Dave Bedwood and Sam Ball
Put great effort into learning what doesn’t change.
According to their Facebook page, London-based Lean Mean Fighting Machine is “the best online advertising agency in the world set up by four of the most charismatic men you could ever wish to meet. Not forgetting their dynasty good looks.” Two of the quartet, Dave Bedwood and Sam Ball, were kind enough to provide us with this issue’s selection of outstanding digital work. Michael Weinzettl quizzed them afterwards.
L.A.: Hi Dave, Hi Sam, could you please introduce yourselves and tell us about Lean Mean Fighting Machine and the services it provides?
Dave Bedwood: Hello, we are the Creative Partners at Lean Mean Fighting Machine. We take whatever digital media
the client needs to use and shove a great idea right up its jacksy.
L.A.: You first became a creative team back in 1995, way before you started doing digital work. How did you guys meet?
Sam Ball: We were studying a creative advertising course at Bucks University. We bonded over booze, talking crap, and chasing women, which occupied most of our time; life was pretty good. We enjoyed coming up with ideas and we recognized each other had a talent for it. Looking back, many of our ideas were familiar or just plain crazy, but it’s important to get them out of your system. There are no shortcuts; you have to write thousands of ideas before you get really good at it.
Dave Bedwood: I first spoke to Sam in the toilets of the student union. It was moments after his brother had tried to smash his way into the bar. I knew from that moment I’d met someone worth sticking with.
L.A.: Can you tell us about the time when you still worked in traditional advertising? I read that you worked at agencies such as Partners BDDH, Y&R, and M&C Saatchi. What was that like? What were some of the accounts you worked on at the time?
Dave Bedwood: This was our schooling and the very early part of our career. In 1998, when we graduated from BUCKS, there was no “traditional” advertising; there was nothing to be “traditional” against. We were taught how to write press, posters and TV. We worked on BT, RAC, Emirates, but being a young team didn’t get much out. We learnt the trade, the craft. It was pretty grueling, but essential. I think it’s the craft of writing which is quite often missing in digital; most of the creatives were from a design or programming background, which are rich disciplines in their own right. But the skill to be able to communicate a message in the fewest elements possible isn’t something that you can just turn your ear to; it’s its own discipline. With the amount of devices, technologies and the resulting noise, today we need this skill more than ever. But, obviously, I would say that, and clearly I took far too many words to say it. Case blown.
L.A.: Who were the people you particularly admired in your early years in advertising? Did you have any role models?
Sam Ball: We wanted to work at the agencies that were breaking with convention, the ones that were making work that didn’t feel like advertising; places like Mother, HHCL, BBH. We were lucky as our college had great links with the industry, so we got to meet lots of the people we admired: John Hegarty, Trevor Beattie, Gary and Owen, Richard and Andy and many other industry people. They all kindly gave their time to teach us a few lessons. We owe them all a debt.
Dave Bedwood: Not forgetting Bill Bernbach. He’d turn in his grave if we didn’t mention him.
L.A.: What was your time in Germany at Springer & Jacoby like, an agency which used to be number one in Germany but had to close its doors last year?
Dave Ball: We really enjoyed it. Springer & Jacoby were great. The whole agency was spotless, very minimal. At the end of the day, the agency would be in exactly the same state, like a showroom. It’s what Corbusier’s shed must have looked like. We didn’t quite fit that mold: the first time the CD came into our room, it was like a dad looking at their teenage son’s filthy bedroom. His glasses steamed up. I think we made an impression. We like to think of those days as our Beatles Hamburg era. The Reeperbahn is very cultural.
Sam Ball: Bagsy John Lennon.
L.A.: At S&J, you were working on Mercedes. Can you tell us a bit about that too?
Sam Ball: Not a lot to say, really, as we were coming up with all these interesting ideas and all Mercedes were really after was a witty line and a pretty picture.
L.A.: How did your move into the digital arena come about? Your bio says that “you were one of the first traditional teams to get a job in digital advertising.”
Dave Bedwood: No one we knew of had actually come from a creative advertising background, and all of our peers were working as teams in big agencies. I wish we could put it down to some great foresight into the future of advertising, but it was more luck and timing. We’d met John Parker, then CD of HHCL. He liked our work, but not enough to offer us a job on the spot. He said to us (this is 1998): “Have a look at this internet thing. It’s going to be big.” He gave us a contact, David Bryant, at BMP interaction. We loved BMP and their work so we thought, well, they must be good. We decided to take a train to Sam’s cousin’s house – she had the internet – and take a look at it. It seemed alright. So we went to BMPi, and it just felt like the Wild West. BMPi didn’t really know what a creative team was, we didn’t know what you could, or couldn’t, do on the internet, and that joint ignorance meant we tried all sorts of things. It was great.
Sam Ball: We went from writing 1/4 page newspaper ads to controlling the entire digital creative output of brands. We were coming up with big ideas, filming all the content, taking photos, writing copy, leading the art direction. All this, and we were barely in our twenties. Creatively, it was the most liberating environment we could dream of.
L.A.: What was working in the digital field like then when compared to today?
Sam Ball: Ten years ago, people wanted to be successful, look their best, earn a decent wage, have good health, be no-ticed, get laid, etc. These basic human desires have remained the same; however, the nuances of the collective consciousness are constantly and subtly changing. It is extremely hard to gauge these subtle changes. Things like economy, politics, war, and even the weather, all affect it. Then there are events like 9/11 where things change instantly. If you’re not tuned in to how people are thinking, the rest is academic; creating an idea that taps into this is creativity at its purest.
Dave Bedwood: Today, there are even more creative opportunities. The amount of media means the canvas is huge. But, this also becomes the perfect breeding ground for bullshitters, buzzword merchants, and “gurus.”
L.A.: Please tell us about some of the work you’ve done over the years that you’re particularly proud of.
Dave Bedwood: The Photographic Adventures of Nick Turpin is one we’re proud of. Nick was a street photographer, he posted a picture on his site, the public could click on anything in the photo they liked. Whatever got the most clicks became the subject for his next photo, causing him to travel the world in 28 days. It was full of risk: no matter how good that day’s photo was, he had to get another one in 24 hrs. The ideas that are simple but could go completely wrong always crackle with creative energy. Hats off to the client – they let us get on and just do it.
L.A.: What are some of the changes in web-based communication we can expect next? Or have all the major changes arrived by now?
Sam Ball: Here is a tip that will save you thousands of pounds: If you’re going to a “Future of Advertising” conference, don’t. I have been to many. None of them predicted Facebook, Google, Twitter, the iPhone, or anything remotely useful. All you need to know about the future is this: new applications will come into the mar-ket that will create new connections and new opportunities to talk to people, and you will find it hard to keep up with them all. The internet will continue to evolve, just like any technologically driven invention has, sometimes drastically but most of the time barely noticeably, like when you see your child every day. So our best advice would be to put great effort into learning what doesn’t change.
Dave Bedwood: Other than playing ver-tical chess, like in Star Trek, men in the future will be playing games, watching films, taking the piss out of each other, bragging, masturbating, using whatever device is currently available.
L.A.: Can you tell us a bit about the pros and cons of using social media for advertising purposes? You were in the headlines last year for what the trade press called the “Dr Pepper Facebook fiasco.” What was that? How did that come about?
Dave Bedwood: It was a competition where you gave over your Facebook status to Dr Pepper for the chance to win £1,000. The more embarrassing the update, the more chance you had of winning. Alas, one of the pre-written updates referenced a hardcore porn video. The update found its way onto a young woman’s Facebook page. And that was the end of that campaign and that client. It was terrible, obviously, for the mother and daughter involved, for us, and for the idea. We probably ruined a fair few social media presentations for other agencies as well.
L.A.: What have you learned from it?
Dave Bedwood: We did learn a great deal from it. Without that, we’d be weaker as an agency, especially in terms of social media campaigns we do for our current clients. But we have no answer – it happened. When you try and push stuff, sometimes things get missed. The vetting process our side and Coke’s side was very thorough, so how that one slipped by I don’t know. There were 400 updates, maybe the amount just blurred our vision. Generally, the thing with social media – and I’m not advocating writing porn messages – is that clients want everything their own way. They want the public to talk about them but only on their terms, in language they approve of. Which is bonkers. If you want the power it can give, you have to live with the power it takes from you. Just manage it, respond to it, give away some control. Or just stay out of it.
Sam Ball: For a while, we were the dar-lings of Coke, The Status Update idea had increased Dr Pepper’s UK Facebook fans from 1,200 to 250,000 in nine weeks. It was a roaring success and everyone at Coke was hailing it as the best thing ever. We were in week nine of a ten-week campaign when the shit, quite literally, hit the fan.
L.A.: Do you think there is still a place for “traditional” ad media, particularly print advertising, or do you believe there is no future for it?
Sam Ball: We enjoy all forms of adver-tising. We choose to ply our trade specifically in digital because we love it the most, but that’s not to say we don’t enjoy and covet a great press ad. The industry loves pitting different disciplines against each other. We need to back each other up and big each other up. We’re all too cynical; this should be the most fun industry in the world to work in. If you aren’t proud to be working in this industry, and if you don’t pursue ideas with your heart, get the fuck out – we don’t need you and you won’t be missed. Same goes for any clients reading this. Imagine if everyone vowed to have fun, just for one year, that would be a real revolution.
Dave Bedwood: Sam says this to me every morning.
L.A.: I really loved your selection of digital work for this issue. I think I’ve already spent something like four hours on Limmy.com alone. What were some of the criteria you had for picking these 15 sites/apps?
Sam Ball: Firstly, we tried to think of things without looking through our bookmarks. Just like when you’re pitched lots of ideas – the ones you can recall later tend to be the best. We also got the office – full of people way more up to speed than us – to send us stuff. Limmy is an old favorite, someone doing stuff for his own amusement. It’s this stuff that is our real competition for people’s time, not other ads or a brand’s Facebook page. It can be quite hard to match someone like Limmy when you’re pushing a product. But that’s our job.
L.A.: You’ve judged digital advertising at the D&AD and at Cannes. What is your attitude towards awards in general? And isn’t it problematic to judge digital entries the way they are frequently judged now, i.e. by putting everything onto a two-minute film that is shown to the jurors?
Sam Ball: I love the work you get to see, I love the places they take you but, most of all, I love the people you meet. Most creative directors I know are curious, interesting, funny people, and I enjoy hanging out with them. Contrary to popular belief, awards are not fixed. The judges don’t collude or conspire – they want the best work to win, and it usually does. If you come away empty-handed, make sure next year you get your best work made. Judging the winners by the awards film is tantamount to deciding the Oscars by watching the movie trailers. Rest assured, though: judges are no longer seduced by them, and the big prizes are rarely handed out without further investigation. Actually an overelaborate awards video can act against you. After watching, you just think: “Fuck off!”
Dave Bedwood: I love the videos. They are becoming a whole category in themselves. For an industry that is supposed to be skilled in creating ideas and talking to different people, they somehow completely fail at all of that. Pink Ponies was great in how it sent up this odd phenomenon. But even that can’t compete with the reality. One video I saw this year ended with a James Earl Jones-esque voiceover: “The results were so great ... they went beyond measurement.”
L.A.: Where do you get your inspiration from?
Sam Ball: My inspirations change constantly, depending on what I happen to be reading or watching. Last night, I watched a documentary about the comedian Bill Hicks; today, I have been listening to interviews with John Lennon. Sometimes, it comes from the most unexpected of places. Recently, I have been reading about modernism. They had a vociferous rejection of history and tradition, they imagined a utopian desire to create a better world, to reinvent the world from scratch. They had a belief in the power and potential of the machine and industrial technology. Back in the 1920s, their movement created the advertising industry as we know it – but that’s a whole other story.
Dave Bedwood: I’d echo all of what Sam has said, but add: Laurel and Hardy. HBO. The New Yorker. Edward de Bono. A full iPad.