Inside the factory of bright ideas

The advertising 'creatives' responsible for campaigns that sell us products like Nike and Honda bounce concepts off bungee ropes, write rock songs for fun and paint self-portraits for inspiration. Katy Guest spends a day learning the subtle art of branding

It's 11 o'clock on a rainy May morning near Oxford Street, in London, and a deluge is rattling the windows of Weiden & Kennedy's fourth floor offices. As a malevolent growl of thunder rolls in from the direction of Soho, a team of creative directors is sitting in a sunnily-painted boardroom arguing amiably about which, out of a selection of two, is the more "friendly" shade of yellow. On one wall a rainbow of various shades of orange and gold reads: "Welcome to optimism". Outside, the rain turns to hail.

It's 11 o'clock on a rainy May morning near Oxford Street, in London, and a deluge is rattling the windows of Weiden & Kennedy's fourth floor offices. As a malevolent growl of thunder rolls in from the direction of Soho, a team of creative directors is sitting in a sunnily-painted boardroom arguing amiably about which, out of a selection of two, is the more "friendly" shade of yellow. On one wall a rainbow of various shades of orange and gold reads: "Welcome to optimism". Outside, the rain turns to hail.

Tony, Kim, Sophie and Nicola are cocooned in this microclimate of hopefulness to discuss the next stage in the advertising campaign they are working on for Almay cosmetics. Photos and text are spread out on the table. Occasionally Tony, a sort of chinny George Clooney lookalike, will crop part of a picture with his hands, tilt his head from side to side and squint at it, meaningfully. Someone wonders, "how do you say 'Buy anything Almay and get a third off' in the 'trusted friend' tone of voice?" Tony is frustrated. "It's just too advertising," he sighs.

To the untrained eye, the picture is nothing out of the ordinary. In it, a good-looking, red-haired woman, in front of a slightly out-of-focus background of park and trees, turns towards the camera and smiles. But, for the client, this campaign is dangerously radical. "Background", in a cosmetics ad, is almost unheard of - usually the model's flawless face fills the page. And the model here is not even a model. She's an actress, chosen, after hours of casting, when executives decided she was perfect for Almay's "tone of voice".

"Before we did any of the casting or copy, we came up with a story," explains Nicola. "Almay was developed by a dermatologist whose wife had sensitive skin. We want the ads to talk to you in the tone of voice of a trusted friend; the kind of friend who makes you feel good about yourself. This woman's been at work and she's on her way out to have lunch with her friend. And she's walking through the park to get there..."

In an era in which the average person is reckoned to come across about 1,500 advertisements every day, it's harder and harder to make a product stand out. Advertisers like to quote the old statistic that 50 per cent of advertising is wasted, but it seems like more. Rising each day to a doormat covered in a scurf of junk mail, riding to work on a tube train plastered in cartoonish offerings of caffeine pills and car insurance, marching past billboard after billboard filled with freakish giant specimens of humanity inviting us to eat better, smell nicer and live longer, and arriving at our computers to discover a blizzard of flashing invocations to improve our sex lives and gamble online, modern consumers are commando-trained in the art of shutting their senses to the white noise of sell-sell-sell. The most expensive advert ever, starring Nicole Kidman and directed by Baz Luhrmann, has just cost one company £10m, but I bet few people will remember that it's for Chanel No 5. Getting a product noticed in this climate takes something very special: it takes branding. And that's something that Weiden & Kennedy are making their speciality.

The company is slightly unusual. Its London office is run not by the usual account managers, but by two creative directors, Tony Davidson and Kim Papworth - a practice its creative founder, Dan Weiden, encourages. It's a relatively young company, and, for an award-winning agency, is not big on the pomp, ceremony and marble halls that often characterise a successful business. "I think changing offices really changes your outlook," says Tony Davidson. At the moment, Weiden & Kennedy works on the basement and fourth floor of a central London office; the lift is currently out of action, making the Nike trainers that the company advertises - and that almost all the staff wear - practically a necessity.

According to Sam, one of the account executives, being creatively-led makes a huge difference to the company. "The creative directors are responsible for making the main decisions," she says, "which is interesting when you're trying to choose rugs and flooring. They'll be saying, 'It has to be rubber with pink dots on' and you're saying, 'Nooo! That's completely impractical!'" Later, I discover that the ladies' loos are painted from floor to ceiling in shades of sugar pink, with a floor covered in pink rubber lino, spotted with roses.

Directors' meetings are held at one end of the creative floor, where a mismatched assortment of chairs (including a motorcycle seat and a torn red leather armchair) are pulled into a thoughtful huddle. A weird assortment of music plays throughout the day: I catch Norah Jones in the morning and Naughty by Nature in the afternoon. Upstairs, in the reception, one wall is crowded with six-inch self-portraits by the employees. Tony's is a pair of stinging red eyes, ringed with bags. Everyone tells me, "That big pink face is Ben, who wrote 'Cog' [the Honda ad that is now referred to in awed tones]. You'll recognise him as soon as you meet him." Shamingly, I do. Bungee cords are pinned from floor to ceiling all around the office, so staff can pin up found objects to amuse and inspire them. And this, amazingly, is where I am told they get their ideas. At least, it's as close as I can pin them down to revealing the labyrinthine processes by which a brief becomes an award-winning advert.

After lunch, the hail has eased off and a heady whiff of testosterone fills the cheery orange boardroom. Rob and pink-faced Ben (to be fair, he has just climbed five flights of stairs) have joined Tony and Kim to discuss a documentary they are making for a client. It's fast, it's exciting... and it's deadly secret. I am allowed to reveal that the camerawork will be fabulous, that the stars involved have excelled themselves, and that the director is a genius. Anything else and I will be excommunicated.

This is not the first time the company has run away with a marketing concept that leaves the traditional television advert standing. The same team has just put the finishing touches to a Nike magazine: a glossy freebie that will be given away in Nike town, Oxford Circus and on the Nike website. It is called Goodbye Hoof, Hello Nutmeg, and is 32 pages of full-on football written in precisely the voice of Nike's weird, punchy evangelism. "The way Nike looked at it, it was 32 double-page spreads," says Ben. "We'd normally get about three years to do that. We had a month."

It would be fair to say that their employees get quite involved with the brands they promote. Not only does everyone seem to be wearing Nike trainers, but Tony says he took up jogging when they and Nike organised Run London, and took part in the race. Later in the afternoon, he tries to show me the website one of the teams designed for Aiwa. Much as I am fascinated by the dancing characters online, I eventually realise I have lost Tony. He's playing. I begin to think it must be quite fun to Be In Advertising.

It's 4pm, and a significant portion of the office has relocated to a tiny underground recording studio somewhere in a labyrinthine quarter of Soho. Four advertisers, two studio owners, an assorted gaggle of sound engineers and I are crowded into the space, listening to a growly-voiced American singer do the words to Honda's next radio ad. Occasionally, the voice of a nicely-spoken young Englishman floats into the studio through the speakers. It takes a while before I realise the two voices come from one man - Bertie, a member of the Honda creative team, who has been seconded as a voiceover artist on a preliminary version of the track.

Moonlighting as a session musician is not normally part of an advertising copywriter's job description. But then, Weiden & Kennedy, I am discovering, is not a normal advertising agency. The music I am listening to has been written by Michael, another "creative". He's a musician in his spare time, says Kim, and he came up with an idea for the tune, and the client liked it.

In many ways, Honda, like Almay, has kept the creative teams on a remarkably loose leash and allowed them huge freedom. This freedom has, at times, been frightening. "We thought a lot about Honda's tone of voice," says Kim, "and decided it was much more questioning than most car adverts tend to be. Most of them tell you: 'This is true, and that's true, and this car's great!' With ads like 'OK Factory' ['What would the world be like if its favourite word wasn't "OK"?'], we wanted a much softer tone." As with the Almay adverts, a traditional voiceover actor was not quite what the writers wanted. "What about an author?" someone wondered. "What we want is a narrator: someone to tell a story."

As it happened, one of the team had a taped edition of Garrison Keillor reading his novel, Lake Wobegon Days. His low, American voice had just the sort of global appeal Honda was looking for. His name was submitted, along with half a dozen others, to the client, and they loved it. "All we had to do was get him to agree." To the team's enormous relief, Keillor was quite tickled by the scripts he was sent, and said yes.

It was this questioning tone that led to "Cog" - the advert that has so far spawned 50,000 words of awed coverage in newspapers alone, and led The Sun to ask: "Is this the cleverest TV ad ever?" The advert (where a tiny cog rolls into a bigger cog, which hits a screw, which spins an exhaust...) has won several awards, and been the subject of an adoring report on CNN. But it wasn't always so popular - especially when Honda had to take apart a £1m prototype of the new Accord to provide the team with engine parts for their magical little ballet.

"It made me think of that children's game, Mouse Trap," explains Ben for approximately the fiftieth time. "You know, where everything just works. The point from the beginning was that it had to be real. Anyone could do that advert using computer animation, but that wouldn't be the point. It had to be the big idea. We interviewed a few directors who talked about computers and technical trickery, but we knew when we found the right one. He had to be quite anal and precise, but it also needed charm and a sense of humour." Four days, 606 takes and £6m later, the team got their ad. Each individual component had its own human minder, and on the last day of shooting the man on the first cog "completely lost it".

Despite this, Rob goes misty-eyed when he remembers the apparent perfection of the final shot. "I've worked on all the campaigns that creatives drool over," he says. "Levi's, Nike, the lot. But there's been nothing like this." He gazes into the distance. "God, I'd love to do jobs like that all the time." After "Cog", making other ads, they say, is "like trying to have a No 1 again".

If there's any justice, "Cog" is a prime contender for a coveted Black Pencil at tonight's industry Oscars, the D&AD Awards. For 40 years D&AD, an educational charity, has been rewarding the best in advertising and design with Yellow Pencils and - for the really special - Black Pencils. Lucky winners are entered into "The Book" - an annual collection that has become a collector's item for designers.

What matters to Weiden & Kennedy is that pencils are hard won. "Some people are obsessed with getting an award, not helping the client," says Tony. "Their ads end up being just a sponsored joke. D&AD is different because all the money goes to education. The standard's so high that you really feel you're being recognised by good people." It's a relief, since we must be surrounded by almost continuous ads, that somebody, somewhere is at least trying to make them interesting.

For Ben, the writer behind "Cog", the awards hold a different lure. "It's the one," he says. "I don't want to prejudge anything, but I think we should win something." After £6m, 606 takes and a cog man totally losing the plot, I think he deserves it.

For more information on the D&AD Awards, visit www.dandad.org/congress (020-7840 1135)

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