Ad of the Day: HSBC Travels 40 Years in One Remarkable Elevator Ride

Grey London is going up

Grey London does a top-flight job of capturing the intensely personal nature of running and growing a business in "Lift," a 90-second film for HSBC.

The eventful 40-year odyssey of one executive—founder of a firm called Cadours Industries—plays out almost entirely in an elevator (actually, several elevators, because his company moves over time, always occupying a higher floor in whatever building it calls home).

Needless to say, his journey to the top is anything but smooth. The firm's ups and downs from its 1974 inception to present-day global expansion include business deals, office politics and personal dramas—all deftly conveyed by the postures, attitudes and physical interactions of the folks inside the lift.

There's no dialogue or narration, and so situations are largely inferred. At one point, the presence of Asian execs suggests a key international meeting is about to take place. At another, our hero has clearly suffered a setback, as he's sitting sadly alone in the elevator, which has stalled between floors.

It's a novel, effective style of storytelling that lets the audience fill in the blanks and promotes repeat viewings. (As Mad Men proved, you can get more drama out of elevator scenes than you might think.) The passage of time is especially well-realized owing to great costumes, hairstyles and makeup. Adam Spivey's fluid editing—absolutely crucial for convincingly covering so many years in such a brief span—ranks among the best you'll see in a commercial this year.

Though business is the focus, "at its core, it is a human story and very much centered around a main character," says Glue Society director Gary Freedman, who does an admirable job of cramming multiple, decades-spanning storylines into one memorable ride. "Telling such an expansive story within the confines of a lift was a very interesting challenge," he says, "but that restriction allowed us to really develop creative, often unexpected ideas."

Nick Rowland, creative director at Grey London, fielded some questions from Adweek. He says the spot, and the agency's broader "It's Never Just Business" campaign for HSBC, signals "a shift away from the pinstripes, percentage points and money that this category operates in. It's about people. People selling to people. Relationships." This film, he says, "is a metaphor. It's a journey. A company, and a person moving upwards. Sometimes bumpy, sometimes smooth—but the journey always continues." (In a nasty bit of irony, however—and perhaps bad timing, given the ad's theme—HSBC just announced a sweeping round of layoffs.)

Rowland believes the confined space of the lift enhanced the drama:

"There were many conversations internally and externally, both with client and directors, about whether we should break out of the lift. But that's where the magic lies. Containing our story in such a small space puts all the viewers' focus on the cast and the narrative. It makes it tougher, but makes the story stronger."

He says HSBC was on board at the ground floor:

"They loved the fact that it was a human story. That it could be warm, and touching and exciting. They loved that it could show the side of business that everyone from the business world could relate to."

Of course, the shoot was complex:

"We shot for just under a week—but as you can imagine there were huge challenges. The preproduction was incredible. The level of detail required to make wardrobe and makeup work, to really make our journey through time coherent and engaging. And then ultimately the challenge of shooting in such a small space. The lift almost became a miniature stage in which the drama was acted out on. It puts so much pressure on the level of performance, so the cast had to be great. And then the edit, making sure we showed the passage of time but allowing enough room for performance. It amazes me how such a simple idea can have so many layers of complexity."

There was a potentially bad snafu:

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