Industry Profile: Gemma Butler in Her Own Words

Gemma Butler is one of a kind. She did not take a traditional path into advertising, blazed a path of untraditional innovation and continues to forge her own path ahead. Early on, Gem was a fine artist. After linking up with now-husband and partner Gav Gordon-Rogers, who was creating music videos at the time for Belle and Sebastian, Snow Patrol and Paul McCartney, Gav and Gem became a powerful team. They made their way from freelance to creative leadership first as a team at glue London and then at Agency Republic, where Gav and Gem led Republic to Digital Agency of the Year status, awarded by Campaign Magazine in 2008. Now, armed with her success to date, Gem took a few minutes to let The Saturn Return Project™ readers know what’s next for her in Her Own Words.

The Saturn Return Project: Tell me a bit about the early days of your career and your art, pre-ad industry.

Gemma Butler: I was planning to become a famous painter and sell my works to some advertising guy called Saatchi. But after four years flailing around in a little studio in Newcastle, building submarines and paintings that (literally) talked to you, it dawned on me it might take a while for my brilliance to be recognised by the art cognoscenti.

In the mid-90s, Newcastle wasn’t exactly a fine art hotbed, there wasn’t much of an art scene North of the Watford gap. At least now the Turner Prize has made it up to the wilds.

At my degree show, the car cassette player drilled into the wall and part of the talking paintings piece, was nicked. In Newcastle they’d break into students homes and steal one of all your shoes just for a bit of a laugh. Not many works at the show were bought, but a few pilfered for practical matters.

In the end, I wondered what to do with these singing submarines. It was through pals in Edinburgh that I met Gav (copywriter partner and husband) and I started building and pulling together the sets for his music videos. Turning Scotland into the wild west for Snow Patrol, or a church into a secret garden for Rae & Christian, all on tiny budgets (we learnt a few tricks from our Geordie friends).

TSRP: What instigated a transition into the crazy world of advertising?

GB: Music videos have never been an especially reliable way to make a living. They were creatively amazing to make – a group of people coming together over a few days and nights to produce a beautiful short film. But 99% of the money would tend to go into the production. So Gav and I started writing ads together on the side. With our backgrounds in film-making and conceptual art, we both loved big ideas, telling stories and the act of making things.

We moved to London because the streets were supposedly paved with gold. It wasn’t easy at the beginning and we ended up stomping these streets with our hacked-together book, meeting CD’s and improving on our spec ads along the way.

We freelanced at above-the-line agencies like Karmarama and TBWA, until meeting Mark Cridge at the small start up agency glue London. It felt like a natural fit as we were always trying to do things slightly differently. Our book wasn’t exactly traditional, and being a bit geeky too we felt there was loads of potential to be had in the digital space.

TSRP: Why London? What is it about the city that led you to settle your family and career there?

GB: London is where the vast majority of opportunities in the creative industries are. I wish they’d get on and build a bullet train up to Thurso; business needs to filter out across our country. Twenty years ago it made sense to be shackled to an office but times have changed and we now have the ability to work all the time and from anywhere – so there really is no need for this skewed London-centric view of Britain.  

TSRP: Describe the experience of building up the quality of the product to award-winning levels at Agency Republic with your partner (in every sense of the word)?

GB: After we were ‘digitised’ at glue and helped them win Campaign’s Agency of the Year, we joined Republic. At the time, Republic was recognised for their effectiveness but not so much for their creative work. With the crew we made a few good pieces for Mercedes-Benz and BBC Radio One and suddenly “Boom!”, the phone started ringing and the awards came piling in.

Republic has always been a special place. We’d worked at many agencies along the way, but Republic was made up of an eclectic, talented bunch of individuals, quite often straight out of college. Gav and I really enjoyed nurturing raw talent.

In the good ol’ days it felt like working at a holiday camp! Everyone in it together; passionate people wanting to make innovative and standout creative.

TSRP: Is there one highlight of your career in advertising that stands out above the rest?

GB: About six years ago (and six years is a long time in digital) we made an experiential site for Mercedes-Benz, and it’s still live to this day. It was incredibly successful, with people interacting for 25 minutes on average. The client saw just how much value this type of engagement could afford the brand and the following year they tripled their digital spend.

To make it, we tracked down this amazing flash programmer in New Zealand, Andy Foulds. Marga (our designer) delivered the designs to him at the end of the day and he built the elements during our night. It worked pretty seamlessly. I only wish all projects were this easy and enjoyable to work on. At the time it was quite groundbreaking and pushed flash to its limits. It’s now taught within University modules on online interaction.

TSRP: Is there something intrinsically unique about the advertising in the UK, or even specifically in London? What makes it what it is in your opinion?

GB: London is a wonderful hotchpotch of so many different nationalities, all held together with a very dry British backbone.

At Republic, for example, I’m sure we got to more original work with a Frenchman, Brazilian, Slovakian, Mauritian and Yorkshireman all hunkered over a brief. Everyone comes at it with a unique perspective and a new way of solving a business problem. The more diverse the cultural environment the more interesting the results.

London has also always had a very strong focus on craft – the perfection of the image, the concise humour of the copy. This is an area that tends to be let down by digital work, but mainly due to ridiculous timescales rather than any lack of talent.

TSRP: What has been the process of the adoption cycle and the integration of new digital and social media into the mix in London and the UK?

GB: The process has pretty much been as follows:
  1. Denial (this isn’t happening to me!)
  2. Anger (why is this happening to me?)
  3. Bargaining (it’ll all be ok if...)
  4. Depression (I don’t care anymore)
  5. Acceptance (I’m ready for whatever comes)
Most agencies and clients are finally over it, although there are those who still smirk that ‘big tele’ is always the answer.

TSRP: What is your greatest inspiration?

GB: This week I keep returning to Sir Ken Robinson And always my folks for their non-stop energy.

TSRP: Where would one find you these days and what would one find you working on?

GB: I’ve been out of action for a while, playing at the swings with my two girls. But for the last few months I’ve been freelancing - an opportunity to get a quick fix by working on some interesting projects and then having time to spend with the kids. Also, becoming freelance means I’ve been lucky enough to work at places like Google Creative Labs and see how different companies approach things. Their sirloin steaks are pretty good.

TSRP: What's next for Gemma Butler?

GB: Possibly a little start-up idea or two.
Possibly a new role in a new agency.
Possibly a return to constructing singing submarines.
Possibly a combination of all three!

Thanks to Gemma for her insights, experience and words of wisdom. Follow Gem on Twitter at @GemButler and check out her reel:

Gemma Butler - Showreel April 2011 from Gav Gordon-Rogers on Vimeo.

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