Channel 4 is a brand that’s always been about cheek and subversion. Its shock tactics have long been a vital part of its DNA, from the days of its brutally filthy Eurotrash to its wonky camera angle, amphetamine-breathed The Word to its powerful Equinox documentary series. Its long been unafraid to talk about things other channels have deftly, Britishly avoided: sex, drugs and all those things. Remember Queer as Folk? Remember when Hollyoaks did a late night episode on male-on-male rape, and another on snuff porn? It’s hard to imagine BBC doing that today, let alone in the 90s. Few would deny that it shaped itself as the most liberal channel on UK terrestrial TV, and it’s a mantle it still carries today.
Maintaining that ability for a brand to resonate is thanks in no small part to its 4Creative in-house team. Just over three years ago Chris Bovill and John Allison were appointed joint heads of 4Creative, leaving agency life at Fallon to oversee a whopping 900 ads a year at the channel by leading the teams repressible for all creative output across Channel 4, Film4, More4 and E4. “When we were growing up there were no contenders. Channel 4 was the alternative thing,” says Chris. John adds: “There was nothing else – we grew up with things like The Word and Gamesmaster and Eurotrash, watching it on a tiny telly in your bedroom with the volume turned down s your mum can’t hear it.”
4Creative is Channel 4’s in-house creative agency, which works within the channel’s main building near Victoria in London. The team is made up of about 40 people including designers, directors producers and various other roles who make sure that every piece of creative from idents to posters to stings to logos are brilliant and brilliantly on-brand across every single Channel 4 sub-brand.
But while the channel still prides itself on going to the places other channels wouldn’t, it remains a platform that has to serve pretty much anyone. Or as John puts it, “we’re Come Dine With Me and we’re Dogging Tales. You have to come up with something that works with both.”
4Creative seems to be less concerned with guarding its brand and more preoccupied with seeing what they can get away and how far they can take things, whether those are hard-hitting agendas about diversity and inclusiveness, or ridiculous ideas like a tortoise dating a rubber fist.
Chris and John joined at a daunting juncture, just after Channel 4’s Meet the Superhumans Paralympics campaign had aired. “It was fucking terrifying,” says Chris. John says: “We realised when we joined that we were coming into telly world, but we hadn’t directed anything. That naivety really helped us, as you think ‘why can’t things be done like that?’ You bring in things like good strategy and good composition from ad world, but in-house you can do things a lot more quickly as there’s less layers to go through. But there were big holes in our knowledge, weren’t there?” “Just generally in life,” says Chris. “Whole chasms.”
“We’re Come Dine With Me and we’re Dogging Tales. You have to come up with something that works with both.”
Chasms or no, the pair agree that these gulfs meant that not only did they bring enthusiasm and passion for the brand to the table, but a willingness to try things and to learn. Making up for this directorial absence in their CV, the pair immediately set about directing a piece to promote Mating Season, featuring a lonely tortoise haplessly trying to navigate his way through the bleak landscape of modern dating. It’s hilarious and in places very rude. How the hell they got away with a tortoise sticking its head through a glory hole, I have no idea.
One explanation is the channel’s Born Risky positioning. The campaign launched in 2013, and was the channel’s first in its 30 year history. It set out to cement four’s values as inclusive and brave. “Once we had that positioning in place, that was the filter we put everything though – is it risk with a purpose? Is it balls of steel?” says John. “But it’s a balance of taking those risks and being spikey and also getting bums on seats. You still need people to watch us so it’s always push and pull on those sides, as arguably if you’re being risky that could turn people off, it could turn a lot of people off.”
“They’re incredibly motivating, inspiring things for a creative to have built in to the DNA of the brand you work for,” Chris adds. “To challenge the status quo and create an alternative platform for minorities and to take risks and give a leg up for new talent… it was amazing.”
The 4Creative offices feel refreshingly non-media agency. While there are a hefty number of D&AD pencils and silverware about the place, there are also a lot of half eaten packets of biscuits and general office debris. It’s less about timesheets and iCals and more about “running up one flight of stairs” for a chat.
The atmosphere is breezily chipper; John and Chris, at least externally, seem very laid back, with leadership that encourages experimentation. “They say the best tennis players are the ones with a light grip on the racket: you’ve got to give people room and freedom to do stuff and put their own stamp on it. If they fuck up, never mind,” says Chris.
2015 was a huge year for 4Creative, with the launch of the Channel4 rebrand in September 2015. The “behemoth” of a project had been something on the minds of John and Chris since they first joined, having been asked about it in their interview – “we obviously gave an ok answer as we got the job.” In 2015 the team set about working with DBLG to create new branding, forming a supergroup along with director Jonathan Glazer and Neville Brody, who created the channel’s two new typefaces, Horseferry and Chadwick.
John says: “The scary thing is when you realise how much airtime you have with the branding. It’s not like working on an ad that’s on for 30 seconds, it’s always on. You can’t hide behind anything, so you have to make it do something. It has to work a bit harder: don’t just tell us what you’re watching, tell us why you’re watching.” Chris adds: “It sounds quite prosaic but that was the turning point. People know what they’re watching. People can count to four. Let’s not treat them like idiots. Now more than ever we need to communicate our remit, and we need to do that with our branding. That takes us away from having to have the same visual language as everyone else.”
“People know what they’re watching. People can count to four. Let’s not treat them like idiots. Now more than ever we need to communicate our remit, and we need to do that with our branding.
Shananne Lane, 4creative executive producer, meets us briefly to tell us about the rebrand in more depth. She says: “Once we realised we didn’t even have to have a logo on screen that was a weight off our shoulders. It gives us so much freedom and represents the pillars and values of the brand: it’s about diversity and challenging the status quo. It’s really important to us to have that soul.”
That idea of empowering the viewer and creating a point of difference led to the conclusion that the branding could be dismantled. John and Chris nip out of the meeting room and return with an unassuming little black box, and inside that, they say, is the rebrand. And there it is in all its glory: nine neat little white plastic blocks that in all their minimal, abstract stature somehow instantly embody “Channel 4.”
The blocks make the original Lambie Nairn-designed logo into 3D forms that take on a different character throughout their various applications, and form a playful and hugely adaptable identity. “It’s tactile, you can play with it; if the blocks explode apart, that unlocks something,” says John. “The idea of those blocks is that you can have nine of them or you can have 9000, but they never make up a four. That felt very distinctive, and very Channel Four. We called the longest one Clive.”
This spirit of innovation was very much at play when at the start of 2015 Channel 4 debuted a platform that prompted one Twitter user to sigh: “Go home, Channel 4, you’re drunk.” Another remarked that it was “like the news being shouted at you by a toddler.” This innovation was, of course, the 4Newswall, a site that displays the day’s biggest news stories in gifs. The project was created as a response to Ofcom requirements that news must engage with people aged 16-34, and breaks stories down into snappy headlines with an accompanying square of moving image to deliver things in an instantaneous way for an attention-span-sapped generation.
Olivia Browne, group business director at 4Creative, says: “When we got the request in, we didn’t want to do just do a TV ad. We had to think about where young people are and where they were consuming news, so it made sense to go straight onto social media.”The Newswall is hosted on Tumblr and was initially created by 4Creative’s Jack Croft and Stacey Bird. “We said ‘what about news in gifs,” and that’s what we ended up doing,” says Stacey. “The whole thing was a bit of an experiment that we just wanted to get out there as quickly as possible.” Put together by a tiny team, around five stories are posted each day. Instead of focusing on breaking news, it’s a selection of stories that work within the limitations of the platform, with the obvious elephant in the room being the “appropriateness” question. “If something really horrific has happened we wait for the aftermath, with Paris we reported on the minute’s silence and showed an image of a candle.”
“Channel 4 has a heritage that hasn’t changed, but the world around us has..We’re schizophrenic, we’re shapeshifting, and we’re the underdog too. Everyone loves an underdog story.”
Whether or not you doubted the brand’s sobriety on creating the project, it’s certainly innovative and it got people talking. “People are definitely more open to brands talking to them in different places and surprising them,” says John. “Gifs are nothing new but we wanted to show people that what they usually see for cats can be used for news. It’s reframing what they already know.”
Similarly, the designs across campaign for 2015’s Hunted, where people tried to go on the run and escape being tracked by the CIA, FBI and MI5, aimed to capture that idea of immediacy and panic. Using a yellow backdrop and type that looks like it’s been pulled out the printer prematurely, it’s a violent and invasive look-and-feel, and one that had to be slightly pulled back by ensuring a prominent Channel4 logo. “We had to be clear that it was an ad campaign and that we had the logo on there,” says producer Luke Fraser. “If we hadn’t, then I’m not sure we could have gone as far.”
That seems to be what it’s all about though, very nearly going too far. And long may that continue. “Channel 4 has a heritage that hasn’t changed, but the world around us has,” says John. “It’s always evolving so whatever we do it always has to be able to change and evolve, like we do. We’re schizophrenic, we’re shapeshifting, and we’re the underdog too. Everyone loves an underdog story.”