Back Chat: Why DigitasLBi's Abi Ellis is hoping for a 'wonderful renaissance of brave, simple, startling ideas'

By Katie McQuater | Magazine Editor

March 6, 2015 | 5 min read

In each issue of The Drum, we catch up with an industry figure to find out what’s pushing their buttons. This fortnight we drop in on Abi Ellis, group creative director at DigitasLBi, to discuss creativity without purpose, tax evaders and Queen Elizabeth I.

How are you and what’s keeping you busy?

I’m being kept busy building one of the most diverse and hugely talented creative departments in the universe. We had a lot of young fresh talent join us and I’m taking the diamonds in the rough and turning them into something far more beautiful, and because I’ve got this massive amount of talent all keen and up for it, we’re squirreling away on under-the-radar projects, proactive things – hacking, and failing, and trying, and sometimes winning.

What’s your biggest gripe at the moment?

I am so full of gripes all the time. I am the most cantankerous old bitch. But my biggest gripe would be how insignificant, purposeless, dull and a waste of pixels so much of the output of our industry is. I think a lot of creative directors share that thought.

I hope we’re due a wonderful renaissance of brave, simple, startling ideas with purpose.

Likewise, what are you loving?

There’s real inventiveness going on in entertainment. There’s just so much fucking amazing stuff out there. I’ve got really into Drunk History. Have you seen it? It could be so clumsy, heavy-handed and one-dimensional, but it’s just so well done. I do worry, though, because I think I’m taking a lot of that history as true fact. I’m also particularly liking pop socks with a good court heel.

What would you change if you were prime minister and/or had unlimited resources?

I would stop pointing the finger at vulnerable people and turn my beady eye on to the corporate tax evaders and get them to pay their bloody taxes. When I see that poster that’s on the Tube of the eyes peering at you, saying ‘we’re closing in on tax dodgers’, I think, ‘Really? Are you? Creeping me out on the Tube?’ So I’d be heavy handed and brutal. You wouldn’t want me as prime minister.

I’ve also recently been privileged enough to work with the Ideas Foundation, set up by Robin Wight. It’s about encouraging diversity, getting a more eclectic range of awesome people from all backgrounds, so that we have a much more multifaceted community of people being creative, rather than just a bunch of privileged middle-class prats, like me.

Which ad do you wish you had worked on?

St George, the Blackcurrant Tango ad, because it just makes me laugh. You know what, people will say it’s jingoistic, but it’s a bloody joke. You know, like Chris Morris-esque. I just think it’s so beautifully written, and then the actual execution... It’s really sublime and funny – brilliant writing.

Who is your biggest hero in advertising?

I’ve had Paul Arden’s books on my desk for yonks and I still dip in and out of them. His words of advice are so straightforward, pithy and brilliant, and time hasn’t dulled them at all. I don’t normally like motivational books, but it’s just so clear and simple. He was brilliant, and his words should be heeded by more, more often.

Outside of the industry, who inspires you?

This is going to sound even more jingoistic, but Queen Elizabeth I. When I’m in a tricky situation I imagine I’m at Tilbury on that white horse, doing that speech. I often think, ‘What would Queen Elizabeth I do?’ Obviously, it would probably be assassinating people, but I think she’s hard as nails and brilliant. She’s my kind of bird. This makes me sound like I want to fight people all the time. You can take the girl out of Weymouth…

Where else do you find inspiration?

In people. I’m ridiculously nosy. When I go out for dinner my husband makes me face away from everyone, not the people we’re eating with, the rest, because I will listen to everyone else’s conversation. Friends, family, strangers, old ladies at the supermarket. I find people most inspiring; their stories, and what they know and share.

And finally, your last word on the industry?

Back to simple. I think we can make things very complex and throw shitloads of science into everything and create these ecosystems, and in the end, we are diffusing our thinking. I think we’ll go back to brilliant, simple ideas that connect with more and more human beings. I hope so, anyway.

This feature was first published in the 4 March issue of The Drum.

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