The real mad men: how adverts get off the drawing board

The advertising industry produces some cutting-edge art. Two of the creatives who’ll be at the Offset conference explain how their ideas take shape

At Offset, Dublin's international creative conference, people from the animation, illustration, graphic design, film and comic industries flock to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre for a weekend of workshops, discussions and lectures. Among the world-class creatives on the roster are two from the advertising world: the Forsman & Bodenfors agency; and Rory Hamilton, from Boys and Girls.

Although the crux of the advertising industry is selling people stuff they probably don’t need, the industry is also a testing ground for creativity and a producer of some cutting-edge art. Bren Byrne, one of the founders and organisers of Offset, says there’s a clear difference between putting an advertising creative on stage at Offset and putting someone on stage who works more autonomously, such as a graphic designer, a street artist or an illustrator. This is because making ads is a collaborative process, with a large team of people putting something together. So, in this environment, how does a television ad get made?

Hamilton, the creative director of the Boys and Girls agency, has worked on campaigns for Kellogg’s, Irish Distillers, Digicel, Nissan and more. “We do everything but PR,” Hamilton says of the agency’s approach. The general stages in making a television ad go from pitch to brief to production to execution and completion.

“Usually a client will contact you through a pitch doctor, who runs pitches, or they contact you directly and say they’re looking for a new agency. Then there’s a pitch process, which most agencies try to avoid.”

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The next step is the brief. “If you win the pitch process you start the process of the first campaign, which involves going back to scratch and writing a brief, which the planning department would do, which looks at what the client’s challenges are, what the insight into the consumer is,” Hamilton says. “The brief is written up and, as creative director, I agree the brief with the strategy team, and multiple creative teams go off and work on it.

“Quite often, for a single ad, you’re looking at a campaign that can work into social media, digital, what the window is going to look like in the store, will the shop experience match the campaign? That’s how you evaluate them. Sometimes we go into research, but more often than not you present to the client, and then you enter production.

“That sounds short, but sometimes that process can take six months or a year. Sometimes it’s arduous, but sometimes it’s great. I’ve an ad that took two years from first idea to making it on to screen.”

Coming up with ideas

Rachel Foley is an art director at Irish International; previous clients have included Carlsberg, the Irish Independent and the EBS building society. Foley is "in charge of the visual side of things. I work with the copywriter, and we come up with the ideas together."

In developing ideas, Foley says, “It’s personal to everyone. Different people come up with ideas in different ways. If I’m given a brief I’ll absorb it before sitting down with a copywriter . . . I’d be thinking about films, cultural references. I’d probably write down a few ideas. Usually the first few ideas are absolutely rubbish, but it’s just to get things down.” Working with the copywriter, the concept begins to take shape.

Seeing through the production also presents challenges, depending on what the commercial is going to look like. At Offset, Hamilton will be speaking in particular about an ad for the Three mobile-phone network, a Christmas commercial that saw a father scale a snowy mountain to capture a present for his daughter. He returns home, she opens her present and a cloud emerges, scattering snow on the happy family.

For Hamilton the main issue was global weather patterns. “It was October, and our hands were really tied. There’s no snow in the world in October. We waited as long as we could in the run-up to Christmas and then travelled to the very north of Sweden, a place called Kiruna, inside the Arctic Circle, where there was snow.”

Andy Pierce is the head of planning at MediaVest. It's Pierce's job to advise clients on where and how often their ad should be seen and in what form. "A media planner's basic responsibility, based on a client brief, is to identify the media channels that are going to be best equipped to overcome the challenge a client is facing," he says. These challenges are typically "lower awareness of a product, or changing perceptions of a particular brand".

When Pierce receives a brief, MediaVest examines what the brand wants to achieve and looks at the budget available. A television ad depends on a production budget and enough time to make something. “If we faced a brief that had reputation issues, awareness issues or perception issues, we’d likely be looking at TV in that instance.”

Television advertising space is sold in terms of the number of viewers who are likely to be watching; planners also examine how many times the target audience should see the ad in order for it to be effective.

“So beverages, chocolate, you tend not to have to hit people that often. You don’t need to buy heavy bursts, because you’re just looking to nudge people over the line the next time they’re buying a drink.

“When you get into big-ticket items, or complex purchases or busier categories, it would tend to need bigger bursts of TV. Telecoms is a good example. There’s a lot more consideration that goes into it, and there are a lot of advertisers there, with big brands trying to create big statements, so that would require heavier rotation on copy.

“Similarly, if you’re looking at highly competitive categories or complicated products – insurance and things that you’re not in the market for all the time, and by their nature are more complex products – people need to see them more often for the message to get through.”

The next stage is buying the right space. With about 40 television channels available to buy spots on in Ireland, media planners look at how the likely audience of a programme relates to the product. "Appointment-to-view programming" – or things that people make an effort to tune in for, such as the Six Nations and soaps – are examined. "You tailor it. If it's a young audience you might be buying E4, Sky Atlantic, whereas with an older audience you'd be buying RTÉ One in particular – soap, current affairs, that kind of thing."

Testing ground

For Bren Byrne, advertising creatives have a relevance on the Offset stage. “In terms of work it’s a highly paid job, and in an industry that is full of not-well-paid jobs it’s a way of expressing themselves,” he says. “From a creative point of view it is a great testing ground. There are so many film directors and music-video directors doing commercial work in advertising. It’s also good for funding side projects.

“The collaborative process of TV ads teaches you a lot. You have to work with so many people and tight deadlines. While the budgets from the outside are quite large, it’s consumed very quickly by all the different departments involved.

“If you go in with your eyes open, and are willing to learn, there’s a lot you can pick up and take into other work. The idea that advertising companies are looking to employ people with degrees in advertising is not true. They’re looking for creative people.”

Offset is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, from March 6th to 8th; more at iloveoffset.com. Tickets from €112.50

Four to remember: Classic Irish ads

ESB: Ads in the 1980s riffed on emigration, much as they do now. The electricity firm's Going Back ad, with its perfect Dusty Springfield soundtrack, and a young Alan Hughes staring out of the car window on his way home, still brings a lump to the throat.

HARP LAGER: The ad that gave the world Sally O'Brien (played by Vicki Michelle), and the way she might look at you, as an emigrant Irish man sweated somewhere in the Middle East. You could fry an egg on the stones here . . . if you had an egg.

KERRYGOLD: The butter brand's love affair with France in its television advertising veered from sexy to camp, but it did solidify two classic lines of copy in Irish advertising history: "Put a bit of butter on the spuds, André" and "Who's taking the horse to France?"

GUINNESS: The brewer has made so many, but the 1999 Surfer ad, shot by Jonathan Glazer (who went on to make the films Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin) is probably Guinness advertising at its finest and most sophisticated.