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
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
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
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
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
It was, indeed, a highly literary industry at this point.
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
He and Stephen King personified the belief that an agency could be both
strategically and creatively distinctive. A client didn’t have to
You were expected to enjoy yourself, too. As always, I did my best to
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,
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
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
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
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
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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