ADVERTISING’S OSCAR WILDE.
An appreciation of the work of Geoffrey Seymour.
By Mike Everett.
It is one of the great ironies of the advertising business that one of its most talented writers is better remembered for his salary than his work. When he joined Saatchi & Saatchi in 1982, Geoff Seymour was paid £100,000 a year, a sum of money that soon became known in advertising circles as a ‘Seymour’. It may have been as an eye-watering amount at the time but, to pinch L’Oreal’s famous end line, he was worth it. In the 14 years leading up to 1982 he had been responsible for some of the most ground breaking and original work ever seen on the TV screens of Britain.
As Sir Alan Parker has said, “Geoff was quite brilliant. He was one of the best thinkers of his generation of ad men and responsible for some seminal work, which helped revolutionise British and world advertising. I have to say my memories of working with him were completely pleasurable – invigorating, anarchic and fun”. If that endorsement wasn’t enough, what about this from Sir Ridley Scott: “Anything that Geoff Seymour wrote I very
much paid attention to because he was kind of special. The main draw to direct Hovis was working with Seymour”. So what was this work?
Let’s start by going back to 1968. A twenty-one year old Geoff Seymour is handed a brief to write a TV campaign for Bird’s Eye Dinners for One by Frank Lowe. ‘Let’s do some famous work’ Frank tells Geoff. Frank remembers that Geoff was unfazed by this exaltation and soon did something that Frank clearly remembers about Geoff. “He had a great facility for writing good lines, which I often thought of as based on the strategy we agreed, before he wrote the actual commercial”.
In the case of Dinners for One, Geoff fretted that the product name would work to its disadvantage; that the name might suggest that it was a product for sad bastards, who live alone with no mates. Geoff got round this by writing the line ‘especially good for those who aren’t used to being on their own’. He brought the line to life with scripts that spoofed two feature films, Desert Song and Brief Encounter. Alan Parker shot them in glorious black and white. If you were to ask Alan Parker today which of the many commercials he directed is his favourite he would tell you Brief Encounter.
Another irony that concerns Geoff Seymour is that he is credited with writing many commercials that he didn’t. In his obituary in the Guardian, for example, he is cited as the author of the famous Hovis Bike Ride commercial. He is not. David Brown wrote the script for that commercial. However, Geoff did write the end line ‘As good for you today as it’s always been’ and wrote two commercials that preceded the Bike Ride commercial, Seaside and Northern. In other words, he wrote the campaign, a far harder task than the writing follow on commercials, no matter how good they might be, as David Brown would surely concede.
The Guardian also credits Geoff with writing ‘It makes a dishonest woman of you’ for Bird’s Eye pies. Not so. Tony Kenrick and Vernon Howe wrote that campaign. Likewise, ‘When you’ve got to make it something fast’ for Bird’s Eye Beef Burgers was also written by Tony Kenrick and Vernon Howe, not Geoff. Not only are these credits inaccurate, they belie the vast amount of work that Geoff actually did for Bird’s Eye.
After his success on Dinners for One, Frank Lowe kept feeding Geoff Bird’s Eye briefs. A couple of notable examples are More for Bird’s Eye Deserts, an Oliver Twist spoof, and Princess for another range of Bird’s Eye deserts known as Hidden Centres. There were many more.
Geoff also wrote the campaign line for Nescafé, ‘If you’re serving coffee, better make sure it’s Nescafé’, together with a number of commercials to accompany it. In 1972 he was asked to create a campaign for an ersatz sports car that Ford was launching, the Capri. His slogan for this campaign ‘The car you always promised yourself’ was far more elegant than the car it advertised.
Talking of elegance, there is one commercial that Geoff wrote that illustrates his apparently effortless ability to parody the British class system, Lifeboat, for Cockburn’s Port. This sixty-second one act play was shot by Alan Parker in Malta using the tank that had been constructed for the sea sequences in Ben- Hur. To sublime comedic effect it shows the survivors of a shipwreck being more concerned with their after dinner drink and the pronunciation of its name than their immediate and highly inconvenient plight.
He was no slouch when it came to writing print advertising, either. An early example of Geoff’s prowess in print is an ad for the Ronson electric toothbrush. It shows a set of dentures in a glass of water with the headline ‘How long will you be able to call your teeth your own?’ He also wrote ads and posters for Whitbread Tankard beer using the line ‘Tankard helps you excel, after one you’ll do anything well’. The posters were in the style of circus advertising, as were the commercials that Geoff wrote to promote Whitbread Trophy.
All this work, of course, was done at Collett, Dickenson and Pearce, just as it was entering its creative heyday. Geoff was a significant contributor to CDP’s creative success – and boy, did he know it. He was often to be seen flouncing around the corridors of the agency with an insouciant swagger, his flowing locks leading him to look like a latter day Oscar Wilde.
Under Frank Lowe’s patronage he was made deputy-creative director, a promotion that before long led to trouble. He mounted an unsuccessful bid to usurp John Salmon from the role of overall creative director. This move and Geoff’s increasingly errant behaviour started to disrupt the smooth running of the agency. So Frank Lowe convened a board meeting to discuss how to deal with Geoff. Colin Millward, CDP’s original creative director was present at this meeting. After listening to Frank talk for a while about the difficulties Geoff was causing, Colin spoke. “Well as far as I can see, Frank, he’s your monster. You created him so you have to destroy him”. That was the end of Geoff Seymour at CDP.
Well, if he couldn’t run the creative department of one agency, he could jolly well run the creative department of another. Thus, Geoff moved to Royds as creative director, charged with re-invigorating the agency’s staid creative product. Looked at whichever way, this was a mistake, both for Royds and for Geoff. He soon went elsewhere.
In partnership with art director Peter Cherry (also ex-CDP) and account man, Dick Hedger, Geoff set up Cherry, Hedger, Seymour. This proved to be a more productive time for Geoff. He resumed his practice of formulating the strategy by writing the strapline first. For Morland’s Sheepskin Coats he coined ‘When luxury becomes a necessity’ and under the banner ‘Allow us to spoil you’, he created a campaign for Air India. Another end line written by Geoff at Cherry, Hedger, Seymour was one that later survived transition through several other ad agencies: ‘Made in Scotland from girders’ for Irn Bru, a fizzy drink enjoyed north of the border.
But perhaps the best regarded of his straplines is ‘Temptation beyond endurance’ for Planter’s Peanuts. In combination with art director Glen Clarke, and using illustrator Patrick Hughes, Geoff created a poster showing a huge shadow reaching out to steal a peanut from the man whose shadow it was. This poster went on to win the 1982 D&AD Silver Award for a 4-sheet.
A further notable campaign that Geoff created during this period was for Foster’s Lager, featuring Paul Hogan reprising his Crocodile Dundee character as a galumphing, unsophisticated Aussie trampling over British traditions. These extremely funny commercials were signed off with a devilishly simple but clever strapline, ‘Foster’s, the Australian for lager’.
Time moved on and so did Geoff. His old boss from CDP days, Frank Lowe asked him to join the agency he’d just set up with Geoff Howard-Spink. It was while he was here that Geoff came up with the end line for the Stella Artois campaign, ‘Reassuringly expensive’, although at first he didn’t know that he’d come up with it. Frank Lowe fished the line out of piece of body copy that Geoff had crafted for a Stella print ad. Unfortunately, this serendipitous discovery has given rise to another misattribution concerning Geoff Seymour. He did not originate the Stella Artois campaign, only the end line. The credit for creating the campaign and its strategy falls to David Watkinson and Bob Isherwood at Collett, Dickenson and Pearce eight years earlier.
As well as gifting the Stella Artois end line to Frank’s agency, Geoff Seymour did a memorable Heineken commercial with Alan Waldie, Windermere based on Wordsworth’s famous Daffodil poem. Despite these successes, his time at Lowe Howard-Spink was far from turbulence-free. Many members of the creative department resented the way Geoff had been parachuted in by Frank Lowe. This caused tensions, that along with other matters related to the share allocation at LHS, eventually led to the resignation of the founding creative directors, John Kelley and John O’Driscoll. Not surprisingly therefore, Geoff’s tenure at LHS was short-lived. He moved to Saatchi & Saatchi and the famous £100,000 a year salary.
When he joined Saatchi, Geoff stipulated in his contract that he would never work on the agency’s Procter and Gamble business. He feared that working on such a client would contaminate his creative flair. Instead he was put to work on Saatchi’s British Airways account. Geoff’s method of working – writing the strapline to inform the strategy – once again came into play. Buried in some research that he was given to read was the fact that British Airways carried a greater number of passengers than any other airline on earth. Geoff took this fact and turned it into a phrase that has since passed into common memory, ‘The world’s favourite airline’. That line alone probably went a long way to paying Geoff’s salary for the first year.
But before long, Geoff’s feet began to itch again. He decided to become a commercials director, setting up Geoffrey Seymour Films. This was never entirely successful. Some might say that this was due to the fact that Geoff had upset so many of his potential clients that they were unlikely to favour him with work. It’s true to say that Geoff could be acerbic and had got on the wrong side of quite a number of people. However, it’s also a fact that Geoff had entered a crowded and competitive market. There were plenty of more accomplished directors around. Geoff was a long way down the pecking order, so he ended up doing most of his film work abroad, far from the plum London scripts. Increasingly, though, Geoff was falling victim to ill health.
In 1997 he was diagnosed with a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and later was discovered to have a brain tumor. This led to his untimely death in December 2009 at the age of 61. It is a final irony in his story that it was his brain, one of advertising’s finest and most original, that ended up killing him.
Benson & Hedges.
Cockburn’s Special Reserve.
SAATCHI & SAATCHI.