Leo Burnett London CCO on writing for Ant & Dec, the state of comedy advertising and the Christmas commercial bonanza
Chaka Sobhani came to be one of the UK’s most prominent creatives via a path less trodden. Entering the creative sphere through the broadcast community, she got her start working on set and directing short films and promos, before writing and directing for TV, primarily in comedy. Eventually she set up ITV Creative – the channel’s in-house creative agency, becoming its first creative director. It was only in 2013 that she brought this experience to the world of advertising, joining Mother. Since early 2016 she’s been at the helm of Leo Burnett London’s creative department as chief creative officer, working on huge brands from McDonald’s to Kellogg’s.
LBB’s Alex Reeves managed to borrow some of Chaka’s valuable time to talk about this shift in the agency, as well as the sort of creativity someone with her background brings to the industry.
LBB> You've done a bunch of different kinds of creative jobs before ending up in your current role. Did you have ambitions to be a director, writer or creative when you were growing up? Were you a wildly creative kid?
CS> I didn’t have any idea that creative jobs actually existed when I was a kid, but I did have a very strong sense of what I absolutely loved.
From the age of around eight or nine, I would get up a couple of hours before school and watch movies – I was absolutely obsessed and would tape and watch anything I could find. And not just the film itself but the entire end credits, trying to figure out what the hell the Best Boy and Gaffer were and how I might become any one of these mad-sounding titles I saw roll up.
My mum was also a massive creative influence on me growing up – she was a chemical engineer but had the ability to make science and the world around me come alive through crazily inventive, relatable human stories.
I see her doing the same all over again with my kids and still find myself looking and listening with the same sense of wonder.
LBB> What was your first encounter with the creative industries? Did you have to do any weird jobs to make your mark?
CS> My first job was at the Boilerhouse Studios in Brixton.
I had written to hundreds of production companies and knocked on every door, but with no success. I finally turned to the Studios section in The Knowledge and called the first name in there – the lady on the phone asked if I had a car and if I could be there in half an hour.
Lady Luck was definitely on my side as when I got there, I met and began working for Clive Howard and the Douglas Brothers. I did everything and anything on every different type of music video and commercial – from designing props to building rigs, art directing and buying much cheap Cava.
I was also given a Super 8 and started directing short films and promos under their brilliant tutelage.
It was an incredibly important learning experience both personally and professionally, and it’s where I properly discovered my first true love: directing.
LBB> What are the most memorable projects or moments from your TV career? Is there anything that you still reflect on regularly?
CS> There are too many, to be honest – I just loved so much about working on shows and content that people genuinely gave a shit about and would talk about with their mates and family down the pub, at work, online or wherever.
I loved writing for Ant and Dec for many years and working with the likes of Simon Cowell on Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor, as well as big live event TV like the Brits or the World Cup and Formula 1, where you never knew what might happen.
Launching Downton Abbey and TOWIE are also up there as highlights, as are branding the channels, and creating the title sequences for Coronation Street and Emmerdale. I love that those opening 30 seconds have become so recognisable and come to mean something for a whole generation of viewers, young and old. How often do we get to say that?
LBB> And now you work in advertising, is there anything you miss about that world?
CS> I love advertising but I miss the pace of TV – it’s much quicker and immediate, and you produce an awful lot in a much shorter time. It’s not all great of course, but there’s such a brilliant energy and momentum that comes from actually making stuff and getting it out into the world.
LBB> Having been a director, do you think you have a particular approach to shooting and working with directors, compared to creatives who have taken a different route?
CS> I’m not sure if it’s a particular approach, more that I naturally have a huge amount of time and respect for what the director brings to the table, and I’m very protective of that.
Directors bring such an important layer of magic and I want them to be genuinely free to add to the creative process in the best way they see fit. It’s a partnership, after all, and that means being honest, open and listening to fresh thoughts and ideas, and making sure directors feel they can truly bring that.
It’s all of our jobs to help them do that as they can be the difference between something being good or truly brilliant.
LBB> What attracted you to Leo Burnett when you moved there last year?
CS> Simply put, the people and the creative opportunity.
There’s an incredible culture built on a huge generosity of spirit, and a history of great work against brands that I have grown up with and love – such as McDonald’s, Kellogg’s and the NSPCC, to name but a few.
The chance to build on that, as well as the opportunity to grow the agency into new directions, was incredibly compelling and exciting.
LBB> What were your major goals for the agency when you took over as CCO? How has the time since then been going?
CS> To keep doing what we do really well and keep building on that. And to do more of the stuff we don’t do but want to so we can learn, grow and become stronger.
Whether it’s bringing in different skill sets from different backgrounds, or increasing our actual making capabilities, focusing on talent has always been key.
Whether that’s taking care of the brilliant talent that already exists within the agency, or bringing in new and exciting people to add to the mix, we want to attract the best and most diverse talent now and in the future.
LBB> In your standard day-to-day at the agency, what moments excite you the most? What constitutes a particularly good day?
CS> It’s a cliché but there’s still nothing like the stomach flip you get when you see an amazing idea start to form. Its utter magic. Especially when it’s been particularly tricky to crack, or when it comes from a young team or crew whose confidence you see swell and grow as they realise what they’ve hit on – bloody brilliant!
LBB> As someone with a background in comedy, how do you feel about funny ads right now? What are people getting right? What's the key to making something genuinely funny, rather than just funny 'for an ad'?
CS> We are obviously capable of creating great comedy, but I don’t think we’re at our strongest right now. Our American cousins still have the edge with the likes of Geico and Old Spice, etc., but I think it’s all there for the taking.
Comedy is obviously hugely subjective – and riskier as a result – but it’s too easy to say that clients are playing safe and not buying funny. I think we need to look at what we’re coming up with and who we’re bringing in and when.
I’m excited by new companies like Merman and the crossover talent from entertainment and scripted comedy that they’re attracting. Working with a broader spectrum of talent from inception throughout could definitely be interesting and help us get to fresher, funnier ideas.
LBB> McDonald's is a huge client with a gigantic back catalogue of advertising from around the world. What are the main considerations for you working on that account?
CS> And what a back catalogue we’re talking about, with some of the most consistently brilliant work over the past couple of decades. I know it’s not cool to be fawning but I don’t care – I absolutely love Maccers.
To begin with, they really are the most incredible client to work with – generous, smart, ambitious and they really understand their brand. That in itself makes everything so much easier as it’s a genuine partnership when we share ideas and create work.
There’s also a phrase we always use and that’s “confidently humble”. It sounds incredibly simple but sometimes the best are, and it really helps guide us when we’re thinking about ideas.
LBB> Are there any other clients that you're particularly proud of your recent work for? What are the key factors?
CS> Without wanting to sound too vague, there’s a lot of stuff about to launch that we’re extremely excited about. 2018 is going to be a huge year for Kellogg’s and we’re really proud of what we’re creating as we speak.
We’ve just gone live with a beautiful new campaign for the NSPCC and the power of breaking the silence and starting those difficult but necessary conversations around abuse.
And I know we’ve talked a lot about McDonalds but I have to mention this year’s Christmas campaign which we’re really proud of and can’t wait to go live. Ho, ho, ho.
LBB> Outside of work, is there anything that you love to rave about at the moment?
CS> Podcasts in general but, in particular, GirlBoss Radio, WTF, Adam Buxton and a bit of Russell Brand and Matt Morgan after their weekend show.
at this year’s MTV VMAs. Check out his monologue at the end, it’s mind-blowing!
The new Adidas Tubular Shadow (in white, of course) – like walking on goddamn air.
My eight- and six year-old daughters (who continue to be the coolest people I know). Every day is spent trying to be as kick-ass as they are.