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Sachini Imbuldeniya, CEO of House of Oddities, on how making a difference with the NSPCC brought her passion for creativity back to life
At some point in the last few years I fell out of love with our industry. It seemed like the more senior I got, the more exposed I was to the toxic workplace cultures, rampant nepotism and elitist environments that still linger across so much of it.
And that’s without going into the whole mess of being a woman of colour trying to find a home in what feels like hostile territory. The UK Government’s All-Party Parliamentary Group for Creative Diversity found that the most underrepresented groups in this industry are women, people of colour, people living with disabilities and people from working class origins.
I fit into all four of those categories – and it’s hard to love an industry that doesn’t love you back.
It’s hard to love an industry that doesn’t love you back.Sachini Imbuldeniya, CEO of House of Oddities
I’d rant to my creative partner Darren Smith about how the lack of diverse voices and fear of trying new things was killing creativity and making the work stale. But I also didn’t feel like there was a home for people like us. People that didn’t fit the mould.
So in the end we decided to create our own home. But I’m getting ahead of myself. It was during one of these rants that we got invited to pitch to the children’s charity NSPCC. They had a brief for a major multi-platform brand awareness campaign, and like most creatives I love working on projects that have a real purpose; that feel like they’re doing some good in the world. So we decided to give it a go. Why not? We thought.
Apart from the fact that we’d never made a TV ad before. Ever.
Darren and I don't come from traditional advertising backgrounds. We have of course both been creating and overseeing award-winning cross-platform content for the past two decades. And if our team could make a 45 minute documentary featuring Roger Federer in his underpants for CNBC, some 12-minute scripted short films on Sky for a car brand, and even a two minute viral video about the plight of immigrants for the United Nations that gained 300 million views worldwide – then how hard would it be to make a 60" ad spot?
But the reality hit home when we realised who we were up against. Charity advertising campaigns are notorious ‘awards-bait’ for established agencies and production companies, who all make a big effort to win them despite their more modest budgets. We were going up against companies that had Oscar-winning directors and major creative talent and teams of people working on their pitch.
And then there was us. Two TV advertising newbies round a kitchen table, surrounded by take-out and cats. We only had one laptop (because, and I promise this is true, one of the fur balls had tried to eat Darren’s laptop and cracked the screen. Really.).
Honestly, if NSPCC had been your usual sort of client then there was no way we could have won. But NSPCC is not your usual sort of client.
They wanted to do something new; a non–traditional approach. Something that felt bold and brave, yet relatable and authentic. And they wanted to embrace diversity and bring in fresh perspectives to answer their brief.
I know they all say that. But NSPCC actually meant it.
And what a brief it was. Most people know, or at least think they know, what the NSPCC does. It’s the place you turn to when you want to report the most extreme cases of child abuse and neglect. And whilst this is true, there is a lack of awareness around the other services that the charity offers. They do so much more to support parents with everyday challenges and anxieties, from exam stress to bullying and everything in between. But not enough parents, guardians or carers are using these services... because they don't know they exist.
So we created 'Not Letting Go'. A powerful poem written by Darren – a Dad of three. It covers the whole life cycle of parenting from birth to the empty nest. It’s the antidote to the ‘perfect Instagram family’ and highlights the everyday scenarios and challenges that many face but rarely discuss, to show parents that they’re not alone.
We wanted to take the viewer on an emotional journey with a pace that mirrored both the busyness and emptiness that parents can often feel at different stages of a child’s life. We also wanted the visuals to stand out from the usual charity ads of the past, so we commissioned award-winning artist Martina Lang to create bold, graphic stills and animations that provided a more positive and vibrant tone against a whimsical soundtrack from Jungle Studios.
I’ve come up with creative ideas before and then been forced to hire a 'named director' to execute it because they have the 'kudos' and will ‘get more column inches'.Sachini Imbuldeniya, CEO of House of Oddities
We asked Sex Education star T’Nia Miller to recite the poem. She has an energy that really fit the aesthetic we were going for – and as a mum of two children that she’d had at a young age (she describes herself as ‘a baby who had babies’) she brought a real edge to her reading that only comes from lived experience.
The resulting ad gives parents something they can empathise with, at times even laugh about – and hopefully in turn feel more confident about reaching out to the NSPCC sooner and more often.
Sachini is fearless for all the right reasons. She has emotional intelligence to burn and a deep- rooted respect and mastery of the power of creative to move people.Kevin Yeates, Head of Brand and Content at the NSPCC.
And, of course, ‘Not Letting Go’ was also my directorial debut. ‘How hard can it be?’ I said at the kitchen table. I’ve come up with creative ideas before and then been forced to hire a 'named director' to execute it because they have the 'kudos' and will ‘get more column inches'. But when that has happened I’ve ended up ‘directing the director’ – making sure they stick to my vision, because that’s what the client bought into, after all.
And while I don’t know all the technical aspects and granular detail that go into creating a TVC, I remembered this tip Quentin Tarantino shared with aspiring directors: 'You simply have to know what your vision is and then you have to hire really talented people to help you execute it. It's their job to create your vision. You don't need to know how to grab the light stands and create a certain type of lighting effect. You don't need to know how a certain fabric goes with a certain wall, or anything like that. You just need to understand your vision and you need to articulate it.' And that is the demystified reality of directing.
As Quentin said though, making it seamless is all about bringing in talented people. So I worked with my amazing Executive Producer Juan Leon and TV production company Bandicoot, and brought in advertising guru Jo Wallace to co-direct with me and TVC veteran Kate Pirouet as Exec Producer. They brought in a brilliant (and diverse) crew, and together we created something that still puts a lump in my throat every time I watch it.
And I think we repaid the faith NSPCC put in us. I’m almost embarrassed to share this quote from Kevin Yeates, Head of Brand and Content at the NSPCC (but too pleased not to): 'Sachini is fearless for all the right reasons. She has emotional intelligence to burn and a deep- rooted respect and mastery of the power of creative to move people. Her commitment to emerging and established talent is unmatched. And the sheer talent she oozes is a mix I'm grateful for and jealous of in equal measure.'
Despite these lovely words, it still doesn’t feel like there’s a natural home in this industry for people like me – people that don’t fit that ‘traditional mould’. So I decided to make my own.
Darren and I launched House of Oddities (or HOO, for short) – a full–service content agency with a difference, just last week. I think the NSPCC campaign has helped me to fall back in love with this crazy, unfair, unequal, broken but occasionally beautiful industry of ours.
Well, maybe just a little bit.
When I was on set, one of the crew approached and told me that this was the first time they’d ever worked with a woman of colour director. How long had he been working on TV commercials? I asked. Over two decades, he said. If we’re going to make this industry a better, more equal place, I feel like I need to make a lot more TV ads – that guy shouldn’t have to wait another 20 years for the next one.
But thanks to the incredible warmth, belief and bravery of the team at NSPCC, I feel more hopeful about the future. One where I think I’ll spend more time directing, and less time ranting around the kitchen table.
To watch and read more about the campaign click here.
Sachini Imbuldeniya is a co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of content agency House of Oddities She was previously ECD of content agency Nemorin, founder of diverse artist agency Studio PI and Honouree of Campaign and Creative Equals Future Leaders list, has joined forces with her former creative partner Darren Smith to launch a new content agency called ‘House of Oddities’. As an Honouree for Diversity and Inclusion at the Campaign Female Frontiers awards, Sachini has a long history of championing inequality in the creative sector and founded artist agency Studio PI to support exceptional talent from the UK’s four most underrepresented groups: women, people of colour, people living with disabilities and people from working class backgrounds. Sachini herself hails from all four of these groups.
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