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5 minutes with...

5 Minutes with... Richard Brim

adam&eveDDB's chief creative officer on joining an agency at the top of its game, creative fear and his hunt for a hobby

5 Minutes with... Richard Brim

It’s been a decade since Ben Priest, David Golding, James Murphy and Jon Forsyth founded adam&eve, six years since their once scrappy little agency merged with industry titans DDB on the back of creative work that had shaken the industry and just over a year since a new suite of management took over at the top. Through all these changes it seems adam&eveDDB’s star has continued to rise.

With a firm hand on the creative tiller that Ben Priest passed to him a year ago, chief creative officer Richard Brim seems to be keeping the agency on course - it was named Agency of the Year all over the place in 2017, living up to what must be becoming unbearable expectations. But why would we expect any less of him? He’s been behind some of the most beloved UK ads of the decade, from Harvey Nichols ‘Sorry, I Spent it on Myself’ to ‘Monty the Penguin’ for John Lewis.

LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with him to find out how he feels about life, creativity and his agency right now.

LBB> What sort of kid growing up in a Manchester suburb were you? And did your youth in any way influence what you ended up doing as a job?

RB> I grew up in a part of Manchester. You either went into your dad’s business, went out and got a job as a recruitment consultant or went to university and did media. I was an anomaly. I didn’t want to do any of those. I knew I was ok-ish at drawing, but as a kid I was quite entrepreneurial and wheeler-dealer-y. I was running around making fake Paul Smith t-shirts out of our class’s screen printing room and selling them on.

I put the fact that I could sort of draw and quite liked the idea of being a wheeler dealer together and thought “ah! that’s advertising.” It was simple as that, really. I remember seeing a programme on the Saatchi brothers and thinking “that’s amazing!”

There were a couple of people in my school a couple of years ahead of me that had moved to London, gone to Central St Martins and done really well. One was the editor of The Face at the time, which was possibly the coolest magazine ever. 

LBB> You originally got rejected from Central St Martins before reapplying the following year. Did that have much of an effect on you?

RB> I thought they were cool, in London, there’s a Pulp song about them, so rather than just doing what I did, I did what I thought they wanted. So I ended up going to Leeds for a year. I lived with some friends but I knew exactly what I wanted to do. So I applied again.

But this time I’d had a year doing whatever I wanted to do. And on the flipside I got accepted on the spot in the interview.

I lived with my friends in Leeds, had a fucking blast and I wouldn’t have changed it. Now, looking back I think it made me grow up a bit. I see it in teams here. People are so desperate to get something liked by something that they try and write for that somebody. I think to get out of that and put out what you think is right is quite a lesson. And I’m not saying I learnt it that year - I learnt it a lot later - but the need to please gets in the way of creativity a lot.

LBB> What other lessons did you learn early on in your career?

RB> When we were at Leo Burnett we were an anomaly. We became this agency within an agency. We got there and my old partner [Daniel Fisher] - we teamed up there - and very quickly knew the work wasn’t for us. We just tried to find our own opportunities and create things. We’d have our Leo Burnett life and we’d have our other projects life. In an agency like that there were one or two briefs a year that are really the ones. And everything else was sort of ok. You’d scrap and make sure that those two briefs were yours. 

When we got here [adam&eveDDB], we got here very targeted. We wanted a VW ad, a Harvey Nichols ad and a John Lewis ad. Nothing was going to stop us getting in the way of that. When you’re at an agency where the opportunities are few and far between it teaches you a tenacity that there is one brief that has got your name on it and you will not sleep until it’s yours.

LBB> So there wasn’t a desire to go in and take on a brief that might not look so exciting and make that into something great?

RB> Most definitely. Throughout our career we embraced the shit. We had to because if you didn’t get those briefs you had the rest of the year to fill. So we had Flash cleaning spray as a client. We were asked if we wanted to be global creative directors of hard surface cleaners. It was the most un-sexy title I’ve ever heard. We threw ourselves into it and developed a new campaign with them. It was the first time we were having meetings about having meetings about strategy about having meetings. 

It taught us the fact that these companies have hidden budgets. So P&G will wang on about the 30-second TV ad for three years but ultimately they’re held accountable to be seen as a modern marketeer, so there was this sort of slush fund play budget that we discovered for the Olympics. 

There was a brief that came in saying they want to sponsor the Olympics, but it’s hard surface cleaners. What the fuck do you do? So with the account team we developed this idea of if Coke and all these people are owning the two weeks of the Olympics, why don’t P&G own the clean up?

So, embracing the shit ones and finding opportunities is just as exciting as being focused on going for the John Lewis or the Harvey Nicks. I think you have to have a balance.

LBB> When you joined adam&eveDDB in 2013 they'd already made a name for themselves with campaigns including the first two huge John Lewis Christmas ads and definitely seemed to be in the ascendant. What was the atmosphere like at that time? And what were the main priorities?

RB> I’ve done this twice, joining agencies very soon after they’ve merged. Very similar agencies, and actually agencies that were both run by James Murphy (I joined just after RKCR and Y&R merged too). The atmosphere was very similar. The Y&R people would say “you’re a Y&R person” and the adam&eve people would be like “maybe you’ll be an adam&eve person”. You’d go to the pub and people from adam&eve or the people from DDB would pull you over and say “come and join our gang.” 

We had respect for both brands because they were both very different but they had their place. DDB was a creative force. At every show Harvey Nichols was leading the way in how print was done and Jeremy [Craigen] was a creative legend. On the flipside you had Ben [Priest], who I’d worked with at Rainey Kelly and James [Murphy] and David Golding, who’d created this amazing company. And then you had [John Lewis], ‘The Long Wait’, which started this thing. So they felt a bit more energised and exciting and entrepreneurial. It fed into both my entrepreneurialism, being small and agile, but also it had to be of a certain creative calibre, so Dan and I found it really exciting. 

LBB> How have those priorities changed since then, now you've been proclaimed agency of the year so many times?

RB> We wake up every morning, especially the people that run the place, and we all look at each other and can’t quite believe what’s going on. I don’t think we sit back and think we’re the best. We feel like any minute we’ll get found out. Which creates a nervous energy. 

I think people feel part of something. And with the new management we’re trying to get a North Star so that everybody feels like they’re running towards something. 

Also, it’s quite easy to lose the horn about work. But here people from the top to the bottom feel quite proud about the creative work. Everybody goes home at Christmas and is asked “how was your year?” and “what is it you do?” And people say “what adverts? Have I seen it?” Well, obviously there’s the biggie - the John Lewis Christmas advert. And people say “I loved it this year!” or “I hated it this year!” but everybody all of a sudden understands what people do. That’s a big motivation.

Everyone’s got an opinion on it and that’s such a special thing to work on. As long as they have an opinion on it I’m happy. Indifference is horrible.

LBB> You were quoted as saying “the lines are becoming blurred about what our exact role is". How can creatives in advertising work out what they should and shouldn’t be doing in that environment?

RB> If you look at the trajectory of creatives in advertising, a lot of people leave this industry and do amazing things. We had a lady that’s left and has become a photographer. She’s making books. That’s brilliant! I’m very jealous of this “fuck, I can do anything!” [mentality].

What I don’t like to see in a team is one that feels like a team from 10 years ago. They do exist. There are teams that just want to do a really funny little press ad that they can run in Cannes. I hire teams just because I like their energy. Their work can be nothing to write home about but their energy is amazing. And sure enough they come in here and with a little pushing and prodding they’re doing great work with great energy.

I don’t think creative skill is a God-given right. It is something you can learn. Some people are better at it than others but it’s energy and life experience and different points of view. That, you can’t learn. Which is why this whole diversity versus talent talk is sort of six of one and half a dozen of the other - you need talent but you also need to not all be from the same place. There’s nothing better than being told I’m wrong. That’s why diversity is so important. But diversity in its truest sense.

LBB> You're at the helm of a big department of around 60 creatives. How do you lead that?

RB> With difficulty. My biggest bugbear is always being away and trying to keep all the plates spinning. I’m at home walking the floor, talking to people. That’s where being in a four-hour meeting about process is not my idea of what this job is. You have to do it, but…

I remember what that felt like as a team when your creative director walks in just because. You uncover some amazing stuff that could be fucking brilliant. That’s when I take it on myself to champion it and bounce around excited about it. That’s my role - creating almost a political campaign for ideas. If people see me bouncing around excited about a little digital thing we’re doing then they’ll take it seriously and it’s bumped up people’s lists of importance.

‘White Skittles’ was a team going “wouldn’t it be great if we could do this?” I said this could do it and sort of built a support campaign for it and then all of a sudden it’s top of everyone’s agenda and people are coming up to you after the meeting going “well? Was it bought?” That is powerful because everyone feels the need to sell it in. Spotting the nuggets.

And also not making it about yourself. There are so many times when a creative department is all about a figure. I’m not comfortable in that spotlight and teams need a swag for when they buzz on the door of a production company and say “it’s so-and-so from so-and-so.” They’ll walk in that room and own it and be confident enough to talk to directors in the way they need to be spoken to.

LBB> In your President’s address at eurobest you spoke about creatives working on generic work because they’re too scared “sounding stupid and that their peers are going to laugh at them”. Where does that fear come from and how can the industry help to free people from it?

RB> You look at teams that have gone through the process and go above and beyond to shock. They want you to go “what the fuck?” And nine times out of ten it’s a load of bullshit. 

Then there’s teams that will put everything down because they’ve not had many ideas. And that’s alright because everything gets down. 

Then there are teams where, especially as the pressure’s so high here, they’re worried about sounding stupid. It’s not just creative teams. But it’s the account people, planners and junior strategists. People in this industry can be quite intimidating. If you’re going into a meeting with David Golding in and you’re a junior planner with a really good idea, you might not say it because you don’t want to appear stupid in front of someone who’s so revered. 

I think creatives are getting better at it. But we do have creatives who’ll write what they think I’ll buy, rather than coming to me with Compare the Meerkat. So I try hard to free that up, be as approachable as possible, joke and create the environment where they don’t feel stupid about saying anything.

LBB> Any updates from your New York City office? It’s been going over a year now. It must be starting to get into its stride.

RB> New York has got a piece of my heart. It was always one of those “I’m going to go there, one day” places. And then I never did. It’s been a strange year there because we started for Samsung then we decided to focus on Samsung, bed it in, get everything running smoothly. And now we’re starting to open up a little bit. It’s a very different market and it’s quite hard to hire because everybody’s so self-confident you can’t see the actual truth. Whereas everyone here is quite self-deprecating. 

Also, everybody tells you you’re going to fail. I think the way we want to do it is how we do it here. Not going out with a big show about our philosophy or “this is our staircase that also doubles as an atrium”. It’s keeping quiet and let the work talk for itself. 

It’s been exciting going there. I stay on the other side of SoHo and walk across SoHo and Tribeca and that walk is so invigorating because it’s New York, no matter how many times I’ve been there. Also, I walk into an office with 10 or 20 people in and the feeling of “this could be amazing” is really powerful. 

LBB> Who are your creative heroes?

RB> Paul Smith, most definitely, in that realm.

There are people in the industry. It’s a cheesy one, but [Sir John] Hegarty. I think the Colleen DeCourcy who’s running Wieden+Kennedy at the moment is incredible. Ben Priest has helped me and his council has been a godsend. There are loads.

Then you get into your [Andy] Warhols and [Jean-Michel] Basquiats.

LBB> Are you really into art?

RB> I do get quite obsessive about things. When I get into something I really get into it. Recently it was that whole Basquiat New York thing - where we’re going to New York a lot we’re staying in the area it all happened in. So I got quite obsessed with that.

It can be anything. Planes as a kid, or the Titanic, machinery, architecture. There’s no consistent theme. If something piques my attention I’ll need to know everything about it. And it can be so random.

When I was doing A-levels I was crazily into [Alberto] Giacometti. I recently went to his exhibition at the Tate. I walked in and realised I’m kind of over it now. Maybe that’s the downside of how I process shit. You go so far into something that it disappoints you later in life.

I did a shoot in Tokyo in May and since then I cannot stop thinking about Tokyo and everything about it. The crazy, bright, colourful shit down to the incredible calm and the Zen stuff, down to the people, to the way they do retail - how a department store will have a kids’ bike shop and a sex shop next to each other. And people are browsing dildos as if they’re looking at milk. The food. Everything.

LBB> What about actual hobbies?

RB> No. Which is something I’m in discussions with my wife with at the moment about. It’s either family or work. There’s no respite because I’ve got three young kids. She thinks I need a hobby.

I’m currently on the hunt. Maybe I’ll get back into photography but I’ve fallen out of love with photography. Painting? I don’t know. Fishing? Ben Priest’s got really into fishing in the past few months. I hear him talking about it and think “oooh?” Our head of project management is also especially into fishing. They just talk about different sorts of bait. I could do that. But it’s quite time consuming. I do think it’s a bit too much like hard work. It’s a commitment. I need something quite quick.

LBB> It’s actually quite a tight brief then.

RB> Yeah! I might put it to the creative department.

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