysed the results against other factors, such as weather conditions and local and international news. We tried to compare these influencers and show how events sway what people listen to and how they can affect the emotional state of a whole city.
LBB> What is 2013 looking like for you guys?
AF> I can’t talk about any specific projects, but one thing I can talk about is that about a year ago we launched our ‘20 per cent’ project. It’s an idea that we stole from Google. We had become frustrated that so many brilliant ideas never saw the light of day and we didn’t have a lot of money to invest in our own ideas. One day, we had a eureka moment. We realised that while we don't have the money, we do have the time. We decided to ring-fence a percentage of our creative people’s time to develop our own creative projects. In the scheme, our creative people come to me or Mark the creative director to pitch ideas that they’d like to get off the ground. We pick the best ones and give them a set number of days to make it. They have to prove that they can make it happen without any help. We’ve done a couple of small ones already, but the first really big 20 per cent project is on the verge of coming out.
We’re moving away from the old world where brands just make one TV ad a year. We’re trying to tell our clients that they should be doing lots of little things. The creative company of the future will make lots of things, will experiment and won’t be afraid to fail.