The best ad agency in London?

Despite having only one oicial client, Channel 4’s in-house agency, 4 Creative, has built a reputation for consistently stunning advertising campaigns. By Eliza Williams

4 Creative is no ordinary advertising agency. Described humbly on its website as a “communications company set up by Channel 4”, it is responsible for the epic output of creative work that promotes the channel, as well as its digital spin-off stations, E4, More4 and Film4. In an era where there is a lot of talk, but little action, about brand communication and branded content, 4 Creative has been quietly creating just that, building Channel 4 into a brand with a clear identity across all its diverse formats.

Set up in 2001, 4 Creative works alongside the channel’s Creative Services department to produce idents, short films, on-air trails and print and TV advertising for the channel, alongside sponsored programme idents for other brands. This inevitably creates an unusual relationship between the agency and client, as 4 Creative head Richard Burdett explains. “The relationship with Channel 4 is not that they are obliged to use us, there’s no coercion in the model,” he says. “Though fortunately at the moment they choose to use us pretty extensively, across everything. I treat them the same way that I treated British Airways when I was at Saatchi’s, it’s a genuine agency-client model. But it’s ridden with anomalies because we’re all at the same place.”

This close affiliation between agency and client, and the variety of products required by the channel, often with an extremely quick turnaround time, has had a knock-on effect within the structuring of the agency, which instead of being run in the rigid manner of a traditional agency, is far more fluid. “It’s weirdly analogous to a teaching hospital, in that you’re always working on stuff, there’s always emergency stuff coming in, but you’re trying to get people as well-rounded as possible,” says Brett Foraker, creative director at Channel 4. “We find if we can give the client more direct access to the creatives and then give the creatives a bigger kit of tools to use, if they are trained up and can write, edit and direct, they have a lot more problem-solving skills and are much more able to deal with whatever curveballs might come to them from the client. Tom [Tagholm, creative head at 4 Creative], for example, in addition to overseeing all the daily creative output for 4 Creative, also writes, directs and works on projects externally, as do I, as do all the people who are looking after the day to day on E4 and More4.”

“While we do treat the channel with the respect of a big client, there’s much more give and take,” continues Tagholm. “We’re less secretive than an advertising agency and we’re happier to show the internal development of a creative concept here. And if something isn’t working, we’ll say. It just automatically lifts the mood © ß and it means it’s much easier to work, you break down some of those  barriers.” This open, communicative approach means that 4 Creative are regularly in the unusual position of seeing initial creative concepts make it through to a finished film or ad with little or no changes along the way, which not only makes for a happy creative team, but is testament to the agency’s deep understanding of the Channel 4 brand.

Despite (or perhaps because of) its tendency to court controversy, Channel 4 has remained consistently popular since its launch in 1982, and the team at 4 Creative acknowledge that this allows them to produce quite direct advertising. “On the whole people like the Channel 4 brand,” says Tagholm, “and the shows are super-compelling too so there’s that slight shift in thinking, and it is just a tiny shift, from ‘we have to turn this into something it isn’t’ to being a little bit bolder with your thinking and not afraid to directly show the spirit of the show.” This has led to the agency eschewing stock PR photographs to advertise a forthcoming show, and instead building a reputation for stunning, eye-catching print ads that encapsulate the shows in a single image, often with very little copy.

In order to achieve this, the team acknowledge the importance of their “little black book” of freelance collaborators, which has included contemporary photographic talents such as David LaChapelle, Jim Fiscus, Polly Borland and Ellen von Unwerth. Similarly, they will regularly use external directors to bring a new look or feel to a TV campaign. “For us the freelance model has proven to be the best, because the one thing we’d never want to go back to is that very rigid, arrogant advertising model where you’ve got this fixed thing of only wanting to make 60 second commercials,” says Burdett. “Our model enables us to do leaflets for E4’s comedy shows as much as 60-second trails for the Iraq series, and we have meetings with designers, art directors, copywriters etc the whole time to essentially build that base of talent and ensure it’s always fresh. Because the danger is you suddenly find you’ve just used one guy time and time again and Channel 4 can’t afford to be locked into an aesthetic.”

Simon Ratigan, who directed the acclaimed Iraq – The Bloody Circus trails for More4, has worked regularly with Creative Services and is always eager to return in a freelance capacity when approached by the agency. “I’m immediately part of the team,” he says. “Part of that’s my history at the company, but also that’s very much the philosophy of the agency. You have an advantage as there tends to be a trust between the client and the people there. Plus Channel 4 is one of the best clients in the universe; they say ‘shock people, make them laugh, go and use all these A-list celebrities and do what you want!’ That enables them to do great work, and that spirals and makes people want to work there.”

Alongside trusting its freelancers enough to work relatively freely on its campaigns, 4 Creative also treats its target audience with respect, assuming that it has the intelligence to understand subtle, edgy campaigns. This is particularly the case with its advertisements for its “adult entertainment” strand More4, which focuses on sophisticated, grown-up programming. Some of the agency’s most controversial, and consequently headline-grabbing, work has been for this part of the Channel 4 brand, including the recent posters that appear to show President Bush being shot (for drama Death of a President) and Ratigan’s Iraq trails. “The way we treat More4 from an advertising point of view is with the notion that they are like political cartoons,” explains Tagholm. “The ads have that confidence and wit and appeal to the right people. They’re not always going to appeal to everyone and that’s the point.”

The agency is also not afraid to gently lampoon one of the channel’s most coveted assets, its store of talent. The recent, ubiquitous, campaign to announce that Film4 is now free saw Hollywood A-listers Lucy Lui, Gael García Bernal and Willem Dafoe reduced to lowly leaflet distributors, while chef Jamie Oliver appears hanging upside down from a meat hook in a recent TV and poster campaign. “We’ve kind of created a sub-Jamie brand, the Channel 4 take on him, which is ‘here’s Jamie, let’s fuck him over somehow’,” says Tagholm. “He plays with that – it’s something that he’s comfortable with and likes doing.”

This innovative approach to television advertising has caught the attention of the awards panels, with 4 Creative and Creative Services receiving numerous accolades, including four Creative Circle 2006 Gold Awards, a Yellow Pencil in this year’s D&AD Awards, and even a highly coveted Black Pencil from D&AD in 2005 for its channel idents. But perhaps the ultimate compliment is the way that competing channels have begun to emulate 4 Creative’s style, with recent campaigns from both ITV and five appearing eerily similar to Channel 4’s look.

So what does the future hold? Alongside continuing to keep ahead of the television pack, the agency hopes to begin applying its methods to other brands, on a limited basis. “We absolutely know we don’t want other retained clients, because the second we have to start making resource calls, ‘do I service Channel 4 or client X’, is the second it all goes wrong,” says Burdett. “But what we’ve developed is a very robust creative project management system that we can apply to sponsorships.”

“To me it’s more about looking at what big plays other brands could be making and how we can help that,” continues Foraker. “And that might be working through another ad agency, it might be working directly with a marketing head, it might be a bespoke project for a diffusion line or something. What we’re looking at is if we can find people who are interested in working in this slightly tweaked way. I don’t think we’ve reinvented the wheel or anything, it’s just a pretty fun place to work.”


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