Inside the mind of an ad-maker

July 18, 2008 by  
Filed under Features

Interview with Jon Williams, Chief Creative Officer of Grey London

In this week’s feature Susan Allen takes a peek behind the advertising mask to investigate what it takes to make a great ad, hold our attention and get us buying into their ideas…


Ads are annoying right?
When I say ‘adverts’ do you think annoying? There they are, interrupting our episode of Hollyoaks and boring us to death with yet another detergent we just can’t see the uniqueness of.

But then again
But then again, there’s the Guiness ad (or every Guiness ad) and that Britvic Brains one. What about the Frijj ads? The 50’s horror spoof. Actually, these are quite entertaining, I kind of look forward to seeing them. This is impressive, because these days, more than ever, consumers are savvy enough that we won’t pay heed to something that isn’t worth our attention.

In a way, the product of this is a growing culture of innovative advertising that uses more creative ways and media to capture an audience. A good campaign will make you want to pay attention, even though you know you are being pitched a product. That’s no easy task with such a media aware audience.

I decided to investigate the curious world of the advertising agency and unravel the inner workings behind a good campaign. How are advertising bods transforming their ads in order to persuade us to part with our cash?

I approached Jon Williams who is Chief Creative Officer of Grey London advertising agency and the man behind the recent multimedia Frijj milkshake campaign that’s caught our eye by using five ads (watch one of the virals below), a website and much more, for an insider’s view.

You need to Download the Flash Player Plugin to see this video

Talking to Jon on the phone, his soft northern accent belies the ad speak and it takes me a while to get him talking about the proper fun stuff. Hoping to get an insight into the inspiration for the spoof 1950s horror movie theme throughout the adverts, I find him digressing somewhat, “the important thing is that it’s relevant to the core proposition of the brand… ‘The thicker, the slower, the better’ ladders back up into the product attributes?. I see what he’s saying, the tagline fits – the milkshake’s thick and so it’s apt to have a promotion that uses this idea, but that’s not what is cool about the ad. I want to hear more about why they chose the particular aesthetics of the 1950s for the milkshake brand.

“Frijj itself has always been a slightly quirky brand. You only have to look at the packaging to know that it has its own personality and I think this complements this. The super-saturated feel from that sort of genre works splendidly.?

This is all well and good, but we’re still talking brand here. I want more than this from the man behind the creative campaign. Where’s the essence of it? It’s when I bring up the tension between the eerie website with the manic little girl and the brightly coloured films that he seems to reveal himself. “She’s scary isn’t she??, he says instantly more animated, as I ask him if this was a deliberate decision.

“I think it’s the kind of thing that all Art Directors push. They’ll try and create a visual tension… The whole spooky girl in an attic…and when she fiddles around with it, it actually affects real life. This is a great pastiche in itself and it’s a strong tableau that binds the story together.?

Ha, now we’re talking. There’s a bit of Beetlejuice and Shining in there, isn’t there?

“Yeah, there’s a bit of that in there. It borrows quite alot from quite a lot – there’s loads of movie in-jokes in there.?

The campaign certainly has great scope for such jokes. I am particularly intrigued by the fact that on the site users can watch five different virals. This might be seen to border on the excessive but Jon thinks not. “You need a depth of content? he argues, “to strike the right balance between an experience that’s too thin and therefore inherently unrewarding and one that’s so lavish that it’s over-facing.?

What does this actually mean? It means that they’ve got to have just enough content that it’s going to hold our attention when we give it to them. As always it comes down to the same thing – we demand to be entertained.

I get the feeling from him that even with the product talk a great deal of passion has gone into the project. “It’s bang up to date. It feels fresh and is a rather splendid piece. I’m exceptionally proud of what’s been done… It’s when you know you’re onto a good idea it’s when everyone goes that extra mile and it’s evidenced in what’s been produced.?

You need to Download the Flash Player Plugin to see this video

With press, digital, outdoor and on pack promotions the company is really making the most of all forms of communication for maximum coverage. It’s interesting that Jon acknowledges that the public’s relationship “with screens is inherently different?. We don’t see our mobile phone screen in the same way that we might view the cinema and advertisers have to be aware of that. He believes that the idea, if it’s big enough, can speak to people in various ways at different times. Now we’re really talking about the core of today’s advertising. It has to excite people, make us actually benefit from the interaction. This is no easy task.

How have Frijj approached this? They have created a YouTube channel to which users can upload their own horror film clips. If they are good enough they will appear in the Frijj Film Festival, a series of free viewings in cinemas across London this summer. This an impressive feature. It makes me want to make my own version of ‘Psycho’ with strawberry milkshake for blood! This kind of online community involvement also particularly appeals to Jon.

“It’s kind of a weird subversion. Everyone’s talking about stuff coming away from slickly-made and becoming user gen., a bit rough and ready and online. We thought it would be a nice way of looking at it to enable them to go back up the value chain to cinema, which is the home of great entertainment.?

Certainly, the internet is being used increasingly in advertising. The virals themselves are not even being screened on TV, which Jon sees as “no disadvantage whatsoever?. Using frank business terms he comments on the “accountable? nature of internet advertising as a viable opportunity for advertisers in a time when the country is preparing to tighten its belt.

More than this, he’s keen to get across the faster, more engaging relationship that web offers to its users, its “value exchange.? In full-swing board room mode, he gives the example of a user online.

“If you’ve got something to offer me for my valuable time – either a bit of functionality or entertainment, a dalliance from daily life, it’s got to be worth my exchange of time.?

It’s a brutal but accurate summation. My time IS valuable, and I don’t like to waste it on something that’s not enjoyable – and advertisers know that. When utilised properly the internet encourages spending time interacting with a ‘brand’ in a way we never would with television and it is the users who will ultimately make a profit for the advertiser. Yet Jon cautiously sees the internet as just PART of the future. “The business is changing and we’ve got to move with it.?

And are Grey London moving with this change?

“This one definitely has the New Grey stamp on it. We are constantly looking for ways to innovate and ways to talk to people in more engaging ways an¬¬d that will become more and more relevant. This is a brilliant front of the first wave of new work that’s coming through.?

As I bring the conversation to a close I ask what he hopes to achieve. The two-pronged answer of an advertising exec., whose position, it has become clear throughout this interview, necessitates both a passion for the essence of his work and also a no-nonsense money-head, comes back at me,

“I would like people to enjoy spending time with Frijj and go and buy some in the process!?

So, what does it take to make a great ad? Lifting the advertising mask has revealed that it takes a complex drive of innovation and profit to capture our increasingly high-maintenance imagination. Looks like we’re being encouraged to truly interact with the idea of that carrot dangling in front of us before we decide to jump for it. ■

Check out OTB’s review of one of the ads, “Yell, You’re in Hell? and go see the online campaign for yourself showing the rest of the virals not shown in this article at

By Susan Allen