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
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
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
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.’