Brand Insight in association withLBB's Brand Insight Features
Brand Insight: Why Keeping Creativity Close to Home Works for giffgaff
London, UK
Giffgaff’s Tom Rainsford and Abi Pearl talk to Laura Swinton about taking creative in-house
Live streaming! Always on! Nimble! Judging by the buzzwords zooming around like angry wasps, advertising and marketing are all about living in the ‘now’. Being responsive. Keeping up with desirable but fickle consumers who flit from platform to platform, trend to trend. The process of researching, briefing, creating and producing an advertising campaign, on the other hand, can still be pretty stodgy. Swimming through treacle in an age of vinegar.

That’s why giffgaff, a UK mobile network that’s never been beholden to traditional ways of doing things, decided to part ways with their advertising agency Fallon and take creative responsibility in-house. This week they’ve released a set of glitchy, vibey idents for their sponsorship of E4 – and the project marks a year since they embarked upon their disruptive marketing experiment.

“It’s a big decision, to get rid of the traditional approach, but when I brought it up with my boss [Ash Schofield, Marketing and Experience Chief] it was a really easy conversation. It just made sense. We’d always been passionate about doing things differently,” explains Tom Rainsford, the Brand Director at giffgaff. 

Abi Pearl, who had worked on the giffgaff account for three years while at Fallon was brought aboard to head up the creative team and work directly with Tom. In this new model, an in-house designer creates all of the brand’s print executions and internal posters, an in-house social media team take charge of all of their activity and interactions on Twitter and the rest, and freelance creatives are brought on to help work up campaigns. 

“The rationale behind the decision was about need and accountability. We’ve worked with lots of fantastic people over the years that do wonderful work, but it was becoming more apparent to me, and us as a business, that the traditional model just wasn’t working for us. I was one of the 14 people who co-founded the company in 2009 and I think because we are very clear about who we are, what we want to do and who we’re talking to, that’s a really strong position for a brand to be in. Therefore I wanted us to take more accountability and responsibility for our creative output in-house and make more of these decisions.”

That’s not to say that giffgaff are dismissive of the traditional way of working with agencies – it’s just that creativity and close relationships with its users have been woven into the company’s business model from day one. It was founded in 2009 as a mobile network ‘of the people’. In practical terms, this means that they have no high street stores or call centres and they eschew the sort of things that tend to annoy people - like locked phones and contracts. Instead their active community of users provide support by answering questions on the giffgaff forum, and are rewarded for doing so. Members who recommend friends are paid. 

What’s more, the team is hooked directly into their network of members, who actively get involved in a variety of ways. In the early days, one member noticed they didn’t have an iPhone app and built one for them – giffgaff paid him and brought him on as a member of staff and he’s since gone on to start up his own app building business. There’s the mother-of-two who helps with their Facebook page. There’s the enthusiasts who measured giffgaff reception at every service station along the M4. 

It also means that the brand and marketing and social media teams are constantly listening to their members, gleaning insights and inspiration. Taking greater ownership of the creative output means that the brand can be as open, authentic and reflective of their community as possible.

For example, last year’s ‘Hey You!’ campaign, directed by Pensacola was sculpted from giffgaff members’ survey responses. The playful voice over about the benefits of not having a contract includes nuggets like, ‘in two years my phone will be a teleporter’ – images that have come straight from the vibrant community.

Another benefit, that seems to give Tom and Abi an immense amount of personal satisfaction is that they have meaningful one-to-one relationships with directors and producers. The sort that can be harder to nurture when an agency sets up a Chinese wall between client and craftspeople. It’s unlikely you’ll ever meet a Brand Director enthuse about sound design the way Tom talks about whiling away hours at Wave. They’ve nurtured a network of trusted collaborators who they bounce ideas around with, and it’s embedded them deep into the production community.

“Good people know good people,” says Tom. “We’ve worked with Riff Raff a lot, we’ve worked with Like Minded Individuals, who do our TV production stuff. There was Megaforce, and then through Megaforce we met Pensacola, and through Pensacola we’ve worked with other people. Everybody brings something different. If they understand our brand and what we’re trying to do – it sounds simple but it’s not – then let’s throw more into the mix and see where you’re going to take us.”

Abi notes that these relationships have lead onto a more symbiotic creative process, whereby directors with whom they’ve worked will often get in touch with their own ideas that they’ve been noodling around with.

“That proactiveness you get, working direct with directors is always surprising… But of course they would be! They’re creative!” laughs Abi. “It’s about how to get them out of the buildings. That’s the real role of agencies, to share things and be a bit freer about things. It’s just a shame that it didn’t always work when we were at Fallon, but we’ve realised that and our ears and eyes are always open.”

Keeping their ‘ears and eyes’ open is a big part of Abi and Tom’s approach. Many brands are nervous about using untested commercials directors – or even award-winning commercials directors whose reels lack one particular sector. giffgaff, however, actively pursue the freshness and creative vibe of up-and-coming music video directors as they are already creating content that is embraced by the young generation. Ben Reed is a young director at Riff Raff that Abi and Tom recommended to AnalogFolk, the agency they were working with at the time.

Since launching in 2009, giffgaff has built up a reputation for a daring creative… and had found themselves on the Advertising Standards Authority’s naughty step more than once. #DifferentTakesGuts, for Halloween 2013, featured 100 people in an empty swimming pool chucking blood and gore around – and landed them in hot water with the ASA (“Just the most messy, chaotic experience,” Tom fondly recalls of the shoot.) The next year, French directing collective Megaforce shot a horror pastiche that featured a series of monsters chasing each other, everyone scarier than the last – and it also earned them a ticking-off.  

But these risqué ads and May 2013’s zombie invasion extravaganza #DontBeScared (imagine… The Great British Zombie Apocalypse) mean that giffgaff have claimed Halloween as ‘their moment’. While other UK brands chase the dream of the ‘Big Christmas Ad’, giffgaff have snuck in and grabbed the one yearly festival that’s surging in popularity with the young (and not so young) of Britain.

“Our target market go absolutely nuts for Halloween!” says Tom, a horror fan, with glee. “This year it was off the scale with regards to everything, popular culture. If you look at the growth of horror movies in the past ten years compared to the previous ten years, it’s off the charts. People want to consume that content, especially our target market. You go to Instagram and search ‘Halloween’ and you’ve got selfies and selfies and selfies.”

This year’s Halloween spot, House of Horrors, was devised by a freelance creative team who suggested bringing giffgaff members’ fears to life. 300 members responded on a Facebook post, allowing the team to work up a script that was authentic and free of brainless clichés. Director Ninian Doff then took the script and put his own spin on it – one of the benefits of giffgaff’s new approach is that it allows them to build trust with directors, bounce ideas around with them and ultimately give them creative space.

“We always try to give the director freedom,” comments Abi. “I think lots of people feel that you have to control a director, but our whole process isn’t about control, it’s about empowering people.”

While they’ve made Halloween their own, that doesn’t mean that giffgaff are always so ‘goffic’ in their output. The rest of the year, they’re poppy, contemporary and eclectic. Last year’s Pensacola-directed ads were a deliberate blend of styles and voices, created to reflect the diversity of giffgaff’s membership.

In fact, that diversity is an inevitable by-product of the way the company is structured. When you’re forming relationships with individual members, it becomes harder and harder to conceive of them as one homogenous ‘segment’. The youth market dictates much of their media-buying (such as sponsorships of shows like The Big Bang Theory and Supernatural on E4), but Tom is adamant that the creative is inclusive and acknowledges that people don’t fit into one box or another. In other words, ‘mind set’ trumps age range.

“Pen portraits send me mad. Absolutely mad,” says Tom. “People are so different from one another. You can’t call people ‘millennials’. You can’t take an entire generation, lump them under one term and think that they all have beards and are on Instagram. It’s nonsense. 

“The way we talk about it is that we’re a mind set brand. We have a wonderful member who helps out on Facebook every single day. She’s a mum with two kids and lives in Norwich and she’s not demographically typical, but she shares that mind set.”

In fact, you get the feeling that the whole giffgaff team shares an unusually direct and intimate relationship with their users. During sponsored E4 shows, the two members of the social media team will watch along and tweet, constantly responding to the conversation. When times get busy, Tom and others will roll up their sleeves and get stuck in.

“They work so hard,” says Abi of the two-strong social media department. “They don’t just schedule a post and let it fly and sit back and look at how many people engaged with this wonderful post… we talk to people all the time. For a brand to behave like a person, you need to have a person sat there. That’s one of the things I love about giffgaff. We don’t just want to put stuff out. We want to have conversations.”

And these conversations look like they’re growing richer by the day. giffgaff’s marketing experiment has been going strong for a year now and they have big plans for 2016. And, appropriately perhaps for a mobile network provider, they’re talking and listening more than ever. To their members and to the creative community.