Remember Alessandro Volta?
What about Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis?
Even if I asked who invented electric light, the computer mouse and social media, those names are still unlikely to come up.
More likely, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg will spring to mind.
They didn’t invent those ideas, they either stole from those guys or ‘built on their thinking’.But although now virtually forgotten, their work was crucial, take away their thinking would be like taking the bottom brick out of a Jenga tower, it collapses.
You can’t jump from the carved stone wheel to the Tesla with wing doors.
It’s like one big relay race; we each take the baton from the previous guy, do our bit then hand it to the next guy. (Or girl, it could easily be a girl, or woman, ‘girl’ can sound a bit patronising sometimes.)
My point is that we all take and build on the ideas and philosophies of the previous generations, but the ones that get the most credit are the ones that made the most money from them.
To me, and many of my contemporaries in the 90s, Mad Dogs & Englishmen were a bit like The Velvet Underground, they didn’t sell as many records as The Bay City Rollers, but their influence to the next generation was huge.
They pushed the peanut forward.
At the time, most advertising was glossy and sophisticated, so to make a good ad you needed a great director or photographer, to create your seductive imagery, that meant you needed decent production budgets.
Nick Cohen and his agency Mad Dogs & Englishmen didn’t accept that.
They could create an arresting, funny campaigns with the change you’d find down the back of a sofa.
NOTE: These ads weren’t made for Cannes, they actually ran.
Did you have a plan or philosophy when setting up Mad Dogs & Englishmen? Or, like everyone else, did you make it up as you went along?
We had a simple mission. To quote my partner, agency president Robin Hafitz “To do work that wasn’t toxic”.
We wanted to be “a breath of fresh air in a polluted industry”.
I think maybe I was over compensating for my own anger and shame at working in a slightly shady industry! I should have just gone into therapy, but started Mad Dogs instead!
There was no real business plan. Just survival, have fun and be happy because we tried to do work we felt good about. It was all very innocent and idealistic.
I remember our accountant being slightly confused when I told him our business bottom line was being happy!
From here in Britain, Mad Dogs & Englishmen seemed like the New Yorkiest of New York ad agencies; aggressive, scrappy, in-your-face, but you’re an Englishman Nick?
I moved to the US in the late 80’s and definitely fell in love with the energy and in-your-face spirit of the NYC…it was very different from the genteel vibe of London! I wanted to encourage work that embraced that.
I think at the time, I was a bit out of love with working in advertising.
A lot of it seemed to treat people like they were complete idiots.
I was on a mission to be more blatantly honest with people.
In truth, we were all just having a laugh and not taking everything so seriously.
If it wasn’t the first, it must’ve been one of the earliest agencies not named after its founders,
why the silly name?
Here’s the 100 percent true story!
The first Mad Dogs ads, a campaign for a headhunter called The Creative Register, were done by myself and Ty Montague. We were both working for other agencies at the time.
We wanted to enter the work in an award show under our surnames, but Ty’s boss objected, saying he worked for him.
Ty was very pissed off and angry! I told him to relax, and came up with the solution that we just enter the work anonymously using pseudonyms.
I was English, so I picked Englishmen, Ty was angry, so he’d be Mad Dog.
Agency, Mad Dogs & Englishmen. Ta Da! Big props to Noel Coward of course.
A few months later, I quit my job and started Mad Dogs for real.
Ty, sensibly, kept his well-paying job.
McCann have an end line ‘The truth well told’.
That could be Mad Dogs, maybe ‘The truth aggressively told’ or ‘irreverently told’ would be more accurate?
But a lot of the ads tell it like it is.
Because a lot of ads at the time seemed total fucking lies and distortion, we decided to redress the balance by doing work that was overly honest.
We were more inclined to encourage people not to buy our client’s products.
The more honest we were, the more people seemed to respond to the work.
The poster we did for the theatre company Tiny Mythic for their production of a Dostoyevsky play is a good example, where we warned people NOT to go because they’ll get depressed.
That sold out the show and they also sold hundreds of posters and built a huge following.
I’m guessing you were influenced by Dave Trott?
Gold Greenlees Trott was an agency I, and it seemed, every other young creative dreamed of working for. To me, they gave UK advertising a massive jolt of energy at the perfect time. (Like The Sex Pistols did to the music scene in the mid-seventies).
Dave Trott’s biggest influence on me was how he gave juniors coming into the industry a huge chance and a voice.
At the time, London ad agencies was very much about more experienced senior creatives getting all the exciting briefs, with juniors having to be patient and pay their dues.
I think Trott flipped that model, tapping into young kids energy and hunger to do something amazing.
I loved that idea. Mad Dogs was 100% built on hiring kids out of school and giving them massive opportunities.
We added the element of collaboration…fostering an us against the world mentality, where individually we were limited, but collectively we could figure stuff out.
I’ve never met Dave Trott, but he’s very much my hero.
Which agencies, or people, did you admire at the time?
My other hero was David Abbott.
I remember when I first started, going to see him do a workshop where he showed some of his work, and all the awful stuff he came up with before he landed on the good idea.
It was so incredibly empowering to know that doing crappy work is part of the filtering process.
He switched a huge light on for me to not lose confidence.
BBH, WCRS, BMP, CDP, Saatchi …these were all incredible places in London.
In NYC, beyond Chiat/Day, Scali McCabe and a few boutiques, it all felt like a bit of a wasteland.
I think that’s why I decided to do my own thing.
You seem to have won a lot of tech and start up companies, which makes sense, that sharp elbows approach is perfect for those trying to break into a market, but The Economist seems like a weird fit?
When The Economist launched in the US, they did some trade ads to the ad community, trying to get advertisers.
The work was so shit, compared to what Abbott Mead were doing. It was a travesty!
We called up the publisher to offer to do some ideas on spec. He said why? We said “Because the stuff you’re running sucks”.
I think he agreed and mischievously arranged a meeting with the marketing director who I don’t think he liked that much.
He asked us to tell the guy what we thought of the work! We did, and were thrown out of the room!
Next day, we got a call saying, “Ok…what can you do then.”
We did some work that tried to channel the spirit of the UK work and they loved it.
Did you hire planners?
My day to day partner, Robin Hafitz, was a planner, and she nurtured many new young planners.
We liked to use planning mostly to see what people thought about life and stuff, to help inspire ideas, rather than test work.
We actually built our own focus group suite, complete with one way mirrors so we could study New Yorkers and listen to them.
I think it helped our creatives have a deeper empathy for the people our work was trying to connect with.
The ads you did are a bit like the work of one of my favourite designers; Bob Gill, they look like you had a $10 budget but have solved it with your bare hands, a bit of elbow grease, chutzpah and caffeine. There’s no production gloss to hide behind, just creativity.
We definitely were at our happiest working with miniscule budgets.
In some ways it helped make simpler work. Less could go wrong. I think one of our early clients, The Village Voice, would have production budgets of about $80 per ad!
A lot of our earliest work was just provocative, cheeky writing, because it was dirt cheap to produce.
A bit of Franklin Gothic Heavy was all we really needed, or Garamond, if we wanted to do something more fancy!
Did any of the ads get you in trouble?
Not really. We always tried to be respectful and sweet, even when we were being pointed or cheeky.
I always remember hearing Dave Abbott talk about advertising as being an intrusion into people’s homes and lives, so politeness and respect was important.
We wanted our work to feel like the gate-crasher at the party who was invited to “Hey, stay and have a beer”.
The creative community loved the work, you picked up a ton of
awards, how about the client community?
We tended to get two kinds of clients.
Either they were clients looking for advertising to miraculously make them rich and famous, or their brand was so fucked that we were the last chance saloon, and they were hoping for a miracle cure.
We rarely got normal clients with realistic budgets, timelines and expectations.
That said, we had great relationships and I think our clients loved our passion and enthusiasm.
Plus we threw fun parties.
MILL CREEK POND.
The Village Voice ads make me want to buy that paper, not necessarily to read, just to support.
Presumably they were great to deal with?
The Voice were the perfect client.
They loved what we did. I think they felt we got them and were a great cultural fit.
Our day to day client, The Voice’s President, David Schneiderman, was always battling with his editorial group, and how they all seemed a bit self-important, so I think he loved us taking the piss out of the Voice’s slightly self-righteous stance on everything.
Any comment he made was always to make the work even more irreverent and self effacing.
I think we were his play thing!
I was talking to someone recently about Cliff Freeman, they said 9/11 closed the door on all that kind of aggressive, out there advertising, people wanted something ‘upbeat and gentle’ post 9/11. Did you find that?
Well, 9/11 killed a lot of the energy of the time.
We lost a ton of clients.
Everything seemed to grind to a halt for a couple of years. I think after that, people became more cautious and nervous. But at the same time, the industry was changing as online presence and social media started
I actually felt that advertisers became more thoughtful and realised that they needed to build online followings through being useful and transparent, to win people’s loyalty and trust.
In some ways Mad Dogs lost its reason to be, as advertising was forced to become a lot less toxic.
We needed to change as well, but we got a bit financially blindsided by the downturn.
That’s a whole other story!
I think agencies like Crispen Porter Bogusky, Mother, BBH, Goodby and W+K to name a few did a brilliant job of leading advertising’s comeback.
Which was definitely more thoughtful and sincere.
Would these ads work today?
I think honesty is always welcome, so yes, a lot of it feels fairly timeless.
They’re good conversation starters, but nowadays I think work needs to go deeper.
It needs to lead to something bigger and more ambitious.
Seen any good ads lately?
For sure. I personally love when advertising takes a bigger stand righting social wrongs, whether it’s Nike’s work with Colin Kaepernick, or Dove’s work empowering women to feel good about their bodies.
Before Mad Dogs & Englishmen, I went to a conference for young entrepreneurs, led by Ben from Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream.
It was called “Zen and the Power of Business as a Force for Social Change”.
The premise was that the biggest influencers in affecting the world for better or worse would always be big business, as that’s where the money is.
Advertising is at the sharp end of guiding and reflecting culture.
From “Me Too” style movements, to racial and gender equality, to fixing huge social divides, these are amazing times for our industry, if we embrace that.
Thanks for your time Nick.
Nick wanted to single out a few people for special praise for their work at Mad Dogs & Englishmen:
Andy the Intern,
Ann Meade Daniel,
Barry the Intern,
Jason (Tinkie Winkie),
Mary Beth Prior,
Mary Michael Pringle,
Maury the Intern,
James Dawson Hollis,
Sasha the Russian Guy,
Shawn the intern,
Simon the Intern,
Zander Reiss .
And to anyone else I forgot; Sorry!