Q&A: Tara Ford on ‘The First Digital Nation’, Creative Leadership, AI in the Ad Industry, and More

Tara is Chief Creative Officer at The Monkeys, part of Accenture Song.

One of the creative campaigns on the recently announced shortlists at Cannes Lions 2023 is “The First Digital Nation” for The Government of Tuvalu – a provocative piece of campaign work highlighting the real effects of climate change from the creative minds at The Monkeys.

To get more insight on the contender at Cannes Lions this year, we recently caught up with Tara Ford, Chief Creative Officer at The Monkeys, part of Accenture Song.

Over the course of our conversation, she talks about First Digital Nation being “the ultimate provocation,” some of the challenges in bringing the creative concept to life, what she misses about not having a creative leadership role, some other campaigns that she is rooting for at this year’s festival, and more.


 

In a previous interview, you described the now multi-award-winning First Digital Nation campaign for Tuvalu as “the ultimate provocation”. Can you tell us more about that and the role creativity plays in drawing focus to important issues?

Tuvalu, a low-lying Pacific nation, is at risk of becoming the first country to be submerged from rising sea levels due to climate change. We created The First Digital Nation to tell the world about the country’s plan, and first steps to migrate land, records, culture, everything to the metaverse.

This was not just an announcement of a tragic climate adaptation strategy but a powerful provocation for global action. It was designed for maximum emotional impact. Nobody wants their ‘home’ to be a digital nation. This is a heartbreaking last resort for a nation that’s run out of time. This message to the world speaks of the first-ever digital migration, which without global climate action, may well not be the last.

Creativity connects to our humanity. Used in the right way, it can get people’s attention and make them change their thinking. It can make them feel something where before, they may have been complacent or unaware. It’s the ultimate tool to unify people, inspire and enlist action.

https://vimeo.com/809969600?share=copy


 

How did the idea come about for the campaign and what were some challenges in bringing it to life?

The concept of The First Digital Nation came about to protect a culture and sovereignty while giving the government a way to continue to unify and serve their people even if they are displaced. The Digital Nation fulfils dual climate strategies of adaptation and mitigation, acting as the ultimate provocation for diplomatic talks.

There were many challenges bringing this work to life. The obvious difficulty was achieving cut-through at COP27, an environment that would be tough to stand out in. The world and global media are suffering from climate change fatigue. Familiar messages were no longer getting the attention they deserve, so Tuvalu needed a way to tell a climate change story that would capture the world’s attention.

“Te Afualiku islet was painstakingly recreated, making it feel incredibly precious. But we also embraced the notion of it being a replica – the implications being a sense of sadness and loss. That was fundamental to the execution and communication. ”

Beyond that, one of the hardest challenges was striking the balance between replicating the natural beauty in a digital space while communicating the impossibility of that endeavour.

Te Afualiku islet was painstakingly recreated, making it feel incredibly precious. But we also embraced the notion of it being a replica – the implications being a sense of sadness and loss. That was fundamental to the execution and communication.

And then there were the many practical production challenges. Tuvalu wasn’t accepting visitors at the time (due to Covid), so the entire production was done remotely. Two teams, over 4000km apart, worked in parallel.

In Sydney, we painstakingly built a digital recreation of Te Afualiku islet based on photography and drone footage captured by the team on Tuvalu, who had to sail with their equipment to the location.

For the COP27 film, the production was directed remotely, with patchy Wi-Fi. We had to send instructions and diagrams to the team on Tuvalu – including the Minister’s friends and family, who were rigging up the makeshift greenscreen and holding cue cards.

And with a limited window of time where the lighting was right, the team in Tuvalu captured the Minister’s three-minute address in a single take.

You’re heading to Cannes Lions for a Creatives on the Terrace session about creative leadership. As someone in a leadership role, what do you miss most about being a creative without the responsibilities of management?

The pure creativity. That feeling you get when you crack an idea. The solidarity of a great creative partnership. The joy of collaboration with other like-minded creatives in other fields. Dreaming about how big an idea could be without the burden of all the realities.

But I still get to work with brilliant creative people every day. The thrill of hearing a great idea never gets old.

What advice do you have for young creatives navigating their way into the advertising industry?

Put yourself into your work, your taste, and your experience. Focus on who you are as a person and develop your point of view to work out what you can bring that’s unique. Your talent and who you are is what you have to offer that no one else can bring. Expect to work hard. Then work hard. It will pay off. Keep going when others would have stopped. Be unreasonable. Don’t follow all the rules. Aim to make what you want to see in the world. Then find the place and the people who can help make it happen.

“Don’t follow all the rules. Aim to make what you want to see in the world. Then find the place and the people who can help make it happen.”

And simply – do work so good and interesting that you can’t be ignored.

Other than your own work, are there any campaigns you’d like to see get recognized this year at the festival?

‘The Last Photo’ for Campaign Against Living Miserably & ITV. ‘The Greatest’ by Apple. Missing Matoaka for Muskrat Magazine. And for a change of pace (and some light relief) ‘Innocent Eyes’ for Voiz Waffle Crisp.

What is some work you’ve done over the course of your career that you are most proud of?

The First Digital Nation has been an incredibly rewarding piece of work from recent times, but I will go back to something I did when I was a creative. I worked on the campaign for ANZ bank, recognising 10 years of supporting the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and their first year as principal partner. To celebrate, we turned ATMs (automatic teller machines) into GAYTMs. It was a fun and fabulous but also meaningful campaign close to my heart.

We continued the campaign in various iterations for several years due to popular demand. One year we even transformed an entire bank branch from ANZ to GAYNZ, which was a step up in complexity and fabulousness. Because the work was a very public, high-profile activation, we got to see people’s spontaneous reactions. It was very moving. This was the first time I really felt the impact we could have as an industry on people’s lives, to move things forward and make things better.

“AI is a new tool. So, like any tool it will depend on who’s operating it. Things can be created instantly by those who never had the skills or the craft. The barriers to creation have been fallen away.”

I would be remiss to let this interview pass without a question about AI and its effects on the creative industry. What’s your take on what the future holds?

AI is a new tool. So, like any tool it will depend on who’s operating it. Things can be created instantly by those who never had the skills or the craft. The barriers to creation have been fallen away. We’ll no doubt see a lot of that’s less than extraordinary, however in the right hands…And creative people will find uses that haven’t even been thought about yet.

Who knows where it will go? Creatives will definitely take it to unexpected places through experimentation. So, I think there will be an explosion of creativity in many ways. I hope so.


Quick Hits:

Book everyone in the industry should read: The Creative Act by Rick Rubin
Favourite show you’re watching lately: Succession.
An album you would take to a deserted island: A curated playlist with personal anthems for different moods.
Something you want to learn or wish you were better at: Martial arts.

Bobby McGill

Bobby McGill

Bobby is the founder and publisher of Branding in Asia.

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