Blink’s Nick Ball has directed giffgaff’s latest campaign serving as an ‘Ode To Bad’ - a concept that hooked him immediately, especially when a profound thought like that was channelled through the perspective of mobile phone contracts. “As soon as I read the script, I knew it was such a bold and ambitious campaign idea, that we couldn’t rest on the laurels of traditional advertising tropes or an execution that felt like we’d seen it before,” he says.
With a strong creative vision and an insight that pushed the idea towards a more ‘dramatic and sinister tone’, the film for the service provider looks more like a bad dream than an ad. Each character richer than the previous and each location more obscure, it all came together to present us Nick’s – and giffgaff’s – vision of a dystopian, but cinematic Britain. A ‘thank you’ note to all the bad people of the world - the man-spreaders, the queue-jumpers, the bad parkers - and a gentle reminder that phone contracts usually suck. Except the ones at giffgaff - because it’s the terrible people out there serving as a reminder for the very few to be good.
LBB’s Zoe Antonov spoke to Nick about why this film inspired him to push the boundaries of advertising, how the unique characters were constructed and why the crew had to work for hours next to actual human faeces.
LBB> What was the brief for this campaign, and what were your initial ideas like?
Nick> The brief was what it said on the tin, an ‘Ode To Bad’.
The creatives definitely had a certain approach in mind for the campaign, but their insight was strong enough to hold up to us pushing the idea to add a more dramatic and sinister tone. I think a lot of the time; you don’t know how good something is or how strong an idea is until someone comes along and gives you that confidence, so that was my main goal.
Then all my initial ideas were about digging deep into the cinematic craft and sharpening our lenses, eyes and perspectives to create a cautionary tale that demonstrated all the shit that everyone is drowning. As well as how giffgaff can help wipe a small turd size lump off our shoes with fairer mobile phone contracts. I loved that contrast of how truthful that is (mobile contracts suck) and how poetic the concept was; it fired up my appetite to make some pretty out-there advertising.
LBB> What was the main message, and how did you convey it successfully through the film?
Nick> It’s genuinely a sincere ‘thank you’ poem to shitty people...
It’s not a joke or some hot ironic take. My intentions were always quite earnest with the idea and I wanted to play it straight as that’s what’s so potent about the idea. For most normal people the best reminders to ‘do good’ doesn’t come from a holier-than-thou lecture about morals, but from watching a total Karen acting shitty at a supermarket and you going, “Oh, I don’t want to be like that.”. It’s that brutal honesty that I wanted to fuse with the filmmaking craft to elevate that shitness to become poetic — imagining if also those public freakout videos and shitty behaviour pics were romanticised to become oddly beautiful.
So, yeah the main message was to embrace the shit.
LBB> Tell me about the voiceover - who wrote the script and who narrated it, and what made it the perfect fit for the film?
Nick> Beyond the visual narrative, I’m always looking at a project from a completely holistic viewpoint. The music, the words, the voiceover - all of those elements are opportunities to continually refine and improve the execution of the idea. And I should clarify something - this VO is quite different to the on-air version which in my mind of course is a shame, but I guess you can’t win ‘em all.
Anyway, as we focused in on everything and began to build the world out, it became obvious to me and my editor Elise Butt at TRIM that the visuals were crying out for a degree of poetry and would elevate the whole world beyond a typical say-it-see-it ad voiceover.
That’s when we called on the expertise of the team over at Stare Crazy and a regular collaborator of ours that goes by the name ‘Hugo The Poet’. We’ve all done a handful of projects together, and we wrote the script together repeatedly to try and hit the perfect tone that allowed for some abstraction of the idea whilst also giving a sense of the bad that was inescapable. That, in combination with the ominous tonality of the satanic and illuminati ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ sex orgy-inspired music works well I think?
LBB> What kind of locations were you after and was the location scouting part of production challenging?
Nick> ‘Ugly poetic’ was the tone I was chasing, and to do that, we needed to balance a weird dystopian vision of Britain with a grittily cinematic depiction of real life in the UK as well.
I wanted to create a heightened sense of relatability, one that isn’t a million miles away from driving down Holloway Road at 2:34 am when a dude is having a slash next to a half-eaten kebab being eaten by some mangy fox.
So we looked for locations that were seldom seen and far from the familiar… The amount of human faeces found at the locations would suggest that we indeed found the real deal. But hey, my brief did ask the scouts to ‘embrace the shit’. Maybe they took that too literally though.
LBB> How did you construct each character and what did you want them to represent? What was the casting process like and how did you choose your characters eventually?
Nick> In my mind, the people are products of this city, churned out of the factory line of badness and unable to break the naughty cycle. I imagined them as this shadowy cabal of shit-stirrers owning the night and making it unbearable for the rest of us. But they don’t do this because they are inherently bad people - it’s just that they are born from the ‘spirit’ of big corporations and networks and do not know any better.
I wanted their performances to be nonchalant and lacking any self-awareness. I wanted to create characters who felt truly trapped in their own little worlds where everything outside of themselves and their own desires meant nothing. Characters for whom their collective selfishness knew no bounds and for whom the only HOPE left is tattooed across the knuckles of a dude puking in your rhododendron bush.
As for the casting… Well, that was epic. The struggle was finding the balance between the types of characters the audience expects to see in these moments and bringing a fresh new spin on it. You don’t want to play to type because that’s boring, predictable and problematic. But you also need quick reads. Thankfully, one of the most beautiful things about the wonderfully diverse melting pot of modern culture is that shitheads come in all shapes, colours, and from all types of backgrounds.
LBB> Tell me about the creative vision and how you executed it through the cinematography and overall colours and aesthetics of the film.
Nick> I was on a mission to capture the essence of a weird bad dream. But the experience had to be lucid and relatable rather than a full-blown torture porn fever dream nightmare. So, I aimed for that elusive dark spot between reality and fantasy, creating an eerie weird vibe with the prince of darkness DP Steve Annis; and the walking emoji of a production designer Olly Williams. Our objective was to capture the raw ugliness of the ‘bad’ vividly and honestly, utilising fairly conventional framing but smacking it all with a saturated and ‘icky’ colour scheme to evoke unease and detachment… and then made it very English by drowning it in a fuckton of rain.
LBB> How creatively involved were giffgaff in the project, and how does it resonate with their brand pillars?
Nick> It was awesome — they were SO UP FOR IT from the very start. From our first meeting, I was confident we were destined to create something pretty great.
They got really excited with every development we made along the way and not only came along for the ride but conducted it. I told the clients when we first met that I was going to put some things in front of them over the course of the job that were designed to challenge them and likely make them uncomfortable. The mindset needed to be that unless we were making those bold, confident choices, then we were just like the other guys that they were targeting. They immediately got that it wasn’t ‘the director’ in me wanting to make something cool, but me wanting to cement their brand pillars and have a strong point of view on the material and message… (whilst making something cool).
I love all that thinking and commercial filmmaking is a dynamic process where the best work comes from bold, resolute, and self-assured clients who aren’t on the defensive and get that my job isn’t just shooting some pre-ordained storyboards or dull overly researched mechanical script — it’s bringing their brand to life onscreen through the process and alchemy of filmmaking. All that great stuff, alongside the extremely talented individuals at Neverland who are always striving to create thought-provoking pieces, made for an exceptional time. I hope to work with them all again in the future.
LBB> How did you come up with the title and what does it reveal about the film?
Nick> ‘Ode to Bad’ was such a powerful title that it stuck from the start — so that’s all on the clever clogs at Neverland - I certainly can’t lay claim to that! Looking back on it though, it definitely was the hook that grabbed me. You read a script title like that, and it’s hard not to get excited. It’s one of those rare lightning strikes of a title that encompasses a massive concept in one little line. It’s set them up for an incredible campaign.
LBB> What were the biggest challenges of the production process? And what was the most fun part?
Nick> That’d definitely be having a standoff with the proprietor of a Polish supermarket in Croydon who blamed his flooding sewerage system on us as a new one for the memoirs…. I mean, I did eat six kielbasas, but that’s on him for making them so moreish.
LBB> Any final thoughts?
Nick> Shitty filming advice: Don’t write ‘embrace the shit’ in your location brief if you don’t want to be filming next to human excrement for ten hours.