It was thanks to his quest to become an eternal student that Flo Heiss first decided to move to London. He may not be a student any more, but as ECD at Dare he’s still learning every day. The agency has a reception cluttered with awards for its creativity and effectiveness, and was even named ‘Digital Agency of the Decade’ in 2010. A few weeks ago, the agency hit the headlines with a hard-hitting anti-smoking campaign for the Department of Health. LBB's editor Gabrielle Lott met up with Flo to find out how he stays fresh and keeps Dare different.
LBB> You describe yourself as an Anglo-Bavarian – what’s that?
FH> It’s quite straightforward. I’m Bavarian and I live in the UK. I’ve been here since 1996, so 16 years. I’m an anglobavarian, Bavarian English man.
LBB> What made you come to the UK?
FH> I came here to study an MA in Graphics at the Royal College of Art. I met my wife, I fell in love and I stayed. We have two kids now and live outside of London.
LBB> So it’s love that kept you here and not the industry?
FH> No, not in the first instance, I always planned to go back. I guess the reason that I came to England initially was because I was interested in the culture and creative industry within London. I felt that it was more interesting here.
LBB> Was the graphics heritage of the UK an important factor?
FH> The graphics heritage was key. But another important reason was the fact that I didn’t want to start working yet, so I thought I’d move to London. I think I have the longest education; I went to a private art school, then I went to college for four years, spent one year studying in Italy and then I came to the UK and thought ‘I don’t want to work yet’, so I found the RCA course. The UK and London has fantastic culture, publishing, design, art and music. It all happens here and I thought ‘I want a bit of that’. Advertising was never really on the cards. For me, it was a combination of art and digital.
LBB> You started out as a junior web designer, didn’t you?
FH> Yes. After the RCA I fancied myself as a fine artist for a while. I even had an exhibition in a gallery in Bethnal Green, but I very quickly ran out of money. So, remembering my interest in digital, I started at a company called Razorfish. I was a junior web designer at the time. The first time I designed a website was in 1998, for Oddbins.
LBB> I remember being about 18-years-old in 1998 and only just getting emails and discovering Askjeeves.com…!
FH> It was the beginning. I had an email address at the RCA and that was a big deal. You had to go to the library computer room to log on. You’d sign the sheet and fifteen minutes to ‘do email’. That was a real novelty.
Being a web designer at Razorfish was almost like being at a college for digital. We just fucked around and experimented. No one knew what the hell was going on and we had a great time doing it. I remember attending a weeklong, worldwide global conference for all of the Razorfish offices in Las Vegas. All of the offices closed. That’s how crazy it was during the dotcom madness. It was like a rock concert; thousands of employees were there, listening to our CEOs. It was a brilliant, brilliant time though. I think two months later the whole thing went bust because no one made any money. A lot of companies from back then are closed now, but it was an interesting time to learn. I met lots of brilliant, talented people, many of whom I’m still in contact with.
I heard about Dare after about 18 months or so at Razorfish. A friend worked there at the time. He phoned me up and said, “there’s this new company and we need how to make some moonwalk in Flash”. I said: “I can do that!”
It was a figure called DJ Kazac for Lynx. BBH did the TV ad and we created the DJ Kazac world tour website in flash. I did that and started working at Dare. It was quite organic.
LBB> Tell me more about Dare. What makes it such a unique offering?
FH> I think we were the first digital agency to really take new media seriously at that time. We applied old-school discipline to new media and did things properly. In the early days a lot of people sort of made it up as they went along, but we put a proper process in place.
What keeps me here is that no two briefs are the same. It’s quite messy. It’s noisy. It’s scratchy and non-advertising. I like that in a way, there is always something different going on. There are lots of other companies that approach work in exactly the same way.
Dare – the clue is in the name. We are always trying to create interesting, surprising work. The people that I work with here are a totally talented bunch and I learn everyday. It’s really fun to work here. That’s why I am still here after nearly 13 years. Dare has always kept it interesting and kept its vibe.
LBB> Would you describe the blend of new media and old-school discipline as a ‘code of practice’ or is that something that naturally exists within Dare’s approach to work?
FH>I think it’s about the discipline of making the best it can be. There is always a different way of making something. There isn’t really a set process, but we take our work really seriously.
We have a really good planning function here at Dare. We’ve got a very rigorous briefing process and we are very collaborative. I think that’s structural. It’s very fixed and we are very proud of that. We have creative teams, technologists and designers all sitting together. I sit somewhere in the corner, deliberately in the shittiest place. It’s talking to each other, accidental collaboration and the small conversations that make the work good. It’s a very intuitive process.
LBB> You refer to yourself sitting in the corner, watching, tentacles out, looking around, which makes me think of squids. At the end of last year, you and James Cooper launched ‘The Little Giant Squid’ app… Can you talk to us about the project and your love of this cephalopod?
FH> This is a personal project we initiated. We went to Pixar with Creative Social. We were incredibly inspired through meeting the people behind ‘Up’; the whole team was talking to us. James and I snuck away, feeling a bit stupid, and wondering if there was anything we could do.
I am obsessed with giant squids. Until recently it was the only creature that had never been filmed alive. There’s only one snippet of film from Japan. I find that fascinating and its where the idea came from. James wrote it in New York and I did the illustrations here in the UK. We Skyped once a week and had meetings in various places around the world. We just wanted to see what would happen and had no real agenda. It exists. It’s probably got about 25 downloads on four iPads, but it exists. It was a pet project and I’m proud of it.
LBB> You were interviewed a while back and you were asked how you stay fresh… Something you said, which really resonated, was that you should ‘read the Daily Mail, read The Independent, watch crap TV, watch avant-garde films’. Are these small, personal projects another way of keeping yourself ‘fresh’?
FH> You have to do it. The easiest thing is to not do it because there are always so many reasons why something can’t exist. Do it, and if it’s not good, do it anyway. Keep at it until it goes somewhere. Don’t give up. We all have drawers full of ideas that no one sees. Having the ideas is the easy part… you need to make it happen. It’s never been easier to make things.
Don’t edit your life. Read everything and anything. You need to watch a lot of crap TV. Be a sponge. How can you stay fresh if you don’t know about anything and everything? You need to know about what’s going on and stay curious about the world around you. Don’t be cynical. Stay open minded. Simple.
LBB> Going back to Little Giant Squid again. A lot of agencies are currently producing their own products in-house. What do you think about this and how does this apply to Dare? Is it a good thing, a distraction, a PR stunt, a motivator?
FH> It’s all of those things. It’s a PR stunt, it’s a distraction, its a good thing. We do it; small things once or twice a year. They tend to be tech inventions that we create for ourselves. Maybe we don’t do enough of it. When agencies try to make products, I think it’s because of the desire to kind of do something that has a cultural impact beyond advertising. I think that’s laudable. I think it’s really important for all agencies to have an incubator somewhere that works on ideas, independently from clients; something that investigates, experiments.
LBB> Awards. Your reception is pretty much full of gongs… What’s your opinion on awards and how do they play out at Dare?
FH> I would be lying if I didn’t say that they were important to us.
LBB> You’re on the board of trustees for the D&AD…
FH> Exactly. When it comes to D&AD and Cannes, I don’t know anyone who wins a Pencil or Lion and isn’t over the moon. It’s important for the people who work within the agency to be recognised and know that other people think their work is good. It’s good for attracting talent to the agency as well.
LBB> In 2010, Dare won Digital Agency of the Decade… where do you go from there?
FH> It’s a difficult second album. You have to really think about what comes next. We decided to add broadcast to our skillset and merged with MCBD. It’s about technology, not necessarily just digital. We are more than just a creative agency with big ideas - we have the right big ideas. It just so happens that we live in a world where everything is digital.
Awards are a necessary evil maybe and are important, but the danger is that they lead to compromise. When you create great work, awards come with it. When you create to win awards, that’s a dangerous place to visit.
LBB> How does Dare foster and support new talent?
FH> We have ‘Dare School’ where we take on a couple of young creative talents each year. We have five very talented young guys and girls in the department at the moment. ‘Dare Grads’ is our company-wide recruitment scheme, which this year included the creative department for the first time. We have good relationships with colleges and I do a session with Buckingham University each year where I brief them and the best come here. I do a lot with D&AD Young Blood… There is a load going on. It’s really important.
LBB> A question from one of our Facebook fans, Carl E. Ellis: ‘Dare’s most recent campaign for Smoke-Free is chillingly honest and unapologetic in its brutality. How do we engage the smoker who fears nothing, not even a slow painful death?’ Can you talk to us about the campaign and how this fits in with The Department of Health’s objectives?
FH> This work was by Nick Bird and Lee Smith, but I stuck my nose in and was involved in finding the facts. Creatively, though, it’s their baby, not mine.
Our brief was to create two pieces. The first, a softer campaign that came out in October, was based on the fact that once you’ve gone 28 days without smoking you are more likely to quit smoking altogether. We created Stoptober
, which was really successful. It was an involving, positive piece of work.
For the second stage, the hard-hitting campaign, our brief was to be more shocking than the 2004 British Heart Foundation campaign, ‘Artery
’. We found a really interesting piece of research that revealed after every 15 cigarettes, there is a chance that a cell within your body will mutate. This, in turn, can lead to cancer. We brought that out and made it visible.
The spot uses props - none of it is CGI. We wanted to make it real and I think that makes it really aggressive. I think it is a very visual and tangible campaign. You will always have the hardcore smokers who are prepared to die and who always have an excuse. You just need to read the first few comments on YouTube under the commercial.
LBB> What does 2013 look like for Dare?
FH> There’s loads going on and we’re trying to make as much new work as possible. There’s some brilliant new work for Barclaycard and Barclays. They are interested in pushing technology, which is really refreshing. We’ve created some really challenging pieces for them. ‘Toys Unleashed
’, it’s called. Check it out, it’s a really clever game.
I think going forward it will be interesting to explore other avenues of making products and coming to clients with more of a proactive approach, and creating business solutions for them. I’d like to have a couple of big campaigns this year, something that is truly integrated. That’s where we really shine. We have everything here and I feel like we haven’t quite cracked that yet as an agency. Good question. I don’t know what the future holds, who knows…? Keep watching.