Making adverts, making Engine Brake

Engine Brake’s Director, Simon Day, explores how The Plasticine Men played at being an advertising creative team to develop their new show.

Every devising process is a unique journey: digging into your preoccupations, working out what’s underneath them, then serving those discoveries to generate material; a shared experience that dredges up more than you’ll ever use before sifting, editing, refining.

Part of a story board for an ad we developed in rehearsal

For the particular challenge of making Engine Brake, we’ve taken a really fun departure from anything we’ve done before. We’ve spent a lot of time in the workshop room trying to make not theatre, but car adverts. Not spoofs, not parodies. We’ve tried to make really good ones, all the while recording the wranglings that have gone on to revisit and form the basis for much of the text in the show.

This process has been a mixture of research and educated guessing. I did do some work experience at an ad agency when I was fourteen but unsurprisingly, they didn’t let me anywhere near the creative department. I was however given an example brief from Heineken, and asked to see what I could come up with for a Christmas campaign. I had some distant memory then that it was this brief, this magic side of A4, that might somehow get the ball rolling, so took this scrap of knowledge with me on a research trip to India, and started to ask some questions…

Early days in the rehearsal room were built almost entirely around Abhijit Dube‘s answers. Abhijit was head of Client Services at TBWA Mumbai, and he was brilliant. He drew me a diagram straight onto the glass of his office (an idea that has wriggled into design of the piece) and allowed me a glimpse into the journey of an idea from a brief towards a campaign through a series of questions: what’s the product? Who is your customer? What’s the problem you’re trying to solve? So what is your proposition? (He also introduced me to the quite magnificent Modern Bread campaign). Shortly afterwards, our very first exploratory workshops at AE Harris in Birmingham involved the whole team, performers, designers, and musicians, playing at being advertising creatives to see what they could come up with. We pitched ideas for the account with Lakshmi, an imaginary car brand (named after the Hindu goddess of wealth, fortune and prosperity). We developed campaigns for print and TV ads, for a large and a small car, having loads of fun selling the fictitious Macro and Micro models.

A huge silver SUV car emerges from the jungle, dwarfing an elephant in the background

A promotional image for the imaginary Lakshmi Macro by Guy J Sanders

Some references to that early work do remain in the piece, but as material, we felt there was something missing. We found it just before our wonderful (and very well fed) residency at Hawkwood College in 30 Second Thrillers, a book I stumbled upon in a Bangalore bookshop. It’s author, K.V.Sridhar (aka ‘Pops’) takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour through the development of advertising trends in India from pre-liberalisation to the present day. It was the chapter on ‘The Human Connection’ that really grabbed us, and the process of raiding your own observed experience and emotional relationship with the world for insights that may strike a universal chord. So our next forays into the creative process always started with us talking about our own lives, our own loves, losses, dreams and fears. We were challenged and inspired in equal measure by adverts from the likes of Google, and from Indian cooking oil brands: incredibly effective bits of short filmmaking that of course were commodifying deeply human experiences, but were doing it so well as to genuinely tug at the heart strings. Alongside nauseating disasters from Nescafe and Pepsi, a kind of mantra emerged in rehearsal: “If you nail this, I’ll love it, but if you fall short, I’ll hate you”.

A motivational poster on the wall of an Indian ad agency

So, we felt like the possibility of somehow using adverts to resonate on a human level was alive, but joining the dots between this, and with India, were still a missing a piece of jigsaw. Another interview with another ad industry professional was again pivotal. I was so lucky to get 45 minutes of Paul Brazier‘s time (AMV BBDO in London). Paul’s passion for good ads was contagious, and his knowledge, enthusiasm and curiosity gave a real injection to our work just before our four week creation period. I still have his scrawled Venn diagram of ‘human truth’ and ‘brand truth’ in my notebook, without which I doubt we’d have a show at all! He reverse engineered BMW and Guinness ads off the top of his head to show me how a creative essentially unpacks that sliver of opportunity where the research into the customer and the product overlap to develop a platform from where insight and observations start to generate powerful ideas. Although far from a traditional play, Engine Brake still needed an internal journey to carry its concepts; through mapping the shifting Indian human and brand truths over time, an organising structure emerged to hang the piece from.

So, it’s been through trying to make adverts, genuinely, as well as we could, that we have tried to make a piece of theatre. The processes and the outcomes of this attempt have become the fabric of the show and we hope, through the prism of selling a car to India, that we’ve made something that can speak truthfully about the broader ideas that we’re fascinated by.

Come and take a look, and let us know how we did…

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