The Immortal Awards in association withJSM
Sometimes the Scary Solution is the Right One
London, UK
Traktor, AMV BBDO and Mother reveal what went into creating the work that won at the Immortal Awards, writes Alex Reeves
Last night, Little Black Book and The Immortal Awards hosted the first edition of our Immortal Awards Showcase tour at the Ham Yard Hotel, in London. The evening was a chance to celebrate the winners with a screening of all the Immortal and Commendation winning projects. Just four projects were crowned Immortal following an intense day of debate and deliberation at the final round of judging in New York in November, along with a further 12 entries that received Commendations.

To help the audience reflect on what goes into creating an idea that can live forever, the screening was followed by a panel discussion featuring some of the people behind winning pieces of work in the showcase. LBB editor in chief Laura Swinton was joined by Mother London’s co-CCO Hermeti Balarin, Traktor director Patrik von Krusenstjerna and AMV BBDO’s creative partners Nadja Lossgott and Nicholas Hulley and senior strategist Marguax Revol.

The seed of the idea

Laura kicked off the discussion by asking what the original kernel of each idea looked like. Libresse’s Immortal-winning ‘Blood Normal’ campaign may look like it’s based on a simple insight - that taboos surrounding menstruation need to be challenged and broken down, but it didn’t start out so clearly. “It’s not as clean a story as it looks,” revealed AMV BBDO planner Margaux Revol. “It started as a thought that ‘it’s just a little blood.’ Everyone was dancing around it and nobody was doing anything about it. There was a feeling that the category had a double standard. We were in the business of selling hygiene pads, but it seemed like blood was way too much for us.”

The agency team’s research on the feminine hygiene category all pointed to an entrenched sense of shame surrounding periods that exhibited itself in the many strategies women use to hide their menstruation and resulted in some disturbing figures around the way women feel about their periods. “Women felt disgusting and men felt disgusted by it,” said Margaux. They knew they had a big paradigm to shift.

These insights led the AMV BBDO team to conclude that what they needed to change was how periods are represented, creative partner Nick Hulley reflected. They needed to break the conventions that perpetuate this cycle of shame, including the one that later turned out to be a key struggle against the regulators - they wanted to show period blood in a TV commercial.

That required some serious trust from the client though. “We joked about this campaign that you had to get about five ‘noes before you got a ‘yes’,” said Nick, but he noted that the agency had been building a strong bond of trust with Libresse for a number of years before this project, which allowed them to work closely together in this common struggle.

Patrik von Krusenstjerna, part of the directing collective Traktor, reflected on the moment when the collective first heard the idea for the Immortal-winning ‘It’s a Tide Ad’: “The first reaction was ‘wow’,” he said. “The second was ‘let’s not fuck it up’.”

The idea, which systematically deconstructed the tropes of various advertising categories, demanded all the details to be spot on, he noted. Traktor knew it wasn’t an easy one to pull off. “It freaked us all out a little bit,” he said, stressing that the key to making the concept clear was to get the look right. “We were very nervous that people wouldn’t understand it, especially after six Bud Lights,” he said. They were also concerned that people might not watch all of the executions, so they had to make sure that viewers could understand the overarching idea wherever they tuned in. “We had to play it carefully.”

It was almost exactly a year ago when KFC in the UK suffered its infamous chicken shortage. Mother executive creative director Hermeti Balarin remembers it clearly. It was Valentine’s day, he said. “And just to show how agencies can find themselves out of touch, our team was on a print shoot. They were calling KFC asking ‘what the fuck’s going on? We cannot get any chicken for our shoot!’ They said, ‘guys, you do not understand.’” It turns out there was a much bigger drama playing out across the UK. 

The next 72 hours in Mother would be memorable to say the least. The KFC clients didn’t have a brief for their ad agency. They had bigger fish (and no chicken) to fry. They’d been redeployed to help manage the crisis across the country. “It was pretty desperate on their side,” said Hermeti. “On our side we’re a Shoreditch advertising agency having our flat whites saying ‘how can we help?’ We just locked ourselves in a room.”

The idea didn’t come in a flash of genius, but eventually they landed on the ‘FCK’ idea - a print ad that struck the perfect tonal balance of contrition and comedy. Selling it in was mostly an exercise in getting stressed-out, overstretched marketing executives to read the idea. Hermeti spent more time crafting the subject line of the email than the ad’s body copy, he told the panel. “I drafted the subject of the email like 100 times, what I ended up with was: ‘I come before you bearing some advertising goods’. I knew it was going to take some stupid cheesy thing to get them to listen because they were on the phone apologising to people, talking to franchises, sorting out big fights. The fact they took time out of that to listen to their advertising agency is a credit to them.”

The craft

While the challenge for Mother was getting their clients to make time for their idea, the Blood Normal team had a heap of technically challenges to bring their ambitiously multifaceted campaign to life. Every scene in the packed hero film led viewers to a different activation. “We did not make it easy for ourselves,” said creative partner Nadja Lossgot to the Immortal Showcase crowd. “We knew we wanted to not just make a film. We wanted shine a light into all those dark corners of shame and change them in the real world as well.” 

Working with their production partners at Somesuch, much of the challenge was working out how to make a hundred different things happen, in both the film and in real life - challenges like finding a lingerie company to partner with and an embroidery artist who was prominent enough to bring all of that to life. “We drove pretty much everyone crazy,” said Nadja.

“I don’t think we’re masochists, I think we’re sadists,” joked Nick. “It was a moving object all the time and Daniel [Wolfe the director] and everyone at Somesuch was incredible weaving it together as things changed every day.”

It’s a Tide Ad also presented a slew of production challenges. The script was continually being rewritten, said Patrik, “all the way up to and even when the cameras were rolling.” Another test of Traktor’s talents was David Harbour’s lack of experience acting in commercials. For a man who usually talks in a steady drawl, fitting all the script’s words into the short spots was a push.

Craft was at the core of the Tide idea. The directors and crew had to absolutely nail the genres they were dissecting. For example in the car ad Patrik remembers waiting for hours to get the precise sunset lighting they needed. “It’s so ridiculous it looks fake,” he said. “But it’s not.” The beer ad was all about casting the perfect group. For the pharmaceutical ad, DoP Hoyte van Hoytema obsessed over getting just the right lighting filter to recreate the genre.

But what level of craft can you get done in a 72-hour reactive piece like ‘FCK’? Hermeti compared the scene at Mother to the always-relevant ‘Hovering Art Director’ videos Adobe released a few years ago - everyone hovering behind a computer throwing ideas and suggestions for three days, agonising over every element. “It was scrappy, hard fought - trying to make something out of nothing over 72 hours,” he said.

Given the time constraints, the team had to be incredibly resourceful – the image, for example, was created from an unused backplate from a previous campaign. In many ways it was a campaign that combined the best of old school and new school advertising. It was a print ad, ultimately, that relied on good art and good copy – but thanks to social media the ad was able to make a huge impact despite only appearing in two newspapers on one day. 

KFC - FCK Case Study from Mother Studios on Vimeo.

What it takes

To make it over the hurdles that stand between creators and a piece of Immortal creative work requires something special. “There are always roadblocks,” said Patrik. He remembers Traktor’s Tide ad from the 2017 Super Bowl, when after meticulous preparations for the shoot were scarpered by it raining in Los Angeles - a contingency nobody had planned for. Sometimes you have to work with the unexpected and think on your feet. 

The AMV BBDO team attributed the very existence of Blood Normal to the strong relationship with the Libresse team and the production partners at Somesuch - and the trust and honesty between all parties. On top of this Margeaux added: “If they did not believe in it, it would feel like you’re not aligned in terms of your vision of the world. I think the biggest block for us was not people. It was the power of stigma.” A recurring challenge was the endless excuse-making they’d be met with by people who themselves felt uncomfortable and had been cowed by social conditioning and would therefore steep their objections in euphemism and distraction. “You end up fighting on a fictitious battleground that’s about what’s underneath,” she said. “So a lot of our work was ‘client therapy’.” Essentially, the agency and their clients had to keep asking ‘why’ until people admitted to their prejudices.

“Our whole industry is going through a really troubled time,” said Hermeti. In such times, strong client-agency relationships are vital, he stressed. That was what laid the groundwork for Libresse to challenge taboos and for KFC to drop an F-bomb in a print ad.  “The roadblocks,” he summarised, “are clients that don’t trust what you do, take the punt and spend money on great ideas. It’s on us to get our clients to understand that we’re not just reckless, self-serving agencies. Sometimes the scary solution is the right one.”

Building relationships that support Immortal ideas

Patrik wanted to remind the audience everybody has bad ideas, but you only need one great idea to make something that great. “You should make a fool of yourself,” he said. Traktor is built on a raft of trust between the various members - trust that each member is capable of the great ideas. “There’s no fear of sharing bad ideas because maybe there’s a nugget in there that solves a problem.”

Trust and openness needs to come early on in the development of an idea, stressed Nick. “It’s too late to find out that you’re thinking in different ways halfway through a process,” he said. “Get that conversation in early.”

Hermeti concluded the panel session, tying the evening’s discussion up neatly: “We’re all here to do the best work we possibly can - the best work of our lives. It takes a bit of generosity to admit that my job ends where yours starts and we will collaborate. That’s what we all get out of bed to do. As long as each do their own bit and are generous enough to let each other do their brilliant bit, we get to outstanding work like you guys showed here tonight.”
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