How I Got Here: Alice Tonge

By Eliza Williams

Alice Tonge first joined 4Creative 13 years ago for a few days of freelance work. Last year, she was made creative chief.

Here, she reflects on her career to date, including on working without a creative partner, being a woman in the advertising industry, and creating the “difficult second album” that was the 2016 Paralympics ad.

Alice Tonge

How I discovered advertising as a career I studied graphic design at Brighton. It was a great course, very conceptual, which is why I liked it so much. I was doing a placement in graphic design and I stumbled across a D&AD Annual and I was drawn to the ads section. I literally pored over it for hours and I just thought ‘I want to do this’. We didn’t cover advertising on my course so it wasn’t something I’d considered as a profession but I soon made it my mission to get a job as a creative in an ad agency. There were some really unique challenges, like finding a creative partner who you had to work with all the time. I never really embraced this aspect of the job.

On breaking into the ad industry The industry was tough. The creatives critting my ideas were really tough. It’s such a shock to the system but you develop a thicker skin and you work out quickly the type of places you are best suited to. It wasn’t an easy journey but I held out for the good places and it was the best decision I made.

I was pretty determined. Even if I got criticism, which was a lot, I’d take it constructively. I’d gather lots of opinions and then work out which bits I was going to listen to. Normally the advice from the creatives I respected the most and who’s work I admired.

Back in those days I’d send mailers to people to get a meeting, and I got really into that, thinking up fun stuff to send people to get their attention. Or I’d just cold call, but that was a lot less fun.

The partner dilemma At the time I needed a partner. Everyone I met was like ‘you can’t get into advertising as an individual’. Which I thought was really strange – that you can’t get a job on your own. I rebelled against that quite quickly and I haven’t been tied to one person since.

I think it’s much more open these days. In 4Creative, we’ve got people who work on their own and we’ve got people who work in teams. I think ideas can come from anywhere, and from anyone, it certainly doesn’t only have to have two brains, it can have one, it can have ten, it should be open and flexible. Saying that, I’ve always had to share my ideas with people and talk them through, they’re better for having different perspectives.

On finding her way to 4Creative I started out at an agency called BurkittDDB, I don’t think it exists anymore. It was very traditional. There were lots of glass offices and lad’s banter. I learnt a lot but I didn’t really fit in. After that I worked at a small agency called Farm, which was just fantastic. I loved the people and the culture of the agency. After that I ended up at St Luke’s for a bit until I got a call from a friend who worked at 4Creative. And three days freelance turned into 13 years.

Channel 4 branding

How being in-house differs from being in an agency It’s really different, in a good way. When you work in-house you’ve got to love the brand you’re working on. I bloody love Channel 4 for all it represents; pushing boundaries, taking creative risks, celebrating diversity and challenging the status quo. It’s led to some really interesting, creative work like the Born Risky brand campaign. Our work has to deliver on an incredible remit so the creative challenge is always high.

I didn’t realise until I came to 4Creative how well suited I was to an in-house agency. It’s a wonderful mash-up of design agency, ad agency and production company. And it’s this combination that makes it so creatively fulfilling. I’ve been able to apply my graphics background when it comes to branding projects. And I’ve been able to write and direct too.

On staying at the same place for 13 years I’ve asked myself many times, ‘should I move on?’ And there have been some really interesting job offers that have made me think. I think it’s a combination of things [that keeps me here] – it’s a really unique place, I’m passionate about the brand and its remit. I’ve helped grow the brand so I feel attached to it. And the creative challenges have kept coming. I’ve always said that the minute the briefs stop challenging me is the time to move on, and they haven’t, yet.

On becoming an ECD Taking the Head of 4Creative job was utterly terrifying. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. I was Head of Creative and Design before taking this job but I’d been doing it for some time and I couldn’t turn down the promotion opportunity.

I climbed well and truly out of my comfort zone and I’m on a huge learning curve. But you have to get comfortable with how that feels. It’s never going to feel comfortable and easygoing. If you don’t feel scared by something you’re probably not pushing yourself.

The benefit of staying at 4Creative is that I know and love the brand and the people, and that goes a long way to settling into a new job. I’ve got big ambitions for the type of work we should be making and the inclusive working environment we should create it in. I’ve got some big, Chris and John [Bovill and Allison, previous 4Creative Heads] shaped shoes to fill, so no pressure.

The influence of mentors on her work I’ve definitely learnt a lot from Chris and John. They’re good friends of mine and fantastic mentors to me, and still are. Everyone has their own way of doing things but you definitely realise that you’ve adopted leadership styles from different people.

I’m pretty determined. My old boss, Tom Tagholm, called me a bulldog once, in reference to the fact that I wouldn’t let an idea go. At least I hope that was why.

I’m a craft obsessive and I’m always pushing a visual to make it better. Keep going right to the very end, don’t stop questioning and testing whether there’s a way of making it better. I’ve been inspired heavily by Brett [Foraker, former 4Creative Creative Director]. He was a bit of a craft master. And he was very tough on me but I realise now how much I learnt from him, so I forgive him.

Stills from the making of the 2016 Paralympics film

On the pressure of creating the second Paralympics ad It was probably the most challenging brief I’ve ever taken. You know it’s coming, and you’re sort of dreading it but also looking forward to it. You know there’s a creative opportunity to be had and there’s no excuses really. It’s like the difficult second album. Although I had nothing to do with the first ad by Tom, the campaign had won 4Creative a lot of awards so the pressure was on.

The creative process is a journey and I learnt not to look for the finished article straight away, but to keep building and challenging and knitting ideas and insights together until it didn’t look or sound like anything I’d seen before. And if it feels intimidating and unknown and scary then it’s a good thing, use it to your advantage because you’re trying to do something different.

The outcome was a piece of work that I’m incredibly proud of. Dougal [Wilson, director] obviously played a big part in its creation. The idea was to broaden the term ‘Superhuman’ to include non-athletes also. It’s a big, all-singing celebration of ability beyond disability. It involved 140 disabled stars and working with them was eye-opening and it changed my view of disability forever.

We didn’t set out to win lots of awards although it did really well with two D&AD Black Pencils and a Cannes Lion Grand Prix. The big achievement was that the campaign was adopted by the U.N. as a worldwide disability aid as well as becoming part of the national curriculum in UK schools, I’m pretty pleased with that.

Jockey Katie Walsh shot by Spencer Murphy and used to promote Channel 4’s coverage of the Grand National

How the ad industry has changed To start with there weren’t very many women. You couldn’t really see yourself in the industry, especially at a senior level. It feels different now and there are a lot more, the Grey London management team of Caroline [Pay] and Vicki [Maguire] and Olivia [Browne] shows things are changing, which is amazing. But in order to get more women at the top we’ve got to adjust our working methods. We need to make the industry more appealing to women returning from maternity leave. Agencies need to be more agile and accommodating because we’re losing some talented brains to motherhood.

I took this job off the back of maternity leave and it’s a hard juggle. You’ve got to make every minute count. Gone are the times where I’d make a cup of tea and wander over to chat to someone. I’m literally full pelt, get it done, work super efficiently, and check back in once my daughter’s gone to bed.

Tips for new creatives entering the industry When I was breaking into the industry there were a lot of inspirational agencies, like St Luke’s, Mother, HHCL. A handful of places that you’d absolutely kill to work in, that were pumping out brilliant work. Now I don’t know whether there are as many obvious places, so I think it’s harder for that reason.

But it’s a fantastic industry and I would definitely encourage people to get into it. You’ve got to get your head down, work really hard and let your work do the talking. Find interesting way to get people’s attention. If you’re getting into the ad world, your first job is how you sell yourself.

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