When Matt Lever took on his current role as chief creative officer at London ad agency BMB, founder Trevor Beattie described him as a “class act” and a pair of “safe hands”. And looking at his track record in his career, you can see why.
Having started out at Campbell Doyle Dye and then under the watch of Trevor while he was ECD and chairman at TBWA London, Matt began creating work that impacted culture from early on. While many junior creatives would have to wait for their first ‘big job’, he was involved in creating a 24-minute ‘road movie’ that ended up becoming a whopping 196 idents for Nissan – a body of work that even made it onto the DVD extras of 24 (more on that below).
His career from there saw him at RKCR/Y&R, MCBD and DLKW Lowe, before he worked at Wieden & Kennedy Portland for two years as a creative, working on Facebook, Nike, Old Spice, Kraft and Coca Cola.
At VCCP, Lever oversaw the rebrand of O2, which resulted in the award-winning “More for You” campaign. He also pitched for, won and worked on clients including Transport for London, Domino’s and Paddy Power. He has won around 60 awards to date, including Cannes Lions, D&AD awards, Campaign Bigs, Creative Circle, Clios, British Arrows and Eurobest.
In the past few years at BMB he’s presided over a period of regeneration (even though a pandemic hit half way through), overseeing award-winning work for Farrow & Ball and Pride in London and creating campaigns for household British names and international brands including Nike, innocent, Breast Cancer Now, Gymbox, Patak’s and La Famiglia Rana.
LBB’s Alex Reeves had a chat with Matt.
LBB> What sort of creativity were you most excited about when you were growing up?
Matt> I grew up in the West Country [in England]. My dad was a policeman and my mum worked in a school. It was a very normal, working-class world, where creativity as a concept was never mentioned and certainly never discussed as a potential career option. So it’s probably unsurprising, in hindsight, that the two forms of creativity that I was obsessed with were two of the most mainstream – music and comedy.
As a little kid, my parents had a fabulously Alan Partridge ‘Best of the Beatles’ cassette (weirdly, compiled by Marks & Spencer) that I played to death on my tinny little Sony Walkman. The imagery that Paul McCartney conjures in songs like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘She’s Leaving Home’ just grabbed me (I think pretentious advertising people call it ‘storytelling’). Then as a teenager, Britpop happened and that was it. I was an indie convert. I love the fact that with music it’s often the zeitgeisty, of-the-moment bands that help you discover what came before. It’s like a voyage of discovery in reverse. Britpop helped me discover The Stone Roses, The Smiths and everything all the way back to The Beatles where it all began.
From a comedy point of view, my teenage years were all about [British television sitcom] Bottom. At first glance it just looks like over-the-top, juvenile slapstick but the dialogue is very, very funny. And Rik Mayall’s performance as a crazed, virginal, middle-aged loser with delusions of grandeur is amazing.
LBB> When did you first discover that advertising was a job and you could be creative for a living?
Matt> I was in my university library, thinking ‘what am I going to do with this English degree’, when I stumbled across an A5 pamphlet titled ‘what to do with an English degree’ (or something like that). Nestling underneath ‘secondary school English teacher’ and ‘non-specific entry-level graduate job at generic company’ was ‘advertising copywriter’. Until then, I’d heard of advertising agencies (well, I’d heard of Saatchi & Saatchi) but hadn’t realised that there were people whose job was to write those telly ads that I’d spent my formative years watching.
I was working in a call centre every night for Orange (precursor to EE) at the time and managed to weasel some work experience with their marketing team in London, who sent me off to their ad agency, WCRS, for an afternoon. That was where I met my first actual creative, Remco Graham, who explained what a creative team was, showed me a student portfolio that was lying on his desk and told me that if I wanted to be a ‘proper’ creative my best bet was to get on a course that he referred to as ‘Watford’. Which I did. And the rest, as they say, is one man’s rambling history of how he stumbled into an advertising career in a largely pre-internet era.
LBB> What early jobs or projects helped shape you as a creative and why?
Matt> That call centre job was a pretty good grounding to be honest – speaking to members of the public for 30 hours a week gives you a really good sense of what real people are like outside of our insular, middle-class adland bubble.
Advertising-wise, we were very lucky to work for Dave Dye and Sean Doyle at Campbell Doyle Dye, for the first nine months of our career – their high standards and obsession with craft really gave us a head start (and as a writer, getting to learn from someone like Sean was invaluable). After CDD, we were hired by Paul Silburn at TBWA (where future BMB founder Trevor Beattie was ECD and chairman). The standards there were incredibly high and the creative department was packed full of brilliant people. Paul had just made the Peter Kay John Smith’s campaign
, PlayStation ‘Mountain’
won the Cannes Grand Prix and Trev’s FCUK was on every T-shirt in the land. In a place like that you just work really hard, keep your ears open and learn as much as you can.
The first project we did that really shaped us was a thing for Nissan. Idents for the show ‘24’. The series was episodic and unfolded over 24 episodes, so we had the idea that the idents should too. Next thing we knew, we were in the Nevada desert for three weeks, shooting a 24-minute ‘road movie’ that got cut down into 196 idents. The film was also released as an extra on the 24 DVD boxset (remember DVDs?!). It made me realise that if you’ve got a good idea, a bit of ambition and a team of brilliant people around you, you can do anything.
LBB> Who are your creative heroes?
Matt> Outside of advertising, Paul McCartney, Ricky Gervais (circa 2001-7), Ian McEwan. In advertising, Paul Silburn.
LBB> When you came to BMB as CCO in 2018, what were you most interested in getting stuck into?
Matt> BMB had been through a bit of a tough patch. Quite a lot of management change, founders moving on etc. The challenge of trying to get an agency back to its best was what excited me.
LBB> And how do you think your experience has differed from those expectations?
Matt> It’s been exactly what I was expecting, really. Hard work but incredibly rewarding. Obviously the process of reinvention was slowed down and made harder/more stressful by the pandemic, but advertising’s not that complicated really. It’s about building a team of brilliant people and trying to help them to do great things.
LBB> What have you recently been most proud of and why?
Matt> Our clients, our work and our people. We’re working with such a brilliant set of brands now. Free Now, Farrow & Ball, Nike, innocent, Breast Cancer Now, Gymbox, Patak’s and La Famiglia Rana to name a few. And that’s led to work that both real people and awards juries seem to be enjoying. All of that’s been made possible by a fantastically bright, hard-working gang of brilliant BMBers, who should be incredibly proud of themselves. They’re building a culture of high standards and humanity. And all within a strict (if anecdotal) ‘no dickheads’ policy, which makes it even better.
LBB> What subjects do you find yourself sounding off about on a regular basis at work?
Matt> I’m not really a ‘sound off-er’, but the thing I keep wanging on about like a broken record (and this seems very obvious) is that if the work’s good, then everything else will follow. If you conjured a mental picture of the world’s greatest agencies, it would be framed by their output, not their schtick. Agencies can be notoriously navel gazing – we have to remember that the product – the stuff we put out into the world – is the only thing that really matters. The way to ensure the continued cultural relevance of our industry is to ensure that the work we shove in front of the public’s eyeballs is additive to their lives, not pollutant.
LBB> What's going on in culture or the world more broadly right now that you've been thinking about a lot?
Matt> The Roaring 1920s saw an explosion of artistic, social and cultural dynamism (thanks Wikipedia). The 2020s aren’t really roaring in the same way. A global pandemic, war in Europe, the cost of living crisis, continued bloodshed in American schools. Christ, it’s depressing. I think the world could do with a bit of cheering up. Maybe advertising needs to stop taking itself so seriously, get its head out of its arse and offer people some much needed escapism, entertainment, humour and light in a world that feels increasingly dark. It needs to be tonally appropriate, obviously, and for the right brands, but I think that people are probably crying out for a bit of positivity and fun.