After seven tough months, K’s young chief is winning plaudits.
Picture this: London’s youngest creative director takes charge at an
agency in some considerable disarray, and is immediately embroiled in a
bitter row over plagiarism on a high-profile account.
Now fast forward six months to when K Advertising’s Keith Courtney
sweeps the board at the Campaign Press Awards, winning Best Individual
Advertisement, and making four further trips to the podium (Campaign,
last week). Better - the campaign that is honoured, for Pentax cameras,
is the very same series that provoked the earlier controversy. If it
were a soap-opera plot, it would be rejected for being too contrived.
For Courtney it’s just another step in a seemingly irresistible rise
since the one false turning in his short career, a stint at Lowe Howard-
Spink, came to an abrupt end 18 months ago.
Alfredo Marcantonio served as chairman of the Press Awards judging panel
and stresses that the Pentax series was a clear winner. ‘But of course
there was some debate on the jury because of all the gossip saying that
other people had done the ad. And because it’s quite a straightforward
idea we decided that someone may well have put the ad up at some point,
but at the end of the day no-one had ever got the ad made or got a
client to agree to what was actually quite a daring concept before.’
Courtney’s former boss at KHBB, as it then was, Barbara Nokes, takes up
the story. ‘When the Pentax work first broke I was thrilled by the work
but appalled by the drama that blew up around it - it almost seemed as
if they were out to get Keith. The truth of the matter is that we had
pitched the idea to Pentax a week before I invited a couple of students
in to look at their work and saw that they had exactly the same idea.’
Whatever the details of the affair, there’s little doubt that the
eloquent Courtney was perfectly able to stand up for himself as the
controversy raged. His first job in advertising, after all, was at Gold
Greenlees Trott, courtesy of Dave Trott.
‘I’m sure GGT was the making of both Keith and his then partner Paul
Diver,’ says the J. Walter Thompson copywriter, Jim Ferron, who studied
with both at art school in Belfast, ‘because it was so tough and Trott
was so demanding but at the same time it was a great place to learn. It
made them both equipped to handle things.
‘But then Keith is a pretty extreme character anyway. I can remember him
setting up aÿ20punch-bag in a flat we used to share in Kensal Green, and
he would just beat seven bells out of it. He carried on until the
landlord came round and made him take it down because huge cracks were
developing in the ceiling, and the whole place was in severe danger of
Courtney spent a little over two years at GGT, and graduated to work on
the Toshiba account, producing the ‘thingummybob’ commercial and
receiving two D&AD nominations, all the time thinking that Trott had
only hired him because he ‘wasn’t yet another kid from the East End’.
‘They had a good book, and came very much as a team,’ Trott, now a
partner at Walsh Trott Chick Smith, recalls. ‘But the thing I really
liked about them was that they were so different. Paul was the Irish
Catholic poet from Derry and Keith was the hard-working Protestant
dedicated type from the Shankhill. He was good, of course, but he stood
out as a hard worker.
‘The other thing that amazed me was that although they’d been to art
college together in Belfast and seemed to get on well at the agency, and
in this country, they couldn’t go out for beers together back in
Ireland, because of the political situation there.’
Courtney and Diver were both loyal to Trott, and when he was forced out
of GGT, waited two months before jumping ship to the then home for GGT
refuseniks, Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow and Johnson, where the
partnership broke up. There was a D&AD silver for work on Nike,
including the ‘It’s not the winning it’s the taking apart’ campaign.
Then three years at WCRS, where Courtney worked on Carling Black Label,
but ended up as a part of what was essentially a pitch team, before he
skipped to Lowes as a board director.
‘It was only a matter of time before he was creative director,’
remembers his former partner at WCRS and Simons Palmer, Sean Doyle, now
at Leagas Delaney. ‘He was always very keen to ‘get on’, to move up the
ladder. He also has a flair for thinking visually. And it’s a good job
he has because I remember when we worked together he had difficulty
spelling words as basic as ‘has’ and ‘were’.’
Lowes was not a happy experience. A new partnership never gelled, and
after a year he left the agency to freelance, joining K Advertising
almost exactly a year ago as its three senior managers were planning a
buyout from the parent group, Cordiant.
In fact the deal stumbled and two of the three protagonists, the
managing director, Graeme Arkell, and the creative director, Barbara
Nokes, left. A month later, in August, the head of art, Peter Harold,
resigned, blaming the political in-fighting at the agency. The 29-year-
old Courtney, meanwhile, applied to the chief executive, Hamish Pringle,
for the creative directorship vacated by Nokes.
‘After all the management buyout drama had collapsed, Hamish rang me up
and said that Keith had applied for the creative director’s job and what
did I think,’ Nokes recalls. ‘I said that he was talented and
enthusiastic, but also rather young and that for him to succeed at the
job would depend on him being surrounded by a certain amount of older,
strategic talent. So I was delighted when I heard he had got the job.’
At the end of the year the agency was relaunched as K Advertising, and
worringly started to talk about ‘creative efficiency’ without ever
really being able to explain what it meant by the term.
The agency’s work was another story. In addition to the Pentax press
campaign, there was a memorable pre-Christmas ad for Carlsberg Pilsner
and a distinguished new film for Commercial Union.
‘It does seem as though we are starting to turn the corner, and we’ve
had good feedback on both of those campaigns,’ Courtney says. ‘It’s
great when you do something that pleases you and sells more stuff.
That’s one thing I learned at GGT. Art is art and advertising is
something else entirely.’ This from a former Fine Art student whose
finals work was bought by the Ulster Museum.
There is still a long way to go if K is to put all its troubles behind
it, as Courtney is quick to acknowledge, but a hatful of awards is no
bad place to start. And, of course, there is the danger that Courtney
might want to start a collection of them. ‘I have a room at my house
that I call the sad room,’ he says, ‘where I put all the things that I
At the moment it contains an exhaustive array of arcane film
memorabilia, old toys and autographed photographs. There’s Elvis Presley
and three of the four Beatles. Not Paul McCartney, incidentally, which
many music buffs might consider a blessing, but not, alas, Courtney. And
since a single autographed picture of the Beatles together, for example,
might cost pounds 3,000, furnishing the sad room is no cheapskate design
option. He might need to keep winning awards just to keep him in the
autographical style to which he has become accustomed.
But then Courtney’s come a long way in a remarkably short time. ‘I
remember when we first moved to London after Belfast and we lived in
Stratford in the East End.
Now Belfast at the time wasn’t exactly a picnic, but that place used to
terrify me. I had to run home from the tube.’
He now lives in Belsize Park, which doesn’t require quite the same speed
off the blocks out of the Underground, but amid all the euphoria of last
week, the congratulations and the backslapping, Courtney had one
regrettable announcement to make - Dandy, his dog and the star of one of
the Pentax ads, had unfortunately passed on.