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Since joining adam&eveDDB in 2013 Rick Brim has been a part of an agency which has taken home seven Cannes Lion Grands Prix, among them work for John Lewis and Harvey Nichols.

Brim discusses his working life, from his Manchester beginnings to his role as Film president at this year's Cannes Lions. He also examines the role of Cannes itself, the key to successful creativity and where the advertising industry is heading, post-pandemic.

Tell us about your background, where you were brought up, and what your entry into the advertising world was

I grew up in Manchester and as a kid I was restless and naughty but likeable, so I got away with stuff, and I was always quite creative but I didn’t know how to funnel it, I just knew I felt comfortable in the creative realm. I didn’t know what the options were beyond being an artist, an architect, designing cars, or fashion, until I saw a documentary about the heady days of the Saatchi brothers. I kind of wish I hadn’t seen it, because it meant I was really focused on advertising during my art foundation in Manchester, and then at St Martin’s. I wish I’d experimented more, which was what most of my contemporaries – like Kim Gehrig, who did filmmaking and graphic design – were doing.

I didn’t know what the options were beyond being an artist, an architect, designing cars, or fashion, until I saw a documentary about the heady days of the Saatchi brothers.

What were the big breaks that helped you on your way to joining adam&eveDDB and going on to become a CCO there?

At CHI we [Brim and his creative partner, Daniel Fisher, now Global ECD on Unilever at Ogilvy and WPP] started to develop a name for ourselves. We did Shelter House of Cards, which was a big 360 piece of work, and won a Gold at Cannes. And then a Sunday Times Rich List campaign which won a few more. I’d always known [adam&eve Co-Founder] Ben Priest and when he asked us to join after the DDB merger, it felt like the right thing to do. 

We really wanted to get our teeth stuck in to Harvey Nichols and John Lewis. Sorry I Spent it on Myself and Monty the Penguin both won a Grand Prix, and we continued to be creative directors on Skittles. Then when my partner and I went our separate ways, Ben offered me the creative directorship here. It was a no-brainer.

Shelter – Shelter: House of Cards

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Above: Brim's early work included this award-winning campaign for Shelter.

What’s key to successful creativity – observation, insight, recognition?

I don’t think there’s a bullseye for what makes good advertising or communications. It can be an incredible insight – I hold planning very dear to the process – and sometimes you just need to decorate a great insight. But not everything can be insightful, sometimes you just look at behaviour around the brand, like we do with Marmite: ‘Don’t Spread the Hate’ is so true. 

I don’t think there’s a bullseye for what makes good advertising or communications.

There’s nothing worse than opening the butter dish and seeing someone else’s breakfast in there. A butter dish sums up family life. With John Lewis, it’s more about the cultural tension of heralding Christmas. That’s the only insight, that people are more thoughtful, so there’s no great strategy beyond telling the best stories. 

What are your routes into an idea or a brief, the tells, the insights and observations you look for and follow? 

Some of the best ideas are easy to justify in hindsight, but what makes good ideas isn’t necessarily intentional. Harvey Nichols' s Sorry I Spent it on Myself is good because it’s about selfishness at Christmas, but that’s not where we were going with it at all. We went for the brand DNA, and Harvey Nichols is about bagging that Balenciaga dress before anybody else, or getting the best sale bargains. It’s a bit ruthless, which can be bitchy and snarky, so we were thinking about how we could be bitchy and snarky and more pokey at Christmas.

Harvey Nichols – Harvey Nichols: Sorry, I Spent it on Myself

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Above: Harvey Nichols' 2013 campaign embraced the bitchy.

Guide us through the strategies and creativity that fuels the iconic John Lewis Christmas ad universe

It’s flipping terrifying. People are tweeting in August about it. The night before it launches, me and the team are WhatsApping all night. The campaign comes from the simple truth that people are more thoughtful at Christmas, and that’s an endless tale to tell. We want to tell wonderfully warm, rich, Christmas stories, and you need to reflect what’s happened that year. 

Each year [the John Lewis Christmas campaign] is different. We don’t want to go back to where we were, we want to think about how to move forward without losing what makes it great.

We know the responsibility we have, and last year was really tough. It felt wrong to go in with 'we’re all back, nothing to see here'. Certain brands did a John Lewis but we tried to be more about reading the room, to make it more about kindness, so we moved away from a single narrative and, instead of one specific story, we told stories about how the whole world needs to look after each other. 

Each year is different. We don’t want to go back to where we were, we want to think about how to move forward without losing what makes it great. When only get it wrong if we try to replicate a formula too literally or lose our bottle a bit. A lot more people are operating in our territory now, which almost makes it more fun to work on, because we have to stay a step ahead and never let it feel formulaic.

John Lewis & Partners and Waitrose & Partners – Give A Little Love

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Above: adam&eveDDB's 2020 Christmas campaign for John Lewis.

It’s been a tough time; as the Film president, what allowances will you give the jury over the fact that film has had many restrictions due to lockdown?

There are a lot of pandemic-related films, and a lot of great pieces of work out there, some of which couldn’t have happened without last year. Covid and Black Lives Matter created a tension to play against, and that is often a way to get great work. I think creativity has blossomed this year, like it does in any other year. Yes, people found it harder, there may be a little less great stuff, but the great stuff is still excellent. Actually, I think it’s better than 2019. 

With no physical Cannes gathering for two years, and no awards last year, do you think Cannes is, or will be, adapting in terms of its role within the creative industries?

The creative industries should always continue to adapt and change, and any creative industry body should change in line with the industry. I had the absolute privilege of talking at Cannes a couple of years ago, and I love the fact that people really care, they are really excited to hear people talk about creativity. Yes, there’s all that ‘la-di-da’ on boats, but that happens at any industry get together. There’s always the nonsense around the edges, but if you spend lots of time around the Palais, you see people who are going to everything, you see the place packed out with people celebrating what we do; it’s the fuel of the industry. 

There’s always the nonsense around the edges, but if you spend lots of time around the Palais, you see people celebrating what we do; it’s the fuel of the industry. 

Yes, there’s some navel gazing, and yes, at times it got a big obscene and grubby and maybe that will go away, but I hope the core doesn’t change. Cannes’ role is to question, challenge, and push the industry forward, and to celebrate creativity. I’m most sad that I won’t get to see people face-to-face, especially as jury president, which is such an honour. I’ve met so many interesting people at Cannes, people who have formed my career. And yes, I’ve been to ridiculous lunches and parties on beaches but it’s not really about that. At its purest, it’s about the industry getting together to celebrate itself and to grow stronger in the process.

Above: The famous steps to the Palais in Cannes, where the celebrations are infectious and can't be replicated online.

What impact will Cannes being virtual rather than a big physical, social gathering have on the awards? Is the big virtual hang the way ahead?

I hope not. We are an incredibly huggy and personal industry and I love sitting in the Palais watching people run up on stage with their country flag, getting everybody up there and going crazy. The celebrations of the Brazilians and Spanish on stage is infectious and I love it, and however slick the digital version, you just won’t get that. 

The celebrations of the Brazilians and Spanish on stage is infectious and I love it, and however slick the digital version, you just won’t get that.

That feeling you get when you walk out the Palais having won stays with you forever. It's not about being an awards slave – I disagree with that – it’s the feeling of togetherness. It’s when the industry is at its most robust. Then we scatter back into our own echo chambers and it’s too easy to forget that there are all those people out there doing wonderful things. London is such a noisy market, with its own agency culture, that we need that annual reminder that there is incredible work in Thailand.

Above: The coveted Cannes Lion trophy.

What impact did a no-awards year have on the creative teams, and the industry ecology?

I’d be a liar if I said that the last year hasn’t changed my opinion of what’s important, both personally and professionally. Awards can seem indulgent and frivolous, but if you strip away the awards you are left with a celebration of what we do, a celebration of creativity, and every industry needs that chance to come together, to realise that it’s not that bad, and to look at all the amazing stuff that’s happening. I always come back from Cannes buoyed up – and from D&AD – I find it so inspiring. You see that, among your peers, you are doing alright and you have a role. 

Creatives are better when they feel part of something and have fun around the work, which is my only regret about Cannes not happening last year.

Do we need that many? No. The days of scattergun entries to accumulate as many pieces metal as possible that you will never look at again feel like they are gone. But Cannes, especially, has a definite role. It’s the epicentre of the industry and a place to celebrate what’s great. The lack of awards didn’t have any effect on my creative teams. Last year taught me many lessons, one of which is how incredible my creative department is, and the creative community as a whole. Their ability to react and adapt and work was mind boggling. Everybody is just a realist: it’s fine if you can’t go to Cannes, there were much bigger problems to deal with. But creatives are better when they feel part of something and have fun around the work, which is my only regret about Cannes not happening last year.

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Above: The New York Times' The Truth is Worth It campaign, the Film Grand Prix winner from 2019, the last time the award was handed out.

How do you anticipate dealing with your work load, as the demands of viewing, assessing and choosing and deciding what is award materials can be pretty all-consuming?

It will be lots of late nights. The amazing jury I’m working with will make sure we get through all the work, because it’s an honour. We’ll be there for each other and we’ll gee each other on with our WhatsApp groups. Cannes is an incredible organisation and they seem to get things right when it comes to logistics.

And as president, do you have tactics in place for guiding and directing your jury?

The best work will rise to the top. I want people to vote with their hearts, because voting with your head often leads you to the obvious place, but the heart will always surprise you. As a jury I want us to be open-minded and to surprise people.

We can’t discount work because it’s not saving the world, we should span a range, because we need that mix for this industry to get healthy and to thrive.

We are in the year of purpose, which is brilliant, but that doesn’t mean that something without purpose is automatically less good. When you judge work with purpose you have to be able to disassociate yourself from the purpose, because if you say you don’t like it that doesn’t mean you are voting against the purpose itself. I want to create a safe area where the best work shines.

I also want a bit of nonsense, something that feels fun and irreverent and silly and makes me laugh and stays with me. We can’t discount work because it’s not saving the world, we should span a range, because we need that mix for this industry to get healthy and to thrive.

Marmite – Mind Control

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Above: adam&eveDDB's Marmite Mind Control, from 2019.

Where do you see film heading as (hopefully) the pandemic retreats and we start to emerge from the remote viewing world we’ve all been in?

To a more varied and interesting place. I want to see excellent work in really short form, like six seconds, and in really long form, and everything in between. I want to see work that covers every emotion from the hysterical to the ‘what the f**k?’ to the tugging on the heartstrings. I want to see diversity in the work, coming from every possible walk of society. Without getting too lofty, I want to see in film what I want to see in the world – a fresh, new, interesting take on things. 

Without getting too lofty, I want to see in film what I want to see in the world – a fresh, new, interesting take on things. 

That’s where it has to go. The pandemic has wiped the slate clean, and that’s allowing us to different, fresh, challenging work.

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