I wanted to be a hotel bell hop boy when I left school at 15.
But when I looked in the newspaper want ads – Junior Opportunities – they only had 2 ad agency messenger jobs. I went up to London and one of them offered me a job.
What was your first job in advertising?
A messenger- in a tiny basement room with 4 others. Quite Dickensian,when I look back.
Did you try and get into Collett’s, like every other aspiring creative at the time?
When I started copywriting at 19/20, I went with an art director to see Collett’s Head of Copy called Robert Pethick.
He was charming and said we needed to have more in the book. I remember writing back to him about ‘impetuous youth’.
Later, when I was CD at BBDO, Collets were always poaching our guys, so we sent over a price list of all members of our creative department with different descriptions.
For example ‘Ron Brown – period piece, in need of some refurbishment, good value at £6,000.’ We didn’t hear whether they enjoyed it or not.
When did you become aware of the creative revolution going on in New York?
I used to save up to buy shirts from a place called Austin’s in Shaftesbury Avenue, the only place in London that sold American brand Oxford cloth tab collars and button down shirts.
This was a Mod thing.
But I was certainly plugged into American graphics and ads – I use to buy Life and Look magazines and of course Esquire with all those great covers for my train rides home. In there were ads but also illustration by all kinds of graphic luminaries like Paul Davis and Jean Paul Goude.
Somehow it all clicked with me.
How did you end up at PKL?
I started writing in a little agency and I quickly became aware that I could write headlines (copy was harder for me). So I picked the 3 best creative agencies – Collett’s, DDB + Y&R – to try and get interviews.
Y&R offered me job immediately so I took it, telling them that I would stay for a little while and then go to a proper creative agency; can you image.
It sounds awful now, but then I just thought I was telling them the truth and what was wrong with that? Anyway, I didn’t like really like Y&R but when an ex-Y&R art director left PKL to go to DDB, he told me they were looking for a new team.
So I got an interview with Peter Mayle at PKL, and he hired me during the interview.
I remember walking down the Kings Road to my flat ,floating with joy.
Wasn’t it full of rebels, rascals and ruffians?
PKL in London was run by Peter Mayle, who was one of the great bosses – naughty, mischievous, mildly anarchic, a terrific salesman and a very good copywriter and talent spotter.
He was CD and there was a Chairman, (Sir) Nigel Seeley, a fabulous toff, and Dick Hedger who was a suit, a bit of a flogger.
But they had style and we had fun. Peter used to take the Creative Department to lunches at all the great restaurants in Chelsea and Knightsbridge. Mind you we worked from 8 till 11pm most days and almost all weekends.
Prior to my arrival, we heard that Tony Paladino, an Italian NY art director, had a fight with Nigel and broke Nigel’s arm.
But the maddest thing that happened when I was there was when Peter told me to not think of moving (which I wasn’t) because something was going to happen. It did : he fired 8 accounts in one day and cut the agency in half; I was kept on in a tiny creative department, working even longer hours.
Did you deal with Julian Koenig, if so what was he like?
I heard he was in the office but by the time I’d got back from lunch he’d gone. Big pity.
George Lois – a first class maniac?
Peter used to talk about George Lois as a larger than life character but he never came to London.
I knew him more for his Esquire covers, which I now found out he didn’t do – at least not exclusively.
And Fred Papert, who was he?
Papert was the account guy. No one ever talked about him.
It all sounds like chaos, do you think chaos is good for creativity?
It wasn’t chaos in PKL London, it was pretty near perfect working environment. We had great accounts, the department was small but talented and we all g0t on, and Peter made sure everyone knew it was all about the work and us.
New York was probably different ; I wish they had sent me for a couple of weeks.
Remember getting your first ad into D&AD?
I first went D&AD when it was a lunch time affair at the Hilton in Park Lane.
I was working with John Gorham, probably, the best single graphic designer Britain has produced, and he asked me to write something in a booklet he was designing for Shell agricultural products.
I wrote some very basic words, no idea, and it got in the book.
My name was on it as writer.
My first ad I can’t remember, strangely.
Which writer did you aspire to be at this time?
I liked all the writers at Doyle Dane in New York. Their names were even inspiring : Evan Stark, Charles Piccarillo, Ron Rosenfeld, Bob Levenson, John Noble. Plus Ed McCabe of course.
They were like Gods; far away and in no way mortal.
You must’ve been one of the first fifty or so at BMP?
First dozen. They figured out quite quickly that Gabe Massimi wasn’t much of a talent and that John Webster was as near a genius as you will ever find in the genius-free zone that is the ad industry.
So when I joined there were just 4 creative people: John, Alan Orpin (who the account guys used to dismiss as John’s alter ego – implying he wasn’t somehow involved-weird) David Ashwell, the art director who joined from PKL who I went to join there.
Did you have a brown, BMP branded mini?
No, nor did anyone else.
Where did you hear that story.
We were in Goodge Street, just below Cramer Saatchi, a creative consultancy, run by Charlie and Ross Cramer.
Ever work with John Webster?
Yes I worked on a couple of pitches with him.
We didn’t get the accounts.
But then we had a run of 12 straight pitches we didn’t get.
Learn anything from him?
I learned that looking at American Art Director annuals isn’t about copying, it’s about getting inspiration and learning about structure – how few words are needed in a spot etc.
Why leave small, creative BMP to join a big, bad, American BBDO?
I hated BMP, even though I worked with great people.
I hated the way Planners bombed work, the way they used it to formulate strategy.
We would work our butts off and they would come in the morning as say it was all blown out.
I understand now why that was a good way of refining ideas but at the time it really annoyed me.
It was open plan as well – I hated that.
I like a door and for it to be closed when I’m working.
I met Paul Leeves and Alan Orpin there though – two of the funniest people I have ever worked with.
I went to BBDO (which was small and failing) because PKL reversed into it, and it became PKL but bigger.
So Peter Mayle asked me to go back and be a Group Head. I was only 25, which seems strangely young now. I wouldn’t dream of giving a 25-year-old that much responsibility nowadays.
What’s the difference between a good creative and a creative director?
A good creative answers a brief and executes well or hopefully brilliantly.
A Creative Director needs to fulfil a number of roles.
Creatively he needs to set the tone for the ideas that represent the agency’s point of difference.
To do this, he has to be good at strategy and later in the process, he has to be a good proponent of the idea in a client forum,that sometimes includes their very senior people.
First and foremost, he needs to have the confidence of his department which I believe means leading by example.
But many great Creative Directors have operated simply by guiding others (or so I’m told).
Why were you, of all people, made Creative Director of BBDO at 27?
When Peter left to go to New York, he made me Creative Director. I was 27.
Then at 29 they made me Deputy Managing Director for some reason. And then after a Palace coup , I was made MD and was still Creative Director.
The guys in NY said the problem of my age would get better every day.
Whose work was influencing you at the time?
In London, the gold standard was always Collett’s and whatever campaign John Webster was up to.
Everything David Abbott did was also there to be emulated.
I find a lot of advertising is faux funny, (or not funny is another way of putting it), in that you can tell that it is a funny ad by the construction, but nobody actually laughs.
The Sony Radio campaign is genuinely funny.
I’ve never understood why more agencies don’t use proven funny men to help create the content of ads, rather than just read the words of unfunny admen.
They know funny.
When I worked on the Sony account, it was very personal to me.
I had pitched and won it with my art director and I wrote a lot for the campaign
(although not all the best stuff).
When we decided on doing radio, I knew that comedians would write way better than me or any advertising writer because radio is a very different form.
So I simply asked the funniest man in TV and Radio to write a campaign; and that’s how John Cleese came to write what I think it still one of the funniest and most effective radio campaigns.
We worked together – him as writer, me as producer/ sounding board for 9 years. In the last few years , he let me write and he would rewrite. A lovely man.
It was obviously going well at BBDO, why leave?
It was a roller coaster at BBDO. The work was always good, and quite often great. But BBDO needed a bigger presence in the world’s third largest advertising market.
So I set about lining up potential agencies for NY to buy: Saatchi’s, CDP, BMP (which went close) and I realised that, by definition, I was not really going to be part of what I was setting up, which was fine but I had to start thinking about my life and not just helping the BBDO people in NY, who I liked, by the way.
Wasn’t AMV a BBDO target at the time?
When David first went over to form Abbott Mead Vickers, I think it was tougher going financially than he realised.
So they sought a partner. BBDO, myself and the MD, had talks but they chose to go with Scali McCabe Sloves in NY, which I think was a very good fit.
Later, of course, they were bought by Omnicom and became part of BBDO.
How did you end up advising Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in 1978?
I had always wanted to help the Labour Party.
Then I bumped into Edward Booth Clibborn in Paris when he was plainly having an illicit weekend with someone other than his wife and to ease the embarrassment he started talking about his contacts in the Labour party publicity department.
It went from there.
I ended up working for 18 months on the campaign ( which famously got postponed from Autumn 1978 to Spring 1979) and then during the actual 5 week campaign I was in No 10 most nights of the week working with Tom McNally, David Lipsey and Roger Carroll.
Before they put gates up, I just used to park my second-hand Porsche outside No 10.
The campaign was an amazing experience; I had to write 4 10 minute Party Political Broadcasts and shoot them while I was running an agency.
Also, there were amazing dirty tricks going on during the campaign but mainly within the governing Labour party.
Despite that, we did well from the campaign point of view .
The Sunday before the election Thursday, Labour was just ahead from being 20 points down. But after the Tories spent a fortune in the last week, we lost by 32 seats. I tell people I’m responsible for Margaret Thatcher getting into Downing Street.
Did you know Ron Leagas before starting an agency with him?
At BBDO, I decided I shouldn’t do be both MD + CD, so I went looking for an MD.
He was a candidate.
Did you start with any business?
No. I was MD of a business, so I felt I couldn’t take anything from that business.
In the event Sony fired BBDO after hearing that I was leaving and asked us to pitch for a part of their business. I said ‘No – it should be all or nothing.’
I didn’t believe the brand should have different voices from different agencies.
We got our first piece of business on the Friday of the first week.
We ran an ad for the agency that week and it got us another piece really quickly but it also got us into a law suit as we attacked another agency’s work.
‘We’re going to rip business out of big agencies like tearing meat off a carcass.’ I bet that made you popular?
Did I say that? It sounds good, I wonder where I found the nerve to say that.
Although I have always thought that big agencies were essentially lazy and not very talented. And we started with no accounts so we had to be confident of our ability and display a desire to handle big accounts not tiddlers.
I remember at college, not an advertising college but a regular college for civilians, people were quoting the ‘Firips’ ad. Did you know that script would ‘blow up’?
Utilising the same attitude as I had employed on Sony, we asked two of the funniest people on TV at the time to do some scripts and recordings for our pitch for Philips.
It is a fantastic spot and the beginning of a great relationship with Mel and Griff, not just on this projects but on others.
We did a great job for Philips but they seem almost congenitally unable to let agencies tell what a great company they are.
Ron Leagas is out, why not chisel the blighter’s name off the door?
I believe agencies are brands and when you mess around with names on the door you confuse people, clients, with a kind of flightiness.
Our agency is commonly known as Leagas to this day and I’m cool with that.
Here’s one of your weeks in the eighties. Changed much?
Life is pretty much the same except that almost all our client meetings and shoots involve travel. Plus we have offices Hamburg, I want to get to those as often as time allows.
So, by 1990, you’ve really got a handle on this firing malarky, you were even firing people who didn’t work for you.
Edward Booth-Clibborn was Chairman of D&AD but was also running his publishing business from their offices.
It was a mess and there was all kinds of funny business going on.
We had a whistle-blower who our lawyers asked to sign an affidavit about the misdemeanours at D&AD and that left us no choice but to suspend the Chairman and the Financial Director.
You’ve been writing ads for that posh shop in
Knightsbridge in the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties and noughties.
When are they coming back?
Clients create the advertising they think is right for their brand.
I cannot spend time lamenting what they do after they have moved on.
For Harrods , I think we did great work for 14 years.
What they do now is their business.
DAVE: Exactly, rubbish isn’t it?
I’ve read that you don’t believe ‘Advertising is something you can pass on to someone, it’s intuitive, a gift, like scoring goals in football’?
Being good at most things in life requires innate talent allied to effort and ambition. Messi, Suarez, Neymar: they probably all have brothers who are not great footballers, however hard they train.
Advertising is like that. You either have it or you don’t. It’s why so many people pretend to have it – most account people pretend to understand how communications work; in my experience, not many actually do.
Unlike a lot of advertising agencies you actually run advertising.
In a revolution, everyone has to be a revolutionary otherwise you get your head chopped off.
We run ads because the objectives of our clients’ comms programmes requires us to.
What you are referring to is the dumbing down of mere advertising by digital agencies who have little knowledge of brands and even less talent at persuading consumers of anything.
As Ishiguro the writer said recently, ‘Machines (technology) can work; it can’t imagine’.
Clients respect ideas; its agencies and digital ones in particular who have lost – or never gained – respect for them.
Exactly, Ishiguro, I was gonna quote him, but you beat me to it.
You pitched unsuccessfully for The Guardian, so ran an ad calling them chicken. A sure way to guarantee you never work with that client again.
But they appointed you soon after?
We knew we deserved to win the pitch.
The editor even said so.
But they fell for a ridiculous visual gag which ran out of steam as gags always do, and they came back to us for the substance in the campaign we made for them.
They told us not to run the ad, implying that we wouldn’t get a chance at the business again, but I did anyway.
They had foregone their right to tell us what to do with what were in effect our ads.
How did you end up being owned by a rival agency, Abbott Mead Vickers?
I decided that Leagas was not right. A nice guy but he simply wasn’t in the business for the reasons I was.
Trouble was, we were a partnership which means that you can’t fire someone, you have to break up the partnership.
So I had to roll the partnership into a limited company.
By the time I had done that, Leagas Delaney was losing money.
So I needed someone to pay Leagas to exit and put us back on an even keel again.
I could not have wished for better partners than David Abbott and Peter Mead.
Did you collaborate with David Abbott much in those years?
David and I hardly met let alone collaborate.
He was respectful of our integrity which was repaid in the way we ran the company.
We were flat-out busy all the time so there was very little time for socialising or working on projects together.
Although the art directors and Head of Arts have changed over the years, the work has always had a certain sophistication, or appreciation of style.
That must be down to my incredible aesthetic sensibility!!
Seriously, all you have to do is look at Helmut Krone’s work to know that populist campaigns should have a differentiating look and feel and that people quite easily distinguish between something crafted and thought through and sloppy, slap dash art direction.
Apple designs are beautiful and populist – that’s the short answer to your question.
If it was a question.
Don’t you ever get sick of writing all those tiny little words that nobody reads?
I have always believed that if you write like you want people to read it, then people will do so.
Even the smallest piece of writing in the smallest leaflet.
What’s the alternative: write rubbish knowing believing that no one reads it?
That’s a kind of nihilism – although I’m pretty sure most so-called writers think that way nowadays.
‘I don’t like advertising, I just like ads’. Why?
Advertising as an industry is full of over blown, egotistical, opinionated weirdos. This is because no one knows exactly how it works.
So in the land of the blind etc,etc, a big character or personality can pretend to know the secret of how to win a piece of business, which slogan will catch on, what a client will buy. And so on.
But ads, they are crafted pieces of expression which have to be thought about, nurtured, learnt from.
It’s only the same as saying Hollywood is one thing, making a film is another.
Something ‘chemical’ seemed to happen when you got together with Steve Dunn, you just churned out endless great campaigns?
Steve and I quickly and tacitly understood that we complemented each other.
We both loved what we did for a living ( although Steve did go off it for a while) and we both had the same idea of what constituted an idea.
We are both competitive too; we liked to win. Not so much awards, as beating a problem. You’re right though, it was a strangely productive relationship.
Some days we would 3 campaigns, all of them pretty good.
I remember when I worked with you there was a cupboard on the top floor stacked with digital people. 1995. Possibly the first in-house digital department?
Certainly we were very early adopting and adapting to digital.
We had a separate digital company in 1996 – Digital Partners – which is way before Martin Sorrell knew how to spell the word; kind of ironic now as people immediately think because we care about the craft of our work, particularly print, we can’t possibly ‘get’ digital .
Fortunately our clients know how good we are at providing digital ecosystems.
You might have gathered from this site that I’ve kept a lot of stuff; rejected ads for The Economist, alternative Nike layouts and pitches we lost at CDD, (they alone take up a lot of space), but I didn’t take any proofs for the Patek Philippe ads I did.
At the time, I thought ‘they’re ok’, but over time they’ve become a benchmark for luxury advertising. Is it the sheer consistency of message?
It’s not just the consistency of the campaign that makes it a benchmark for all luxury goods campaigns.
It started out quietly with the original thought of ‘Begin Your Own Tradition’ which gave rise to the longer line now ‘ You never actually own…etc’.
So it took some time to get settled and then really never looked back.
Over the years we have updated the look and feel and the photographers.
It’s a wonderful campaign which reflects the values of the family that owns the brands and the products they create. Perfect harmony.
I find that people who haven’t worked with you seem to have a totally wrong impression of you – some kind of lanky, serious-minded maniac who fires people on a daily basis, I worked with you for five years and never found you to be lanky.
I am lanky.