Blake Powell has been at Stink for eighteen years. He carries with him around a powerpack of knowledge and expertise accumulated through experience not the least of which is navigating the trials and tribulations of a volatile business. Last year, he launched Stink Rising, which represents and fosters the standouts – the brilliant and unusual filmmakers and artists who are still growing. Powell was judging Direction at D&AD this year, so The Stable asked him to take us into the judging room (metaphorically, of course), and behind the scenes at Stink.
Blake Powell: This is the first judging I’ve done. I’ve shied away from it. I’m quite a harsh critic on lots of stuff – myself, directors’ work…probably everything. I was very particular about what to judge and when to do it. Then I went to the Next Director show at the D&AD New Blood Awards and saw how well it was done. I told D&AD I’d like to do the next judging. They told me they were ending it. But they called me up this year to judge Direction in the professional awards instead. I guess I did it because directors really excite me – so many different personalities and different types of direction. Judging D&AD Direction, I thought, really suited me.
The Stable: What is important in judging direction?
BP: When we came into judging, one of my points was to make sure that we were all clear straightaway on what judging is. In direction, you’re the conductor of an orchestra in a way. You’re taking responsibility for everything you bring in. And ultimately, you’re a storyteller, whether it’s Viva La Vulva or Guinness’ The Purse. Judging is also understanding how much direction stands aside from idea, as well. We all sort of felt that it had to be a good idea but the direction had to really shine above the idea not rest on it, had to elevate the idea.
The Stable: What stood out in the judging room?
BP: We tried to give things a chance, bearing in mind that we were in the judging room for two days and not just two hours. We tried not to be too dismissive because you can be. For me, it was about what pieces engaged me. Made you laugh, made you cry, brought any sort of emotion. I don’t think the rest of the jury was too different about that. I guess they felt different things. There was one piece, Shiseido’s The Party Bus, which I loved. I was blown away even though I’m not normally one for anything that goes that conceptual. It was interesting, it completely polarised the jury. Half loved it, the other half just didn’t get it.
It was also very interesting to get other people’s views on stuff. I’m normally very contained in my own head and Stink’s world and it’s nice to get out of that for a while. Ultimately, we were pretty much in agreement on lots of things. We were very quick to see if one thing let a film down. If it did, we’d agree, for example, that it might be a great looking piece or was edited fantastically but you have to keep coming back mainly to storytelling. In contrast, there was work like AT&T and Amazon, just really good commercials, really well made. We actually had a lot get through to Graphite, so we then asked what won Yellow last year to compare. As soon as we heard, that Nike London and Apple Home were the two Yellows last year, everything stopped. There was only one film that made it across. There were a few that were borderline. But I’d like to think that Graphite is equal to Gold in most other awards really, when you look at the standard of Yellow. And even though Michael Ritchie had his Amazon and I had Guinness in there, you can’t be generous to yourself in judging. You have to be equal and consistent in everything. I was actually more damning on one piece that I produced. I should have just left the room.
The Stable: Production has been tough. What’s it like in the northern hemisphere right now?
BP: I’m mainly out of London but I have an eye on all the markets. There’s a lot of volatility and a lot of change. People are willing to pay less for stuff. There are different rationales about where the money’s going. With Guinness The Purse, for example, we would have loved more money but it only ran for four weeks during the Six Nations Rugby, so they were only going to ever put that much into it. As a business, you understand that. But there are other decisions made towards manipulating the system, people taking a punt and seeing if they can get it done for cheaper. That’s part of the reason why I started up Stink Rising last year. It was not to cannibalise the main business, but if I’m going to do something a bit cheaper then I need to have a reason to do it other than just doing something for money. If I’m not progressing a director with it, there’s not much point in doing it. You just end up treading water, which is dangerous when you’re the size that Stink is. We have tangibly big overheads.
With Rising, it’s been a very interesting year. We’ve been curating a list of global talent that we thought was really exciting – starting in London to keep it under control – and really getting to know the directors as much as you would someone in a much more advanced stage in their career. We’re really making sure that they’re right work-wise and personality-wise, that they’re right for the business and have a good head on them. That, coupled with the way we positioned Rising as a spotlight for new talent is helping it to do really well. It also comes with a different mindset. Most of these guys are used to being very strong conceptually. They’re not reluctant to come in and do all the work for everyone, even writing the creative. And that does happen a lot, especially in the age where we’re moving direct to client. It’s an asset to have someone who’s used to working on a music video or a short film for a really minimum amount. Rising, for me, is not just a product of diminishing budgets, it really excites me.
The Stable: Direct to client?
BP: Yes, we’re doing that on the Stink Studio side of the business but also on both sides. Certain brands have come direct to our directors. Eliot Rausch in the US has worked with Facebook and done three direct-to-business jobs this year. They’re not pitched against an agency. The clients just didn’t have any agencies. There’s plenty of work out there. I think it’s choosing your battles to be able to have fingers in as many pies as possible. Gone are the days where creativity is just in one of two places. For us, it’s about getting a balance. Our budgets in the US and UK aren’t good but we’re getting a couple of huge jobs out of Asia that are game changers. Across Stink globally, we had our best month ever by absolutely miles in April, then two months later it’s looking completely reversed. Where once you could see patterns or project stuff before, that’s much more difficult now.