THOMAS ON THOMPSONS: JWT’s worldwide creative director, Allen Thomas, right, reviews his life and times as he retires after three decades

By GORDON MACMILLAN, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 10 December 1999 12:00AM

The way Allen Thomas tells it, his illustrious career at J. Walter Thompson was all down to luck: ’If I hadn’t had a row with Davidson Pearce, I wouldn’t be here now,’ says the worldwide creative director, who retires this month after almost 30 years at the agency.

The way Allen Thomas tells it, his illustrious career at J. Walter

Thompson was all down to luck: ’If I hadn’t had a row with Davidson

Pearce, I wouldn’t be here now,’ says the worldwide creative director,

who retires this month after almost 30 years at the agency.



Thomas has taken in almost every creative role at JWT along the way.



His only break was that stint at Davidson Pearce as creative director

between 1978 and 1982. Because his career spans the first 30 years of

this magazine, Campaign recently gave Thomas the launch issue (12

September, 1968) and a recent one and asked him to ’fill in the middle

bit’.



These 1,700 words focus on how the man - famous for an endearing line in

self-deprecatory humour and his love of good food and good wine - and

the business has changed in that time. As a creative renowned for his

ability to see his way through the most tangled briefs, it will not

surprise anyone that they embody the best JWT qualities - gentlemanly,

persuasive, and razor sharp too.





I was about to join JWT in 1969 but Prince Philip beat me to it. He came

in for a tour of the agency and visited every part of it. He understood

the account handling department (a mystery that continues to escape many

of us). He had no trouble grasping media, and became rapidly familiar

with production. He then visited the creative department.



He was shown into a room where a copywriter and art director were

sitting, in time-honoured fashion, feet on desk, staring out of the

window. He asked them what they were doing. One of them turned and said:

’Er ... we’re thinking what to put.’



This child-like phrase captures for me the essence of our business, and

has been a recurring theme in my mind for the past 30 years.



Shortly after this, I found myself also sitting in a room in Berkeley

Square with John St Clair, staring out of the window, doodling as we

tried to think of an idea. I noticed the window cleaner staring at us.

Eventually, he opened the window and said: ’Listen, mate! Does your

guv’nor know you sit there doodling all day?’



I came to know him quite well and I shared his sense of wonder that

grown men could spend their time doing this and be paid for doing

so.



There followed, with a short break, 30 years at JWT. I feel I’ve been

part of a long-running West End production, probably written by Noel

Coward and Tom Sharpe, featuring a cast of extraordinary characters who

have come and gone, some of whom continue to star.





Campaign: the first issue



At about this time, Campaign started to appear. Whatever you think of

Campaign (and there seems to be a direct correlation between what you

think of it and what it thinks of you) it has survived and

flourished.



An early issue shows Hugh Cudlip, who had just become chairman of IPC,

waving a large cigar and opining that he has detected a swing away from

TV and into press. He went on to say that he had always believed other

people’s opinions don’t matter very much if you know you are right.

Under the circumstances, this was probably just as well.



This issue also introduces ’Scylla and Charybdis’, who were to write the

creative review every week. According to the JWT classical history

department, in Greek mythology, Scylla was a sea monster who lived

underneath a rock, opposite the whirlpool, Charybdis. One of them was

bound to get you. This academic reference speaks volumes about the

attitude to ’creativity’ at this point: working in an agency was what

you did while you were waiting for your novel to be published, or your

paintings to be exhibited. How very different are the descendants of

Scylla and Charybdis, who write today’s Private View, for some of whom

(with the notable exception of Gerry Moira and others) ’Greek myths’

would be a series of holiday encounters in Corfu.



Contemporary with Scylla and her fearsome accomplice, Campaign also

reports, under the headline ’Rowdy DADA meeting lets in copywriters’,

that the association was no longer to be for designers and art directors

alone. The article also records that the association was to appoint a

director to manage the association’s affairs.



This appointment was to lead, much later, to many other rowdy DADA

meetings, some of which I was privileged to attend, although it didn’t

feel like that at the time. I did nothing, in my year as president of

DADA, to improve the running of it. Eventually, to his eternal credit,

Tim Delaney sorted it out.



A small article in the same issue records what was to be one of the most

significant changes to our industry, not just here but around the

world.



Under the heading ’JWT marries the medium and the message’, is a report

of the agency introducing a new function, which its inventor, Stephen

King (along with Stanley Pollit of BMP) called ’account planning’. Like

everything Stephen invented, it was simple and brilliant.



Elsewhere in these early Campaigns, two ads stand out; ’For spreading it

around, there’s nothing like Farmer’s Weekly’, and a whole page

featuring, in colour, a close-up of a woman in a bikini, from the waist

down, with the headline ’Everyone’s interested in below-the-line’ from

Ritchie/Dickson.



It was, indeed, a highly literary industry at this point.





In between



After this, for a whole new generation of people, the novels and the

paintings took second place, replaced by the wholehearted, highly

professional pursuit of the UK equivalent of the wonderful advertising

that had come out of DDB New York a few years earlier. (In a Campaign

from November 1999, David Abbott, perhaps the greatest of all the

outstanding talent in this country for the past three decades, cites Bob

Levenson, who was at DDB during this time, as his hero.)



The JWT of this period was an amazing place to be. There were many great

influences on a young copywriter and none more so than Jeremy

Bullmore.



He and Stephen King personified the belief that an agency could be both

strategically and creatively distinctive. A client didn’t have to

choose.



You were expected to enjoy yourself, too. As always, I did my best to

follow instructions.



Two pieces of the agency’s work from this period stick in my mind: the

Guinness advertising (’I’ve never tried it because I don’t like it,’

etc), and Campari (’Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’ - ’No,

Luton airport.’).



Unfortunately, I had nothing to do with either of them. Lorraine Chase

starred in the Campari commercial. Years later, she lived with the late

John Knight. Knight worked with me at this point and I remember sitting

in a restaurant with the two of them, complaining about the fact that

Knight never came to work on time. Lorraine was wearing a leather

pelmet, thigh-length leather boots and not very much else. ’Your trouble

is you can’t motivate my boy,’ she said. ’I can’t seem to get him out of

bed in the morning.’



Two enduring relationships started for me at JWT and, thankfully, they

continue to flourish. I met my wife, Molly Godet, and I also started to

work with Miles Colebrook. Molly is easily the better looking of the

two, and continues to benefit from a full head of hair.



The 70s were eventful, to say the least: Saatchi & Saatchi opened and

Alan Parker set up a film company; Abbott joined, first, FGA and then

Mead and Vickers; Frank Lowe left CDP and opened Lowe Howard-Spink; GGT

was born and Phil Geier took over at IPG.



For me, 1978 saw the beginning of a highly enjoyable period as the

creative director of Davidson Pearce. Some terrific work was done here,

my favourite being Tom Jenkins’ and Joanna Dickerson’s ’Citizen Kane’

commercial for The Observer.



At the beginning of 1980, Michael Cooper-Evans, one of the greatest in a

long line of outstanding JWT MDs, asked me to rejoin as executive

creative director. My one worry was Bullmore. Would he allow me to get

on with the job? It was as if Stradivarius were handing over to an

apprentice.



Would he leave the violins to me? Bullmore assured me he would. Now and

then, I might say: ’Hmm, that’s a nice violin - mind you, I wouldn’t

have made it quite like that myself,’ and he was as good as his word.

Well, nearly, anyway.



I could fill this article with Bullmore-isms but one will have to

suffice.



I was explaining how a particularly excitable copywriter had been

jumping up and down at the Cannes festival, shouting at a waiter, when a

seagull crapped straight on top of his bald head. ’Hmm,’ said Jeremy,

’unfortunately, not an opportunity offered to all of us.’



Following this, a terrific team, aided by the redoubtable creative

manager, Daniele Ferreyrol, with Max Henry as ’head of art, love’, came

together and produced some memorable campaigns for JWT’s big brands. The

most famous of these, invented by Richard Phillips, working with Joanna

Dickerson, was the ’Beattie’ campaign for BT. This helped us to become

Campaign’s ’Agency of the Year’ for 1984 (which Chris Jones and a new

team repeated in 1991).



Life with Phillips was never dull. He came in one Monday, very upset,

explaining that he’d found his cat the previous hot afternoon, hanging

from the bathroom tap, dead. I will forever regret asking him whether it

had left a note.



During this decade, BBH started, Saatchis bought Compton, Bill Bernbach

died, BMP went public, Martin Sorrell started WPP, Saatchis bought

Bates, Omnicom was created, WPP bought JWT, then O&M, Zenith launched,

Peter Marsh quit ABM.



After a few enjoyable years working with Chris Jones, I became one of

JWT’s two worldwide creative directors - another marvellous

experience.



I learned that, contrary to popular opinion, rather like wine, only the

best ideas will travel; that economies of scale in these matters are

often false economies; that there are talented people in every country

and they should be encouraged to contribute to the hand-tailoring of big

ideas.



Recently, I found myself standing with Miles, not in Berkeley Square but

in Tiananmen Square. It seemed an appropriately interesting place to end

such a long and marvellous journey.





Campaign: late 1999



Thirty years later everything has changed and nothing has changed. What

has changed is the structure of our business, dominated as it by a few

vast conglomerates, employing ’corporate officers’ with titles such as

’worldwide head of human resources’. Indeed, over the last few weeks,

Campaign has reported further mergers/takeovers between

Leo-Burnett/Masius and Lowes/APL.



What hasn’t changed is that, resting somewhere near the bottom of these

vast piles, are two people, sitting in a room, gazing out of the window,

thinking what to put.



This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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