Head of Marketing James Walker on the Paralympics and more
Channel 4’s epic ‘Meet the Superhumans’ project for the Paralympic games is one of the big frontrunners in this year’s award season cycle. But beyond the games, there’s a lot that adland can learn from the UK’s punky TV brand. Channel 4 famously do all their creative in-house and, over the years, it’s a set up that has produced some edgy, high profile campaigns that have received international acclaim. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Channel 4’s James Walker at PromaxBDA Europe to talk challenging taboos and discovering ‘4-ness’.
LBB> Seasoned adwatchers will be familiar with the award-winning work that has come out of the Channel 4 brand over the years – like the Stanley Kubrick one-shot spot by Siri Bunford. All of those ideas have come out of your in-house agency 4Creative. Why does that set-up work so well?
JW> It’s important to note that it’s not just marketing and creative development that’s in-house, production is too. Think about the layers that can exist – you usually have a client and an advertising agency and they’ll hire an outside production company – but we’re all in-house. That just means you have a short gap between the person creating the brief and the director. There’s no watering-down of the idea. We’ve managed to hold on to some really talented directors like Neil Gorringe. Tom [Tagholm] recently left – but even the people who leave and go on to direct commercials like him and Siri Bunford, come back in a freelance capacity.
A few years ago I was involved in the Bloody Circus promo which was directed by a guy called Simon Ratigan, who has gone on to have a very successful commercials career. He came back to 4Creative to do that promo. That was obviously beneficial for the production company he’s now working out of because it’s a great calling card for him as a director. We’ve got some brilliant producers in house, with great experience of the industry and good contacts in postproduction houses.
I think to be able to generate the ideas and make them within the same group of people is fairly unique. Obviously Red Bee is similar – though now it’s independent of the BBC. ITV are doing a similar thing now because my old boss, Rufus Radcliffe, went to work there. It works well for television because you’re talking about a creative industry full of creative people.
LBB> When you started working on the Paralympics campaign, what sorts of conversations were you having around how you planned to position it?
JW> Channel 4 made a very bold bid to broadcast the event. We were very clear from the beginning that we wanted to move the Paralympics out of the shadow of the Olympics. I think it’s in Channel 4’s DNA to take risks. Our remit is to champion alternative perspectives and create a platform for different voices, so it felt like the right thing for us to do. We turned a bid around fairly quickly, but when we did our research to understand what the audience thought about the Paralympics, we realised we had a lot of work to do.
I think the Paralympics had some success in previous games but were always an afterthought. A lot of people were confused and would say things like “I think it’s great that it happens but I’m not sure I would want to watch it”. We realised we needed to shake people out of their apathy and confront prejudices head on. It was a home games which created an opportunity that hadn’t been there before. We knew that the Olympics – despite the doom mongers – would be a huge success, so there was a platform for the Paralympics to move out of the shadows.
But it would all depend on how we marketed it. We had a once in a lifetime opportunity to change how disability was perceived. It had to be about the sport, but framed in a certain way. One of the ways of showing how extraordinary Paralympians are is to show their stories, to show what they’ve had to go through to become the elite athletes that they are. We didn’t want to shy away from that, we wanted to confront people’s attitudes.
The idea of ‘Meet the Superhumans’ was about reappraising what human beings are capable of. Because we do creative in-house, it allows us to have a very short journey from brief to idea to execution because people work very closely together. I think a lot of great advertising ideas can get lost because of the layers there are between the people who come up with them and the people who have to buy into them.
LBB> The execution was brilliant – and director Tom Tagholm also comes from that Channel 4 and 4Creative family too, doesn't he?
JW> I’ve known Tom for ten years – when I first joined Channel 4 I was part of 4Creative before moving into the marketing team. He worked his way up to be creative director – and he’s now left 4 Creative to focus entirely on directing. It was the biggest project he’d ever done and it became all-consuming. It’s one of these situations where the stars align.
LBB> And what was the thinking behind the media strategy? When the central spot launched there was a roadblock across all the main UK, and then there was a lot of social activity, especially around the show The Last Leg [Channel 4 comedy show hosted by comedian Adam Hill that ran a Twitter hashtag #isitok to encourage the audience to explore the taboos around disability].
JW> Before the main superhuman spot, we made a lot of smaller documentary-type spots that were a bit more intimate. They were designed to be lower key than the main spot. When we launched it, we bought a roadblock across the main commercial channels and also talked to the BBC – they ran it during the One Show, which I don’t think they’d done before. There was a big social push too, because the point the launch was a live TV event.
You mention the Last Leg – our Paralympic experience wasn’t about separating the marketing team from the editorial team. We worked quite closely together. We worked with them when they commissioned the Last Leg and That Paralympics Show to build the buzz up slowly beforehand. The Last Leg was genius because it was a comedy show, using a disabled comedian who could say things that other people couldn’t. It’s better to talk about stuff rather than brush it under the carpet. You can get round negative attitudes when people feel relaxed about a subject.
LBB> Interestingly the Olympics and Paralympics were a real statement about how TV is viewed and how social media has turned live TV into event TV. Did you feel there was a big shift?
JW> The TV industry – depending on your perspective - has experienced some angst about live television versus on demand. On demand is becoming more important for younger audiences. But with a big TV show, like the X Factor, people want to get together and tweet about it in the moment. In the past they’d just say it to the person beside them on the sofa. A home games was such an extraordinary water cooler moment – everyone was talking about it. Everyone was spending all their non-working time watching television. It was exciting to know that if you get the right kind of content people want to watch it live and talk about it.
It is a bit of an anomaly as we’re unlikely to get an event like a home Olympic games again but then when you look at shows like X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing you can see they still create these live TV moments. Even programmes that have smaller audiences still reach hundreds of thousands of people, which is more than most magazines reach.
LBB> In terms of developing a TV campaign and spin-off online content, how early does the marketing team get involved with the programme developers?
JW> It varies. Pretty early on we’ll have conversations with the commissioning team. Channel 4 doesn’t make any of its programmes, unlike ITV or the BBC. It’s all commissioned from independent production companies, so you’re talking about different companies out of house. But we’ll have meetings with them and make them aware of how we see the programme being marketed. We’ll push to see the edits and scripts. For drama, which is a very expensive commission, we’ll read the scripts early on. We’re on that journey together – but ultimately our job is to market a programme, their job is to make it. We’re usually not directly influencing what’s being commissioned in the first place, though that could happen.
LBB> The most recent examples that come to mind are Utopia and the new series of Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’ – both of which were quite bold and daring commissions. Could you tell me about the creative strategies behind these shows?
JW> It felt like a fantastic moment at the beginning of the year when we had both these shows in the schedule. They both feel very ‘on brand’ for Channel 4 – you wouldn’t get anything like it on the other channels. They were quite edgy.
In Utopia, we had very early conversations with the writer and the creative team at Kudos, the production company. The thing with Utopia is that it’s a complicated show to explain to people, so we wanted to reduce it down. It was influenced by graphic novels – even down to the way it’s shot. We wanted to embrace that in our marketing. The colour yellow emerged as quite central, which was dialled up in the telecine. We made yellow the ‘hero’ and gave the posters a very graphic feel. We wanted to create something that looked poppy, modern and intriguing. They were designed to make people think that this was something they’d never seen before.
Because Black Mirror was onto its second series, people already had an idea of what to expect. It consists of three different films that aren’t necessarily connected other than through the theme of media and technology. We wanted to build something around the brand ‘Black Mirror’. Both the series one and two trailers were directed by Neil Gorringe, who did all the Skins promos and is a brilliant commercial director. The series one promo featured looking through a tunnel of screens. This time round the idea was to show a smartphone advert but twist it. You see people looking smiley and happy in that world, and then it all goes horribly wrong. We wanted to explore what Black Mirror meant – the posters showed a shattered screen and a distorted face. They were simple, graphic ideas which would hopefully get noticed.
It works best, the programme and the marketing feel very seamless. You don’t want to be miss-selling something, you want to be amplifying it.
LBB> There are a number of other channels that belong to the ‘4’ umbrella, including More 4, E4 and 4Seven. How hard is it to create distinct identities and yet maintain a consistent ‘Channel 4’ voice?
JW> It’s a really good question. We’re keen to keep developing our understanding of the ‘4-ness’ that links all of the channels. We decided early on – and I think it’s still the right decision – to give channel brands their own distinct identities. They all have ‘4’ within them but they have their own voice. We think they work really well as a family of channels. We still want to be sure that people understand what the ‘4-ness’ is at the centre of it all – and that will be something we will continue to monitor.
E4 is such a strong brand for young audiences and a great connection point for them. 4seven is about stimulating debate and conversation, and 4OD is the innovation story around new ways of accessing content. More4 is about lifestyle content, Film4 does what it says on the tin and then there’s 4Music too. We like to think of them as quite a modern family as far as their relationships with each other are concerned. They’re not a patriarchal family – the relationships between the channels can change and develop rather than it being very traditional.
LBB> It’s interesting that you mention that ‘4-ness’. As a Brit I totally get what you mean, but it also seems to have evolved from a fairly punk-y beginning to a more sophisticated kind of edginess.
JW> We live in a very different world compared with the early eighties. There were only four channels and Channel 4 was so different to the others when it launched. Now we live in a world where there is so much choice – you can find some of the things that used to be unique to us on TV or online. You’ve got to keep challenging and re-inventing yourself. You can’t get complacent. That’s why it’s important to do the risk-taking shows that we talked about. They’re not going to get high ratings because they’re challenging. But that’s what we’re put on this earth to do.