"I love this industry but I don’t make work for it": Chaka Sobhani on creating work for real people
Leo Burnett global chief creative officer celebrates the joy of populism
07 March 2022
I grew up a funny looking brown kid in rural England, the only daughter of immigrants who had fled the revolution in Iran.
I knew pretty early on that I wasn’t cut from the same stuff as the kids I was at school with. For one I looked like Mowgli. They looked like the kids from Mary Poppins with Dunlop green flash on.
I knew I was different. I knew I didn’t exactly fit in. But funnily enough, I never felt alone. And that was because of the trusted tellybox that sat in the corner of our living room. My best friend.
It was the 80s so this was pretty much the only portal to any world outside your own. But my god, what a world was out there. Film and moving image was my first true love. And I watched and devoured everything. From the razzmatazz of Meet Me in St Louis and An American in Paris to the tales of teen angst in every John Hughes movie. From the playgrounds of Grange Hill and the dramas on Albert Square to the glamour of Denver with the Dynasty mob…
However far away as they seemed, I felt connected to something different, something out there that seemed more naturally a fit with me than the place I found myself living in. I felt things I couldn’t describe…(especially when it came to Jennifer Beals in Flashdance who I think single handedly was the reason I turned out queer…) I felt connected in ways I couldn’t explain. Most importantly, I just felt…something. Big, small. Happy, sad, funny, excited. I felt it all and felt those butterflies in my stomach that we all still get when we see something that moves us. Whether I watched alone or together with mates, the next day would be all about the chatter – Did you see this? I can’t believe that happened! Oh my god, I so understand how Ponyboy feels in The Outsiders…
All these stories, far and wide, helped us each figure out who we were, what we stood for, and how and what we wanted to be defined by. We formed tribes around what we saw and liked, our fashion and musical tastes were shaped, we formed our identity from it and sometimes even thought about what we wanted to do when we grew up because of it. And here’s the strange thing…everything I/we consumed was at once hugely personal and individual, and also hugely collective. And connective.
Fast forward to when I was 11 years old and the first time I left the UK. Me and my mum (and dad unfortunately) took my first flight to Italy to see my great uncle. One of the “joys” of immigration and mass displacement is that you have family everywhere. First stop, the Sistine Chapel and the Final Judgement. Next, La Pieta. Then the Ponte Vechhio in Florence. And so it went on…I had had no education about the Renaissance, and my chemical engineer mum wasn’t much help when it came to giving anything we saw any meaningful voiceover. But we both just stood and stared. And felt what I realise now was being awestruck. That someone could create something so beautiful, something I could never create, that made me feel something so deep in my stomach and heart. And as I looked round, I noticed everyone else was having a similar experience – one that was at once wholly personal but the same also. We all looked up. Looked at. Went quiet. And stayed there for a bit. As something happened to us inside.
I had no sense of whether what I was consuming was high art. Or low art. I wouldn’t have given a fuck either way anyway. And I still don’t. I just knew it all made me feel something. And made other people feel something.
And I connected to those who were feeling similar things to me. It made me feel better, more hopeful somehow, more connected. I wasn’t alone in the world.
And that’s where my fundamental belief is born from: That every great artist wants to be seen and heard by the largest number of people, and create and have that sense of belonging. And the definition of being a great artist sits with someone’s ability to move many people. Which in turn affects culture and shapes it, and our lives.
From Mozart to the Beatles, from Abba to Amy Winehouse, from Chet Baker to Jay Z. From Hockney to Dickens to Christopher Wren to Andrew Lloyd Webber to Ellen Von Unsworth to Stella McCartney to Jonathan Ives to Quinton Tarentino. They all made/make work that’s true to themselves and true to what they stand for. But they always make it for people, for an audience out there.
To touch, watch, consume, listen to, interact with, engage with and feel something. Unashamedly for the many. Or for as many of the few. Unashamedly populist at its heart.
Fast forward another decade or so and I found myself at ITV working with the brilliant Peter Fincham and world class commissioners like Laura Mackie, Sally Haynes, Layla Smith to name but a few. To sit in on those sacred commissioning meetings, listening to what was going to be made and why is still one of the biggest buzzes and educations of my life.
But here’s the interesting bit. Whilst the majority of the conversation would invariably end up discussing and dissecting the creative merits of each idea, whatever genre it may be, the start and the end point would always be the same: Who are we making this for and why? What do we want them to feel after watching or experiencing this? In short, what do we want to make lots of people feel?
The X Factor wasn’t just about a talent show. It was about hope for people who previously thought they had no way of realising their dreams. Downton wasn’t just a good old period drama romp, it was that little slice of Sunday reprise before the week started, full of characters and scenarios that even though from a time gone by, still rang true today.
And you know what I absolutely loved? That across the entire output of ITV, be it the high-end dramas, cop shows, soap operas, blockbuster Saturday night entertainment, hard hitting documentaries, daytime editorial formats, quiz shows, sports programmes or the even the News, there was never ever any snobbery about one genre compared to another, or one type of output to another.
A soap opera was created with the same respect, craft and creativity as a big hoofing period drama. A chat show was treated with the same reverence as a documentary.
Different audiences, different needs, different types of production. All great ideas, just bought to life in different ways, irrelevant of budget, potential audience size or type of genre.
We, in our industry, are equally in the business of creating stories and experiences that make audiences feel something. And hopefully en masse. That doesn’t mean it’s a numbers game but surely we want to reach as many people as possible. Whether that’s the largest number of people in the mainstream or the largest number of people in a niche audience. And I think sometimes that gets forgotten and work and ideas can sometimes become self serving for our industry, or for our peers.
Which is crazy. Because we all want to create work people love, talk about, share, laugh over or cry about, work that educates them, informs them, entertains them, moves them in some way. I love this industry but I don’t make work for it. I think we’re here in service of our audiences. And it’s our duty to put them first, telling the most authentic stories, creating emotional connections and making our audiences feel something. Like all great creativity does whether it’s art, music, literature, film, TV, theatre, fashion, photography, architecture or design. Or advertising.
We are part of this great big umbrella of creativity. But sometimes I wonder whether we see ourselves as the poorer relation because we sit at the sharp intersection of creativity and commerce. Which is where all art sits in some way anyway. And always has. And where we all experience the same tension and challenges trying to reconcile the two.
The Beatles had to sell records to be able to make more music. They had to have a level of mass success to be able to fuck off and make Sgt. Pepper when they were being pushed to repeat the formula and make three minute pop songs forever. And it was because of their legion of fans, because of what they had made them feel when it mattered most, that they went out and bought those new albums, and allowed the Beatles the freedom to create as they wanted and needed. Creative success and financial success can go hand in hand. And need to.
I sometimes wonder whether we are trying to create things that justify our creative worth. That give us some form of value and relevancy.
And some type of credibility and importance above and beyond “just selling shit”? I know we begin at a different starting point to other creativity. By and large, people lean into ideas that they might more obviously enjoy. And people hate being “sold to” so we’re always on the back foot. We know people actively want to reject us so we try so hard to do things differently so as to avoid that instant rejection.
But whilst I know that people don’t love advertising, I do firmly believe they do love good advertising. My youngest kid came up to me at the weekend. “Mum”. I looked up.
Before I knew it, she’d flicked me full on in the middle of the forehead. Nice. She howled with laughter. “If you like that, look at this” I said to her and bought up the classic “You’ve been Tangoed” on YouTube. I wish I hadn’t. Not because she started slapping me round the face.
But because she asked to watch it over. And over. And over again. It’s just fucking funny. And brilliant. And it’s an ad.
Now I’m not just harking back to some bogus nostalgic sense of glory days. And telly ads. I’m not interested in that. True creativity has always been about change and evolution, and our ideas can now live in so many more places and spaces and reach even more people.
When I look at how the world of creativity has opened up, I genuinely get excited. I love that it can be a film made for the biggest or smallest screen. I love that it can be a TikTok or a tweet. Or product design or store experience or activation. I love that the opportunity to create is truly everywhere. Where our phones have become portable cameras, editing suites and sound studios in our pockets. Where the ability to actually create has been opened up to the many instead of being restricted to the few. And where the platforms and channels we can create on and distribute via are more abundant than ever before.
What’s not to love. Film, digital, OOH, social, experience, activation, whatever – all that matters is great is great. Great ideas, great craft, great expertise. It’s all additive, not reductive. And all an opportunity to connect more to our audiences.
I haven’t spent 20 years in advertising but I do know I have met some of the smartest, most passionate, and most brilliant creative minds in this industry. But I do think we all need to challenge ourselves to ignore the shit that doesn’t matter and can distract, and concentrate on what the fuck we’re trying to do. Which is basically trying to make as many people as possible feel something. Because when we get it right, my god do we get it right.
Populist is a funny old word, especially after Trump, but I don’t see populist creativity as being the lowest common denominator. Or something that lacks craft or originality. Far from it. I see it as those stories and experiences that we need to tell to move people en masse. To connect people. And to ultimately, help people feel seen, heard and have a sense of belonging.
And unsurprisingly, all the marketing science and theory supports this. What’s good for people is ultimately good for business. And the work that works, is the work that makes people feel something real, and moves them en masse.
God knows it’s bloody difficult to make something great and get it out there. We all know that. And I know that the majority of people in this industry bust an ass every day in the pursuit of doing just that. But hopefully this message is a freeing call to arms, if I can be so grand – a call to arms to liberate us from the shit that frankly doesn’t matter. Free us from the snobbery, the self criticism, the embarrassment that we’re selling shit. We can still make our ideas truly incredible. And have meaning. Whether that’s to add joy, or purely to entertain. Or to make people think, make them angry, whatever.
Let’s make sure we’re always asking the right questions.
Why do we want to make it? Who are we making it for?
What will it make (a lot) of people feel?
This is an incredible industry. Full of incredible people.
And I’m incredibly excited about everything to come. So let’s get real, let’s lean into the feels and fully embrace the populist creativity that drives us all.