Celebrities, musicians, film stars and famous girlfriends – all set against the backdrop of Cool Britannia’s favourite watering hole, the Met Bar. The friendship that grew and was cultivated between Ash Atalla and Mark Whelan sounds like a paean to a certain type of exclusive 1990s culture. Shallow? Taken at face value, then maybe. But it also sounds like immense fun.
Atalla, who found fame as the producer of the Golden Globe-winning series The Office, and Whelan, chief creative officer of Havas UK and founder of creative agency Cake, are sitting in King’s Cross’ Granary Square Brasserie, minutes from both Atalla’s home and Whelan’s office. They are reminiscing about their days as young(ish) blades, cutting swathes through celebrity London. "It’s worth remembering that contrary to the two tired old men you see today, Mark used to be good-looking, and I was in the slipstream," Atalla says.
Through his work matching brands with new, non-traditional ad opportunities at Cake, Whelan found himself on the celebrity and music circuit and, according to Atalla, knew all the doormen in London. Whelan says: "When Cake started we were the first [agency] to go into music. We were the first into Glastonbury; we created headline sponsorship for Reading and Leeds; we did deals with Kylie and Basement Jaxx. There was no previous intersection between advertising and bands – we became a thing in the music industry that they hadn’t seen before. Everyone wanted a bit of that as the music industry realised we were doing things for their artists, so they started coming to our events. For a while I had a famous girlfriend, and the one after that was the manager of the Met Bar."
By their own admission they found many of the situations they found themselves in slightly ridiculous and took pleasure in subverting them. (Unfortunately, they deem some of their stories unsuitable for publication but, if you get a chance, ask one of them about their run-ins with Gordon Brown, Stephen Hawking and Lily Cole.)
Atalla continues: "A central tenet of our relationship was going out. We used to phone each other up the next morning. It was a sort of competition to make each other laugh the most. I absolutely learned from Mark that you can be in a very expensive bar surrounded by beautiful people and not be a dick." Whelan adds: "I never took this shit seriously – never, never, never. Like I’m not now."
In one of those odd twists of fate, the actor Joel Beckett – otherwise known as Lee, the dull and controlling boyfriend of The Office’s receptionist, Dawn – is sitting at a neighbouring table in our restaurant. In true showbiz style, Beckett comes over to greet Atalla warmly.
Beckett, who played only a minor role in the seminal series written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, is among those who have Atalla to thank in large part for their careers. Others such as Martin Freeman and Mackenzie Crook have been more high profile (talk briefly turns to Ewen MacIntosh – the Scotch Egg-scoffing "Big Keith" – whose subsequent enterprises include pub quizzes and hosting discos). Nonetheless, Beckett tells the story of nearly getting into a fight with a famous footballer who "didn’t like his face". Apparently the footballer, who will remain nameless, eventually realised why – he had seen that face before as the third-party obstacle in one of the most touching of TV love stories: that between The Office’s Dawn and Tim.
The relationship between Atalla and Whelan is also affectionate. The pair spark off each other and, beyond their obvious enjoyment of each other’s company, it has resulted in creative collaboration (more on that later). But back to the beginning. The two met when Whelan was having dinner with his then girlfriend – a celebrity he would rather Campaign didn’t name (but anyone who knows anything about Whelan will know that it was Cat Deeley). Atalla was sitting nearby and came over to say hello to Deeley. For comedic purposes, behind Whelan’s back he made the "call me" gesture to her. A friendship – and partnership – was born. "Pre The Office I was just a bald bloke in a wheelchair. After The Office I was alright to know," Atalla jokes.
Both Atalla and Whelan are clearly known at the Granary Square Brasserie. Atalla orders a dirty martini and two olives, while Whelan orders a beer and a tequila chaser with ice and fresh lime. The two chat TV industry tittle tattle, while a BBC employee also fights her way to the table to introduce herself to a somewhat bewildered Atalla. Such attention seems commonplace. "Somewhat recognisable," Whelan says. "Sitting duck," Atalla replies, quick as a flash.
Their friendship is one in which they tend to compete for punchlines. Atalla tells a story about being chastised by his young daughter for buying her a present that came with excess non-recyclable packaging. Jokingly he mocks exasperation, claiming that he "loves plastic". Like a shot, Whelan interjects: "Latex."
The pair’s careers have grown in parallel. Since The Office, Atalla has gone on to produce further comedies, including The IT Crowd, Cuckoo and People Just Do Nothing. He now runs his own production company, Roughcut Television. Whelan, meanwhile, has gone from organising events and bringing Carling to sponsor the Reading and Leeds festivals at Cake, to a key role that sees him try to leverage Havas-owner Vivendi’s other assets – such as Universal Music – for the benefit of brands.
Atalla is now arguably the UK’s most famous TV comedy producer. His career started with a column he wrote for Time Out about his experiences going clubbing in a wheelchair. At the time, he was a stockbroker but "due to not being good at maths, my career was limited". His writing got him noticed in TV circles and he joined consumer affairs programme Watchdog (of all places) to get work experience. He says he worked in the background, sitting at a desk behind presenter Alice Beer listening to people complaining about their dishwashers being potential firetraps. This led to a stint as a researcher on the series Mysteries with Carol Vorderman, where his obvious talent for humour led to a secondment in the comedy department at the BBC.
Despite not knowing Whelan at the time, this was when their paths first crossed – albeit indirectly. The BBC’s head of comedy Jon Plowman put Atalla on a late-night comedy show called Comedy Nation (also a breakout platform for Sacha Baron Cohen and Sally Phillips). At about the same time, Whelan, who was then working at media agency BBJ, pitched a comedy TV series about the Met Bar (natch) to Plowman. "He said he’d commission it as a pilot. But I never heard from him again," he laughs. Whelan was also sharing a flat with Liz Baron Cohen – Sacha’s cousin. "He used to come round and make deeply unfunny jokes," he recalls. "And then five years later: ‘Wait a minute – is that Sacha on the fucking 11 O’Clock Show?" Another person on Comedy Nation was Merchant who introduced Atalla to Gervais, which led to The Office project.
Incidentally, the Met Bar effort was not Whelan’s only attempt at writing a TV comedy. "I came up with a comedy version of [the Fred Dineage-presented educational TV series] How. I pitched a version to Tiger Aspect. And they paid me a development fee for it and I wrote a treatment and two sitcom pilots. It was shit. I wrote another script for an animated series that I sent to [production company] Hat Trick. I got a brilliant reply." Atalla interrupts, joking: "Leave me alone."
But Whelan has played a role in getting comedy on screen. He introduced Atalla to the creators of BBC TV series People Just Do Nothing, which Atalla then produced. It ran for 21 episodes over three years from 2015. The show had started out on YouTube and was spotted by Whelan who sent to Atalla to check it out. While its TV run has ended, People Just Do Nothing is to be turned into a film – and its cast recently appeared in character in a series of Santander ads, created by Engine and produced by Roughcut.
This is where the pair’s personal and professional relationships meet. Cake was an early exponent of branded content and Whelan brought Atalla into a project that he was working on for client Motorola. "When I brought Ash into the first things I was doing, it was admitting that ad people can’t write the same sort of comedy that a comedy writer can. Similarly, I also discovered that comedy writers can’t write a 30-second ad. The first project we collaborated on was for Motorola in 2006 – content was just starting, they were bringing tonnes of products out that did loads of things. Agencies would make a shit ad and a shit product demonstration. So I said: ‘Let’s make a TV show, six minutes long that goes out every week.’"
Atalla adds: "I had just done The IT Crowd, which was a sitcom set in technology, just before that. That’s the important connection. In those days, a brand like Microsoft, once we’d done The IT Crowd, would say, ‘We would have paid for The IT Crowd’, which isn’t that much money to a company that size."
Due to a change in the marketing department, the Motorola project didn’t come to fruition but it has led to other collaborations – not exclusively between Havas, which bought Cake in 2008, and Roughcut, or vice versa, but as pioneers of branded comedic content. These include a QI-style film for Sky for the launch of Sky 3D, with a brief written by Cake, scripted by Roughcut and then recorded by Stephen Fry – it was nailed in one day.
While branded content has evolved since those early days, it has never really enjoyed the mainstream success that both originally envisaged. "Looking back I definitely felt like advertising content was going to be bigger than it became. Everyone [in TV content] was thinking that in five years channels weren’t going to exist and you’d be working for brands like Coca-Cola and IBM all day. But it never really happened. It’s the same with product placement – it never took off in this country," Atalla says.
Whelan thinks that part of the problem has been the quality of much of the output: "I think I’m conscious now, as I then was, that so much shit gets made. Just shit content – filling the world and servers with shit."
It’s a slight frustration for Atalla, and he thinks that, approached appropriately, the opportunities are still there for marketers. "A sitcom [like The IT Crowd] costs, roughly speaking, for six episodes, about £2m. So, depending on the company, that’s a lunch out of their marketing spend. None of it materialised. I get why it didn’t take off – in another world it could have taken off. Marketers automatically think you’re going to make fun of the brand. If a brand had just given me the money for The IT Crowd, it would have been amazing, but they would have wanted to have their products mentioned."
This is why the People Just Do Nothing/Santander tie-up is a good example of client and agency managing to align by entrusting Atalla and its creators with its execution.
But with three films in production and his TV projects, Atalla is busy enough. Money is pouring into TV from the likes of Amazon and Netflix and it’s now attracting the attention of film directors – like Steven Spielberg – who would never previously have been seen as natural competition. Atalla focuses on creating longer-form content, leaving ad agencies to do what they seem best at: short-form ads.
So, with the business chat out the way and the night wearing on, it’s time to reflect on their (considerable) achievements to date. Whelan says: "In my career, my biggest success has been finding the way to integrate a brand’s objectives into entertainment that isn’t awkward or offensive to people; that humans can enjoy being part of. Whether that’s music, TV or a festival or a party. I believe that what we were doing back in the day – and are now doing with Vivendi – is my success. My biggest failure is making a load of things that haven’t landed."
Neatly, Atalla agrees: "Mine is the same as him. In all creative departments we are mostly dealing with disappointments. My biggest success and my biggest failure are exactly the same thing."
But does Atalla regret that channel proliferation has made making a mainstream TV comedy a bit more difficult than it was in the days when he produced The Office, just as landing a hit ad is the same for Whelan?
"I think it’s great as it means you don’t wake up in the morning and think you’re cock of the walk any more… if only I’d known what was around the corner, I’d have enjoyed it more," he laughs.
Going by some of the off-the-record stories, Campaign expects that the enjoyment of both was in direct proportion to their considerable talent.
The Met Bar: rise and fall
Getting papped falling out of the Met Bar wasn’t just a rite of passage for celebrities in the club’s heyday of the late 1990s and early 2000s – it was a cliché.
Having opened as a private members club in 1997 – coinciding with the start of Tony Blair’s tenure as prime minister – it was emblematic of the excesses of this celebrity-obsessed era. Regular guests included doyennes of the Cool Britannia glitterati Kate Moss, Oasis, All Saints and Patsy Kensit.
Located in the Metropolitan Hotel (now the COMO Metropolitan London), it offered views across Hyde Park for those all-night partygoers staggering out into the morning sunlight. But, as Kensit’s music career attests, fashions change. In 2011, the club dropped its hitherto strictly enforced members-only rule, and in May 2018, the Met Bar shut its doors for the final time.