Tim Brookes has been in the business for 25 years, creating outstanding campaigns for clients such as Land Rover, Virgin Atlantic, and Hamlet. (His latest campaign for Randolph Industry sunglasses is featured in this issue of the magazine.) Many of the ads Tim has been involved in are now considered classics. Michael Weinzettl chatted to the top creative about his long and successful career and his take on today’s ad scene.
Hi Tim, your work for Land Rover and, recently, for Camden Lock Books is among the most beautiful there has been over the past decade. Can you tell us a bit about how you started out in advertising, where you come from, and how you got into the industry in the first place?
I left school determined that I was going be a great artist. I was into painting, drawing, screen printing, and had this big dream of being like Warhol. The standard of art we’d gone through at school was pretty intensive. We were working late nights, coming to school early from holidays just to do art. So I’d practically done a foundation course before I’d even got to Chelsea Art School. I remember going to the interview there with this bulging portfolio of work and bags of sketchbooks, we’d done so much work. But during that foundation year I slowly fell in love with graphics and graphic design. We were studying Neville Brody and I found his work so inspiring. It was just so different to the art I was doing at the time. Maybe because it was so different was the reason I found it so inspiring. But it drew me in completely and I left Chelsea to go to the Graphics/Advertising course at Hounslow. And it was there that the idea of working in advertising really took off. I got together with a writer, we put our book together and, after what seemed like an eternity of placements, we landed our first job at Y&R in Mornington Crescent, in the same building I am in now.
Who are/were your heroes in advertising and graphic design when you were growing up?
When I started out, the work from Simons Palmer was phenomenal. The “Be more than just a number” campaign for Wrangler … Slumberdown, Luncheon Vouchers. There seemed to be this continual stream of great posters coming out of that place. And that’s before you even get on to the Nike posters. For me they were everything a poster should be – and everything that I wanted to do. Great lines. A strong, powerful look that was both different from ad to ad and yet consistent. Early on in our days at CDP, Ben and I were lucky enough to work with Chris and Mark in one of their first directing roles as Bert Sprote for McEwan’s lager. It turned out to be a fun series of commercials, including one where a team of high court judges took on a team of lollypop ladies in a football match. But working with the two of them on that project was a great experience and we learned a lot in the few short weeks of that production. Shortly after that, Tony and Guy came over from Simons Palmer to be creative directors at CDP and brought with them a great collaborative work ethic that really united the department. There was a department mentality then of working for each other but also up against each other at the same time. They were good times.
Who are the people you look up to now?
What’s happened at Grey over the last few years has been pretty unbelievable. Nils has done an amazing job of transforming that place into somewhere you’d really want to work. There seems to be an attitude that comes out of there that anything is possible. And that shows in the range of bloody great work they produce. It has a swagger and confidence to it and it works. My sister lives out in Portland. She isn’t connected to advertising at all. Yet the other week I get a message from her and she’s telling me I need to get some Life Paint for my bike, so the stuff they are doing really reaches out.
What ads from before your time in the industry do you remember?
Lipsmackinthirstquenchingacetastinmotivatingoodbuzzincooltalkinhighwalkinfastlivinevergincoolfizin … you know, that one. Me and my sister used to go head to head to see who could get it out quickest. I think she smashed me every time. As kids we were surrounded by commercials. Our house was on some location books so there were quite a few days we’d come back from school and have to climb over the lighting cables flowing in through the front door to get inside. It felt like an exciting world full of busy people, bright lights, and a street full of lorries and double-decker catering buses. Yeah, we used to like the catering bus. They were great as a kid. Years later, working at EuroRSCG, we were being briefed on Calgon that we were going through the historical reel and this one commercial popped up and I was, “Bloody hell, that’s our old kitchen!”
Was advertising a career choice you even contemplated at that time? What would have been alternatives?
Right up until I went to Hounslow I cannot remember a time when I was not planning to do anything but art or painting. To be honest, advertising didn’t really feature before that for me because I was so sure that painting was what I was going to do – and it was all that I wanted to do. So if graphics and advertising hadn’t so rudely barged into my plans, I’m sure that’s the direction I would have continued pushing.
Your first ad that we featured in Lürzer’s Archive was for the Land Rover Discovery from 2009, the polar explorer one shot by Andy Green. Was that your first work for them? What was it like to start working for this client? And how did the themes of the campaigns you created for them change over the course of the relationship?
Land Rover is one of those truly great brands to work on. There were so many great ads and strong posters that had been created before – like the Hippos and the Maasai for Freelander that Mike and Jerry had done – that there was a massive weight of expectation I put upon myself when we got briefed to do a winter poster. We were determined to make this every bit as good as what had gone before, if not better. It was such a great opportunity. We’d been on it a week or so and Mark wasn’t buying anything. But that just brought out a hunger to work longer, harder to find that gem. And then I remember scribbling down a guy in ski goggles on a marker pad and then drawing the car next to him. It was one of those moments when you think, “Hang on, that could be good.” In the end, it was a simple, striking poster and Andy did a great job bringing that sketch to life – despite what seemed like a near-death experience on the shoot when we had to jump from a helicopter onto a little mountain path halfway up the Stelvio Pass. That bit wasn’t so much fun.
But it was the start of a few amazing years working on Land Rover. The next poster we got out was the Passport Stamps for the Defender. Here again was another simple, classic poster. It was one of those ideas that you instinctively know will work as soon as you put it down on paper – and it was a pure joy to piece it all together, crafting the stamps to fit the shape of the Defender.
Up until this point most of the briefs were product-based – a poster for the Discovery, a print campaign for the Freelander. The next campaigns were much bigger platforms. They were more driven by producing online content and backstories. We worked on the launch of the Range Rover Sport where we had an American racing driver setting hill-climbing records flying up Pikes Peak in Colorado, before we drove the car off the other side of the mountain. And this really is a bloody high mountain, half as high as Everest. We lost the DOP and about 13 crew to altitude sickness by the end of the shoot.
By comparison to the global feel of the Sport work, the Hibernot campaign had a very British feel and tone of voice. This was not about selling cars directly but about selling an attitude and tapping into a mindset of people that wanted to get out there, whatever the winter weather. And it didn’t feature a car at all. One minute we’re driving them off cliffs, the next they’re not there at all. But it was a spirit that seemed to connect with people out there and the Hibernot campaign has now stretched over the last three winters.
The last campaign we worked on for Land Rover was Can & Will. This was built around short film documentaries, online talks, exhibitions. And it featured people who embody a spirit of determination, like Mike Goody, who lost a leg in Afghanistan but went on to win a host of Gold and Silver medals in the Invictus Games, or Gwyn Haslock, who is 68 but still surfs every day.
Working on Land Rover was an evolutionary process. Every brief pushed you in a different direction and demanded a different way of approaching it. But throughout, it was an amazing opportunity to do good, interesting work and it was a sad day when it came to an end.
How has the role of creative changed over the years you’ve been working in advertising? Do you have a wider palette to work from now that digital has become another tool at your disposal?
What you need is ideas that grab attention and inform or entertain. The approach shouldn’t be any different whether you’re producing something for online or for a poster site. If it doesn’t engage your audience or draw attention, then it isn’t working. Of course there are many more ways these days of getting those ideas out there and presenting them to people but at the center of it all has to be a strong idea that people can relate to.
Can you tell us a bit about your agency, RKCR/Y&R? In the Lürzer’s Archive Ranking of UK agencies of the past 5 years, the agency’s in 5th place. How are you positioning yourselves? How do you see its future?
It’s an interesting time at the agency right now. There’s been a fair amount of change over the last few years but there is still a desire to do good work and there is good work in the pipeline about to come out. We’ve got some good account wins under the belt already this year, like the Premier League, and there are others still to be announced. There’s a strong drive and determination to win more business. So, yes, it’s been a testing time but we’re starting the year with a lot of positivity about the future.
What, in your opinion, is the best advertising work around at the moment?
There’s been a lot of good stuff over the last year or so. The Honda Type R was fantastic. I really liked the campaign for Sport England, This Girl Can. “Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox” was a great line and was one that really stood out for me. It was witty, had bags of attitude and a really strong look across print and TV. Adam is a top photographer and the shots he took for the campaign are bloody powerful. Great typography too. Yeah, I liked that. The Film4 idents of last year were pretty special too, a really simple idea but executed so sublimely. They were beautiful.
What is your take on the state of print advertising today? Has it taken a backseat to digital?
It certainly needs to work harder to get attention. People are plugged in and choosing what they interact with much more these days. They’re not waiting for you to politely show your wares. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to be shouty. Just a bit clever about how you disrupt and get them to want to interact with you. But I like the way that technology is adding an extra dimension to traditional spaces like poster sites. When it’s done right, digital OOH works really well. The Looking For You campaign for Battersea Dogs & Cats Home by OgilvyOne was pretty clever stuff. Likewise the BA ad with the kid pointing at the planes that OgilvyOne also did. If it’s a great idea, and the technology is there to take it to another level, then that can only be a good thing.
How do you get inspiration for your work?
I cycle a lot. I find it’s one of the best places to really think about things. I’m in and out the office on the bike most days when I can. And I love it. There’s no better way to start a day. And at the end of the day it’s a massive destresser. There’s this amazing clarity of thought that washes over you when you’re on a bike. It’s almost trance-like, you know. You forget the world around you almost and your body goes into autopilot. This lets your mind wander all over the place. I think Albert Einstein once said: “I thought of that while riding my bike,” and he knew what he was talking about. It’s a great place to think. Not saying I’m an Einstein or anything, it’s just a place I go to think!
Would you agree that campaigns are more art direction-led nowadays than they used to be a couple of decades ago?
There are certainly less long copy ads around these days. I’ve always quite liked a long copy ad, I grew up on a diet of Timberland ads. They were bloody well written, as were the ads for Amnesty International that Indra used to write at CDP. You just don’t seem to get so many of them nowadays. Maybe the rise of online content as a way of sharing a story has taken over. It can certainly be an exciting way of engaging people. Also, as brands have become more global and the work becomes more global, then language barriers come into play a lot more. I guess this has led to the rise in words playing second fiddle to strong visual looks.
What do you think of the division of work between art director and copywriter? Is it even relevant anymore? Or how do you guys at RKCR/Y&R, London go about creating the ads?
I’m not sure it is that relevant. When it comes to really crafting a look, or a piece of copy, that’s when the dedicated art director or copywriter still shines. But advertising’s a much more collaborative process these days than just working as a team. “Teams” are no longer just a writer and art director. It’s about working with the right people for the job in hand. It brings a great dynamic and energy to get different people involved in the process – and involved from the off. And that’s a much more interesting way to be working. I work closely with our head of design, Lee, and I think it’s produced some pretty nice work that way; Land Rover, M&S, Camden Lock Books, Randolph, to name but a few.
What were some of the highlights of your work for Land Rover? What ads still stand out for you – perhaps because you are so proud of them, or perhaps because they proved to be especially difficult to make?
The Passport Stamps print ad was certainly a highlight. We had the luxury back then of being able to spend a fair amount of time putting it together and really crafting how it was pieced together. Time seems to be one of those things that are rarer than chicken’s teeth these days but, given time, everything gets better. After Stamps, we started putting together another print ad that would become a true labor of love. It was again for the Defender but, instead of the one iconic image of the vehicle, we built a world map out of what must have been well over 14,000 Defenders. Under the headline “70% of the world is covered by water. The rest is covered by Defender,” Lee and I spent hours and hours putting those cars in place. But it was all worth it in the end. It was another pretty nice ad and it also got printed up as a real map and sent out to dealers, journos, and prospective buyers. But yeah, a real labor of love, that one.
What is your take on awards? Are they important to you personally? Which of them are relevant to you at all? Is D&AD important to you? What about Cannes? What about a purely national award such as Creative Circle?
Awards are important, sure. But they’re not the be-all and end-all. First and foremost, I want to be satisfied inside myself that what I have done is the very best I can do. That’s what I strive for: to make work that will blow me away. To feel like I’ve pushed as hard as I can. I guess it all comes back to my years of painting. It’s that standing-back-from-the-easel moment when you look at what you’ve done and are chuffed with your work. That feeling. That’s what I strive for. And if awards follow because of that, then that’s great. But it’s not a starting point for me.
There are more and more awards out there but D&AD is still the one. Maybe it’s the way we were brought up through college, but it was always the one you wanted. But I do like Creative Circle. It has a unique feel to it and its own way of doing things, which I love. I did the Creative Circle role reversal course for a few years, which was a great way for clients to get a taste of life on the other side for a couple of days, so I’ve got a soft spot for them.
What do you think about the danger of creatives succumbing to the lure of creating work just for the award shows ?
Your starting point should never be, “We’ll do this or that because it’ll win an award here or there.” If you’re creating ads just to impress a jury, then chances are you’ll be talking to the wrong audience and it won’t work. It might look pretty and bag a few awards but if it doesn’t sell then it’s not a great ad. Getting a Gong for an ad that is still beautifully crafted yet has worked is the real winner. Scrabble & Bic biros. There can’t be that many boxes of Scrabble or biros in the world that warrant quite so many ad campaigns, surely?
What would your advice be to young creatives hoping to start out in advertising? Is advertising still a career path worth pursuing?
It has changed a lot since I first started out. And it’s changing more and more every day. But that’s what makes it such an exciting time to be doing it. There’s never been more opportunities to do such diverse and different work, creating advertising that doesn’t feel like advertising. And if you work hard and you’re lucky, you’ll get to make some great work that you’ll want to show your mum and say, “I did that.” I still do that and she still seems to be interested.