John Meszaros has retired several times. He finally left the world of advertising just three years ago and now lives in a thatched cottage in Northamptonshire. He keeps busy using his recently acquired computing skills to transfer his huge collection of commercials on to disc, while wondering whether to "cobble something together" from 30 years or so of his diaries.
They ought to make interesting reading. Meszaros is one of the more unusual clients of the past few decades. A Hungarian refugee, who went from Welsh miner and Sainsbury's chicken plucker to head the marketing for Volkswagen and Audi, he not only oversaw some of the most famous and effective campaigns of the century but went on to write award-winning advertising himself.
Meszaros came to England in the late 50s as a trainee miner and then took an opportunity during a strike to leave his base in Pontypridd and set out for London.
In 1968, after spells spent as a hotel porter in Baker Street and plucking chickens in a Sainsbury's store, he took a job at VW cleaning cars. Then he was promoted into an office job and in 1975 he was asked if he wanted to do a bit of marketing. "I said 'yes please'," Meszaros remembers.
As the head of marketing for Audi and VW in the UK, Meszaros worked with Bartle Bogle Hegarty and DDB on a number of famous advertising campaigns.
Audi went to BBH as one of its first clients, with Meszaros at the helm, and early on in the relationship the agency came up with the idea that found its way into British culture. The "vorsprung durch technik" campaign was designed to give the brand more German credibility. "After 'bier, bitte', the other German that the English know is vorsprung durch technik," Meszaros says.
He cites VW's famous "reliability" work by DDB, including ads such as "casino", as one of the high points of his career. "I'm very proud that we managed to make a change from the very obvious references to physical reliability and durability to a single thought that 'you can rely on it'."
Meszaros has particularly strong memories of working on VW's "God bless the child" commercial in 1990. "Working with Tony Kaye is an experience to behold."
His own working style has left a few people open-mouthed. He has been described as "flamboyant" and he sees himself as "quite self-opinionated, but I didn't feel I was ever arrogant". When I was a client we treated our agencies as partners and business advisers. We disagreed frequently, we had some really good fights, but we respected each others' views."
Meszaros retired from VW in 1994 after a corporate restructuring. But on the day he was leaving he got a call from the VW factory asking if he could help with the launch of the Golf in Canada. They insisted that his lack of knowledge of the Canadian market didn't matter, so he took the job.
After making a success of the launch in Canada, Meszaros carried on doing consulting and advertising work for the factory, liaising with DDB Germany.
He was urged to be independent. "It was a most peculiar job being able to shout at both of them - like sitting in the middle of a 14-lane highway in a wonderfully comfortable armchair and wondering who the hell was going to run you over."
Then in early 1997, DDB Germany asked him if he'd like to become a creative director on the VW business. He went from gamekeeper to poacher with the sanction of VW and with his second commercial he won a Lion at Cannes. After a couple of years as a creative that were "great fun", he retired for the second time.
The agency then asked him to come back and help with some pitch work and he went on to help develop advertising for Hungary and Italy for a couple of years. "Then I retired again," he says.
After years spent commuting to Germany from his home in England, he is now living a far quieter life. For the past three years he has been practicing Tai Chi to instill a sense of calm. "I have a more relaxed attitude to life," he says.
He still occasionally sees former colleagues from his marketing days.
"I have a huge respect for John Hegarty and a massive regard for Nigel Bogle. Jerry Judge I would always consider to be one of my friends. Tony Cox - I just love the man, he's a lovely, lovely man and a very sensible bloke."
The respect has been mutual. Judge once said of Meszaros: "You couldn't hope for a better client than John. He has a great understanding of the emotional values inside a piece of metal." And Hegarty singled him out from a number of brave BBH clients: "John has the most creative flair of any of our clients. He doesn't just make a commercial judgment, but looks at the ad from a creative point of view. It's a double-edged thing, as we have disagreements, but I have great respect for him."
With his executive days behind him, Meszaros has made it a personal policy not to pass comment on VW work from the comfort of his thatched cottage.
But he does get fed up with many of the ads he sees: "It may be a very grey-haired opinion of current advertising, but I think people are so married to the notion that everything is changing all of the time. They ought not to forget that there is still an underlying nature of mankind that should be serenaded from time to time."
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