Uncommon Creative Studio’s Nils Leonard and director James Marsh talk to LBB’s Laura Swinton about the new Guardian brand campaign
It’s 11am on September 24th 2019 and a posse of Supreme Court judges have just ruled that the prorogation of the British parliament was unlawful and that the Queen has, effectively, been misled by the prime minister. With all of this unprecedented, barely digested news fluttering around in the back of our minds, I’m chatting to Nils Leonard about Uncommon Creative Studios’ latest creative offering – appropriately enough it’s a campaign for The Guardian. We’ve both been hooked on its live updates all morning.
Hope is Power is an elegant and emotive campaign that encapsulates a spirit of fearless determination, a spirit that, in a time of great complexity and uncertainty, could only be driven by optimism. It was led by Tom Houser and Christopher Keatinge, the creative team behind April’s historic ITV ‘Television’ spot. At the core of the campaign is the image of a butterfly – shown in a still, poetic film, directed by Pulse Films’ James Marsh, and rocking up on a flock of warning sign-yellow outdoor posters.
“We started out going ‘what’s the icon for hope?’ We were looking for an ‘album cover’, whatever you want to call it, what is the image that makes people feel it. It doesn’t have to be clever,” reflects Nils. “We looked at doves, we looked at babies, brand new borns, screaming on a poster like Benetton. Then we looked at what we meant by hope is power is change. And the icon for change is a butterfly. And that really unlocked it because it let us tell a slightly deeper story.”
And what a story it is. The previous iconic campaigns for the Guardian have focused on the diversity of voices, the paper (and now website) as a platform for multiple voices and rounded journalism. It’s the thread that links 1986’s Points of View and 2012’s Three Little Pigs. But the media landscape today is markedly different – real time news floods in at a bewildering rate, opinion trumps fact and data-driven social feeds shepherd us deeper into tribal bubbles.
“What we wanted to do is have a conversation almost outside the news. What’s the news for?” says Nils of a campaign that takes a longer and loftier view of purpose than the typical news journalism brand work. “There’s a point of view that Kath [Viner, editor-in-chief] and everyone is really pointing towards at The Guardian, which is about everyone’s ability to make change and make the world they want to live in – and I just thought that was really powerful and very compelling and original.”
Uncommon Creative Studio had been invited to get involved with The Guardian at an interesting time in its evolution as a media brand. Their paywall-free supporter model, in which individuals are asked to support the platform in its mission, had been initially pooh-poohed by competitors but had, after three years, reached a million paying supporters. And so could Uncommon help them to reach 2 million?
“How do we reach the people who may or may not love The Guardian or haven’t heard of the The Guardian, in a way that moves them. In our minds it was about going way up the ladder. It wasn’t about dealing in individual reporting, but something they’re all pointing towards. And going ‘actually, what’s behind all of that?’… [it] all pointed towards a very powerful and moving view of hope and that’s where we landed and where we wanted to push it.”
But while the story of the determined and disruptive butterfly does not depict or focus on any particular story or journalist, Nils and the team certainly drew inspiration from the likes of editor Kath Viner, and from journalist Carole Cadwalladr’s long-running and meticulous deconstruction of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
That simplicity of storytelling is at the heart of the film execution, and it's what appealed to director James Marsh. “[The script] felt bracing and unusual in its minimalism. So stylistically, I figured we had to be true to that and not try and clutter the frame with impediments or distractions so we could focus on the purity of the struggle between the butterfly and the windowpane,” he says.
Visually, James was inspired by the interior studies by Danish painter Hammershoi, known for his muted colours and restraint. With such simplicity in the framing and setting of the story, James still wanted to give the film a sense of cinematic scale and so deployed anamorphic lenses.
With a story so pure - just a butterfly butting up against a pane of glass - the temptation could have been to ham things up, give the little orange Painted Lady a voiceover. But James and the team resisted. “We didn’t want the spot to feel ironic or facetious. It really is just a simple tale of a creature following its instinct and achieving a miraculous outcome. And why not? In chaos theory, a butterfly’s flutter can set off a tornado. In a way, it’s a classic narrative - a protagonist has a goal and must overcome obstacles to achieve it. We didn’t want to humanise the butterfly or make it stand in for human behaviour and characteristics. It really is just a butterfly being a butterfly.”
Where the film is muted and simple, the outdoor, print and digital is loud and gleeful, chucking the famous Guardian font around the space in a joyous ruckus. The butterfly, whose tough styling was inspired by the stag beetle on the cover of Massive Attack’s 1998 album Mezzanine, has a heft and presence not usually associated with the lepidoptera.
“The outdoor I was so excited by. I guess the analogy was if we can make a butterfly badass, we can make hope badass. I think that’s what we were trying to do and go, you know, this isn’t some fragile, flowery point of view, ‘oh hope’. Actually no, hope is power, it’s a belief in change and a belief that if you can read the news you can act on it,” says Nils, who says he’s got a ‘real crush’ on the design. It’s the latest of a movement of punchy, convention-denying and design-driven outdoor work out of the UK, and led by Uncommon and their friends down the road at Droga5 London.
“I just don’t know why, in the age of Instagram, you wouldn’t be trying to make everything on an outdoor poster something someone might want to snap and share,” says Nils, who confesses that he had to stop and take a photo of a poster on his way into work this very morning.
He’ll be hoping that the creative will be stopping traffic throughout its five week run across television, video-on-demand, cinema, outdoor, social, audio and the Guardian’s own channels in the UK, US, Australia and globally. But what’s been totally unpredictable is the context in which the campaign would land, given the Bizzaroland that is international politics in 2019.
“It’s been hilarious making this work given the climate we’re in. When we started it, theoretically we could have been launching it in the middle of an election; when we were originally doing it, theoretically we could have been releasing it smack bang in the middle of a load of election posters… which would have been really weird…”
And it still might.