Every creative has one - a bold idea that never quite made the cut; a concept that made the client balk; a pitch gone wrong. The Drum’s new series takes a look at the best ads that never ran and speaks to the creatives behind them.
First up is David Billing, chief creative officer at Above + Beyond, who tells us about the mischievously daring Pilgrims Choice campaign that never was…
When David Billing and his Above + Beyond team went in to pitch for the Pilgrims Choice and Kerrygold ad accounts in 2017, they walked out with the business and went on to make the former’s ‘Cheese Dreams’ work – perpetrating the old wives’ tale that strong cheese before bed led to strange and unusual dreams.
The original brief was to disrupt what the “low-interest, low involvement” dairy category where people primarily buy whatever’s on promotion and Pilgrims Choice wanted people to actively engage in its choice of cheddar and to be “the enemy of the bland”, recounts Biling.
However, before deciding on the final iteration that would run, the client, Mike Harper, marketing director of Pilgrims' parent company Ornua, wanted a sneak peek at the concepts that didn’t make it to the pitch table.
“I don’t think we’d realised how creatively ambitious the client was initially,” says Billing. “So, after the pitch, when Mike asked us to share work we hadn’t pitched – out of interest – we felt emboldened and ready to air a couple of ideas which hadn’t been fully ready by the time of the pitch.
“And as fairly edgy or ‘out there’ ideas, they needed thinking through properly or they’d blow up in our faces. Now, with a little time, we worked up and presented the client a further two great platforms that felt like legitimate places for the brand to play with."
Among this list of alternatives was ‘Make Sure it's PC' – a concept that played with the idea of political correctness (or being 'PC') while baking in the brand name and initials.
It was an idea that split opinion even within the Above + Beyond team and as they headed up to Ornua’s headquarters in Leek, Staffordshire Billing admits he was “having all sorts of difficult conversations with strategists.”
Bold and provocative, the 'Make Sure it's PC' work aimed to induce its audience to misstep and make them jump to conclusions.
“Work that makes you confront your own prejudices, even in a fun way like this, is rare,” notes Billing. “It’s doing a sumo move where it’s using the vast weight of the cultural baggage around something like ‘political correctness’ to its own advantage.”
The whole design of ‘Make Sure it’s PC’ was to present the audience with scenarios that made out some prior inappropriate behaviour, that could offend political sensibilities, had ensued.
With the audience then pulled into a seemingly politically incorrect narrative, it soon becomes clear that the subject matter is, in fact, a matter of bad cheese.
One of the TV ads Billing presented at the pitch involved a meeting between three women; two women in their twenties looking distraught, and the other a grandmother looking disgusted and infuriated. As they sit together, the old lady lambastes the girls, saying things like “oh wow, it’s just unnatural. I won’t accept it; you should be ashamed of yourselves.”
Billing explains: “And you’re just thinking, oh god they’ve come out to her. It’s this moment they’ve chosen, and she doesn’t approve.”
“Until [the camera pans out] and you see this plate of cheap cheese and biscuits in front of them. And the voiceover goes: ‘Oh no, that’s just not PC.’”
Following a similar template, another ad saw a couple of older men on a bench in the park, observing two others playing frisbee with their tops off.
The old men are then shown criticising the men, saying things like 'oh I'm not sure about this, this is not my cup of tea, we shouldn't have to put up with it.' Again, the audience is confronted by its own prejudices, when it’s revealed they’re at a loss over the 'plasticky' cheese one of the lads has in his lunch box.
Billing felt the idea "had a lot of legs" and conceived that the campaign could even play around with media planning and expand into the world of 'newsjacking' – running ads saying ‘Oh dear, that’s just not PC' alongside relevant pieces of news. For instance, this would have worked if "if Prince Philip had done something dreadful" said Billing.
Another idea saw Above + Beyond pitch public service announcement-esque posters for ‘Victims of un-PC behaviour to offer support to “people who have been served the wrong cheese and lived to tell the tale.”
Just as Billing was hesitant as to whether the idea had crossed the line between appropriate and inappropriate line, the client, Harper, put his mind at ease: "I absolutely love this, and we could do something with it," he said.
So why didn't the work run?
Job done, you would think. But alas, the ad never saw the light of day.
"Not because the client was at all nervous about it. In fact, far from it,” explains Billing. Instead, the concept failed to get through research due to a lack of understanding from audiences over what ‘PC’ meant in a cultural context.
Billing recounts how the term PC: “Didn't mean anything to people."
He adds: "In the [London] bubble, we think everyone knows what PC means," but it wasn't the case.
Somewhere along the line, the message was getting lost, and after hearing the scripts, the research group wasn't putting two and two together.
“I think if you’ve got this job whereby, you’re trying to get people to jump to a conclusion, they’ve got to understand where it is they’re being pointed,” Billing explains, “What does PC mean to you? Literally, some people said, well computers.”
Although the provocative Pilgrims' Choice campaign never got the airtime it deserved, Billing looks back on the pitch warmly. “I loved it, for a bunch of reasons. It’s definitely edgy. And as such it would have punched about its media weight. Like all the best stuff, it was pretty polarising,” says Billing.
“It would have been hard to write this stuff, you’re always treading a line, and who’s to say how long it would have been before it had blown up in our faces,” he admits.
Even so, to this day, Billing “thinks of the campaign that got away with a big smile.”