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By Amy Houston, Senior Reporter

February 2, 2024 | 7 min read

We catch up with Richard James, creative director at Specsavers, to find out how the optical brand’s in-house creative department manages to keep things funny.

‘Should’ve gone to Specsavers’ is one of those slogans that has transcended advertising to become ingrained in people’s everyday vernacular. Since the tagline’s inception in 2002, the optical retail chain has not only clung to those four words but has run with them and created its own brand of humor in the process.

From its clever out-of-home activations to its playful Twitter banter, the team at Specsavers has managed to consistently captivate audiences with its recognizable wit and its latest offering, for which it brought in Father Ted and Ted Lasso director Declan Lowney, is no exception.

The spot, ‘Airport,’ has been crafted without any dialogue and relies heavily on visual and physical comedy and creative director Richard James tells The Drum: “We wanted to do something different, to really up the spectacle, I suppose, and go big, trying to build as much enjoyment into every moment of the ad that we possibly could and, of course, landing on a huge reveal that adds lots of jeopardy.”

That intensity starts as viewers are introduced to a couple called Ella and Greg, who are about to head off on holiday. While Ella manages to check in and get through security with ease, Greg, who was left to park the car, faces an obstacle-strewn dash to make the flight, with an inevitable comic pay-off.

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What seems like a simple idea takes quite a long time to land on, says James, with the whole process taking around eight months to complete from start to finish. The team “wrote and wrote and wrote,” he says, “probably ending up with 60 or 70 ideas” before whittling them down.

“That process is actually very long, making all those decisions and getting the buy-in from everyone. When you see these ads on the page, they’re not necessarily ‘haha.’ You have a bit of a leap of faith to go from page to screen.”

There’s a process of making the wider team believe that, in the end, the spots will be funny. Lowney was crucial at that stage, too, and worked closely with everyone collaboratively.

“Declan is someone that we’ve admired for a long time; we’ve always thought that he would be a good fit for us and the stars just haven’t aligned before. He cared about the product and understood the physical comedy aspect of it. He’s got such a legacy of brilliant work that you always feel you’re in safe hands and he comes without a big ego.”

Placing the characters within an airport gave the creatives plenty of scope for fun scenarios and different personalities, but with a tagline that is so well-known and well-loved, there is no escaping the pressure to get it right every time. “It’s a nightmare! The legacy can weigh heavy. You’re always thinking, ’This is such a precious thing and I don’t want to be the one who messes it up!’”

Everyone feels this pressure, he says, because it’s important not only for the business but for the public, too, as they have embraced it in such an extraordinary way. “Walking into the first edit is awful,” he laughs. “You’re just thinking, ’What if it doesn’t work?’”

Fortunately, there’s such a good team at Specsavers that that nightmare rarely becomes a reality. “Comedy is hard work. It’s also an absolute joy because, you know, what a thing to work on. It’s fantastic, something that the public loves, something that does so much good for the business.”

So, why does it all work so well? For James, it’s about the relatability of it all. “Everyone sees themselves in the advertising. Not everyone is a vet or a shepherd in the Faroe Islands or Basil Fawlty, but everyone recognizes themselves in it.”

It’s the silly little moments, like waving at the wrong person across the street or driving down the wrong road, that people can connect with. “We just blow them up and make them really big. It doesn’t talk down to people at all. It’s very much of the people and I think that helps. What’s unusual about it as well is that it doesn’t show any product.

“I always say it feels a bit like a mate in a bar telling you a story. That’s what’s so nice about it, really; it’s sort of unaffected.”

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The reason Specsavers continues to get it right, he says, is because the ads are all done in-house by a close-knit creative team, the benefit of that being that they are always close to the business and understand it more than anyone else could.

“You can kind of open the bonnet, see the engine and what’s going on. It allows consistency and allows us to continually make great work. I think that is a function of being in-house because it’s not changing all the time, you know? There’s not someone new coming in all the time.”

The TV spot breaks today and initially runs for eight weeks, alongside cinema, video-on-demand, digital video, press and social. There is also a huge out-of-home activation that will be going live across bus shelters, petrol pumps, shopping centers and motorways, with the location of the ads teeing up fails that might occur there, such as putting the wrong fuel in your cars or getting on the wrong bus.

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