How angry comedy fuelled my advertising career
A view from Trevor Robinson

How angry comedy fuelled my advertising career

Do we still have the influences around us to create the crucible in which creativity is formed? Quiet Storm's founder and creative chief talks about the forces that drove him to create humorous ads that captured people's imaginations.

The early ‘80s was an exciting and interesting time in which to grow up. The prevailing political climate, with the Cold War at its height and social division played out on the streets, seemed to forge our collective creativity. My influences ranged from music – punk, ska and soul – through to the alternative comedians that created such a great sense of energy.

In terms of people and humour, my mum was one of my biggest influences. She came over to Britain in the ‘50s, and a lot of her humour was based on hardship, conflict and growing up in a racist environment.  I was into everything from Fawlty Towers through to Rising Damp, but when The Young Ones came out it had an energy I felt drawn towards.

That’s the line of comedy that has always excited me but I was worried that my way of thinking wasn’t suited to advertising. Adrian Edmondsen’s NatWest "Bank account man" TV ad, together with my creative partner Al Young, a very creative and angry Scotsman, convinced me otherwise.

With Hamlet "Photobooth", I loved the simplicity, no edits, no cuts, and played out with such genius. With its roughness around the edges, it contrasted so strongly with the lavishly polished Silk Cut ads with casts of thousands that preceded it and helped define that earlier era.

It made me feel that if I could get in there I could do something as memorable. Al and I were eventually hired by HHCL, and the agency’s ads were appearing on TV just before we arrived – the mutli award winning "Into the valley" and "Israelites" Maxwell films. When I saw them, it made my stomach spin because I was going to have to compete with these guys. Al and I were already getting nervous because we knew there were people out there waiting to take our chairs. We smelt the dole office horror and didn’t want to go back there, so knew we had to do something big and memorable.

This is where being true to ourselves – a little bit angry, using humour derived from fear and angst – resulted in the weird hilarity that came out in the Orange Tango "Slap" ad. We wanted to take the piss out of cause and effect advertising but it caught people’s imaginations.

I remember Jim Bolton and Chas Bayfield telling us about their Blackcurrant Tango idea, and I was all "that sounds like cock, that’s rubbish." But Al immediately said "it’s brilliant" and then I saw it and realised how amazing it was. It was seamlessly good, clever, and brilliantly written. I learnt a lesson as a creative director to give every idea and opportunity the chance to breathe and live. 

As creatives we walk an interesting line in terms of entertaining people. It’s about having something that’s different, and then cultivating it to do something as conventional as advertising. I’m always pleased when I see ads like the "Never say no to panda" campaign. It contains an element of violence and tension but it’s so funny due to the element of repetition – it’s the same gag again and again but this just makes it funnier.

Much has been written about how client cautiousness and the handwringing of brand purpose have usurped our ability to use humour and raise a smile. The former is something that we found with our Haribo campaign, featuring adults with kids’ voices. It’s really quite a tame idea, but we had to shoot a test film, and even with the test film, our client had to show it back to people at the HQ. Our client was brilliant but we had to do a lot to help him get it.

And do we still have the influences around us to create the crucible in which creativity is formed? I see some similarities to what first inspired me – social division and uncertainty caused by Brexit is prevalent; we have a new nuclear threat in the form of North Korea; while Donald Trump seems to be just a Tweet away from causing Armageddon. The world is uncomfortable and unstable and, while unsettling, from uncertainty can come great creativity – Gallows humour almost – to increase our cultural capital.

Trevor Robinson OBE is the executive creative director and founder of Quiet Storm.