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Getting weird with Impero’s Michael Scantlebury

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By Sam Anderson | Editor, The Drum Network

April 5, 2022 | 6 min read

Kiwi Michael Scantlebury is founder and executive creative director at London-based creative agency Impero. Calling it “the agency for impatient brands,” Scantlebury isn’t afraid of a big idea. We sat down with him to talk about attention, impatience and the growing importance of weirdness.

A strange road sign, with a UFO and a cow

Want to cut through all the digital noise? Time to get weird, says Impero’s Michael Scantlebury / Bruce Warrington via Unsplash

Now about 50-strong, the story behind creative agency Impero’s name has arguably lost its meaning. “It loosely means ‘empire’ in Latin,” says founder-director Michael Scantlebury. “I just thought it was funny to call an agency of only one person ‘empire.’” The meaning of ‘impero’ is arguably closer to ‘I command’ – but the point stands.

Scantlebury is a veteran founder, having sold two tech and content startups in his native New Zealand: dining guide Menus to APN (now Here, There & Everywhere) and movies hub Flicks to cinema tech company Vista. After the sale of the latter, he moved to London and founded the agency.

From day one Scantlebury’s been preoccupied with the challenge posed by dwindling attention spans and cutting through the ever-expanding noise of the internet. Those early ventures did that directly by gathering and curating restaurant and cinema information, respectively. At Impero, tackling the pace of culture is the core of what he offers to clients.

Early on, he says, he noticed that the speed of agencies “somehow seems to be slowing down while everything else is getting faster.” Agencies’ success, he thought, depends on helping brands keep pace: “The difference between brands that work and brands that don’t is that brands that work are constantly doing things, and they’ve got an ongoing conversation with consumers.”

Always-on and sometimes weird

There’s a term for perpetual pace-keeping: ‘always on.’ There’s still value in that philosophy, Scantlebury says – as long as you go further than its old meaning of “pumping minor shit into the internet.” Rather, “it’s about connecting to culture and producing things on an ongoing basis.”

Against a backdrop of countless always-on brands (not to mention always-on influencers and always-on Joe Publics), Scantlebury says the biggest risk a brand can take is being boring. When consumers are assailed by thousands of TikTok ads, tweets and ads every day (all algorithmically tuned to excite brains and hook attention), producing nice, good, acceptable content simply won’t cut it. “We’re always stimulated by new stuff, and we’re chasing stimulation,” he says. “Producing wallpaper or the expected makes it too hard for brains; it makes it too hard to get great results. We have to be a little bit weird to at least have a fighting chance of standing out.”

There is, in other words, a kind of universal competition for attention, where brands no longer compete in their category or even in their own world, but with smart kids who know how to stuff 500 things into a TikTok, and Twitter trolls who know how to dominate an hour of our lives with a single post. “If you make biscuits, it’s not the biscuits that you should be worried about. It’s the kid with the TikTok views going through the roof. If you’re going to try and interrupt that with a piece of content, it’s got to be better than it.”

The good news? The sharpest tool advertisers have is their oldest: weirdness – which is to say, creativity. Scantlebury’s favorite example of using a glittering signal to cut through droning noise isn’t a metaverse activation or Fortnite crossover, but one of adland’s favorite case studies: Hathaway Shirts. In the ad, a well-dressed gentleman sports one of the shirts – and an eyepatch, with no explanation.

“The story goes that it was just a decision on the day to put the guy in an eyepatch because it was slightly weird,” explains Scantlebury. “It stopped people flicking through magazines to go, ‘that guy’s got an patch.’ It wasn’t a big strategy. It wasn’t a whole research assignment. It was just, ‘fuck it, give the guy an eyepatch and we might get more people to stop and look at us.’”

The weirdness arms race

The problem is that any particular weirdness has a shelf life, and new techniques follow the law of diminishing returns. ‘Fuck it, give the guy an eyepatch’ won’t cut it any more.

“It’s an arms race,” says Scantlebury. A year ago, 3D-effect billboards were incredibly exciting; now everyone’s doing them. The same goes for other recent headline-grabbing moves. A cynic might see that kind of accelerationism as a cause for concern, making the creative’s job ever more difficult until, eventually, the ideas are all used up.

Scantlebury is more optimistic: “It would make things harder if we’re willing to believe there’s a finite number of ideas in the world. But that’s not true. There’re always new ways to think about things. In some ways, it makes it easier, because we’ve got so many different platforms to show up on and create attention.

“Trends are going to come and go, but trends have always came and went and people are always going to do new weird and fun and exciting stuff. But that’s our job: to continuously do new fun, exciting, weird stuff.”

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The creative agency for impatient brands.

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