Ringan Ledwidge on how clowns helped him keep his creative faith

A week after the release of his new Audi ad, top commercials director Ringan Ledwidge talks to Brittaney Kiefer about directing clowns for the first time and how creatives can make good work in the face of pressure.

Ledwidge: 'You can still make great work and make stuff that stands out'
Ledwidge: 'You can still make great work and make stuff that stands out'

Ringan Ledwidge is one of advertising’s top directors, with a reel spanning big names from Lynx and The Guardian to Sainsbury’s and Chanel. But until recently, he had never directed a clown.

The industry heavyweight is behind Audi’s colourful new "Clowns" ad by Bartle Bogle Hegarty London, which shows the circus stars wreaking havoc on roads until the high-tech cars come to the rescue. After a year making commercials for Jose Cuervo tequila and Chanel, he says the Audi brief was one of the most "clean, simple" ideas for an ad that he’s seen in a long time. 

Ledwidge spoke to Campaign from Los Angeles, where he lives part of the year, about his clown inspiration, breaking into directing, and how creatives can "keep the faith" amid industry upheaval. 

Where did the idea for Audi’s "Clowns" come from and what was your vision for the ad?

The idea came from BBH and the creatives. What appealed to me about it was it was a brilliantly cynical idea for what could be a boring brief – Audi wanting to show off the safety features and technology of the car. It’s been a while since I read such a clean, simple piece of advertising. As a director, when you get something like that, it actually allows you to be very creative in your interpretation of it.

Creating this world part occupied by clowns got me very excited – I’ve not done clowns before. Clowns can be inherently creepy or like the McDonald’s mascot, but those were neither of the types of clowns I wanted. 

I’ve always been a massive fan of Buster Keaton, so I used those films as influences and inspirations.  I wanted to do something that felt very traditional but at the same time felt like a modern and contemporary take on a clown. Playing with that was great fun. 

You also directed Audi’s "Duel" ad last year. What made you want to work with the brand again? 

The English side of the Audi brand [which made "Clowns"] works independently from the American side [which made "Duel"].  But they obviously really understand their brand and who they’re targeting, and have a reputation of doing smart advertising. 

VW [the brand] used to be like that. It feels like Audi has got that same DNA now, probably because they’ve been brave enough to do advertising that doesn’t feel traditionally like car ads. They’re confident enough in who they are to run with more creative ideas, and their brand has a particular flavour to it. 

What was the biggest challenge on the "Clowns" shoot?

We shot in Prague, which has an interesting tradition of theatre, mime and even a clown school, so casting-wise I knew I’d find some good people. It’s also easier to get good locations there. 

At the end of the ad, there’s the scene with the clowns going through the tunnel. I kept pushing for it because I felt it was important to have that location, but because it’s a municipal location they were quite vague about when we could have the tunnel. We had scheduled it for the last day of the shoot, but the afternoon before the shoot started we got a call from the council saying if we wanted to shoot the tunnel we’d have to do it on our first day. There was no way of rescheduling anything so we just had to bite the bullet and do it then, which meant a 22-hour shoot day. Looking at clowns at 1am when you’ve been working 20 hours is slightly trippy. 

After years of directing, what principles do you always stick to?

I always see myself as a guardian of an idea. I want to move the idea on and add to it, but then it’s just about guarding the idea if you can and making sure you keep that vision from start to finish. I try not to be an asshole. If I pass on scripts I try to tell people why. 

I’ve always trusted my instincts and had the test of would my mates think this is any good. That’s always been my guiding light, and I always want to do something different to what I’ve previously done.

Do you think it’s harder now for new directors to break into the industry? What advice would you give them?

It maybe is tougher now because there are so many people out there wanting to do it. Advertising seems to be in a slightly strange place at the moment, with people trying to work out what’s going to happen. It’s squeezing creatives more and more, giving them less money but wanting more. On the one hand there are more opportunities because more content is being made, but on the other hand sometimes clients want the world for not a lot of money. 

So it’s tough, but the same principles apply. You’ve just got to be incredibly persistent and keep smashing your head against the wall. Keep practising, learn your craft and find any way you can to make something. And annoy people so they’ll see you. If you’re good, you will rise to the top. If you stay working at it hard then you will break through eventually.

The advertising industry and creative side have to have a bit of faith. Keep trying to make good ideas. You have to try to find ways to work within constraints of slightly less interesting briefs, but find the most creative solutions and not give up on that. You can still make great work and make stuff that stands out. People do respond to it. Keeping the faith is the important thing.