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Creative Is Native: “Don’t Let Your Only Inspiration for Advertising Be Other Advertising”


The effervescent partners get candid about comedy influences, cultural opportunities and creative communities

Creative Is Native: “Don’t Let Your Only Inspiration for Advertising Be Other Advertising”

L to R: Sam Moorhead and Mikey Fleming

From their childhood upbringings to their adult outlook on life, Sam and Mikey are two very different people. The symbiotic nature of their partnership, however, is palpable, as Mikey balances Sam’s ‘blue sky thinking’ with a healthy dose of cynicism, striking a comfortably well-rounded understanding of how things get done in adland. As a creative partnership, their distinct differences unite, challenge and inspire them. Embracing their individualism has helped the pair discover a constructive yin and yang that continues to win work. 

Since 2020, the dynamic duo have headed up Dublin-based creative production house, Verve|Showrunner. Representing their native Ireland on a global scale is a high priority for Sam and Mikey, who open up to LBB’s April Summers in this interview, as they discuss mistakes and misadventures, big wins and even bigger realisations, and how the place they call home has inspired and influenced their creative journey thus far.

“Creating content that appeals to all generations is truly a craft learned from working in adland.  Some may believe that it’s easy and the rise of influencers online can make it look so, but it’s not!  Sam and Mikey have perfected the art of producing great content to support the creative output for Verve’s clients - content that consumers can interact with – bravo to them!” - Charley Stoney, CEO, IAPI 

LBB> Where did you both grow up? And how did growing up there shape your creative voice?

Sam> I grew up on the Northside of Dublin, and was lucky enough to go to two relatively progressive schools for 90s and 00s Ireland. We didn’t wear uniforms, called teachers by their first names, and were encouraged to get involved in a lot of creative activities and projects. In Transition Year alone, I got to help write and perform in two plays, put on a talent show, attend a dance week, and for my end of year project I wrote a full script and treatment for an episode of my then favourite TV show - Dream Team! In an uncharacteristically forward-thinking move for a 16 year old me, I also did work experience at BBDO Dublin. 

Mikey> Whereas I grew up in Tipperary, in a relatively regressive part of Ireland, I attended an all boys Christian Brothers School, where we didn’t look teachers in the eye and wore the same greyscale uniform everyday. But I grew up in a very creative household where I was surrounded by art and creativity. I was also the only one in my art class who wasn’t there just to doss, and my teacher gave me free reign of the supply room, so every other aspect of academia fell by the wayside as I focused on art. Studying VisCom at Limerick School of Art & Design was probably most influential in shaping my ‘creative voice’ – obviously I had access to all sides of creativity but, crucially, I was introduced to alternative comedy. 

LBB> What did the start of your career look like? What led you to adland? 

Sam> My career began with a lot of false-starts. After failed attempts at being an animator and a personal trainer, I was directed towards the ICAD Upstarts Programme, a short course which brings you to six agencies in six weeks, answering a new brief each week. This is where I met Mikey. We actually answered the entry brief with very similar ideas, which sums up the difference in our tones of voice pretty well. We both left a poster with our pictures and descriptions outside the ICAD office. Mine read, “Missing from the World of Advertising” in a slightly more positive manner, while Mikey’s read, “ Lost” describing how directionless his life had become, in a more self-deprecating tone. I did pretty OK on the course, but ended strong on week 6, which meant we got to make my ad to advertise our end of term show. This got me an interview at TBWA/Dublin. 

Mikey> In college I naturally gravitated towards advertising – all I wanted to do was make films and tell dumb jokes. I also loved a brief, I needed restrictions and rules, and a clear starting point. After college, without those rules in place I meandered aimlessly for a couple of years until I stumbled upon the ICAD Upstarts. And then, y’know, what Sam said.

LBB> When and how did you guys meet? What is the Sam & Mikey origin story?

Sam> We’d met on the Upstarts Programme, but we were intense rivals. Well, not really, but for the sake of the story let’s say we were. I don’t think Mikey liked me at first! We then both got an internship at TBWA, hired by Ciaran Bonass, now of Vice fame. But we had to put our rivalries aside when the group creative director, Pearse McCaughey, decided we were going to be a team. No matter the brief, big or small, he’d always tell us, “This is a great opportunity for you guys” which is something we still quote, and live by to this day.

Mikey> I didn’t like Sam at first! I’m not really a ‘lads lad’ and I just decided that a man in his shape (see picture for reference) had to be one. Never judge a book by its cover! I’ve never met someone with more of a camp obsession with Saved by the Bell and all things 90’s. Anyway we bonded over our love of comedy, pop culture and our shared ambition to be the next Mark and Paddy (a fairly prolific creative team in Dublin, now very prolific creative directors in the UK). At work we took every great opportunity we could and after work we started making films based on dumb jokes.

LBB> You come from different creative backgrounds - copywriter and art director - how do your respective experiences inform the work you do together? 

Sam> When it gets down to the nitty gritty details of a job my writing side and Mikey’s visual side will come out. Over the years we’ve been influenced by the same creative directors, experienced the same agencies and creative departments, and worked across the same projects. Our lives were very aligned when we started out too: we’d holiday together, socialise together, write screenplays together, and take from the same influences. But, as time’s gone on, our lives outside of work have changed and developed separately, which means we now bring completely different experiences and perspectives to the table.

Mikey> Our weeks outside of work look very different: Sam lives by the coast, in south county Dublin with his wife and kid; I live in the Liberties, right in the heart of the city, and spend most evenings attending or involved in comedy events. Sam is still very involved in the creative community, running two different initiatives around giving creatives a platform. It took a few years but we eventually found a healthy working relationship, which does tend to give us both different perspectives and reference points when approaching a new project.

LBB> What was your first creative milestone in the industry – the project you worked on that you were super proud of?

Sam> The first real milestone we had as a team was when we won the BestYET (Best Young European Team) competition in Dublin, which was the Cannes Young Lions of back then. We had four hours to create a print ad for a SKODA two car bundle deal which involved us being locked in a room inside the Irish Times building, pacing back and forth throwing out ideas. It was probably the moment when we really found our groove as a team. The idea was simple, an image of the bumper of one SKODA, with a bumper sticking reading, “My other car’s a SKODA '' – it won us the competition. We’d done terribly the year previous, which made this win all the sweeter. It meant we got to represent Ireland in the European version in Vienna, where we ended up coming 3rd. This got us noticed as a team, and gave us the confidence we could work well together under pressure. Oddly enough, we ended up making some nice pieces of work for SKODA again later in our career! 

Mikey> The first project we both worked on officially together, that we’re still proud of, is a campaign for Aldi, called ‘As Irish As’. I’m sure there were a few before that we were proud of at the time but they’re not in our portfolio anymore. ‘As Irish As’ was a suite of three TV spots for Aldi’s fresh meat range, assuring people that it was definitely very Irish. It was our first big TV campaign with a decent spend behind it, so people saw it and crucially they liked it. It was probably the first time my parents spoke openly about what I do for a living with some sense of pride.

LBB> In what ways did this project help you hone your craft?

Sam> The Aldi project ended up being a bit of a lesson in comedy writing. At times, it was almost like working in a writer’s room. We had numerous scenarios and jokes all stuck on post-it notes around the boardroom table. We wrote loads of scripts, and came up with every possible Irishism and joke about Irish culture – it was a great lesson in “kill your darlings”. On that job, we really learnt to not be too precious, or cling on to an idea or gag. Ideas are endless, you can always think of more. This was also a great lesson in collaboration, as we worked closely with both director and client on the job. 

Mikey> Having that budget allowed us to gain experience in production we hadn’t had the luxury of before. We were given the opportunity to craft and improve the campaign at every possible point: from casting, where we saw the complete offering of comedic actors in Ireland; to editing, where we spent days in a dark room in Windmill with Lee Hickey, deliberating over the smallest details in performance.

LBB> The ad landscape in Ireland is growing rapidly – in what ways have you seen it develop over the past few years?

Sam> Things have changed massively in the last few years, as the agency model has had to adapt. Advertising has had to be quicker, more agile, and more responsive to keep up with culture, and the various new platforms on offer. This has seen a lot of the bigger agencies start up their own content department or studios - look at Bolt by TBWA/Dublin, for example. It’s also seen the rise of smaller content studios or production companies starting to work directly with clients and produce work. We saw an opportunity in something in between, which is why Showrunner was born. 

Mikey> I think how Ireland is viewed abroad has also changed, we are no longer an inconsequential island with little or no bearing on the greater world. Now we are seen as a tech and creative hub where global brands have flocked to build and grow their base. And rightly so! This in turn has led to Accenture, Deloitte, Droga5, and BBH to turn their attention to creative agencies and the creative industry here in Ireland. In our case, the US-based The Opus Group® sought out and acquired Verve because they identified huge potential in having a home in Ireland.

LBB> Is there any work that has come out of Ireland that you wished the world had heard more about?

Sam> I don’t want to under sell it, in case the world has heard of it, but we really loved The Shop That Nearly Wasn’t from The Brill Building. They’re doing some really great stuff, and I think this was a really thought-provoking, and powerful piece of work. If you haven’t seen it, it was a project for Cancer Awareness, which was stocked, and staffed solely by cancer survivors, with all profits going to cancer research. 

Mikey> I really like the most recent campaign Publicis did for Islands Edge; ‘It’s Better, Less Bitter’. I love the strategy behind it. It showed a self awareness and lightness that the brand had previously lacked. The TV spot also added some much needed humour that had been lacking from our commercial breaks, pre-rolls, or wherever you actually watch ads.

LBB> What individual strengths do each of you bring to the table? 

Sam> When we started out working together, there was definitely a clearer separation of our individual abilities. We were working on more ‘traditional’ ads and hadn’t quite found our groove yet. But over time, we became more in sync, and everything started to blend together. Every idea became “our” idea, as we learnt each other’s strengths and found our process. I’m generally the driving force at the start of a project, as I’m more blue sky thinking, ideation-led. Whereas Mikey comes into his own when we have to actually figure out how to bring something to life: the details, the references, the execution. He would say he’s the realist, I would use the word pessimist! 

Mikey> I would definitely say I’m a realist. I tend to challenge ideas, I want answers dammit! I want to know why this idea is right for this brand? How would it actually work? What is actually achievable with the budget? I love when I find a creative loophole or a simple hack that turns one of Sam’s crazy thoughts into an achievable Idea. I think our two perspectives combined make us excellent problem solvers. We love rules and restraints as they challenge us to be more creative.

LBB> In what ways does Dublin offer ideas, inspiration and opportunities to connect with culture and creativity? 

Sam> Dublin is full of creative people doing awesome things right now. It might not always get the funding or recognition it deserves, but as a city, the talent and creativity is there. Post pandemic there’s been an explosion of events and projects that really demonstrate this, ranging from storytelling (Seanchoíche) to spoken-word (Flo-Show) to theatre festivals (Scene + Heard). Mikey and I have always taken so much inspiration from this kind of creativity around us, and for that reason, we’ve always tried to stay as involved in it as possible. 

Mikey> It’s also a really accessible city in terms of finding and integrating with the different creative communities. The most inspiring thing for us has always been surrounding ourselves with funnier, better, more creative people than us. Through our own side projects we’ve created lasting relationships with film-makers, animators, writers, comedians, actors and photographers. Between Sam’s two initiatives ‘The Side Project’ a creative community and ‘Shorter Stories’ a platform for emerging writers, and ‘MATE’ the regular comedy variety night I run, we’re covering all the bases.  

LBB> Where did the idea for Showrunner come from and why did 2020 feel like the right time to launch?

Sam> In our last year at Boys + Girls we were promoted to content leads, which meant our main focus was on entertainment-led or branded content. This happened after our work started to naturally gravitate in that direction, as we created an online dating show, micro-movies, and a live rugby panel show, to name a few. This is the type of work that excites us, so when the guys at Verve approached us with the idea of starting an in-house content agency, which we’d head up, we thought it was an amazing opportunity to build something special. 

Mikey> 2020 wasn’t the right time. Oh the things we did not know in late 2019 when we started conversations with Verve! It was a much slower start than we initially planned but in actuality it allowed us that time to really figure out a lot, which meant long discussions about what we stood for as an agency. What we landed on, and what we’ve really tried to stick to with every project since, is asking ourselves “Does this add value?” Not just for the brand but for the audience, the consumer, the end user. We really wanted to move away from the trend of creating work for work's sake.

LBB> How has your creative partnership shaped how Showrunner has evolved? 

Sam> Mikey and I had the pleasure of working at two great agencies, so there were a lot of elements, ideas and ways of thinking that we wanted to bring with us when starting Showrunner. But, there were also pieces of the process we wanted to leave behind. We wanted to be a little more agile and less process heavy, so we could turn projects around quicker and be more reactive. 

Mikey> Weirdly - or maybe not that weirdly - an improv course we both took early on in our careers has instilled a lot of what we’ve carried with us into Showrunner. It was primarily a way for us to be more comfortable on our feet, but it was the core rule to “yes and” every suggestion which has driven us to be much more collaborative and solutions-focused, working closer and earlier with clients and producers, to create better work together.

LBB> What is the most memorable piece of work you have created since Showrunner launched? Why does it stand out? 

Sam> I think the most memorable piece of work we’ve created so far was our “Where is Mr.Tayto?” campaign for Tayto. It was our first pitch - and first pitch win - as an agency, plus it was a chance to work with an Irish icon in Mr.Tayto. For non-Irish people reading, this giant potato mascot is a national treasure! The brief was actually for traditional media, but we decided that wasn’t the right response for the audience, so embarked on a full campaign through TikTok and his other social channels. The whole thing was a great exercise in both storytelling and collaboration, as we worked closely with our social team, the client, and production company, Lost Studios, to tell the story of why Mr.Tayto had disappeared off his famous cheese and onion packet.

Mikey> Well, what really stands out about it for me was standing in the middle of the Nevada Desert in 40 degree heat, inside the Tayto suit because the model we hired wrist’s were too big to fit in the arms and we were losing light. Nothing about this job was done traditionally! At every turn there was something new for us to figure out and navigate which made it all the more interesting and huge learning for us as a team.

LBB> What advice would you give to up and coming Irish creatives looking to take their work to the next level?

Sam> Be a salesperson. It’s not always the best idea that gets picked, or sold into a client, it's often the one that is pitched and presented the best. Too often as young creatives we’d put so much thinking and work into an idea, and it would never see the light of day because we didn’t pitch it well enough. Be confident, positive, and believe in the work you’re presenting – sell it! Another thing I’d say is don’t be afraid to step outside your role. You have to be able to drag a great project along sometimes which can often mean being an accumulation of a client services manager, social media manager, producer, and strategist along the way. It’s easy to say, “that’s not my job” sometimes, but this will slow things down in the long run. 

Mikey> Be sure to have a life outside of advertising. Seems obvious but when I started I worked late, socialised within the industry, and exclusively consumed advertising content. While some of that was crucial, it’s important to watch films, go to gigs, mess around in the Metaverse – don’t let your only inspiration for advertising be other advertising.

LBB> What have been the most notable shifts in the industry in Ireland in the last 12 months? 

Mikey> One thing stands out for me - not necessarily a shift that happened in the last 12 months but since 2020 - brands don’t feel like they are allowed to be funny, everything needs to be worthy and important. But entertainment is important too, and I really think that is what we are best at. 

LBB> What do you hope to see more of in the next 12 months?

Sam> It’s going to be a difficult year for many people, so I’m hoping to see brands allow themselves to be funny, silly or light-hearted again, like Mikey said. Great creative work can provide entertainment or escapism, so let’s lift spirits with a bit of positivity, a bit of humour, and a bit of fun. During the last recession, we saw some of the best comedic and fun ads ever - such as Skittles Pinata, Cadbury’s Gorilla, Starburst Berries & Cream to name a few. So I’m hoping to see more of that, but brought to life across all of the amazing canvases we have today - Tiktok, BeReal, AI, AR, or whatever other tech or platform 2023 throws at us! 


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The Institute Of Advertising Practitioners In Ireland, Tue, 24 Jan 2023 08:58:01 GMT