Interviews

Luke Southern, Managing Director, DRUM

"On our best day, brands can ‘do’ long form drama with emotional punch that’s just as unmissable as the latest from Netflix or Amazon."

Izzy Ashton

Assistant Editor, BITE

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Creativebrief: Please could you give us a loose outline of your career.
Luke Southern: I’ve spent the last 18 years or so, in a mixture of client and agency roles but always at this intersection of media, entertainment and technology for brands like PlayStation, Virgin Media and Sony Music. From launching PlayStation3 to an expectant audience, kicking a record company's prized back catalogue into the digital era creating brand and technology partnerships to make a cable company synonymous with entertainment, not utility through to my role today at DRUM, there’s always been an entertainment and content thread to the work that I’ve done. Moving around was deliberate in order to gain more experience as I felt it would make me a more rounded marketing, creative and commercial leader, seeing the relationship of brand and agency from both sides of the fence. I like to think that it’s been a consciously eclectic career as opposed to chaotic! All the way through the challenge has always been about helping all these brands tell their story in an authentic and relevant way. Ten years ago gaining and then keeping consumers' attention was really tricky. Today it’s even harder, which is why at DRUM we help brands create their own cultural signals; things with real value for people that cut through the clutter.
Creativebrief: As Managing Director, what’s your primary focus?
Luke Southern: The role of any MD is about driving the creative, commercial and cultural agenda of the agency. Having a holistic view at all times and understanding what’s going on at a macro and micro level in the agency and clients' businesses is obviously very important. My time is split between figuring out what our trajectory is in terms of how we’re doing as a business, how we can help creative solutions for clients that helps their businesses grow and, to be honest, a huge amount of it is in investing in the culture of the agency, building an agency where people can thrive, both personally and professionally. Our people are the agency because this is a relationship business. You need to make sure you’re building the foundations, the environment that people want to work in, not just in terms of comfy chairs and flexible working but more what they’re going to get out of it by working here. I’d say 70% of the workforce are under the age of 30 in this agency and I know they’ll probably move every 18 to 24 months. That’s the way the world works. As they do, I’d want people to say I had a great time at Drum because it allowed me to do great work, I got some fantastic learning and development and broadened my horizons. A lot of my time is invested in that, making sure people feel stimulated and included and invested in the success of the agency and the work for our clients.

As the world changes and local councils have smaller budgets, governments are cutting stuff left, right and centre, there’s an onus on brands today to plug that gap and fill that role. To be socially responsible but also socially conscious and aware of their impact and responsibility in the world.

Luke Southern
Creativebrief: Do you think that emphasis is the same for when you were client side as well or do you think it’s slightly different?
Luke Southern: I do think it’s different. Virgin Media was great. It had brilliant policies and learning and development processes in place, but it was so much bigger. DRUM is a 50-person agency in the UK, around 100 if you include the offices in other markets which is very different to an office of 30,000 people! I’d say the agency world attracts a certain type of mindset. You have to be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. You have to be flexible in your attitude. You need a certain sense of humility that you don’t always need in a brand. I’ve generally found the agency world much more collaborative. My personal experience in the brands I’ve worked in, people have had a siloed function and mindset and a specific role to do and they will involve people but if they do or don’t, doesn’t really affect their trajectory. Here it’s all about collaborating for the greater good, great work and a great culture.
Creativebrief: What’s unique about Drum? What made you chose to join Drum initially?
Luke Southern: I liked the fact that DRUM is an agency that sits between media and advertising and is non-traditional in approach. I liked the notion of having access to deep audience data and insights from the media side but having the creative sensibilities and skillsets of people that have worked in ad agencies. You see this in the output of our work because most of the stuff is born not out of a piece of advertising but from finding a communications solution for a client that is rooted in culture. This means our answer to a client’s problem isn’t necessarily a 60 or 30-second spot. It might be a TV show, a partnership with somebody, leveraging the audience of a known talent, or just straight up, excellent social content. The world of advertising and entertainment is getting closer and closer together and DRUM sits at the intersection of the two, really well placed to help clients navigate through this brave new world!
Creativebrief: What would you say has been your agency’s best work over the last year?
Luke Southern: I’m particularly proud of being crowned Content Agency of The Year in 2018 and winning over 30 leading creative awards including the ‘full set’ of Gold, Silver and Bronze awards at Cannes Lions. The latter ranked DRUM as the 5th most awarded UK agency in the Media and Entertainment Lions in 2017 which for a small, nimble business feels really great. Two of those lions were for the Age UK work that we did highlighting the chronic loneliness issue that pervades in the UK among older people, particularly prevalent at Christmas. This work embodies our approach which is about finding a role for a brand in popular culture that consumers can relate to. It’s about taking what people are interested in and finding a role for the brand rather than crowbarring it into the dialogue that’s going on. For Porsche in North America this year we integrated, for the first time, a car brand into Car Pool Karaoke. There are so many examples of brands doing Car Pool Karaoke rip offs. If you’re going to do it, do it with the original and best. Then get it out, broadcast it in the US with CBS, run it in 117 different countries and make it trend number two on YouTube globally. I’m quite proud of the way we’ve been able to use those wins and the work that we’re doing to raise the profile of the agency. We still get called The Drum sometimes and it drives me crazy, but I think most people now know of us as DRUM the branded content agency, not the industry news portal!

The world is going long form and brands need to go beyond the 60, 30-second spot. If they can create quality, original content that people actively want to spend time with then that is a great way to build long term brand affinity, engagement and attribution.

Luke Southern
Creativebrief: Looking at the industry as a whole, is there a particular piece of work or agency over the last year that you’ve been really impressed by?
Luke Southern: I’ve been really impressed with Nike and I don’t just mean the work that they did in the UK, Nothing Beats A Londoner. I’m thinking more broadly about the stuff they did with Colin Kaepernick. Really brave, really bold. I was lucky enough to judge at Cannes this year, the Entertainment Lions. One of the standout pieces for me was a documentary that Nike made with Nat Geo called Breaking2. A Gold-winning sports documentary that asks, and attempts to answer, what it takes to break the two-hour marathon barrier. This could have been a brand heavy, sensationalised, athletes-as-Gods style film typical of most sports advertising. Instead though it’s an honest observation of what it takes to push the boundaries of what the human body is capable of, through training, control of heart rate, and sacrifice, from the point of view of the three distance runners attempting the challenge. The film is as much about their personal challenges as it is about the actual record attempt itself, and all the better for it, building a closer connection between the viewer and the contenders that when, spoiler alert, they miss out on the record by mere seconds your empathy levels go through the roof as you feel heavily invested in their stories, not just the challenge itself. I hold that up as a piece of work that I personally would have loved to have been involved in and it has reassured me that, on our best day, brands can ‘do’ long form drama with emotional punch that’s just as unmissable as the latest from Netflix or Amazon.
Creativebrief: Is there a particular agency outside the UK that’s doing really fantastic work?
Luke Southern: N=5. An independent agency from the Netherlands that created Evert_45, the Grand Prix winning campaign at the entertainment lions for Dutch telco KPN this year. They seem to consistently create outstanding, emotive and brilliantly resonant advertising and content. The campaign, Evert_45, imagined how a teenager would record his experiences of WWII and the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1945 if he lived today. Out goes the diary, in comes social media, a YT channel, Instagram Stories and a weekly vlog. We meet Evert and get to experience and empathise with his daily routine and the heart-breaking reality of living under Nazi occupation. This is high concept stuff with a purpose, to preserve and pass down lessons from the past to a younger generation, that wouldn’t be out of place on HBO and which requires a deft hand in balancing historical accuracy and entertainment value that you would typically expect from a major studio. The fact that this comes from a telco operator with, to my knowledge, no previous track record in original content is remarkable. The brand is implicit in how the story plays out across mobile and desktop devices and with the campaign being adopted by Dutch schools as an educational resource to teach children about WWII, shows how brands have a hugely important role to play in society to fuel cultural as well as commercial growth at a time where governments and local authorities are struggling for funding.

Porsche, 'Carpool Karaoke with Adam Levine' by DRUM

Creativebrief: Is that how you see the industry evolving?
Luke Southern: Yes. The world is going long form and brands need to go beyond the 60, 30-second spot. If they can create quality, original content that people actively want to spend time with then that is a great way to build long term brand affinity, engagement, attribution, in a non-advertising model where actually brands can end up having a stake in the IP as well. At a time of huge disruption to this industry, gaining consumers' attention in the future isn’t just about understanding pathways to purchase and how to target audiences efficiently but also through developing our ability as advertisers to create branded entertainment with a small b and big E. Programmes that prioritise entertainment first, brand second, warranting repeat viewing and which audiences ultimately choose to spend time with, and maybe even money on.
Creativebrief: This ties into a trend we’re looking at which is that customers want to know more about the social, environmental and economic impact of brands. But with the thought process you use when working with brands, how do you respect what the consumer wants?
Luke Southern: It starts from not trying to push brands into a place where it’s not natural or comfortable for them to be. For example, the Lush campaign ‘Spy Cops’ which just felt really misjudged. You should push brands to do different stuff but not force them into a space they shouldn’t be playing in. Then it comes down to our whole approach to find a role for them in popular culture, within the cultural narrative of their target audiences’ lives. What are those people talking about, what right does the brand have to play there? Then on a broader level, where possible and where relevant, dialing up those, let’s call them CSR credentials, of the brand. As the world changes and local councils have smaller budgets, governments are cutting stuff left, right and centre, there’s an onus on brands today to plug that gap and fill that role. To be socially responsible but also socially conscious and aware of their impact and responsibility in the world.

On our best day, brands can ‘do’ long form drama with emotional punch that’s just as unmissable as the latest from Netflix or Amazon.

Luke Southern
Creativebrief: What are your ambitions for Drum over the next few years?
Luke Southern: I want to continue to evolve and dial up the DRUM difference to clients looking for a non-traditional advertising approach. We have had huge success in helping clients produce work that is creatively and commercially effective, showing that going beyond a 30 second spot is the right way to unlock, and connect with, audiences today. Growing our ability and helping clients integrate their brands into existing IP in a way that’s authentic and not forced. Increasingly growing internationally and, like everybody, continuing to win awards but not just for creative effectiveness, for commercial effectiveness too. We will continue to prioritise cultural ideas and platforms for brands that are laser focused on making the brand responsive to, and a valued part of, the things that consumers care about regardless of whether your business is retail, automotive or beauty.
Creativebrief: Finally, something that we like to ask is, looking outside the industry, personally, who or what are you inspired by?
Luke Southern: From an academic perspective, Yuval Noah Harari, specifically Sapiens or Homo Deus. Dense but hugely insightful tomes that make you consider why we're here and how we have evolved and will continue to in the future. His storytelling ability on complex subjects is phenomenal.

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