Fallon, the next ten years

It’s been a pretty good first ten years for Fallon, London. The agency is regularly described as the best in London, if not the world

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Endless trips to the awards podiums for Sony, Skoda, Cadbury and more have been matched with genuine benefits for its clients.

But as Fallon celebrates its first decade, it faces a number of challenges. Firstly there is success itself – when you’ve just won a d&ad Gold and Cannes Grand Prix in the same year (for Cadbury Gorilla) there’s only one way to go. Trucks, the follow-up to Gorilla, had a notably cooler reception from the industry and public.

Critics also claim that most of the agency’s successes have been with tv commercials and not in the burgeoning digital space. And then there is the departure of creative director Juan Cabral to Argentina. Cabral is often held up to be the sole secret of Fallon’s success, with the agency truly hitting its stride after he joined from Mother in January 2004. He both wrote and directed Gorilla as well as working on Sony Balls, Paint and Play-Doh, three of the agency’s other multi-award-winners. Cadbury’s client Phil Rumbol has been quoted as saying that “Juan is a supremely talented creative and that’s something [sic] you would … want working on your business all the time”. When it was announced in September that Cabral, while remaining at the agency with the same job title, had decided to return to his home country for the birth of his first child, it prompted questions of whether such a long distance relationship is possible, and whether he may take the agency’s magic with him.

Perhaps for these reasons, despite its undoubted success, Fallon appears not to be resting on its laurels. At the centre of plans to move the company forward are a number of unusual recent hires that have seen specialists from outside advertising join the creative department as ‘creative associates’. These include Richard Skinner, former music video commissioner and creative director at Atlantic Records, Tomato’s Dirk van Dooren, Lisa Green, founder of Channel 4’s in-house agency 4Creative, events specialist Jez Gooden and Olu Michael Odukoya, editor and publisher of Kilimanjaro magazine (cr November). The perception of a lack of digital expertise has also been addressed, by the recruitment of Måns Tesch, co-founder of Swedish digital agency Lowe Tesch, as digital strategy director, while Fallon can point to having successfully survived the departure of one of its original creative directors, Andy McLeod, who is now a director at Rattling Stick.

“We are trying to reinvent ourselves,” says Fallon London founding partner and chairman Laurence Green. “Not because anything is broken, but because there is an astonishing new creative canvas now. This is mainly from digital but the walls between design, events … anywhere in the creative branding business, are coming down. We’re still hiring ad teams – which also look very different now – but also trying to round ourselves out. The spirit of the agency is that you create ideas that are bigger than advertising.”

“You notice that an awful lot of time has been saved by having them in the room,” continues founding partner and executive creative director Richard Flintham on the new hires. “It’s great to have those people floating around. I think if you try and ‘advert­ising-ify’ them, if you try and make them what you are, it’s wrong. But if they have a power of veto just as great as your own then life’s really interesting. If you say ‘let’s make something better than the both of us’, it works really well, I think.”

The new associates, unsurprisingly, are enthusiastic. “Channel 4 was a tough act to follow,” says Lisa Green. “Of all the broadcasters, if you work on the branding and marketing side, it’s up there. I didn’t want to just go anywhere and take any kind of job.” Most cite the presence of Flintham as being decisive in their choice to come to Fallon, which perhaps addresses some of the concerns over Cabral’s position.

Green, as is the case for most of the creative associate recruits, first came into contact with Fallon by doing consultancy work, which then led to the permanent position. “They’re incredibly ambitious,” she continues. “I came in and thought they might be sat on their laurels a bit. What intrigued me most is they’re all really ambitious about wanting to be as good and better in all aspects, not just advertising.”

This ambition has been there from the very first days of the agency, which was set up in 1998 by Flintham, Green, and Robert Senior (who became chief executive officer of the new Saatchi & Saatchi and Fallon tie-up ssf last year), as well as Michael Wall (now chief executive of bbdo Portugal) and McLeod. From the beginning the emphasis was on holistic creative ideas, according to Green, a strategy that is now pretty much accepted as being the future of advertising. “I remember our very first pitch,” he says. “It was for Radio 1, the One Love campaign, and we had wall-to-wall ads, design, bits of content, postcards, pillows….”

Its work for Tate Modern (CR December 07) exemplifies this approach, encompassing the Tate Collections, a series of leaflets suggesting itiner­aries for visits to Tate Britain that were tailored to fit with a particular mood, and Tate Tracks, which saw musicians create new compositions inspired by artworks at Tate Modern, along with more traditional poster ads for the gallery.

Above all Fallon seems to understand that in order to become part of the culture today, television commercials must have an entertainment value that results in a second life on the web, suggesting that perhaps the agency ‘gets’ digital after all. The phenomenal impact of Cadbury’s Gorilla, for example, in which a man in a gorilla outfit raptur­ously drums along to Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight, originally played out on TV but went on to receive over ten million views (and counting) on YouTube and prompted at least 70 appreciation groups on Facebook. Crucially, it also saw a record 7% revenue growth for Cadbury. And all without the appearance of a single chocolate bar.

Gorilla was not Fallon’s first experience of an ad achieving a breakthrough online. When filming the Sony Balls campaign in 2005 (where thousands of coloured balls were thrown down a hill in San Francisco), Flintham and creative director Juan Cabral found themselves at the centre of an internet ‘buzz’. “It was a huge learning curve for us,” says Flintham. “It was terrifying. There was myself and Juan on the shoot in San Francisco, and people were taking pictures and posting them on to Flickr, and then we got a message back from a friend in another country saying ‘I’ve seen what you’re doing’. And that was on the first morning of the shoot. So we immediately clicked into ‘we’re going to get fired, this is really bad, everyone knows what we’re doing, they’re going to nick it’. All that stuff. Which was crazy – it was ‘how are we going to manage this?’ and it just got bigger and bigger and bigger until you realised that people wanted to talk about it…. And then we realised that the ad had started. There’s a moment when we thought ‘we’re supposed to be putting something out in a month’s time but it’s actually begun now’.”

The online environment has also been a source of difficulty to the agency, however, with accusa­tions of plagiarism – categorically denied by all concerned – regarding two of its most high-profile spots, Sony Balls and Play-Doh, both appearing initially on online forums before reaching the mainstream press. In the case of the former, a YouTube clip from the David Letterman show in which various objects were rolled down a San Francisco hill surfaced to cast doubt over whether Balls was an original idea. Then last year LA-based illustrators Kozyndan pointed out the alleged simi­larities between their work and Play-Doh, which features hundreds of multi-coloured bunnies frolicking around New York. Kozyndan had been asked by Passion, the animation production company for Play-Doh, to submit samples of their work for an unrelated job some three years before­hand, but Passion md Andrew Ruhemann told cr that “hand-on-heart we didn’t copy [them]. We don’t operate like that, we work with a lot of artists and we never rip them off, we’ve been ripped off too many times ourselves to ever let that happen.”

Fallon’s Richard Flintham has also vehemently and consistently denied that anyone involved in making the commercials had seen either the Letterman clip or the Kozyndan work beforehand or that the agency has behaved in any way improperly. But, however unfairly, and despite a complete lack of substantiated evidence to support them, such allegations inevitably cast a shadow.

With the agency seeking reinvention, Flintham says he is conscious of the need to manage clients carefully while introducing changes at the agency, and, while enthusiastic about the opportunity to launch off into the brave new worlds of brand experiences or broadcasting (the agency recently set up a production unit, Fallon Films), he is aware that there are clients who might not be ready for such leaps just yet.

“You might find that some people who you work with don’t want you to venture off into strange lands, because they want you to be a specialist in a particular medium,” he says. “Which I think is a lesson to everybody that you need to keep people updated of the fact that you’ve comfortably grown into larger shoes or different shoes and it’s all part of what you offer. Because some people do have an image of what they want you to be as well.”

Fallon now finds itself in the enviable position of not always having to pitch for new business, with clients instead coming specifically because they like what it does. This is inevitably in part due to the metal that is now cluttering up the agency’s awards cabinet, but also perhaps in recognition of the fact that Fallon seems particularly aware of the need for ad agencies to offer broader creative offerings. This has led to discussions internally over whether Fallon should even be known simply as an ‘advert­ising agency’ anymore, or whether ‘creative company’ or some such description might now be more appropriate.

“I think there’s a challenge for advertising agencies to diversify, I don’t think clients just want ads anymore,” says Richard Skinner. “The long-term ambition is that Fallon becomes a place that can offer [in-house] what is currently only available externally. So instead of Sony ringing Fallon and asking for a new ad campaign, they [may ask] for a new events campaign… I think the landscape is sort of unknown but people are identifying that there needs to be diversification and it needs to come in-house.”

The projects currently under discussion at the agency do signal that Fallon’s output may be about to get a whole lot more interesting, with talk of a number of forthcoming branded entertainment projects in the pipeline. But perhaps most intriguingly, Fallon appears to be attempting a wholesale shift away from the traditional way in which advertising creative departments have worked ever since Bill Bernbach introduced the art director/ copywriter creative team in the 60s. Other agencies have dabbled in new models but Fallon seems to be staking its future on it. The next ten years could be as significant as the first.