Meet Graham’s creators, the Aussie duo that rewrote the ‘shock & awe’ road safety creative for the most awarded campaign of 2017

Meet Graham won big at Cannes

This year's most awarded creative campaign according to The Drum's Big Won Rankings, was the Australian road safety campaign, 'Meet Graham'. Last July, The Drum spoke with the creators behind the work, at the most awarded creative agency, Clemenger BBDO, about the campaign and its success.

Clemenger BBDO flew the flag for Australia in Cannes last week, nestling the agency of the year Lion among its swag of 55 others picked up over the course of 15 awards ceremonies. Meet Graham was the poster-boy – or monster, or thing – of the shop’s success, but the supernatural figure and face that dominated the trade press’ Cannes coverage was not designed as an indulgence of pure creativity; it was a complete reconsideration of the road safety campaign.

To give credit where it’s due, Australia has never been afraid of injecting a bit of morbid pizazz into its traffic accident prevention campaigns.

“When I was working in the UK a couple of years ago someone said: ‘Only in Australia would you get a line like ‘If you drink and drive you’re a bloody idiot’,” recalled Evan Roberts, one half of the creative team behind Meet Graham. “There’s no way we’d get that [signed off in the UK]. But that was the line of the TAC [Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission] for years.”

Beyond the drolly colloquial slogan, Roberts, and his fellow Clemenger BBDO creative director Stephen de Wolf, also credit the TAC for being one of the first road safety groups in the world to try the “shock and awe” approach – namely, heart-stopping and often unexpected recreations of car crashes. This style of ad, which could also be dubbed ‘shock and gore’ given the amount of blood and body parts that are featured, has since been imitated around the globe, however in Australia, audiences have become desensitised to this imagery.

“It stopped working,” said Roberts. “People aren’t actually shocked by it anymore – no one takes as much notice and the road toll is actually rising in Australia.”

Added de Wolf: “That’s actually what drove the brief for Meet Graham. [The TAC are] still telling you not to drink and drive and to wear a seatbelt, but what they haven’t done in a while is tell you why. So this job is about the science is behind those messages. We had to find a way to make sense of that.”

As part of its wider Towards Zero campaign, the TAC’s key message this time around was the vulnerability of the human body while driving. Roberts and de Wolf’s response was to collect a wealth of data and qualitative information regarding the body in road traffic collisions. But instead of pulling it into a hard-hitting, fact-dominated ad, they transformed it into a piece of artwork: Graham, the only person who can survive a car crash.

Graham was created by fine artist Patricia Piccinini, who – alongside the agency –devised his uncanny appearance after being fed information from trauma surgeon Christian Kenfield and road safety engineer Dr David Logan. The team worked together to create a human body that would live after hitting the steering wheel at 30 km/h: “Not that fast,” admitted de Wolf, “but the point that you can die.”

Piccinini’s conversations and interviews with Kenfield and Logan, as well as the team’s interpretation of a mountain of crash data, were vital to the creative process. The final sculpture is a man (gendered as so due to auto brands’ tendency to model the average driver on an average bloke, and because the main offenders for driving without a seatbelt in Australia are, according to Roberts, “young guys in regional areas going too fast”), but a man with multiple airbag-like nipples, a giant skull filled with fluid and ligaments, and spring-loaded ‘hoof-like’ legs.

Despite the strangeness of his figure, Graham retains a human-like quality. “His pose is considered – he’s quite open, and his eyes are brown because they’re more welcoming,” said de Wolf. “He’s designed to look you in the eyes.”

The name Graham came to the duo early on in the creation stages. “We knew he was going to be an interesting looking thing, so a really mundane name was really important for human accessibility” said de Wolf.

“You know, it’s funny seeing a still image of him [everywhere in Cannes] because that’s not really what he is,” he continued. “He exists in real life, he’s a six foot seven, 200kg sculpture that looks like a man. Even his hair is real human hair.”

This tangibility is what’s really interesting about Graham. He started life as a Victoria-based touring sculpture that audiences could examine in-depth through Google Tango-powered augmented reality. But via the web, his startling imagery and purpose began to appear all across the world, reaching people who would likely never see him in real life.

“We didn’t actually have any media behind him,” said de Wolf. “All the media that came out was done by the partners in the galleries and community centres [that were hosting the tour]. All media was about directing you to meet Graham. The imagery becomes really compelling but there’s always that direction to meeting him.

“What was amazing was in a lot of the global dialogue that happened as a result it maintained that conversation about road safety. That made us pretty proud.”

“We made an online film but even that was a teaser designed to get you to meet Graham,” added Roberts. “But even on the footage you saw around the world, we kind of let that go. We put together a press kit that had images and films and we kind of just let people tell that story. I think that’s how the campaign maintained relevance as it became a bit of a phenomenon: people were cutting it up in their own way, using it the way they wanted.”

Graham’s now on the school curriculum in Victoria; at the other end of the spectrum, he’s now a meme. For all that the Cannes award-winner has gone on to become, does the creative duo still consider this chubby, lumpy monster as an ad campaign?

“I see it as an experiential piece,” said de Wolf. “The government are used to buying a road safety speed ad and that’s where the challenges came – it wasn’t in the execution, but in trying to get people to understand that it isn’t a traditional advertising idea.”

“But to have a client that goes: ‘Alright, do it’ – particularly a government client ... that has a bit of a knock-on effect,” said Roberts. “It made us go: ‘Well we’re going to let another team have some space too’. When you do the reverse and really button people down and freak them out, that’s when everyone gets rigid.

“If you give people space they normally surprise you.”

The full report including top agencies by region, top planners, and further insights on the most awarded companies and people for 2017 can be purchased through contacting sam.scott@thedrum.com

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