It’s a disruptive time for car brands - Spark44’s Brian Fraser tells LBB’s Laura Swinton why creativity and agility will be the driving force for uncertain future
At the risk of understatement, the auto sector is going through an interesting transition period. Between new technology, the pressures on supply chains, the growing need for environmentally-friendly options, the slowing economy in Europe, trade difficulties with China and changing attitudes to car ownership, there are a lot of challenges to contend with. And those challenges are having major knock-on effects on car advertising – just witness the musical chairs we’ve seen over the past year with brands leaving long-established creative agencies.
Brian Fraser is Global CCO at Spark44, the agency part-owned by Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), and he reckons all of this presents an exciting opportunity for agencies willing to work a little differently.
“The whole automotive industry is going through such massive change at the moment. The whole diesel thing is so difficult for every company, everyone’s got to get into electrification. Who’s going to buy cars in the future? Do they even buy cars or do they lease them? Driverless cars – are they going to be a massive thing or not? I think it clearly will be here and here to stay but will it take over completely?” Brian lists off the unanswered questions facing auto brands – but while it sounds overwhelming, there’s a lot for an inquisitive, creative mind to muse over. “None of us really know. It’s challenging… but in a good way.”
For those who still believe in the power of creativity, Brian says that there’s reason for hope. While the future holds a lot of unknowns for the sector, he’s confident that brand building work and creative thought will be the key to navigating the road ahead.
“I think it’s more about brands than anything else,” he explains. “The thing with electrification is that it kind of democratises all the brands and all the vehicles. You can’ t just talk about performance anymore because once you’ve got that battery in, there’s instant power anyway. So, it’s more about the environment and the brand and the tech that goes with it. It will be a much more connected experience, for example. There are all these things that come into play. And you look at certain brands and they look the same; they’re doing the same stuff they’ve been doing over the past 20 or 30 years.”
One of the things that Brian believes allows the Spark44 team to embrace that is their unique business model. The agency is ‘partnered’ with JLR, meaning they own a stake in the agency. They believe it gives them the best of both worlds. They’ve the close relationship and eyes across the whole business that an external agency would struggle to recreate – but with more independence than an inhouse agency, which allows them to fight for the work.
“It’s still not easy… and I think fight’s good. You still have to convince people and take them with you on a journey. That’s still there. At the end of the day, having a partnership as opposed to being an inhouse agency is a completely different energy,” he explains.
Given the constantly changing nature of the industry – Brian cites issues in the Chinese market – the ability to collaborate and respond quickly and without politics is key. “Having one P&L here is a massive , massive difference. There’s no inter-politics. I was slightly sceptical given my background in the networks that this global creative department would actually work, but it does,” he says. “It’s very integrated. I’m telling it as it is, I don’t hype things up. It works very well because it’s a shared agenda.”
As for technology, Brian has a pragmatic and balanced view. On the one hand, the new opportunities should be catnip to a creative mind – but tech and data are tools that can be badly used in unskilled hands.
“Embracing technology – all creative people do that. Data is fantastic if you can interpret in a way that makes it beneficial. Research can be really good or really bad depending on how you use it,” he says. “All these new things are fantastic but it’s what you do with them. It’s like having six paint colours and having 26 … its fine… if you can use them well.”
What’s more, from the beginning Spark44 has sat across the whole JLR ecosystem and the concept of mapping out and enriching ‘the consumer journey’ is something that has been central to the approach. The agency handles everything bar a bit of PR and some aspects of the model launches. But from retail to interface to brochure to publishing to social media and brand building, Spark44 are engaged from start to finish.
Balanced with the opportunities provided by technology Brian is keen to keep the brand rooted in humanity. One aspect of car marketing that is ripe for disruption is the same old staid aesthetic, perfected and Photoshopped to within an inch of its life.
“I like cars, I like the way they look because I’m an art director. And I like good looking things because I like design. I like chairs. I like paintings. But I never open the bonnet of a car – never have done and wouldn’t know where to start,” says Brian, who says he largely steers clear of specialist car photographers and directors. “I don’t hire petrol heads, because we need to sell cars to people who are not petrol heads. If that’s all you think about then game’s up.”
The heavily technical approach might result in the illusion of sleek perfection – and that’s exactly the same illusion that every car brand is chasing. For Land Rover in particular, that real in-camera aesthetic is particularly important. And even more important than aesthetic is the substance beneath them – in the Range Rover Sport Challenge content series, the ideas may be formed around extravagant stunts but what sets the films apart are the human stories. In last year’s Dragon Challenge, what makes the film more captivating than a Red Bull or Top Gear stunt is the way it engages with the people around the event.
Similarly, last year’s Land of Land Rovers film is rooted in reality. The documentary explores Maneybhanjang, ‘the place where all roads meet’ deep in the Himalayas, a small village littered with ancient Land Rovers. It’s a film that explores brand heritage – but that’s heritage with a small ‘h’.
Looking forward, JLR and Spark44 face the same challenges as the rest of the industry. And at a time of such flux there are no guaranteed routes to success. But creativity and adaptability are a rough map for a future full of exploration and adventure. Which is pretty on-brand.