After coming across a unicorn in an enchanted meadow, LBB’s Editor Gabrielle Lott decided to follow it. And it led her down to LBi London’s Shoreditch HQ where she met the agency’s CCO Chris Clarke. It’s an interesting place to be right now, given its recent deal with Publicis. Here Chris discusses creating global platforms, the downside of the digital revolution and why the unicorn came to be the perfect symbol for LBi.
LBB> In an interview you did during Cannes Lions 2010, you said that LBi were engaging in people’s lives, not just messaging. Could you elaborate on that?
CC> I think that’s a general digital ethos anyway. The more people use social platforms to communicate with their friends, living a digital life becomes increasingly normal. I think for brands to resonate in that space, they need to find human ways of engaging because, in a social context. It comes across as quite sterile to talk in terms of the ‘bullshit’ that marketing has sort of built up around itself. To be successful in that space as a brand, you’ve got to figure out how to be genuine and useful in people’s real lives.
LBB> Another quote I heard from you, and you do pull out some good one-liners, is “believability is my creative religion”…
CC> I said that when I first came to LBi. I was very keen to help focus our work around activity that is real, honest and genuine. Advertising is great for making a big statement about a brand, but you really have to back that up with activation that is meaningful and can be proved. People can quickly see through brands that are just fantasising themselves into a position with certain kinds of consumers. It helps to start with products and services that are good – it’s quite difficult now to polish a turd. That used to be advertising’s job – you’d get an inferior product and make it look brilliant. You can get away with that now to a point. You can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter! You do get found out quite quickly in the digital space. For example, people look behind the advertising and look at reviews. It’s getting a lot more prevalent for people to use their friend’s referrals.
That’s not to say that digital equals ‘true’ and traditional advertising equals ‘untrue’ – far from it. I think it’s fair to say that the ways of manipulating digital media have become more sophisticated – you can be just as easily duped or fooled on the Internet as you can anywhere else, maybe more so. If you want to be successful in the long term, it’s important for brands to maintain honesty, believability and truthfulness.
LBB> What do you think of the new Facebook search engine?
CC> People like to kick Facebook, especially us in the advertising industry. It’s not simple to do effective campaigns on Facebook, but some things do tend to work incredibly well there. We’ve had Sony campaigns where fans of the product really stoke things up. Having a good search function will just improve the usability of the site. Over time, it remains to be seen whether social search will rival Google. I think for certain kinds of things, like searching for stuff your friends have done, it does make sense. In terms of its impact on the wider area of search, nobody really knows how effective it is going to be yet. I think it will play a role, but that habit of going to Google is quite ingrained in people.
LBB> You just mentioned Sony – they had a huge following in the 80s and 90s, but recent statistics reveal Samsung and other brands are performing much better. How do you play on that heritage, which has kind of been lost?
CC> Part of their problem was that, as an organisation, they were very politicised. It was impossible for Sony to integrate a content platform into the hardware in the same way Apple did because it’s so difficult to get Sony Music and Sony Walkman people to come together. What is brilliant is the Xperia Z. They’ve been through 18 difficult months of sorting themselves out, and this is the first truly Sony product to come out of it. It’s a real opportunity to reassert Sony’s position for design and quality. It actually won Best In Show at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, the biggest electronics show in the world. They've put everything they've ever been good at into one device and the result is a fantastic product. I’m hopeful that we’ve got something there that we can do something with. The product is great; the reviews are great, so it’s got to be possible to do some great marketing with that.
LBB> You talk a lot about blending – you have people here of many different talents and skillsets, working collaboratively, over 29 offices across 17 countries – how does that work?
CC> Digital agencies are kind of the bastard child of advertising, design and software development…if you could have a three-parent child! We are home to a lot of different types of culture. This business was built by bringing lots of other companies together, so it’s extremely important that we focus on how to make people feel comfortable working with each other. That’s actually more important than the individual talents of the people because, without it, we wouldn't be able to achieve anything – we’d just be numerous clashing cultures in one space. Quite often we create project spaces that kind of become a collection of smaller agencies.
When we first started with blending, we knew it was the right thing to be talking about, but we tended to just say “go forth and blend”! It would either work or it wouldn't! We were trying to encourage people who were more collaborative to, for want of a better word, slap people down if they were a bit too egotistical. That said, you still need leadership and people to take control because the dark side of blending is everyone treading on eggshells and not wanting to offend each other. We like to encourage a quite robust culture, so we do a lot of work on training workshops, and with organisations like Hyper Island.
LBB> So how did you end up in the world of advertising and where you are now? I know that you have a degree in English…
CC> Well, I was going to continue studying classical poetry at university and be an academic, but then I realised I would be skint forever and didn't like the idea of that. I was always quite interested in advertising and the opportunity to use creativity commercially. My grandfather on my mother’s side worked in advertising, so there’s a little bit of heritage there. I planned on taking an actual advertising course, but before I did that, a friend of mine, who was an art director, lost his writer. He needed someone at short notice for a freelance gig, so I went along with him – I was able to do it.
In the late 90s, digital happened. In those days, anybody who had vaguely been online was qualified to work in digital. I was really drawn to it because it felt like anarchy. There was a real pioneering sense that we were there to destroy something that had become decadent and bloated. We seemed like the sort of digital upstarts that were going to disrupt media models, the way that advertising agencies worked and the way that consumers reached products and made buying decisions. That felt like a revolution and something meaningful. When you’re about 22-years-old, the idea of breaking down hierarchies and all that sort of stuff is really important.
It took about 10 years for those things to actually happen, but they have happened, just maybe not in quite the way we expected. One unfortunate side effect of that disruption to the media model is that we are now left with iterative journalism. People can post stuff online and change it and adapt it. That can be fine, but this current model means that journalists are paid by the page impression. It means they will deliberately put false things out there to make people angry – after all, the things that make people click are cuteness and anger! So we have a world where advertising is funding a terrible onslaught of utter bollocks on the Internet. If you look at the way headlines are written in the Google newsreader, you can click on the headline and it’s got absolutely nothing to do with the article you end up on. But you’ve created another click.
I’m very proud of what the initial digital generation achieved in disrupting some business models. In the case of journalism and the advertising that goes around it, we have thrown the baby out of the bathwater. My latest drum that I’m banging is about getting people to pay for subscriptions and getting quality back into journalism. If brands are out there serving ads alongside crap, then there’s a problem. I think the main issue is that the mainstream news now gets all of its stories from the Internet – the whole pool has become polluted.
LBB> We look at the Internet as a global platform, and you’ve already mentioned the different ways in which people from different countries and cultures communicate. How does LBi negotiate that and the work they’re doing over several regions?
CC> Well it’s theoretically global, but there’s actually little overlap. People in the UK, USA and Australia read a lot of the same sites, people read stuff in their own language, Russia and China have their own versions of YouTube and Facebook. But Facebook is the closest we come to a ‘global’ platform but obviously there are language specifics. When you work on global brands, you can find 17 Facebook pages for one brand, so you have to try and make sense of that universe. A brand’s ‘global’ page really just means the page that represents the whole brand, but is just run in ‘X’ country. We have to work out the connectivity between that and the local market pages.
LBB> You had two years out of LBi and spent some time at Digitas…
CC> I joined Modem Media, which was owned by Digitas. Publicis then bought Digitas, put that into Modem and called it Publicis Modem. I stayed with Digitas. I eventually came back here and we sold to Publicis. That’s proof that you must never burn your bridges or upset anybody in this industry!
LBB> And how has it been since the Publicis purchase?
CC> The deal was only officially closed down in mid-January, but it’s really exciting. We are an awkward size, about 2000 people, with a heavy presence in Europe. We are expanding in Asia, and we have offices in New York but they’re too small for America. We’ve bought MRY, who are a really cool social agency out there, so we’re putting our New York guys and MRY guys together to create a bigger entity. When I was with them, it was always very difficult to get Digitas to work in the UK. They then bought Kitcatt Nohr over here, which resulted in a strong business.
What’s interesting in the context of Publicis and how we might work with Digitas is our set-ups. If we’re heavily focused in Europe, as Digitas are in the US and we’re both starting to do something meaningful in Asia, then you’ve got a platform for digital helping global brands to navigate all of this complexity. I think that’s really exciting. That’s 7000 people being able to work together and create something coherent.
LBB> Could you tell us about the recent work you did for Microsoft, The Random Adventures of Brandon Generator?
CC> Creatively it’s a really exciting piece of work. The fantastic Edgar Wright and Tommy Lee Edwards worked on it. It’s nice to collaborate with people who are genuine storytellers. John Hegarty recently discussed why we haven’t yet had the really powerful moment in digital. I think we’ve had it in a niche sense, but we haven’t cracked the vernacular for storytelling in the digital space.
With regards to this product, there had been a dip in Microsoft browser popularity. They realised they couldn't go out and start bludgeoning people over the head, saying how good Internet Explorer 9 is. So they started by talking to opinion formers and giving them something engaging and interesting to work with. That came in the form of telling narratives with very complicated graphics and sound, and doing lots of very technical things in the browser. It was about showing that ‘if you bend it, it won’t break’.
There is the linear story of Brandon and his writer’s block. At the same time there’s the audience engagement element where people can mess with Brandon and give him a hard time. There are many non-linear components to the story. It’s quite interesting and could show how we might start to tell better stories within a browser, without just using the vernacular of television.
As for broader and more mainstream audiences, I think people have a more limited interest in non-linear narratives. We’re conditioned to read books from beginning to end, so the extent that we will see a flowering of this style of storytelling, I don't know.
LBB> Your practice here is obviously still quite young. How do you encourage future talent to come into the digital side of the industry?
CC> We have a graduate scheme, internships, we work with colleges a lot, and have always been very keen on Hyper Island – I’ve been employing people from there for about 12 years. We also really like School of Communication Arts 2.0 in London. I think the advertising courses in the general college schemes still leave a lot to be desired. Unfortunately they are producing a lot of kids who want to know what the answer is, so they can learn it and remember it in the future. They don't know how to experiment quite so well. It’s interesting because on the one hand you have kids that are used to being creative in their own right, always playing with their digital cameras and other stuff. On the other, when it comes to work, they think of it as something separate. The education system has produced a lot of quite frightened people, so we are always looking for colleges that can draw out the more disruptive side of people.
We’re looking at how we can get more involved with apprenticeships and bringing kids from disadvantaged backgrounds into the industry. The problem at the moment is that it’s only the kids who can afford to work on a low wage who can come into the industry. That’s really frightening because in the old days the best advertising creatives were often the kids from tougher backgrounds.
LBB> You’ve won a lot of awards yourself and are part of the D&AD, how important are awards to LBi?
CC> I’m in two minds about awards. We’ve really pulled it together in the last couple of years and properly entered into them, which has really paid off with a great number of awards won last year.
LBB> You are also Marketing Agency of the Year…
CC> That meant a lot because four years ago nobody knew who we were. We had taken some really well known agency brands and just thrown them away and come up with something else. Also, the ‘L’ and the ‘B’ in ‘LBi’ stood for ‘lost boys’. I was always very keen for us to bring that lost boys heritage back, but it was always very difficult for a number of reasons. We were left with this acronym that didn't really mean anything, so we worked very hard to bring some meaning to it and reveal the personality behind it. We were always quite a dysfunctional place. On the one hand we were big and serious, and did big, serious stuff, but we didn't take ourselves too seriously. We were talking about digital transformation one day and someone drew an illustration of a sad horse in the rain dreaming of being a unicorn. We thought fuck it; let’s just use the unicorn because it actually does quite a lot to reveal the humour.
After talking about recruitment in a board meeting and how much money it cost, I jokingly suggested just throwing a massive, dirty rave in our basement – we work in an old brewery and had the environment to do it. “Let’s just do that and invite the whole industry. I bet you that all the kids who already work here will want to stay and all of the other ones will want to come and work here.”
It was amazing. We did it, and miraculously nobody got arrested and there were only two hospitalisations. The next day CVs started flying in. We did that three years in a row, had a year off last year and are going to do it again this year. We seemed a bit cold and typical from the exterior, but suddenly people realised that we weren’t. I think that and the idea of the unicorn really gave us a personality, which eventually lead to the Marketing Agency of the Year award. In turn that brought in a lot of talent and self-belief.
LBB> What does 2013 hold for LBi?
CC> There’s going to be a lot of exciting change as we create this Publicis digital platform – you’ll see more about that in the coming weeks and months. I think we have the chance to create what is probably the world’s only coherent digital platform for big, global brands that will have creative integrity and the ability to distribute content. I think that’s really interesting.
The other thing to look forward to is the renaissance of Sony as a brand. Not just off the back of our efforts, but they have seriously got their act together. I think there is definitely room to rekindle some nostalgic feelings with some really great technology.