Close-Up: Profile - From Adam's Ant to award-winning ad director

Danny Kleinman is a crazed shaman who cultivates sweet peas when he's not busy making commercials.

Let's get the surprising bit out of the way first. Danny Kleinman used to be in Adam and the Ants. Not long enough to get a namecheck along with Marco, Merrick and Terri Lee in Ant Rap, nor to fop around World's End in a pirate suit, but he still gets a call from his mates now and again, telling him he's just been on Top of the Pops 2.

One of Britain's best commercials directors, Kleinman doesn't have an ounce of pop-star petulance. He is what John O'Keeffe, the Bartle Bogle Hegarty executive creative director, describes as: "That rare thing - utterly modest and totally brilliant." The chairman of TBWA\London, Trevor Beattie, goes further: "Don't be fooled. Behind that local branch manager's demeanour lurks the mind of a crazed shaman. Danny makes magic, it's as simple as that. He should think himself lucky he wasn't born in the Middle Ages, because he'd have been executed for witchcraft." The British Television Advertising Awards seem to agree although possibly not on the magic level.

Two nights ago, he was handed the coveted Chairman's Award.

Kleinman met Stuart Goddard, as he was before he took on his Ant moniker, at art school in the early 70s. And it was music, not art, that got him into making videos in the early 80s. He'd done an animated film at college: a two-term stop-frame effort, which the processing lab promptly lost.

Disheartened, he vowed to stick to illustration - everything from book covers to portraits of stars such as John Carradine for those less fleshy features in top-shelf magazines of the 70s.

He supplemented the small income he made from his labour-intensive illustrations by helping out an old friend, the director Steve Barron, who'd just started making music videos. "He used to take me out for a curry and get me to do his storyboards and come up with ideas," Kleinman says. "That's how I got involved in film-making."

Joining Limelight, Barron's production company, Kleinman made a tentative move into directing music videos. His first was for Heaven 17's Crushed by the Wheels of Industry, his second, for Thomas Dolby's Hyperactive.

That one won him a clutch of awards. Kleinman is modest to a T. "It was kind of OK, but I didn't really know what I was doing," he says. Not that his lack of experience hampered him: "The record companies didn't understand film all that much; the fact that the videos were quite ham-fisted didn't matter much if the idea was fresh."

After spending most of the 80s directing a string of music videos and live concerts, Kleinman began to grow tired of music towards the end of the decade. "Videos were brilliant to learn the craft but I did them for too long. Limelight started doing ads in the late 80s and I started doing a few commercials and realised I really enjoyed them," he says.

He can't remember his first ad - perhaps something for Maltesers, but it could equally have been a make-up ad for the US, one which followed the script of one of his music videos.

Kleinman's apparently effortless rise to the top belies a fierce work ethic combined with a dogged refusal to get precious about what he does for a living. "I suppose I just crack on and do the best work I can," he says. "Because I'd done music videos, I'd tried lots of different things, so I didn't just do great photography or special effects. There aren't many directors who people feel confident using for any type of commercial."

If there was a tipping-point, it was beer that pushed him into the A-list of directors. "I was working steadily doing stuff and winning a few awards, but then I did two or three ads in a row which did very well - the first Boddingtons one with Melanie Sykes, and then a John Smith's one with Jack Dee. After those two, people started to send me higher-profile stuff."

His reel remains nothing if not eclectic. From James Bond title sequences dripping with digital effects, through Peter Kay-fronted comedy spots for John Smith's to pastiches of pretentious perfume ads for Boddingtons, it's hard to find a common thread to Kleinman's work. Last year, he directed a chilling spot for the NSPCC, an immense effects job for Johnnie Walker and a string of skewed wildlife documentary-styled films for PlayStation 2.

He's slightly resentful, though, of the idea that this kind of work is now handed to him or a coterie of other top-name directors on a plate.

"I pitch really hard on stuff, and I don't get everything I go for," he states.

He accepts that he's one of a group of directors who get to look at more scripts than others, but counters that that's because they have a history of doing good work. "Besides, the best directors in the UK do all the pre-production, editing and post, so they can't do more than around seven jobs a year. So if you've got a top ten doing seven jobs each, that's only 70 ads. I don't know how many ads get produced a year, but it's more than that, so somebody's doing all the other work," he reasons, although he accepts that the industry seems more risk-averse at the moment, particularly when it comes to betting on new talent. "A shame. I love it when somebody new does something brilliant and ups the ante - it can only be good for everyone."

Kleinman, though, works alone and doesn't want any additional names on his roster. He's done his stint as a company boss - at Spectre, then Large - and didn't like it. "I'm not a great business mind. I always liked the idea of other people dealing with the business side - but nowadays, you can't be that hands-off . Making enough money out of a production company to pay everyone's wages is hard bloody work - the margins are tight."

When pressed for more than a one-liner to describe the director, O'Keeffe says Kleinman confounds expectations. "If you'd never met him, you'd think he's good, but very precious and unattainable. When he walks in, he's totally normal, one of those people who are so good they don't need to prove anything," he says. Kleinman's hobbies are restrained for a man at the sharp edge of commercials. He paints, draws and tends his vegetable plot. This year, he's thinking about entering his sweet peas into a local competition. "I like the anorak nature of it - it's very precise," he says, explaining how the plants must all have five blooms to a stem, all facing the same direction. Are prizes important to him?

"They're not important, but they're nice. It's easy to pooh-pooh them, but the fact that other people pat you on the back when you've done something that's half-decent is nicer than a kick up the arse."

THE LOWDOWN

Age: 49

Lives: West London

Family: wife Judy, two dogs, Kitty and Art

Favourite ad: Stella Artois "last requests"

Describe yourself in three words: slaphead with glasses

Greatest extravagance: fancy wine, strong aspirin

Most admired agency: I can't choose, they are all so wonderful

Living person you most admire: Steve Reich

Motto: DYB, DYB, DYB

Topics

Become a member of Campaign from just £46 a quarter

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to campaignlive.co.uk ,plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a member

Looking for a new job?

Get the latest creative jobs in advertising, media, marketing and digital delivered directly to your inbox each day.

Create an Alert Now

Partner content

Share

1 Why creative people have lost their way

What better way to kick off the inaugural issue of Campaign's monthly print offering than with another think piece on the current failings of our industry, written by an embittered, pretentious creative who misses "the way things used to be"...

Share

1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).