CAMPAIGN CRAFT: CAMPAIGN CRAFT: Profile; Laissez-faire attitude is the key to Cox’s success

Jim Davies discovers that Tony Cox’s radical style of management really works

Jim Davies discovers that Tony Cox’s radical style of management really


If BMP DDB Needhams’s creative director, Tony Cox, has an ego, he does a

good job hiding it. ‘I’d like to write more ads,’ he says, ‘but I suffer

from a lack of ability. Really. If you’re going to be good at ads, you

have to do them all the time. It’s like a muscle, if you don’t use it

regularly it starts to atrophy.’

This is a somewhat disingenuous observation. As well as pocketing more

than his fair share of awards, Cox is about to celebrate ten years at

the helm of one of the most consistent and lauded creative departments

in the UK (he spent five years in charge at DDB Needham before it merged

with BMP in 1989).

Softly spoken, supremely casual and down to earth, Cox seems to buck all

the stereotypes associated with a person in his position. This could be

because he came into the business relatively late and has a healthy

respect for what goes on outside the ad industry.

Born in London in 1943, he began his career as a secondary school

teacher, before becoming an English tutor at Edinburgh University. (‘I

don’t know whether you could call it a career really,’ he says,

laughing.) Cox became frustrated by academe quite quickly, and went on

to write several plays for BBC Radio.

He then decided to turn his hand to copywriting. Jobs at a succession of

Scottish agencies followed, culminating in his appointment as DDB’s

creative director in 1983.

Cox may be modest about his own achievements, but when it comes to the

agency’s light, you’re far less likely to find him hiding it under a

bushel. ‘We’ve constructed a great body of work that speaks volumes.

It’s the most thrilling thing. And if I do have one strength, it’s that

the work which goes out doesn’t have to be the kind of work that I would

do. I like a lot of different things. So long as it’s well thought

through, crafted and sustainable, I’ll go for anything,’ he says.

BMP’s varied portfolio bears testament to Cox’s words. Its showreel

contains so many ‘campaigns with legs’ you could be forgiven for

thinking you’ve gatecrashed a convention of can-can dancers. A tiny, and

completely random, selection includes: Barclaycard, John Smith’s,

Walkers, the Milk Marketing Board, Sony, Alliance and Leicester and -

undoubtedly the most accomplished of them all - Volkswagen. They are

uniformly memorable, lateral and underscored by a wry, unmistakeably

English humour.

Cox’s personal preference is for what he calls ‘beer and chips’

advertising: ‘Slightly downmarket and vernacular, leavened with wit,

giving it just enough edge to make people notice. That’s the hardest

thing to do. It’s what advertising is - selling things to people.’

When pressed to pick his favourite ad, he plumps for something more

aspirational, ‘God bless the child’, a Tony Kaye-directed spot for the

Volkswagen Passat, which netted a D&AD silver award in 1990. A more

recent contender is a cinema ad for a WEA Records compilation featuring

the Smiths’ classic, Heaven knows I’m miserable now.

Cox’s views on working practices are unorthodox - or should that be

progressive? He believes that the traditional art director or copywriter

unit is a throwback to the halcyon days of press advertising and that at

an agency like BMP - whose output is 80 per cent TV - they are no

longer relevant.

At BMP several creatives work on their own, while teams of up to six are

often pooled to work on more complex vignettes such as the Barclaycard

commercials. Cox eschews the group system favoured at many large

agencies. He espouses a democratic, anarchic, non-hierarchical structure

that he feels creatives respond to more readily.

Of course, he has his secret weapon, 61-year-old executive creative

director, John Webster, on hand. ‘He’s a genius, there’s no doubt about

it,’ says Cox, of the man who blessed advertising with the Smash

Martians, Hofmeister bear and, more recently, the John Smith’s ‘widget’

campaign. ‘I just let him do whatever he wants to... rather like

everyone else.’

Is this the ultimate in laissez-faire management? ‘I see all the work

and, hopefully, I’ll make a few sensible suggestions. Nothing goes out

without my imprimatur - if that’s the right word,’ says Cox. ‘I

sincerely believe we’re the best agency in the world for TV. Maybe we

weren’t last year, and maybe we won’t be next, but over the years we’ve

consistently proved it.’


Become a member of Campaign

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

Become a member

What is Campaign AI?

Our new premium service offering bespoke monitoring reports for your company.

Find out more

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