Working for big names can be great.
Bands that your mum or the kids you went to school with might have heard of. The ones on the telly, or on the high street, ones with lots of customers and big budgets to do the cool stuff you’ve always wanted to do.
Though sometimes the bigger the brand, the fatter the dark underbelly us creative souls have to square our consciences with.
For every bouncy sports shoe there’s a faint whiff of child labour, for every milky coffee there’s an aftertaste of exploited farmer and for every miracle cure there’s the legacy of a lab rat doped up to the eyeballs.
I’m a ‘commercial artist’ and this is part of a world I opted into, as much as it is a part of the world we all live in everyday.
I’m paid to dress other people’s products and services in their Sunday Best and introduce them to folk who might like to make their acquaintance, and through circumstance, rather than any great plan, I have ended up working for a fair few financial services organisations.
In particular a big blue bank.
One thing I’m not going to do is bite the hand that feeds me by spelling out all the ways the world of banking has got it wrong over the last few years, but if you’re interested in how I went from promoting other agencies’ life insurance campaigns to personally helping define how the bank spoke to their customers around the world, read on…
Back in the days when I first worked for them, banks were still pillars of the community run by Mr Mainwaring types. In fact, my own bank account was still held in the small village where I grew up. I could phone and speak to people who actually worked there and they’d ask how my mum was, sorted out any problems I had with my overdraft and be helpful, courteous and generally not try and flog me stuff I didn’t want.
So, when the small agency where I started my career won a pitch for a big high street bank in 1998, we were all rightly excited. At the time they were certainly the biggest name we managed to add to the client list, and the work was regular and relatively creative, though, looking back, not the most beautiful thing I have ever been involved with.
While proper grown-up agencies came up with branch campaigns for a succession of different products, our job was to communicate to the staff in the branches what the campaigns were about and specifically what they had to do to make them a success. The branches were bombarded with various communications from head office, so the more gimmicky we made this stuff, the better chance it had of getting noticed and used.
We inherited that nasty ‘Campaign’ masthead, and while we smarted it up a bit, concentrated our efforts on making the documents as engaging and as user-friendly as possible. We threw everything we could afford to do at these – sliding panels, lift-up flaps, sales trackers and sticker sheets plus every issue came with a pre-printed post-it note to stick on cashiers tills.
It was fun to lead the creative on all this work for a while, but ultimately some streamlining at their end sought to stop their internal flood of ‘paper communications’ and Campaign, as a briefing document, was effectively banned, though motivating and incentivising the staff wasn’t.
Inspired, in some respects, by the story of the Trojan horse, I came up with the idea of sending relevant ‘gifts’ to key people in the branches as a way of smuggling the same campaign info.
Like on these shopping bag tags and wallet inserts…
It was probably this innovation that won us a silver Cream Award in 1999.
(And in fishing this out of the archive and scanning it, I’ve just noticed that Vital got a bronze.)
We did three or four gift format issues before our particular client’s team was disbanded. Parenthesis went on to do a couple of internal training jobs before the account fizzled away, as these things can so often do.
I figured that would be the last I’d ever work for that particular bank, and certainly thought it would be the closest I’d get to ever doing a high street branch campaign, but one of my first freelance jobs for Vital would prove that wrong.
Vital were about 18 months into a relationship with the Retail Banking team and were working on a brief to see what effect making more of their window space would have on have on footfall. The initial pilot was slated for the Christmas shopping period, when the neighbouring shops would be using their own windows to full effect.
To be honest at that point I’d never done a shop window before, so it was a bit of a fluke that three of the five biro scamps that I showed Vital as ‘work in progress’ were shared with the client and signed of with no changes.
With little else to go on other than the ‘Win a Mortgage’ campaign posters that was running at the time, it was a simple case of taking my cue from the illustrations of the rosette and window arch and creating something a bit Christmassy in the same style and colour palette.
The hanging 3D displays were made from cut polystyrene, which proved so lightweight and practical that we adopted it for a lot of the subsequent campaigns. Key flagship branches in Leeds, Nottingham, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff and London were chosen to receive these treatments, though in addition Manchester got a grab-a-grand style installation that wafted fake money around a window like a snow globe. Shame that the fan that powered the vortex proved so noisy that the branch staff kept turning it off.
Although it was a campaign that focused on an eerie eyeless Santa and featured no messaging beyond, ‘We’re forcing a smile ‘cos it’s Christmas’, it must have been deemed a success (or at least worthy of further exploration) as it became the first of many windows I went on to design for them.
Not long after this, the bank’s brand underwent a refresh and their already minimal and angular illustration style was simplified even further to two colours and the sole use of rectangular blocks affectionately referred to as ‘ingots’. These were created by Williams Murray Hamm, whose brilliant Hovis and Jaffa Cakes packaging were big news in the design world at the time. Along with simplifying the eagle (which is still in use today) this stark constructivist illustration style was a brave move. It did result in a quite a striking suite of bank literature, and as a graphic designer I quite enjoyed the challenge of working with such limited tools, though the marketeer in me struggled with the cold, hard-edged feel.
Among the other work that we were doing at the time were ‘template ads’. With BBH, their lead ad agency, busy with the main product campaigns, it fell to us to re-skin existing ads and later create fresh ads as they were needed in the new style.
Here are a few of mine that turned out OK…
There was often a bit of debate around diluting the purity of the ingots by joining them together to make a line, but I always tried to stay true to the basic principles.
When it came to our next big 3D window execution, it couldn’t have been more ingot-y.
Hanging these buggers was a nightmare but the combination of the window vinyls and the blocks created quite a nice effect when you walked past to the point where everything lined up.
By the time next Christmas came around there was the appetite (and budget) to make a bit more of a splash for the festive season.
Though this year, rather than leading with vague brand messages, this activity was actually flogging something – a credit card with 0% interest for 6 months. It’s not a big leap to marry the idea of a ‘card’ with ‘Christmas’ so the ‘Only card you’ll need this Christmas’ idea felt like a clear enough message for a window execution.
As their sister card company operated under a different set of visual rules the ingots were out, though I referenced their shape and colours in the gifts that accompanied the giant card sat on top of an oversized fireplace.
Unlike the previous year this scheme was much richer, the fire gave off a flickering glow and hanging lights and garlands added a cosy appeal as late night shoppers went about their business. One little touch I also fought for was sticking charity logos on the backs of the other prop cards on the mantlepiece as a bit of free advertising for them inside the branches.
I like Christmas, much more than I like football anyway.
While I find it hard to get excited about financial services products, it was just as much as a stretch to get excited about the bank’s sponsorship of the Premiership football league. Luckily I was working alongside enough people who appreciated the significance of each individual player while I concentrated on making it all look pretty.
It was through a combination of these special flagship windows and the above-the-line work on the template ads that we were eventually handed the prime job of creating and delivering the national in-branch campaigns on a rolling basis.
This was great work to have and a privileged position to be in and our first brief was for a tie-in with a well-known family film company and the government’s Child Trust Fund hand-outs.
We threw ourselves into it as this old pic of a boardroom full of early scamps testifies…
My eldest son was four at the time and it was great coming up with ideas for this campaign, though the final executions don’t quite reflect some of the joyous kid-friendly creativity that came out in the initial ideas. Sadly, what innovative stuff the client didn’t reject, the well-known family film company did.
Still, there were a few cute bits that made it through, but the compromises that came from a long and complex sign-off procedure proved to be a recurring theme of these campaigns.
At least they didn’t try and make us create Winnie the Pooh out of ingots.
By the time the next branch campaign came around for free National Trust days out with every ISA, the ingots started to show their limitations in creating a warm, engaging campaign at street level.
The creative on this really went around the houses as we tried various ways of appealing to an older audience only using blue blocks. In the end the rules were relaxed, a warmer colour was reintroduced and the final work appropriated the old cliché of oak trees as a visual link with the National Trust’s acorn logo, while the copy played on the word ‘trust’.
The in-branch material played on the days-out theme and included oversized tickets and ‘leather’ bookmark giveaways – a National Trust gift shop favourite.
We’d work on these in-branch campaigns at the same time BBH would work on the above-the-line campaigns. As our lead times were longer we would often have a head start and get to steer the creative, other times, it’d be down to us to interpreted their strategy into the branch environment, like with this insurance campaign…
The original idea used the 1,000,000,000 which we integrated into the word ‘billion’ to make the point that bit clearer. There’s nothing subtle or clever about selling insurance, so the rest of the job was to present the message as clearly as possible.
And the big polystyrene cut-outs made another reappearance.
While these were great projects, it was hard, demanding work. Lots of great ideas were presented, and lots were rejected. The creative had to jump through a number of hoops and changes in strategy were often made along the way. As things were deliberated internally the deadlines loomed larger, though the massive volume of individual items that had to be produced never changed.
I won’t begin to pretend that these were all my own work as so many people have to work together to deliver jobs of this scale, but out of all the campaigns we did, these were the ones I can claim the most creative ownership of.
By this point the strong style of the ingot illustrations had been diluted to the point of blandness and the brand’s positioning of being ‘experts’ felt out of step with a world where the internet was making the world a less formal place and smoothie bottles wanted to be your best mate.
When a change of management at the top brought about a dramatic change in tone for the brand, Vital were well placed to bring it to life in one of its key touch points – the high street branch.
It was a pretty open brief too and we put aside a day to sit in a room with the client to talk about the possibilities.
Rather than turn up with no ideas, I gave it some thought on the train on the way down though kept coming back to how much I hated the pens chained to counters. They are such a symbol of mistrust – we trust the banks with our salaries and they don’t trust us with a 30p biro.
It thought freeing them was the least the bank could do.
Of all the ideas we ended up putting forward this was the one that struck a chord, not only with the new Brand Director but with the press when the ‘new friendlier branches’ were launched.
There can’t be that many below-the-line ideas that have made the Guardian cartoon.
Everything a customer came into contact with in the branch was up for grabs. We softened and humanised the language where we could and worked with Interbrand who were creating the new visual identity to help determine a new tone of voice which was adopted in branches around the world.
Admittedly we went too far sometimes and occasionally some of it got downright surreal, but it got noticed and shook things up and soon other banks and similar institutions followed suit. It even inspired the wrath of verbose curmudgeon and pop-culture commentator, Charlie Brooker. Which, as a big fan, I was secretly quite pleased about.
Freeing the pens was a metaphorical act that, at the same time, removed one little annoyance from the branches and I always smile when someone unwittingly produces one from their pocket or handbag.
It would be in very bad taste for a bank to adopt such an all-out chummy persona in 2012, but throughout the more recent seismic shifts in the public perception of banks, the pens have endured. The design and the messages have changed but go into any branch and you can still ‘steal’ a pen.
And to this day the guy who commissioned the work is out there telling people it was his idea.
That’s OK. I guess, he paid for me to have it on his behalf.
This new, brighter, friendly bank was much more fun to work with and, as an agency, we entered a bit of a golden period where the work was judged much more on its wit and visual appeal.
And the illustration style was dropped in favour of much more playful cut-out photography.
The branch campaigns kept us very busy, but so too did the above-the-line work, with tactical ads in the national press and campaigns for the bank’s stockbroking arm, though despite the fresher look the good stuff was still sometimes hard to get through. For instance, the original line for the SIPP ad below was ‘Dance Pension, Dance’, but I got to be the hand model, so it wasn’t all bad.
One of my favourite ads from this time was essentially a rework of the ‘ingot telescope’ ad near the top of this page. Inspired by the teaching of money matters in schools and community groups, the art direction is clearly from the mind of a dad who had new-born twins and a son at primary school…
We even found ourselves working on more strategic briefs like: What can we do to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the fist ATM – sorry – ‘Hole in the Wall’ (TM).
This visual identity was adopted so wholeheartedly by all of their agencies that after 18 months everything being produced to the white space, cut-out image, blue box template had started to look the same, so it was time for another change.
This was our penultimate branch campaign and was created during the transition. Based around little insights into the British summer it featured some of the most light-hearted work in one of the most cohesive themes we ever managed to get signed off.
Pasty white legs, ice cream prices that go up every year and banana boats all featured in a campaign that ran during one of the coldest, wettest summers in history.
Eventually there was another change of management at the top and things transformed again. The branch campaign material became ‘more closely aligned’ to the above-the-line creative and over a relatively short space of time I found myself working almost exclusively for their slightly funkier credit card company and less and less for the bank itself. (But that’s another tale for another day.)
Not long after, the big banks collapsed in on themselves and today jolly banana boat posters feel like relics from another age.
Then, as one final footnote to this story, there’s this…
I’ve you’ve read all these words and not just looked at the pictures, firstly ‘well done’, there can’t be many of you, and secondly, you’ll have spotted more than one reference to concepts that never saw the light of day.
Well, sometimes it’s hard to get those ideas out of one’s system and when Vital decided to enter some work into the Chip Shop Awards this year, I remixed this little rejected scamp into the current identity and stuck it in the ‘Work for a Brand You Have but Have no Chance of Running’ category.
It not only went on to win a Big Chip, but was also awarded silver in the ‘Idea That Never Made It’ category in this year’s Fresh Awards.
Proof, if any were needed, that good creative can win out in the end.