Channelling Superhumans: how 4Creative’s Alice Tonge is pushing TV boundaries

Alice Tonge, head of 4Creative

What does the future of TV look like? Well, there’s a very good chance it looks a lot like Alice Tonge, head of Channel 4’s in-house agency 4Creative and The Drum’s Creative Woman of the Year. We caught up with her to find out how she is pushing boundaries and pioneering creative collaboration.

In 2005, Alice Tonge walked into Channel 4’s in-house creative department as a freelancer. She never left. After 12 years working on the broadcaster’s promotional advertising, brand identity and aesthetic design, she was named head of 4Creative last September; she was only three months into the job when she was named The Drum’s Creative Woman of the Year at its annual Creative Awards.

Her win was secured almost entirely on the strength of her work, which judging panel chairperson Caitlin Ryan deemed “extraordinarily good”. If a single campaign dominated her entry it would be ‘We’re the Superhumans’ – a joyful musical trailer for Channel 4’s 2016 Paralympics coverage starring disabled pilots, dancers and athletes alongside disabled mums, office workers and schoolchildren – which took the Grand Prix for Film at Cannes Lions.

Refreshingly, Tonge is happy to let the Superhumans acclaim speak for itself and dives into the stories behind other campaigns when asked about her proudest work at 4Creative. ‘Gay Mountain’, a fantastically camp celebration of gay culture designed to juxtapose Russia’s militantly heteronormative stance throughout the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, turned the dial on Channel 4’s boundary-pushing and irreverently cheeky tone of voice. And with ‘Alternative Voices’, Tonge and the team devised a near-textbook example of a simple idea executed well: Channel 4’s regular continuity links were voiced by five people with communication difficulties such as Tourette’s, a stammer and cerebral palsy.

With an education in design and an agency background, she says Channel 4 lured her in with its “beautiful mash-up of design agency, ad agency and production company”.

“I’ve always felt like I’m constantly creating things or working with other people to create brilliant ideas," she says. "I always said to myself, ‘I’ll leave when the briefs stop coming in and I stop being challenged,’ and that never really happened.”

Throughout her career Tonge has not been hindered by her status as a female creative. Then again, she’s been worked for nearly 13 years within an organization renowned for supporting female, LGBT, disabled and BAME talent.

“Channel 4 is a forward-thinking company … and we have a new chief executive [in Alex Mahon] who’s a woman,” says Tonge. “I’ve always had a good experience as a woman in the industry. It’s been a supported journey up the ladder rungs.”

But when she has faced adversity, the subjects of her work inspire her to continue.

“Working on the Superhumans campaign was incredibly inspirational,” she says. “I was watching some incredible disabled stars really tackling life full-on and doing some amazing stuff.

"It’s that mantra of ‘Yes I can, just do it, keep going’. I try to channel that.”

Read our full interview with Alice Tonge in The Drum's February issue, which explores the Future of TV and is out now.

Also, you can watch highlights of The Drum Creative Awards 2017, including Alice Tonge collecting her Creative Woman of the Year trophy, at thedrumcreativeawards.com. The 2018 awards open for entry soon. Contact pepe.terry@thedrum.com for more information.

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