THE FACE THAT LAUNCHED A THOUSAND CAREERS: What lies behind Arnold Pearce’s decision to set up a production company after 40-plus years in agencies? Claire Cozens finds out why he has finally decided to turn talent-spotter in his own right

Arnold Pearce never wanted to be a producer. He fell into advertising with the intention of becoming a famous director after a condition in his mother’s will ruled out his chosen career - acting.

Arnold Pearce never wanted to be a producer. He fell into

advertising with the intention of becoming a famous director after a

condition in his mother’s will ruled out his chosen career - acting.

More than 40 years on, Britain’s best-known commercials producer has

finally got around to leaving agency life. He has set up his own

production company, New Directions, not to direct, but to concentrate on

what seems to have become his trademark skill - discovering people. The

list of ’Arnold’s babies’, which includes Ridley and Tony Scott, Adrian

Lyne and Tony Kaye, will, he hopes, one day contain some of his current


Pearce’s advertising career began in 1954 when, after his mother’s

death, he decided to leave his native South Africa for England. ITV was

just setting up and he had decided to try to get a job as a television


He had done some theatre directing in South Africa and decided that if

he could not act, directing would be the next best thing.

’There was a shortage of television directors and ITV was retraining

people from the theatre. But I didn’t get in,’ he says.

A friend suggested he try to get into advertising as a director and move

into television from there. So he placed an ad in the personal columns

of the Times which read, Ex Africa aliquid novi - out of Africa always

something new - followed by a short CV. ’I went and bought 17 copies and

sent the cutting to the managing directors of the top 17 agencies with a

note saying, ’I think you have missed something.’’

The move paid off and Pearce landed his first job in advertising, as a

casting director at Lambe and Robertson. The following year, he moved to

SH Benson, which in those days had the largest and best television

department in London. He stayed for nearly ten years before Benson

decided it was overstaffed and fired half the department.

’I panicked,’ Pearce says. ’When a friend asked if I wanted to go to

Lintas I took it straight away, although I didn’t really want to.

Bensons was arty, you see, and Lintas did all the Unilever stuff - lots

of fish finger commercials.’

Nevertheless, it was at Lintas that Pearce produced some of his most

memorable ads. A few favourites are Tony Scott’s take on Butch Cassidy

and the Sundance Kid for Wall’s Cider Gold ice-lolly and Adrian Lyne’s

Flora margarine commercial comparing the mechanisms of a watch with a

heart, which won a gold lion at Cannes in 1972. And, of course, the

famous ’O sole mio’ campaign for Wall’s Cornetto, which gave rise to

possibly the best-known Arnold Pearce story.

One of the Cornetto commercials was being shot in the centre of Rome;

the streets had been blocked off and the cameras were just about to roll

when Pearce ran on set shouting: ’I’m very worried about my nuts.’

In spite of such idiosyncrasies, Pearce rose through the ranks at Lintas

to become head of TV. ’It became more and more difficult to leave,’ he

says. ’I was married, had children, got a mortgage - and I was doing

quite well.’

It wasn’t really what he wanted to do. ’Being head of TV was all about

hiring and firing and worrying about money.

I didn’t really enjoy that,’ Pearce says. But he never quite got around

to leaving until, after 20 years at the agency, he was ousted to make

way for a younger generation.

Then came the Saatchi years. When he left Lintas, Pearce was already on

the wrong side of 50 and finding another job was never going to be easy.

But his old friend, Paul Arden, then art director at Saatchi & Saatchi,

stepped in with the offer of a job at the agency in 1984, at the height

of the Saatchi brothers’ success.

During his 14 years at Saatchis, Pearce produced the ’It is - are you?’

launch campaign for the Independent newspaper, the D&AD award-winning

Red Star films and the InterCity ’relax’ films, directed by Tony Kaye -

a campaign that won 18 awards in a single year.

He was also instrumental in finding new talent for the agency, and was

heavily involved in the New Directors Showcase run by Saatchis and shown

at Cannes. This year, he gave a series of talks which he called ’New


When Saatchis finally got rid of Pearce this year (’they retired me,

then changed their minds then fired me again,’ he tells me resignedly),

it was Arden who again came to the rescue, coming up with the idea of

setting up a talent-finding company and offering to back it through

Arden Sutherland-Dodd, the production company he runs with his partner,

Nick Sutherland-Dodd.

The venture seems to have given Pearce a new lease of life. Being ousted

from a third consecutive agency would be a knock to anyone’s ego and

Pearce’s seems particularly fragile. But given that he is pushing 70,

Pearce is hardly the obvious choice to launch a company, least of all

one based on youth and innovation.

’Maybe I am trying to prove something - that although I’m old, I can

still lead the agency world by the nose and say, ’these are the people

you should be looking at,’’ he says. ’But I’m very excited. You feel

when you get older that people don’t want you around any more - you’ve

been around for too long. But now, all of a sudden, they’re the old ones

and I’m new. I’ve got fresh ideas.’

The brief Pearce has given himself is to find people that other people

haven’t heard of. They will be mostly, but not necessarily, young and,

most importantly, will not have directed a commercial.

So far, he has found two directors plus a possible third. One, Julian

Dickinson, is a designer working at Lowe Howard-Spink. Another is Stuart

Sugg, who recently made his directorial debut with Fast Food, a film

Pearce describes as ’a combination of charm and beauty and violence -

sort of Tarantino meets Danny Boyle’. And the possible third is a

documentary-maker who approached Pearce after reading an article about

New Directions.

Pearce is also keen to attract someone from an agency, who could bring a

bit of work. Another idea, which came to him while flicking through

copies of Food Illustrated, is to hire a stills photographer. He

observes that while food is brilliantly shot for stills, it tends not to

be well photographed on film.

Ridley Scott, who was given his first job by Pearce when he set up his

production company, RSA, wonders why Pearce hasn’t set up on his own


’He was good at nurturing directors,’ he says. ’Most producers are only

interested in the agency and the client but Arnold looked after the

director too.’

A self-confessed fear of change and unwillingness to push himself

forward have held Pearce back. ’I tend to come across as rather full of

myself but in fact I’m really quite insecure,’ he says. ’I put on a big

act with the hats and outlandish outfits, but I’m really much more

conventional than I appear,’ he assures me. ’I haven’t said half the

things I’m supposed to have said. The nuts I admit to.’

Everyone you speak to about Pearce has a different anecdote. Tim Mellors

recalls how, on a shoot in Iceland, Pearce was observing proceedings on

set, where the snowscape was perfect except for a local who kept

wandering into shot. Pearce went to move the intruder out of frame but

couldn’t find him.

Finally the first assistant said in exasperation, ’Christ, Arnold, you

must be able to see him, he is wearing a bright red anorak.’


’Oh, said Pearce, ’I’m afraid that’s me.’

But in spite of his reputation for eccentricity and occasional

pomposity, most people have a genuine respect for Pearce. When I asked

Arden why he had made his offer, his answer was simple. ’I could waffle

on for ages but I’ll just give you this,’ he says. ’He’s young, he’s

intelligent and he’s an asset to any company.’


Tim Mellors - Mellors Reay

’Arnold is a master craftsman with an intellectual eye, a musician’s

ear, an actor’s sense of timing and show and, above all, an effervescent

enthusiasm and curiosity that would be remarkable in a person two

generations younger’

Graham Fink - Paul Weiland Film Co

’Arnold watches more reels than anyone I know; he’s very on the ball and

has a huge passion for the whole thing. He also manages egos very well

and perseveres where a lot of people would just walk away’

Howard Guard - Howard Guard Productions

’He is the only grande dame of advertising - on a par with Barbara

Cartland. Not quite royalty and just short of a deity. I’m a great


Ridley Scott - RSA Films

’He’s amusingly eccentric and a bit of a dandy - a big supporter of the

silk scarf movement. As a producer, Arnold was very supportive to work

with. He was a very good referee between the director and the


Paul Arden - Arden Sutherland-Dodd

’He’s young, he’s intelligent and he’s a great asset to any company’

Jeff Stark - Stark Films

He’s one of the great characters . He can be incredibly insulting

without knowing but he delivers insults in such a way everyone just



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