An Hour of Advertising with… Trak Ellis-Hill, executive creative director, Mofilm

In an Hour of Advertising, Matt Williams sits down for a drink and a chat with some of the industry's most inspirational people. Then he publishes the results pretty much verbatim.

Trak Ellis-Hill oversees the biggest creative department on the planet. That’s what you get when you’re executive creative director of Mofilm, which sources content creators and filmmakers from all over the world to create brand campaigns.

It’s a concept that’s been treated with various dollops of curiosity, jealousy, cynicism and admiration by the industry.

For a creative like Trak, who marries empathy with a straight-talking, strong-willed demeanour, you can see why it works. She’s a natural collaborator, who knows how to spot and build an idea.

And bringing to life big ideas is exactly what I was so keen to speak to her about. How do you know when to run with an idea and when to let go? How do you change the way you create when you’re working alone, with a creative partner, or with a cast of thousands?

They’re all questions that Trak’s uniquely positioned to answer. Starting out at Agency Republic, she’s also spent time at the likes of Cheil and Karmarama, as well as freelancing at pretty much every top agency in town. She’s an important voice in the industry’s debate around diversity too, a topic that she attacks with passion towards the end of our conversation.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, we’ll start with the usual killer question. And before even that, a brilliant ad. Because for this series of An Hour of Advertising, we’re going to try something a little different. I’m asking each interviewee to pick four pieces of work that inspire them. After all, these interviews aim to get under the skin of great creativity, and what better way to do that than ask what the best in the business consider to be the best in the business…

Work Trak loves #1

Always: Like a girl

So arresting, so moving, so positively provocative. A brand really and credibly going on a social mission. It embarrassed me as a woman that I allowed this language to exist, and made me grateful that someone had landed the idea. I wish I’d made it.

Part one: entering the industry playground, following creative instincts and working with old guys in their thirties…

Do you remember the first time in your career that you really fucked up?

It’s really easy to remember! I didn’t know anything about the world of advertising when I first got into it. I had been at my first agency for about two months, in a producer role, and we’d won an award for Blockbuster – remember them!? I was really green, really trying to impress but also trying to be confident and sparky. And someone dropped out of the awards do, so I got to go in their place.

As soon as I walked in the door of the event, there were trays of champagne everywhere. I was in my early twenties, living in a shit flat, hadn’t ever really drunk champagne before, so I just followed the lead of those around me. I guzzled as much champagne as I could, thinking ‘yeah, this is agency life’. Within a few hours I was utterly sloshed, under the table, head on the client’s feet. The next day I got a right bollocking – ‘we invited you because we thought you could represent the agency’.

So it was a proper ticking off?

They really did give me a proper slap on the wrists. And it was a real learning. That this industry is a sort of ‘play as hard as you work’ place. That your work and your lifestyle do merge, and it’s important to bring your real self and your experiences into your work – that’s part of being creative. But you also have to have some restraint, some structures and an element of professionalism. I didn’t stop getting drunk, but I did have a line, and I was more conscious of it.

It is a strange industry to enter straight out of college, such is the blur between work and play…

It is. Because it can feel like an extension of university. OK, everyone’s a bit older and they’ve got slightly more expensive clothes, but it’s a playground. That’s how you get to interesting work – by being playful, by having some fun, by using your imagination. So there’s this culture of being sociable – with colleagues and clients. I suppose the culture of ‘excess’ was stronger back in the day, so there should be less chance of crossing the line now, but when you’re entering into this world for the first time, some people find it hard to know where the line is.

So does the ‘playground’ itself still exist?

Yeah I think so. I think the industry has grown-up – when I entered 16 years ago I went straight into a digital shop, Agency Republic and everything was really ‘brand new’. You’d get big budgets to just ‘experiment’ and ‘play’. But as digital changed and became more multi-faceted, agencies had to change and grow up a bit too, because they had to be more accountable. And that trend has continued as data has become more prominent within agencies. People still want to innovate and come up with new ideas, but you know that to do that you have to follow the data and the metrics…

…Which inevitably feels less playful…

Yes, and maybe things are actually changing back again. As a creative you want to follow your instinct. To go with your gut on an idea and get a client to buy into a feeling. Ideas are sometimes difficult to anchor. Sometimes you have to take a leap. And there’s a decision now that agencies are having to make – what path are they going to go down? Where’s the balance for them between being a ‘data-led’ organisation and being a ‘creative-led’ one?

Working at an agency like Agency Republic, being part of the ‘pure-play digital’ tribe, did it feel very different to the big ad agencies on the other side of town? And did starting out there shape your attitude to agencies forward?

It definitely did, but I’m not sure I realised that at the time. I didn’t have anything to compare it to. But looking back now, it was so different. It was led by such young people. Martin Brooks was running Agency Republic back then, and to me he was this older guy to look up to, this really experienced man. He was only in his thirties. Everybody was very young, which made it really fertile ground for interesting creative. It was very dynamic and fast moving.

It was only when moving to agencies that were much more grounded in traditional above-the-line practices that I realised how different things were elsewhere. To them, digital was a dirty word. When they had to bring it in-house, they had to buy up other shops because alone they wouldn’t have a clue where to start. And I did find working in those agencies much more formal. There were proper hierarchies that digital agencies didn’t have. Creatives really were elevated above the rest – they did have corner offices with sofas and a beer fridge, and you had to knock at the door to enter. It was a real ‘them and us’ mentality.

Work Trak loves #2

Sport England: This Girl Can

The honest portrayal, the authenticity, the powerful positive message… and the banging Missy Elliot track! It set the tone for a style and a message then repeated by many other brands. A winner for me.

Part two: stealing writing briefs, finding polymaths and the fear of freelancing…

You moved from a producer to a creative – what sparked the change?

For me specifically, when I got into the industry I was just desperate for a job. I had a journalism degree but didn’t want to be a journalist. And I had a mate who was at Agency Republic, so he told me to come and be a producer there. I took the job and, because I still liked the idea of being a writer, I started to sneak myself little writing briefs. But that’s because I could – at a place like Agency Republic you could be tenacious. I’m not sure how that compares to a traditional ad agency. I imagine you have to ‘steadily climb the ladder’.

Does that affect the way you hire now?

Oh definitely. I like to look for those who are a bit more polymathic. When seeking out new talent, or like I am at Mofilm, working with different creators from around the world, I’m always looking for those authentic voices, those people who blur the lines between being a producer and a creative, a strategist and a maker. Sometimes I think that’s ok, I think that’s good.

Sometimes there has to be a line. You need someone to be accountable for a discipline, a department, their stake in the work. But I think it’s important to be open to crossing those boundaries at times, to be collaborative and to be surprised by where an idea can come from.

You then went on to a spell doing freelance work – was freelance something that always appealed, or was it forced upon? What was your approach?

I thought it was terrifying. The idea of being a freelancer was terrifying. The idea of not knowing where your next job might come, or the feeling of not being good enough, terrified me. I liked having a safe place to belong. Going against that feeling was hard. I had definite imposter syndrome that held me back at times.

So what changed?

Fairly early on in my career I moved to Brighton. And I ended up getting a job at pretty much the only Brighton agency there was. It was a small outfit that mainly worked on tourism and financial stuff, but they gave me the freedom to be both a producer and a creative, and I hooked up with an art director who was encouraging me to finally bin the producer part of my role. I knew I was only doing the joint role because I was afraid of calling myself a ‘creative’.

So that was in the back of my mind, and then we were made redundant. That’s a pretty big driver! Our whole department was seemingly made redundant overnight, and the two of us just decided to go freelance together.

How were the first few months as a freelance?

We just had to be brave. I don’t necessarily believe in ‘faking it until you make it’, but there’s something about being able to sell your best qualities, not being afraid to say ‘yes, I can do that’. And then once you’re in it, you just get it done. You do what you have to do, learn what you need to learn to do a good job.

I think that’s how you move forward and upward in most careers. By acting up a little bit. Trying to shift yourself up a notch to live those new aspirations you have, bit by bit.

It feels to me that agencies have very different approaches to treating and working with freelancers. How did you find the differences going into different agencies?

I’ve definitely experienced the spectrum. I’ve made sure that when I bring freelancers into my team, that they’re welcomed in and inducted into the culture as much as possible.

I’ve been at places where you’re there months and months, you pull long hours, you work weekends, you go on the shoots, and then when it comes to the Christmas Party you’re not invited. I’ve been there. And I don’t really understand that. If you want to get the best out of people, you need to make it feel as if you’re all one family. You’re all part of one culture, one team, and to have empathy and inclusion. A bit of humanity goes a long way. Freelancers often have that feeling of ‘not belonging’, of always being the new guy or girl. The better agencies to my mind are conscious of it.

It sounds like you became a creative team almost by accident – but what would you say you look for in a creative partner?

It’s an interesting question because I never, when I started in advertising, imagined that I’d have a creative partner. In fact, I was freelancing somewhere once at an outfit called Blast Radius, and I met my very good friend Jo Tomlin. And I remember her finding it really alien that I’d come to the industry without any formal training or ad school! She was my creative partner for a bit too.

I have met a lot of people like me. I always liked that there were a lot of other random nomads who were just ‘finding their way through’ - who hadn’t been to art school, who didn’t have a creative partner, who hadn’t learnt ‘how to come up with ideas’. Yes, half of the industry has trained to do it, but a lot of us wanted to be artists or writers and then fell into this advertising because it was a place to be creative and a place where we could be ourselves.

So when it comes to finding a creative partner, I don’t really know. I suppose we shared many of our values. There was work that we were both happy to say ‘no’ to. It didn’t even matter if we were saying no to really good money, we both knew that we had to ‘believe’ in the work: it wasn’t necessarily that the budgets had to be amazing, or the brief had to be amazing, but we had to be excited to do it.

So it’s important to have similar values, but do you need to be similar in approach to work too?

Well it does need to be someone you can spend time with. Because it really is like a marriage. The breakups can be pretty nasty too – mine wasn’t but I’ve heard some horror stories. It needs to be someone you can be honest with. You have to get on. You need similarities you can bond over.

Then of course you need some differences, because you need to have distinct perspectives to come up with good ideas. When there are just two of you in a room all day, you need to be able to shut each other down or lift each other up. You need to be able to tell each other when an idea is terrible, or when you’re really on to something.

Work Trak loves #3

Sony Bravia: Balls

I loved everything about this spot and the campaign that followed. Such a pure and simple idea – it looked gorgeous, perfectly landed Sony’s 'colour like no other’ message, and appeared to be a heck of a lot of fun to make for the enormous crew of white men involved. Plus, it introduced me to Jose Gonzalez.

Part three: the art of coming up with new ideas, moving away from the traditional agency department and ‘letting go’ of creative work…

So how do you like to come up with ideas? And does it change between having a creative partner and not?

I’m a person who needs time to think about things. Once I really get my head into a brief, get to pull it apart and understand a client and their needs, then I’m pretty good at coming up with ideas quite quickly. And I think for me that it’s important not to overthink something. You can realise after two weeks of sticking post-it notes up on walls that often your best idea was your first one, and instinct plays a lot in that.

But I don’t think instinct is this magical, ethereal thing that some people have and some people don’t, I think instinct is based on your experience. Not just knowledge, but your general soaking up of the things and people around you: the things you’ve heard and seen, your upbringing, the culture that you associate with. You work hard to develop that ‘instinct’.

And that also comes by spending a lot of time immersing upfront?

You really need to know your brand super well. You need to know the product. Know the audience. Know the client: what they want to achieve, what they want to say, how they want to reach people. That’s always going to be the starting point.

I also think there are different types of creative. I’m quite pragmatic and often quite practical in my thinking. And I’ve worked with lots of people who are often more ‘madcap’ wildcard geniuses. For me, that’s why collaboration is important, because you do need people who push and challenge you. And even if you’re working as I am at the moment, where it’s a small team tapping into a community of creatives around the world, you can bounce ideas around without fear. Whatever your studio setup, you need to have an environment where you can all share ideas and not have one person who gets to dictate the direction the work takes. Dampening that ego allows for more interesting creative ideas to come through.

Is that what attracted you to Mofilm? As you say, it is a bit of a departure from working in a traditional agency department…

What we’re doing at Mofilm is trying to tap into truly authentic stories and real voices, so it’s more about letting those filmmakers take the lead. We develop the strategy and starting points, and then they come back to us with really quite unique and original thinking. So for me, I’m still doing the same job, what I don’t have is more ‘practiced’ creative teams in-house, shaping or engineering ideas. It really is much more raw and interesting and resonant.

I get insights all the time from filmmakers that I never imagined I would. You think one thing about an audience, but when you reach out to a creative within that audience, they blow apart your preconceptions. They give you an entirely new perspective, which often we take back to our clients and say, ‘we know you think this about your audience, but this is what’s really happening out there and is something we should jump on right now.’

So, it’s very fast moving but it allows us to be a more nimble team. There’s less infrastructure, fewer layers, you have fewer big meetings with 25 people in there all at once. It’s quite freeing, and you can just focus on the work.

Is it hard to not be as ‘precious’ with the work? Accepting that the filmmakers you’re working with know the audience better than you?

Well creative people are generally quite precious, and yet working in advertising work isn’t your art. It doesn’t belong to you. I’m not an artist, I don’t have the luxury of spending all my time on something that’s ‘just for me’. I have to answer a brief. My creativity and my teams’ creativity have to do a job: it has to inform, it has to speak to other people, and it has to be effective in some way.

So I learnt early on that you can’t be afraid to say what you really think, you can’t be afraid to share your ideas even if they may be half-baked or if you’re not sure they’re right – there’s always more time and more pens and paper to make new ideas – but you just have to get them out there and be OK to have them torn apart.

Is there a bit more hand-holding in your role than there perhaps would have been in an agency, given the Mofilm proposition is a bit different to the ways a client may have previously been working?

I think often when clients come to work with us that they have to take a bit of a leap. The model isn’t widely different, but there are definitely fewer layers, so there is much more of a ‘roll your sleeves up and get stuck in’ attitude that needs to be embraced. But I think that’s what brands are craving – to see a more collaborative ‘togetherness’ between the makers, the agency, and their own team.

Clients know we have this massive community of filmmakers – filmmakers who are ready to go right now. Which means we can turn work around much faster and get to the truth of ideas much faster too. Because of that authenticity, it doesn’t take weeks and months to get to an idea. There are lots of interesting new ideas coming from diverse creative voices out there who have real stories in their back pocket. That’s what attracted me to Mofilm and I think that’s what clients see too. You can just get closer to the work – I think clients enjoy having a closer proximity to the creative process.

Work Trak loves #4

Lynx: Men In Progress, Boys Don’t Cry

Finally, with this film, and the series it belongs to, the brand started its redeeming journey towards reversing a decades-long contribution to sexism and damaging male stereotyping. The first time I saw this film was in an awards judging room and it made me cry, so it got my vote.

Part four: the nuances of maternity leave, the industry’s gender division and the art of commuting…

You took a job at Mofilm whilst you were pregnant, working there for six weeks before going away on maternity leave. How did you find that maternity leave? You hear so many different approaches that people take…

The first time round I was so new to Mofilm that the weeks before maternity leave were just a case of getting to know the company a little bit. But for my second period maternity leave I’d been at Mofilm for a couple of years and that was a bit different.

I found having two kids utterly overwhelming. I dealt with having one quite well, and then the second child came along and it was MENTAL! Those first three months it felt like 1+1 equalled 7. And so the first maternity leave it took me a good few weeks – even though a baby was here – to shake off the feeling that I should be going to work, that I had loose ends, should be making phone calls, etc. The second time around I didn’t think about work for a second!

So it was just a case of survival!?

Towards the end things changed, of course. We had a few ‘keeping in touch days’, I went in a couple of times, got up to speed on a few projects. It was all very relaxed and really lovely, but that was only able to happen towards the end!

The biggest surprise for me coming back – and bearing in mind I was coming back into a really supportive, lovely group of people that’s largely female-led – was the relationship between my maternity cover and me. I came back to work about a month before I was ‘officially’ coming back so I could attend a team away day that we do every year. And Lorie Jo explained to me that she felt like the ‘step-mum’ of the family at Mofilm. She didn’t realise she’d do a year of maternity cover and feel so sad to hand back the keys.

And I hadn’t really considered that. I hadn’t thought the dynamics of the team could change. That I’d have to come back and not only fit back in, but then also have to consider how things would be affected if I wanted to make certain changes back to what they were. Technically it’s ‘my team’, I’m the one in the ‘leadership role’, but it’s not as simple as that. It’s sort of a negotiation between two ‘owners’ of one role. A year is a long time – it’s not a temporary moment that can just be discarded, it’s quite a complex situation you come back in to.

You mention there that Mofilm has a ‘largely female-led’ leadership team. That shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does in this industry, should it?

Definitely not. Obviously, it’s changing, but it’s changing slowly. We keep saying ‘it’s changing’, but you can’t take your eye off the ball, you really have to keep moving the needle when it comes to representation and diversity. Making sure you have people in your agency who come from different backgrounds – not just a gender split but differences in ethnicity, and sexual identity, and education too.

I think when I started, I didn’t realise that it was going to be a big issue. Because actually at Agency Republic it was really very mixed. There were a lot of brilliant female leaders. I’m not sure I realised when I was inside that bubble that it wasn’t the same elsewhere. I don’t think being a woman in a male-dominated industry has, on the outside, massively impacted my career – I’m quite outspoken, quite strong-willed and unafraid to challenge people, which helps – but I’ve definitely had experiences where it has affected me.

In what way?

There have been comments that have affected me, where I’ve been perceived to be a ‘lesser’ figure than my male counterparts or even my creative partner. You do notice it. It’s certainly not true at all to say that ‘every man I’ve ever worked with is terrible’, I’ve worked with some very inspiring, clever and empathetic men – and I’ve worked with some very difficult women! But I’ve come across people – mainly men – who do look down on you because you’re a woman, and for most people that can really affect self-esteem and self-worth. It can affect how brave you are in putting forward new ideas. So I think it’s important to see that change happen, and we need people to see that change being made with conviction.

You say being inherently outspoken helps, but are there any other ways that have helped you thrive and be part of this change?

I’ve also surrounded myself throughout my life with brilliant, interesting, strong, creative women. I’m married to one! My best friends are all that way! I think it’s about having a really good support network. But hopefully more and more, your support network will come from your peers and your leaders too, because they’ll be more open and understanding of the differences that we all have, and how actually it’s a credit and a benefit to have those differences under one roof.

Mofilm is a very international business – how do you approach working within such a global network?

I think ‘travel’ within a business context used to be seen as a huge benefit. You get the glamour of jumping on a plane and going to a glossy location to shoot something or for an all-expenses-paid meeting. But as we’re becoming more ethically and financially conscious, it’s just unnecessary, actually. So I think these excesses should no longer be the ‘norm’.

Certainly that’s never been truer for me than at Mofilm, because we have these creators all around the world, building local content that resonates with a specific audience. We don’t need to clock up air miles to know that. We’ve got technology that allows us to attend shoots via a stream should we need – it’s not psychologically the same as being there, but once you adapt it does the job. We’ve got all this brilliant networking and conferencing technology that allows us to put our filmmakers face-to-face with our clients. It’s a faster, slicker way of working, it’s more efficient, and you can spend more time doing ‘the work’, rather than ‘the travel’.

Moving from ‘global travel’ to more ‘local travel’ – you moved to Brighton pretty early on in your career but still have worked in London for most of it. How have you survived?

The first thing is that – if you can – working from home on a flexible basis really does help. And I find I’m my most productive from home – particularly since having babies, actually – because you really do have to make the most of every minute you have. As everyone will have found recently, being on lockdown, you don’t have as many water-cooler moments and you can just get shit done.

And that’s the same with commuting. I make use of all the minutes I have sitting still on the train. Sometimes having a solid hour to focus on a piece of work is really welcome. For me it’s actually 2 hours door-to-door, which to a lot of people sounds like an arse of a journey. But it is some ‘me-time’ – having that time to myself is actually really brilliant.

With flexible working coming in and more people wondering whether it’s time to move out of London, I’m sure people will be delighted to hear that…

You have to try and embrace it. And it’s also a cultural thing – back in the day you were all sitting at your desk waiting for the first brave mug to stand up and leave. It’s nice to spend time in person with other people, to build company culture, to have that physical interaction and that chemistry. But if you don’t need to be there, don’t be there.

That’s what we’ve learnt from this unique period in time. But we’ve also learnt that if you don’t need to be there, you can still get a lot done working remotely – in fact, often you can get more done. The way this industry works, typically you have to put in a lot of hours to get stuff done well. So we should all embrace the flexibility to juggle work around your life.

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