From creating comics to his early days at Pentagram, Nick Law reflects on how his scrappy “feral” roots in Australia helped him carve out his own multidisciplinary path in advertising and design.
It was a moment perhaps akin to the bone-hurling hominid in 2001: A Space Odyssey—an event imbued with great meaning; an event from which there is no turning back.
It was the 1950s, and ad guru Bill Bernbach paired art director with copywriter. And thus the ad industry experienced its big bang. Planetary systems were instantly created—Bernbach’s legendary Volkswagen ads a galaxy unto themselves.
The problem with this world, Nick Law has said, is that the industry never grew beyond it; perhaps unlike our ancestors in 2001, it never evolved.
“I hate the laziness of an industry that is telling stories the same way it was 50 years ago,” Law told AdNews last year. “Netflix and HBO have reinvented TV in the last five years, every teenage kid around the world is reinventing storytelling in their own voice, and yet advertising is incapable of being influenced by these far more progressive advancements of the grandeur of narrative. They are so stuck in bloated metaphors and tropes of advertising it makes me break out in hives.”
Law has always defined his own path. Growing up in his native Australia, his upbringing was defined by two things: rugby and drawing. Seeing career potential somewhere in the latter, he learned about being a designer, skipped a full formal education and hit the field, working for a local eccentric Sydney designer named Anthony Ginns—described by Law as “mad as a … cut snake.” Law entered a world of T-squares, acetate and X-Acto knives, and under the intense eye of Ginns, practiced the craft—eventually pinging around the world and turning up at Pentagram in London under the tutelage of Alan Fletcher, and at shops such as Diefenbach Elkins (the future FutureBrand), DMB&B and FGI. As he went, he absorbed design, advertising and interactive skills, and rode the wave of tech advances and industry developments with zeal.
Perhaps one key moment: Living in New York City, he flicked on a dial-up modem for the first time, and suddenly was able to read his hometown paper, The Sydney Morning Herald. Tech worked its magic: He felt at home.
Law eventually found his way to R/GA—an agency that defies description, thriving on a philosophy of reinvention every nine years, which Law says allows it to avoid falling back on legacy structures. Here, under a philosophy seemingly tailor-made for him, his talent came into focus.
Law seems to be a creative perpetually dissatisfied with the tradition of his industry, the trappings of what was as what will be; he thrives in progress, in its many varied forms.
His provocative perspectives on the industry, to some anarchic, to others heretical, bookend his numerous amazing projects, revealing a mind—whether consciously or subconsciously—deeply attuned to psychology and culture as it pertains to his trade, and perhaps even where it’s all heading.
“If I look back at a play from ancient Greece … it’s sort of opaque to me. What were these bastards doing with these masks? Every piece of art is sort of mediated through the technology of the time and the sort of cultural norms of the time. And we forget that. We forget that when you look at a classic 30-second spot—the arc of it, the over-reliance on metaphor, the sort of texture and the archetypes, the tropes of advertising. I could imagine that being just as opaque to young people in 10 years’ time—that somehow we're using a grammar that doesn't belong anymore. And especially now because the sort of narrative grammar changes so rapidly, because so much content is not only being produced, but being consumed and reacted to, at a pace never seen before.”
—Nick Law Interview with Movidiam
While Law is known for a host of intensely successful campaigns for the likes of Nike+, HBO and others, his pro-bono work has been equally inspired—such at the “Fans of Love” video for the Ad Council’s Love Has No Labels campaign. In the video—shot at the NFL Pro Bowl in Orlando, the same city as the Pulse nightclub shooting a year earlier—a typical sporting event “kiss cam” begins on the jumbotron. It first trains its focus on a white man and woman—but the man turns his right, and kisses the man seated next to him. The crows cheers, and the camera roves on—a multiracial couple kisses. Friends embrace. Special Olympians hug. People of all ages and abilities follow. A Pulse nightclub shooting survivor rises and embraces her partner, and the crowd roars.
“When you collect information, that is, in reality, the past. It doesn’t tell us much about the future but about what people have liked in the past. To see what’s coming, it’s helpful to analyze trends, but those sometimes disappear or are distorted. There’s not much more to go on than intuition. That’s what guides us. They say that creativity is gone, but now like never before, imagination is taking off, because it’s impossible to know what people will want three months down the road.”
—Interview with PulloSocial
We see “Welcome Home, LeBron” signs. Electrified children cheering on the side of the road as a car passes. Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” plays, and LeBron James puts in Beats By Dre earbuds—the advertiser behind the commercial—and begins to train. But what follows does not feel like an ad. It’s something else—and it has emotion. We see James’ old neighborhood. Archival footage of him. James walking through his old high school gym, which he paid to have renovated. The voice of his actual mother—“Don’t ever forget where you came from.”
And then a closing note: Lebron James, Reestablished 2014, marking his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers after a few years away at the Miami Heat. An interactive feature appears at the end, inviting viewers to “Uncover the Stories That Made LeBron James”: 439 Hickory Street; Spring Hill; Akron; Mom; Hawkins Court; St. Vincent St. Mary’s.
“Always start from a place of truth. This seems obvious but every strategy I see is a lie.”
—Interview with Adobo Magazine
For Valentine’s Day, Law and his team recorded another pro-bono Ad Council Campaign. They deployed a massive “x-ray” screen on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Calif. In the subsequent video, a crowd looks on as green skeletons dance and kiss behind the screen—and then, slowly, emerge from behind it.
First, two women. The crowd is a bit stunned. Love has no gender, the caption reads. Then, more skeletons, and a multicultural couple emerges. Love has no race. More skeletons, and two children emerge. Love has no disability.
Love has no age.
Love has no religion.
An elegant and simple idea, perfectly executed. It subsequently won an Emmy and went viral, and to date has nearly 59 million views.
“More smart, creative people should be thinking about leading agencies, as opposed to just being the creative guy that turns up late in a T-shirt.”
—Feature in Campaign
After 17 years at R/GA, Law surprised the ad world by joining Publicis as global CCO of Publicis Groupe and president of Publicis Communications. Seeking a creative leader with a specific—and rare—blend of skills, Publicis chairman and CEO Arthur Sadoun found Law.
“Nick is a true unicorn in our industry,” Sadoun said when the move was announced earlier this year. “Throughout his career, he has delivered world-class work that builds on what we believe all our clients need: the alchemy of creativity and tech. … His partnership will be a game-changer in our journey to lead the change in our industry.”
In his numerous ongoing travels for work and life, Law peers out from the windows of airplanes and documents the scenes in his #windowseat Instagram series—an array of incredible landscapes that often look lunar, textured, surreal.
Perhaps, for a single frame, we’re seeing the world in the way that only he does.