campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 02 April 2010 12:00AM
WORKING WITH STEVE BY AXEL CHALDECOTT
When we first met each other, a fair few years before we set up HHCL, it seemed like a very natural thing to do to work together.
The headhunter billed him as a bright young thing that was looking for an art director. He had excelled at school, gone to Oxford and could do cryptic crosswords, while I'd scraped through my A levels, gone to art school and struggled to complete any sort of crossword whatsoever. Despite this disparity, we worked together well and we made each other laugh.
Like all creatives entering this business, we learnt our trade by looking back at what others had done, but we weren't reverential. This body of work didn't overawe us. OK, maybe the Benson & Hedges "iguana" cinema commercial was awe-inspiring in a "where did that come from" way. Call it naivety but I'd still like to think that there was an inner confidence in us that there was a lot more we could do on the "where did that come from" front.
Clock wipe to a few years later. By then, we were umbilically attached and were known as "Steve 'n' Ax". So much so that one director actually thought that "Stephen Ax" was one person and was a bit thrown when I was introduced as "Ax" from "Steve'n'Ax".
The Campaign leader when we launched HHCL declared, under the banner "Why greed is a false incentive", that we were too young yet at the same time cynical enough to set up a new agency with the prime intention of just making money. If our sole intention was just to make money, we certainly made it hard for ourselves. In the early years, there were constant rumours of us going bust, which was amusing given how frugal we all were. We only let Rupert (Howell) have his annual membership to Wentworth after years of lobbying.
Some industry luminaries likened HHCL's philosophy to that of punk, claiming that the agency defined itself by opposition, not innovation. We definitely got energy from a wide rung of eclectic influences, but we were not interested in destroying the industry. We were much more interested in re-energising it.
It wasn't long before the body of work the agency had produced stood for something different. Our early work was probably best epitomised by the launch of First Direct, and campaigns for Fuji Film and Healthcrafts.
I remember sitting in a D&AD awards jury looking at all our First Direct work being voted out thinking that either the industry had lost the plot or we had. Given that First Direct is still showcased as a "cool brand" 21 years later, I like to think it was the industry.
The common accusation was that our work was just different for the sake of being different rather than having a commercial purpose.
We'd launched First Direct with a series of 60-second interactive TV ads that could only run a few times a night, which meant that the call centre was inundated with calls, most of which they couldn't answer, while spending the rest of the day twiddling their thumbs.
Rupert and Adam (Lury) came to us with a media plan, which dictated the use of ten-second spots that could run more frequently, allowing the call centre to answer and process a lot more new customers. At first sight, this felt a bit of a come down from the 60 seconds we had been running. To his credit, Steve said: "If we have to do ten-second ads, we'll make them the best ten-second ad campaign ever."
We created 86 different ten-second commercials, some live action and some still frames that distinguished First Direct even more from the competition.
There is nothing more sobering for an advertising person than to be standing with their client in a call centre looking at one's commercial playing out on a large TV and then looking at a giant text ticker screen on which the number of calls coming in is displayed.
The idea that industry people found what we did in some way unpalatable only made us want to do more of it. It also meant that we had a steady stream of potential future employees knocking on our door who had either been rejected by the industry or were disenchanted with the status quo and were all willing to explore new ways of doing work.
After about five or six years, the workload got too much for us to do our own work and oversee other teams' work together, so we split the accounts. We always believed in having a house standard rather than a house style and splitting the accounts helped that end.
The best times were when we took ourselves out of the agency and worked elsewhere, mainly in various hotels around London, and constructed ideas out of random, roaming conversation. Any thought, however silly or profound, seemed worth airing. When we'd come to a natural lull, we'd dip into daytime TV that consisted of dodgy Antipodean and German soaps (Black Forest Clinic, anyone?), while helping ourselves to room service.
What with Steve's excellent command of English (triple first at Oxford), he had the task of somehow typing up ideas from these fractured conversations. He did, however, turn some of them into little gems, capturing some fantastic tones of voice and giving characters wonderful turns of phrase while I munched away on cold club sandwiches.
We hung out in London Zoo once on a drizzly day. In among coming up with ideas, we went to meet the animals. So, there we were surrounded by school kids when an animal keeper was handed a camera to take a photo of this jostling mob. Somewhere, someone will have a photo of a group of kids and a couple of dodgy-looking blokes in cagoules fondling a chimpanzee.
WORKING WITH AXEL BY STEVE HENRY
Ax and I had been working together for about seven years before we set up HHCL. So I had no excuses. I knew what sort of asshole he was. OK, I'm joking. I knew that I was extremely fortunate to be working with one of the nicest people in the industry. Anyone who's ever met Axel will tell you the same thing.
Now, "nice" might seem to be damning with faint praise. But before I go on to mention all his other qualities, it's worth pausing to consider this. Advertising attracts competitive people. You, reading this, will have friends who work for other agencies. The chances are that if they could prise some information out of you to help them win some business off you, they might actually do it. It's not like we're all psychopathic sharks in Boss suits - but it seems to me that there are great advantages to working with somebody in this industry who is as straight, reliable and honest as you could possibly hope for. And that's Ax. In a world of sharks, he's an angel fish.
I was saying to Axel's wife recently how much sheer fun it had been to work with Ax. Forget the leaping intelligence, the brilliant instincts, the encyclopedic knowledge of music, the love of radical thinking, the great people skills - the main thing about working with Ax was that it was a bloody good laugh.
I don't know what Ax did in a previous life - maybe he took a bullet for the Dalai Lama -but in this existence, he seems to spend an incredible amount of time just laughing. And to be in the same office with someone like that is, in itself, a great blessing.
But HHCL wasn't just about having a laugh. It was also about radical thinking and collaboration. On the first topic, we all loved taking risks. But not blind risks - calculated, intelligent risks. At one point, we had five senior planners who had all been previous heads of planning from other agencies. Someone who came for an interview once said they felt like the IQ in the agency was 30 degrees higher than in the street outside.
And Ax was as far away from the stereotypical monosyllabic art director as you could get. He's a hugely intelligent and well-read man.
And in terms of collaboration, we had project teams, hot-desking, tissue meetings etc. (We invented most of them.) But that all needs ... a centre. Without a centre, it's chaos.
Ax and I were that centre - at least for the work. Project teams worked together, they'd come and see us with what they thought was the best answer - but we had the final say.
So a combination of awkward, hard-to-please bastard (me) and charming, hard-to-please nice guy (Ax) worked very well.
The fact that everybody loved Ax used to get to me now and again. I did enjoy the occasional schadenfreude of seeing this effortlessly graceful and elegant man on the rare occasions when he was caught off-guard. We once had to take a factory tour of the Disprin facility, and Ax (with wonderful irony) had the most terrible cold. Every time I caught a look at his red nose and suffering face under the stupid health-and-safety hairnet, I felt immeasurably cheered up.
But if Ax had an Achilles' heel (in among being incredibly good-looking, charming, kind, creative and intelligent), it was the fact that, with a Danish mother, English was his second language. And, occasionally, he would launch an assault upon the English language and have to withdraw in tactical surrender.
So, on one occasion, our head of TV Zoe Bell was left confused when Axel said of a director's reel "We can always ..." and then made a gesture that seemed to make no sense at all. Eventually, it transpired that Axel was trying to point up his own sleeve, hoping to communicate the idea that we could keep that particular reel up our sleeve in case our favourite director wasn't approved. On another occasion, he enquired of me if an actor we were thinking of using was "still dead"?
But it would be hopelessly wrong if I gave the impression that Ax was just a nice guy.
He could make breathtaking leaps of creativity, he was a painstaking and brilliant craftsman and a natural risk-taker. And he didn't just love outsider thinking, he loved outsiders. Early on in the agency's history, a team tipped up for an interview who'd been fired from TBWA and who seemed to be lost and confused. They were a weird combination of aggression and nervousness and, left to my own devices, I probably wouldn't have hired them. But Ax saw something in Trev (Robinson) and Al (Young) that was vindicated a million times over as they wrote brilliant work for us over the next seven years. Ax's instincts are always worth listening to.
How did it work so well between us? Well, we liked each other. Most of the time, it felt more like play than work. Even when things got political in the agency, as they did, as they will always do, Axel was always straight and supportive. He always played a completely straight bat. Which, for a Danish bloke who was sent to English boarding school at the age of seven and who hated cricket with a vengeance, was a hell of an achievement.
But, then again, Axel's been achieving extraordinary things all his life.
He walks vast distances and climbs mountains, he studies extraordinary things, he's curious and super-smart and well-balanced and eternally optimistic. And so multitalented, he could be a one-man agency by himself.
He's a sort of Renaissance man, without any of the Medici-like plotting or game-playing. Makes you sick, really.
But I miss working with him a lot.
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk