Gerry Hopkinson set up Unity with fellow Co-founder Nik Done to create a new kind of PR agency. Since launch, London-based Unity has gone on to become one of the most successful and awarded agencies in recent history. An industry veteran, Gerry has worked both in-house and agency-side across more than 200 campaigns for some of the world’s most respected brands, including Amazon, Hyundai, Ben & Jerry’s, Baileys and The Post Office. He is intensely interested in nearly everything and often blurs the line between work and leisure.
When it comes to creativity, Unity can’t seem to set a foot wrong at the moment, what’s your secret?
My approach is as someone who acts as a kind of guardian of creativity and gets involved fairly early on in most campaigns. A client says here’s a brief, here’s a problem, now come back with one big idea or a range of ideas which support that and I guess the first thing to say, the most important thing, is that there are two streams that come together in every incident.
The most important is the ‘always-on’ stream, which is general knowledge and curiosity about the world; I don’t think you can be creative as a person or as an agency if you’re not genuinely curious and have a restless curiosity. And I don’t mean just vaguely curious, I mean the kind of people who want to know how things work and are constantly fascinated by the world and everything from hieroglyphics to cloud formations to badminton – people who wake up in the morning and go, “What’s that? How does that work?”. And that’s ‘always on’.
One of the things that happens with agency life is there’s this, “At 2.45 on Tuesday we’re all going to be creative for 45 minutes and we’ll have a brainstorm and in that we’ll sit together and spontaneously try and regurgitate everything we’ve ever thought of.” In my experience, that’s not the way that great ideas come to the surface. In many ways a lot of the clichés are true, like the Hollywood idea of a Eureka moment, where you’re having a bath or talking to someone and go, “Ah! You’ve just given me the answer to something I’ve been struggling with for weeks!”
What’s the other strand?
The other strand is everything that you can know about a product or a brand or a service, all those hard facts – which a lot of people call ‘planning’ – as well as everything that you can possibly know about human beings. Who’s this audience? What makes them tick? What’s important to them? All that data goes into the mix, and we start looking for correlations, links and connections. You’ll find yourself saying, “Oh, here’s an interesting combination,” and that’s how ideas get formed.
Is that everything?
No, that’s just the beginning of the process. Then there’s a really important bit: letting that churn over and churn over and it’s literally exhausting and the more people you have on it the better. So people play around with everything they know about that audience, everything they know about that brand and what they want to try and do, and all of their general knowledge, and eventually what happens is you forget about it and move onto something else, because that’s the way life is, and as you’re doing something else your subconscious gets to work on it and you have a Eureka moment.
And that’s about what I know about the creative process, and it’s not a mystery, and I think it’s the way people come up with new companies, new products, new services all the time. It’s probably the way artists and scientists and novelists work and it seems to be the way that we work. I also like ‘A Technique For Producing Ideas’ by James Webb Young.
Do you use specific tools to find them?
For sure. One of the things that’s at the heart of our work is social psychology and social science, with a particular emphasis on humans. We believe, for example, that most people want to be happy. So we spend some time understanding what makes people happy and if we find that when looking at the things they want and the things that make them happy there’s some overlap with us, then we can sense that there’s going to be good rapport.
What was the last ‘big idea’ you worked on and what was the creative process?
One we did was Hyundai. They came to us and said, “We’ve got this new car which uses hydrogen fuel cell technology. It’s an amazing technology, but the car won’t be available for 18 months or two years, so in the meantime we’d like you to get out there and tell people about it in a way which is going to make them interested and want to know more.”
What we quickly realised is that it’s very, very complicated technology. It’s a wonderful thing, but there’s about four volumes of technical data and unless you’re super-scientific, you’ll probably start to lose interest. Instead we thought, “How can we radically and dramatically demonstrate that this is unlike any car that you’ve ever known?”, and what we quickly got to was, “What does this thing do? It produces water as a by-product.”
And this is where general knowledge and curiosity came into play. We’re very interested in design, we go to lots of exhibitions, we collaborate with lots of designers, and we knew that aquaponics is a really interesting new area of design and technology which uses water and fish poo to grow plants. We knew a particularly brilliant design practise called Something and Son who had got an aquaponics farm in Hackney, and we thought, “How about if we take this car and work with Something and Son and create a means to turn the exhaust from a car into a whole lunch?” A beautiful lunch that people can eat with us, by growing wonderful vegetables and getting some brilliant chefs in to demonstrate the power of this car.
We then put that in the context of somewhere which was going to give us maximum impact, which was the Design Museum, and we used that venue to engage with a whole range of people to come and talk about it. And through that we drove all the right outcomes and results for the client. And we literally did have that Eureka moment when we went, “Oh God – what if we could grow stuff with cars?”