Karl Waters, creative partner at Folk Wunderman Thompson, on the recent radical shifts in Irish society and how the best creative work reflects that
In the latest edition of our interview series, in association with Little Black Book, we spend some time with one of Ireland’s most innovative and influential people in the industry, creative partner at Folk Wunderman Thompson, Karl Waters.
“Karl is one of Ireland’s leading creative thinkers. His collaborative nature and his passion for community provides his clients with a unique perspective that is of huge benefit to their brand communications and to the Irish industry in general,” says Charley Stoney, CEO, IAPI.
LBB> In a broad sense, what would you assess the state of the Irish ad industry as right now?
Karl> Historically Ireland has punched above its weight in the arts for a country its size. This has been mainly within film, music and writing though. And it’s not necessarily been the case in advertising. Because going back the past 10 years or more, if you were to ask people around the world which country punches above its weight in our industry, Ireland would not be the answer you’d hear. It’d be more likely countries like New Zealand or Sweden. However, recently there has been a major shift in ambition for the industry in Ireland. Many agencies and clients have made the decision that the world stage is an achievable measure of creative excellence for Irish work. This is exciting to see. We are seeing this come to fruition in terms of the work and there’s much more to come.
LBB> What have been the most obvious changes in focus for Irish creative businesses in recent years?
Karl> When modern advertising diversified beyond traditional medias, many within the Irish industry were quick to adapt. Rightly or wrongly, in the past we would have bemoaned the fact that our budgets for broadcast could never compete with the budgets in neighbouring bigger markets. However, this is not something that should be said anymore. Because modern advertising isn’t overly reliant on huge broadcast budgets. The industry now values innovative thought brought to life in many other ways. Today we find ourselves creating digital innovations and even products. Suddenly we can compete on the world stage, and so we should. No excuses.
LBB> And how do you think that reflects the broad cultural direction that the country is travelling in?
Karl> Ireland has seen a lot of social change in recent years. This social change has positively resulted in more rights and the building of a more equitable society. We’ve shaken off some of the more negative influences from our past to become a more modern country. Great creative work often reflects the culture, mood and personality of a country. It’s part of what makes work authentic and impactful. And we’re seeing plenty of work coming out of Ireland that reflects what’s going on in our society and culture. Indeed the Irish work that’s picked up international awards recently has largely been work that helps society in some shape of form. And certainly among the work we’re most proud of at Folk, it came from a place of trying to tackle and find solutions to some of the issues going in society. We were fortunate that our client An Post has a brand purpose that was centred around this too. Together we feel we’ve made something of a difference in this area with a couple of initiatives, including Address Point and The Shared Network.
LBB> Is there any work that has come out of Ireland that you wished the world had heard more about?
Karl> I no longer think it’s the case that great Irish work slips under the radar. We’ve got it together as an industry in terms of getting the work out there and sharing it with the world beyond our own country. That aside, I think the best recent work from Ireland has been the Three mobile lockdown ad that Boys+Girls did. One of the first to break the Covid mould of advertising.
And the ‘Book That Grew’ for AIB from Rothco earlier on in the year was a great piece of innovative design around sustainability.
LBB> What recent campaigns do you think particularly reflect what you'd like to see Irish advertising become?
Karl> To be honest, I don’t think Ireland is trying to become anything other than itself. The days of star-gazing at work from around the world wondering how they do it are over. If we’re looking to ourselves, generally the work that’s been recognised internationally has been warranted. I’m looking forward to seeing more of that from across the Irish industry. The ambition should be getting more Irish agencies, clients and brands recognition on the global stage.
LBB> If Ireland's been through a big transition and Irish advertising's been through a big transition, your agency's been through one too. How would you characterise how it's changed as it's slowly become Folk Wunderman Thompson?
Karl> Indeed. We launched just two and a half years ago as JWT Folk, as the result of a merger between two Irish advertising agencies. Then shortly after… JWT and Wunderman merged globally to become Wunderman Thompson. So we became Folk Wunderman Thompson. We go by the shorthand name of Folk to keep things simple, but are still very much part of the Wunderman Thompson network.
If the name has undergone a couple of changes, our ambition has been the same since day one. When we launched Folk we made the decision to not be led by any specific department with the agency. Rather to be led solely by the creative work. That means it’s on everyone within the agency to row in behind the best work and help create campaigns that can impact culture. And everyone in the agency, regardless of department, is in service of the work.
LBB> On a personal level, how have your days working at the agency changed over the past few years?
Karl> I loved being part of a new agency and setting our direction and ambition. It’s also been rewarding building a team and ethos around this ambition. And then watching that team thrive. We were delighted to be recognised at international award shows like Cannes and Clio within our first year and then again in more international shows in our second year. Of course 2020 has been the strangest of years for everyone. We’ve all had to adapt how we work overnight. But, I have to hand it to the team at Folk because some of the work we’re developing at the agency now is among the most exciting we’ve had to date.
LBB> What have been the biggest impacts of Covid on the way you've been working?
Karl> The thing I miss most are the random and unscheduled chats we all used to have around our desks, in the corridors or kitchen. These chats are obviously often great fun and a great way to really get to know colleagues. They’re also often the spark for creative ideas or even the inspiration for developing them. They’re hard to recreate on Zoom or Teams. So I really do look forward to the time when we’re all back at the office. I do not miss the daily commute one little bit though!
LBB> What are you excited to be working on at the moment (that you can tell us about)?
Karl> We’re currently working on a product and campaign around it with one of our big clients. Both ourselves and our clients are super excited about this one. We really feel like we can make a difference with it. I know that’s pretty vague, but it’ll be out next year.
In more vague news we’re also planning brand campaigns for two of our other big clients. If this year was often about adapting and figuring out what to do next. Next year is about doing it. I’m really looking forward to it.