U.K. Hotshop Has Loads of Talent -- But Only One Client

TV Network Channel 4's Marketing Team Create Some of the Most Original, Edgy Work to Come Out of Region

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It was a powerfully emotive film that last year won the Film Craft Grand Prix at Cannes and a Black Pencil at D&AD, and was voted a TED Ad Worth Spreading. Yet it wasn't the work of a traditional agency or even a big network. "Meet the Super Humans" was the work of 4Creative, the in-house shop for U.K. broadcaster Channel 4, a teaser for the network's coverage of the 2012 Paralympic Games.

Chris Bovill and John Allison
Chris Bovill and John Allison

Set up in 2001 to service Channel 4's marketing team, 4Creative has a prolific output of some 900 program promotions a year, most of which isn't seen outside the U.K., as well as promotions for the channel's sponsors. Yet it's responsible for some of the most original, edgy campaigns to come out of the region in the last decade.

Initially led by directors with a background in broadcast, in 2012 the Channel lured two lauded agency creative directors -- Fallon London's Chris Bovill and John Allison -- to head it up. The pair said they joined 4Creative precisely because of the quality of the output. "What could be a bigger challenge than joining an agency at the top of its game?" said Mr. Bovill. It helps, Mr. Allison pointed out, that the broadcaster has a specific government remit to be innovative, experimental and distinctive: music to the ears of most creative directors. "We're really lucky that we're in a building full of like-minded people; even with our legal team, their default setting is never 'No,'" said Mr. Allison.

Recent projects have included "Gay Mountain," a camp song-and-dance sequence celebrating gay athletes at Sochi; the distinctly edgy "Arthur," promoting a show about tortoise's love life; and a punk-inspired film promoting coverage of the Grand National (a British horse race) as "The Original Extreme Sport."

The work -- which puts most U.S. TV networks' creative to shame -- often seems lavishly produced, leading some observers to question whether the broadcaster has huge budgets. Not so, said Mr. Allison: "4Creative is unique in that it's an agency and production-company hybrid. It means the money goes further because we can be very efficient."

The 4Creative team of 46 people also works on projects such as sponsored station identifications for clients including Honda and Playstation. What they promote is partly dictated by the marketing department and by high-ratings programming, but they also have the freedom to cherry-pick projects that afford them the most creative opportunities. Creatives within the team chose, for example, to create a trailer for Crufts, the world-famous dog show. Another new piece of work is a trailer for reality-show "Made In Chelsea," in which actual kids play the vain and self-obsessed rich kids who appear in the show.

Mr. Bovill and Mr. Allison are also keen to direct more themselves (they directed "Mating Season," the one featuring the tortoise Arthur and his colorful love life). "We always knew we wanted to become ECDs or to own our own place, but now our careers have really opened up," said Mr. Bovill. So what kind of work inspires them? Both cite "The Lego Movie" as an ingenious feature-length ad for a brand that's both entertaining and commercial. "We like work that doesn't fit into an ad-shaped box," Mr. Bovill said.

Another opportunity is coming up with branding work that isn't necessarily trailing programming. For example, at the end of the last year, 4Creative launched "Born Risky," a project in which it used continuity announcers with disabilities, such as Tourette's and cerebral palsy. "It's not just about the ads, it's about doing more with the medium of television," said Mr. Allison. "It's fantastic because we have the freedom to experiment and play with it. As with 'Gay Mountain,' it's about proving that we are a brand that takes risks."

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