Close-Up: Live issue - An iconic agency at the very height of its power

In his new book on the golden age of advertising, Sam Delaney meets the men behind two of CDP's most influential ads.

Collett Dickenson Pearce in the late 70s was the best ad agency to work at in the world. Amid a climate of hedonistic behaviour, overseen by its young managing director, Frank Lowe, the CDP team created one revered campaign after another: from Cinzano to Hamlet to Heineken. And in the space of one month in 1980, it proved that its standards weren't about to slip. Together with Hugh Hudson, Paul Weiland and Alan Waldie, Lowe was about to produce two seminal commercials that would set the advertising tone for the next decade.

Waldie was CDP's star art director. His industry-wide reputation was built in equal parts upon creative flair and personal intemperance. But when Lowe had a difficult new brief from Benson & Hedges, Waldie was the obvious man to turn to. "The Government wouldn't ban cigarette ads, but they kept restricting what we could and couldn't show in them," Lowe says. "I went to Alan and said: 'We've got to do something that nobody will understand. Because if they can't understand it, they can't object to it.'"

Waldie, who liked to spend most of his time wrestling with tricky briefs in a nearby pub, The Carpenter's Arms, eventually managed to concoct a new idea for B&H. "I'd been struggling for months when Frank stormed into my office and said: 'What the bloody hell is going on Waldie?' So I presented him with the ideas I'd drawn up and he fell silent for a while." Waldie presented a series of surrealist images: a mouse hole, a birdcage, some egg shells and a sardine can. The distinctive B&H gold box was the only feature that linked the wordless posters. Lowe was astounded and sold it immediately to the client.

The management at Gallaher was pleased with Waldie's idea and demanded an audience with the creative maestro. In advance of the meeting, Waldie was warned that one of the Gallaher party had an uncommonly large nose - which wasn't a subject for polite conversation. He agreed not to mention the nose as long as the meeting took place at The Carpenter's Arms. By the time the clients arrived at the pub, Waldie was drunk, and greeted the large-nosed client from across the bar with the words: "Would you like me to scratch the end of your nose? It's much nearer to me than it is to you!" The CDP account executives cringed, but Waldie wasn't finished. Soon he had swaggered up to the unfortunate client, grabbed him by his protruding facial appendage and beamed: "I'm Alan Waldie, pleased to meet you!"

Despite such diplomatic disasters, the campaign flourished and B&H ordered a cinema commercial. "I decided the best way to handle a cinema ad was to translate the posters directly on to film," Waldie says. "We knew we wanted to start with this image of a swimming pool in the middle of the desert and end with a shot of one of the posters outside Battersea Power Station. Everything we made up in between was hokum pokum." Hudson was hired to direct.

Lowe took the idea to Gallaher and negotiated a record budget for a commercial. "The scale of the shoot was immense and the budget worked out to about £10,000 a day - a huge amount back then," he says. Before long, their brave investment seemed doomed. "We'd chosen Arizona as the location, partly because we'd been told it never rained there," Lowe says. "But on our first morning, it rained so hard it flooded our bedrooms." Trapped in their hotel by the flood, shooting the commercial was out of the question. "We waited a week for the rain to clear up, but it never did," Waldie says. "People were starting to say: 'Let's pull the plug and go home. We've had enough.' But Frank said: 'Bollocks! We've already spent twice the budget. We'll sort this out. Nobody is leaving!'"

The finished ad was epic in scale, lavishly styled and ostensibly devoid of meaning. But it was so striking to cinema audiences across Britain that they applauded whenever it was shown. At the 1980 D&ADs, it won a gold Pencil. That year, the ceremony was presented by Michael Parkinson, who told Waldie as he arrived on stage to accept his award: "You might as well stay up here because you've won the next one, too!" By the time Waldie had finished collecting his slew of awards for "swimming pool", the audience was chanting his name like a football crowd.

Shortly after the Arizona shoot, Hudson and Lowe flew to Turin to make an equally spectacular film. The product was the new Fiat Strada; CDP's youngest copywriter Weiland had been briefed to make a two-minute commercial to fill the entire break during News at Ten. "I'd seen some footage of the Fiat production line on Tomorrow's World," he says. "The machines that built the cars looked quite balletic and I thought we could set their movements to classical music. I chose Rossini's Figaro - simply because it rhymed with 'Ritmo', the original name of the car."

The team arrived in Turin to shoot at Fiat's car plant, only to find the workers on strike and the factory closed. "That very week, the Red Brigade had shot and killed the director of marketing on the steps of Fiat HQ," Lowe says. "The unions were surrounding the factory and we couldn't get in. We had a whole crew sitting doing nothing in the hotel and it felt like Arizona all over again." Hudson saw an irony in their predicament: "We were there to make a commercial with the slogan 'Hand-built by robots'. And the workers were striking in protest against the robots taking their jobs." But Lowe was in no mood for sympathising with the workforce: "I said: 'What we'll do is fly over the top of the picket line in a helicopter.' I had no choice."

Eventually, the crew managed to get into the factory and start filming. But as the union officials began to realise what the team of Brits were doing, tensions erupted. "The picket line started to burn tyres outside the factory and it started to feel dangerous," Weiland says. "Hugh was filming the machines painting the cars with a handheld camera. He was under immense pressure because we had to get the shots quickly and get out of there."

The resulting film was a resounding success. "When I presented it to the client a few weeks later in Venice, he burst into tears and threw his arms around me," Lowe says. "I think it was relief." Lowe spent yet more money on buying an entire two-minute ad break in which to run the commercial. It won a gold Pencil at D&AD the following year and the Grand Prix at the Cannes Advertising Festival. Ultimately, however, the Fiat Strada was not a huge success. "It wasn't a very good car," Lowe reasons.

Within the space of two months, CDP had produced two of the era's defining commercials. John Webster, the creative director of BMP, whose ads were the creative antithesis of such epics, was amazed. "The swimming pool commercial was one of my favourites of all time," he said. "They were really starting to make a whole new style of advertising at that time." Within the next 12 months, Lowe and Waldie would have left CDP, Weiland had turned his attentions to directing and Hudson was an Oscar-winning movie director. But the legacy of their visually spectacular, dialogue-free commercials would live on in the British ad break forever.