A bit of harmless fun, a biting satire on the consumer economy or an all-out challenge to the ad industry? To some extent, these are all fair characterisations of the Citizens Advertising Takeover Service, the project that will see pictures of fluffy felines invade Clapham Common Tube station in south London for two weeks from 12 September.
The man behind the audacious plan is James Turner, a former TV producer who spent nine years in media and comms roles at Greenpeace, and joined advocacy group The Syria Campaign as communications director in February. At Greenpeace, Turner found that he was continually working with young people in ad agencies, who had a real thirst to do good but who were not always given the opportunity to pursue their interests or make the maximum use of their skills in their day jobs.
"It occurred to me there was so much appetite in the ad industry for doing world-changing work, it made sense to build something from the ground up with those people in mind," Turner says. This led him to create Glimpse, a collective dedicated to "making positive social change feel attractive to millions more people". The initial 32 members, drawn from advertising, graphic design and user experience, kicked things off at a "hack day" in February.
Initially, the group had a completely open remit but then drew up three briefs for itself based on the ideas it wanted to pursue: empathy, specifically focusing on refugees; work/life balance; and a reappraisal of consumerism or "imagining a world where people value their friendships more than the things they own".
The second of these is yet to lead anywhere, while the first has grown into another project that is still at a development stage: UniTea, a brand of tea that both raises money for refugee-supporting charities and carries positive stories about real refugees. "British people are quite a hospitable nation," Turner says, describing the starting point of this idea. "We’re always offering a cup of tea – it’s such a great leveller. So why not create a tea brand that’s specifically designed to create awareness of and empathy for refugees?"
It is the final brief, though, that led Turner and his crew to Kickstarter back in April with the aim of raising £23,000. This is enough cash to enable Glimpse to buy up all the media in one of the capital’s smaller Tube stations, with the aim of liberating passengers from the claws of capitalism for a short while and exposing them to some daintier paws. Given the group’s stated aim to reappraise consumerism, it could be easy to see this as an all-out assault on the fundamental nature of advertising, but Turner is adamant that, if anything, it’s the opposite.
An example of how Turner's Citizens Advertising Takeover Service will transform Clapham Common Tube station
"We’re not anti-advertising. In fact, we desperately need it and the power of creativity to help change minds and encourage positive values in society – and make it feel aspirational and fun while we’re doing it," he says. "We’re not trying to overturn a law or a policy, or put pressure on any particular industry."
Turner hopes that by showing a "public space in London that has a very different objective", the project will make people more conscious of the effect advertising has, and the ability of mass communication to affect the world. As for the content of the posters, he says they considered several other ideas, such as dolphins and Californian redwood trees, but the decision was shaped to some extent by the need for the crowdfunding campaign to be a success: "What was the one thing the internet is most likely to get excited about? Cats was the obvious solution."
Beyond September, Turner has ambitious plans for Glimpse. He wants it to be self-sustaining, with paid staff and a continual cycle of projects – at present, everyone involved is giving their time for free. One idea is to offer paid internships to graduates – a strategy that Turner thinks would give them a chance to prove themselves and help them develop innovative ideas outside the commercial constraints of an agency – something that would also benefit their future employers. He is especially interested in involving young people from areas and social groups that typically don’t enter the creative industries.
But there is one big challenge staring Turner in the face: money. He says he "hasn’t figured out the commercial model for it" yet but there are plenty of ideas being thrown around. Would he work with brand partners? Turner says he wouldn’t rule it out but he is far more interested in finding alternatives to conventional systems. "The advantage we have at the moment is that writing our own briefs gives us enormous freedom," he says. "And I’m just wondering if there’s a model for creativity that doesn’t have brands as its patron."
It’s a tall order, but Turner believes the wind is blowing the right way to get his operation off the ground: "We’re at this turning point where there are a lot of companies recognising their social purpose and trying to do good in the world, and I do hope the industry will go the same way."