Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Patrick Melrose
The world’s largest media companies are throwing their weight behind original series in the belief strong IPs can serve as a launch pad to greater things. Disney boasts Marvel and Star Wars, AT&T snatched HBO-owner Time Warner and Netflix is building its unique proposition with annual content investments of more than $6.3bn.
European broadcaster Sky also understands the power of original content. It is aware that the top series need quality original marketing to cut through to – and resonate with – audiences. Often tasked with this is Sky’s in-house creative agency, helpfully named Sky Creative Agency.
When it's not composing rebrands for Sky's leading channels, or cutting promos for sports packages, the shop dedicates its time to promoting Sky's original drama. Its recent work included creating a buzz around original five-part miniseries Patrick Melrose. Starring actor Benedict Cumberbatch, the show drew from Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographic critique of upper class Britain and explored Melrose’s struggles with addiction following the death of his father in the 1980s.
Alastair Austin, broadcast creative at Sky, revealed the brief was to create a campaign that leveraged the show’s humour and darker tones, hinting at Melrose’s struggles with drink, drugs and his childhood abuse, without irking broadcast regulations by showing them explicitly.
To do so, the team retained a degree of creative freedom while seeking a sweet spot to hit, Austin explained: “You want to create a spot that is loved equally by the people making the series and those marketing it.”
Advertising regulations meant the show’s most pivotal addiction scenes couldn’t be shown in the UK; as a result the team had to get creative in how they showed Melrose's vices. The creative ran globally, with the lead shot of Cumberbatch fully-suited in the bath being the most memorable.
But it differed in the US and UK. In the States, where the show debuted on Showtime, Melrose wielded a cigarette and a glass of whisky. In the UK, the fags and booze were cut.
The still and motion promotions drew from Austin’s established storytelling formula. “It was about eliciting an emotional response in the viewers," he said. "Like any storytelling, you want a beginning, middle and end but mostly you want people to feel something after seeing it. [You want to] give them a flavour of what they’ll get more of when they come to the show itself.
Much of Austin and his team’s anxiety stemmed from whether they would actually be able to get Cumberbatch to play along.
“Would Benedict Cumberbatch be prepared to sit fully dressed in a bath of rapidly cooling water, all for a marketing campaign?" We now know the answer is yes.
"He hopped into the bath without complaint. But we were against the clock. We had a lot to achieve – motion and stills, with multiple angles of both to cover – while running the risk of giving our star pneumonia.”
The shoot was held before Cumberbatch had even performed Melrose on camera, and Austin noted that he could see the character form as the session went on.
“It was fascinating to watch Cumberbatch gradually refine his performance in front of us – building up to just the right blend of upper-class nonchalance and man-wrestling-with-his-demons.”
Several hundred frames and 90 minutes later there were enough shots to create a strong final composition. In the background, a gecko clutched to the bathroom wall. It was really there, and its professionalism was also praised by Austin…
It was a lot of effort for a promotional still but Austin asserted that it was necessary. “We aimed to create something iconic, simple enough to be grasped instantly but still true to a show’s reality. And it should be intriguing too – you have to hook a viewer in, with just enough information, not too many narrative cues.
“Seeing Cumberbatch fully dressed in a black suit and tie, sitting in a bath full of water, is both comic and disturbing; the bright pink title art completed our theme of ‘undercutting formality’ that drove the art direction. The result was a memorable campaign image and show identity that introduced Patrick Melrose to the world.”
Further accentuating the power of the creative, the Patrick Melrose book series also adopted the bathing Cumberbatch creative.
The work had to be strong enough to compete with media rivals also going to great efforts to publicise their work too, whether it is Netflix encasing a human in a bus stop (Altered Carbon) or sending creepy adblock messages to the public (Black Mirror), Channel 4 disturbing the public with fake corporate news (Humans), or HBO melting a block of ice live to excite fans about the return of Game of Thrones (an interesting fail).
Simon Buglione, agency director at Sky Creative Agency, told The Drum his hardest challenge is getting Sky Originals to stand out in a saturated market filled with top TV. If great original content is to be the driver of all media giants, it is the marketing that will break the deadlock.
Buglione said: “There are two keys for us; always be true to the show and communicate clearly what it is, and secondly make sure that above all, the work has an impact wherever and however it is seen.”
The agency now carries the burden of making these originals a success. “Internally it always feels more like a shared passion to succeed over the pressure to perform and that is what drives us to create exceptional work.”
The promotions ran across Sky's ecosystem but the UK also saw digital out of home placements in major train stations and paid social on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The brand also brokered media partnerships with the likes of the Radio Times.
As the agency matures, it is finding it easier to execute such campaigns. Its current challenges are balancing broadcast and marketing clients, and to pool talent across many disciplines.
Buglione said: “Sky Creative Agency has evolved out of what used to be Sky’s broadcast services operation and we have retained a lot of the skills and experience from that period and overlaid it with the broader agency functions you would expect to see in an external agency.”
He added: “Culturally this has represented a big shift in the way we perceive ourselves as an organisation, both internally and in the context of the wider industry. Like any business transformation this was a challenge but having gone through it we are now in great shape.”
Although he places all plaudits for the Emmy nominations on the show itself, he concluded: “In a crowded market, great work with a great plan can absolutely make the difference.”
It helps that Cumberbatch's performance has been described as a "career best" by some critics.
Patrick Melrose is nominated for five Emmy awards at the ceremony tonight (17 September). Time will tell if Patrick Melrose sweeps other shows in its categories.