5 Minutes With… Naked’s Izzy DeBellis and Cyrus Vantoch-Wood
Photo, left to right: Izzy DeBellis and Cyrus Vantoch-Wood
2015 is just around the corner and Naked Communications is gearing up for a big year. Having recently brought on Izzy DeBellis as their new Global Chief Creative and Strategy Officer and Cyrus Vantoch-Wood as Head Of Creative, UK, there’s a lot of energy about the agency. Established in 2000, the global agency has carved out a niche as a creative agency with strategic thinking at its heart. In recent years it has won clients like Virgin Atlantic, Pedigree and Coca-Cola and this year won the Cannes Chimera award for the fourth time. With Izzy at the helm and Cyrus heading up creative in London, there’s a definite buzz about Naked as they set out their ambitions to dominate the creative solutions space. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with them to find out more.
LBB> Cyrus, you came to Naked from Cheil London and Izzy, you’ve joined after six years at Kirschenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners. What was it about Naked that attracted you?
CVW> I’ve worked at agencies like BBDO New York and RGA New York, which are really innovative and amazing, and I was looking for a new home in the UK… well, not particularly looking but Naked came to me. What I’ve always loved about Naked is that they’ve got permission to do whatever they like. Everybody knows Naked, they’re great at thought leadership, but nobody really knows what they do. And that for me was a licence to go and do whatever.
In parallel to that, at Naked London the opportunity to impact the culture and the way of working is huge. There’s nowhere else with a brand that’s as developed as Naked but where a person like me would have an opportunity to do that. I could go to Wieden’s or BBH but they know exactly who they are and they don’t need anyone to tell them. I think Naked’s in a transitional space, it almost doesn’t want to be defined. I don’t think they’ve always had that much clarity about who they are and that’s served them quite well; being able to turn on a dime is still a very useful quality, more relevant now than ever.
IDB> Really the reason I’ve been keeping track of them over the years is that they are interesting problem solvers. They were, in the truest and biggest sense of the word, creative as opposed to executional. They were creative without being ‘creatives’. The founding partners came up with really creative solutions. As I started being courted, I thought maybe they should be bigger than what they were. They asked me to write a vision piece and I came up with this 20-30 page document and I said that that their brand of strategic creative thinking was actually something that was lacking in the industry.
Rather than having strategy and creative as separate entities we have them working together. Cyrus will work with the Head of Planning at the very beginning of a process. Even when you’re showing the brief, it’s infused with creative thinking. We believe at that point you can start prototyping, so clients actually know at the brief point what they could be working towards. That’s not the norm but it seems like common sense. If the brief is a hypothesis, you have to start showing what that could look like and you increase trust, the client knows what they’re paying for. Then you can spend more time ideating and craft becomes a lot more important. A lot of the times you can get a brief and it’s just words on a piece of paper.
A lot of agencies call themselves integrated because they come up with a brief and they brief separate disciplines and platforms, but we think we’re integrated because we start thinking about creativity so early on. That for me was always the DNA of Naked. Looking at the great pieces of work from their history, they’re not necessarily ads but they’re great pieces of creative thinking. That’s what we do, the fact that we make adverts or experiences or stunts or products – they’re all creative solutions.
LBB> From a cultural point of view, how does that approach change how people work together in the agency?
CVW> The culture of collaboration is key, but there is no single way to get a job done. We’re always giving each other advice about it - it’s not something you just crack.
IDB> Sometimes you do need to just go away and be left to think. Saying you have to all work together in the same room all the time doesn’t work, nor does just locking yourself away. It all works at certain points. You have to make sure you’ve got the right kind of leadership so the creative director can say, ‘no, you’ve been in a dark room too long, come and share and tell me what you’re thinking’. As a creative you can be intimidated, putting your baby out into the world, so we have to reduce that feeling, to allow people to have that back-and-forth when they need to.
Creative is a mercurial thing, but you have to recognise that sometimes it benefits from having a strategic conversation – and vice versa.
CVW> I think it’s just common sense. Process can handcuff you. You go to big agencies particularly and there’s a certain way of doing things. Strategy will sit down and come up with a brief with a particular kind of thought. That’s flown over the wall to the creative team, and if you don’t like it you might ignore it and come up with a different angle or throw it back over the wall.
Half the time, because we don’t have a concrete process, we can tailor it to a specific client. Sometimes you just have to put your finger in the air and feel the direction of the wind. You might think, ‘well in this instance the smart thing to do is to shut someone away to think alone in a room’ or, ‘maybe we bring in interesting people from outside of the company’.
I know it’s really common now for people to say ‘anyone can be creative’, well, anyone can look at things in a strategic way too. I think having a more open and collaborative process can result in strategies that are a little bit more unique and not so rudimentary, strategies that are influenced by technology and production and not just coming from a brand space.
LBB> In terms of Naked as a network, how do the various offices work together?
IdB> It happens organically and I think there will be more process about it in the future. I think it’s one of our strengths. The London office has a great design department so we’re doing work on packaging for a project that came out of New York.
CVW> I was in Australia the other week, pitching in. Everyone seems to like each other – it’s a nice bunch of people. A friendly, piss-taking culture. You need a bit of that in your culture.
IdB> Everyone knows everyone else’s businesses. Who’s worked on cars? Who’s worked on luxury? What are your insights and experiences? And then you can take that back to the team in, say, New York. I know some networks take the brief and send it to all of their offices, but the question is: how do you stop that from making the offices competitive with each other and make it more additive instead? Some places do it well but some places you get offices competing against other offices.
We’ve pitched companies in Australia and sent over our data scientist from London over there for two weeks to help. We think of it more as a family than a business. If you put your head up and need help, you get help.
LBB> So what are your goals for the agency for the next year or so?
IdB> We want to be known as makers. If in a year from now we are known as good thinkers, we also want to be known as makers. We’re just beginning to do that, we’re bringing people in underneath us. If we can achieve that, it will be good.
CVW> If you look around the world there are lots of agencies that have really good ‘heads’. Agencies like R/GA, Anomaly, AKQA, people who can think in a multichannel way, who are very data driven. Then you’ve got agencies that have got a lot of heart and soul, who can pull consumers in and get them to love a brand – people like Wieden’s and BBH. The opportunity for us, and where we’re headed, is to become an agency that has heart and head and brings that together. Come up with ideas that have soul and spirit but that are also smart and targeted and can change behaviour.
Once you’ve got the heart and head, you need the muscle to make it a reality. ‘Making’ is going to be the difference between the success and failure of Naked, I think. We’ve got to see things through all the way to the end. It’s not a case of just handing things off to production companies but collaborating and seeing things through all the way. In my mind that’s the most interesting part of the job.
LBB> The concept of ‘making’ is an interesting one. It seems to be a culture that is really strong in markets like New York, whereas in London the way agencies and production companies work still seems to be a fairly rigid and hierarchical process.
CVW> We’d be idiots to think we can do it all – we need partners and experts to work with. But on the other hand we’d be stupid to just hand a project off to them. I think you’ve got to maintain a level of collaboration or control all the way through if you want to ensure its integrity. It’s about using experts the right way and having the involvement that allows you to realise your vision in its purest form.
LBB> You mentioned earlier that you think allowing strategy and creative to collaborate earlier on in the process will allow more time for craft. It’s something that often doesn’t get spoken about in an industry which is quite obsessed with rock star creatives, data and tech…
CVW> I think the perseverance and craft and focus to make a beautiful piece of work is the part of the business people love the most.
IdB> Craft can make a big difference. I think there can be a tension between the attitude of ‘oh, that’s just the artsy-fartsy stuff’ and ‘that’s just the cerebral stuff’. But I like both extremes and I want to bring them together.
I think a lot of times we use that term ‘craft’ just to describe things we see, so traditional things like print or film. There is craft even within programming. Even within an email – you can read something and think ‘wow, that’s awesome’. There can be craft in an experience. As a 25-year-old I could spend all day in an edit or on a shoot but as platforms change, our concept of craft changes. For our client Virgin Atlantic, we want to help them craft a great experience for their passengers. If you meet someone and they remember your name, it’s thoughtful. It makes you feel valued and special. These touches are craft.
LBB> As part of that vision for the future of Naked, what sort of talent and skillsets are you looking for at the moment?
IdB> I think the first thing we need to build is probably content. We do a ton of social and you can’t have social without strong content, so that’s the first capability that we’re going to be adding upon really quickly.
CVW> I think it will do us credit not to think in terms of what particular types of individuals we’re looking for and instead have a rough idea of areas we’re looking to build and hopefully find an unusual, weird, cross-breed of talent. I think that’s where the most fun can be had and if we can knit together a big mix of unusual backgrounds that can only make our work more interesting.
LBB> Of all of Naked’s clients, which are you most excited about working with – and I’m going to pre-empt the ‘all of them’ answer!
CVW> Personally I’m a fan of underdogs. Of course it’s great getting big brands with great histories that know the market well but I love making a difference for brands that maybe aren’t so well known. You can see a bigger shift in terms of your input and we as an agency can help brands like that, help them break through.
It’s also about variety. If we can jump into different kinds of clients that’s fun too.
IDB> I’m going to answer your question with a non-answer. It’s the ones that have ‘naked’ ambition, no matter how big or small they are. You love all your children, so that’s why it’s a non-answer answer.
There’s also going to be a whole bunch of announcements that I think are going to be very exciting opportunities. And when we get new clients, our old clients get excited. They get more courage. Momentum is a powerful thing.
LBB> And talking of momentum, are there any projects that you’re working on at the moment that you’re particularly excited about?
IdB> There’s a project that pre-dates Cyrus and I coming here, but we’re having a hand in developing it. It’s an app for Pedigree. One of the big issues in pet care, as you can imagine, is obesity. Often the way we show that we love our pets is to give them food, so the app is to help change that behaviour. Long term, the plan is to introduce wearable technology in a dog’s collar that can monitor its health and exercise. You’ll be able to input what breed of dog it is, how old it is, into the app and the collar will track how much exercise it’s having, how much food it’s eating. The first step in that is the app.
CVW> What’s interesting about it to me is that it’s great to have a healthy dog but there’s also ramifications for pet health insurance, healthcare and how it can expand in interesting ways. In the US they’re already really into pet insurance and discounts for healthy pets – it’s almost like a ‘no claims bonus’. Also you can feed data to vets.
IdB> It was a creative solution to a problem. We weren’t asked to come up with wearable tech for pets. The app will launch at the end of the year and after that it’s phase two, the collar. That’s how you love your dog, keep them healthy. We all do it, we give them treats to show we love them, but that’s also shortening their life. This project also taps into the core brand values of Pedigree – they’re not a brand that’s about dressing up your dog and making it cute, they’re about genuine and honest love for your dog. This is part of their brand DNA and, as a brand experience, it helps you feel value from that brand.
LBB> As well as looking at pet care differently, you’re looking at wearable tech differently. It’s an interesting example of simple lateral thinking.
CVW> We’ll be doing Pedigree Google glasses next (laughs). From a technology point of view it’s not a massive leap. All the stuff is out there already, it’s getting cheaper and I don’t think, for people, it’s such a big leap. I think the bigger leap is for the industry, for Pedigree to be thinking about their role in a bigger way. It becomes a differentiator for the brand.
IdB> That’s a perfect example of us as a creative solutions company. It’s a creative solution that’s part of their brand DNA, it involves a lot of craft, but also it has a consumer insight and will create data from it. It has to be beautiful as well, not just as a piece of advertising, but as a piece of wearable tech.