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Matt Edwards and Wes Phelan: From Car-Poolers to Creative Partners
London, UK
Addison Capper chats with the Goodby Silverstein & Partners creative directors about meeting in South Africa, creating Adobe’s ode to creativity, and how an inspirational lunch at Rich Silverstein’s house made them re-excited for advertising
Earlier this year, when things seemed much more stable than they do now, two campaigns dropped out of Goodby Silverstein & Partners that we loved. The first was a wonderful ode to creativity for Adobe, one of a small handful of brands that could pull off such messaging with such gusto. The other was for an automotive brand, from the complete other end of the creative-freedom-advertising-metre. But the campaign, which was for BMW's new 2 Series Gran Coupe, popped with vibrancy and managed to demonstrate the mundanity of everyday life in a most entertaining way. 

It turned out that both pieces of work were presided over by the same creative directors, Matt Edwards and Wes Phelan. Addison Capper wondered what the duo thought about the functionality of the creative team in 2020, the way they met car-pooling to work in South Africa, and the creative process behind the two aforementioned pieces of work. So he picked their brains about all of that.

LBB> How do the two of you know each other? And when / why did you decide that you'd like to become a creative team?

Matt> We first met in 2009 working at an agency in Johannesburg, South Africa, called Metropolitan Republic. Coincidentally, we stayed in the same apartment building. I used to catch public transport to work, and Wes used to drive, and one day he offered me a ride. 

I used to pay for trips by making mixtapes for his car. We worked on a few projects, and because I didn’t come from an advertising background, I found myself learning a lot from him. We became good friends pretty quickly, and in this line of work, it’s always better to work with someone you don’t mind seeing out of work.

Wes> It was the year building up to the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, and I worked at the agency handling two of the major sponsors of the event. On the way to an early-morning briefing, I noticed a tall young gentleman leaving my apartment block who looked very familiar. Later that day I saw him again but this time at the office. We said hi. I offered him a ride. He agreed to pay for fuel by making music mixtapes. It was a deal. Little did we know that our little lift club would become the foundation of a great friendship and career. 

On a side note, the lift club/carpool had one other regular commuter: the actor, writer and comedian Loyiso Madinga, who stars in an amazing new series on Netflix called Queen Sono, which you should definitely check out.

LBB> What was your pathway to advertising like? How did you hone your craft and eventually end up at CDs at GSP?

Matt> I left school and worked as a graphic designer at first in a small studio in Cape Town. My early career was spent making visuals for prominent South African bands and brand identities for start-ups. I then moved to a slew of arts and culture magazines to oversee art direction and layout designs. After working for nine years in various fields of design, I was offered an art-direction position at my first advertising agency.

Wes> Well, I had just finished high school, and my best mate from art class asked if I had thought of a career in advertising. To be totally honest, I had no idea what I was going to do, and the thought of being able to be paid for hanging out with my best friend making art seemed like a great idea. After graduating, I started my career as a junior art director at the then-renowned agency owned by Graham Warsop called the Jupiter Drawing Room. I made my way up to creative director at the WPP agency Metropolitan Republic, where I then went on to win a couple of shiny international award-show trophies and meet Matt. That’s where our international journey together begins.

Matt> I then moved to Prague to work at Y&R for three years, where I learned a lot about craft in advertising from Jaime Mandelbaum, my Brazilian CCO.

Wes> I got a call from Fred & Farid in Paris saying that they liked the work I had done on the ‘Braille Burger’ campaign and would like me to join ASAP. I was literally in the process of getting ready to move over when a recruiter from the agency Johannes Leonardo in New York reached out and asked me if I would be interested in a position in their NYC office. I had always wanted to test my skills on Madison Avenue, so it was an offer I could not refuse. Plus, I could not speak a word of French. So begins my adventure in New York City. I get to work straightaway. In one of my first weeks in the new office, the boss asked me if I would be available for a meeting at 3:00; I said no problem. Checked my calendar and the meeting was booked for 3:00am. I knew New York advertising was no joke. On the way home from that meeting in the elevator, I saw a glowing button on the elevator panel. I took a photo of it and sent it to Matt. It said ‘Send for Help’.

Matt> I then moved out to join Wes at Johannes Leonardo. In the next three months, we managed to help the agency win its first ROI clients, Tripadvisor and adidas Originals. We ran the adidas account for three years. This was a great fit for us. We had always had an affinity for music in our work, and this culminated in us winning our first Grand Prix in the music-entertainment category at Cannes along with a number of other accolades. 

Wes> By the end of 2017, we had collaborated with leading cultural influencers, including Pharrell Williams, Snoop Dogg, 21 Savage, Young Thug, Playboi Carti, Pusha T, Stormzy, David Beckham, Rita Ora, Joey Badass, Damian Lillard, Andrea Pirlo, David Villa, Desiigner, Dua Lipa, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, A$AP Ferg, Brandon Ingram, Dev Hynes, James Harden and Kendall Jenner, to name a few.

In Adweek’s 2017 Creative 100, we were recognised as two of the top-22 creative directors “who are completely reimagining what’s possible”. We were featured in the Cannes book Game Changers and the related exhibition, which celebrated 60 years of the advertising that has transformed the landscape of the creative industries; we were also invited to be on the juries for New York Festivals, the Kyoorius Awards (India), the Loeries and the One Show. We also helped Johannes Leonardo break through to get on the Ad Age A-List, where they were ranked fourth-best agency in North America. This is when Rich Silverstein gives us a call from San Francisco and invites us for lunch at his house. 

LBB> GSP is an agency with such heritage and prestige, and quite a particular tone of voice in its output. How does all of that feed into your work as creative directors?

Matt> To be honest, we were blown away by meeting Rich. We had just left our creative director positions in New York and started our own shop, MWWM, when we got a call from GS&P and were asked to come out and chat with Rich. He was so honest and inspirational. After meeting him for lunch at his house, Wes and I went back to the hotel, and for the first time in years, we were excited about advertising again. 

As far as the work goes, they are and have always been a top three US agency. It’s a legendary shop that has legends roaming the hallways every day. We made a lot of international advertising while in New York. This feels like a bastion of American advertising, and there is something we felt we could learn from.  

LBB> I loved your recent Adobe and BMW work - I could really see a similarity in styles between the two too (in a good way) - there are big pops of colour and fast-paced editing. What are your thoughts on a creative style in advertising? I feel like it's easy for a director to have a particular look and feel but less so for a creative...?

Matt> I think we do have a style in our advertising. Wes and I have always been keen on directing as well, so we really get involved in the production process. 

We see our portfolios almost as music albums, a collection of different songs (hopefully, some of them hits) that could have different messages but all be identified as the same artist.

At its core, though, we try to keep a few things consistent to create the work. First off, the strategy needs to be tested; if you are not asking the right question, you probably won’t get the right answer. Make sure you have a strong, true insight. Make sure the work has emotion. This usually comes from the music choice. And lastly, work with production partners who add 10% every time they touch it.

LBB> With that in mind, how would you define your creative style? And how do each of your styles compliment the other?

Wes> We are both so focused on great ideas and powerful insights, so that’s what ties the work together. The aesthetic that we like is constantly evolving, but the basic style remains at the core. That style is hard to quantify, But I would say it’s a mix of beautiful imagery, strong insight and a ton of emotion.

LBB> Tell us about BMW - car briefs can be notoriously uncreative. What was the process like of working on this campaign and what was the inspiration behind the approach?

Matt> Cars can be a tough business. It’s a big purchase for consumers to make, so there are definitely more voices involved in the creative. But like any brief, if the right strategic nugget is unearthed and an insight is undeniable, it makes creating work easier. 

On the 2 Series brief, we loved that because this was a more affordable BMW, we could speak to a new target market for the brand. We identified that this age group of 25 to 35 were living on a very different timeline of milestones. Generations past would get an education, get a job, get married, get a house, have kids and finally later in life buy a luxury automobile. However, this target market was living completely differently. They could have a child before attending college, renting over buying, working for themselves and buying a BMW when they wanted to. This was the idea behind living ‘option 2’. From there we worked with trusted production partners to bring it to life. 

Music played a huge role on this one to drive the narrative forward, so we enlisted the help of a South African gqom artist, DJ Lag, to give it a really fresh flavour.

LBB> Adobe on the other hand just lends itself to creativity - but I imagine that presents an issue at the other end of the spectrum. It needs to be particularly creative to appeal to its target audience. How did you find working on that campaign? What are your fondest memories of it?

Wes> The Adobe campaign is a special one. Again, it all starts with the initial insight, and the insight we loved was that the story of Adobe was written by all of us in the creative community.

We felt we needed to honour all the monumental imagery that has been created using Adobe programs, so we created the ode called ‘Creativity for All’, set to ‘Pure Imagination’ by Gene Wilder. The mixed-media film features icons of the digital era like Shepard Fairey, Malala Yousafzai and Billie Eilish. 

Creating the credit list - with well over 1,000 names - including a thank you to every person who has ever opened an Adobe program, is undoubtedly our fondest memory. 

LBB> Advertising agencies are constantly being shaken up, with new methods and structures being tested. What are your thoughts on the creative partnership model in 2020?

Matt> I think the creative partnership is still one of the most important facets of our industry. It’s important to have a counterpoint while at the same time having a support system. 

Wes> The article Matt mentioned earlier is titled ‘The Power of Two’. It was sent to us by one of our strategists after it reminded her of our creative partnership.

This section of the article gives you a glimpse:

“The lone-genius myth prevents us from grappling with a series of paradoxes about creative pairs: that distance doesn’t impede intimacy, and is often a crucial ingredient of it; that competition and collaboration are often entwined. Only when we explore this terrain can we grasp how such pairs as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy all managed to do such creative work. The essence of their achievements, it turns out, was relational. If that seems far-fetched, it’s because our cultural obsession with the individual has obscured the power of the creative pair.”

LBB> How does your partnership work? Does one of you take the lead on certain things and vice versa or is it a level playing field?

Matt> We are always inspired by the yin-and-yang creative partnership we have seen in the world. Wes once sent me an article talking about John Lennon and Paul McCartney, about how it was the perfect mix of introvert and extrovert. It was strangely similar to the way we work. Wes is definitely the voice of the partnership. I am more of the observer. During our over 10 years of working together, we have built a set of similar beliefs, though - things that every project or idea is tested against. 

LBB> Where do you both draw inspiration from? And how does it feed into your work at an agency?

Wes> We like to surround ourselves with inspirational mentors, colleagues and friends who continue to drive creativity forward in all spheres. We have been fortunate to work with some great talent. Some have become good friends in the process, like Atiba Jefferson, acclaimed photographer, or renowned colourist Tom Poole from Company 3. Those relationships influence creative output immensely.

LBB> What do you get up to outside of work to keep yourselves inspired? 

Matt> We would be lying if we didn’t say we play a lot of video games. We also consume a lot of media, shows, music and movies. It’s cliché, but travel also opens up many creative thoughts, which is undoubtedly now a little bit tricky.

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