Guinness Surfer

question of the week

"Here's to you, Ahab": 25 years since the creation of the best ad ever made

Bafta winning director Jonathan Glazer's seminal 'Surfer' spot for Guinness is a quarter of a century old this year. What can it teach us today?

By creative salon

Combining elements of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Walter Crane's 1893 painting Neptune's Horses, a track by Leftfield, and the poetic style of Seamus Heaney, one of the greatest ads ever made is celebrating its silver jubilee.

Guinness 'Surfer' broke in 1999. It was a metaphor for waiting for the perfect wave, much like waiting for the perfect pint. It's said to have had a budget of £6m and has repeatedly been voted among the UK's most popular ads by the likes of Channel 4, The Sunday Times, The Independent and ITV.

The commercial helped director Jonathan Glazer on his path to further success; earlier this month he won a Bafta for his film The Zone of Interest. The agency behind it, AMV BBDO, the brand director Andy Fennell and the production company Academy Films all rose to the top of their field helped by the success of the work.

At the time, AMV had only recently won the Guinness account - from Ogilvy. The agency landed the business because of a product truth it presented in the pitch: the time it takes to pour a pint of Guinness. AMV's creative founder David Abbott had a fondness for the word "good" and the agency had used it to great effect for a number of brands, including "It's good to talk" for BT. AMV presented Guinness with ‘Good things come to those who wait’.

A lot - A LOT - has changed in the last 25 years. This is an ad that captured the nation's imagination without the fuel of social media. It didn't go viral. There were no UGC homages.

And the technology used to create the ad was pretty raw compared to the kit available today. The Computer Film Company worked on the VFX that over-laid the surfing horses onto the Hawaiian waves. Chroma key compositing - blue and green screen technology - was still in its infancy.

The horses moved around a track on a blue screen stage that was set up with to give the animals enough space for a jump over a sand pit and a few turns.

The ad's creative Walter Campbell has said: "I learned that the blue screen on which we'd film the horses would flatten the image. So I told Glazer we'd need to get the horses into hair and make-up to put definition back into their musculature and add a bit of flamboyance and Bernini-esque drama to their look, with hair extensions."

The filming of the actual surfing was very much more life-and-death. The cameramen - themselves expert surfers - were hanging off speedboats and on boards. "The shots were done with giant cameras and giant waves. We didn't have GoPros. I was on a 12-foot longboard, pulling a big camera," camerman/surfer Rusty Keaulana has said. "The camera on my board weighed 40 or 50 pounds. The whole weight of the board was right at the front. It was craziness - the worst wipeout I've ever had."

Perhaps one of the biggest learnings from the history and impact of this commercial is that it was put thoroughly through its paces in research before it was signed off. And the research results were disappointing.

But the team trusted their instincts , put the research to one side and sent the ad out into the world. "Surfer" launched on St. Patrick's Day 1999. It's said to have sold an extra Olympic swimming pool of Guinness every month.

Twenty-five years on, 'Surfer' has never really been bettered. So what lessons can we learn from it today? We asked some creatives for their views.

Andy Jex, CCO, TBWA\London

I think the most important thing we can learn today from ‘Surfer’ is that you can’t rely on what’s worked in the past to decide what will work in the future.

Much of the industry now seems geared towards creating work based on what people already like. That approach will never lead to new and groundbreaking work. Just more of the same.

Back in 1999 no one was asking for a black and white ad with horses sharing a choppy sea with surf dudes soundtracked by electronic dance music and passages from Moby Dick. Why would they? There’s no frame of reference for it.

The uncomfortable truth (for some) is people don’t know what they want until you give it to them.

'Surfer' is a film of instinct, emotion and gut feel born from inarguable logic. It’s not a film that’s trying to please people with what we think they want.

If you only create based on what you measure from the past you do so at a cost: you’ll never make a banger like 'Surfer'.

Sue Higgs, CCO, Dentsu Creative

The mere fact that Guiness 'Surfer' is referenced today as a marker of excellence says it all. I’ve never heard anyone reference a hyper targeted re-post. Maybe I’m not moving in the right circles, but the point is this.

Guinness 'Surfer' is a masterclass in originality, authenticity craft and entertainment. It’s a product truth executed in the most lateral, mind-blowingly simple way.

Much today is made to be forgotten, fast food, one hit and it’s gone.

Guinness 'Surfer' is built of sterner stuff and could be made today, and still have the impact it had all those years ago.

Ian Heartfield, founder and CCO, New Commercial Arts

Can we learn anything from Guinness Surfer today?

Everything you need to know about how to make a great ad is in this film. A brilliant idea that sells the product. A stopper of a visual. A stunning sound track.

And a brutally simple storyline. If it ran in an ad break for the first time today it would be the best thing on TV, including the programmes, just as it was a quarter of a century ago.

And if you’re thinking, can we stop banging on about an ad made 25 years ago. We will. When someone makes something better. Like our wild-eyed surfer, we’re still waiting.

Alex Grieve, global and London CCO, BBH

Personally, I prefer ‘SwimBlack’.

Also by Jonathan Glazer and Tom and Walt.

But ‘Surfer’ isn’t half bad.

It was unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard or imagined; it made no sense and yet absolute sense.

You could take any frame and put it in a frame.

It managed to be just the right side of art-house pretension without disappearing completely up its own arse. (The spot that followed, ‘The Dreamer’ was a one-way ticket to Uranus)

But the most instructive lesson about ‘Surfers’ is that in a parallel universe some of the clients and indeed some of the people at AMV managed to convince that Beatles-esque Creative Combo (And, yes, there were four because let’s not forget the Producer - Yvonne Chalkley) to remove the white horses.

Imagine that.

There would be no ‘No.1 favourite UK ad of all time’ accolade.

Maybe, today, AMV and Guinness wouldn’t still be partners.

Certainly, this article wouldn’t exist. (So, not all bad).

God is in the details.

Know what they are. Circle your wagons around them. Fight to the death to protect them.

Because the details can be the difference between working together or not.

Between a billion dollar brand or not.

Between OK and Immortality.

Chaka Sobhani, out-going global CCO, Leo Burnett

Guinness 'Surfer' is a testament to "the greatest ideas are timeless" and they still hold up 25 years later, or 50 years later. It's a combination of so many things obviously. An idea that is truly original at its heart. Something that you've never seen before. Something that moves you and makes you feel. And something that is executed at a level of craft that is so real to its time. But not only is it so of its time but it remains timeless 25 years later.

Nadja Lossgott and Nicholas Hulley, joint CCOs, AMV BBDO

'Surfer' can teach us everything we need to know about Craft. Guinness 'Surfer' did not need the white horses. Surfers simply waiting for the perfect wave would’ve made the same point less expensively. The VO didn’t need to start with tick followed tock. And talk about drummers. It could’ve made the same point less abstractly. For a new platform it most certainly would’ve improved comprehension to complete the sentence at the end. And did he really need a missing tooth? All those very sensible decisions could’ve been taken. But then it would’ve just been some ad. And no one would be writing articles about it 25 years later.

'Surfer' teaches us everything we need to know about ideas. When they are as true for the product as they are for the audience, it will capture imaginations. When an idea is willing to be different not blend in. It pays off for the brand.

It teaches us that no matter how sophisticated the science of advertising becomes, fresh, ambitious creativity that makes you feel something is always the trump card.

It is a reminder that after 25 years all the meetings, good and bad, all the budget discussions, all the deadlines pushed or met, will be forgotten. And the only thing that will remain is the work that moves you.

Nicky Bullard, group CCO, Mullen Lowe UK

Yes, we can.

So, so much.

This absolute masterpiece wouldn’t have happened if the team weren’t immersed in culture.  It wouldn’t have happened without a client who fell in love with the work and completely trusted the team.  And a director who crafted it as beautifully as the art and literature that inspired it.  The sound design wouldn’t have been so incredible if it had been an afterthought – so considered and, sigh, perfect.  There was so much humanity in Guinness Surfer.  You could, and still can, feel it.  So what can we learn? Let’s keep learning from humans.


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