The new crop of catchy names in London commercials production supersedes old lists of directors like Rose Hackney Barber, Paul Weiland and Ridley Scott Associates with punchy one-word concepts that could mean anything or nothing. Whatever else they mean, Blink, Pink, Gorgeous and Outsider-the names on everyone's lips when conversation turns to London production companies these days, along with other one-worders like Academy, Joy and Godman-don't mean there's only one leading director supporting the shingle.
Even when a name was not on the door in the past, production companies were inevitably associated with one leading director, like Park Village and Roger Woodburn. While directorial visibility remains undiminished to satisfy advertising's love of heroes, brand identity is now firmly associated with the company itself and the general quality of its output. In these producer-owned companies, if one director leaves it no longer signals the decline of the whole organization; but defections, apart from departures to pursue other interests, are less likely where companies like Pink and Blink are providing the efficient practical and promotional backup that lets directors flourish creatively.
The other striking feature of London's new production hot shops is the international roll-call of its directors. They hail from Scandinavia to Kashmir, but they all seem to find London a magnet. And one reason for this migration is the ease of working here, largely a result of these efficient, cherishing production companies, whether they be Pink and Gorgeous or Blinking Outsiders.
Veterinary medicine is not the most orthodox training for a commercials producer, but for Robert Campbell, co-founder of London's Outsider, it provided a stimulus. "I just knew I didn't want to spend the rest of my life looking up a cow's ass," he says, explaining why he left Cornell's Vet School and came to London in the mid-'80s. English-born and raised mainly in Italy, Campbell produced music videos before discovering that his real interest lay in commercials. In 1991, a fortuitous teaming-up with a then unknown young Indian-born director, Tarsem, produced a spectacular debut spot, Levi's "Swimmer." Tarsem was only signed up for the "Swimmer" commercial (inspired by the Burt Lancaster movie) after a PA at Bartle Bogle Hegarty forced her bosses to view his stunning showreel. As Campbell explains, "Unlike the established production companies who could sit in their office and wait for the scripts to come in, Tarsem and I had to hit the sidewalk with his reel and take it round the agencies. Gerard de Thame and the Molotovs likewise opened up the game for people with good reels but no track record, provided their producers learned to sell."
Very slowly, Campbell says, production companies were becoming producer led. Agencies began to look to producers to find new talent for the market as well as relying on established teams of directors at production companies such as Paul Weiland, Ridley Scott Associates or Park Village, Roger Woodburn's company. "I act as a talent manager, dependent on my knowledge of current campaigns and relationship of mutual trust with agency teams," says Campbell. "Our reputation rests on a sink or swim basis; if directors do good work they keep working."
Campbell set up Outsider with Toby Courlander last year. Between them, the partners had produced six Levi's commercials: Courlander was Michel Gondry's producer on the recent "Mermaids" spot. The company name was chosen mainly because "It says something different and doesn't start off promoting egos or selling an individual as a brand-a very 1980s strategy," according to Campbell. Instead, it allows anyone to get on inside the company and enables directors to form their own identity.
Outsider's image is low key. No-frills offices and producers who only pay themselves when they're working keep overheads low and take the pressure off everybody to accept every job going. From the outset, the founders decided to work only with people they like and get on with, thus creating a mutually beneficial and supportive atmosphere. To date, this has produced a cast of one British director, Paul Gay, acclaimed for his VW Golf spots, and three Scandinavians, all producing sharp, witty commercials for high-profile clients.
There was no conscious decision to work mainly with "the Scandos" as Campbell affectionately calls the Swedish Jhoan Kamitz, director of a brilliantly sardonic Diesel Jeans series, and the two Danes, Johan Gulbranson and Christian Lyngbye. Gulbranson gathered a clutch of international awards with the Braathens Airlines Naked Lunch spot, featuring a businessman surprising his wife with a nude homecoming and finding his in-laws have also flown in, while Lyngbye created the hilarious "cheap German shoes" series of spots for Deichman. "We were interested in taking up new talent," Campbell explains, "and we found that in the last five or six years, the barrel of British directors had been pretty well scraped. These guys from overseas had a fresher approach."
Campbell compares himself to a football team manager, promoting his players and knowing where to position them to get their best shots. Availability is no problem, he claims, with a team that is "light on its feet with low overheads." Though he has no problem working constantly with European agencies, he would like to work more regularly in the U.S., which he knows well and enjoys. "But American agencies perhaps need to be less scared of working with European directors; if they opened up more and called fewer meetings and conference calls they'd get better value and better work," he believes.
Campbell won't be opening up a branch of Outsider in the U.S., however. Citing the examples of Radical Media and Propaganda, which have set up London offices, he suggests that it is virtually impossible to establish a strong identity when the finances and structure are controlled from elsewhere. "I'd rather work with a great little American production company. It's better to be the best in the place you are than average everywhere," he feels.
Over at Pink, which boasts a more lavish, stylishly furnished ambience, co-founders Karen Cunningham and Bash Robertson would agree. Their priority is the British market, albeit with a team of directors that includes people like Fabrice Carazo and Harald Zwart, who were already top players in their own, as well as the French and Norwegian markets. Their combined production experience is impressive. Cunningham came from an agency account background and spent some years at Rose Hackney Barber where she was Daniel Barber's producer. After leaving a career in finance, Robertson worked there too, before moving to now defunct Redwing.
The company name-after the only color not used on office stationery-"allows us to be whatever we want and includes everyone as part of the setup," they explain. They agree that Pink is producer led; "We would be unable to evolve otherwise, but it is still about talent, with good production backup," they emphasize. In spite of their extensive knowledge of the directing scene, they spent a long time looking for directors who would "be right for our mix. We're building a brand with new directors," says Cunningham, adding that their priority is producing good work for their clients, whatever their size and budget.
They have limited the company to six directors, whom they aim to "look after efficiently and well-and that means no rows of reels sitting on shelves."
Creative targets are chosen in consultation with the directors as part of a long-term strategy of career management, and work that does not seem to fit the strategy is turned down. The stunning Pink house reel, on which each director's work is markedly different but equally impressive, represents the success of this strategy. From Fabrice Carazo's lavishly filmed mini-dramas for Fiat and Mercedes through Harald Zwart's hilarious short spots for Ford to Aasaf Ainapore's brilliantly paced comic dialogues and on to the sumptuous visual fantasies for Gordon's gin from New Renaissance (the team of Carolyn Corbin and Harvey Bertram Brown, notable music video directors), every commercial is an outstanding example of its genre.
Cunningham and Robertson act as both executive and line producers and emphasize the nonhierarchical nature of a company where "producers are not running out to get the director's coffee, as was sometimes expected 10 years ago." Although enjoyment is one of their business aims, they believe that the production scene is now "more down to earth and serious," and everybody in the area cites Pink as one of the main players.
Another team to watch is Blink, set up by James Studholme and Bob Lawrie in 1994 and voted London's Production Company of the Year in 1996 by Campaign magazine. The leopardskin carpet and pool table in their office reception may recall their background in pop videos and animation but Blink are now a seriously successful mainstream commercials company with little time for "the old-style capricious director-led companies who were making enough money for their business organization to be crap," as Studholme puts it.
At Blink, no director is under pressure to do everything that comes in. While each may have a "symbiotic" relationship with his producer, Studholme also provides an overview, suggesting how directors might reposition themselves or attempt something different. He doesn't see himself as a salesman; "You can't sell to people who sell for a living," he protests. "You can only express your enthusiasm." His own, for a diverse but brilliant team of directors, is well-founded. Some, like Doug Foster, brought themselves. "Luckily we came before Redwing in the phone book, so he rang us first," smiles Studholme. Others were lured: Trevor Melvin from his art directing career at Young & Rubicam and John Downer from the BBC's renowned Natural History Unit.
Downer directed BMW's "Dove" spot, where a dove pursued by a hawk hitches a ride to safety in a convertible, for Fallon McElligott. Studholme recalls the "good flavor" of working with the American agency, but feels the collaboration was an exception. He'd like to work in the U.S. with unusual directors like Trevor Melvin, director of the powerful anti-drunk driving spot where a soundtrack of pub buddies urging, "Just one more, Dave," is repeated in the last shot by Dave's mother, spoon-feeding her subsequently paralyzed son with a different version of liquid lunch. Blink is repped in the U.S. by Chicago-based WorldView, and Studholme makes occasional reconnoitering trips to the States, as he firmly believes that direct relationships with agencies help avoid cultural confusion.
He turns down more than 300 jobs each year for Blink directors, who also include Pat Holden, Ivan Zacharias, Kevin Thomas and Bob Lawrie himself. "We try to resist taking on work to pay the mortgage," says Studholme. "That takes directors out of circulation for more appropriate work and can damage perceptions of them. We only accept work that is so compelling and different we want to be a part of it." Occasionally, directors need persuading. The Czech Ivan Zacharias, for instance, is best known for visual extravaganzas such as his Johnnie Walker whisky spot featuring a dinghy team challenging the Amazonian rapids. But, urged to reconsider M&C Saatchi's "Insights" script for Whiskas cat food, he created an exquisite depiction of a cat disproving every cliche about felines: their independence, dislike of dogs, predatory natures and the like-until it came to liking Whiskas, of course (see story on page 42).
While not outlawing music videos, Studhome feels that any contemplation of features would "take our eye off the ball." But round at Gorgeous, founded by owner-director Chris Palmer, one feels they are open to anything. Palmer sees little need for much corporate structure beyond the business basics. "No one works for anyone else round here," says Palmer, "and I don't even know what goes on upstairs." Upstairs is where his fellow directors, Chris Stevenson, Murray Partridge, ex-creative director at TBWA, and Enda McCallion, formerly at Park Village (see story on page 38), are based. "London seems to be changing," Palmer believes. "It's becoming more relaxed, and with everybody having computers, big-company setups seem redundant. We're terrible at PR, of course; we don't do any wining and dining because all our efforts go into shooting, and there's none of that wooing with reels." Answering the phone with "Hello, Gorgeous," does of course help to endear clients, as Palmer realized after abandoning the original moniker, Syndicated Miscellaneous International Leisure Enterprises (SMILE).
A highly successful copywriter himself until quite recently, Palmer declares that "we've known all the miseries agencies can inflict, so we're kind to junior teams." Well-known and widely admired enough to indulge Gorgeous' "nonsales policy," Palmer turns down 90 percent of the work he's offered but he often recommends other directors. "I'll only take on a job if I know I can deliver to everyone's happiness," he explains, and his reel suggests that he inevitably does. From the Chinese beetle racing spot for Volkswagen to "Cure-All" for Polaroid (where the hung-over customer's snapshots of the night before tell the pharmacist all he needs to know), it reveals a surefire ability to express a scenario with maximum effect.
Self-confessedly "raring to go" in the U.S. (where he's repped by Johns & Gorman Films), Palmer has already shot a Trident gum commercial for an American agency. He is only prevented from doing more American work by a scarcity of outstanding scripts and the "irrelevant minutiae" of conference calls and the like, which