My Campaign: the making of Guinness 'Surfer'

Walter Campbell, creative director and writer, on how ignoring a key directive in the brief eventually led to the creation in 1999 of one of the most arresting ads of all time

My Campaign: the making of Guinness 'Surfer'

I was late to the Guinness pitch but David Abbott let me get on it, because he knew how much I wanted to work on the iconic Irish brand, despite being a teetotaller. (I had mates that wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t at least try.) 

But when he did send the brief, all I could think was how everyone else in the department had been on this for about a week. A slight panic set in.

The brief spoke cleverly about the audience and making ads that moved Guinness into a broader, more accessible arena. However, it also said: “The Guinness extended pour time shouldn’t be mentioned, as the dwell may well be a potential barrier to a younger demographic.”

Show any creative a “no entry” sign, and they’ll try to unpick that lock.

I felt clearly that the “pour” was a treasured part of the Guinness experience. I’d seen mates who are devoted Guinness drinkers look at the settling glass with a distinct sense of longing. Wanting the result of the wait and yet wanting the wait at the same time.

In this mood, two things collided: the classic line “Guinness is good for you”, which I’d been thinking about since reading about the brief, and now that extended pour time. “Good things come to those who wait” just landed and immediately felt like a cool expression of that confabulation. 

Owning the area of time felt like a big enough dynamic for the brand and suggested stories worth the telling. 

Next stop, Abbott’s office for the first internal presentation. This always held a degree of pressure, but having also asked for the brief and running counter to a key directive in it, I was feeling edgy. 

Thankfully, Abbott smiled as the strategy became a line and it then opened up into ideas and scripts. [The idea for the Guinness spot] “Swimblack”, a solid blueprint by then, was what I led with. Knowing the rules on what we weren’t allowed to suggest in a beer ad – no sport, bravado, success, or prowess – it had felt like a fun game to try to bend every one of those rules but in a way that would still let the story get on air. Abbott liked that pinch of disobedience, the splash of bravado; that it empowered the audience by letting them in on the generosity without over-explaining the conceit. 

“Good things come to those who wait” got the nod from Abbott soon after that meeting. I mention all this because “Swimblack” [which came out in 1998] became the springboard for “Surfer”. 

For the pitch, we also needed to show that the concept could work in print, so we gathered ideas from concepts that hadn’t quite evolved into scripts and reimagined them as long copy ads. These ideas were led by excellent visuals, the most powerful of which was a Polynesian surfer with his surfboard across his knees and an epic look in his eyes that seemed to scan out to sea forever. The image powerfully projected the idea of a utopian moment that the surfer was almost willing into being. 

In an early meeting, the client, Andrew Fennell, remarked on the surfer print execution: “I would like to do something with surfers. We’ve started working with some of these guys in Cornwall.” I drove down to Cornwall the next day to find those guys. 

Surfing wasn’t as big in the UK then as it is now – in fact, I didn’t even know there were surfers in Cornwall. After a search or two along the coast, I found these lads, a happy, wholehearted bunch who had discovered something they loved in life.

One rainy morning with an anticyclone off the coast, I was sharing a cup of tea from a plastic flask with one of these geezers when he said: “We’re all dreaming about the perfect wave, and one way or another, we’re going to get on a giant.” It was dovetailing with the line in a very beautiful way. 

To fully own the mythology of the moment, imagining what might create such a perfect wave became the next part of the puzzle. The idea that this epic wave would be something created by a pod of whales, giants that would swim together and propel this surging mountain of water pushing it out ahead of them, felt potent for a while. I knew this was something that would look wild and was also doable in CG. 

Meanwhile, I was also getting ready to shoot “Swimblack” with the director Jonathan Glazer. While evolving the backstory for it, I thought the bar that one of the brothers featured in the spot owned should have a theme like Neptune, the god of the sea. I imagined him riding on the back of a sea creature, an image that might be carved into the bar. Researching images of Neptune, the Walter Crane painting with the horses rising in the surf came up. 

Immediately I knew this was the surfer image and, with that component in place, I decided “Surfer” should be the next Guinness film.

As “Swimblack” went out into the world, “Surfer” came more into focus and it was time to implement the idea. Every detail was essential. For example, I learned that the blue screen on which we’d film the horses would flatten the image. I told Glazer we’d need to get the horses into hair and make-up to put definition back into their musculature and add a bit of flamboyance and Bernini-esque drama to their look, with hair extensions. 

Our producer Yvonne reached out to the best long-range weather forecasters in the surfing world to predict when and where the most radical waves would happen. This was hyper-critical because the one thing we could not create in post was to make big CG waves look real. The first day we shot, we got 30-foot waves. Phew! 

Glazer’s wife-to-be, Rachel, who was an excellent horsewoman, even advised on the most suitable breed that would jump how we wanted. With only one minor stampede, we got exactly what we needed. 

I wanted a Polynesian surfer as in the original image. After an extensive search, Glazer found a fantastic bloke on the beach. He was magnetic in that shy way, super laidback but not an expert surfer. This tension worked for his performance because when our expert surfers, Brian and Rusty Keaulana, got him on those epic waves, you could see he was both elated and a little freaked out.

Glazer and Ivan Bird, the DOP, revelled in the experience, hunting between these epic rollers like madmen and getting shots that made every beat of the film feel savage and beautiful. 

The next challenge was the music. One morning I was sitting with [sound editor] Johnnie Burn poring over tracks when Nick Morris, the producer from Academy, came in. We told him we were looking for a track from the film Breaking the Waves and couldn’t find the version in the film on any of the band’s albums. Bizarrely, he knew the guy who sourced all the music for the film. 

That guy was Peter Raeburn. We got him in that afternoon. I told him we needed the sound of the blood in the surfer’s head, something that felt like elation and like he knew he could die out there on that wave. Raeburn came the next day with about 20 tracks, all great. One, though, was Phat Planet by Leftfield. It connected with the image on a molecular level. The track hadn’t been released yet, and it was only because Raeburn was tight with the band that we even heard it. 

We got Louis Mellis, who had done the voiceover for “Swimblack,” to read on “Surfer”. I asked him to channel a little of how Seamus Heaney would read his own poetry, that familiar tone, like telling an old friend a story. Louis, who is a very cool actor and a screenwriter, knocked it out of the park.

The film went out, and miraculously, most of it was exactly how we wanted it. “Surfer” exploded, and soon I started seeing frames from the ad on people’s desks and hearing Phat Planet playing from the distant corners of agencies when I met mates for a cuppa. I felt then that the film was building a kind of cult fanbase, and it seems to still be gathering new fans even today.

Someone said at the time that the ads sold an extra Olympic swimming pool’s worth of Guinness every month. That’s a very decent amount, isn’t it? I was pleased at that image. 

I’ve also been told “Surfer” has won more awards and generated more column inches than any other ad ever. This isn’t meant as a personal boast; I think of it more as an inevitable outcome born of the resilience of a single-minded and positive creative department, dynamic agency leaders, great producers, a bold director and, just as importantly, a great client who worked together toward a shared vision.

That’s collaboration for you.