“You don’t really get evil Ralphs. They’re always very friendly. They might be thick as pig shit but they’re always very friendly people.”
Speaking from a hotel room in Aspen, Colorado, Chris Hassell was discussing the name origin of the creative agency he owns and founded; Ralph. Scruffy and gregarious, he has a penchant for self-deprecating humor that belies the steady success of a company that, since opening in 2005, has grown to around 50 employees with offices in both London and New York, and yet another one on the way in Los Angeles. It’s an impressive run considering Ralph started out doing “flash games and websites and all those sort of things that no one really wants any more basically,” Hassell continued.
But while flash games may have gone the way of the internet dinosaurs, the spirit of play that went into making them remains strong in Ralph, and has helped the agency thrive as it has gone on to forge a reputation for making immersive digital experiences with layers of engagement.
Ralph was crafting interactive online projects at a time when such things were still on the fringe of many a marketing plan. A delightfully troubling 2007 email campaign for Showtime’s Dexter let the user prank a friend by making them the subject of a fake news report implying they were the next victim of a serial killer. For the second season of Breaking Bad, the agency brought fans inside an online recreation of Walter White’s Winnebago, where they could look around while the kingpin threatened them by burning up a piece of paper with their Facebook profile picture on it.
Ralph was also the mastermind behind the famous “Breaking Bad Name Lab,” which let users instantly transform their Facebook profile in the style of the show’s iconic opening credits. It has created poster-quality micro content for House of Cards and a viral video for MTV’s Catfish that packs as much mind-bending trickery into two minutes as the show does in an episode.
But for all its seemingly visionary approach within a cutthroat industry, Hassell’s testament to Ralph’s lasting success amounts to little more than this: “We make cool shit,” he said.
Over time, he continued, the conceptual hierarchy in marketing has gone through a kind of upheaval, with “creating stuff that’s fun and interesting” becoming the engine of traditional marketing materials instead of vice-versa.
“Now the brands are going, ‘oh no, that’s what we should be doing at top level,‘” he continued. “‘We should start with the great creative idea at the top and then see if we need to bolster the exposure with a load of media and TV, print, paid-for digital, etcetera.’”
What that means for Ralph is that the multilayered immersions the agency was conceiving of 10 years ago are more important than ever – are, in fact, possibly the most important. But Hassell is reluctant to describe the company as visionary.
“We were probably a bit late to actually say, ‘oh we do social media stuff,’” he said. “We’re bad at jumping on those zeitgeist-y buzzwords. We just do what we do. We’ve always aimed to create stuff that people want to share.”
That said, Ralph is firmly invested in one of the biggest buzzwords of the moment: virtual reality. Though as always, there’s much more to the work they are doing in this space than slapping on a headset and looking at something cool.
With popular electronic duo The Chainsmokers, for instance, they have been developing the first installments in a new Sony Music live event series called Lost in Music, which aim to do nothing less than “create unforgettable new musical experiences.” The series began on January 13 at Los Angeles’ Hangar Studios, where attendees were ushered into a winter wonderland that, with the help of Playstation VR headsets, turned into a summer wonderland replete with a rolling green hill for a stage. More unexpected hybrids of technology and Chainsmokers performance are in the works.
With immersive concert experiences still just a blip on the radar, Hassell hopes to be tapping into the next big thing in music.
“We hope we can take that on in recent years,” he said. “Live stuff is insanely exciting and stressful but is so rewarding if you get it right. To watch people reacting in real time in real life to your creative is kind of one of the ultimate buzzes.”
Another goal at Ralph, Hassell said, is to “create more of our own stuff” whether it entails “something that we take to brands to see if brands want to fund it and get involved, or if it’s a TV idea that we take to a broadcaster.”
In 2015, Ralph responded to a commissioning pitch brief from Nickelodeon seeking an original digital show to license. The agency pitched an idea from creative directors Gregor Stevenson and Chris Stack for Tinkershrimp & Dutch, an animated series about a lobster and a slow loris (a kind of primate) who are time-traveling bodyguards for an eccentric monarch named King Hunnybun III.
Though small in scale at five 5-minute episodes, Ralph was able to pull in some impressive names to work on the cartoon, including Franz Ferdinand members Andrew Knowles and Nick McCarthy to do the theme song, Sam Riley (Maleficent) to play a villainous headless chicken named Michael the Fowl, and Star Wars’ John Boyega to play the title character Dutch. The show exudes a combination of pedigree and wild imagination that bodes well for future original content.
“It’s not so much the time to shoot pilots, write treatments and put pitch docs together,” Hassell said, “it’s then going out and getting it out there that just takes so much effort. It’s hard to do that at the same time as running the rest of the business.”
Fortunately, by instilling a business model that values making cool stuff over being beholden to trends or profit margins, Ralph has given itself a chance to get there.
“We’re now a modern creative agency really,” Hassell said. “We’re not tied to any particular channel, not set up where we make all our money from TV or print, etc. We’re genuinely about creating experiences that people love. We love them, the client loves them and the audience loves them.”