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“Connecting With Our Reptile Brains Is the Key To Successful Advertising”



GOOD Agency creative director Andy Powell dives into the anatomy of our brains and how to provoke behavioural responses in advertising

“Connecting With Our Reptile Brains Is the Key To Successful Advertising”
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.

In this interview, LBB’s Sunna Coleman speaks with Andy Powell, creative director at GOOD Agency. Passionate about the psychology of audiences and how emotive work can nudge their behaviours to create good in the world, Andy thrives on harnessing the power of big ideas for purposeful human connections. Here, he shares his valuable insight on conflicting emotions, tapping into our reptile brains, and the benefits of not fitting in.

LBB> Going back to your childhood or early career, where did your interest in advertising come from?

Andy Powell> When I think back to 10 year old me, I wouldn’t be at all surprised by what I am doing now. I was really into writing, fascinated by problem solving, and always reading. My parents actually taught me to read before I went to school and used to get me to read the newspaper, so I had a real sense of what was going on in the world, and that probably subconsciously exposed me to advertising. 

I remember on rainy days during the summer holidays, I’d get bored stuck inside, so my parents would set me a creative task like designing a new car or new style of house. For the rest of the day that was it, I was focused on that task and solving the problem at hand.  

I also feel like I grew up slightly between different tribes at school. The cool kids, the nerdy kids, the sporty kids - I was a bit in between. I look back and think that's probably been quite helpful in advertising, where you need to be able to look at different demographics and have an outsider’s point of view but also have a bit of an understanding of who the audiences are too.

LBB> You’ve been with GOOD Agency since 2009 - what drew you to the company and what do you most love about working there?

Andy> In 2009 we were on the end of the financial crash and I'd just left my previous agency, which was quite small. Having worked at a lot of larger agencies, such as Leo Burnett and JWT, I was at the stage where I wanted to try something new - not be a cog in a big wheel and not go back to a tiny agency either, but somewhere in between. 

Then by a stroke of luck I was invited along to a portfolio evening at GOOD - and stupidly, I didn't take my portfolio. I had a website but it didn't even cross my mind to take a physical portfolio! But with around 20 of us in the room, it sort of helped me stand out and be remembered. I got talking to the creative director and he was interested in the fact that I was a bit weird in that I wasn't just a pure copywriter, art director or strategist - I was a bit of a hybrid. He rang me up a week later and asked me to work on a pitch which we won and it all started from there.

There's no finer feeling than knowing that you're using your skills for putting good into the world. Once you’ve tasted that it's really hard to think about going back to the dark side. 

I also love that no two hours are the same. You can be working on a TV ad one moment, an experience the next and a big audio brief after that. Everything we do is just so varied, and it's really stimulating work. 

LBB> As “change-drivers”, GOOD Agency is behind some pretty important campaigns. How do you ensure that you create work that inspires and persuades? 

Andy> The fact that absolutely everyone at GOOD has really bought into that mantra and  our positioning “work for the world”. It's not just about selling stuff or getting donations, it's about the impact of what that can achieve and how we can make the world a better place. 

It's really about connecting with an audience and finding shared values. In lockdown we've seen people feeling more helpless at a time when there's lots of upheaval. Food banks and homelessness have risen and come to the fore in terms of conversations and people want to be able to help in whatever way they can. They don't always know how to do that so if we can connect people and show them how, that’s really powerful. 

I think the way we tell stories in this space is evolving. It's no longer the old school, helpless beneficiary kind of story. We really want to connect more empathetically and authentically to give more agency to the people we're talking about.

LBB> On your personal website you say that “good creative has to work on a behavioural level to provoke a response” - how do you go about creating ads that provoke? 

Andy> I think with any type of advertising, if everyone jumps on the same message, then people become a bit numb to it - lockdown is a good example of that. There were all those parodies of the lockdown ad with a certain type of music, featuring empty streets, and telling the story of being isolated. I think anything that just feels quite shallow like that is always going to just disconnect people. When something feels well trodden, you just stop listening.

I would have loved to have learned about behavioural psychology 25 years ago because it’s an area that fascinates me. As humans, we've gone on this 35-million-year evolutionary journey and the oldest part of our brain - the reptile brain or the lizard brain - is the instinctive brain. And then you've got the modern part which is kind of bolted on top and has only really existed for tens of thousands of years in comparison to the old part. So we've got this two core system going on. That’s why we sometimes have conflicting thoughts and can feel disorientated by the fact that our old brain is thinking one thing and then our new brain comes in with something else afterwards.

LBB> And how does that play into the way you create ads?

Andy> What’s really interesting to me is that the old part of the brain is operating about 200 times quicker than the more modern, rational part. So before you have had any time to properly process the ad, your reptile brain has essentially already created its own instant reaction to it. It's already injected cortisol or oxytocin or dopamine into your system accordingly. Then, when your rational brain catches up, it needs to retrofit an argument to suit what the reptile brain has already decided. 

So, one of the things that I always like to do when I’m brainstorming ideas, is to think of myself as a person over one million years ago -  what instant, primal reaction would I have to the idea I have come up with? Is this a story of community, or is it a story of love, or is it a connection, or is there a fear… what feelings would my reptile brain bring up? 

That then forces me to strip out all the extra creative stuff, and check whether my idea still connects on a human level. If it does, then it’s safe to add all the fun techniques and creativity on top. It helps me make sense of what “intuitive” creativity is. It’s about understanding the drivers that are going on in a subconscious way. 

LBB> You’ve worked on a lot of charity projects, what insight and experience has this given you about creating work that connects with people? 

Andy> I think what I've learned the most is to listen. You have to find a way of allowing people to express their life in their terms rather than project your own expectations onto them. Working in the charity space, I often interview people who have experienced hardship, whether it's homelessness or being in care or whatever it may be. And you’ve always got to be on the lookout and listen for unexpected ways that the story is being told. For instance, a sad story could be told with a bit of dark humour sometimes. They may have gone through a challenging time but there may be a mix of emotions attached to it.

That kind of exploration of the variety of emotions we experience really helps bring stories to life in an authentic way. I worked on a campaign about homelessness, and the woman I spoke to mentioned feeling embarrassed - that’s an emotion I hadn’t considered before, and it was less obvious than the feelings of fear and sadness. So it's all of these nuanced emotional hooks that authentically represent the stories that help lead to ads that audiences can actually connect to. 

LBB> Looking back over your career, what have been some of the pieces of work that have stuck with you on an emotional level? 

Andy> I wrote a child road safety ad in 1996, which is a terrifyingly long time ago! It featured animated hedgehogs singing the Bee Gees track, Stayin’ Alive. It was great fun to work on and we had a real blast deciding which track we were going to rewrite the lyrics to. The animation itself was done the old fashioned way. So literally every single cell was painted, and we had 1000 sheets of acetate that we brought together for this animation. 

But the thing that I love most about it, is that even 20 years later, people who grew up watching it as kids can still pretty much quote the lyrics back to me word for word. Looking back on it now, having gone down the rabbit hole of behavioural psychology, I can see why. Because rhyme increases memory recall. And what had historically been a straightforward government message was turned into the story of a hedgehog which would have triggered some release of cortisol into children's minds as they worry about his safety crossing the road, before that hit of dopamine when it ends on a happy, upbeat message. 

A more recent ad that sticks in my mind is a WaterAid campaign we did where we put the camera man in front of the camera. Originally, that client wanted us to do a celebrity fronted ad but we couldn’t get one at the time. But like all good creative challenges, you start from a place of restriction. We ruled out a lot of ideas until the only person that was left to consider was the camera man himself. And it made a lot of sense as his experience was authentic, he had seen the impact of WaterAid on children all over the globe with his own eyes. 

The ad was massively successful - at that point it was the most successful response to any WaterAid ad that had ever been done before. It ran for years, and there's still a version of it that exists today. As a behavioural psychology nerd, I was really fascinated by the success of the ad and I wanted to dig under the skin of it. After a bit of research, I found that when you've got someone who's a little bit awkward in front of the camera or not a natural performer, your reptile brain kicks in because it’s unfamiliar to watch, and so our fight or flight response is triggered and that requires more of our attention.

Lastly, I will always remember the work we did for ShelterBox. It’s an international disaster relief charity that needed a way to drive engagement and grow sustainable income. So we came up with the idea of a Book Club that would help inspire more people to set up a regular donation. 

We found that if you are likely to give to charity, you are more globally minded and interested in culture and travel. So we created this subscription Book Club that helps widen people’s horizons and allows them to experience new cultures through reading. There are now thousands of people who are part of the community with a shared love of reading and immersing themselves in different walks of life. If you strip all of that back to think about why it’s been so successful, it’s because it’s created this sense of belonging and community that really speaks to the reptile brain that wants to be part of the tribe.

LBB> And outside of your own work, what have been some of the ads that provoked a response from you?

Andy> There’s one in the charity space that has always stood out for me from Amnesty International. They sent out packs in the post with a free pen inside. And your reptile brain responds to that with a hit of dopamine - we all love a freebie. But then when you read the messaging: “what you hold in your hands is an instrument of torture”, you’re hit with the stress hormone, cortisol. It’s that blend of complex emotions that creates lasting impact. Your brain is dealing with two conflicting emotions, which is really powerful.

LBB> Apart from the storyline itself, what other elements help us emotionally connect to ad? 

Andy> Sound is really important in what we do. You can really evoke a feeling with it and every single instrument has connotations to it - the classic stereotype of violins equalling sad, pianos equalling jaunty - but it’s important to play with those stereotypes and surprise viewers. 

With grading, you see a lot of tropes in the charity space where sad scenes are almost black and white, and happy scenes are injected with colour. But at GOOD we want to give more agency to how we tell these stories, we don’t just want to present people as helpless beneficiaries. You want people to have ambition and hope, and all of the positive aspects of their life can still come through, even if there may be one part of their life that they need help with.

Grading, particularly on TV, has become more important to show that slightly more complex narrative of emotion, so it's not just about taking all the colour out for the ‘need’ and putting it all back in for the ‘solution’.

LBB> Finally, as a general note to the ad world, what emotions do you hope to see explored more? 

Andy> Emotions definitely come in and out of fashion. I see trends of emotions in their singular form a lot - sometimes we see a lot of love, sometimes it’s a lot of anger - it depends on what’s going on in the world at the time. But I’d like to see more complex blends of emotions. 

You can be jumping into an ice bath for charity and feel exquisite agony because it's really bloody painful. But at the same time you feel so happy that you're raising money. It’s about taking two quite different emotions and smashing them together in a new way.

On the back of the pandemic where we have seen a lot of superficial singular emotions in advertising, I’d like to see things like being lovingly angry or heartbreakingly joyous. That goes deeper into the way we experience our lives and can connect with us in a more authentic way. 

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CHEAT, Tue, 20 Jul 2021 09:06:10 GMT