Friday, 25 February 2011

Son of Sooty

This was first published in Campaign magazine on 18th February 2011 a week after my dad passed away. Writing it was quite a moving, but cathartic experience.

When people discover I’m my father’s son the first question they ask is whether he encouraged me to go into the same business as him. I always answer no. Because he didn’t.

However, whilst it is true that at no point did he ever sit me down and say: “You know son, you’d like this advertising malarkey. It’s great fun. You should try it”, looking back on it I’m not really sure I had much of a choice as to what profession to enter at all. As far as the nature/nurture debate goes I reckon I got right-royally nurtured.

My first contact with the business was a frustrating one. At the age of three I’d try and draw with these massive stubby yellow pencils we had lying around the house. After wearing the big black tips away I gave up and moved on to crayons. I say crayons. They were actually Chinagraphs. It was either that or the enormous box of Magic Markers. Ahh, the scent of petrol still reminds me of home.

As soon as I was old enough I was dragged along to TV shoots with him. Inexpensive child-care. I remember being rather nonplussed by these on the whole. I’d have rather been gluing an Airfix model.

The first one I visited, I realised years later, was momentous. It was for Texaco. Together on the same sound stage were Morcambe and Wise, the biggest comedians of the day, James Hunt, the current Formula 1 World Champion, and Alan Parker, the creator of Bugsy Malone, every child’s favourite film at the time.

I saw other ads being made through childhood. Like the one for ITT televisions, starring Spike Milligan, who had to, rather excitingly, crash through a massive sheet of sugar glass. Repeatedly.

And the one for Rawlings Tonic Water with Arthur Lowe (Captain Manwaring in Dad’s Army!) that featured one of my favourite endlines of all time. Rawlings was invented before Schweppes, hence the line: ‘We knew how before you know who.’

Holidays had him lying by the pool, scribbling on sheets and sheets of paper. And on weekends, when Chelsea wasn’t playing at home, he’d hide away in the front room re-writing that week’s scripts.

He regularly used us, his family, as a sounding board. He’d read out scripts and if we laughed he took it as a good sign. My mother was a hard taskmaster. My brother, sister and I were pushovers. We found everything he said funny.

I remember him spending months writing scripts for Cinzano. He wanted a cool James Bond style character together with a glamorous ‘Joan Collins type’ woman. The clearance body of the time kept turning his suggestions for the male lead, Sean Connery etc, down, sighting them as being ‘heroes of the young’. He changed tack, deciding to try the anti-hero approach. He started writing for someone slimy and deliberately un-cool someone like Woody Allen, who I thought was hilarious. One Sunday he read us his latest idea, for the guy to look at his watch and spill the drink on the gorgeous girl as if to accentuate his idiocy. Mum chuckled. (He always loved Marx Brothers style sight gags and she’d heard him use that joke (probably too many times) at parties.) That was good enough for him and thus began one of the most famous campaigns in history.

He loved radio and once read us out a radio script that had me wetting myself with laughter. It was for Bergasol fast acting sun lotion and had a white presenter applying the stuff and while doing so his voice changing gradually to African. He was a great mimic and could have done the voices himself but had it recorded by the Idi Amin impressionist John Bird. It ran. Sold tons of bottles. And had loads of complaints. All from white people.

Throughout my childhood I’d have relatives squeeze my cheek and ask: “So, young man, you going to follow in you father’s footsteps then? Go into the family business?” This left me determined not to.

However, the clincher came one Easter holiday when, as an annoying 13 year old, he took me into work with him to get me out from under my mother’s feet. We drove into Soho, to the fledgling Wight Collins Rutherford Scott offices in Great Pulteney Street. There were only about 25 people working there at the time, all, as Campaign described them, ‘superstars’. I worked as a runner collecting prints from gypsy Joe’s Basement and mechanicals from Studio 10 as well as taking stuff round the creative department to get signed off. The buzz at the place was electric. After two days my mind was made up. This was the business I wanted to spend my life in.

After the holidays I told my parents I was leaving school and going into advertising. My mum rolled her eyes. My dad simply suggested I chat to someone he knew who also worked in advertising. I spent an hour on the phone to a bloke called Dave Trott, who talked cold, logical sense. He persuaded me not to leave school there and then, but to go to college and get a decent job at the end of it.

My parents divorced when I was 16, leaving me resentful and more determined than ever not to ‘follow in my father’s footsteps’. So I decided to rebel. To be my own man. No, not as far as to go into medicine. I decided to become a writer, as opposed to an art director like him. As if that would make all the difference.

Realisation of the extent of my father’s reputation came on my first day on the Hounslow copywriting course. A lecturer told us what we could expect from the cut-throat and uncaring industry we were entering. In hushed tones he relayed the story of a horrific adman who brutally critted a student’s book with a Sooty puppet. I didn’t tell my classmates that the Sooty puppet was mine for fear of being ritually kicked to shit on behalf of students everywhere.

Every now and then Ron would call up and ask what I was up to. One time I made the mistake of actually telling him. I had just finished an entry for the D&AD student awards. I’d photographed it, done the type, got it all looking beautiful. He gently suggested a tweak that might make the headline better. I said I liked it the way it was. After all I’d bloody finished it off! It was about to get sent off. So I didn’t change it. I came nowhere in that competition. He was right. That experience taught me a lesson: never worry about how late you are in the process or how finished up stuff is. There’s always a chance to improve on something.

When my partner Mary Wear and I were looking for our first job out of college I again was determined to keep my lineage a secret. I was paranoid about accusations of nepotism and didn’t want the run the risk of people giving me special treatment because they might be friends of Ron’s. Hah! I needn’t have worried.

The week after we were offered a job at FCB Campaign ran an article headlined: Another Collins joins Dynasty. I was rumbled. We suddenly had a steady stream of visitors to our office, each with their own unique description of him. “I worked with your dad once. He was a complete f*****g b*****d. A total c**t.” Then, as I was reaching for my coat, they would finish by saying “But by Christ did I learn a lot from him.”.

After that I was more relaxed when people asked me about him. I’d proved that I could do it by myself. And there was no denying that whilst Ron was undoubtedly an utter git to many people, he was also, undoubtedly a huge talent. And I was proud of him whatever people’s opinion.

He left advertising a year after I joined it, which I always felt was a shame. However there was an upside. I never had to experience the ignominy of the two of us being nominated for the same award and watching him walk to collect it. Small mercies.

I’m sure if becoming an estate agent would have made me happy, my father would have been too. Whilst I ended up in the same racket as my old man, his lasting advice to me is applicable to any profession: “Just do your best. No one can ever ask for anything more.” To this day that’s all I’ve ever asked of myself. Or anyone else.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Reasons to be unreasonable.

The other day, when we were chatting about my father, Dave Trott reminded me of this brilliant George Bernard Shaw quote :

'The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists on trying to adapt the world to himself. All progress depends on the unreasonable man.'

He mentioned it in relation to Ron who was known as 'uncompromising'.

Ron wasn't afraid to hold out for what he felt would make things better.

To ask for perfection. Or as near as he could get to it.

This didn't make him popular.

But it made his work bloody good.

My dad wasn't afraid of upsetting people.

Of saying no.

We feel bad about saying no.

Well most of us do.

I do.

'No' always seems like a negative word.

But when used appropriately it can lead to incredibly positive things:

The most original work.

Enough time and money to do the job well.

The people in the room who can actually make decisions.

An end result that ends up as brilliant and effective as it could possibly be.

Every now and then I find myself being apparently unreasonable.

Then I remember.

Sometimes you just have to be.

It's part of the job.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

My Campaign Private View with Sooty - For Ron

This was first published in December 2003.

You may have heard the story of the heartless adman who gave a student a book crit with his hand inside a Sooty glove puppet. Legend has it, Sooty flipped over the pages and then whispered silently into the man’s ear. The man then spoke for them both: “Well I like it, but Sooty thinks it’s shit.”

That heartless adman was my father. And that Sooty was my glove puppet.

Curious as to whether he’s mellowed with age, I coerced him out of retirement to help me with this piece. (The puppet, not the father. I know he hasn’t mellowed with age.)

So here we sit with the work in front of us. Izzy wizzy, let’s get busy…

We start off with three topical print ads marking the miracle of an England world cup victory. One has the names of the world’s rugby teams forming the shape of a pint of Guinness, with the line “The cream rises to the top”. I comment that it’s a neat typographical way to celebrate that iconic kick. “Iconic cack.” Sooty whispers back. So… Yellow, but not that mellow.

The next rugby ad is for Swoosh. It’s a map of Australia with English rose-emblazoned pushpins marking the locations of four English victories, and the line: The Empire Back Strikes. I remark that this is simple and smart. Just what a poster should be. Sooty shakes his head and murmurs that they don’t make ‘em like ‘It’s not the winning, it’s the taking apart’ any more. Still, I think he prefers this to the adidas one, because while I’m studying Johnny Wilkinson and his balls, Sooty starts flicking through a copy of Loaded.

The latest press campaign for Barnardos continues a familiar tragic theme: through poverty, many children are doomed to a short and unhappy life. I tell Mr Constructive-Criticism that these striking visuals are bound to get the attention of parents and newspaper editors alike. Sooty, the pedant, starts picking holes. He argues that ‘Meths’ is the only decent one, as it’s the least contrived replacement for a spoon. And insists that the silver spoon reference is utterly redundant in this day and age. Puppets… I ask you.

Sooty’s looking bored, so I quickly slide a tape into the VHS. On come a series of sponsorship idents for Ford in which people going about their business are, for no apparent reason, irresistibly drawn to a Sky sports stadium. These are followed on the reel by some break-bumpers featuring a lone supporter who becomes surrounded by vampires, Roccoco dandies and leather-clad gimps. No need to ask Sooty what he thinks. Before the tape finishes he’s stabbing a paw at the off button, whispering language that would shock Dennis Hopper’s character in Blue Velvet.

Anchor’s new campaign features na├»ve animation akin to South Park. Egg-shaped cows explain, in speech bubbles, that Anchor is edible and spreadable. I explain that these ads are very ‘now’ and that they’ll stand out on the box due to their very lack of content. Less is more, as that advertising supremo Mies van de Rohe once said. Sooty beckons me close. He pokes me in the eye with his left paw and calls me a twat. Who, he asks, are those ads talking to? What are they selling? “You remember selling!” he screams silently into my ear. Then he goes on about Saatchi’s long-running karaoke cows campaign and how “those cows were the dogs”. Sad really. He’s an anachronism. Modern advertising’s clearly wasted on him.

Time to stuff my old friend back in the toy box. But first I ask if there are any ads he’s seen recently that he actually likes. He mentions the Greenpeace film, but makes a disparaging remark about its star, Eddie Izzard. “No, he isn’t, Sooty.” I explain, “Actually, he’s a transvestite.” And what about that sweet little VW viral, I venture? His reply? Rather predictably: “Bollocks”.

Bye bye, everyone. Bye bye.



Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Why I can't wait to watch iGuys 3.

These blitherings originally appeared in Campaign magazine earlier this year, after they asked me what thoughts I had on the future of advertising.

I hope I’m still alive in 50 years time.

Yes, the downsides might be annoying: incontinence, immobility, severe drooling. But think of the upside: I get to watch Mad Men: Season 54.

What fun the 60s must have been to work in. What a cool time to have been around. The time the ad industry found there was a way to do things other than how it’d been doing them for years. When the conventional wisdom of David Ogilvy was superseded by the unconventional genius of Bernbach, Lois and Della Femina.

After having spent years perfecting their skills in posters, press and radio, the dawn of the decade saw admen still attempting to get to grips with a newfangled thing called television. ‘TV specialists’ were employed who knew how this cutting-edge technology worked but the television was yet to be used for anything more than what were, in effect, moving press ads; the public was so in awe of such a technological miracle that just seeing pictures move on the screen was still innovative enough to delight an audience.

The cohort leading the advertising revolution grabbed TV by the buttons and showed no fear. They did things no one had ever done that would still feel fresh today.

It was a different world.

How we chuckle today as we watch Don Draper and his colleagues breakfast on Bourbon and fags. How we titter when lines like: ‘It’s toasted’ are lauded as pure genius. And how we snigger when DDB’s mould-breaking VW ads are referred to as a passing fad.

Change was rampant back then. And like all revolutions it’s easier to spot with the benefit of hindsight.

Of course in 50 years time the show won’t be called Mad Men. It’ll be named something like ‘iGuys 3.0’.

And it won’t be set back in the 1960s, it’ll be set in the second major advertising revolution; the one we’re living through right now.

In iGuys 3.0 the underlying theme will be the ad industry’s attempts to master the new digital era.

And viewers will chuckle similarly at ciphers of our very selves back at the turn of the last century:

“Isn’t it hilarious that they used to have a separate name for what we now just call, well, we don’t have a name for it do we?… And how funny they actually formed separate agencies to do things just for that, full of people they called ‘digital natives’? … Oh look! They’re using an iPhone 4. I saw one once in the Science Museum. How did they live without an iEye (contact lens, nano-processor screen beaming information direct to the retina, produced by the Microsoftapple Corporation, so named after the two companies did ‘The deal of the century’)… Ooh, wouldn’t it be cool to have been around when they still had paper!!... Wow, that must have been before GoogleBook was thought-activated… They used to think 3D TV was cool. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!… Goodness! They’re drinking skinny decaf lattes! Of course! That was when Starbucks still existed, long before the Great Coffee Virus that wiped out half of America!!…”

Like the revolutionaries of the 60s, we at the supposed bleeding edge of everything are gloriously unaware of what the next half-century will bring. When it comes to the tools available to as a business, we’re currently seeing more innovation in one year than we saw in the last hundred. This means that anyone who believes they have mastered this brave new world is deluding himself. It has a life of its own and we must face up to the fact that we will never actually wrangle it to the ground. We will simply keep running to catch up with it, doing the best we can to utilise new stuff until the next new stuff appears. The best we can do is to evolve in parallel with the innovation.


Any ennui felt by those who’ve worked in this industry for a while when faced with a new problem and the same old tools with which to solve it, must surely by now have been transformed into pure, undiluted joy at the mouthwatering array of new opportunities just round the corner.

In the coming years evolution will go hand in hand with revolution. As consumers continue to understand and enjoy interactivity they’ll come to expect it from their brands’ communications. So we’ll have to continue to get better at hosting two-way discussions in all channels. This will be helped by the fact that penetration of Smartphones will continue to rise as their benefits become better understood by ‘the early majority’. This, in turn, will lead to interaction on social networks becoming even more ubiquitous. Meanwhile, the likes of FlipBoard and the Rockmelt browser will make the social web increasingly more accessible and user-friendly.

‘Event TV’ like ‘I’m a celebrity’ and ‘X factor’ will be utilised increasingly by marketers for their real-time social networking opportunities. Equally, IPTV will go mainstream, bringing with it TV advertising interactivity possibilities as never seen before.

The quality of TV advertising will rise as clients see the number of conversations that are going on around the good stuff. What was seen as a high investment five years ago for a commercial that would just see eight weeks of airtime is now increasingly seen as good value for something that will continue to be broadcast forever.

We’ll continue to get to grips with the tablet computers as they become the iTool of choice for millions. The interactive advertising possibilities of the iPad haven’t even begun to be explored and the partnership between Rupert Murdoch and Steve Jobs could open up whole new swathes of users to target, as well as creating what will undoubtedly become the template for what are currently paper-based publications.

Apps will continue to their stealth attack on the current browser experience, offering brands more opportunities to demonstrate their relevance to their consumers.

We’ll all get just a little bit bored of hearing the words ‘Can we have an Old Spice please?’.

There has, without doubt, never been a more exciting time to be in advertising. Unless spending your days drinking, smoking and shagging appeals (hold on, come to think of it…).

I’m off now to set my GalaxyPlus HyperHD Digi-Box Nano to record iGuys 3.0.

It’ll be such fun to drone on about what an amazing time this was to live through.

And to wet my nappy laughing at how different everything was back now.