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first direct: 2014 IPA Effectiveness Awards Shortlist Interview

With its ‘Unexpected bank’ campaign, featuring Barry the platypus, the brand challenged low customer expectations of the financial services sector, and reinterpreted first direct’s core value of doing things differently. In its first year, the campaign generated a gross profit ROMI of £1.61 for every £1 spent.


Q1. When and why did you decide to launch a campaign?

JT: “In 2011, we made a conscious decision to grow our customer base but, in order to do so, we needed to reinvigorate the brand to tell the first direct story to a new and younger audience. 

“In order to get that cut through in a banking industry ruled by the high street banks, we needed to push forward that we were different – we needed to go back to our roots.”

JB: “We were briefed at the end of 2011 to create a re-positioning of the first direct brand to appeal to a specific audience demographic and which would take it back to its irreverent and edgy roots for which the bank’s advertising is well known.”

Q2. How did you feel about the original brief?

JT: “This was a new and exciting opportunity to deliver a campaign that stood out against the competitor market.  We’d taken a good look at our brand over the years and pinned this down to a strategy of deviation, doing things differently but with a purpose. 

“The brief was quite open, apart from one factor, we needed to really bring back the pioneering, stand out attitude of the brand and emphasise how we put our heart and soul into delivering amazing customer service.”

JB: “The stimulus was about deviation and doing things differently. It was all about bringing back the pioneering, cool attitude of the bank. And it was immediately obvious that the style of the work had to be disruptive. It felt like a big, exciting challenge.”

Q3. How hard was it to get the campaign signed off?

JT: “Our brand is built on doing things differently and in an unexpected way and this particular campaign was seen as doing just that. It was innovative and fresh.  Having a parent brand (HSBC group) means there are varying levels of different stakeholders.  However, we felt passionately that the campaign had hit the brief and they were very supportive, which meant we got the go ahead.”

JB: “Fortunately the client’s brief was to be challenging and therefore it was willing to push itself into a different place and be a bit daring. So apart from the normal issues of getting lots of senior approval, it went smoothly.”

Q4. When and how did you first know that you had been successful?

JT: "The TV teaser was definitely different and got cut through and talkability, particularly in Twitter.  People were hooked as they tried to work out who was the brand behind it, with references to Google, Apple, O2 and 3. 

“Even after the reveal, people weren’t turned off by it being from a bank. With comments such as ‘cool’ and ‘different’ and ‘I wish they were my bank’ we knew the campaign had answered the brief above our expectations. 

“As the campaign moved into the direct response phase, we saw our switching volumes increase significantly and then we really knew it was a true success.”

JB: "The TV teaser got some really nice attention on Twitter. It really hooked people and got them talking.  But the really exciting moment came when first direct call centres were inundated with calls from customers and non-customers who’d loved the blooper ads. Then we knew it was a hit.”

Q5. What was the biggest challenge in demonstrating the effectiveness of your work?

JT: “The hardest factor was isolating the different levers that work, and ensuring that, as well as making people understand who we are, consumers are willing to make that jump and switch to a bank that’s not on the high street.

“We were quite fortunate that we started to see results quite instantly, brand consideration really started to move and when we moved into the direct response phase the volumes spoke for themselves.” 

JB: “Creating clarity around the precise ‘push’ and ‘pull’ mechanics at work in the campaign and ensuring that it was completely obvious that the creative approach enticed people.”

Q6. How did this campaign compare to previous campaigns by the brand and competitors?

JT: “It really felt that we had gone back to our roots and stood apart from the rest of the banking category.  The reception of the campaign with our own employees and customers was also amazing.  People commented how they felt that we really had reignited the brand again and put first direct back on the map but in a way that was true to who we are.”

JB: “For the category, it felt like a big departure – which was the whole point. It felt much more involving and less ‘bank-y’ than all the other financial messaging out there. But for first direct it was in keeping with its established tone.”

Q7. What lessons did this campaign teach you?

JT: “It really taught me to not be afraid to push campaigns out of your comfort zone. It’s too easy to play safe and stick with what you know.  One of the main reasons I love the first direct brand is that we don’t have to always play safe, we can try something new especially with a dry topic such as banking.”

JB: “It taught me to trust my funny bone and have fun with dry subject matter. It taught me that some clients really do want to do things differently.”

Q8. What were the low points/high points of this campaign?

JT: “A definite high point was seeing the love that people had for the platypus.  I was also relieved we had the ‘blooper’ execution to resolve the issue of him laying an egg, especially as he was male!” 

JB: “The high point was, for me, seeing an underground commuter smile when he read one of our headlines.”

Q9. What would you do differently if you did this campaign over again? 

JT: “The campaign evolved as we created it and looking back we could have done so much more in the social space, driving conversation particular given the success of the TV Teaser.”

JB: “I would make the digital ecosystem even richer and more of a conversation with our character, Barry the platypus. A lesson we have already applied to the follow-up campaign.”

Q10. If you could have worked on one, other IPA award-winning campaign over the years which would it be, and why?

JT: “One of my favourites would have to be Virgin Atlantic’s ‘Je ne sais quoi’ campaign (Gold, 2012).   A unique multi-channel campaign that not only shows that Virgin Atlantic is different from its competitor set, but brings through the glamour and wit of the brand.” 

JB: “Snickers - You're not you when you're hungry (Gold, 2012). A universal insight combined with a brilliant idea that was effectively expressed across a range of media formats. From Katie Price’s Tweets to Google Misspellings it exhibited exactly what a truly interconnected creative and media approach should look like.”

Last updated 08/09/2014

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