Brits may remember the ‘Melt in the Middle Chocolate Pudding’ of 2005 that made mouths water and had residents marching down to their local M&S stores. As Dervla Kirwan’s voice rang through the ears of viewers and M&S chocolate, puddings saw a 3000% increase in sales, food advertising transcended shots of family gatherings at a table, and second thoughts in the background – food became the shining star of close up camera angles.
Now at Bite Collective, a company of ‘food lovers and filmmakers’, Gus Filgate and his colleagues have created campaigns for the likes of Ocado, restaurant chains Mcdonald's and KFC, as well as M&S Christmas, Plant Kitchen and Valentine's Day campaigns to name but a few. With his colleague Charlie Stebbings having been the creator of the genre, Gus now takes on the legacy of M&S adverts that puts food firmly at the forefront.
With behind the scenes insights into macro lenses and making “brown food” appealing, Gus spoke to LBB’s Nisna Mahtani about what makes a good food ad.
LBB> How and why do you think the M&S Food adverts have become such a cultural movement?
Gus> The ones that I always think back to are the ones where they first launched the line, ‘This is not just food, this is M&S Food’ and when that happened, I feel like the world suddenly sat up and took notice.
I think that line is obviously a great line but actually, I think the real genius that they had was with the images that they went with it. Charlie Stebbings was the genius director who gave us those images back in the early days - and what I think happened there was that for the first time in ‘adland’ we were simply shown the food in all of it to mouth-watering and absolutely irresistible glory.
If you go back to ads in that period, they were full of families eating around a table or football link narratives. They stripped all of that away and said ‘look at this, this is our food and it’s amazing’, and that woke something within us, seeming to coincide with Britain starting to fall in love with food.
Now, we’ve got TikTok and Instagram, and half your holiday pictures are of the food that you ate – or just food in general. I don’t know if it was that M&S woke us up or if they launched their campaigns as the shift happened but either way, they gave us that permission to put food on a pedestal, to love and adore it as we’d never done before.
LBB> Talk us through your involvement with these ads. When and how did you get started?
Gus> When I inherited the campaign, I think that there was an internal sense that they wanted to get back to what they do better than anyone else, which is to celebrate their food values. That’s when I got involved and at that point, they wanted to get back to these strong food values, that is what they stand for and really nobody does food better than M&S.
My approach to it was to try and revisit those amazing, mouthwatering images that first turned us all on – but to try and bring a sense of approachability to them as well. I wanted to try to aim for everyone and let them know that M&S food really is the best. I also wanted to show that it isn’t just ‘posh’ or for your aunt – it’s for everybody. Our intention was to convey how delicious and wonderful it has always been and that M&S food is good value.
LBB> Tell us…what makes a good food ad?
Gus> That’s a difficult one to answer. Food can win our hearts in many ways much like almost any other ad – it might be a sense of humour or a narrative that captures our imagination or simply just our appetite. Of course, it also helps when the offering is something really really great.
Nowadays, everybody loves food, everyone's interested in it, and that makes it such a great forum to work in because it's an endless source of inspiration to us. What I love is to find engaging and intriguing ways of looking at it and finding new techniques to capture something that has been imagined and is in somebody's head. We’ve got a challenge to find a new viewpoint that we perhaps haven't seen before. I don't think there is any one particular answer, it's continually evolving. What worked last week is not going to work this week because it's not fresh and new.
LBB> How long does it take to create these ads and which specific camera equipment / angles / shots are the best to use in close up food photography and video?
Gus> With M&S in particular, the goal is to fill the screen with delicious, gorgeous food which means that you’re shooting in macro closeup detail and that does take time. You need to be able to stage the performance of the food, similar to an actor, so there are timing and positional intricacies there. Sometimes, the process has to be repeated many times to get it just right and so that becomes quite time-consuming.
I think people would be surprised by how long the process takes and it’s interesting because the time constraints also do now depend on modern pressures – budget being one of the main ones. It used to be that a 30-second food ad would come up to three days of shooting, then two and now clients expect a 30-second food shoot to be wrapped up in a day. That becomes a challenge and so we need to find fresh and new ways to be able to achieve that.
On the equipment side of things, because we’re shooting in close up, we use macro lenses but I also love to shoot with probe lenses which give you a worm’s eye view that makes everything feel larger than life. In actual fact, in the food world, we tend to use the same sort of bits of kit – camera and lenses – that the David Attenborough guys use to get those incredible shots inside of a flower, and ants travelling across branches.
LBB> Is there such a thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food to shoot?
Gus> I think a lot of the food that appeals to us most is brown, chocolate, curries, burgers – the comfort food….but brown food can be challenging, especially a small brown finger food that retailers like to sell at Christmas time! Fresh, green things tend to look better to the lens, but actually, I tend to prefer to do things that are a challenge so I think ‘oh, please send me all the brown food you can.’
Perhaps something I’m not fond of filming is any cheap food with cheap ingredients. Thankfully, those times are in the past, when supermarkets and retailers were obsessed with selling cheap pizzas and similar things. Now, everyone demands better and supermarkets have recognised that they need to be platforms for selling quality. Definitely M&S, by and large, can take a big slice of responsibility for that. They readied everybody’s expectations and demands.
My dad used to swear that you can tell the best food because it contains ‘Vitamin Ch’ – which is to be found mostly in cheese, chocolate and also in champagne! So bring on those to film.
LBB> How important is collaboration when it comes to shooting food ads?
Gus> If you come on a food shoot, there's a whole raft of people that are there to make sure that performance is right. There are specialist food stylists, the cooks who prepare the food and make sure everything happens according to plan.
Obviously, food is a very niche area and what you maybe don't know about us at Bite Collective is that we're just a bunch of foodie people and so we're all focused on this one particular niche. So, we're talking about collaboration, but it's also that we're trying to create an offering for the adland landscape that is constantly changing. All we care about is the food and so by having a big group of us together we were kind of ideally placed to respond to that.