Five Minutes with Alistair Schoonmaker
Transform magazine speaks to co-founder and managing director of creative agency Ultra Brand Studio Alistair Schoonmaker about how brands must actively participate in shaping society and supporting social causes, how they can avoid sameness while striving to be relevant, and what changes we can expect to see in developing creative solutions post Covid-19.
How does creativity enable brands to play a meaningful role in culture and consumer’s lives across the world?
We live in an era of hyper-authenticity and transparency. Consumers spot unwanted advertising from a mile off and brands can easily come across tone deaf. Co-creation, influencer marketing - it’s all been part of the mix, but today people are looking for brands to take on greater responsibility and, where appropriate, action.
Brands are finding it tricky to stay on the sidelines of issues and conversations they’d have historically avoided. What’s needed now is a careful consideration of the context of where they show up and a rethink how and what they say. Those with a strong sense of purpose have a head-start, while others will need to look inward to uncover what will resonate with their customers.
Take Ben & Jerry’s: it’s recent tweet to UK Home Secretary Priti Patel and the digital ad campaign built around her stance towards asylum seekers’ plight in the English Channel is a good example. It drew criticism from some quarters, but Ben & Jerry’s mission goes beyond selling ice cream and it knows its core audience understands and connects with that.
That said, following it through is as important as inspiration. Brands have always influenced society but now there’s a huge opportunity to actively shape it, and purpose is a core part of that. It isn’t a nice-to-have for a chosen few brands any longer, it’s essential to brand credibility and ensures a brand’s core message doesn’t ring hollow. In this regard, adland needs to add this depth to creative thinking.
How can brands avoid ‘sameness’ and strive to be constantly relevant?
Intelligent fearlessness is the way to avoiding sameness. Gone are the days when brands could keep banging out the same ad until it ran out of steam - and then go dark for months. A campaign-led approach doesn’t work either if a brand only meaningfully connects with its customers a couple of times a year.
This is driving a shift away from the ‘big media buy’ or spikes in activity in favour of a more editorial approach to advertising. A single film boosted by paid media or put on TV is being replaced by a two-three-month brand narratives that focuses both on organic and paid moments. This leads to longer story arcs where a brand reinforces its message through different iterations and in different channels over a longer period of time. This format opens up more possibilities to tell a brand story differently. However it remains vital that story not blend in or be water down, which is where creative excellence still proves incredibly valuable. It future proofs a brand from issuing the dreaded ‘help make us relevant again’ brief.
How has your work in developing creative solutions changed during the Covid-19 pandemic and what changes can we expect to see in the future?
Ultra launched just as lockdown hit in April this year. So impeccable timing!
Starting a business was always going to be challenging, but we didn’t expect a global crisis that would stress-test how we solve creative problems for our clients straight out of the gate. We have more than a few years of experience that helps rise to this moment creating work from lockdown with our founding clients, Nike and Masserati. We developed the ‘Spark The Next’ positioning and creative to launch Maserati’s first ever electrified vehicle, the Ghibli Hybrid. The challenge was creating a narrative and coordinating dynamic production with very little access to the vehicle itself. All creative and production was done remotely at high speed ahead of the car’s launch. While this presented some unique challenges, we worked around them. Making use of the digital tools and production techniques was key. We were really proud of the results - even more so under the circumstances! It showed how agility in our industry can lead to great work without the size and agency bloat that might slow down processes or drive the budget needlessly upward.
You have worked extensively in North America, EMEA and Asia Pacific; what differences have you noticed in the ways brands operate in different continents?
The experience has given me a healthy aversion to making everything global. Not everything translates in a pluralistic world and some brands get this right, others still force global thinking where the sharper local opportunities to connect with people exist. When you’ve got powerful local insight, make use of it.
Nike’s ‘RISE’ campaign is a case in point - I worked on it with Ultra’s co founders Matt and Will, at our former agency AKQA. The push focused on Greater China and had little to do with the global picture. The experience was hugely successful, ending up as AKQA’s most awarded work of all time and highly regarded at Nike. It’s success was down in no small part to a diverse team with different backgrounds, skillsets and experiences but also Nike’s championing the local point of view and insights.
In London specifically, there seems to be a lot of awareness of the global picture. As it should, given it’s a dynamic multicultural city. People here are curious about other cultures and try to unpack things specific to other markets. There’s a natural curiosity that makes London’s creative community output vibrant.
How do design, technology and digital innovation work together? Are we witnessing a digitalisation of the creative industry?
We’re witnessing an acceleration of digitalisation in the creative industry. Every idea is a digital idea now, even if it wasn’t intended to be. That’s where the eyes and interaction are. The real test will be what happens when we are through the pandemic. What new technologies, behaviours and ways of working that we’ve recently adopted will be carried forward and what will we drop?
Digital doesn’t equate to innovation. At Ultra we have a lot of experience with digital technologies, but the combination of tech with creative thinking is the secret sauce. This approach helps create entirely new brand experiences. The LED basketball courts we pioneered with Nike and Kobe Bryant is a great example here. Technology was not the idea, it was the fuel.
It’s helpful to consider technology as an enabler to innovative creative thinking, not the answer in its own right. As we showed with Maserati, you can build a great brand experience and story working entirely remotely when you think differently and combine disciplines.
How do you reinvent a brand’s story across multiple creative campaigns while remaining true to the brand’s values?
This is brand storytelling in 2020 and beyond. For decades great strategic thinking has led to great creative work. However, it has never been easy. The difference now is there are far more tools for insight, and the creative canvas is complex and less focused on singular moments. It’s broader, longer, connected, less expensive and more accountable. The crux of a brand isn’t fully shared in the product, a piece of film, an Instagram story, a ‘live’ moment, a consumer journey, a push notification or an interface. It’s the sum of more than a few parts, channels and certainly longer than a media buy.
Answers aren’t constrained to neat boxes, understood and distributed across the world in uniform sizes. These new dimensions and editorial storytelling style can be a constraint that unlocks or limits. But for creative minds, it’s an exciting opportunity.