Dan Fisher is the global executive creative director for Unilever at Ogilvy. He has been leading the creative team behind Dove’s work over the past several years including the award-winning ‘Courage is Beautiful’ campaign as well as ‘Reverse Selfie’ and the recent ‘As Early As Five’ work to address the issue of race-based hair discrimination. The Newcastle native has always had an entrepreneurial spirit and first dipped his toe into advertising as a teen making posters for club nights. Since then he’s gone on to create Grand Prix winning modern classics, like fan favourite John Lewis ad Monty the Penguin and Harvey Nichols’ Sorry, I Spent it On Myself.
Here he catches up with LBB to talk about leadership and creativity, the creative ambitions of Unilever, why the Dove Real Beauty platform is more relevant than ever and more.
LBB> What sort of role did creativity play in your formative years?
Daniel> I grew up in Newcastle. I was drawing at 14 months old and was writing graphic novels when I was in primary school. I adapted one of them into a short film which I shot on my dad’s camcorder when I was 10. I turned my parent’s garage into a cinema, complete with a big red curtain and invited everyone I knew to the premiere.
This might not be strictly true. As it happens, I was arse-achingly bad at art. I couldn’t draw for shit. Still can’t. Which at school in the ‘80s meant you weren’t seen as ‘creatively minded’. So, if I went back in time and told young me that he was going to have a career in the creative industries, he would probably laugh me out of the room.
Fortunately for kids these days, the definitions of creativity are a bit broader but for me
I think the influence probably came from my dad. He was a bit of an entrepreneur and was always coming up with creatively driven ventures and as a creative, I’ve always been pretty entrepreneurial and drawn to unconventional, weirdly shaped solutions.
LBB> And what sort of kid were you - was there any clue that a career in advertising or creativity lay ahead?
Daniel> As a kid, I always preferred the ad breaks over the programs they interrupted. Is that a bit sad? Probably. I think it’s because advertising in the 70’s and 80’s was proper populist entertainment. At least that's how I remember it. I used to especially love beer ads. ‘I bet he drinks Carling Black Label’, ‘Nice place, shame about the beer’, ‘Australians wouldn’t give a Castlemaine XXXX for anything else’…we don’t do slogans like we used to.
A bit later, when I was in my teens, I had my own business, promoting parties and club nights in Newcastle. I made a decent success of it – it helped pay my way through college. My favourite part of it all was designing the flyers and posters. I used to spend hours with designers tinkering away on the artwork. I was doing the whole ‘hovering art director’ thing years before I even knew what an art director was.
LBB> How did you end up in advertising?
Daniel> I did a degree in English Literature because I enjoyed reading and I figured I might as well spend three years doing something I liked. But when I finished, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do. I just knew I’d die in a ‘proper job’. I managed to get myself a couple of writing gigs when someone suggested I should try advertising. I looked into it and it was this massive penny drop moment. I couldn’t believe you could actually get paid just for coming up with ideas.
LBB> What was the most useful lesson you learned early on in your career?
Daniel> I went back to college for a year to do a course in Advertising and Design but I discovered pretty early on in my career that I’d learnt very little there of any actual use. Everything you need to know in this business can’t be taught. But I also learned that it’s fine not to know quite what you are doing so long as you give a shit about getting it right in the end. I still believe that.
LBB> What was the first campaign you ever worked on?
Daniel> I started as the first digital writer at WCRS and spent a year or so doing online campaigns for brands such as Orange and BMW. But it was the early days of the internet and the medium was still pretty limited, creatively speaking, so my old partner and I started nicking all the big, sexy briefs the senior teams were working on. The first decent thing we made was for MINI. It was a bunch of idents for Cold Feet, which at the time was one of the most popular TV shows in the UK. They were very funny. Or so my mum told me.
LBB> Throughout your career you’ve worked on a fair few stone-cold classics - but every idea starts as a nugget of potential that isn’t always obvious. As you’ve grown as a creative and then creative leader, how have you learned to sift that which is dead on arrival from the unshapen, weird seeds of something really special?
Daniel> It’s far easier to kill ideas than it is to nurture them. When Rick (Brim) and I wrote Monty the penguin for John Lewis, the first script was a bit meh. It involved a baby penguin getting lost from his family in a blizzard and getting a sat nav for Christmas from a friendly puffin or something. Like I said, a bit of a shocker. So of course, it got rejected. But there was something about it we quite liked, so we kept it gently bubbling away in the background for weeks and eventually it turned into something. As a creative leader I try never to kill stuff outright. I think it's better to try to gently guide rather than heavily steer. And also, to listen. If a creative team you think is good enough to work for you is really excited about an idea, it’s probably worth seeing where that can go.
LBB> As you’ve progressed in your career, how did you find the transition from creative to leadership? And what advice would you give to someone just at the foothills of that journey?
Daniel> I’d say be patient and enjoy the journey. I was fixated on becoming a creative director and I got there seven or eight years into my career. At the time I thought that was great but looking back, I wish I’d chilled out a little. The part of your career when all you have to do is sit in coffee shops with your creative partner coming up with ideas, then find brilliantly talented people to help you bring them to life – well, those are the best years, by far. It doesn’t even feel like a job. So seriously, make the most of that time. Build your body of work and let other people deal with all the shit.
LBB> Some of the campaigns you’ve worked on have been brilliant works of comedy. Harvey Nicks and Mulberry weren’t afraid to get into the messy, darker side of the human psyche and were all the funnier for it. However, it also seems that comedy is a riskier business for brands these days - so what are your thoughts about comedy in the industry these days?
Daniel> Comedy in advertising does feel a bit like a bit of a declining artform. For years, almost all the ads I made were comedy based and brands such as MINI and 118 118 would really let me push the boat out.
As for Harvey Nicks, they’d always done great work but most of their previous stuff had struck a slightly different tone. Sort of fashion-y print but with a bit of an edge. So, convincing them to spend half their marketing budget on making all these crappy, Harvey Nicks branded products such as ‘authentic gravel’ and ‘real rubber doorstops’, then getting them to devote prime retail shelf space to them in the middle of these temples of high fashion in the run up to Christmas - well looking back, it’s definitely one of the most out-there projects of my career. Just walking into the store in Knightsbridge and seeing all these cheap gifts sitting there amongst all the Prada and the Balenciaga was funny as. And of course, James Rouse smashed the film out of the park, the campaign made the news, the products sold out in about four days and the store had their record Christmas to date.
So, if you’re asking me whether I think the industry is missing a trick by overlooking comedy, then the answer is yes. The question is why, and I think there’s probably a few reasons. Too many to get into here but one place to look at is popular culture, because advertising has always reflected popular culture. And there’s nowhere near as much standout comedy out there as there used to be. And what there is these days is generally much more sanitised and watered down and trying to please. Another place you could look at is the awards circuit. Comedy is very subjective, and one country’s belly laugh is another’s head scratch. This was fine when the big shows had more of a local focus but over the past few years, they’ve all gone much more global and the same stuff tends to win at all the big shows. So, if you’re a young creative on the make, you’re probably looking at what’s winning at Cannes and thinking there might be better ways to make a name for yourself than comedy. Which is a shame.
LBB> Monty was such a standout campaign. Craft, storytelling and heart, it had it all and did very well for John Lewis. Looking back, was there anything that really stayed with you from the experience of making that? What did you learn?
Daniel> There’s nothing quite like working on a John Lewis Christmas ad. It’s like a huge part of the nation’s Christmas is in your hands and if you drop the ball the haters will come baying for your blood. In fact, even if you don’t drop the ball, someone will still come baying for your blood.
Back then, the whole thing was probably at its peak and people would actually start speculating on social media during the summer about what that year’s ad was going to be. Which was just insane. And my old partner and I had joined the agency with a very definite goal, which was to make the next one. When we started working on the brief, it was the beginning of January - just when the rest of the world was taking down their decorations - and when we finally wrote ‘Monty’s Christmas’, it was late April, and the world was wearing shorts and flip flops. On the way we must have written over a hundred scripts. Plus, production was already underway on a different idea - they’d ordered the merchandise and everything. So at first the clients refused to even entertain looking at this new script but they eventually came round and they bought the idea on the spot. I’m not sure what happened to all the merchandise but if there’s one thing I did learn, it’s the value of tenacity. And that it’s never too late to come up with a better idea.
LBB> What was about the role with Ogilvy, overseeing Dove and Unilever globally, that appealed to you?
Daniel> Well, I’ve always liked a challenge and the challenge of taking the reins of a brand as iconic as Dove was one I couldn’t resist. The legacy of great work on the account is incredible, dating all the way back to the 1950s when David Ogilvy wrote the ads himself. Also, I have two young daughters and no brand has done as much for women and girls as Dove has. But it wasn’t just Dove that got me excited. When I was talking to Ogilvy about the role, I had dinner with Aline Santos from Unilever, and she told me their creative ambitions for the company as a whole. They are still at the beginning of the journey but it’s going to be an exciting one and we are lucky because we have a whole bunch of amazing brands around the globe to play with.
LBB> The scope of that role is enormous, and also pretty varied as Dove and Unilever are active in so many exciting creative markets like India and Brazil. How have you gone about getting your head around it all?
Daniel> I knew it was a very different role for me, having teams and hubs all over the place, so I decided I needed to do a tour and quickly get to know everyone working on the business in these hubs in places like Singapore and Toronto. But I was only a few weeks into the job when the world went into lockdown, so I had to get to grips with the whole thing from behind a screen in my daughters’ playroom. Weirdly, it sort of helped us all bond. I still haven’t done that tour. I hope to do it this year.
LBB> And what Ogilvy offices/markets are particularly shining with their work on the brand?
Daniel> We’ve just done our global creative conference where we look at all the best work coming out of the network and it’s on fire at the moment. What’s great is that you’ve got amazing work coming out of places like Islamabad – who won their first ever Grand Prix last year - as well as the usual suspects, your Ogilvy Sao Paolos, your INGOs and your DAVIDs. When it comes to Unilever, places like Mumbai and Toronto are making good work, as of course is the global Unilever team who sit in the UK office. We are a pretty borderless network and I’m lucky enough to get to work with all the best talent. My first project was with David and I’m working with the amazing Bjorn Stahl and INGO a lot at the moment. I’m also particularly excited by our North American offices - there’s a real buzz going on over there right now and I can’t wait to see where they get to on some of the Unilever briefs we are working on with them.
LBB> Most recently, Dove put out a really powerful campaign about race discrimination around hair, highlighting the way it impacts girls from a really young age. Why was that a topic Dove wanted to be involved in and how did the teams approach getting the creative and tone right?
Daniel> Dove has always fought for beauty to be welcome in all places and institutions, which is why they co-founded the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Coalition in 2018. The Coalition’s objective is to try to make hair discrimination illegal in the US through a piece of legislation called The CROWN Act - so far, 14 states have passed it. The purpose of the film was to drive awareness of the movement and to encourage people to support it and sign the online petition.
To make sure the film was as authentic as possible, we worked with the amazing team at Joy Collective and together we appointed the hugely talented Aisha Ford, an African American director who had experienced the issue herself growing up, to shoot the film. Her passion for the project was palpable from the get go and she handpicked a production team she best thought would deliver the film in the most authentic way.
LBB> It’s funny, Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ platform feels like it has an extra layer of relevance in 2022, particularly as we live in a world in which social media posts are filtered and we’re encouraged to spend more time in the metaverse and other forms of ‘unreality’. The world has changed so much since the ‘Evolution’ spot in 2006 and the challenge seems really enormous and all-encompassing. What are your thoughts on the role that Real Beauty has to play in the world and where it might go next?
Daniel> Well it’s more relevant than ever, yes. Back in 2006 the enemy was the media – magazines, TV shows, advertising – who were manipulating images and peddling highly unrealistic beauty standards. That’s what we tried to shine a light on with ‘Evolution’. But jump forward a decade and a half and now you’ve got social media and all the huge pressures it brings with it, so for young girls the whole landscape is even more toxic than ever. I can’t even begin to imagine how hard it all must be for teenage girls today. It’s heartbreaking. That’s why we decided to step up and evolve the platform to make it even more action-orientated last year with the ‘Let’s change beauty’ campaign. ‘Reverse Selfie’, which highlighted the damage being done by photo editing apps, was the first step on this journey. We are working on the next step at the moment.
LBB> What’s really exciting you about the industry right now?
Daniel> Well, I’m not going to mention the most wanged-on about marketing buzzword of this century, so don’t get your hopes up. However, there’s undeniably huge creative potential in all these ‘new’ spaces such as gaming. I say new in inverted commas because they’ve always been there, but the industry is finally starting to embrace them and that is exciting. The ROI Hellmann’s got from their island in Animal Crossing was huge.
LBB> And what’s frustrating you about it?
Daniel> Hmmm… can I refer to the most ‘wanged-on’ about marketing buzzword of this century again? There’s a bit too much hysteria about it.
LBB> Outside of work, what do you do to keep creatively inspired and sharp?
Daniel> I have two young daughters. It might be a cliché but it’s amazing how being a parent helps you see the world from a different perspective. It’s like you are going on a journey of discovery all over again.
LBB> Looking forward to 2022, what are your ambitions and hopes for the coming year?
Daniel> Well, I’d like to take our clients into some more unusual spaces. We have stuff planned - hopefully it will come off!
Also, like many of us, I’ve really missed the interaction over the past couple of years. I love how the pandemic has given us more flexible ways of working but the magic in this industry really happens when great people get in a building with other great people and start riffing. It’s a sort of alchemy that you just can’t get out of working on Zoom day-in and day-out. So, I really hope we get to do a bit more of that this year too.