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Opinion and Insight
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Marcel Sydney Sets Out Its Stall with Artbreaks

Marcel, 5 months, 3 weeks ago

David Nobay tells Laura Swinton what can happen when you trust in creativity with new short film channel Artbreaks for Australia’s ABC

Marcel Sydney Sets Out Its Stall with Artbreaks

The ‘antithesis of advertising’. A ‘huge jazz experiment’. There are certainly more conventional ways to announce your brand new agency to the world. But Marcel Sydney is anything but conventional, and founder and Creative Chairman David Nobay was never going to announce his return to the Australian ad scene with ‘some little Chupa Chups ad’.

Three months after it was revealed that David – known in the industry as Nobby – would be heading up the new Australian office of the chouette Publicis agency Marcel, they’ve launched Artbreaks. It’s an experimental short film project with Australian broadcaster ABC, and it tells you everything you need to know about the creative philosophy that underpins Marcel Sydney.

Artbreaks brings together the top craftspeople in Australian film production and gives them the freedom and trust to truly flex their creative muscles. It’s a channel on ABC’s online iview platform, an eclectic collection of shorts inspired by David’s poetry and a statement of intent. And for brand clients, it’s a lesson in what can be achieved when you allow the creative process to breathe.

The Scimitar's Arc

Talent like Camera D’Or-winning director Warwick Thornton, world class photographer Simon Harsent and respected director and cinematographer Susan Stitt have collaborated to bring eight of David’s poems to life. There are four more films currently in production and with a queue of jazzed-up filmmakers eager to get involved, Artbreaks looks set to evolve and grow even further.

But to truly understand Artbreaks and just why it proves that great creativity arises requires a little trust in the chaos of the process you need to go back to the beginning. Spontaneity, experimentation and the great unknown are baked into Artbreaks’ very being.


It all started when renowned Australian stage actor Colin Friels, who starred in David’s debut play ‘Moving Parts’, was pestering him to write a follow up play. With little free time, David started to work up some short sketches which somewhere along the line mutated into poems. After showing one of these poems, 'Snared', to Colin the pair hit upon the idea of recording a reading – inspired by the old radio recordings of Richard Burton. Shortly afterwards another old friend, jazz pianist Gerard Masters, decided to compose a haunting soundtrack to go along beside it. The final piece of the puzzle came when David suggested to DoP and director Susan Stitt that she experiment with shooting some visuals while she travelled the world for work. 

“We ended up with this film and I had no idea what it was… but I liked it. And people liked it. There wasn’t a client, it wasn’t some scammy, weird thing. It’s just a load of artistic people going ‘let’s riff’,” says David.

At that point, 'Snared' was just a cool, slightly out-there experiment with nowhere to go. But a chance encounter with ABC Head of Programming, Adrian Swift, at a party of a mutual friend changed all that. After some mutual commiserations about the struggles of getting great work pushed through, the subject of Snared came up. Upon watching the film, Adrian suggested to David that a collection of eight to ten of these might be enough to launch a thread with ABC.


“He said he thought it was an interesting platform for ABC because of what they’re trying to do with the arts,” says David. “It’s a really fascinating experiment about what happens when you just get left alone, and it’s all about Australian craftspeople. And that was it. When he said that, it gave it gravitas and it gave it a home.”

That kicked the project into gear. Brilliant creative collaborators just sort of started to click into place. Simon Lister of sound house Nylon Studios, who has also won a Cannes Lion for his work as a photographer, helped out with the sound design on one film and offered his services as an Artbreaks director. He was about to spend some time in Bangladesh and India and suggested David write a poem for him. Similarly, Warwick Thornton had heard about the project through the grapevine and decided to call David, who he had never met, to get involved.

Convenient Carnage

“That’s the insane thing,” says David about the project’s domino effect. “Rather than what you’d expect, which is us voraciously calling out producers saying, ‘have you got young filmmakers to make a free film’, we’ve had some of the most respected filmmakers in Australia call in and ask if they can make one. Which is amazing.”

That’s not to say they’re commissioning just anyone to create something for Artbreaks. There’s a shrewd curation process, and that was spearheaded by Marcel Sydney’s Head of Content Creation, who has been busy weaving the spontaneous creativity into a coherent whole.

The Rip

“A huge hero in all of this is Holly Alexander. I make it sound like this big jazz experiment, but she’s the one who had to make sense of it all for me. She was my Head of Content at Droga5 and before that she was at Radical Media. She was the first person I brought over to Marcel. She’s the one, while I was doing all my ranting and raving, who has quietly connected all the dots.”

The key to Artbreaks’ popularity among top talent is, suspects David, because it’s an antidote to frustrating reality of being a creative person in the 21st century. He’s even had letters of thanks from people who have helped to make the films, grateful for the chance to do what they do. Grateful, one suspects reading between the lines, of being treated like a grown up who knows what they are doing.

Ancient Eye

Warwick Thornton headed off into Northern Australia, barely contactable, and came back three months later with a cut and a translation of David’s ‘Ancient Eye’ poem in one of the country’s indigenous languages. David worked with world-class photographers who have never been associated with the moving image. The project is rooted in the idea that you work with people because you respect their work and ability, not because you’ve seen a carbon-copy of your film on their reel. It’s a conversation that will surely strike a nerve with creatives and producers who suffer permanent concussion from constantly banging their heads on their desks. That endless stream of ‘yeah they’ve got an Oscar but they’ve never shot a washing machine ad’ feedback...

“If you’ve got a black and white script, don’t go to a black and white director. If you’ve got a funny script, don’t go to a comedy director,” says David, recalling a saying that he loved to share with junior creatives in his Saatchi days. “The logic was: they’ve already got that on their reel, why are they going to kill themselves to do another one? Nine times out of ten if you go to someone who’s never shot black and white before because he’s always shot great colour, they’re going to break their balls and they’re going to look at it in a really fresh way.”

The Faintest Clasp

But although Artbreaks is an exercise in creative freedom, it's unlikely that many brand clients would initiate something with a similar level of looseness and sheer free-form scat creativity. That’s something David’s well aware of, but he still feels that the work suggests a new way forward in an age of cost consultants putting pressure on marketers. If budgets will be squeezed – and, let’s face it, they will – then something’s got to give and that’s the micromanagement and pre-pre-pre-production that handicaps the creative process. Put some trust in creative partners who you respect and embrace the process, and you might just find that you end up with more authentic, powerful output.

“I’m not suggesting that any major client is going to do something like Artbreaks, give us a budget and leave us alone for three months… but maybe the take out should be, ‘if I can give you a 500,000-dollar job for 250,000 dollars because you allow me to work with creative people and give them the room they need, that’s a huge cost saving.”

Fidget and Foil

“Artbreaks is not an ad break,” says David. “In every way, it’s the antithesis of how we, as an industry, approach making film. The process of making advertising in the world now is so risk averse. There’s so much need to insulate and paper-chase and all this kind of crap that it’s pretty impossible to wriggle into anything spontaneous and unexpected. We looked at those films and we worked out that among those eight films, if you went out and got them commissioned by brands there’s probably about one and a half million dollars of production. It’s crazy, because the reality is that if you had spent that amount of money on these directors, you never would have got anywhere close to what we’ve got. For me there’s a very powerful conversation – it’s a broader conversation. As you know, we’re being confined more and more by budgets and at the same time we’re expected to do amazing work. And the only way for that to work is if we’re given more freedom.”  

Creative integrity, mutual respect and embracing craft: welcome to Marcel Sydney.

To watch Artbreaks, head to iview.

Category: Publications and media , Streaming Services

Genre: Editing , Photography , Storytelling , Strategy/Insight