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By Amy Houston, Senior Reporter

April 14, 2023 | 7 min read

Forget the usual banking tropes of rainy days and friendly tellers, this ad is like a scene straight out of Severance or a page from Orwell’s 1984. Here’s what really went into making it.

Straying so far from your typical banking ad left John Rocco, the global marketing head at Scotiabank subsidiary Tangerine, pretty nervous, he admits.

“We’d been looking for a way to restate what the brand is,” he explains, adding that while its tagline, ‘Forward Thinking’, really meant something when it launched as one of the first digital banks in Canada, times had changed and technology had moved on so much that it was no longer enough to set it apart.

The brief he took to agency partner Rethink, he says, was: “What do we stand for? How do we position ourselves and create some distance between competitors that have caught up?”

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Manifesting and articulating this slogan was crucial to the beginning of this process. With such an open brief, it allowed Rethink to work its magic with a strategic and creative process. “We dig shallow holes, which means we don’t dig deep on one particular thing,” says Aaron Starkman, the global chief creative officer at the agency. “Ultimately, we focused on the brand belief and purpose, which is removing barriers that get in the way of living your life.”

His team really went to town and came up with a ton of ideas, one of which included a hamster wheel that people just couldn’t get off. While that idea ultimately got binned, the wheel itself stayed in everyone’s minds. “It was visually arresting and felt cool and interesting for a bank,“ says the creative, so his team went about dreaming up further representations of this never-ending cycle of financial woes. And then they nailed it.

“Jumping through hoops! What an interesting way to talk about unnecessary barriers or overly complex things.”

The team began exploring what these hoops could be in the real world, from hard plastic packaging on food that is incredibly annoying to remove to the difficulties of getting out of a gym membership. They compiled a lot of different relatable moments that just feel a bit tedious and then, as the script started to get fleshed out, added physical hoops to the scenes.

Tangerine loved the pitch, so the agency began talks with Nick Ball, but the famed director had a very different interpretation of the campaign, says Starkman, and he scrapped some of the initial ideas. “He took it to this crazy place, this dystopian world, and we just fell in love. We were scared, but we fell in love with it.”

It’s a feeling Rocco knows all too well and he tells us that he didn’t want to be too comfortable with the director’s edit, because if it didn’t push the concept to the extreme then the finished ad wouldn’t cut it. “That’s where the relationship comes in. There’s a fine balance when doing things like this. I need to feel like I’m on the cusp of being fired.

“There needs to be that comfort in being uncomfortable and trusting your creative partners. At the end of the day, I work for a bank, we’re regulated and generally pretty conservative, but I have a responsibility to make work that’s going to stand out while not putting the bank in any kind of reputational danger.”

Ball was the one who suggested the ad focus on a single character and the relationship between creatives and client was so concrete it forced Starkman to do something he never does, stepping back from it and putting his entire faith in the director and production. “I was trusting this whole thing, but I was uncomfortable. I found myself playing therapist, to myself and also to the clients.”

Throughout the shoot in a derelict subway station in Serbia, Ball was playing ominous drone music for hours upon hours, which really added to the intense, dystopian vibes. “You’re looking at something and it is going to be a two-and-a-half-second shot, but we’re hearing it unfold for 20 minutes,” says Starkman. He knew they wanted a repetitive track, but not quite as foreboding. “We couldn’t take it that far.”

It was a complex shoot, agree Starkman and Rocco. The beauty of it, though, was that there was an actual set with props. The hoops you see in the ad and the piles of paper were all there in real life. “It was wild,” says Rocco. “The paper came from a recycling plant; no pieces of paper were harmed!”

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Cold, dark and damp is how he describes the experience. “Our feet were cold the entire shoot. It was very fast-paced, intense. A lot of screaming in Serbian to the extras to get in line.”

Rocco says it felt like they got “five days into three” during the shoot. What got them through the chill was the excitement of what they were seeing before them. The actor they cast turned out to be a one-take wonder and just nailed it. “We got through it quickly and on time. It was one of the least stressful shoots I’ve been on. Nothing went off the rails.”

The ad is all about exaggeration and repetition, but at the crux of it, the team knew they needed to make the audience feel they were understood. “I got a text from a colleague who is an exec at a competitive bank,” says Rocco. “It read, ’now that is how you make a campaign.’”

Listen to the full conversation as part of The Drum’s Anatomy of an Ad podcast series.

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