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Features / Advertising

“Success breeds success… but you’ve got to make sure you don’t cock it up next time”

Dougal Wilson on how music videos and sketchbooks led to making the John Lewis Christmas ads

Through a doorway in London’s Wardour Street is Blink Productions, which houses the compact office of director Dougal Wilson. Long-limbed and smiley, Dougal has been often been touted as “Adland’s Mr Nice Guy”, and while he is very nice, the phrase doesn’t quite do him justice. Not only has he managed to become one of the UK’s top commercial and music video directors, he’s managed to do this by continuing to tell the stories he’d like to see in a way that tugs at our heartstrings, making us laugh and cry all within 90 seconds.

Known for his adverts for IKEA, Lurpak, Heinz and perhaps most famously John Lewis, Dougal started out by creating playful, humorous music videos. His videos for big names including Jarvis Cocker, Bat for Lashes, Basement Jaxx and Dizzee Rascal are what got him noticed by the ad agencies. It’s a path Dougal recommends for many new directors starting out in the business: “These [music videos] are all to do with problem solving and big ad agencies see those and believe it’s a demonstration that you can solve problems – that’s ultimately what you’re trying to do when given an ad script. If it moves the audience or makes them laugh it’s because you’ve solved the problem correctly.”

“I quite like that discipline… brainstorming an idea, not editing yourself – seeing it written down or sketched is like having a dialogue with yourself.”

Dougal Wilson

This methodical approach is seen throughout Dougal’s whole process, with every music video and advert he’s ever done having its own sketchbook with a dusky black cover emblazoned with Tippex to differentiate them from each other. He’s keen to point out the difference in the sketchbooks that sit in the orderly chaos of his office: “The music video sketchbooks show the whole process of thinking of an idea. Whereas the bigger books for the commercials start with a script and then develop the idea.”

To illustrate his point he climbs on his desk to reach the sketchbooks at the very top of his shelves. “Hardly anything that’s in these books makes it in the final thing,” he tells us. Instead they clear the path for that one amazing idea. Having studied physics at Durham University, Dougal’s background is different to many in his field but it’s clear it’s what’s helped Dougal hone his process. “I don’t come from an art college background, and I like treating an idea academically so I quite enjoy locking myself away with a sketchbook and forcing myself to come up with ideas for a few hours,” he explains. “I quite like that discipline… brainstorming an idea, not editing yourself – seeing it written down or sketched is like having a dialogue with yourself.”

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William Cooper Mitchell: Dougal Wilson

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William Cooper Mitchell: Dougal Wilson

Dougal often draws references from “the Britishness in things, middle England and how you can get a bit of humour out of these underplayed moments… I’m drawn to the stories that mean a lot to normal people, not the glamorous fashion worlds,” he explains. The work of Michel Gondry, Spike Jones, Garth Jennings, Jonathan Glazer and John Hardwick have also provided Dougal with inspiration at some point. Throughout his sketchbooks, there’s a great mixture of quick doodles in pencil to more considered, accomplished sketches. It’s clear showing the story visually is one of the most important things to Dougal in a project, even when pitching.

He says, “I’m very keen on presenting treatments visually rather than a long essay. If you can present it like a comic strip, it’s so much faster for everyone to understand it and it’s also clearer for you if it’s going to work if you get the job.” Rather than dictate what the advert or music video will try to do or bedazzle them with polished presentations, Dougal tries to let the idea speak for itself. “My treatments aren’t usually flashy. They’re word documents with simple helvetica text describing what you see. I try not to describe what you feel because I find when you use too many adjectives to tell you what the outcome is, it’s unconvincing… I’d rather say this will happen and then this, so hopefully the person reading the treatment will get the feeling I want them to have themselves.”

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William Cooper Mitchell: Dougal Wilson

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William Cooper Mitchell: Dougal Wilson

In his early days, though, there were times Dougal ignored the practicality of realising an idea he really liked. “I did a music video for a band once where the idea seemed really simple and cool. This guy was supposed to be on a beach with a metal detector, it would keep beeping and one by one he’d eventually pull out the whole band and they’d play on the beach with an audience covered in sand and the guy would stand there looking surprised,” says Dougal. “I thought it was really funny and that it was going to be great but my god how do you film that? In my naivety I thought we’d just go to the beach and dig a few holes and assumed it would be fine… It was impossible and the final video was completely underwhelming as we barely got any of the shots done – the record company hated and it looked cheap and crap.”

After feeling like he’d “not done my homework” on that shoot, this was the last time Dougal went to set unprepared for the reality of shooting something. Now when projects require getting the timing, the rhythm or the physical aspect right, Dougal creates test videos he calls “crap-o-matics” to take his ideas off the page. “It’s good to draw things and it’s good to imagine things in your head but some of the ideas I do, until you actually put a camera on something it’s very hard to know how its going to work.”

For the Lurpak Adventure Awaits ad Dougal created last year where food and cooking were treated like a galactic mission, his crap-o-matics were incredibly useful. “It’s a completely visual idea… I did all these drawings and planned it out with photographs but there’s a part where a pomegranate’s cracked open and then you’re travelling down it like you’re edging through a trench on the death star – how on earth do you know if that’s going to work?”

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William Cooper Mitchell: Dougal Wilson

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William Cooper Mitchell: Dougal Wilson

Using his iPhone, compiling together clips he’s found or printing things out, these video sketches allow Dougal to get a sense of what things might look like, but he admits it’s probably not for everyone. “I can imagine a lot of directors would feel this is a tremendously cowardly way to work and you should just trust your gut and do it on set. But it’s difficult to do on adverts.” It’s clear this way of working is why brands trust him though. “If you do an ad that people like, the next time someone comes up with a script they’ll trust you because you’ve already done one. So success breeds success, which is great, but you’ve got to make sure you don’t cock it up next time, which puts a bit of pressure on you.”

When explaining why he likes adverts, Dougal’s sky-high standards are born from a place of passion. “Liking adverts so much means that’s a constant source of stress for me in that I treat them too culturally. A lot of people, and quite rightly, are a bit more pragmatic about them and think ‘it’s just an ad’… Sometimes I wish I could be like that. But I think that when you get an ad that’s very effective, it’s a powerful thing, especially because it’s seen by so many people. They’re quite addictive in that sense.”

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William Cooper Mitchell: Dougal Wilson

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William Cooper Mitchell: Dougal Wilson

The joy of commercials according to Dougal is the fact they can be appreciated by everyone, and that’s the power of a good advert. “You don’t have to be really into cinema to enjoy [an advert], but it can still be well made and tasteful with your mate’s mum really liking it too. There’s something satisfying knowing it’s not just a dumb thing with a bit of music over it. It’s universal and it’s an advert. It’s fascinating because people should resist them but sometimes you just can’t help it.”

The first advert he actually directed was at Edinburgh-based agency Leith, where Dougal was working as a copywriter. “It was for T in the Park, which is like Scotland’s Glastonbury. It’s sponsored by Tennents lager so I literally filmed a pint of Tenants in the park,” he explains. I shot a test on a Super 8 – it was before Handycams became popular and I just love Super 8 because it’s so low-fi and makes everything look funny.” It’s a daft, funny ad and completely encapsulates the energy and entertainment that seems so integral to Dougal’s work.

“There’s no guarantee when the idea will come… But the harder you work the luckier you seem to be.”

Dougal Wilson

The key to a successful advert in the director’s mind is to make sure the audience enjoy it. “People would rather be entertained than shown the product in great detail. The marketing department of a company is interested but your average person just wants a story and if that can be associated with the brand then that’s a bonus.” He becomes animated when asked his favourite adverts and instantly pulls out a handful of adverts from the depths of YouTube and the D&AD website, giving a summary of each and why he likes them before he presses play. Among the selection is a FedEx ad from the 90s, another titled Evil Beaver for an American beer, and a few more recent ads including a powerful one from St John Ambulance Western Australia and Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign. They’re all incredibly different from each other in both content and style but Dougal points out what they have in common: “All those ads come from smart organisations, so it makes you respect them, which then endears you to them. Anything that works and effects you, you feel higher because of who it comes from.” 

Remembering the words of Andy McCleod, a director at production company Rattling Stick, Dougal explains that as well as hard work and making things yourself, the idea is what it comes down to when creating great things: “There’s a lot of luck in writing ideas and there’s no guarantee when the idea will come. But it’s definitely true that the harder you work the luckier you seem to be.” Perhaps there has been a sprinkling of luck in Dougal’s career but just sitting in his office, surrounded by the stacks of sketchbooks, the potential props for a secret project, and the incredibly detailed schedules pinned up, it doesn’t feel like Dougal is the type of director to leave things to chance.