Aidan McClure, founder and chief creative officer at Wonderhood Studios, on how to make a memorable ad and his number one rule for creating work around a feeling
Enhancing the emotion of moving image is fundamental to what we do at CHEAT. Behind the scenes we’re invested in innovation to do just that. Years of technical research and development, colour science and film emulation, mean we are constantly finding new ways to deepen our impact on an emotive level in this medium. This is why we’re sponsoring LBB’s 'Emotion in Advertising' strand, exploring the theme through interviews with experts who share our passion.
Wonderhood Studios founder and chief creative officer Aidan McClure joins LBB’s Sunna Coleman to discuss the spectrum of emotions he would love to see in advertising and his hopes for a funnier future full of creative freedom.
LBB > Tell us a bit about your background and what first inspired you to launch Wonderhood Studios.
Aidan McClure > I’ve been lucky enough to work at some great agencies including Mother, BBH, AMV, adam&eve, and adam&eveDDB. I was then given the opportunity to help set up the BBC’s in-house creative agency, BBC Creative, where I got to rub shoulders with commissioners and program makers as well as develop an understanding of how to market channels and TV shows.
When ex Channel 4 CEO David Abraham asked me whether I wanted to help co-found a company that combined both a full service creative agency with a program making studio, it felt like the perfect combination of my skills. It was also the opportunity to do something that had never been done before and look beyond the traditional channels and find more ways to get brands talked about.
LBB > How would you describe your creative process and how has that changed over the years?
Aidan > When I was a creative my process was simple: set yourself a target for coming up with a set number of ideas and be strict with yourself to write that amount. One, two and three would be obvious but would work; four and five, would be rubbish because you thought you’d run out of ideas; six, seven and eight would start to get really interesting and unexpected; nine and 10 would be a desperate attempt to make up the numbers. I found having a target encouraged me to look for inspiration in lots of different places and unlock more ways to hit my target. Once you’ve got your list of ideas you then choose only the ones you’d really love to make and present those to your CD.
Now that I’m overseeing creatives, my process is different. I have the privileged position to lob ideas into the ring to get the ball rolling and then quickly back off when my teams come up with something much better. I absolutely love discussing ideas with teams and helping solve creative problems together. The more comfortable and confident you can make your teams and give them the freedom to challenge, the better the outcome. The main thing is to make sure creatives are making work they’re excited about. It sounds obvious but if you’re into an idea you’ll go the extra mile to make it brilliant.
LBB > What piece of work are you most proud of in your career so far?
Aidan > Anything we make at Wonderhood Studios makes me so proud. The agency started from nothing. It was literally a room with a few desks and a dying houseplant. No pre-existing relationships, back-scratching, poaching, or easy tap-ins. Everything that we have made so far is through our own entrepreneurship and hard work. It’s immensely rewarding to see what a bunch of brilliant and eclectic brains can build from scratch.
LBB > Drawing from your years of experience, what elements do you think make a successful and memorable ad?
Aidan > The most successful ads I’ve helped create in terms of the impact they’ve had on the brand have always tended to be simple stories born out of a bigger creative platform: Who Killed Dion for Met Police, Bear and Hare for John Lewis, The Supporting Act for BBC - or more recently: Wise Words for Comic Relief, Starling Bank’s Off the Ground and Hit of Home for Branston are all simple stories that have struck a chord with the target audience and engaged them in an emotional way.
I discovered early on that multiple stories told through vignettes tended to be far less engaging and subsequently forgettable. A simple story supported by ideas executed in a number of different channels all laddering up to one, big creative idea will produce a really effective campaign.
LBB > Why do you think simple stories are so powerful?
Aidan > It's the oldest thing, isn't it? Sitting down and telling someone a story. You just hook them straight away. Simple stories are the things that people emotionally engage with. If you can tell a story with your work, it’s powerful. Then all you need to do is find the best way to support that story through other channels to make it really effective. And to do that you need that big creative platform that sits over the top. The creative platform is born out of working really closely with planning and the client to make sure it’s really solving the business problem.
Sometimes the pitfalls of stories I think people fall into is that vignetted style - it’s a little bit of something here, a little bit of something there where you’re hopping all over the place. I think one linear, simple story works most effectively where you can follow it and emotionally connect to it.
LBB > How big a factor does/should emotion play in advertising? Would you say enough ads are considering this?
Aidan > Oh, yeah, definitely. I mean, I think that's the way you engage people. I think it's then down to the spectrum of emotions and making sure you're thinking about the full range. I'm a big advocate of picking a feeling and writing to that. That’s why I think Cadbury’s work is interesting, because they've picked a feeling. I really like their ‘Generosity’ campaign - it’s such a warm and touching emotion to write to, and they’re doing this with some beautifully authentic stories that are bang on for the product.
I’m not sure that enough advertisers consider the full range of emotion. A lot of brands get stuck on the tearjerker (which I’ve written my fair share of). The real challenge though, is that for emotion to truly work, you need longer time lengths than 20 seconds. The fame vs frequency debate is what stifles emotion in advertising as most brands lose their nerve when buying longer time lengths.
Frequency is a safety net against average ads – it doesn’t matter if it’s not very good, people will see it all the time anyway. That’s what we’re up against. You hear people saying it’s award-hungry creatives being self-indulgent but the simple matter is if you want to engage audiences through emotion you need the time to do it properly. I’d love to see and make more funny ads, especially after what we’ve all been through.
LBB > Can you share some examples of ads you think use comedy well?
Aidan > Back in the day, we saw a lot more funny ads like all the early stuff Mother did around Super Noodles. Then I feel like we've gone through a decade of shying away from that a bit. The John Lewis years have had a profound effect on British advertising. I just wonder now as we emerge from 2020, what effect that will have on the buying patterns of clients and the work that agencies produce? I can't see having another 10 years of John Lewis ads - we'll move on from that.
It feels like now's the time for more funny stuff. Droga5 are doing some really interesting stuff in the funny space, like with the Alexa ads, Rustlers and SETTAPP stuff. But I think all agencies could do a lot more, to be honest with you. And especially the big agencies, it feels like there isn't a big agency pushing out funny stuff.
LBB > What are some of your favourite Wonderhood projects that show real emotion being used well within advertising?
Aidan > Wise Words for Comic Relief is a great example of telling a simple story to make a powerful point. This could’ve been a series of vignettes but by making it one guy’s experience you instantly connect more with him and his words mean far more.
Similarly, the relationship between the mum and daughter in our latest Branston ad was so carefully planned and crafted. The director Charlotte Regan travelled to mum’s house and spent a day there with a microphone to get the perfect performance. This is what makes it work, it feels so authentic.
Finally, Starling is a great example of having a mix of emotions to create the peaks and troughs of a really engaging story.
LBB > What role do you feel that colour/grade and sound/music can play when it comes to eliciting emotions?
Aidan > Tell the viewer what they need to feel but without them noticing it. The moment you feel like you’re being manipulated, it’s curtains. Colour and grade are a brilliant way to subtly tell the viewer what they should be feeling. Keeping a bank of interesting films or TV shows and things that you've seen is a really good practise for building up an idea of aesthetics that you like. Having lots of references to find something that works with your story is really important.
For me, music is a real weapon. Get that right and it’s about 60% of the ad. I think sometimes the tonality of the piece comes out through casting and location, and sometimes details like that might inform your music. But then equally, you do get some jobs where you have to have the music upfront. So animation, for example, where you have to get the beats and the rhythm right in order to know what you're animating to. I don't think there's a hard and fast rule but I think definitely music should be thought about as early as possible and certainly the tonality of the music.
And remember not to shut things down just because of your personal music tastes. Keep your ears and mind open and really think about your audience and who you're trying to appeal to. And sometimes the most powerful thing is not having any music, which is interesting as well and makes you really stand out.
As a creator, just keep your tastes really broad. Explore all kinds of different music because you don't know when you might draw upon that. I do honestly listen to absolutely everything. So from jazz to classical to rap music or really mainstream pop as well. My wife's taking the piss out of me at the moment for listening to Ariana Grande but I’m interested in what’s popular and trending and why.
LBB > Moving on to the future, do you think that the struggles of the past year have taught us anything about the impact of emotion in advertising?
Aidan > Video calls in ads kill emotion, so do masks, and any phrases such as ‘during these turbulent times’. Also, anything that is not done authentically or with real meaning and craft will fall massively on its ass.
The samey-ness of advertising during 2020 was shocking. This was the product of everyone playing it safe. Fear will always be the death of brands. Any brand willing to take a risk and make something different from everyone else got noticed. I read something quite recently that we're heading into another roaring 20s where the hook is off and anything goes as freedom eventually restores a bit. And I would really hope that with that comes a sense of freedom in creativity in that you can be silly and not everything has to be really worthy and serious.
I hope coming out of this there’s a reaction to the restraints of 2020 and all the things you couldn't say, because people were scared they might cause offence, or it wasn't the right time, I'm hoping will lift and there will be a lot more willingness to be different and entertain. I’m quietly optimistic that we could be heading into a really fun moment in advertising.
I’m looking forward to making some funny stuff and stuff without any form of ‘restrictions’. Something with kissing, loads of handshaking and crowds. Yes I want to do something with a massive crowd of people kissing each other. I can’t wait for COVID restrictions to do one.
LBB > Any parting thoughts?
Aidan > Let’s all make a concerted effort to make better, more entertaining work. Our industry owes it to the people. Advertising is forgivable if they enjoy it.