Born Risky - WEDF Talk with Alice Tonge

"Channel 4 was set up to take creative risks... We were born to experiment, born to challenge, born risky."

On the 4th February the Arnolfini was once again packed out with a crowd eager to hear what the latest speaker at the ever popular West Of England Design talks had to bring to the table - this time it being the turn of Alice Tonge from 4Creative on the theme of being 'Born Risky'.

Alice is one of the Creative Directors at 4Creative - the inhouse design team at Channel 4. Often when you hear the term 'inhouse' it can be conceived as a samey, strict and only-stick-within-the-guidelines kind of affair - however Alice and the 4Creative team have 'blown the doors off the concept of an inhouse design agency' and have created a studio that is a hybrid of advertising, design and production. Yet by no means are they a jack of all trades. They have created some of the most powerful, moving, thought provoking and controversial pieces on television over the last few years, and Alice took us on a whistlestop tour of just a handful that truly lived the idea of being 'Born Risky.' 

Alice kicked off the talk with a showreel showing a wide range of promo material that the 4Creative team have produced - the teaser for the Paralympics, the promo for Iraq: The Bloody Circus, and also for Alan Carr: Chatty Man, showing the breadth of topics that they work with, from the emotionally empowering, to the dark and thought provoking to the hilarious.

(N.B: The embedded link opposite only works if you watch it in a new window.)

Alice gave a brief history of Channel 4 - being bought to life by Magaret Thatcher as an alternative to the BBC - creating content that provoked 'extreme finger wagging' from the very start . Going to show that being risky has been in the DNA of Channel 4 right from the beginning. 

The new shorts that the 4Creative team have created around the theme of being 'Born Risky' get my goosebumps going every time, especially the one that shown at the talk, with the inspirational Musharaf from Educating Yorkshire narrating the piece. Combining the emotions that Mush brings with him from his epic end of year speech in the finale of Educating Yorkshire, when he finally overcomes his crippling stammer, with the inspirational and powerful script, paired with visuals from groundbreaking, some controversial and all entirely unique programming from Channel 4, makes my hair stand on end. The sentiment of the pieces goes beyond 'just' TV shows, they are points of view, calls to action and important statements being made by the channel that make up what it is to be Channel 4 and what it is to be 'Born Risky. 

"The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing and becomes nothing. Only the person who risks, is truly free." 

A prime of example of 4Creative's risky attitude is the promo for the airing of the Winter Olympics in Russia. Rather than just creating a run of the mill (not that anything that Channel 4 and 4Creative product is ever that) advert to get people to watch the Games, they used the air time to produce something that tackled a much bigger issue - the concerns for the LGBT athletes and supporters involved in the Games and the ant-gay laws and propaganda that was coming out of Russia at the time. 4Creative's reaction was to create a new 'anthem' for the LGBT athletes and supporters going to the Winter Olympics, wishing all of them good luck out there in Sochi. The new 'anthem' also came out around the same time as the Channel 4's Hunted Dispatches, which uncovered some of the vigilante gangs that targeted gay men and women in Russia. Here is what the end result looked like (opposite).  

4Creative's work does not just stop on the screen. They have created fully integrated campaigns for shows such as Friends and Shameless. Alice talked about how the Channel 4 logo is an awkward one to work with, being constricted to strict guidelines like the rest of us when it comes to working with existing brands. But by using and integrating the themes and preconceptions of the shows, effective advertising campaigns like the one below hit the nail on the head. 

Alice talked about how it is not just the creative team being risky that makes them a success. The willingness of the creative talent to be risky is incredibly important, and without the trust put in them by the likes of Jon Snow and Jamie Oliver, they would not be able to create such brilliant pieces like the ones shown below. Jon Snow and Jamie Oliver have both been risk takers in the adverts that 4Creative have produced for them, making them the loyal faces of Channel 4.

Alice even let us into a production secret that, within The Big Food Fight advert (below), each chef was filmed separately to get the best reactions out of them and then they were all comped together at the end. Genius. Another reason why this cuts through so many other adverts for cooking shows on various channels is due to the fact that it shows very little food and cooking for a trailer that is promoting a cooking show. It is more about Jamie Oliver and the chefs as a brand themselves - putting themselves out there and taking that risk. 

Q&A with Alice Tonge


As is traditiona, after a talk at the WEDF, the floor gets opened up to the audience, giving them a chance to ask some burning questions. Here are a handful of ones from the night: (Most of them are paraphased, but you get the idea)

"How do you choose the agencies that you work with?"
Always keep up to date with the things that you like, network and form relationships that then create natural and organic connections and recommendations. And an obvious is to keep up to date on blogs and that side of things too. 

"Have you ever had any ideas that were too risky, too on the edge?"
Yes , everything! You have to fall over that line of 'too risky' to then pull yourself back. That, and having an amazing legal team! Sometimes even the legal team push the boundaries too - a prime example being the fact that some of the ideas for the 'Gay Mountain' advert came from them directly, and even some of them were too risky! Alot the time it is about being tactful with the riskiness, and using it at just the right time for it to be on point and the right moment. This helps to communicate the point that it is making about a bigger issue. There always needs to be a reason to be risky to back up the idea, that and having the balls to fly with it! 

"With 'The Simpsons' ident - when Homer is trying to rescue a six-pack of Duff  - do you have to get in touch directly with the animators of 'The Simpsons' to produce something like that?' 
Good question! By using US acquisitions and doing ALOT of networking in the first place gives the connections you need. We then had to build a reason as to why we wanted to do do it - The Simpsons is a big show, and we felt like we needed to create idents to make it feel like Channel 4 owned The Simpsons and it was the UK home for it. There was a lot of sweet talking too!

'What kind of deadlines and budgets do you have to work with?'
They are all completely different, there is no average. With programmes like Utopia that were promoted using a purely viral campaign the budget was a couple of grand, but then some idents can be up to the half a million pound mark. The bonus being that 4Creative do not have to factor buying air time within their budgets, as it is a dead cert that they will get shown on Channel 4. Deadlines vary, and alot of the time are according to airing and transition dates of the programmes that they are being created for. It can range from as a little as two weeks if it is in reaction to a hot topic at the time, or all the time in the world if it is something that is more purely around the Channel 4 and family brand. 

How do you deal with your competitors such as the BBC? How much do you take cues from them, because you have always been an industry leader rather than a follower? 
On purpose, we don't really pay much attention to them! They have different brands and we have to think more bout what's next, what are the next challenges, where else can we go? 

How big is the 4Creative team and is everyone multi-disciplined?
Yes. I (Alice) came in a a director, but everyone has their own disciplines, everyone jumps around a fair bit too! 

'Do you get the same Monday blues as the rest of us, or are you just being 'risky' all the time?!' 
It's horrendous and great all at the same time. You are constantly thinking what the next 'hook' is going to be, always looking at topically what is coming up at the moment, forming our own briefs. There is so much diverse programming that we need to be quick to react so we always need to be on the ball. 

Alice was wonderful, empowering, inspiring and a great talker. She even dealt well with some of the more difficult questions coming from audience members that clearly had qualms with Channel 4 as a whole, asking direct questions about why they produce and create programmes such as Benefit Street. This just goes to show that Channel 4 is there to get under the skin of viewers and provoke a reaction out the them, rather than just letting them sit there and absorb some of the more grey programming out there like a passive couch potato. And with that, 4Creative are there behind them, promoting and advocating being 'Born Risky'.