The Boys & Girls creative director on his many side projects, applied psychology and R&D-based advertising
Some people have hobbies to take their minds off work - a spot of fishing, photography, knitting. But then there are those creative people who never stop having ideas, whether they’re on the clock or not. Laurence O’Byrne is one of those people – and a pretty extreme example, at that. When he’s not working on ideas as creative director at Dublin agency Boys & Girls, maintaining its status as Ireland’s most creatively awarded integrated agency, he’s telling stories or collaborating with his artistic friends around the world.
Probably the biggest project he’s got going on is Little Super Dubs (LSD), the animated series he’s been working with various collaborators on for five years, that could well be appearing on Netflix in the not-too-distant future.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Laurence.
LBB> I’ve heard about the animated series you’ve been working on directing, called LSD. Is that near to seeing the light of day now?
LOB> It is! I’ve been working on it for the last five years so it’s at the stage now where it was due to be finished by the end of March. It’ll now be the end of April. I’ve been working on that with Des Kavanagh and Thiago Maia as creative collaborators on it. We’re in full production. I’m going in to do some sound design hopefully next week.
It’s been an amazing project. It started off when I was in another agency. I was a little bit bored. I wanted a side project to work on and I just got more and more into it. There comes a point when you think, ‘am I going to commit and make something?’
The key thing for me was funding. It’s very hard to get these kinds of projects off the ground, because you have to go through film boards. When I looked into it there were too many restrictions, too many people asking me to do this, that and the other. I don’t think that’s the way.
The thing I tend to spend a lot of time doing is having an idea then looking for the right people, wherever I can find them. So for example the first guy I worked with was a freelancer in Dublin, then the next guy was in Brazil, so it’s been a real pass-the-parcel to make the project develop. It’s been over the world and some of these guys I’ve never even met. I did a lot of it remotely and then I shot the live-action bits myself with a DOP.
For me it’s not just about animation. It’s about having something that you have total control over and that you have an ability to direct in ways you want to take it. The great thing about animation is that it’s not just like a project that’s alive for two weeks and then it’s gone forever. One the flipside, in advertising sometimes you create something that only ever exists for a couple of weeks and then it’s gone.
LBB> LSD is your chance to make something a bit less ephemeral then?
LOB> It’s about working with some really interesting, quirky people. Then also once you have characters, there are different ways you can get them out in the world. So I’m working with a 3D printer at the moment to create 3D models. They’re only two inches tall in the real world. There are five of them.
LBB> Who are they?
LOB> They’re dysfunctional superheroes. Dublin’s like their Gotham City. They’re always trying to fix things but never succeed. They never help anything.
They’re wrapped in a plasticine texture, but actually all built in a computer. They live in the real world. So I shot all the plates and environments around famous locations in Dublin city. Sometimes they’re just snug, in the pub, having a pint.
The Little Super Dubs [from left to right]: The Gic, Sap Head, The Thic, Boggy and Little Shit
LBB> So this has been a labour of love over five years. What stage is it at?
LOB> We’re making the one 70-second pilot and there’s a series of 12 written out. They’re two minutes in duration. We’ve got a contact at Netflix and there’s also a cartoon forum on in Europe every year. You get a minute-and-a-half spot to pitch your characters, your story, your plot, your series and the audience is full of networks. If you’re lucky you could sell it that day and your work could go around the world.
LBB> Why did you call it LSD?
LOB> From working in advertising, I know you need a hook. They’re Little Super Dubs - they’re only two inches tall.
LBB> Let’s rewind. What was 10-year-old Laurence like?
LOB> I spent a lot of my time as a kid daydreaming. I remember one of my report cards said ‘Laurence spends a lot of his time in his own world’. A school environment, I don’t think it’s always structured for creative people. I think it’s too sceptical, too systematic and too standardised.
Another thing I remember at that age was I was quite a tricky kid, in ways. I would obsess about certain things. I can remember when I was 10 or 11 I got this idea in my head that I wanted this waistcoat, but I had a particular colour that I wanted it to be in - multi-coloured red, green and blue. I wanted something that was different. I didn’t know where to get it but I knew it existed somewhere. So I dragged my parents around 30 or 40 shops for days until I found it.
LBB> Did you find it?
LOB> Eventually! It was in a totally different part of the city that we’d never been to before. That’s something I have a tendency for. I can become quite obsessive about ideas or making things happen.
LBB> Do you remember when you first took an interest in advertising?
LOB> I think it was an accumulation of things that clicked. I was always interested in art, painting and then making things. Even as a kid I had a slightly entrepreneurial way. When I was 11 or 12 I was making stuff to sell in craft shops because I thought you can be creative but maybe there’s a way of doing this so you can get some cash as well.
When I went to art college I studied computer animation. I was just about to finish art college and then I won a scholarship and continued on straight into psychology.
When I finished my psychology degree I was trying to figure out what I was going to do. For a couple of years I actually worked in behaviour analysis. Behaviourism is an area in psychology where you work with principles of reinforcement to try to adapt people’s behaviour. I worked in school with children with autism. That was an incredible time for me. Incredible people, the kids were amazing - very challenging and rewarding at the same time.
I suppose I have quite a mixed background in that way. At some point I wondered how I could do something that’s creative and have a way to merge the psychology and the things I’ve learnt in. I thought advertising could be an interesting space for that.
LBB> That makes sense. So you had a chance to be creative but also working to change people’s behaviour?
LOB> Change behaviour, exactly. But I generally think psychology is such an interesting subject matter. There are so many things it can apply to that it kind of opens your mind to things.
LBB> How do you feel your background in psychology impacts on your work in advertising?
LOB> It’s something I still read up on now and that I’m really interested in. What we’re trying to do is get people’s attention. We’re trying to persuade people, to understand behaviour and what motivates people.
So there are a few things. One is applying that thinking when you’re working on a brand and the other is in the culture of an agency. What motivates people? What brings out the best in people? How do you reward people when they do a great piece of work?
The thing I really found fascinating is how advertising changes people’s brains. People want to think they’re the same after they see an ad. I’m interested in the neuroplasticity. When you see ads and pair things together you’re actually changing the [brain’s] structure - there are neurons firing at the same time and when people see the ad again those same neurons have that memory. I thought that was fascinating.
LBB> What work are you most proud of recently?
LOB> I’m very interested in the stuff that wouldn’t normally come in as a brief. A lot of the projects that I find most interesting take a bit more time. We’ve been working on BullyBug, an anti-bullying project, for a while now. It’s gone into its next phase. That’s a real-world problem. We had a collaboration with a bunch of kids from an inner-city school who would never get the chance to come into an ad agency and work with people.
We saw loads of really interesting ideas they came up with even though they’re only eight or nine. Like a lot of ideas that need tech behind them, it was about us finding different partners to work with and do prototypes. That’s a really interesting part of work now. You can have the idea but it’s really interesting when you can get to a prototype [and] something’s going to exist in the real world.
I think creative people just want to make interesting stuff. There are more opportunities to do different types of projects and actually make things. We’re currently working on a collaborative project with an agency in Sweden, where we’re trying to make a new product that’s never been made before. That’s an interesting space.
It’s the collaboration aspect we love as well. That’s part of the whole agency ethos of Boys & Girls. Collaboration - it’s even in our logo - the ‘&’ bit. We’re interested in working with photographers, directors, scientists, artists, writers, whoever it is.
The cross-fertilisation of disciplines is a really exciting area at the moment. Before, who you would work with was more set. You’d work with a photographer, with a director. At the moment we’re talking to a guy who’s a nanoscientist, who makes the smallest sculptures in the world. And doing things that are R&D-based. You don’t even know if they’ll work.
LBB> You’ve had a really eventful year working at Boys & Girls. Any moments that stand out for you that you won’t forget?
LOB> I’ve had a couple of them. One of our global clients is a tequila brand called Jose Cuervo. That was the most incredible job. We just launched the brand film this week, directed by Brian Williams. We went to Mexico for an eight-day shoot, bringing a really interesting team of people - we brought a photographer over from Helsinki, a director from London. It was going somewhere really authentic, shooting at dawn, shooting all day, getting up at midnight, shooting the festival that was there.
That kind of experience - there are very few jobs that can provide that opportunity. That’s a real privilege of the job. You just never know where you’re going to be asked to go or what people you’re going to meet. The joy of it is you get put together with teams of people for a reasonably short period of time. And the following week you’re with the next bunch of people. And obviously sometimes you’ll work with those people again but sometimes you’ll do a great job on something and that’ll be the only time you work with them.
We had a great experience with Julian Frost last year - the animator behind ‘Dumb Ways to Die’. We really wanted to work with him and we did some ads for the Irish Insurance Federation, pure animation. We never actually met him. He’s in Australia, we’re in Ireland. We did the whole project over Skype. Great project, really interesting person. But it’s interesting that you can never physically meet a person you’re working with for two months.
LBB> Apart from collaboration, what are the parts of the creative process that you most enjoy?
LOB> The moment when you hear a good idea or somebody puts it down on the table. You know a good idea when there’s an energy in the room. Then there are two more steps for me: looking for the person who’s the right fit to make the idea. Then the third thing I’ve really always enjoyed, and I do a lot in my personal work, is the moment on the shoot when you hit the button, click the shutter or you’re behind the screen and you see the idea actually come into existence. That, to me, is the joy of the making. You’ve got to enjoy the process. That’s the job. You’ve got a blank page, then a couple of months later you’ve created something.
LBB> I read that you have a strict policy on when you answer emails. You clearly have some discipline about how you work! What’s your day-to-day like?
LOB> I was talking about this recently. It’s something I’m trying to work on all the time - just trying to find different ways of working. Can you ever answer the amount of emails that come into your inbox? Or SHOULD you be doing that? Is that the best use of our time?
I think in an ad agency, working from nine to five there have to be different ways of carving that time up to get the most out of it and that’s most beneficial to the clients you’re working with, to the ideas, to finding ways to find inspiration during the week. Then you’ve got to get outside of the agency to do interesting stuff as well. You don’t want to become a person that’s just obsessed with advertising.
One of my pet hates is meetings. I found this glass egg timer. It only does 15 minutes. We flip it over and by the end of the meeting that should be it. It’s habitual. If you have less time you spend it better. Also, there’s the physicality of seeing time. When people sit in big board rooms, they aren’t supposed to be looking at their phones. There’s no real sense of how much time is passing.
LBB> Let’s talk about Boys & Girls in general. You’ve been doing really well recently. What are your big goals going forward?
LOB> I suppose what makes us a bit different is we’re an independent agency, so the partners are in, working at the agency every day. The core thing about the agency is creativity. Written on our wall is ‘Great work works,’ above our boardroom table. It’s all about how creativity can have an impact on our clients’ businesses. It’s that simple.
Also we’ve been lucky that in the last three years we’ve been the most awarded [Irish] creative agency. We see that as if it’s more creative, it’s more effective. It’s not creativity for creativity’s sake. So the last few years have been great.
We’ve got our Irish clients and we’re doing global work now. I can see that growing over the next couple of years.
What we try to do is keep on developing the culture of the agency because that’s key for us, especially in the creative department, but it extends to the whole agency. You have to have a place where everyone’s looking forward to doing work.
LBB> LSD must have been a huge project for you over all these years, but you’ve got other side projects too, I hear.
LOB> We talk about this a lot at work. The power of the side project. For me, even when I’m interviewing people I’m always saying: ‘Let’s see your portfolio, but what else do you do? What do you do in your spare time? What are you making?’ For me it comes back to the joy of making. You’ve got to enjoy the process of making stuff.
People think you’re doing loads of side projects to make money. I don’t do side projects to make money. I do them because it makes your work more interesting. Chances are on side projects you’re probably going to lose money. You’re definitely going to invest a lot of time in it.
This is a good summary of what I did in the last two years: I’ve had LSD going on for five years and then another thing I got involved with was- one of my other passions is food. There are a couple of restaurants that I really liked in Dublin, but one of them, called Locks, had a really bad identity and design. My partner in crime Shane O’Riordan and I got together and rebranded the restaurant.
I work with lots of musicians and composers, but one guy, Denis Kilty was launching James Joyce Gin. He just needed some help with the art direction. So Shane, John Kilkenny and I got involved and art directed that brand from scratch based on Ulysses by James Joyce. It was something we felt was really classic.
Quite recently I got back into photography, so I started shooting some for a Barnardo’s campaign that’s coming out in a couple of weeks’ time. Sometimes I like to get behind the lens as well as art directing.
And I’ve got another project I’m working on which I shot last year - a two-minute film on dementia.
LBB> Wow, you’re keeping busy aren’t you?
LOB> That’s the thing. You need to mix things up, keep everything in different pockets. At the very least it keeps things interesting. But you’ve just got to give them time because it does take more time. Everything connects back to everything.