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June 18 2019

PHD’s Cannes Lions catch-up: The wonder of WTF


The best ads break the rules. Magic can happen when agency creatives say: “What the f**k?” to brand guidelines and take a punt on an idea that, at first airing, might sound faintly preposterous. This was the theme of a session titled ‘The Wonder of What The F**K’ at the Cannes Lions Festival this week.

Richard Brim, chief creative officer at adam&eveDDB revealed that some of the agency’s most successful campaigns had been a result of “WTF” thinking, where creative teams had trashed rules and processes and came up with ideas that stretched the boundaries of what clients would normally accept.

Campaigns for John Lewis, the FIFA 2018 computer game and Marmite were all based on ideas that Brim initially dismissed as weak or undoable. But in each case, he was eventually won round by the creative teams and he managed to get the ads made. He paid tribute to some of the brave clients who ran with ideas that seemed risky and were often the opposite of what they had asked for.

A campaign for the FIFA computer game broke the golden rule of the brand’s advertising, that the ads could not interfere with the game. “One team walked in and said you are not going to like this and we are never going to be able to do it,” explained Brim. “And this is how they started the presentation. They said they wanted to change the game. My heart sank.”

The idea was to get Ronaldo – the most expensive football star in the world – to invent a football skill that his avatar in the game would perform and which could then be used in the real-life game. Brim finally came round, and tried the idea with the client. “We went to EA (the game developer) and they said no. But eventually they said yes. And Ronaldo developed it, and everything they said they would never, ever do, they did.”

The result was a skill created by Ronaldo called the Tornado, a twisting volley kick. The ad campaign featured other football stars giving their take on the move. The campaign gripped the attention of FIFA players and showed how skills could flow from the computer game into the professional game.

Another disruptive campaign was for Marmite as part of its “Love it or Hate it” positioning. The agency persuaded the brand to commission research from a genetics laboratory to establish whether there was a genetic predisposition to loving or hating the brand.  “That was magic for us – the press went crazy,” said Brim.

The agency created DNA-testing kits so people could see if they were genetically predisposed to loving or hating Marmite. A TV ad campaign was created humorously showing people getting the results of their Marmite DNA tests.

The agency also audaciously trashed the established guidelines with its 2018 Christmas TV ad campaign for UK department store John Lewis. The client had two golden rules for the ads: They could not feature celebrities and they should only tell fictional stories.

One team came up with an idea that flouted both rules. It was to feature pop singer Elton John and tell his life story backwards, culminating in him receiving a piano as a Christmas present when he was a little boy.

“I said ‘Well, maybe… but no,’” says Brim. But the idea stuck in his head and grew on him. “I tried it out on the client who said: ‘We don’t do celebrities and we tell our own story.’ I said we want to change things up and maybe we should, and he eventually said OK, let’s see if we can get him. And we got him.”

The Elton John campaign was probably John Lewis’ most celebrated Christmas ad and helped lift sales in a tough retail market.

Brim encouraged all creatives to take a courageous, rule-breaking approach to their work. “We’ve all been in places where they say: ‘no idea is a bad idea’, but you think that they are all going to laugh at you and you think that you are going to be fired. This can do crippling things to the creative process.”

Creatives must be brave, he said, to rapturous applause from the Cannes crowd: “Don’t be afraid of the d**kheads. Don’t ever be afraid to say something stupid.”

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