The Campaign Essay: Adland's hidden talent

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 14 January 2005 07:00AM

When all your intake is drawn from the same source, creativity can give way to conformity. Looking in unusual places could turn up talent to help agencies break the mould, Rory Sutherland argues.

We rightly idolise Doyle Dane Bernbach's Bill Bernbach for the innovative way he managed his business, but are we overlooking the revolutionary way in which he staffed it? It was packed with people who had been outsiders -- drawn, in particular, from two largely untapped ethnic groups.

In 1953, only 92 of the 5,000 listed in the Who's Who in (US) Advertising had visibly Jewish names. Few were Italian. The handful of non-WASP agencies - Grey, for instance - were rather discreet about it (though as one of the Grey partners was called Mr Fatt, there may have been other reasons to keep the names off the door).

Compared with the Ivy League networks operating in other agencies, where recruitment generally consisted of attempts to clone Cary Grant, Bernbach hired very differently.

Here's Jerry Della Femina, sounding like a Goodfellas voiceover: "If it hadn't been for Bill Bernbach, I would now be sitting in some luncheonette, continuing my life as a messenger. Grey Advertising and Doyle Dane Bernbach opened it up. They brought in a whole group of hot young creative people, Jewish and Italian. The Jews were all copywriters, Italians were all art directors. I broke the mould. The first Italian copywriter."

This outsider quality was probably as vital to the agency's creative revolution as Bernbach himself, for two reasons. Not only were their views on advertising different but, more importantly, they didn't care what other people in the industry thought of them. They had a peer group all of their own.

Nothing would please me more than to see a similar influx of mould-breaking talent in the UK some time in the next ten years. The question is, where will it come from? Even a small uprising would help. I don't see any signs of it yet, and this bothers me.

My concern, and that expressed by the IPA's Creative Forum, is partly that UK agencies are still, in Bernbach's phrase, "lily white". But more worrying than ethnic balance alone (which is at least trending in the right direction) is the fact that agency intake, particularly of creatives, is becoming more homogeneous, more standardised than ever before. Almost everyone below a certain age has come from the same few places. Pre-programmed to hold the same beliefs, to perform the same way, they measure their success against a group of similar contemporaries.

This peer pressure builds a kind of conformity. Among UK advertising and marketing agencies, there are now few dissenting philosophies - no ABMs, or off-beam places like the 80s Cogent. Most press ads follow the same formula, unchanged for years. Nobody writes body copy any more because it is universally acknowledged among this group that nobody reads it anyway. Or is the real reason no-one reads body copy that no-one can write it?

Don't misunderstand me. I am quite happy for art colleges to continue to supply most of agencies' talent. But not all of it, all the time and perhaps not with such a vocational bias - a bias Patrick Collister traces back to the Thatcher era, when education was valued only as a prelude to employment.

The problem doesn't start with the colleges, the problem starts with our total failure to hunt down any alternative sources of creative talent.

Why don't we at least look? It's not as though people from unusual backgrounds have let our industry down in the past. My own agency was founded by a 39-year-old failed chef and unsuccessful farmer (though a fine Aga salesman).

Among the best creative folk I have worked with, one was discovered dressing shop windows, another had turned down a place at All Souls; Steve Harrison, named as one of Campaign's top three creative directors in London, was a PhD and company librarian; another was a research scientist.

Outside my ambit there are hundreds more. Several (Della Femina and Chris Palmer among them) had been making deliveries to agencies and simply liked what they saw through the door, while Neil French has tried everything from pimping to managing a porn shop - even, he shamefacedly admits, resorting to account handling when down on his luck. For a time, OgilvyOne in Hong Kong found it so difficult to hire conventionally, they took to offering jobs to interesting drunks in bars. One of those people is now the creative director of one of the best ad agencies in the US. It is the joy and ornament of an agency that it can accommodate people as varied as this.

In fact, agencies have always given homes to eccentric talents unemployable elsewhere. Leaving aside Raymond Chandler, Salman Rushdie or Don DeLillo, the young Hitler found his first and only salaried job as an art director on a deodorant campaign.

What's more, it's not as though other people don't want to work in our business. Every year Daren Kay, the creative director of TMW, places an ad in The Guardian inviting applications for a trainee copywriter from outside the usual vocational channels. There have never been fewer than 1,000 applicants, this year's successful candidate being a qualified barrister.

Our business still has a lure. One of the problems with hiring people whose contemporaries are also creatives is they may never realise what an enjoyable existence this is compared with doing almost anything else.

So what is the problem? Well there's our own laziness - people from art colleges arrive in a kind of freeze-dried, just-add-a-brief state. That helps. Many of them are already just plain good. But there is also a structural factor at work here. Creatives from art colleges arrive in pairs. And we hire in pairs (perhaps the only businesses outside US comedy-writing to do so). While headhunters have done some good work in creating "book clubs" to pair up stragglers, it remains, as Jeremy Bullmore remarks, a restrictive practice and an obstacle to hiring talented folk who tend to be found singly. This needs to be investigated.

You might also argue that a disproportionate chunk of agencies' seedcorn funds is spent recruiting account handlers as graduate trainees. Or is it that too many of the graduates we recruit end up as account handlers? Either way, if some of this money were risked on potential creative talent, we might get a better return.

An analysis of Ogilvy's graduate programme since 1980 shows that one of its greatest successes has been in providing competing agencies with highly trained management (Hornby, Vick, Snowball, Robertson, etc) after about ten years. In this, our graduate recruitment rather resembles the hiring efforts of MI6 in 30s Cambridge, the principal effect being to bolster the ranks of the opposition. It might be more productive if every other year the programme were diverted towards hiring from more varied sources: creatives, say, or traffic managers, or from a non-conventional source - the over-30s, perhaps; scientists; project managers, Brummies or other under-represented groups.

Bizarrely, we also risk narrowing our intake by portraying ourselves as "creative" organisations. As I have remarked elsewhere, the word "creative" has very different connotations depending on who hears it. To an accountant or a finance director, the associations are generally poor. To you and me, a creative job is a wonderful thing: to an 18-year-old Bengali whose parents want him to go into medicine or law, a creative job is the kind of job done by people with rich parents.

You don't believe me? According to a survey conducted last year, 82 per cent of creative agency staff were educated in fee-paying, independent or grammar schools, while 74 per cent of media agency staff went to state schools. And consider what creative placement staff are paid relative to legal trainees. If your prospective hires leave university £5,000 in debt, with a law firm offering money up front to clear it, can you blame them for not risking this creative business?

The split between media and creative is another problem. Every time our fissiparous industry hives off another specialism - media, online, direct marketing, promotion - it loses another portal through which different people can join a larger organisation. Every time an organisation splits, its diversity drops.

The career paths from media to management or from planning to media are now permanently closed. This is a pity. Steve Henry believes that the creation of account planning, for all its value, has also narrowed the creative remit. In contrast, perhaps the best injection of new, original thinking at my own agency has come with the arrival of the interactive creatives and technologists in the main department. A new perspective can be everything - even a new kind of question helps.

As Bernbach put it: "(MBAs) learn the arithmetic of advertising. Now, that very fact that they learn the knowledge of advertising, and the arithmetic of advertising, will work against them as a judge of an ad. You are right, all your facts are right, but you are still dull, because you are saying everything that everybody else is saying."

If you have any suggestions about how the IPA might use limited funds to increase the variety of our intake, please e-mail me at rory.sutherland@ogilvy.com.

Rory Sutherland is the vice-chairman and creative director at OgilvyOne Worldwide

THE UNCONVENTIONAL ROUTE TO THE TOP

DAVID OGILVY founder, Ogilvy & Mather

After failing to graduate from Oxford in 1931, the legendary David Ogilvy was a chef at the Hotel Majestic in Paris, a sales rep for Aga and a director at the research house Gallup. He emigrated to the US in 1938, entering the secret service as the second secretary to the British embassy in Washington and tilling the land as a farmer among Pennsylvania's Amish community. At the age of 38, when he set up what would become Ogilvy & Mather, he had yet to write his first ad.

NEIL FRENCH creative director, WPP

After enjoying stints as a bouncer, waiter, singer, account executive and, most famously, as the manager of the rock band Judas Priest, French got into advertising purely by chance. After he was fired from his job as a rent collector for losing the company Alsatian, the boss who sacked him rang a friend who owned an ad agency and got French a job cleaning out the cellars. He then flitted around various ad jobs before setting up his own agency.

STEVE HARRISON founder, Harrison Troughton Wunderman

After finishing his American History doctorate aged 29, Harrison came to London to find work.He worked as a researcher at Ogilvy & Mather Direct for 11 months until the global vice-chairman, Drayton Bird, noticed a report Harrison had written and asked if he wanted to be a "real" writer. Bird was willing to back his intuition with a salary - at least for a while. He told Harrison on his first day: "I'll give you six months. If you're not making money for me by then, I'll fire you."

CHRIS PALMER director, Gorgeous

Palmer went from motorcycle courier to creative director and partner of Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in just a few short years. But it took him a long time to get started. Palmer (who used to race motorbikes under the pseudonym Willie Farloff) worked in a chicken factory and as an odd-job man, a worm-cutter and a hair model before going to college,where he met BBH's Rosie Arnold. She was to set him up to meet John Hegarty, who he ended up partnering.

JOHN TOWNSHEND creative director, Rapier

Townshend started out as an account executive for DMB&B and then at Ogilvy & Mather. Deciding he was in the wrong job, he approached Indra Singh about becoming a copywriter, did a copy test and started a D&AD evening course. Meanwhile, he got promoted to account supervisor. The next day, he was offered a junior copywriter job, which he took. "At one stage, I was writing Guinness ads and then putting my suit on and presenting the same ads to the client," he says.

SIMON DICKETTS executive creative director, M&C Saatchi

Straight after leaving school, Dicketts started his working life as a porter at the auctioneer Christie's, working on sales of silver, old masters, costume, porcelain, furniture and tapestries and ending up on the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist sales as a result of his "reasonable French". In 1975, he joined J. Walter Thompson as a general dogsbody but eventually managed to wangle a job in the creative department after passing the copy test.

PAUL BELFORD creative director, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

Belford spent seven years at university before emerging with a PhD in Biochemistry, but his keen interest in photography led him into advertising. He joined the SCA, the school where he rubbed shoulders with Tiger Savage (now M&C Saatchi's deputy creative director) and Lowe's senior creative Tom Hudson. "It was a great place for getting people into advertising from different backgrounds. It's a real shame there's nothing like it around now," he says.

ROBERT SAVILLE founder, Mother

Saville began his advertising career working as an account supervisor on Rowntree at Saatchi & Saatchi. He was then the account director on the launch of The Independent, where he met Tim Mellors, who got him into writing ads. When Saatchis resigned The Independent after its success led to conflict with the News International account, Saville moved to Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO as a copywriter before teaming up with Mellors again at Publicis.

If you have an opinion on this or any other issue raised on Brand Republic, join the debate in the Forum here.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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