Beautiful Thinkers: A conversation with Eoin McLaughlin, Creative Director at Channel 4, about putting the work before your title, your paycheck and other people’s complaints.
When I first saw the Paralympics spot, “Meet the Superheroes” in 2012, I was blown away. I wasn’t familiar with Channel 4 or 4creative. I’ve been following them ever since. They can’t be pigeon-holed as an in-house or ad agency. They’re a creative engine in the UK facilitating global conversation around cultural issues. When I saw the most recent trailer for The Great British Bake Off, I had to talk to the creative director behind it. Eoin has an impressive agency background, but has chosen the fast-paced, trust-filled intimate atmosphere of 4creative to do his best work yet.
Why did you leave one of the best agencies in the US for an in-house agency in the UK?
I was working at Droga5 New York three years ago when an opportunity came up at Channel4. I’d worked on the agency side for about 10 years and really enjoyed it. I guess ‘in-house’ used to be thought of as somewhere old creatives go to die, but Channel4 has always done really provocative work with a strong social purpose. I’d worked with the previous ECDs Chris and John before and seen all the great work they’d made. I probably wouldn’t have left Droga for anywhere else.
I looked at the number of good pieces of work Droga did each year divided by their 150 creatives. And then I looked at the number of good pieces of work coming from Channel4’s six creatives, and I thought: “I’m going to get to make more good stuff there.”
It’s a small team here, 40 people in all. We’re half advertising agency and half production company. Pretty much everything we do, we make in-house. Most people here are directors and editors and producers. We’re all people that make things.
Is it true 4creative puts out 900 pieces a year?
Yeah, but that’s slightly misleading because there’s a team here that makes a huge number of trailers—cutting existing shows up. My team concentrates on the projects that we shoot or build from scratch. We call those our ‘conceptual’ projects. And obviously there’s a bunch of stuff that’s somewhere in the middle too. There’s new stuff going out every week. We all meet up every two weeks to review all the work we’ve done, and it’s usually a pretty long showreel.
How do you handle the pace and still do great work?
Because we produce so many pieces of work, there’s less fear about each individual piece. Everyone’s got six other things on the go. There’s not one thing that’s the ‘big opportunity’ of the year. When you’ve got more going on, things are a bit easier. I don’t feel like we work at a hundred miles an hour. Things just happen quicker because there’s less bullshit.
We have directors in-house, so we make most of the stuff here. We’ll occasionally outsource projects because we don’t have the skill in-house or we need an extra pair of hands. Our marketing department writes our briefs, in collaboration with our two business directors and myself. They are less of a ‘client’, more friends and colleagues. We sit next next to them every day, so that relationship is a lot less stressful. There’s less ass-covering, less ‘servicing’. It helps us be more efficient. We’re all on the same team, so there’s more trust.
There’s a lot to be said for being able to say “that’s amazing” or “that’s shit” without worrying about hurting someone’s feelings or not having to write really long email to say something simple because you don’t know the person well. All that bullshit, basically, that you don’t have to deal with if you’re working with the same team regularly.
How does not having planners affect the work? Are the assignments more request-based than insights-based?
Strategy is brilliant when it leads to better work, but it’s not useful in and of itself. Sometimes agencies seem to forget that. Decks start spinning out of control with endless meetings about charts and fifty incomprehensive slides to try and convince the client we’re clever.
I guess strategy is a bit more intuitive at 4creative. It’s a responsibility borne by all of us. Creative ideas can come from anywhere and so can strategy. Obviously, it’s easier to work that way at an in-house agency, where we all naturally build up a lot of knowledge about the brand, the industry and our audience.
The best strategic thinkers I’ve worked with seem to have done a load of weird stuff before going into advertising, which helps them gain insight into different behaviours. They’re interested in how people work and what’s happening in the world. They’re clear and concise. They could be planners, creatives or account people.
How does the approval process work? Who makes the final call?
It’s a lot more democratic than other places that I’ve worked. At Droga, it was pretty clear that Dave Droga was in charge, and if you wanted something done then he needed to give the go ahead. Most agencies I’ve worked at have had that one person really. Often that works well. Obviously, it’s worked well for Droga, but here it’s more democratic.
Things we do often involve a PR angle, so our press department will have a say. Or there could be input from corporate relations, or perhaps a partnership with our sales department. Often we agree, and often we don’t agree, but everyone has a say and nobody gets their own way all the time. It can be frustrating sometimes. But at the same time, it feels fair.
Do you ever test work?
Yeah, sometimes. We’re able to test things with viewers very quickly. But we don’t always listen to the results. The test results are just one voice in the room. We just tested something that ran this week. The end line we used was not the one that tested best. In fact, it tested the worst, but everyone still believed it was the best one. So we have the capability, but we don’t always listen to it.
What was the assignment?
The brief was about promoting all of our talent. But we were also very keen to use them to say something about the brand. The idea came from the ‘viewer enquiries’ we get sent each day, most of which are complaints. A lot of them are quite bigoted and unpleasant, but some are just really funny. We researched thousands of those complaints and picked the funniest ones for each person.
The idea was for our talent to read their complaints in a way that showed they were actually quite proud of them. We did it visually — dressing them up and putting them in weird scenarios. There’s one guy who looks like a walrus, so we put him in a scene with a walrus. We always think about creating an image the press will use. One complaint said: “I’m not homophobic, but do you have to show gay kissing at dinner time?” So we had one of our gay actors kissing his husband, and then they stopped to eat a turkey drumstick. It’s kind of like a “screw you” but it’s also about making a point about discrimination. Done with a bit of humour.
Just because you’re making a serious point, doesn’t mean you need to do it in a serious way. That’s our sweet spot as a brand.
What’s the purpose of receiving complaints daily?
We are a publicly owned company, which creates more of a duty to listen to viewers. Each morning we receive two emails that help us do this: the overnight viewing figures and yesterday’s viewer inquiries and complaints. If viewing figures are low and nobody is watching, it’s pretty clear we’re doing something wrong. If we’re receiving a lot of feedback, that can either be good or bad. It could be we’ve missed the mark, or it could be we’ve landed on an issue that really matters to people, that we’ve challenged the way people think and opened a debate. And that’s exactly what we’re here for.
When you make ads, is there a certain percentage you’re expected to focus on the more promotional aspects of a show?
Promoting films and TV shows is a very particular discipline. It definitely took me a while to get my head round it. A lot of people have just spent months or years of their lives creating a TV show. So when you suggest promoting it with a voice experience or a political mural, the response can be a bit like: “Yeah, but why don’t we just show the show? Why don’t you just play the clips?”
It was really difficult to learn how to add value by doing something a bit different, and also how to take other people on that journey. Look, there’s always going to be a trailer for your show, but we’re also here to think about what else we can add to the mix to really get people talking.
Can you talk about the process of doing the most recent trailer for the Great British Bake Off?
Bake off is a great brief — people already know the show, so we don’t have to explain what it is. It was an opportunity to do something else.
At a time when Britain feels quite divided, we wanted to talk abut something that brings us all together — baking. We found a great Beatles track and decided to match each lyric to a scene that made the point. We didn’t make things easy for ourselves. We had a four-day shoot so we just kind of crammed it all in. Again, because we work together a lot, we’re able to move a bit more quickly on set. Our ‘client’ — the marketing department — knows that we’re going to deliver on the concept. I don’t think anyone from the marketing department actually came to that particular shoot. That’s because, again, we work with them all the time so there’s a level of trust which makes everything quicker.
I noticed on LinkedIn that your title at every agency before Channel 4 was just “senior creative.” Why did you stay in that role for so long?
I had a lot of opportunities to go to be a creative director, but I knew if I moved sideways, I would get progressively better. I got to work at places I wanted to, and do the kind of work I wanted to, by not chasing a promotion. Sounds cheesy, but I always put the work above money or promotions. It took me longer to get where I am than a lot of my contemporaries, but I feel like I’ve made better work along the way.
The mission of Channel 4 is to be provocative. What kind of pressure does that put on you?
It’s sometimes daunting when you think of all the great work you’ve got to try and beat. Or outwit. Or be different to. Speaking of which, I’ve got to dash to a Paralympics meeting.