By Simon Wakelin on 7th October 2014
Stephen Butler, CCO TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles, is painfully honest about the importance of not bullshitting anyone
He’s no shrinking violet when it comes to uncomfortable truths. Stephen Butler, freshly appointed as CCO at TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles sits down to discuss the importance of trust in advertising, the significance of forthright advice and why the rise of social media is in correlation to the decline in the belief of a singular god. Simon Wakelin hears truth from power…
Stephen Butler took the reins as CCO at TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles earlier this year alongside ECDs Fabio Costa and Brent Anderson. His arrival brings positive mojo to the West Coast office, his work on a horde of iconic ads over the years being familiar to us all.
Early work at BBH London saw Butler shape Twist and Odyssey for Levi’s, spots that earned multiple D&ADs and Cannes Lions. He then joined Mother, where his D&AD-awarded work for IKEA followed his success with Coca-Cola’s Move To The Beat campaign for the London 2012 Olympics, which helped the brand collect a Cannes Lion for Creative Marketer of the Year 2013. Butler also founded Mother’s Experience Design unit, gathering a team of designers, creative technologists and strategists to work on projects for Unilever, Gucci, the UK government and more.
Discussing his body of work at Mother, Butler references the agency’s bold approach to uncovering truth as a key factor to its success, growing from a small London shop with 80 people to an international agency employing over 200, with offices in New York and Buenos Aires. “Truth is implicit in the creative process,” he explains. “We’d always find out if clients were lying to us, and immediately end relationships with dishonest people. We also started business propositions with verbal contracts so as not to be tied up with clients due to paperwork.”
Let’s just be honest
Forthright advice was also central to Mother’s success, most notably on its Pot Noodle account after the brand approached Butler with the idea of branding themselves as a healthy offering for mothers and children alike.
“Everyone knows Pot Noodle is shit food that’s only acceptable as a late night binge when people are drunk,” he quips. “That’s the only time something so nutritionally useless will ever fly as food. We broke this down to the client saying, ‘Hey, let’s just be honest about it all and maybe you’ll have a chance in hell of making an impression.’ They listened, and as a result we created an incredible campaign that placed Pot Noodle at the top of their market segment.”
Butler believes truth is implicit in successful branding. “People do business with brands they trust,” he says. “Brands that respect their audience enjoy success because powerful impressions are made. Today we have consumers who are smart enough to know when brands have a soul, when brands have a truth to why they exist.”
Butler sees the same commitment to truth in his current employer. He’s a long-time admirer of TBWA, and joined the agency in July 2013 as executive creative director before taking on the agency’s CCO position earlier this year.
“This agency became the best at what it does by constantly locating the truth,” he says. “We have to be committed to some sort of truth and honesty in the way we conduct ourselves and with every client that walks through our doors. This agency became successful because it was honest on all fronts. Lee Clow never bullshitted anyone.”
Creative innovation and the determination to cater to each brand’s audience are also foremost in Butler’s mind. This is no better exemplified than by the agency’s adidas account. Its All In Or Nothing World Cup campaign rolled out this summer, the biggest in the company’s history, featuring the entertaining The Dream spot starring Lionel Messi and presenting new music from Kanye West.
There is no denying that an authentic vein runs through adidas’ football brand, with its deep history. The story of how Adi Dassler came up with the idea of using screw-in studs in football boots back in the 1954 World Cup exemplifies its unique place in the sport. As an athlete himself, Dassler never neglected the performance of his products, always seeking novel ways to improve athletic standards through the use of his equipment. Indeed, West Germany went on to win the 1954 World Cup using his newly designed boots, and adidas continues to keep its history alive through its Sports Heritage division.
“There is a truth and insightfulness to adidas,” says Butler. “It’s a brand that celebrates what it loves, and fans of the game that watch the latest campaign genuinely feel it. Nike also advertises the sport of football – but it just feels like a late play, similar to their move into surfing. People believe in adidas because adidas is football. The brand always feels authentic and so becomes the perfect ambassador for the sport.”
Nurturing and supporting brands such as adidas has been given a new marketing dimension in our technological age. Social media alone has led to a new audience investing themselves in what Butler sees as religious channels of self-expression – ecosystems feeding a devout subculture of rulers and followers.
“The rise of social media is in direct correlation to the decline in the belief of any singular god,” Butler offers. “Take Facebook. It’s a new religion. You post, you exist, you are here – and you have followers. Historically, the idea of being followed had a bad aura to it because maybe it meant you were actually being stalked by some crazy motherfucker. But today ‘followers’ are seen as good people, something you want.
“The fragmentation of media means there is no epicenter of truth anymore. When I grew up there was the nightly news… the distilled, singular vision of the truth. We never questioned it. We all nodded and moved on. Now truth can never be found – or perhaps we find a distortion of it. Somewhere in there truth is lost or resides, so truth becomes an infinite concept which will happily keep this business going on for infinity.”
Two sides to every truth
From infinite truth to TBWA accounts – Gatorade enters the conversation. It’s a brand that has maintained a commanding market share despite the best efforts of its competitors. It remains first in its category, building its identity as a ‘fuel for athletes’, and creating a powerful franchise in the consumers’ minds. Gatorade’s latest Sweat it. Get it. spot continues that trend.
“Brands that operate the best are those conveying universal truths,” says ECD Brent Anderson, commenting on truth and the Gatorade account. “Look at Apple and their creative tools for creative minds, it’s an idea that transcends geography. Gatorade want to play as a sports performance brand so we put a stake in the ground expressing how athletic performance is driven from the inside. There’s a lot of discussion as to whether this is true, but it’s also a point of view. Truth is strongest to us all when it’s debatable, when there are two sides to it.”
“More and more brands need to mimic the way people exist to succeed,” adds Butler on future branding. “We as humans are complex beings. If a brand acts too simplistically it becomes uninteresting to us no matter how clear the core truth is. It’s the complexity around that truth that makes a product appealing. I feel that advertising is still as impactful as it ever was, but it needs to go out unhinged into the world – otherwise we just waste time creating a moment, not an experience. Anyone can create attention but very few can develop an audience.”
The continued success of established brands such as the aforementioned Gatorade and adidas hinges on many different factors, including the need for both simplicity and complexity. Butler explains that this applies to both new and old brands seeking recognition and fame.
“When we take on a new client we need to immediately locate the simplicity of a brand – that is to say, why it exists and why it matters – and then create a complex series of interactions around that truth,” he explains. “You create personality and behaviour because brands work in the same way that we all do. We are continuously seeking complexity and intrigue in our lives. It’s how we behave as human beings.”
The conversation shifts to Butler’s arrival in America, a far cry from London, a city where he has been established for quite some time. “America is the most foreign country I’ve ever been to,” he admits. “It’s probably the trickiest country to uncover truth because it’s an image-driven culture. It doesn’t trust anything until you see the big picture. America is so good at projecting an image and does it better than anyone else in the world. It also has the corporate thing and the premise of freedom of speech – but it’s incredibly regulated.”
The simple things
As we discuss truth, the importance of trust becomes apparent. We all agree that it’s a wonderful word – right up there with ‘love’ and ‘hope’ and ‘happiness’, but trust is a rarer commodity than most people appreciate. The most successful brands inspire trust, and trust is a very rational emotion – if a company lets you down, you no longer trust them.
I add how TBWA is itself an established, trusted brand and ask what needs to be done to keep the agency’s creative DNA alive. How do you evolve when Lee Clow was such a brilliant leader, a man whose presence made everyone improve?
“I think that TBWA had such a golden era in advertising and that sometimes it’s a very difficult thing to consider what comes next,” answers Butler. “Lee Clow excites and challenges the way people feel about the world, and we aspire to carrying on that tradition. Regardless of how this company develops, as long as that licence is there, then any generation of creative entering the agency will unlock its potential. We go back to the basics of leveraging this engine, which is Lee’s warmth, how approachable and how honest he is, so the focus is on simple yet important things such as being more transparent with people, being more involved with more conversation and sharing.”
Butler also believes that an insatiable appetite for truthful storytelling has the potential to transform any brand’s identity on the ad road ahead. “Look at the airline industry,” he suggests. “If you get down to the truth of it there are so many myths playing in its advertising when all you want from an airline is very basic stuff. If you can remind people of basic things it suddenly makes them reappraise their relationships with that brand.”
As for any secrets behind creating long-lasting messaging that can withstand the perils of change, Butler answers quickly: “Advertising and how we do it may change its shape over time, but at the end of the day we’re all searching for the truth,” he offers. “I also think it’s not so much about telling the truth as it is being perceived as searching for it. But no brand can be all things to all people. If you try to be all things to all people, you’ll end up being nothing to anybody.”