What it’s like to work in-house at Channel 4

Chris Bovill and John Allison talk to Eliza Williams about how working in-house at Channel 4 allows them to take ‘risks with a purpose’

Chris Bovill and John Allison are the creative leaders at 4Creative, Channel 4’s in-house agency. They are behind recent major ad campaigns for the Paralympics and Humans, and also delivered the channel’s successful rebrand last year and its ongoing tagline ‘Born Risky’. The duo met at Manchester School of Art and have now been creative partners for 20 years, working at Fallon and TBWA before moving to Channel 4. Here they discuss their working relationship and how they motivate their team, as well as the power of being ‘nice’.

CR: How, and why, does your relationship work?

John: We were friends before we were working partners. We were mates on the course at Manchester, but we would work together a lot. But right from day one, we brought people into the marital bed to spice things up, and we haven’t stopped doing that…. You have to constantly bring in new voices and opinions, and people with different tastes and inclinations…. Coming to 4Creative, we’ve let 40 people into the bed. It’s just one big collaboration. We’re very small, we have a set headcount, so everybody has to be a bit hybrid and wear a number of hats.

Chris: We see ourselves as ‘artist-whisperers’. We like holding these weird and wonderful artists by the hand and directing them along while embracing all the input that they’re going to add.

John: We’re quite naïve, and we’re good at holding on to that. So when you’re with someone like [Jonathan] Glazer or Dougal [Wilson], who’ve got an incredible vision, we will just keep throwing in things, provoking and prodding, in a nice way. That sort of works…. Our industry is about fresh thinking, that’s what we sell ourselves on, it’s our product. There’s no way, just between us two, to b keep being fresh. We have to pull in as many brains as we can from as far and wide, and just do the poking and the prodding.

Chris: And make sure it fits into the tone, that’s our job. We understand Channel 4. We bring these people in and go ‘you can make what you want, trust us, you don’t have to pull your punches, it won’t be watered down’ but there’s a tone to it, there’s a way of doing it. It’s risk but with a purpose. So that’s our job.

CR: So have you avoided the problem that many creatives have of losing the ability to be hands-on and make work when they become management?

Chris: Because there’s not many of us here, everyone gets their hands dirty. Our default law is to try and give it to other people, because we want to see people grow and nurture them to have ownership of a thing. But there’s only 40 of us here, and there’s times, because things move quickly here, when you go ‘fuck’… and everyone’s on everything. There are a lot of things that have to be made by not many people. So there are points when it would be crazy for us not to jump in.

John: You lead by example, there’s a bit of that when you join a place. You have to prove that you can do it, before you preach about it.

The Humans Recall Van in Birmingham
The Humans Recall Van in Birmingham

CR: Has that been easier to do because you’re in-house?

Chris: The luxury we’ve got here is your energy is spent on the right things, it’s spent on making the thing better. Presentation-wise, you make a presentation to get the idea across and then you go and make it, there’s a trust within the building. You’re never having to have everyone focus in on this one deck, these mood films, these things to then take to the client, who then have to go a million different levels for the first round, and then come back here for you to do that again. It’s like ‘let’s just get the purity of the idea, get that right, and then let’s go and make it as best as we can’. That’s really refreshing, and that’s why we’re able to do what we’re able to do.

John: We found in ad agencies, half the battle is getting it out of the building. There’s an instant ‘no’ mentality. We don’t want to sit here and slag the ad industry off, it’s just that when you are the client that dissipates. Just by the nature of working for a client there is second guessing. That, from a creative perspective, can become a barrier to making good stuff, it’s just part and parcel of it. And we’re quite strategic and we can second guess with the best of them, but when you work inside a brand that is confident and creative, that just goes and you have so much more freedom.

BELOW: Ad spot for Humans Season 2

CR: How does it work here, do you get specific briefs?

Chris: We get briefs for a programme, like Humans, because we know it’s going to be on air at this time and we want to get bums on seats. But a lot of this stuff just comes from chatting, from being in it and understanding the problems that are there. That’s what we are: problem solvers. We enjoy fixing these problems, these big things.

Born Risky was born out of these tiny little blipvert things that just said our remit. It was like ‘yeah, you can do that’ but the remit is amazing, it’s incredible, it’s unique, it’s what makes us different. And it’s gold dust, let’s shout about it, but don’t just tell people it, you’ve got to prove it, you’ve got to show it. That’s where Born Risky is born from, and then proving that each time, either through our programming or through [the advert] Gay Mountain or whatever…. That wasn’t a brief! It stemmed from a problem.

That’s what we are: problem solvers. We enjoy fixing these problems, these big things.

John: It comes from a brand that’s got a fight on its hands. This is a widely accepted thing: we’re Avis, we’re number two, that’s why we try harder. We’ve got to defend the reason why we exist, there are forces out there that might want to work against us. As a creative that’s the most inspiring thing because then you’re not just making a pretty, funny thing, there’s a point to what you’re doing, and the whole building is focused on that. We have arguments and debates and heated conversations, but everybody wants the same thing, they all want Channel 4 to be amazing.

Simpsons identity created by 4Creative
Simpsons identity created for Channel 4

CR: How do you keep people motivated? Or does the ‘product’ that you’re selling – Channel 4 – just do that for you?

Chris: It is a luxury, because we work for this amazing brand, but it’s keeping it interesting. It’s finding those opportunities, because it ebbs and flows and you get periods when we’re not as busy. But you can always make those opportunities – like we said, you go round the building looking for the problems.

John: Just because we’re 4Creative and we’re at Channel 4, it doesn’t mean that people don’t get a bit comfy. You still have to motivate people and give them different and new challenges.

BELOW: Channel 4’s Born Risky campaign

CR: How do you do that?

Chris: You scare the shit of them – you know people’s breaking points, because we’ve been there. So you say ‘you can direct that’. ‘No I can’t!’ ‘Yeah you can, absolutely, we’ll be there to help you, we’ll support you’. We’re full of creative people, they’re all sensitive souls, they’ve all got massive anxieties.

Another good thing is us showing our weaknesses – it’s kind of a key thing. It’s quite good to sometimes go ‘I don’t know, I’ve no idea, I’ve literally no idea how to do this thing, we all need to work together’. You’re all in it together, you’re all pushing in the right direction…. It’s how we’ve always worked, because we want to help people. Be nice to people and you get the best out of people. If you push people and make sure they always feel like they’re always going in the right direction, you get the best out of them. Why wouldn’t you? Why be an idiot, why not be clear? You can explain yourself.

We understand Channel 4. We bring these people in and go ‘you can make what you want, trust us, you don’t have to pull your punches, it won’t be watered down’

John: I’m sure there are creative leaders out there that work in a completely different way, and they are more visionary…. We just realised we’re just nice. It’s really boring. We’re nice, honest and just push people. And if we are going to push someone to the point of breaking, we’re going to tell them why we’re doing that, rather than being all weird
about it.


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