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18th September 2019 | London
The Process: Alice Tonge discusses trying to inspire female creatives and taking risk

Interview by Ben Mottershead


In a weeks time, we'll be filling a room with 100+ people and settling down to listen to creative powerhouse Alice Tonge - Ex-Head of Channel 4's in-house agency 4Creative, who'll be talking about how to build bigger and more beautiful ideas. Having won 2 D&AD Black Pencils, along with the coveted Cannes Lion Grand Prix award for Channel 4's Paralympic advert, 'We're the Superhumans', and overseen the channels latest rebrand, it's fair to say that during Alice's 14 years she's taken the channel to entirely new heights of success, and left a lasting legacy.

To keep everyone in a state of anticipation we wanted to put together a little preview of the night and reached out to Alice to ask about her process and some of the work she's overseen during her time at 4Creative.


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Alice Tonge - Profile Photograph


Unfortunately we still don’t find many top creative roles being filled by women within the industry. When you became the first female head of 4Creative did you feel any pressure to make your mark? 


Young female creatives coming into the industry should be able to see themselves at the top. It’s come along way with some incredible women leading the way - Vicki Maguire at Grey London, Ana Balarin at Mother and Laura Jordan-Bambach at Mr President, to name a few. For me, when taking the leadership role at 4creative, I didn’t feel a pressure to make my mark as such, more that it was an incredible opportunity to inspire a new wave of young female creatives to aim high.


Does calculated risk play a significant role within your creative process, and what opportunities, if any, does risk present when formulating ideas?


I've been fortunate that creative risk is stitched into the DNA of Channel 4. Our brand strategy was 'Born Risky' and this gave us the platform to champion some riskier ideas. Risky ideas stand out and get talked about, and these days, in a noisy, cluttered media landscape, you can't afford to stand out.


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Alice Tonge - Gay Mountain - 4Creative


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Alice Tonge - The Handmaids Tale Advertisement - 4Creative


"We are superhumans" was an incredible piece of creativity. Could you briefly describe the creative process which lead to the formulation of the overall concept?


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’re no excuses really.

I’d had nothing to do with the first campaign for London 2012, which had won a load of industry awards and recognition, so it was like taking on a very difficult second album.

The creative process was intense, 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.

The outcome was a piece of work that I’m incredibly proud of. Dougal Wilson, the director, obviously played a big part in its creation. The idea was to broadens 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 2 D&AD black pencils and a Cannes Lion Grand Prix. Its 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.


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Alice Tonge - We're the Superhumans BTS - 4Creative

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Alice Tonge - We're the Superhumans Print Advertisment - 4Creative


How do you personally judge the success of a piece of work you create? or like with the majority of creatives do you still struggle with that internal voice that’s forever casting shadow and doubt over your project at the time. 


Creating something original isn’t easy. Creative insecurity and anxiety will be high but it’s a good thing, embrace it! It just means you’re trying to come up with something original.


HAVE YOU HAD A FAVOURITE PIECE OF WORK TO DATE? IF SO COULD YOU EXPLAIN WHY.


As part of the ‘Original Extreme Sports’ campaign to promote the Grand National on Channel 4, I set up a studio with photographer Spencer Murphy at the end of a race track and we photographed jockeys right after a race. He shot them using a large format plate camera, which had an extremely shallow depth of field, which made the portraits incredibly personal and intimate – a way you’d never seen jockey’s before. Our portrait of Katie Walsh, a female jump jockey, won the Taylor Wessing portrait prize and was hung in the National Portrait Gallery. Just because it’s advertising doesn’t mean it can’t be art!


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Alice Tonge - Grand National - 4Creative


The rebrands you oversaw across Channel 4 and E4 seems to be defining moments within the channels life-time. Is there any particular area of either project you like the most?


Channel 4 rebrand was an incredible project to work on. It had been 10 years since the previous rebrand and the branding was still much loved. We decided to break the iconic Channel 4 logo apart into its individual blocks and focus on what makes up Channel 4 because it’s so much more than a number. We wanted to not only tell people what they’re watching, with a logo, but we also wanted to tell people why they are watching. So, the blocks become free to express the channel's remit; to be an original alternative, innovative, to be surprising and bold. The blocks flowed through everything, from menu beds, idents, graphic stings. You can even spot them in the typeface designed by Brody Associates.


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Alice Tonge - Channel 4 Rebrand - 4Creative


What was it like to work with Brody Associates on the typeface design? Was it a very collaborative process, or was it a case of allowing Brody and team to explore various possibilities and see what they came back with?


Brody is the ultimately rule-breaker and the perfect fit for Channel 4. When the opportunity came up to design a new typeface he was the perfect fit. Brody and his team became our extended family for the duration of the project and we worked closely to create the new typefaces named after the streets Channel 4 is located on. ‘Horseferry’ is designed to reflect Channel 4’s disruptive personality as a unique British institution. ‘Chadwick’ reflects the modern, clean, functional and informative nature of our work as a public service broadcaster.


Do you have any advice for any female creatives who are about to start their career?


Let your work do the talking, blind your potential employers with creative brilliance so you can’t be ignored.

Never stop. If someone shoots you down you’ve got to keep going. Be resilient and relentless. Keep pushing and tweaking and making your creative work better, right up to the very last minute.

Be brave. Write ideas that scare you (in a good way) and make the people you’re sharing them with sit up to listen. These are the only ones that will get properly noticed.

If the experience of making the Paralympics campaign has taught me anything, it’s that a ‘yes I can’ attitude can help you overcome pretty much anything. So, if you’re a brilliant female creative taking on the industry, take inspiration from the Superhumans – YES YOU CAN.



BONUS QUESTION: Would you rather lose your ability to taste, or your ability to smell?


I’d lose the smell. It would make changing my daughters nappy very easy!




You can check out Alice's portfolio and channels by visiting her website.

You can also read more about her upcoming talk here.


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