‘Great Characters Make Great Drama’. It sounds simple enough but the roots of the new campaign for UK broadcaster and producer ITV go deep and raw and rich. The films feature two of the network’s iconic characters discussing the archetypes they embody in an execution that’s at once sophisticated and meta, while also being profoundly primal and drawing from the collective unconscious. We don’t want to go all undergrad psychology, but it’s not every day we see a campaign that can legitimately be described as ‘Jungian’. It’s a concept that treats the audience with respect, and as ITV pursues so-called ‘light viewers’, who cherry pick only the best dramas, Uncommon’s approach is to flatter their intelligence.
DI Fred Thursday, played by Roger Allam in crime drama Endeavour, and DCI Vera Stanhope, played by BAFTA-winning actor Brenda Blethyn in Vera, go about their business through richly-realised scenarios as they ponder the natures of their characters. Director James Marsh – the Oscar- and BAFTA-winning filmmaker behind movies like Man on Wire and the Theory of Everything as well as TV thriller The Night Of – takes these beloved characters and gives them a beautifully crafted stage upon which to play. Colour, sound, writing, cinematography are all thoughtfully deployed in service of Vera and Fred. And what's tantalising is the prospect of other ITV characters getting the chance to visit their archetypal selves.
It’s the first big campaign from Uncommon Creative Studio, which landed the broad-ranging ITV account last year and it’s a statement of intent both from the advertiser and the agency. Laura Swinton spoke to two of Uncommon’s founders, Lucy Jameson and Nils Leonard about the 'immortal truths' behind the campaign.
LBB> When the relationship with ITV started, what were they initially looking for? And what was the specific brief or trigger for this campaign in particular?
Lucy> Initially, ITV came to us for a strategic project. They had a new CEO, Carolyn McCall and they wanted to redefine their brand strategy and purpose. We helped them to redefine the purpose around the thought of ITV creates ‘More Than TV’. Repositioning ITV as a creative force, not just a broadcaster. Repositioning them as more than just great TV because they entertain millions, shape culture, grow brands and are building direct relationships with customers through streaming services, events, merch, not just traditional TV broadcasting.
But, the specific trigger for this campaign was that ITV wanted to increase viewing amongst light viewers. We discovered that light viewers are most likely to engage with drama. It’s what they are most interested in. We wanted to start by getting people to reappraise ITV’s drama output. And we knew that if we got this right it would get them to reappraise the ITV as a creative force.
LBB> How does this campaign feed into the broader scope of work that you're doing with ITV?
Nils> The work we are doing with ITV is about truly establishing them as a creative force and driving reappraisal. This campaign is the start of that journey, really landing something with scale and emotion to match the level of the programming. At its simplest, this is about landing something that most people might not expect from ITV.
LBB> What insight brought you to this idea of elevating the characters from some of their flagship dramas?
Lucy> Right from the briefing, we talked about the fact that ITV dramas are incredibly powerful and emotive. That’s what tends to set them apart from many of the action series that US TV is often more known for.
ITV pride themselves on creating characters you can relate to, and characters who can make waves in our culture. Plus, we knew that the acting talent in the UK is unparalleled and it’s a real hook for viewers, so it felt right to start with this. To talk about the craft that goes into creating a character that really speaks to you.
ITV 'Great Characters Make Great Drama' - The Guvnor from Uncommon London on Vimeo.
LBB> Our non-UK readers won't be as familiar with where ITV sits in the media mix - so I wonder if you can talk a bit about that?
Lucy> ITV is the UK’s biggest commercial broadcaster. But what people don’t realise is that it’s not just a broadcaster, it’s a producer too. In fact ITV Studios is the largest commercial producer of TV in the UK.
LBB> It's a really sophisticated idea that treats the audience with a lot of respect. What were the conversations that you had internally and with the team at ITV around that?
Lucy> Right from the start we knew we were talking to light viewers of ITV. Viewers who were cherry-picking the best TV from anywhere and everywhere. So, we knew that it was important to remind them just how high the quality of ITV drama is. And to position ITV as the thought leader in drama. A real creative force. The experts. The people who really understand and explain how drama works.
Nils> ITV don’t get enough credit for the level, ambition and intelligence of their programming. This work is about landing the quality and scale of ITV drama, and the respect they have for their audience.
LBB> It's an idea that really taps into something almost primal, both psychological and in terms of the tools of storytelling. Total aside, I'm obsessed with the concept of archetypes. It's something that feels quite timeless and fundamental rather than timely and transient. What was the journey that took you to the idea of exploring archetypes?
Nils> Totally! I’m obsessed with archetypes too. The idea that there are immortal truths in the stories we love that we want to return to is so compelling.
Whenever you’re making a film you’re looking for a truth that no one else has spoken to yet; archetypes unlocking themselves was such a rich territory to land on. My hope is that after seeing this stuff people start seeing archetypes in other places, the dream is like ‘Oh shit that’s one of those father figure characters’ even when they’re watching drama in other places. That way the idea and the brand will live on in stories everywhere.
LBB> And personally, how has working on this project changed the way you look at or think about the stories and culture you consumer?
Nils> For us this project was really looking down the barrel of a world that skips most advertising. So, we wanted to create something for this incredible UK brand that had as much emotion, drama and power as the programmes they create. Everything from the music to the talent to the director was chosen with that scale and ambition in mind.
LBB> They're films that really live on the writing and the performance. From a writing point of view, who was responsible for really hammering out the scripts and getting the tone just right without being super heavy handed?
Nils> I wrote these with the talented Nat Gordon. We really ground away at them, it’s a difficult line to tread for sure - but the insights are so compelling the trick was to just let them come naturally. Also, the acting talent we worked with was critical. Both Roger and Brenda absolutely killed it, we were so chuffed when they signed up - they are truly incredible individuals.
LBB> Why was James the director you wanted to work with and what did he bring to elevate the idea?
Nils> James is an excellent storyteller, he creates consistently powerful, beautiful film. It was his previous work ‘The Night Of’ that I had in my head the whole time, he’s also so good at getting performance to sing without trying too hard. He has a clear vision but is open and collaborative which is incredible playing at his level. It felt to me like he really understood this work from the start, and also the task for ITV. I was humbled to work with him on it all.
LBB> How did you land on Vera and Fred as the characters/archetypes to explore in the first executions? And can you give us any hints about what might come next?
Nils> We wanted to find characters that really played out powerful archetypes, Fred literally IS the patriarch in every way and Vera is an original and surprising form of the Guvnor. There’s some more work on this campaign coming for sure, can’t wait to drop it, what’s thrilling is when you play out the archetype in a new way, there’s some fun to be had for sure. The brilliant thing that struck me about archetypes is that they appear in every gender, every age, every race. They are truths, and the truth is always the most powerful story.