A chilling fact and a brutally simple idea

I’ve written before about my hatred of Big Tobacco companies and my passion for using creativity as a weapon against their heinous products and marketing. Those fuckers have a product that gets people addicted and keeps them hooked until 50% of them get cancer and die early. They’re wiping their customers out but hey, it’s no big deal because Big Tobacco is growing new markets in the world’s poorest, least developed countries. These are places where health education standards are much lower and advertising is far less regulated. Where they’re allowed to peddle their bogus dream of smoking being glamorous. And sell cigarettes dirt cheap and in singles/smaller packs to get kids hooked. How do these arseholes sleep at night? Probably as soundly as babies but I like to think that one of the things that can give them nightmares is the loud buzzing of the truth being presented in a way that makes it impossible to ignore.

Which brings me to the point that today is the World Health Organisation’s No Tobacco Day. And to mark it, we’ve launched a new campaign which dramatises the fact that every six seconds someone, somewhere in the world, dies of a smoking-related disease. The work comprises a series of Vine videos; because Vines are famously six-seconds long, it’s the perfect medium to drive home this chilling stat. Marshall “The medium is the message” McLuhan would’ve liked this campaign.

I’ve written before about the power of simplicity and this work, created by Josh Bryer and David Jackson, is a perfect example of the M&C Saatchi ethos – the Brutal Simplicity of Thought. Simple ideas are the most contagious ones and our aim is to get the Vines liked, ReVined, shared and so on, to push the message out as far and wide as possible. So if you could pop over to here to do just that you’d be playing a vital part in driving awareness and donations for QUIT to continue the important work that saves lives.

Thank you very much.

Every Six Seconds…

…watch this space for some new work, coming on Saturday 31st May.

There’s no such thing as a boring product

I’ve written before about how apparently ‘boring’ briefs can be turned into creative gold. The more I think about it, the more I feel that there’s no such thing as a boring brief. Every product, from insurance to toilet roll, has the potential to enrich people’s lives in some way, however small. Our job is to latch onto this element and dramatise it in an interesting/funny/inspiring/whatever way. Now, you may say, No shit Sherlock, dramatise the benefit. I hear you and I’m absolutely not claiming that this is rocket science or breakthrough thinking. It’s just good to keep in mind next time you get a brief for a dull product and feel the internal yawn mechanism kicking in. Rather than focusing purely on the product itself, think about what role it plays in people’s lives and how it can make their lives better. For me, this involves moving away from the proposition for a bit and focusing on the ‘audience’ box on the brief. It’s a way in that I find often takes you to different conceptual places. After all, who’d have thought it was possible to create an ad as dramatic, poignant and moving as the one above, for such a mundane product?

If you were in a plane crash with Mo Farah and Stephen Hawking and had to become a cannibal to survive, whose legs would you eat first?

I’ve written in the past about the importance of staying open to ideas – including the piece the other day about the remarkable openness of Jonathan Glazer’s technique in filming Under The Skin. This came to mind again as I watched the sublime second series of The TripThe Trip To Italy this time – the improvised pseudo-reality drama directed by Michael Winterbottom, with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing versions of themselves.

The show heavily features Coogan and Brydon’s extraordinary impersonations but rather than being just for laughs, they’re incorporated in a way that gives them narrative context and a compelling sense of melancholy. And, as with Under The Skin, the filming methods are fascinating. Winterbottom writes loose narratives for each episode and a story arc for the series – then each scene is improvised by the actors. Sometimes they’d come up with ideas during filming, sometimes the night before. For example, Brydon has spoken about how they’d be chatting over dinner in the evenings after filming and Winterbottom would suddenly say, “That’s great, let’s do it tomorrow.”

This improvised approach was clearly very risky. As with Under The Skin, they could have been left with nothing useable. Coogan has said, “To do interesting stuff you’ve got to risk failure and it definitely felt like it was risking failure.” But the reality is that Coogan and Brydon are exceptional actors and creative minds. Putting them in a situation where their creativity can run riot was a great way to get unique results.

For example, at one point in the first episode, as they bounce off each other, they somehow end up discussing whose legs they’d eat first if forced to become cannibals in the event of a plane crash – Mo Farah’s or Stephen Hawking’s. Later on in the series the improvisation takes them to the point where Brydon is doing an impersonation of Roger Moore playing Tony Blair while Coogan is doing Saddam Hussein doing Frank Spencer. The impersonation scenes are hilarious but somehow manage to get at deep human truths. It’s pure creative gold.

Coogan and Brydon have spoken about how they initially felt Winterbottom was making a mistake by not crafting the episodes enough, not making them as deliberately funny as they could be; they felt the editing could have been sharper. But Winterbottom – as he does with all his work – pushed for it to be looser, less knowing. For example, at various points we see Coogan cracking up at Brydon’s impressions; Winterbottom’s decision to leave these genuine moments of joy in (rather than relegating them to the DVD extras) gives the whole thing a wonderful freshness.

While the themes of ageing, being unfulfilled and the difficulty of finding happiness make the series dark, brooding and reflective, from a creative point of view it’s a total joy. In each episode we’re literally witnessing an extraordinary creative process happening before our eyes. It reminded me of the creative thinking technique where one person builds on another’s idea by saying “Yes and…” rather than “Yes, but…”. And also that when the right people, environment and brief are brought together with all obstacles, restraints and fears removed, creative magic can happen.

“We took years to get there and suddenly it was obvious.”

Have you seen the latest Jonathan Glazer film, Under The Skin? I can’t recommend it highly enough. Glazer is undoubtedly the best commercials director of his generation and, for my money, he’s starting to look like the best film director too. Sexy Beast is one of the smartest gangster movies ever: seriously off-beat but utterly watchable. Birth was totally under-rated. And I’d go as far as to say that Under The Skin is a stone cold masterpiece.

I’m a big fan of Michel Faber, the writer of the novel that the film’s based on – if you’re not familiar with his left-field kind-of-sci-fi writing, I highly recommend it (especially The Fahrenheit Twins). Glazer has taken the bones of his novel and turned it into a brilliantly weird experience: strange, mind-boggling, compulsive and totally unique. Aside from urging you to see it, what I wanted to write about on here was the fascinating process behind the film and two interesting creative insights I gleaned from reading about it.

Glazer worked on the project for over a decade. With different writers he developed various treatments and narrative ideas but none that ever felt right. At points in the extended development period, various actors – including, early on, Brad Pitt – were attached to the project. The actors came and went but Glazer never felt he had something he was happy with, he never felt he’d cracked a way of telling the story. “I said I was giving up many times,” he said in an interview recently.

Then, after a decade of false starts, wrong turns and countless versions of the story, he (along with Walter Campbell) finally worked out what he was trying to do: he wanted to make a film that represented a completely pure vision of an alien view of our world. “We took years to get there, and suddenly it was obvious.” I thought this was a great example of the way creativity works: an itch that needs to be scratched, no easy answers, the breakthrough always seeming just beyond reach…and then, when it comes, it seems so blindingly simple. It’s also a reminder never to let go of those ideas that you just know can be great…once you finally work out the right angle to take on them.

The other thing that amazed and inspired me was that despite his obsession with the project and how difficult it’d been to work out what he wanted to do, when it came to bringing it to life, Glazer was remarkably open. After battling with the story for years, finally cracking the approach and getting the script down, you’d think he’d want to painstakingly control every element of the production. But he took the opposite approach.

Scarlett Johansson was on board as the alien who cruises Glasgow in a white van picking up blokes who she mysteriously sucks the lifeforce out of, presumably to send back to her home planet as food. To create the eerie realism he was after, Glazer came up with the idea of using non-professional actors filmed (without their knowledge) with hidden cameras; Johansson would pull up and improvise her seduction while Glazer and the crew were hidden in the back. This, in itself, was a highly risky approach. (Would the blokes recognise her? Would they suspect it was a set-up? Would the footage just be crap?) But to multiply the risk factor still further, despite his producer’s protests, Glazer refused to book professional actors as a back-up. They’d either get great stuff with the hidden camera approach or they’d get nothing at all.

Glazer’s insistence on getting real footage left the entire process completely open to the magic of chance. Which he completely embraced. And, in fact, not only did he embrace it, he started to think it could be a better way to tell the whole story; he started to wonder if this material could be better than the script he’d spent a decade developing. Reflecting on this, he said: “I said to Jim (the producer), Let’s dump the last two-thirds of the script and stay in the van. Because I loved the idea of leaving the door open to reality. The surprises. The treasure.”

When I think about it, Glazer’s entire career – and in a way, all great creativity – is about ‘staying in the van’. Relinquishing an element of control and staying open to possibility. Being prepared to deviate from the plan, being open to interesting chances and changes that pop up along the way. It’s difficult to do because I think we’re hard-wired to hang onto things we’ve invested time in and there’s a sense of safety in sticking to the plan. But it often leads to better work than we ever thought possible. If you want proof of that, watch Under The Skin.