Creative in association withGear Seven

(Don’t) Play It Safe: Barbara Humphries on The Monkey’s Grand Prix Success

Advertising Agency
Sydney, Australia
The Monkeys’ ECD tells LBB’s Casey Martin what it means to be brave with creative work, and how it can pay off huge in the long run
The Sydney Opera House turning 50 years old could only be celebrated with something worthy of its iconic nature. 

“Play It Safe,” a song performed by Aussie legend Tim Minchin, captured the hearts of all Aussies who adore the arts and, most importantly, those who love the Opera House as a home for creatives.

This worthy celebration of a place where you are only limited to your imagination was created by The Monkeys, part of Accenture Song. 

In this year's Cannes Lions, “Play it Safe” was awarded the Grand Prix in the film category. It’s an amazing - and utterly deserved - feat for all those involved in the creation process. 

Barbara Humphries, executive creative director from The Monkeys spoke to LBB’s Casey Martin about how capturing the essence of the Opera House was a challenge, but also an incredible privilege.  

LBB> You’ve been highly commended many times in your career, both individually and with The Monkeys. What does the Grand Prix mean to you personally and professionally?

Barbara> It’s surreal - I think I was probably in shock when I got the news. What’s extra nice about it is there were so many brilliant people who worked on it, and gave so much to it. To have that collaboration recognised on a global stage is really wonderful. 

Honestly (and I know how this sounds), working on this project to me really was a reward in itself. It was such a privilege to be trusted to deliver a project like this for such an iconic building and brand, and to be a part of something so creative to its core. The shoot was more like a four day performance, and it was thrilling to witness a group of artists, performers and creatives including songwriter Tim Minchin and director Kim Gehrig do what they do best. We had 2000 people crowded around to watch the final scene on the steps cheering after every take. It really did feel too good to be true, but then, the best ideas always do, don’t they?

LBB> Some might assume The Opera House was a dream client! What was the creative process like working with them? Was there much persuading to do?

Barbara> The Monkeys have known Stephen O’Connor (Sydney Opera House marketing general manager) and his team since The Ship Song Project 15 years ago, so there’s a lot of trust and an existing understanding of the brand before we even spoke about the 50th. The legacy of that project coupled with a milestone public anniversary on a date only nine months away really ramped up the expectation and ambition on both sides. 

Tara (Ford) and I felt that pressure, however Stephen and his team are unique in that they’re not just representing an organisation full of artists, they’re creative people themselves and in that sense, it was a true collaboration. To their absolute credit, at every opportunity to ‘play it safe’ throughout the process, they did the opposite and absolutely went for it. In their words: ‘We can’t make a film about bravery and not be brave’. They absolutely lived and breathed it.

LBB> In a world of digital executions, this campaign really stood out due to its incredible use of filmmaking, storytelling and musical excellence. Is craft on a comeback, and do you think there's enough appetite for that kind of big scale production?

Barbara> I don’t think craft is on a comeback, it never went away. As long as there are people who embody it and foster it and champion it in their work, there will be work that moves audiences, and is worth awarding. 

Being a 50th, and being the Opera House, we needed a certain amount of scale just in representing all the House’s resident companies and performance spaces. We were lucky in that we also had access to the archives in order to expand the song’s meaning and add further meaning depth to the idea. But outside of these unique circumstances and opportunities, what is so important for protecting craft is a clear idea that people can get around, time to find the right production partners, and a process that allows them to make it better.

Tim Minchin, Kim Gehrig and the team at Revolver didn’t just embrace the idea, they expanded on it and elevated it, as did DOP Stefan Duscio, editor Elise Butt and musical producer Elliot Wheeler and Simon Kane at Massive Music – as well as all the artists and SOH resident companies. Everyone involved connected with the idea and had a laser sharp understanding of the vision and the message we needed to land, which is why it has been so impactful.

LBB> This campaign talks about individuality and bravery in creative pursuits. Do you think we are brave enough as an industry, what more could we be doing?

Barbara> I think the worrying trend is putting the value on measurement and formula and ‘safety’ at the expense of craft and real human emotion. Timelines are crunched more than ever, impacting the capacity for craft and production excellence. Time spent getting the right director, perfecting the right music, street casting to find a brilliant, undiscovered character. These are often hard to pin-point for clients when evaluating what makes work great, but you know when it’s not there, because the work becomes forgettable. And with limited budgets, isn’t it a bigger risk to be forgotten? 

The challenge for the industry is building time and allowing budget for the uncertainty – the bits you don’t know when you approve the work. The elements that bring the magic. Having honest conversations with clients about this is really important. 

LBB> What do you think made a campaign about a Sydney landmark resonate so strongly to a global audience?

Barbara> Tim wrote such a clever, provocative, funny and moving song that doesn’t speak down to people, which made them laugh, and made them cry. I’ve been receiving messages from Japan and Spain this week which confirm that the film and its message transcended language barriers, which isn’t always easy. 

But I think the idea also tapped into something more universal than a building. We all have that capacity for creative expression, and the ability to embrace other new points of view, but our need for comfort and security often wins out. Great art, ideas and music are possible when we ignore that nervous voice. This is why places like The Opera House are so important.

LBB> Finally, how are you and the Monkeys going to top this?

Barbara> God knows - but we’ll sure as hell try.

Agency / Creative