How Sony got its bounce back

Ian Burrell on the team behind an ad that transformed both a brand and a city - and took Cannes by storm
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The Independent Online

Riot shields, helmets, mortars, broken windows - not the sort of props you would expect to need when making a feel-good commercial for one of the world's biggest brands.

The shields were there to protect the cameras; the helmets were worn by Richard Flintham, Juan Cabral and other London-based ad people, who travelled to San Francisco to make what is arguably the best global campaign of the past year. The 12 mortars were used to each fire 5,000 coloured bouncy balls down the street, and the (unplanned) broken windows belonged to the less fortunate residents in the street where the ad was made.

The stunning work by Fallon London was shortlisted for the television category Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions advertising festival last week, at which the same red-hot agency also lifted the outdoor category Grand Prix for its poster work for Tate Britain.

Thanks to the Bravia project, made with the British production company MJZ and post-production house The Mill (also based in London), the increasingly pallid brand of Sony has an altogether brighter hue. Indeed, the Bravia television, which the ad promoted, leads the market in LCD TVs, according to a recent report in the Financial Times.

When they first received the Sony brief, Flintham and Cabral, who are based in Fallon's funky offices tucked behind Carnaby Street, knew they had a challenge on their hands.

Flintham says: "It had got very grey and was all about the numbers. We won the pitch by telling them that the humanity was missing." In conceiving the ad, the Fallon creative team went back to their own childhoods and the super-bouncy balls sold from sweet shops in the 1970s and 80s.

The pair were saddled with the Sony line "Like No Other" and were worried that it might sound arrogant, unless they could devise a commercial that truly was without parallel. Their idea was brought to life by director Nicolai Fuglsig with the help of Los Angeles-based special effects guru Barry Conner. In addition to the air mortars, Fuglsig deployed three giant skips, each lifted 50 feet into the air and containing 35,000 coloured bouncy balls.

The first shot required 50,000 balls to be sent cascading down a hill, colliding at a road junction with a further 50,000 that had been fired along a side street. A team of 50 interns was on hand to gather up the balls for the six takes it took over four days. Golf nets were erected at the sides of the street and every drain was blocked. The one cheated element of the ad was the inserted shot of a frog jumping out of a drainpipe, but on blogs and internet forums there was heated discussion about whether the whole commercial was faked.

But as Cabral says: "When something can actually be done, wouldn't you want to watch the real thing? The Bravia is a telly that not everyone can afford and so the ad is like a gift in a way."

Apart from revitalising Sony's brand, this ground-breaking commercial has been important to Fallon too. The venture was set up in 1998 as a London-based offshoot of the Minneapolis agency founded in the early 1980s by US advertising legend Pat Fallon. Robert Senior, who was one of the founding partners of the British project, denies that the London operation is a separate entity.

"I don't think we are distinct at all in the purpose and premise of the agency and the values that we have tried to create as its lifeblood," he says. "If Pat Fallon were here now he would be a slightly older version of us - only more articulate, though much shorter. We are indigenous Fallon."

Senior, sitting alongside Fallon's planning partner Laurence Green, says that the Minneapolis agency's recent difficulties have been due to a "run of some bad luck" and do not "signal genetic defects".

He says the London agency will turn down prospective clients rather than compromise its values and he thinks the ad industry's insistence on measuring success in terms of new business wins is undermining the overall quality of the work.

Smarter clients, he maintains, understand that "creativity is a means of competitive advantage" and so do not simply go for the cheapest option being pitched.