The Channel 4 logo on fire at nighttime

Most Creative In-house Agency: 4creative

Executive creative director Lynsey Atkin reflects on a bumper year at Channel 4’s in-house agency, which brought us topical campaigns as well as evolution for the long term

As an in-house agency at a public service broadcaster, 4creative finds itself at a fairly unique cross-section of worlds that are all facing challenges: rising campaign production costs, global competition in the streaming era, a downturn in linear advertising.

On top of this, threats of privatisation loomed around the broadcaster not too long ago. In spite of these conditions, 4creative has continued to provoke and delight in the spirit of Channel 4’s own programming. “There is huge creative pressure that comes with 4creative,” says Lynsey Atkin, who has been ECD there since 2019. “There is an expectation for us to uphold the benchmark for that kind of work, and I think the ambition and the passion to do that is strong.”

If there is a word to sum up the past year at 4creative, it’s variety. The year was filled with timely projects such as Partygate – a campaign promoting a docudrama about the government’s Covid-19 gatherings that used all the trappings of a 90s rave. Neon flyposters featured a phone number leading to a spoof Boris Johnson promoting the TV show; party kits went out to influencers; and a mobile DJ set travelled to Westminster, just a stone’s throw from where the real Partygate scandal unfolded.

There was also the Change Climate advert highlighting Channel 4’s season of environmental programming. The spot represented politicians and businesspeople wearing oil-smeared underwear, showing how leaders are dealing with the climate crisis rear-on rather than head-first.

But 4creative also spent 2023 setting out Channel 4’s long-term vision: a new masterbrand developed with Pentagram, followed by its masterful channel idents a few weeks later.

The chance to create entirely new idents only comes around every five to ten years, which brings an added pressure, but the team rose to the challenge. Created with partners at Time Based Arts and Art Practice, the idents comprised a technically remarkable sequence of 25 individual scenes that folded into one another, resulting in a hypnotic visual that Atkin says feels more like “video art” than conventional idents.

“I think opportunities these days in this industry to do things that feel wildly original or different are fewer and so, actually, I think there is a collective appreciation when anybody is able to do that,” she says of the warm response to the idents from the creative industry.

We set out to create something that was hugely celebratory of these islands, but that wasn’t saccharine and wasn’t sugar-coating things

In an age where agencies are having to streamline processes in the face of sliced budgets, the idents displayed a true commitment to craft, from editing to set design to spoken word. Yet they struck a chord outside the industry too, a testament to the wide love for Channel 4 but also to the power of the story told through the idents, which captured the complex realities of Britain.

A grid of 25 still images showing the Channel 4 logo in different scenarios and treatments
Top and above: Stills from 4creative’s idents for Channel 4

“We set out to create something that was hugely celebratory of these islands, but that wasn’t saccharine and wasn’t sugar-coating things, and also saw the struggle and the darkness that can exist there,” Atkin says. John Joseph Holt’s spoken word piece doubled down on this. “It does talk about the good and the bad, but I think fundamentally it’s a very hopeful piece of writing.”

The project is indicative of Atkin’s belief that to deliver the most compelling work, you have to know when to step out of the way. “It’s knowing when somebody else is actually going to be really excellent at that specic bit and to go let them be excellent at it.”

We need more consistency, but 4 at its heart is a creatively chaotic brand. So how do you have consistency while also retaining this creative chaos?

The idents dovetailed with the reveal of Channel 4’s new masterbrand, which had been in the pipeline since 2021. Created in partnership with Pentagram partners Luke Powell and Jody Hudson-Powell, the masterbrand rejoined the blocks in Martin Lambie-Nairn’s historic 4 logo, which had been deconstructed in the last brand refresh in 2015.

The reunification of the logo is symbolic of the wider challenge of bringing together the various sub-brands, such as All 4, under the Channel 4 brand.

“We live in a very different landscape now for broadcasting than we did even five or ten years ago, certainly,” Atkin says. The thinking was that by bringing everything under one roof, it would make the 4 brand more robust while reflecting the reality that viewers perceive all of these touchpoints as one and the same.

“We are a really small fish in an increasingly vast ocean, and so doubling down on our core assets and brand … made sense. Then it’s about making 4 make sense for new audiences who perhaps don’t have the legacy that people born in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s do,” Atkin explains.

The project revealed a challenging yet creatively stimulating tension that comes with working at Channel 4’s agency. “In a world where people are only seeing fragmented parts of your communications, we need more consistency, but 4 at its heart is a creatively chaotic brand. So how do you have consistency while also retaining this creative chaos?” Colour gradients and various treatments of the same typeface were some of the tools used to navigate both requirements.

Grid showing Channel 4's end titles in colourful gradients
Channel 4 masterbrand by 4creative and Pentagram Design

While 4creative’s overarching aim will “always be to serve the brilliance and the unique goal of Channel 4”, within that, the agency’s own ambitions are “a game of two halves”, Atkin says. “There’s a great thing in being a landmark public service broadcaster and the heft that comes with that. You saw in that year, we had things like the idents, the rebrand – they are big, chunky projects that become famous, and I think you can stand there and feel like Channel 4 remains a flag-bearer for British creativity.

“And then the other part of the goal is being an agitator with these smaller projects that nip at the heels of the establishment, which are things like we saw with Prince Andrew the Musical, or Partygate, or Change Climate” – projects that have a “spike” to them – she says.

“It’s going back to what Channel 4 is for. It’s public service, and that in itself is a big establishment thing to say. But to challenge and to agitate and to be the fly in the ointment, being able to do all those things at 4creative, that’s the goal,” she explains. It’s about “being big and famous and well-crafted and brilliant, and then to be scrappy and noisy and annoying, but to do that in a smart, well-made way. I think 2023 was a standout year for showcasing all those faces of 4creative.”