Everybody has a breaking point
Issue 40 | September 2016
Gerry Farrell is a legend in the UK advertising business. He was the executive creative director of the same agency for twenty seven years. He made The Leith famous.
It was a Scottish agency that produced work as good as, if not better than, most London shops. He has three Gold Lions to prove it.
In summer 2014 he went away on holiday and came back to get fired. “What, you’re binning me?” he asked. And hurled his bacon sandwich into the waste bin in his office. Realising the irony, he started laughing. This is a guy who knows how to take it on the chin. Many of us have been there. Been given the chop at some stage or another. And most of us pick ourselves up and start all over again. But few can have done so with the energy and sheer joie de vivre of Gerry Farrell.
He will say he has Zsuzsa to thank for this.
The two of them are wonderfully in love – not just with each other but with the advertising business. As you will read below, they discovered that their skills were urgently needed.
Where many creatives now want to change the world, Gerry and Zsuzsa have tried to do something a damn sight harder. Change their world. The little patch of Edinburgh they love and which thoughtless people were polluting with their rubbish. We’re proud to print this story of their success. Because it’s a story of regeneration, not just of an area but of two inspiring people.
My producer pal Cathy was in a Soho edit suite finishing off a TV commercial. She was shattered. She'd been up all night watching Cruise missile strikes light up Baghdad at the start of the first Gulf War. Now she was listening to the client argue with the agency about how two yoghurt pots should dance out of a fridge.
She left them to it, walked into the bustle of Brewer Street and never went back. She quit advertising for good.
For seven years, CP+B founder Alex Bogusky made ads for the Coca-Cola Company. In 2010 he announced via Twitter that he was leaving the ad business. Two years later, he turned on his former client, all guns blazing, in a mock Coke promo with singer Jason Mraz that lambasted the world's biggest brand for causing tooth decay, obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
Our own U-turn was less dramatic.
But when we look back at how radically our business has changed in the two years we've been going, it feels like a sudden departure.
One minute I was The Leith Agency's creative director, responsible for 15 years' worth of Irn-Bru advertising while Zsuzsa was in Budapest making Coke and Nestle campaigns for McCann and Publicis. Next minute, we'd left our well-paid jobs and our tiny start-up was making posters calling Scotland's other national drink "Scotland's other national junk" and running magazine ads attacking McDonald's and Coke.
What turned us from a team who made campaigns into a team of campaigners? I'm going to give you a rubbish answer. Litter. The trash you tip out of your car's footwell into the gutter. That energy drink container you haven't got the energy to put in the bin.
Walking past the local playpark one day, we noticed freshly-planted azaleas. They weren't in the flowerbeds where they should have been. They were lying on the cobbles, dirt clinging to their roots. As I bent to pick one up, another one came flying through the air and nearly hit me. We gathered them all up, walked into the park and started replanting them.
"Dinny bother putting them back, they'll just get fucking ripped oot again."
I looked up. Seven kids were sitting on a wall next to the Banana Flat* smoking and drinking. We finished pressing the plants back into their holes and I walked over to the azalea-botherers.
"Why are you ripping them out? Somebody just planted them."
"I never said I was ripping them out."
"I live here. I don't like seeing the park getting messed up. I'm your neighbour."
"You're no' ma neighbour."
"Where do you come from?"
"What are you doing in Leith then?"
"Riding these two."
The girls next to him laughed.
"Yeah right, you wish."
A week later we were crossing the road when Zsuzsa stopped and pointed. I looked down at a polystyrene takeaway box, half full of ketchup-smeared fries and chicken. There were huge gashes in the box.
"Seagulls," I said.
"It's not seagulls, it's people."
"I know but –"
"People don't drop litter on my street back home."
"Yeah but this is Leith, not Budapest."
"Well I'm sick of moaning about it, I'm going to do something."
"What are you going to do?"
"Start a group to clean this place up."
A group? You mean us.
"What are you going to call us?"
"Leithers Don't Litter."
"That's actually not bad. For a Hungarian."
Fast forward a fortnight and it wasn't just a name, it was our new mission in life. A local housing association donated us enough cash to make 500 badges and two T-shirts, one each, white letters on green, the same colours as Hibs, Leith's famous football team.
We built our first database the hard way, freezing our tits off on Leith Walk canvassing email addresses to organise our first community litter-pick. STV sent a news crew down to film us then pulled us into their studio and interviewed us live on the news that night. We started to write about our work in the Edinburgh Evening News. All of this 'old school' PR built our Facebook and Twitter networks and before three months were up we had more followers than Clean Up Scotland, the country's official anti-litter organisation.
We tried to change attitudes to dropping litter by working with local secondary schools, Boy Scout groups and the neighbourhood Sikh temple, to show teenagers how the litter they drop can end up killing sea birds and marine life.
Wee kids in the playpark started asking for our badges and shouting 'Leithers Don't Litter' at us. Hibs gave free match-day tickets to everybody who came out on our litter-picks. We persuaded the city council to give free litter-pickers and gloves to anybody who pledged to keep their own street clean. We were invited to the Scottish Parliament to sit in on a live debate where MPs from every party name-checked us and praised our work.
We went out picking up litter ourselves, three times a week with our 'Weapons Of Mess Destruction' and it wasn't long before we were using our smartphones to document the rubbish we found regularly: junk food wrappers, flattened cans of Irn-Bru and Tennents Lager, bookies' plastic pens, empty bags of weed, used condoms, needles and thousands of National Lottery scratchcards, usually ripped into tiny pieces. There were so many of these strewn around the streets that we nicknamed it The National Littery, a headline that made the front page of the evening editions.
We had hoped a nice letter to the Head Of Marketing at Camelot would send her rushing to help us solve the mess her company's scratch cards were making. Three 'Dear Sally' letters sent and no replies later, we began to get pissed off. The final straw came when Zsuzsa challenged three guys in hard hats to pick up their Irn-Bru bottles. They had drunk the contents, peed in the empties, screwed the tops back on and sent them rolling into the gutter. They argued with her.
"How come you're picking up litter anyway? That's the council's job."
"Because I don't want to live in a shit-hole," she told them.
A year earlier, those workers would have taken their empties back to the shop for the 30p deposit. But at the very moment that progressive countries are making deposit return schemes compulsory, Irn-Bru have scrapped their own - just to boost their profits. Even worse, they've ganged up with the entire drinks industry to lobby against any bottle deposit legislation. It's sad to say it but Scotland loves Irn-Bru more than Irn-Bru loves Scotland. Just look at the grass verges on any of our major roads.
But it isn't just Irn-Bru. None of the global junk food and drinks brands are doing much to help. They sponsor the odd community litterpicks to clear their consciences but they do next to nothing to reduce their packaging or make it easier to recycle.
We declared war on them by coining a word for their behaviour: 'Crapitalism'. We turned it into a mocking namestyle, using letters from the logos of the world's worst offenders. Coke's swirly 'C' was bookended by McDonald's golden arches.
You know you've got a really good campaign idea when it starts to generate its own media. We entered a competition where local people voted to fund their favourite projects. We won £1000 – enough to do a takeover of our local magazine, The Leither and turn it into The Litter. And enough, we thought, to stage 'Crapitalism – a rubbish exhibition' in a Leith gallery for two weeks.
Without any clients or committees to quarrel with our ideas, we were free to create and execute the work exactly the way we wanted it – and most of it has been analogue, not digital. We photographed all the litter in our poster and press work using our smartphones. We shot everything exactly where it had been dropped.
The invitations to the exhibition opening night were tied to crumpled old drinks cans we found on the street. They were posted out in Jiffy bags stamped 'Genuine Junk Mail'. During the event, we asked our guests to write down their verdicts on the exhibition ("Binspirational!"; "Litterally amazing!") and then crumple them into paper balls and throw them into mesh baskets hung high above their heads like basketball hoops. We ran an inter-generational 'Rubbish Poetry' workshop in The Citadel, Leith's community centre, co-creating litter poems with 90-year-old cancer survivors and teenagers with severe learning difficulties. We stickered the best ones onto lamp-posts and bus-stops next to takeaway shops: "Eating Greggs gives you fat legs/ Dropping the wrapper is even crapper."
Looking back, we can scarcely believe that the two of us have produced so much good work all by ourselves. We could never have done it in a conventional ad agency with planners, focus groups, client hierarchies and a total budget of less than £1,500. Like every creative team in the history of advertising, we sometimes fought like cat and dog. But we made a massive impact in our own neighbourhood. Mums, Dads and little kids with dinosaur litter-pickers are proud to go out into their streets and parks and clean up. Our Parliament is listening to us. It's time the big brands came on board too.
For decades the two of us came up with ideas to win pitches and awards. Now we do it to make a positive social impact. So what's next? Well, yesterday we led a 400-strong demo against racists who put their ugly swastika-covered messages up in Leith where we live. We called it United Colours Of Leith (apologies to Benetton).
Legendary American adman Howard Gossage said: "Changing the world is the only fit work for a grown man." (And woman, obviously.) Trying to change the world has changed us too.
* The Banana Flat is a curved block of flats in our street made famous in the book 'Trainspotting' by Leith writer Irvine Welsh.