Great stories stop time, put you there in a place / Where you see through the eyes of a godforsaken face…
They are words with a timeless quality to them, as though found inscribed in a tattered tome amidst the dust of an ancient ruin. They are words that do not feel like the typical text one associates with the language of promo, a detachment that perhaps helps explain why the AMC UK spots in which they appear seem to penetrate the screen with an almost unsettling intensity.
They are words written not by a professional poet of literary renown, but by one Richard Holman, creative director for Holman + Hunt. As the creative and design studio’s moniker suggests, there is only one other part to the company: Australian executive producer Lucy Hunt. Together, the duo comprise something that is about as small as an entity can be that works on award-winning campaigns for some of the world’s biggest media brands.
“It’s just the two of us in the office,” Hunt cheerfully told Brief, during a Skype session from H+H’s London headquarters, “and we wear all the hats. “Every single hat you can imagine, we wear, most of which we enjoy. Some hats not so much, but we do wear them all.”
Of course, the duo scales up when tackling big projects, but at its core there are two people behind all the creative, all the operational logistics, and all the communications with clients and collaborators. It’s a structure that gets stressful at times, but which allows them to stay grounded in what matters.
“Having been in senior positions in agencies in the past—as soon as you reach a certain size, you start thinking about HR and how many holidays someone has taken, and all this other stuff,” Holman said. “Clutter really, and Lucy and I have always been keen to just keep it really simple and try to make it about the work.”
Started in July of 2014, H+H materialized after Holman had taken an extended hiatus from the television industry, during which he helped his wife start a furniture business and pursued a master’s degree in photography. Earning the distinction was something “I’d always wanted to do,” he told Brief, having never found the time during a career that had seen him rise through the promo ranks at the BBC before spending 12 years as founder and executive creative director of the agency Devilfish, with which he parted ways in 2013. When he returned to the industry following his passion-project pursuits, he found he had an increased appreciation for the craft of promo.
“Doing that master’s really helped focus my mind on the act of trying to create something that has its own intrinsic value, and a reach and a breadth,” Holman said. “A great photograph has the capacity to fascinate and enthrall over time and it has a resonance that goes beyond that fraction of a second when the photographer chose to press the shutter. I think we [in promo] work in very small units of time – not 125th of a second, but 30 seconds, 15 seconds, and always what you’re trying to do is come up with something that has a resonance that goes beyond that particular moment.”
Fixing to put together a streamlined endeavor that eschewed bureaucracy, Holman sought out Hunt for his new company because the two had worked together in the past on brands such as A&E and Canal+, and she “was one of the best producers, if not the best, that I ever worked with,” he said. “So I gave her a call in Australia and she was thinking about coming back, and it all worked out quite nicely.”
Their first major gig as Holman + Hunt was an on-air rebrand for the sports arm of their old friends Canal+, and it was immediately apparent that the partnership was going to be a fruitful one. Launched in France and across four channels in Africa, the elements cohere into a dreamy vivisection of light and movement, displaying a rare level of artistry and imagination for any network, let alone one featuring sports.
To arrive at what Canal+ Sports became, “we thought about what is it visually that makes sport different than other kinds of content,” said Holman, “and it’s movement…We thought maybe we could show sporting movement by fracturing rather than just slowing it down, to break it up into its constituent parts.”
Working with another London-based design studio, DBLG, H+H engineered a real-world system of “20 rotating mirrors that had double-sided glass and each of them had a board with LED light strips,” said Hunt, “and the color of the lights and the speed at which the lights changed were all controlled by a deck. We shot that over two days and we had a bunch of different sports—balls flying everywhere, rackets, a hurdler. I held my breath for the whole two days hoping that no mirrors were broken, and I’m happy to say that none were.”
The rebrand epitomized the new company’s unofficial motto, which Holman described as “craft, creativity and collaboration,” and set the table for additional projects such as a National Geographic campaign starring Morgan Freeman, and what is arguably H+H’s most striking work to date, the series of promos for the UK launch of the AMC network that resulted in the award-winning Cranston spot above.
A total reversal from the Canal+ Sports work, the trilogy of AMC spots are measured and reflective to the point of being almost meditative, with Holman’s poem the guiding, proudly literary light across all of them.
“When I approached that project I thought, ‘if Vince Gilligan or Matthew Weiner were doing this campaign, what would they do?” he said. “Not Richard Holman, promo maker, but how would they think about this project?’ And it seemed to me that the key was stories, because AMC is such a wonderful storyteller and people who go to AMC love those dramas that are fundamentally about stories, so the campaign should be a celebration of story.”
Holman said he initially considered hiring a “proper poet” to conceive of the verse, but eventually ended up simply writing it himself, knocking it out in bits and pieces over the span of a week. He learned of Bryan Cranston’s involvement in the campaign on a Saturday, while at home.
“I got the call and it was the client saying, ‘we just got the news that Bryan Cranston will do it in LA on Monday morning,’” he remembered. “I live in rural Wales, and I got this call, and he said, ‘oh yeah, his agent needs a treatment by lunchtime.’”
Fortunately, that treatment was remarkably simple, because Holman’s vision for the spot required little more than putting the powerful words he had penned into the mouth of a performer with the skill and presence needed to bring them to life.
“The most technical thing was the performance really for Bryan because I wanted to get it in a single take,” he said, “to get it within 60 seconds, and there were certain moments in delivery that I wanted to hit… You were trying to get a journey in his face, which he can do. There’s a bit where he says, ‘made honest by lies,’ and I said, ‘at that point, can you just give me a little flicker of later-stage Walter White?’ And he did, and it was amazing.”
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For Holman + Hunt, the time is right in the industry for such artistry and meticulous attention to detail. “It’s the perfect time for us because one of our big focuses is this show promotion thing,” said Hunt. “There are so many new original shows being made and they all need to be promoted, and we feel we’re very well-equipped… whether it be clip-based spots or bespoke shoots.”
And on the creative side, Holman’s curiosity and eagerness to explore other disciplines ensures Holman + Hunt will remain well-equipped for the duration. “Over the years, Lucy and I have both worked with artists and crafts people, painters and photographers, who wouldn’t necessarily make television promos,” he said. “The principles are the same. It doesn’t mater whether you’re making a painting or a chair or a novel or a promo, you’re trying to do something that is as pure an expression in form as it can be of the same idea, and you strip away anything extraneous, and the more you strip away, the stronger it becomes.”