The Glue Society, the company behind God’s Eye View, a series of images that re-imagine key scenes from the Bible as if captured on Google Earth (which caused something of a stir on the CR blog at the end of last year) was ten years old last month. This is their story.
Ten years is a significant milestone in the advertising industry for a company that has never clarified exactly what it is it does. Working across both commercial and non-commercial spheres, creating work ranging from traditional television ads to complex multi-platform campaigns (alongside its recent forays into art), The Glue Society is firmly part of the ad world, yet refuses to adher to the industry’s usual rules. It has worked with major brands such as Virgin Mobile, Elle McPherson and Nike, and has helped reshape the advertising landscape in Australia, where its main offices are based, yet has no permanent clients or even a planning department. And, before you tie it down to simply being a company of freelance creatives, it also executes all its own work, meaning that in some parts of the world The Glue Society is known largely as a team of directors.
If it’s hard to grasp now, imagine how it was trying to pitch the concept of The Glue Society back in the late 90s, before the boom of viral advertising, branded content or all the other ad buzzwords that roll effortlessly off the tongue today. Even Jonathan Kneebone, who founded the company with Gary Freedman, acknowledges that he himself would have been suspicious. “I remember when I was working in London how irritating it was when someone wouldn’t define what they do,” he says. “Either you worked in advertising or you didn’t. If you decided to go and become a director, now you were a director, you couldn’t do both. There was no real precedence of someone being able to continue to do both.”
Yet this lack of definition was not born out of stubbornness, but simply from a desire to approach creative work differently. “I suppose, and this is something I’ve only noticed recently, is what we were actually trying to do was to create the opportunity to be able to be free to be creative in whatever way we wanted to be creative but still make a living doing it,” Kneebone continues. “Although the majority of what we’re doing is commercially driven, it’s odd actually that the whole world has changed such that the commercially driven thing can now be much more artistic.”
Kneebone and Freedman were working together at Young & Rubicam when they began thinking about forming the company. They had reached the stage where the natural progression career-wise was to become creative directors or to start their own agency, yet neither avenue appealed. “We thought there must be a way of making some income without having to have clients permanently,” says Kneebone. “That lent itself to be a project system. But at that time there was no one who was particularly interested in out-sourcing creative work to another company. We were wary of becoming a freelance entity – the problem with that for us was you came in for a couple of days, but the client didn’t benefit, you didn’t benefit, you never got to make anything and no one really took any responsibility for anything. So we thought, ‘let’s call ourselves a brand’, let’s ask people if we can take control of the project for them, there must be some people out there who need creative help.”
The duo were bolstered in their strategy by a project that they worked on at the end of their time at Y&R, a book titled Knowledge Keeps Like Fish, which catalogued a series of ads designed by artists and aimed at shaking up the Australian print advertising industry. “We commissioned artists to send us a piece of work which would look completely unusual in a newspaper environment,” explains Kneebone. “And we put all of those spreads into a book and put an argument together that basically said. ‘look what people who would kill to have this space in a newspaper would do with it, and what are we doing?’” The project included contributions from artists such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Rineke Djikstra and Peter Blake, and, most significantly, had the backing of Lachlan Murdoch, who offered Kneebone and Freedman double-page newspaper spreads to showcase the work. After seeing his commitment to the project, they realised that there might be other clients who would work in this way, without being committed to them in a formal way. “That was the hope – perhaps, if were independent, there might be a client like him prepared to give us a project that we could work on. We could get a budget and our only overhead was our time really, as long as we were making some income. Then we could be using that time to do anything.” Knowledge Keeps Like Fish went on to win a D&AD Silver, and, while created at Y&R, became seen by Kneebone and Freedman as The Glue Society’s first, unofficial, project.
With Kneebone and Freedman’s advertising connections, projects were quick to arise, but it was when a larger client, Virgin Mobile, approached them, that the duo realised the limitations of their set-up, and the necessity to have some way to cover the business side of the projects. Thankfully the solution arose naturally, when Freedman’s brother formed the company Host, an advertising agency without a creative department. They pitched on the Virgin work together, with Host running the account business and The Glue Society doing the creative work whenever required. This arrangement has also given Kneebone a new appreciation of the importance of good client management. “What you realise by being outside the agency system is that what agencies are really good at is managing clients and managing process and you really need someone to do that,” he says. “To take control of the job and make it happen. You have a new found respect for account planners, because it’s a job that needs to be done. But actually, oddly, when you take the creative people away from that it actually makes them much more confident in their value.”
The next most significant moment in the evolution of The Glue Society came with the decision for the team to execute all their own work. “That was step two for us,” says Kneebone. “We kind of realised that if we’re going to call ourselves a creative company we should actually create things. And that’s the bit that’s really enjoyable, because once a client has really bought an idea, they really are involved in the execution of it as well, because it’s the same people, sitting in the same meeting as them, it’s not a new person whose possible agenda is different. Our agenda is very transparent the whole way through.” This led @radical.media production company to suggest representing them as directors, an arrangement that has allowed The Glue Society a more significant overseas profile, and the opportunity to work on projects outside of Australia.
The Glue Society make regular ads too, and were the directors of this amusing ad for French TV channel, Canal+. Agency: BETC Euro RSCG, Paris. Production company: @radical.media, Paris
The Glue Society has used its independent position to push at the boundaries of advertising, creating work that, particularly in Australia, was previously unheard of. Their projects have seen them tattoo the Levi’s logo on a model’s bottom, create a model plane out of a Nike shoe and advertise the new series of Australian comedy show The Chaser on a billboard in Baghdad. Its interactive work, including a recent campaign for Virgin Mobile which encouraged consumers to telephone an answerphone, thinking they were leaving a message for Jason Donovan, has proved that even the advertising-reluctant Aussies are willing to actively engage with a brand if they are approached in the right way.
In 2005, the company expanded into the States, opening a New York office, where Gary Freedman is now based. As always with The Glue Society, this development came from personal desire alongside a business strategy. “I wanted to live in New York, but also the projects coming to us were increasingly from all different parts of the world so New York felt like a practical base from which to operate,” explains Freedman. “When Jonathan and I started The Glue Society, we always wanted it to be something that allowed us to do new things creatively and be flexible enough in its structure to allow us to explore those new areas.”
Campaign to promote the new timeslot of Australia’s satirical TV comedy The Chaser. Due to a limited budget, the posters ran on the cheapest billboards in the world – including in India, as shown above. Images of the posters were then circulated online and used as idents on TV, which led to huge, free press coverage and doubled ratings
With growing recognition of the company’s work has come an increasing interest from other creatives wanting to join. Yet Kneebone and Freedman are keen to maintain a tight ship, while spreading the word about how satisfying their way of working can be, and continuing to build on the network of associates that they have established worldwide. When questioned on whether they would open in London, Kneebone responded, “If someone wanted to do it, then I’d say it could be a franchise. I feel that’s more the way we’re likely to grow than any other way. But I would really love to get some people from different parts of the world involved, because I really love the work that’s been done in Argentina, and in Thailand… I would love to feel that something about what we’re doing is starting to resonate with the right people.”
For those that are lucky enough to join the company, there is a process of adaptation, of learning a new way of working. James Dive joined the company in 2005, because, he explains, “I wanted to get my hands dirty, and The Glue Society was somewhere where I could do just that. I felt it was a place in which I could be heavily involved in everything from conception to completion. I knew it would be more work than I was used to, but having complete creative control was appealing.” Yet despite this clear idea of what the work would involve, Dive was still surprised by how working at The Glue Society required a new view of advertising. “I expected The Glue Society to challenge me creatively. What I didn’t expect was how much it would challenge my perception of what the role of a creative was. Very soon I found it absolutely impossible to explain to my mates what it was I actually did for a living.”
This confusion is particularly understandable when looking at Dive’s most recent project at the Glue Society, the aforementioned Google Earth artworks, which were displayed at the Pulse art fair in Miami in December. This is not the first time that the company has ventured into the art world, however. They previously took part in Sculpture By The Sea, an annual public art event in Australia, where they created a striking sculpture of an ice cream van melting into the beach. It was this work which caught the eye of the Pulse organiser, who initially wanted to display it in Miami, but The Glue Society were keen to use the opportunity to create something new. With the huge success of the Google Earth works, it seems likely that further art projects will follow.
With hindsight, it would appear that The Glue Society was in fact way ahead of the times, with its development dovetailing with recognition in the advertising industry of the necessity to approach campaigns with imagination and flair, and to build brands by engaging and entertaining audiences, rather than simply interrupting them with messages. Just as the rest of the industry is catching up, however, The Glue Society continues to plough its own path, and among its immediate ambitions is the desire to branch out into writing and directing television programmes.
Whatever comes next will no doubt take The Glue Society into yet more new fields, but at its core, the company’s principles remain the same as at its outset. “I think we’ll progress along a more or less similar track,” says Freedman of the future. “We really have always adapted to do the type of work we want to do. Admittedly this has led us further into film and television and so we may have more of an emphasis there… But quite honestly, I don’t know where we’re going exactly, other than to be open and flexible enough to adapt, do new things and take on new types of creative projects.”