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Against the grain

Cutting through advertising noise and being noticed is no simple task. The sledgehammer hard sell can be effective sometimes, but it's often the ads that get under your skin and are just plain fun to watch that deliver results time and time again. It's a maxim proven by a spate of high concept ads from leading London agencies in recent years.

These spots have gripped the attention of their audiences to become cult classics, sparking record-breaking viral campaigns and achieving international success. What do they all have in common? All of them are working in established markets to sell conventional, everyday products, from chocolate to credit cards. And all of them have broken away from the rest of the market to provide a strategically - and often dramatically - fresh approach to promoting their wares.

BBH London's credit-crunch defying Waterslide advert for Barclaycard is one such example. Shortlisted for a Cannes Lion award this year, the spot features an office worker gliding home in a giant waterslide, purchasing items on his card as he goes. "We always look at what the rest of the market is doing, and try to find a different way to solve a brief," explains creative director Nick Gill. "There are lots of credit card messages out there. This particular message was about contact-free technology, so we tried to reduce it to a very simple expression about gliding, or flowing. It means you can breeze through payment points."

Central to the advert is the concept of an 'effortless journey'. The team, led by creative director Pete Bradley, explored different ways to express the idea before arriving at the waterslide. "We thought there was something nicely absurd about a guy walking out of an office and getting onto this enormous slide that took him all over the city until he got home," reveals Gill.

Add to this a feel-good track (The Bellamy Brothers' golden oldie 'Let Your Love Flow'), and the result is an exceptionally uplifting film - at a time when financial advertisers were treading very carefully. "When the ad went out, we were wary about what kind of response it would have - but the reaction was enormously positive. People accepted it for what it was."

In fact, the audience loved it, and over 1.8 million people have gone online so far to watch the office worker strip to his pants and glide effortlessly through the city.

"There's always a danger when you try to create a bit of magic that the expression of the idea will be so successful that it actually overtakes the impact of the brand," admits Gill. "But the numbers show that people did get the message. You just have to make sure that whatever you do is well branded, with the product at the centre of it, and isn't just a piece of sponsored entertainment."

Another agency with an impressive track record for embracing the unconventional to produce outstanding adverts is London-based Fallon. Chris Willingham, previously account director at the firm and now a partner, has overseen the creation of many such campaigns, including two world-renowned ones: the Cadbury Gorilla spot, featuring a gorilla drumming along to a Phil Collins track, and the Sony Bravia Balls campaign, which launched the brand.

The core of any campaign, says Willingham, begins with the need to address the client's particular business problem. The agency must interpret this - look at it through the eyes of the consumer - and work out a way of communicating it. "That's the rational bit. Then there's the emotional element, which is all about creating likeability, memorability and talkability," he says. "Obviously originality is everything, so if it's original, whether it works or not, it's got a bloody good chance of cutting through the mass of stuff out there."

In the case of Cadbury Schweppes, the simple problem was that competitor Galaxy was starting to gain market share. The Cadbury Dairy Milk brand was seen as being somewhat old-fashioned among the target market of 20-somethings. So in rational terms, Fallon focused on the 'generous' nature of the product: the fact that it contains a glass and a half of real milk, rather than powdered milk. "The spiritual brief was simply to get the love back," he adds. "It helps when you have a nearly 100-years-old institution, because everyone's heard of it. You just have to change people's perception of the brand."

Fallon had a week to pitch, and eventually settled on three separate ideas. Two of these were based on the familiar concept of showing people eating and enjoying chocolate - the same approach that chocolate ads had maintained for 25 years - and then there was Glass and a Half Full Productions.

Surreal, cheeky, incredibly subtle, funny and only tangentially alluding to the actual product, Gorilla was the first iteration of Glass and a Half Full productions. It was the antithesis of conventional chocolate ads - and indeed product ads in general - and encouraged the notion that the advert itself was the treat for the viewer. Almost from the outset, Fallon knew this was the campaign they would recommend, although "we didn't know the client very well, so we felt obliged to show more than one route," says Willingham.

Unusually, Gorilla arrived on the page almost fully-formed. "The way we presented it was very thorough," he says. "We knew the track we wanted; we had a visualisation of the gorilla; and we'd written the script more like a treatment, so it was four pages, and barely changed between then and being shot. That's very rare."

Presenting in such detail was vital for this campaign. Fallon knew exactly how it would work; the challenge was to convince Cadbury of this, until then a very traditional company. Fortunately, says Willingham, Cadbury Schweppes marketing directors Phil Rumbol and Lee Rolston were progressive-thinking clients.

The final 90-second Gorilla ad was released in 2007 for both TV and cinema and immediately captured the public's imagination, being viewed on YouTube more than 500,000 times in its first week, despite only showing in the UK initially. As well as being inherently funny, it got people talking. Was it a man in a suit, CG, or even a real gorilla? Was it Phil Collins himself drumming to his own track? What does this have to do with chocolate? It was as intriguing as it was satisfying, imparting on the viewer a sense of celebratory reward - just like chocolate - and evoking the desire to rewind the ad and watch it again.

The most recent ad in the chain, 2009's Eyebrows, was designed to have the same impact. Featuring two earnest-looking school children performing eyebrow tricks in time to Freestylers' 'Don't Stop the Rock', the spot took the internet by storm and has been watched over four million times online.

While the human element contributed to its success, it was the bizarre content that once again tapped into the public's imagination, spawning a series of spin-offs and organically spreading the word.

Fallon's first campaign spot for the Sony Bravia TV brand took a different tack. Balls showed a quarter of a million coloured rubber balls bouncing down the steep streets of San Francisco, followed by the tagline 'Colour like no other.' It was joyously silly and fulfilled many a kid's childhood dream.

"Everyone knows Sony, but there was a need to launch a new brand," explains Willingham about the campaign's genesis. Slow to recognise the LCD market, the brief was more than to just launch Bravia: it was about injecting vibrancy and excitement back into the public's perception of Sony.

"We felt that rather than trying to compete on a technological claim - which every other manufacturer was doing - we'd leap above that and make a much bigger, grander claim about colour," Willingham continues. "We found this little phrase 'Like no other' in some American advertising; it was used very much as a sign-off rather than a central idea, and that seemed the ideal way to launch our idea."

The idea for Balls, says Willingham, eventually arose through a lot of teamwork and brainstorming, but ultimately "it came about through one guy's fantastic leap of imagination, and that was Juan Cabral. Most ideas will take at least a page of A4 to articulate, whereas his was literally two lines: 'We go to San Francisco with a million bouncy coloured balls, we let them go from the the top of the streets and we film it.' It was as simple as that, simple and utterly different. Everything was integrated into that one idea."

As Gorilla would later on, Balls became an internet phenomenon. Many assumed the balls were computer-generated, but when it became clear these were real balls filmed in a real location, the idea became even more appealing. The colour theme went on to feature in similar extravaganzas throughout the campaign, including a tower block exploding with multi-coloured paint.

Willingham admits that there's an element of luck in how well such outside-the-box ideas are received, but adds that with all three campaigns they knew they were on to something special from the outset. Crucially, both were also ripe for viral treatment, although neither was marketed as such. They're the sort of spots that get passed on by email, YouTube and word of mouth, as well as being parodied and modified in countless ways.

"These days it also has to be something you're prepared to hand over to the consumer. It's not a finished piece; it's the start of something," explains Willingham. "They can mash it up and play round with it. In the old days that would have been deemed as sacrilege, but nowadays it's absolutely essential: great ideas should be the start of something, not the end of it."

Even more participatory was AMV BBDO's Eviction campaign for Revels, another chocolate product, this time made by Mars. "The British public had forgotten about this unusual bag of treats," says creative director Paul Knott, who worked on the campaign along with a team of four others. "The brief was to remind people that you never know what to expect with Revels. There are some you love, and some you hate."

Each bag of Revels contains chocolates with six differently-flavoured centres - including orange, coffee and peanut - and it's almost a British tradition that everyone has a least-liked flavour, a theme which previous advertising had already played upon. "The idea of a Revels eviction was one that we loved from the offset," continues Knott. "There's always some outspoken halfwit in Big Brother that everyone despises, right? It's a national pastime. So, similarly, how fantastic would it be to give the British public the opportunity to vote out the flavour they love to hate, to make room for a new mystery flavour?"

Exploring ideas, the team soon ruled out a traditional election-style campaign as being too obvious. One promising scenario was to challenge the public to produce outlandishly elaborate machines to destroy their least favourite flavour, "but the barrier to entry was too high," says Knott. "We ended up feeling as a team that the best idea would allow participants to literally banish their least favourite flavour, by firing it off the cliffs of Dover. The absurdity of it made us laugh."

AMV BBDO tend to present just one big campaign idea, which was the case with Revels. The crucial element was to demonstrate how it would look across print, TV and digital formats, with the website playing a key part in proceedings. Inspiration for the actual 'eviction' methods - a whack from a golf club, being driven off a cliff by a remote control car, and so on - came from everywhere, including the emotional final scene from Thelma and Louise, and spoof golf flick Happy Gilmore.

Getting the tone right for the host of the website was, says Knott, a tricky part: "We wanted an 'eloquent, quintessentially British nutter', so all the scripts were rewritten before, during and after casting to make sure they worked."

Ultimately, the 'election' garnered more than 400,000 votes from the public, with the coffee flavour eventually being booted out in the live eviction, to be replaced with a mystery flavour - strawberry, as it happens - for a limited time. "Credit should go to the client for being brave enough to buy an idea that encouraged people to hate their flavours," points out Knott. "We just had to make sure that we got the love/hate balance right."

What's overwhelmingly clear is that the creatives who deliver these successful campaigns never underestimate or talk down to their public. If you, as a creative, find an idea genuinely amusing, entertaining and original, then most likely the consumer will too - and they'll remember the product. It's a simple logic, but one that's too often forgotten in the race for the hard sell.