Graduating from the prestigious Watford creatives course, Anna Carpen landed on her feet at fledgling independent 18 Feet & Rising. After some nifty footwork creating out-of-the-box campaigns for the likes of Nationwide and House of Fraser, she was rewarded with the title of ECD after just six years at the agency, making her the youngest in London. She tells David Knight the last 18 months have been hell, but now she’s coming out fighting.

Anna Carpen is in a good place right now – not something she could have always said over the past year or so. Sitting in a London coffee shop, the executive creative director of 18 Feet & Rising is celebrating a new account win – a highly significant one. The agency have just announced its appointment as main agency for Popchips, combining the Californian snack brand’s US and UK strategy and creative for the first time. It is a big moment for an agency that’s yet to open an office in the States. “It’s really exciting,” Carpen confirms. “We’re not in the US yet – but we will be!” 

“It’s been pretty much a year and a half of hell.”

There is yet another reason to be excited. In a few days’ time Carpen will be shooting the new Christmas ad for House of Fraser, two years after making Your Christmas, Your Rules [below], the spot credited with reviving the fortunes of the struggling British high street institution. It will be Carpen returning to the scene of her biggest success so far. 

Above: House of Fraser's Your Christmas, Your Rules, from 2015.


So, it feels like a good moment to look back over the 18 months since Carpen became, aged just 30, the youngest ECD in London’s adland. She was promoted to the role in early 2016 by 18 Feet CEO Jonathan Trimble just six years after joining the then start-up as a junior creative. Even though it was at a relatively small independent shop, Carpen’s appointment inevitably raised eyebrows in an industry where the top creative role has been the preserve of white males with decades of experience.

Carpen – young, female and mixed race – is typically forthright about what has happened since she took the position. “It’s been pretty much a year and a half of hell,” she declares. “It’s just been awful – but also brilliant. It’s either been amazing highs or amazing lows, and nothing in-between. And basically I had no choice.”

Before succeeding Matt Keon, one of 18 Feet’s three co-founders, Carpen had been a creative director for a couple of years, running accounts like House of Fraser, as well as running pitches and hosting events. “I thought I had leadership skills, [but] I didn’t really have management skills,” she admits. Her appointment upset some within the agency, and there were departures. (“I had to fire a couple of people. It was quite difficult,” she says.) A couple of accounts – Nando’s and National Trust – have also departed.


Anna Carpen is inspired by…

What’s your favourite ad ever?

I recently rediscovered Levi’s Creek.

What product could you not live without?

Biodegradable doggy poo bags – I genuinely worry more about that than when I run out of loo roll. 

What are your thoughts on social media?

Black Mirror sums up my thoughts on social media perfectly. (P.S. follow me on Insta @agame #followback #followforfollow #likeforlike #shoutout #hashtag #yolo.)

How do you relieve stress during a shoot?

I love stress during a shoot. If you’re not stressed you’re nowhere. 

What’s the last film you watched and was it any good?

Badlands. Yes. 

What’s your favourite piece of tech?

Voice messages. So much quicker than text, and funnier. 

What film do you think everyone should have seen?

Stand by Me

What fictitious character do you most relate to?

Woody from Toy Story. He’s always bouncing around trying to organise the toys and get shit done. He’s very emotional and very loyal. And trouble always finds him.  

If you weren’t doing the job you do now, what would you like to be?

A dog. 

Tell us one thing about yourself that most people won’t know…

If I told you I’d have to kill you.   


The importance of a good creative credit score

Since then, new creatives have joined, including Will Thacker as senior creative director. And new accounts have arrived. This year the agency has done notable work for, among others, credit-check website Clearscore, Kopparberg, Dogs Trust and an award-winning campaign for the GambleAware charity, Voices, created by Thacker and agency creative Louis Joplin, and directed by Tom Tagholm. 

After the initial turmoil, it seems Carpen is bedding down well into her role. “When I first started [as ECD] it was a case of: ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ But you work it out. I hired Will, a really good creative director who had a bit more experience than me. I’ve had so much support from the industry, Jonathan, and a lot of people in the agency have been fantastic.” 

She prizes honesty, and not bamboozling clients with smoke and mirrors. “To be upfront and not sugarcoating anything, that’s really important,” she says. “And I think clients really appreciate it.”

She admits to being surprised by the supportive messages she received from strangers in the industry, particularly women, on her appointment, concluding that living in “this bubble called 18 Feet & Rising, which is really liberal and welcoming of everyone” meant she had not appreciated the problems other women have faced breaking through the glass ceiling at other agencies. Now she gets it.

Her promotion from within also ensured continuity in the way 18 Feet organises its creative department. The agency favours employing single creatives rather than teams, getting them to link up for specific projects according to their talents – “prototyping” as the agency calls it. This structure is designed to avoid teams competing with each other on pitches; instead it allows them to work together to arrive at the best solutions.

Carpen continues to work as a creative herself. “I never want to stop writing and creating,” she declares. “That’s what I love about this industry.” In the past year she has worked on ads for Clearscore, directed by TV comedy veteran Steve Bendelack, featuring an ordinary couple doing believable things, with their extraordinary talking dog called Moose. Not so coincidentally, Carpen also happens to be the owner of a dog called Moose. 

“All of the scripts are based on my life with Moose,” she laughs, before explaining why the combination of realism and comic surrealism works when introducing a UK audience to Clearscore’s services. “I think America is five or ten years ahead of the UK when it comes to credit checks,” she says. “A lot of Brits don’t know what a credit score is. So we’re getting a basic message across: ‘Guys, you all have a credit score. If you ever want to buy a house or anything like that, you need to have a good one.’” 

"I’ve been constantly making stuff – and making mistakes.”

Carpen has an English mother and a father from Mauritius, who met at nursing school. She always felt equally at home on her maternal grandparents’ farm in the English countryside and on her father’s home island in the Indian Ocean. Growing up in the late 1980s and 1990s, she caught the last era of pre-internet advertising, “when ads were really good”. 

As a teenager, she wanted to be an actor. When that plan stalled she studied psychology and art at university. She came out determined to work in advertising. It took a visit to the careers advisory service at Cambridge University to find out about the famous Watford course for aspiring ad creatives. She applied and, even though she marked zero in a questionnaire testing her knowledge of the ad industry, she got in. While doing the rounds of post-Watford placements, which included time at M&C Saatchi, she landed at 18 Feet, then in its formative stage. She was invited to join the staff and has “never looked back,” she says. “It’s always been my home, and all the time I’ve been there, no two years have been the same.”


Above: Anna Carpen, photographed by Nick Clark


The story of the prince and the bucking cetacean

Carpen’s first success demonstrated her ability to think outside the box. When the agency won the Selfridges business, she proposed a bold idea for Project Ocean, an environmental cause championed by the store: a bucking bronco ride, but with a whale instead of the usual steed. It was a huge success with shoppers, attracting celebrities galore – and a famous photo of Prince Charles looking agog at the bucking whale. 

Inventive campaigns for good causes have been a feature of Carpen’s work ever since. In the past year, outdoor digital campaign March for Giants saw virtual elephants marching across huge outdoor screens in New York, Hong Kong, and across England, bringing attention to the plight of the endangered African elephant.  

Her first TV ad was for LoveFilm, featuring a school choir singing famous lines from movies such as Pulp Fiction. This was followed by several more LoveFilm ads directed by Steve Bendelack. She says her favourite spot from her early work was the Freeview TV ad Corgi, directed by Daniel Wolfe in 2011, following three corgis on their journey from the Kent coast to London [below]. “You think they’re going to the actual royal wedding, but instead they’re just going to watch it on a Freeview TV.” 

Above: Freeview Corgi


Carpen’s early work also included the excellent Nationwide ad, Carousel, a combination of live-action and stop-frame animation, directed by Eric Lynne. Later, for Nando’s, she created the Wing Roulette campaign, which began as an in-restaurant promotion on napkins and ended with a charming cinema ad, featuring diners and their finger puppet alter egos. Carpen estimates that, remarkably, she has been involved in making nearly 100 ads in just eight years. “That’s what has helped me get where I am, I think. I’ve been constantly making stuff – and making mistakes.”

"As for the picture-perfect John Lewis-y Christmas with perfect kids… piss off! Sometimes I cry on Christmas Day!”


It’s my Christmas party and I’ll cry if I want to

House of Fraser, which was regarded as a high-end option on Britain’s provincial high streets, but with an ageing customer base, came into her life in 2014. Carpen’s brief was to change the general perception of the store and reach a younger audience. “I just started writing a load of ‘tone of voice’ for them, pulling more fashion photography,” she recalls. “That’s how we won the pitch: in-store mock-ups showing signs that said: ‘Welcome to the biggest walk-in wardrobe you’ve ever had’, rather than the more prosaic ‘Welcome to House of Fraser’.”

The first Christmas campaign was “more fashiony”, reflecting the fact that the company was employing new buyers and getting better products in store. But the following year Carpen effectively broke the rules of Christmas store advertising with Your Rules

“My favourite conversation to have with people is ‘What’s your Christmas Day like?’” Carpen says. “Everyone has their own Christmas Day routine and tradition. There will be similarities, but no one has the same rules. And as for the picture-perfect John Lewis-y Christmas with perfect kids… piss off! Sometimes I cry on Christmas Day!”

“Young talent needs mentoring, but they also need to be running stuff themselves."

Carpen found the track, Grace’s You Don’t Own Me ft G-Eazy, and made it the heart of her ballsy music video-style antidote to the usual heartstring-tugging Yuletide spots. Directed by Ace Norton, and choreographed by Parris Goebel, the project felt special right away, according to Carpen. “It was electric on the shoot. Everyone was having an amazing time and I think that shows when you watch it.”

In fact, the ad went properly viral and the song went to number one in the iTunes and Spotify charts, and was performed on The X Factor. “It’s funny when people watch Christmas ads they usually don’t take away the message. But with this, people were really like: ‘Yeah! My Christmas, my rules!’”

This year there’s a more nostalgic flavour to the House of Fraser spot. Bring Merry Back focuses on two sisters celebrating Christmas together as kids in the 1980s and in the present day, reflecting how their traditions have evolved – or not – over the years. In something of a creative coup, the ad is directed by Vaughan Arnell and Anthea Benton, the directing duo famous for music promos and spots in the 1980s and early 90s. It’s the first ad they’ve helmed since reforming their partnership earlier this year. 

Above: House of Fraser's 2017 Christmas ad, Bring Merry Back.


The likely success of Bring Merry Back, together with that of Dogs Trust’s heartwarming Little Balloon Doggy, directed by Steve Reeves, and the genuinely gripping Voices for GambleAware, mean that Carpen can regard 2017 as a truly successful first full year in the job. 

So, what does she now think it takes to be a good executive creative director? She sees her primary role as “putting good energy” out to her team. “Young talent needs mentoring, but they also need to be running stuff themselves. Ultimately that’s how I learned and got to be a creative director and ECD really quickly.” 


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