Toby Allen The&Partnership

Combining disciplines and plugging in the jack: Toby Allen on ‘Amplified Creativity’

The&Partnership’s ECD has upped the creative ante and set a new bar for excellence

By conor nichols

Two years ago, Toby Allen was brought over from AMV BBDO to The&Partnership to help boost the agency’s creative output. 24 months later, then, how's the plan going?

The short answer - via recent work from clients like British Gas, Toyota, the RNIB, E45 and Argos - is pretty darn well. But please note: this is just the start.

Since he first embarked on his role as executive creative director, Allen has helped change the creative culture at the agency, establishing a new unified creative structure and most recently adopting the new creative positioning ‘Amplified Creativity’. While The&Partnership does have access to the range of capabilities that being part of a network offers, the agency insists that its model offers more than integration - it offers amplification - using diverse talent to create ideas ‘greater than the sum of their parts’. It's a fresh creative positioning that will really start to play out in 2024.

To find out more, we sat down with Allen to delve into the creative culture that he has helped to build and explore the ‘Amplified Creativity’ positioning further.

Creative Salon: It’s two years since you joined T&P and it seems like the pressures on the industry, on marketers and on consumers are as intense as ever; has the nature of your role changed much in the last couple of years?

Toby Allen: For the two years I’ve been here I see it as being split into year one and year two. Year one was about improving the quality of the work and I think the improvement was evident. There was clearly a step up in the overall quality of our output and our creative products. In year two the scale and momentum was bigger and better. The UK side of our partnership and the worldwide side came together and we went from a creative department of 25 to a department of 50.

And we've spent a fair bit of this year looking at how to bring the two agencies together in making hybrid roles. Because of the lack of time and this collaborative nature, it’s been better for us to have people who can look at the same problem from two angles themselves - as opposed to two different people looking at the same thing. We call them &People. For example, an art director and a designer, a creative and a filmmaker, a traditional and AI creative director. We’ll also be looking at a creative and creator role because we want to bring some of the creator economy into The&Partnership and actually build a team of native social creators. I think it’s the future because they can play multiple tunes. 

This year, I also think we've done really well on inclusion and I think we've been pretty entertaining this year.

We’re also connecting far better with media, through mSix&Partners, and [sibling PR agency] Halpern. When you’re stretching ideas with partners, other agencies or other production companies it has a real impact on the business and the cultural footprint. 

Every agency worth their salt should be able to integrate. Having a joined up brand idea and brand world is a bare minimum. It’s a noisy world and to cut through integration is not enough. You need constituent parts multiplying each other. And that’s what we mean by our ‘Amplified Creativity’ positioning - diverse skill sets that multiply and amplify each other's strengths.

So tell us more about this Amplified Creativity approach and how it’s shaping your creative thinking and the wider culture of the agency.

Allen: I've worked at both independent and big network agencies. Independents and boutique creative shops may not have the capabilities of an agency that’s part of a network, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a larger agency is fully connected and solves things smoothly together. With The&Partnership you've got a small and tight knit crew who have all the capabilities. At its core we’ve got media, social, influencer and pure play creative all in one building. I think that is rare. For us we have the scale where we’re small enough to have people who actually know each other and have personal connections. We have the network but also the ability of people to network within a company.

What work have you done recently that best exemplifies this Amplified Creativity positioning?

Allen: There are three phases to Amplified Creativity. First of all, there is making the ideas bigger with a combination of skill sets and different disciplines. Our Natwest work, which had a ‘what are you waiting for?’ launch, had a thumping track and a clear call to action and as a result had its hashtag used six billion times on TikTok. We didn’t stop with one channel, we took one idea and amplified it through other channels.

With Toyota, for which we handle the creative and media accounts across Europe, we had really interesting instances of combining media thinking and creative thinking. In the Nordics, the brand wanted to get more people trialling electric cars, because one of the biggest barriers to people buying an electric car was people saying: ‘I don't want one because I haven't tried one.’ You also need a form of ID to test drive. So we created an accessible and inclusive way for people to trial the cars by using their library cards. You could go to the library and take out a car. That thinking came from the media, mSix&Partners, and is a great example of creative ideas showing up somewhere differently in a different way.

Then with Toyota in Germany, the brand sponsored the Special Olympics in Berlin and created a social media team of people with intellectual disabilities and gave them cameras and microphones to cover the Special Olympics. That was a creative idea, but it would not have existed if it were for not thinking about the media in which it was going to exist. We had social content creation relatively cost effectively.

The second part of the Amplified Creativity positioning is literally plugging the jack into the amplifier to create some big populist work that people notice. The British Gas relaunch made a massive statement about the company as a brand. Because of the energy crisis and the cost of living crisis, British Gas was very much focused on getting their heads down and trying to help customers. Before the campaign the brand wasn’t hugely visible and it addressed problems directly when they came up, but they felt it was time to make a big statement.

It was the first big piece of brand work we've done since we retained the business last summer. The campaign felt really new because we combined things you wouldn’t normally pull together. British Gas assigned the Team GB sponsorship, it's a great fit because people love and trust Team GB and the British Gas brand has a good proposition around genuinely helping people by giving them half price electricity on Sundays. So we smashed these two things together and created something unexpected that people have really loved.

We’re also only scratching the surface with Argos and what Trevor and Connie Could could do or could be. The two characters have gone down really well. With AI production techniques I'm hoping that next year we can make 50 of those spots, rather than five, which is real amplification. It could be a brilliant example of how new technology like AI and new production techniques could be interconnected and then amplified, giving us way more options with regards to media plans.

The last aspect to Amplifying Creativity is giving voices to the underrepresented. We started the year with a powerful ‘Ban conversion therapy’ campaign and we ended the year by winning the Channel Four diversity and advertising competition for E45, which is brilliant - and that was only three days after re-launching E45 as a brand.

As a creative milestone, we are delighted with that, beating pretty much every agency in London who put something in for the competition. We've bagged a million pounds worth of air-time for our clients which is also massive for E45.

Most importantly, the work says a lot about our agency culture and inclusion because we’ve made every effort to build and recruit in a genuinely diverse and creative department. So the RNIB ‘Before you ask’ campaign was written by our creative Jane Reader who has lost her sight in one eye so she wrote the work.

For Toyota we also featured  Billy Monger in our campaign - a racing driver who's now disabled after after a car crash. Behind the camera we're also doing everything that we can to be inclusive and to amplify the underrepresented.

Your two years at T&P have been set against a backdrop of industry obsession first about the metaverse and more recently about AI. How is technology changing your role as a creative leader and what excites and concerns you about the changing tech landscape?

Allen: It's interesting. I was on holiday over the summer and I got talking to a Bangladeshi professor of oceanography who was writing a book on AI and how it applied to scientific research. He was saying that he really doesn't have the access to the data so AI for him was an absolute godsend because he could pull in data from other places and get AI to draw the patterns. For the book he was writing he talked about a brilliant analogy where the metaverse was like a terminus or a railway station and everyone was trying to get you to that destination - going to the metaverse. Whereas AI is like a bicycle because it’s a piece of tech that can take you anywhere. It's much more a case of human and machine working together in tandem. And it's cheap and accessible. It requires fairly basic skills to operate. Once you're on the bike it’s fairly easy to ride. 

We're approaching it with that in mind. We just created two roles within the creative department which are split 50/50 between conventional senior creative or creative director and innovation. Not only will they be doing AI projects 50 per cent of the time but there'll also be a comparison and contrast between some of the work they're doing. It will allow us to ask: what are the differences between the way we have been working and the way that we could be working? 

AI will basically kill off mediocre creativity and human authored creativity will be at its peak - that will be the stuff that shines through. I really think the biggest threats to human creativity in our industry is not AI but a lack of time. We just don't have the time to do the jobs to the best of our ability. Lower fees and more channels means fewer people creating more assets and that means less time in the system. AI helping with things like diary management and personalised training plans could save shitloads of time. I hope clients and procurement see that these evolutions of AI are a way to put some time back into the system which we've taken out over the last five to 10 years.

Looking a little ahead towards 2024 it still seems like uncertainty and a degree of turmoil will continue to shape our lives. As a creative leader what are the challenges and opportunities you see ahead?

Allen: Looking ahead I think we could and should be more innovative. At the agency we're innovating a lot in our ways of working but I'd like to see innovation reflected in our outputs. Some of our best hits like RNIB ‘Pregnancy test’ or Lexus ‘Hoverboard’ are the reasons I joined here - to do more of those. We need to be doing four of those a year, not one every four years. It will be about pushing quite hard to find those opportunities. 

In terms of creative standards in the UK, I think the work has gotten more entertaining. We went through that phase of purpose leading everything. I personally am purpose driven and I enjoy working on purposeful campaigns but when the purpose is leading the idea rather than being the substance behind the idea, you tend to get quite earnest-worthy and samey work. There's a definite return to being entertainers, probably with purpose as a table stakes now. We are very good at making entertaining content and ads, and out of home has also had a resurgence. 

However, I feel that when you look at UK creativity, versus US, Brazilian or Asian creativity, I don’t think we're producing enough different shaped ideas in the spaces in which we can play. Other markets are capitalising on opportunities for innovation way more than we are. Maybe it's because of the mindset or budgets, but I still feel that the UK’s strongest work is traditional.

It'd be great to see more innovative forms of creativity and differently shaped ideas.


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