From gorillas to BBC bears, Fallon has a reputation for pushing the limits. Richard Wentk finds out more about head of art Mark Elwood.
Lovely ads, for lovely cars - you won't find Fallon's giant Skoda-shaped cake in your local showroom waiting for a test drive, but the TV ad hit the industry's sweet spot and drove away with an impressive collection of awards, including Commercial of the Year. The success isn't a one off. Fallon has also been the driving force behind Cadbury's infamous gorilla and Sony's brightly coloured Bravia campaign.
Mark Elwood is head of art at Fallon, and he's very clear about what makes the agency unique. "The great thing about Fallon is 360-degree design. I think that's what makes us stand out - the sheer variety of what we do. It's not a traditional ad agency or studio - we've built it slightly differently so we can service our clients at different points in their business without having to leave the strategy that Fallon has set out for them. I don't think you need a strict discipline system like other studios have; we all tend to cross-pollinate and help each other, and I expect designers to be able to do a piece of packaging or a 48-sheet poster. They could be doing a web project one day and an identity naming the next."
Elwood's versatility had an unusual start in the industry, via a very untraditional route that has shaped his unique approach. "There was a guy on my estate who owned a Porsche, and I was twisting his arm off for a ride in it. It turned out he owned House of Naylor, who did the design work for all of the big agencies of the day. He offered me a ride into town one day, and as he was pointing out all these great poster sites I thought this was a great idea. So I took a four-year apprenticeship with him at 16, learning from the craft side. I've never trained as a pure designer and it's been brilliant to get this far. You don't need a degree and I don't look for one here - the door is open to anyone who's got an eye for talent and good ideas."
So what draws clients to Fallon? "Clients come to Fallon because of our brilliant TV reel. Our reel is stunning - the Skoda cake, Cadbury gorilla and Sony ads are what bring clients in. But then they realise we've got a bit more to offer in different areas and that always surprises them. We've just done the brand identity for Millets - how they look in-store, the point-of-sale area, shop faÃ§ade, how they talk in print. We've done the full sweep: everything from the tone of voice, which needed to be changed, to an icon system that works inside the store. There are some TV ads due later in the year. We've tended to work more on brand identity recently. As well as Millets, there's Budweiser, and a lot of work for BBC Radio 1, doing everything from tiny web icons to banners for them."
Another example was the remaking of Pudsey Bear for Children in Need, which was a very different project from the others on the reel. "Pudsey is so well-known it was a bit like redesigning the Queen. I came in one day and said there might be a bit of an opportunity to get rid of Pudsey and everyone went 'What?! You can't do that!' But we really wanted to take him and change him - move him on. We started the redesign before we got the full brief, then about six months later Emma Bradley from Children in Need - who's a fantastic client - came in. She said it was all about keeping Pudsey's heritage. You can't throw away the brand recognition by remaking him as a pink cat, because there's such huge value in that heritage. He's got something ridiculous like 99 per cent recognition throughout Britain, while Scooby Doo only has about 60 per cent.
"So it became about updating him for the digital age and taking him into a bigger world," continues Elwood. "We wanted to think of him more as an animated character than a logo, and to make him someone who came alive during Children in Need - to dress up, and have friends. He looked a little bit sad, a little bit too sorry for himself, so we've made him more robust but kept his character. We invented a couple of friends for him: a girlfriend called Blush, and a friend, Mudsey, who was always getting him into trouble."
The redesign was mostly successful, but not without its risks. "What Pudsey did was show the breadth of Fallon's design skill, because having an animated character was a very different project to work on. But I got my first piece of hate mail from that!" admits Elwood. "It was an email cc'd to Emma Bradley saying how dare I have the temerity. Which was a brilliant experience. It even came with some design suggestions, which was just genius."
Making things move - not just literally, but creatively - seems to be a common Fallon theme. And Elwood's vision for the future includes views on how design is changing: "Online design is just a great space for creativity. It's a fantastic medium - you can make things move - how great is that? But I don't think static print stuff will ever fade out. What's happening now is more that budgets are changing. People are putting more of their budgets into digital and taking them out of traditional media. For us, digital is moving higher up the pitch list. We're asking how does it look digitally, how does it work web-wise, rather than what's the big TV ad, or poster, or great piece of packaging?"
And Elwood has firm plans for his own future: "Ten years from now I'd still like to be here at Fallon and I'd like us to be taken even more seriously in the world of design, because I think we can compete in that area too. For us it's all about blurring the lines between advertising, design and communication. It's all about communication, not pigeon holes."