Campaign Craft: Profile - Design perfectionist who values the copywriter - Mike Dempsey tackles the topic of creativity with an open mind

He may not be well known to Campaign readers, but Mike Dempsey’s impact on the advertising industry should not be underestimated.

He may not be well known to Campaign readers, but Mike Dempsey’s

impact on the advertising industry should not be underestimated.

This year’s D&AD president takes full responsibility for inventing the

new-style 1997 awards ceremony which takes place at the Odeon Leicester

Square in May.

As president elect last year, Dempsey wrote an impassioned letter to his

peers requesting that dramatic changes be made to the Grosvenor House


’I have taken a gamble by separating the awards from the dinner, but it

just wasn’t working at Grosvenor House,’ he says. ’It is tragic to see

people talking among themselves and only half-clapping the winners.

I know it’s a gamble, and the cinema could end up being a bit clinical,

but everyone can go to the Cafe Royal afterwards and get as drunk as

they like.’

Dempsey has as much reforming zeal as Graham Fink before him, but his

approach is quieter, as befits a man in his 50s. He will preside over

the first interactive media category, and education initiatives will be

high on D&AD’s agenda - it continues to pursue a declared mission to

achieve greater respect for design graduates, even though Dempsey

bypassed all formal education in his chosen field.

Now the senior director of CDT Design, he got his break as a messenger

boy in a commercial art studio in the 60s, making a brave escape from

his Dagenham upbringing and an unhappy spell as a fitter’s mate. ’Alan

Parker started in the same way, but everyone is so qualified these days,

you could never come up by the same route today,’ he concedes.

Dempsey got to the top of the design world through hard work, natural

talent and a few evening classes.

He is credited with revolutionising the design of classical music CD

covers, using beautiful images rather than the traditional orchestra

snapshot, and is also proud of his remarkable work for the English

National Opera and the London Chamber Orchestra.

’If I’ve got an idea to crack, I will take work home or with me on

holiday - no true designer can leave his problems in the office,’ he


Dempsey won’t be leaving his D&AD president’s hat in the office either,

and his ideas for the advertising half of his brief will not be

overshadowed by a bias towards design.

Dempsey loves the world of film, especially the cinema, and is

fascinated by the art of directing. He is overseeing the production of

the third book in the D&AD ’mastercraft’ series, which will look at the

world’s top commercials directors. ’I want to try to get inside the mind

of the director, to find out what makes them tick, what makes them so

individual, and why they made films in a particular way. The book will

include directors from all around the world, but it is remarkable how

many of the best come from this country.’

D&AD’s recognition of advertising talent should also come to the fore

this year. Dempsey thinks it outrageous that no copy or photography made

it into the book last year, and promises that he will do as much as he

can to repair the damage this year, although ultimately the decision

rests with the judges.

Judging is always much harsher in the morning than in the afternoon


’The day starts with a lot of tension in the air, and work is thrown out

at a rate of knots, but after lunch, people are much more laid back,’ he

says. ’At D&AD, the level of judging is placed on such a high altar.

For the book, you are looking to find the best work from the year -

giving awards comes later.’

The copy crisis is especially close to Dempsey’s heart. Designers do a

lot of work on corporate brochures, which are often very poorly written

by the client, with the result that many younger designers have come to

treat copy as merely a set of shapes to play with.

’Words can be even more powerful than pictures, and we must take the

trouble to understand just what copy can do.’ He is referring to the

long-running series of press and poster ads for the Economist by Abbott

Mead Vickers BBDO.

Dempsey, who has been a member of D&AD since 1968, says that it

’represents the very best in the world, in terms of the importance of

the awards’.

However, he is convinced that there is room for change: ’The awards have

been at the Grosvenor House for almost 35 years, because it is the only

place in London that can fit everybody in - that is not a good enough

reason to be there. We have forged a new direction so that we can

applaud each other’s work. D&AD is all about being appreciated, and

that’s what makes creatives shine.’


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