Robert Campbell of Outsider Films imagines himself cast away on a desert island. Here, he relays to Jason Stone of David Reviews the films that would help him through his island stay.
The founder of Outsider Films is one of two well-known figures in the advertising industry called Robert Campbell, so it’s worth stressing that the man I interviewed for the latest in the Desert Island Clips series is not the co-founder of Beta or the ‘C’ of RKCR/Y&R because that’s an entirely different fellow.As well as being one of the foremost producers of his generation, the Robert Campbell interviewed here has a well-deserved reputation as a raconteur. An agency TV producer who worked with him recently recalled how she and her colleagues spent each evening of the overseas shoot being “hugely entertained by Robert’s tall tales”.It’s a compliment that does Campbell a disservice. His tales may be tall but I’ve measured them to verify their height. He’s just one of those people to whom extraordinary things happen.This aspect of Robert Campbell is perfectly illustrated by his description of an unusual route into advertising. A childhood in Italy was followed by a move to America, where he worked on a dairy farm: “I’ve milked hundreds of thousands of cows; I’ve had my hands up cows’ arses and I’ve delivered thousands of calves – I once delivered a calf by caesarean section using a penknife – and I’ve exported them all over the world... but one day I was stood in a field in Quanzhou province in China – very cold, very wet – and I thought ‘I can’t do this any more’.”He came to England where “a friend of a friend of a friend” got him a job as a runner: “my biggest failing was that I didn’t know how to make tea. We’d never drunk tea as a family. We’d drunk coffee in Italy and we’d drunk coffee in America... I hadn’t seen teabags before and I didn’t know what to with them so I put them in the kettle.” Despite this inglorious start, Campbell edged his way up the hierarchy – becoming close friends with movie star Andy Garcia while working as assistant to the director on “a shit film” – and eventually working as a producer on several pop promos for acclaimed director Michael Haussman.
01 Carling – Dambusters
Robert Campbell’s first Desert Island Clip is Roger Woodburn’s ‘Dambusters’ ad for Carling Black Label: “up until that point, advertising had just been something I’d done... but in 1990 I went to an awards do for the first time and the best ad that night was ‘Dambusters’. I saw the audience’s adulation and I thought ‘it’s quite good this’ – plus there were a lot of very pretty girls in the room. It struck me for the first time that I wanted to make something good and that I wanted to win prizes. It was a kick up the arse.”Serendipitously, the opportunity to fulfil this ambition was provided by the arrival of a reel from a young Indian film graduate called Tarsem: “it was the most unbelievable film-school reel you’re ever likely to see – it blew everything else out of the water. Where most people go to film school and spend lots of money making a short film – a complete and utter waste of time because nobody watches them; nobody cares and there’s no market for them... Tarsem spent all his money on a series of brilliant films – each less than a minute.“I was a nobody so I told him he should see RSA or Weilands or Rose Hackney. But he called me three weeks later and said: ‘I’ve spoken to those people and none of them has enthusiasm for what I do. I cannot put a price on enthusiasm. Do you want to do it?’“So we got together. We did a Suzanne Vega video and then we worked on REM ‘Losing My Religion’ and it went absolutely crazy.”
02 Levi’s – Swimmer
Campbell’s next selection is the first commercial he made with Tarsem – Levi’s ‘Swimmer’. BBH’s relationship with the jeans manufacturer had yielded incredible dividends for both companies and they enjoyed the rare privilege of knowing that the public was eagerly awaiting each new instalment.Asking such an inexperienced director to take charge of such a high-profile project was an unprecedented risk but Tarsem’s immaculate preparation had won the day: “Nigel Bogle says it was the best pre-production meeting he’s ever been in. Larry [Barker] and Rooney [Carruthers] – the creative team – had come up with the endline and said they liked the Burt Lancaster film ‘The Swimmer’ and that was about it.“Tarsem went to LA for a week and came back with this incredible booklet – in forty pages of A3 amazingness he had captured the entire essence of the film. Unusually, the music had already been agreed before we did the ad and we were able to use the track at the pre-production meeting... Tarsem acted out the whole thing.”‘Swimmer’ didn’t just change the direction of the Levi’s campaign, it changed the industry’s perception of young talent: “after BBH gave their highest profile film to an unknown director, all bets were off. It changed the way the industry saw young directors – if you had something interesting enough then people would give you a chance.”
03 Dunlop – Unexpected
His third selection is Tony Kaye’s Dunlop commercial ‘Expect The Unexpected’. It was a film that could have been on Campbell’s CV: “Tarsem and I were sent the Dunlop script and it said: ‘there’s a giant frying pan and there are cars driving around and they can’t stick but one of them has Dunlop tyres and it can’. Tarsem just said: ‘that is not a very good idea’.”“I knew Tony was up for it and because I knew he was as mad as a badger, I wondered what he’d do with it. I remember exactly where I was when I found out – it was a Kennedy moment – it was a Bank Holiday; the telly was on but I had my back to it. I heard [singing] ‘shiny, shiny...’ and I turned around and watched it. I thought: ‘we are now all fucked... that is game-changingly extraordinary and beautiful’. Everything about it was fantastic.“I adore Tony and not long after that, he and I worked together. Tarsem wanted to go to America and I didn’t so we agreed to go our separate ways. Tony rang out of the blue and asked me to come and work with him. I said: ‘I’ll give you a year’ and I did... well, I gave him 364 days then I told him it was time for me to set up my own company. He said: ‘you should call it Outsider’. And so I did.”
04 VW – Lamp Post
Campbell’s next selection is VW ‘Lamp Post’: “I chose it for various reasons. It was the first commercial that Outsider made. We got the script within about forty minutes of opening the doors from a lovely producer at DDB called Howard Spivey. It went on to win just about every award in the world that year so it put us on the map.“We were in this era of big, ballsy commercials and suddenly, out of nowhere, appeared this tiny one-day- shoot ad that you could have done on a mobile phone – if they’d been able to do that kind of thing then.“It changed the dynamic. It was a simple idea, simply executed, no effects, no stars, no budget, no lights and suddenly, as happens in this business, that became en vogue.”
05 Nike – Good Versus Evil
‘Lamp Post’ contrasts hugely with Campbell’s next choice – the ‘Good versus Evil’ ad for Nike that pitted football stars from around the world against a team of devils in a match played at The Coliseum.The logistics were a nightmare: “the conference call on that job – just to go through the budget – took over seven hours. And the process of coordinating all those footballers went on for months and months and months.“Nike had had a famous footballer kicking a ball around before but this was the first time that they’d said: ‘let’s just get the lot and have a big football match’. It was huge. Dealing with all the logistics; the egos; the body doubles; all of it was such a challenge.”One footballer stood out in more ways than one: “Eric Cantona was a dream. But then he always was. Do you remember when he kicked the supporter at Crystal Palace and had to make the apology? Me and Theo Delaney went up to Manchester and shot that in a Nike warehouse... I was under the chair recording the sound... we had one light and a camera on Eric. And he was absolutely fantastic.
06 Alaska Airlines – Joe Sedelmaier
Campbell says of Alaskan Airlines, his next choice: “everything Joe Sedelmaier did – although it can be very samey – is just genius. He managed to bring a lot of characters into advertising; he mastered the one-take; he mastered the ludicrous... every creative should take a look at Sedelmaier’s reel.” Sedelamaier worked in an era when directors were wholly judged by the work that was actually used on television and it troubles Robert Campbell that this isn’t the case these days: “I’ve seen reels where every ad is a director’s cut; ninety seconds long and nothing to do with what was actually on telly and I’m left thinking: ‘why did you bother to do the job? It’s obvious that you’ve just overshot to make a version for your reel.“There’s nothing I enjoy more than seeing an honest reel because it tells you that the director worked in tandem with the agency to achieve a goal they’re both delighted with.“Everyone should be working for the best interests of the client. Directors do sometimes go off on one and it can be my role to say ‘come back, come back... let’s remember why we’re doing this.’“As much as it might be nice to open with a helicopter shot that starts off in the Chilterns and goes through Burnham Beeches and follows a train up the railway... if all that’s needed is a bloke standing at the station then that’s what we ought to be delivering.”
07 Natural Born Smokers – Barry Myers
Campbell’s penultimate choice is Barry Myers’s ‘Natural Born Smoker’ film. “I picked one from Barry because I learned a lot from him... I owe him a lot. He could be quite grumpy but it was only because he really cared. He’d come out of an agency and he’d remained focused on what was important for a client.“I picked ‘Natural Born Smoker’ because it was a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed... it was a striking film then and it’s a striking film now. This was before The Mill and MPC and Framestore... a lot of it had to be done in camera... a lot of it was done through prosthetics... and it was passing on a message that worked.”
08 John Lewis – Christmas 2011
Robert Campbell’s final selection is last year’s Christmas ad for John Lewis: “as much as I’ve banged on about the past, we still make greatness... and we will always better the past by what we’ve learned from it. John Lewis is great because it’s based on truth... and that truth is so beautifully explained that whether you are the Creative Director of the greatest agency in the world or my son who’s 12... you get it. It’s a beautiful use of The Smiths track; it was beautifully cast... there are lovely moments and then it throws you at the end. It’s not often that the hairs go up on the back of your neck but that did it.”Robert Campbell is such a delightful storyteller that it would be easy to overlook his wisdom. His success is built on a tremendous ability to keep his clients’ needs uppermost in his mind and you sense that he has instinctively guided his directors to think that way. In an industry fuelled by self-aggrandisement, it’s a rare gift and it’s ironic that someone who confesses that he only wanted to make good commercials so he could win prizes and attract the attention of pretty girls should have it in such abundance.