Karen Yates chews the fat with Mike Court about his circuitous path to Burkitts
‘Hang on a minute and I’ll tell you exactly,’ Mike Court says, diving
behind the sofa on all fours. We are at his flat in Maida Vale and I’ve
just asked him when he got the call from Paul Twivy, proposing they set
up an agency together.
Court reigned as the mercurial, talented, young creative director of
that agency, Still Price Court Twivy D’Souza, one of London’s hottest
hotshops, for five years. It wasn’t his first big job in advertising and
it won’t be the last - Court started as creative director of Burkitt
Edwards Martin on Monday (Campaign, last week) - but it is the time of
his life when most pundits agree he was in his element.
Court himself is disarmingly enthusiastic about those times. But then,
he’s disarmingly enthusiastic about almost everything in advertising.
Five seconds later he reappears triumphantly, clutching his diary from
11 years ago: ‘Saturday 24 November, 1984,’ he reads, ‘got an amazing
phone call from Paul Twivy’.
Back to the present. The calls of congratulation about his new job come
flooding in as we chat. And the list reads like a Who’s Who of
advertising: Twivy himself, Malcolm Gaskin, Canna Kendall, and all in
only half an hour.
Court loves it. And what all his friends hope, according to Twivy, is
that Burkitt Edwards Martin will be the right place for him at last.
Somewhere he will find the space to use his own peculiar gifts in his
own peculiar way as he did at Still Price.
Court has made a name for himself on several fronts during his 18 years
in advertising. He is best known, perhaps, as a master of ‘intelligent,
common-touch advertising’. How many people, for example, still remember
the Red Mountain coffee ads, where a string of hapless hosts make
coffee-brewing noises to fool guests into thinking they were being
served percolated coffee? And what about that pithy endline? ‘Great
coffee without the grind.’
It was this ability to distil hours of brain-raking ideas into one
simple line, encapsulating both the tone and positioning of a product,
that sticks in the minds of Tony Malcolm and Guy Moore. Malcolm and
Moore, now joint creative directors of Collett Dickenson Pearce, worked
for Court for two years at Still Price.‘As a creative, he puts most
planners to shame,’ Moore observes.
But he did have a darker side. He and his partner of many years, Logan
Wilmont, were acknowledged as brilliant. But things were tough if Court
was in a black mood, and if Wilmont was too, well...
Twivy, who claims that he and Court had the best relationship in
advertising at Still Price, has this to say: ‘When he’s on form, he
lights up a room. But when he’s not, he hurts people.
‘He needs to be loved and cuddled and if he isn’t he becomes melancholy
and destructive.’ ‘He’s a real character,’ Malcolm adds. ‘It’s great to
see a character back in advertising.’
Which brings us to the second thing Court has a name for - being a party
animal. Someone who could be impressing a client at the bar one moment
and sending a bunch of old ladies into gales of giggles the next.
‘He can mingle with anyone,’ Twivy says. ‘He’s a social chameleon and
can be extraordinarily charming.’
And so he can. Court smiles frequently and has the gift of appearing
interested in whoever he is talking to. He’s back. The world is his
oyster. The Pinot Grigio is open, and he’s ready to talk about
Court says he had two or three different lives before even thinking of
advertising. He lied about his qualifications at the age of 16 to become
a chef. ‘They showed me an Aga and I nodded,’ he says, ‘but I couldn’t
even lift the lid on the thing.’ After that, he joined an acting troupe
in Folkestone. ‘I know every walk-on part in Agatha Christie,’ he jokes.
Finally, he went to Oxford University, emerging with ‘a very average’
2:1, to try his hand at advertising.
Hugh Burkitt, now chairman of Burkitt Edwards, offered him his first job
at Wasey Campbell-Ewald, which Court, with characteristic chutzpah,
turned down in favour of a role in Leo Burnett’s media department.
However, six weeks of poring over costs per thousand persuaded Court
he’d made a mistake and he was soon back with Wasey Campbell as a junior
account trainee. After a while he switched to the creative side and
after two-and-a-half years moved to Foote Cone and Belding, where he won
his first award - for a London Underground poster.
Court’s manner is frank and his lively conversation peppered with
enviable one-liners. He has always known it was time to move, he says,
by the time that the third Christmas card comes around. So it was after
two-and-a-half years that Court moved on to Lowe Howard-Spink and after
another two and a half that he found himself joining TBWA.
Here, the chain was broken. Only six months into the job, he got the
call from Twivy, and Still Price was born.
The agency’s start was inauspicious, with 14 people herded into a
windowless room. It was so cold that Court had to type out his first
copy, a house ad, with gloves on. The ad itself, which bore the line:
‘Who in their right minds would turn down a chance to work at Saatchis?’
won him a court order from Saatchi and Saatchi.
However, the moment was theirs. Chemistry between the five founders was
right and Still Price won a gold lion at Cannes in its first year. It
was the beginning, as Court himself describes it, of the ‘five glorious
years’, before Still Price sold out to Lintas in 1989.
I had been told to expect a larger-than-life character; moody perhaps,
but a bundle of energy and no stranger to the bottom of a glass. It’s
certainly true that he is never still. Fiddling with a cigarette,
pouring more wine, jumping up to answer the phone. But there is an
understated elegance about the man and his flat that comes as a
Almost soberly dressed in black and white, Court looks close to the man
you could take home to mother. The bottle of Pinot Grigio is nearly
finished. Now is perhaps the time to ask how the 39-year-old Court keeps
so svelte, given his twin passions of partying and going on ocean
‘Well,’ and there’s a pause for a long drag on a cigarette, ‘I hate
exercise and I hate vegetables.’ He concedes, however, that like Oscar
Wilde’s Dorian Gray, there is probably a portrait of him somewhere that
is taking all the real punishment.
To return to the present, the wad of cash he received as his share of
the Still Price sell-out meant Court could pay off his mortgage and was
under no real pressure to go back to work. Nevertheless, he spent three
years at Young and Rubicam. Court says little about those years, but
others guess they were not the happiest of his life, ending, as they
did, with a big row with Wilmont.
Jerry Judge, chief executive of Lowes, was witness to some of Court’s
darkest moments at Y&R, but still has little other than praise for him:
‘Mike thinks I didn’t like him. I didn’t particularly dislike him - he’s
a very sensitive bloke.’
Judge goes on to talk about Court’s fantastic ability to work under
pressure, but also his tendency to ‘trip over his own feet’ and to
imagine things that aren’t true and let them take over his life.
Since he left Y&R two years ago, Court has been, well, going on cruises,
and has just come back from his 67th. So, why has he decided to emerge
from retirement for Burkitt Edwards?
Because, he says, something exciting began to happen when Edwards Martin
Thornton and Burkitt Weinreich merged. Both agencies had been around for
a while, but the thing only began to take off once they joined forces,
‘What appeals to me,’ he concludes, sounding nothing like the renowned
party animal, ‘is that they seem to be a unified bunch of nice people.’