London's accidental adman

How do you get 3.5 million YouTube hits for a dog food ad? James Studholme reveals all…

Remember that heavy-breathing TV gorilla that drummed ecstatically to Phil Collins and showed you a chocolate bar? Well he now has his own extensive Wikipedia entry and a host of industry awards, including the highly prestigious 2008 Film Grand Prix Lion.

For those that don’t remember, I’m referring to the Cadbury’s Dairy Milk commercial, which became a world-wide YouTube sensation. It’s a far cry from the Milk Tray man and a reflection of what makes modern consumers sit up and take note.

Behind the ad is maverick film company Blink Productions and its managing director, James Studholme who, incidentally, doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry despite his fame in advertising circles and his ever-expanding offices on Wardour Street, Soho.

“It was the era of boutique firms – two-man-bands – they weren’t really businesses. They were very mercurial, lifestyle outfits”

From this address, Blink has become synonymous with award-winning, intelligent advertising: transforming the brands of dozens of multinationals and blue chips – from Coca-Cola to John Lewis to Orange – and turning over £15m a year.

I wait for Studholme in the reception area, where directors and producers walk in and out with a sense of purpose. I notice how young and casually dressed they all are. A runner takes me up to the boss’ office. Tall and imposing, Studholme has a commanding, confident drawl – it’s the voice of privilege; he’s Eton educated.

Like many in film production, he began life as a runner before joining Blink in 1985. Back then it was a “one-man-band animation company”; a vehicle for the artist Bob Lawrie. When Lawrie needed a driver, he took on 25-year-old Studholme to be his producer.

“It was really his company when I started,” explains Studholme. “It was the era of boutique firms – one-man-bands, two-man-bands – they weren’t really businesses. They were very mercurial, lifestyle outfits.

“There was more money in advertising then, so it was easier to be a bad business. You were always, potentially, going to be rescued by the next job.”

Cadbury's Gorrilla advert

The Cadbury’s Gorilla ad, directed by Juan Cabral, that became a YouTube sensation

That era long passed, Studholme’s firm is, nevertheless, healthy. The company has grown from two to 20-plus film directors and multiple producers – some permanent and others freelance.

Blink Productions is actually a composite of several brands: Blink Ink, Blink Art, Colonel Blimp, Major Tom, and its newest incarnation, White Lodge.

The result is a rich collection of offerings. On top of telly ads there are virals, music videos, soundtracks, fashion displays and the “uncharted terrain where brands and culture collide” all flowing from Blink’s Soho hub.            

Once known as the “Ginger Supremo”, Studholme talks of his directors as protégés and believes London to be a world leader within the sector. When asked if directors were plucked from obscurity and “brought on”, he answers “almost all of them”. I wonder what they would say of that.

It is symptomatic of a dichotomy between his left-field, philanthropic ideals, and his commercial machine, responsible for driving clients’ big sales

He sounds like a proud father. “We don’t tend to take directors who are fully formed somewhere else.” What about those who learn the craft, make their name, and do a runner? It’s very hurtful, he says, but “you live to survive another day”.

And what of those who just don’t make it for whatever reason? “There’s an old Don Dixon song,” he says, taking a moment to remember the words correctly, “funny how the ones you fancy never fancy you, funny how the ones you don’t do”.

This is the first of a few times that Studholme’s philosophy is lost on me. It is symptomatic of a dichotomy between his left-field, philanthropic ideals, and his commercial machine, responsible for driving clients’ big sales.

When listening to him, it is easy to imagine he is building a conservatoire, and not a profit-driven production company. It comes as no surprise that his wife is fashion editor of UK Vogue.

At the centre of Blink is art and music, he tells me. Everything fits around that. He is not driven by money and never has been. As for new ventures and finding talent, he follows his instinct. When he first met Pleix, a group of French digital artists, he fell in love with a piece of film they made and signed them without knowing what would happen next.

“I showed their film to everyone and people loved it, but nobody knew what to do with it. Then Bjork saw it and it went from there.”

Pleix has since made music videos for Basement Jazz, Groove Armada and Vitalic – in the latter dogs are featured leaping through the air in slow motion. The video impressed the advertising agency TBWA so much it persuaded Pedigree to rethink its style and model a commercial on it.

“I don’t watch television; I don’t know where they go”

Almost 4 million YouTube hits later, the ad has managed to make Pedigree cool.

But Studholme admits that taking risks doesn’t always pay off: “let’s take an adventure together”, is his attitude. One risk that did become a goer was Dougal Wilson; one of Blink’s homegrown stars and, perhaps, the industry’s most famous director.

Coca Cola advert

A recent Coca-Cola campaign directed by Dougal Wilson, one of Blink’s homegrown stars

Although Wilson already worked in the sector as an agency creative, he wasn’t a director, and there the risk lay.

Wilson’s videos are enthralling and beautiful despite promoting household names; you’ll recognise a few off the television. Studholme does not.

“I don’t watch television; I don’t know where they go.” His nonchalance is surprising: it’s the first time he comes across as dispassionate. Deep down, it seems, he just wants to nurture and create, and he’s not too bothered by the business endgame.

He is in demand because his passion for creativity chimes with brands’ need to be ‘watchable’. That, and the fact we all love a drumming monkey.

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