It’s not easy to work with Dougal Wilson. Are there tantrums? Never. Is he open and collaborative? Always. Will he give you his all, forgoing sleep, regular meals and weekend skiing trips in Scotland? Undoubtedly.
But the fact of the matter is, Dougal only does three ads a year max. So if you’re going to send him a script, better make it a good one. You see, Dougal is a man of high principles. A fierce defender of the environment, he won’t fly on jobs or touch car commercials or any other sector he believes is contributing to the destruction of the planet.
He also won’t consider a script unless he’s 100% convinced by the purity of the idea. When he commits, you get all of him, to the exclusion of everything else. It’s an exhausting process, so he chooses carefully. Born on the Wirral, Dougal studied physics at Durham University. As his long-term mentor and collaborator James Studholme observes: "He has a brain that’s half-art and half-physics. Warm science!"
I’ve always felt that working with Dougal was like having a brilliant brother who lives in the attic and works away night and day on his ideas. Occasionally, he emerges from his room, unkempt and unslept, clutching a piece of paper. "I’ve cracked it!" he cries but, before anyone can say anything, he screws it up. "You’re right, it’s rubbish," he mutters and disappears back upstairs to improve the already wonderful concept.
At uni, Dougal helped create posters for plays and other campus events, and this led him to eschew the laboratory in favour of a copywriting job at Leith in Edinburgh. There he built a portfolio of work for clients such as Irn-Bru and Tennent’s lager. He also began to direct music videos for friends’ bands and it wasn’t long before he had a showreel. It found its way to Studholme at Blink, who was convinced immediately. "It was ultra-low-budget, scatalogical wonderfulness, mostly comedy, but the thing that struck me was all the ideas were really clear and strong," he says. "I had absolutely no doubts and phoned Dougal immediately, telling him to come to London and start directing full time. It was love at first sight."
And so it began. In a quiet, unassuming way, Dougal started to conquer the world of commercials. At first, he tackled a big range of stuff, particularly quite techniquey things. The promo for Benny Benassi’s Satisfaction and the paper-animated Orange campaign were early hits but his real breakthrough came with the wonderful
Orange "Dance" for Mother. It was this piece that showed the world that Dougal could do that rarest of things: put genuine emotion into film. Music videos for Coldplay, Goldfrapp, The Streets and others followed.
My personal journey with Dougal began in 2010, when he made "Always a woman" for John Lewis. We wanted to make something that was driven by technique but that ultimately delivered emotion and a human story. Dougal plotted the whole thing out in the top room at Blink, with my Adam & Eve/DDB colleagues Ben Tollett and Emer Stamp uncomfortably playing the parts of the married couple as they go through life. It came out perfectly and the public fell in love with the ad.
"The long wait" Christmas ad for John Lewis was next and it’s my favourite of the films we’ve made with him. I remember Dougal explaining to me that we simply had to cast our little boy in Scotland. I couldn’t understand why. Then he explained: "I want a kid who’s been to stage school, who’s durable, can work a long day and hit his mark. If he’s from a London stage school, he’ll be ruined and probably called Tarquin. If he’s from Scotland, he’ll be a real kid, with a real family."
Again, the film came out just as we wanted. Dougal has a good heart and believes in people. You can see that in his work. He’s not trying to be cool or clever, he’s just telling the story the best way it can be told. We have now made seven John Lewis ads with Dougal, including "The journey", "Tiny dancer" and "Monty the penguin". Each one has been a total pleasure. In that time, he’s also made the very wonderful St John Ambulance "Tree", Ikea "Playin’ with my friends", Lurpak "Adventure awaits", Three "The pony" and many more.
Music is a huge part of Dougal’s work and his life. He collects 80s and 90s keyboards and plays keyboards in the magnificent, if only occasional, covers band Philthy Collins.
When I finally hang up my advertising boots and look back on my career, my fondest memories will be of working with Dougal. Watching a man with an abundance of talent but an absence of ego, pouring himself into his work and letting the quality of that dictate the way the world sees him.
I believe everyone should work with Dougal at least once in their career. It’s good for the soul. It will reaffirm your belief in humanity and rekindle your love of ideas. All you need now is that script. Good luck.
Ben Priest is the founding partner and chief creative officer at Adam & Eve/DDB