Media Headliner: Maverick Durden has broken away from the past

Self-styled genius Jonathan Durden has joined the ranks of Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy. What gives, Alasdair Reid asks.

It's utterly inconceivable that a media agency these days would even dream of offering a modern-day equivalent of Jonathan Durden a start in life. In its headlong rush to become both professional and disciplined, the business has seemed determined to acquire all the zing and panache of chartered accountancy.

Durden doesn't really do discipline (not in a nine-to-five sense, at any rate). You see, he comes across as an unreconstructed rogue, Russell Brand's older brother without the out-of-control hair and the skintight trousers. And nothing quite so becomes this maverick's media agency career than the manner of his leaving it - because he's only just gone and pulled a real corker out of the left field.

That he should have decided to leave the agency he founded was hardly a major shock because the P and the H in PHD (David Pattison and Nick Horswell) had already moved on and Durden, despite the rather grandiose job title of president, had already become semi- detached. But he isn't trying to prove how "with it" he is by joining a digital agency; nor is he setting up some kind of holistic consultancy. No. Instead, he has decided to join an old-fashioned creative advertising agency, Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy. He's not going to be giving them media stuff either.

"My role will be to help grow the agency - it's partly new business, partly acquisitions and development to make sure we're at the leading edge of what's going on," he explains. He joins as a partner - the fifth Beatle, as he puts it.

So, yes, Jonathan Durden. The profile. Where to begin? There are certainly some colourful stories that surround his personal life, but ask him how much this is relevant and his answer is somewhat surprising. None of it, he responds. He feeds us a line that reeks of therapy (and he's certainly been through it), stuff about not trying to hide from his history because it's part of who he is. But, he adds quickly, it's just not relevant any more. It's something he's been through. And indeed those close to him can confirm that he's a far more serene personality these days. He's even about to get married.

But his response to our initial question is somewhat surprising because, in the past, he's been something of the author of his own mythology. Discretion is not exac-tly his middle name - and he seemed entirely at home with the miasma of gossip, rumour and innuendo that once upon a time followed him like a cloud.

Ask anyone of a certain age about Durden, and it won't be very long before they've launched into one anecdote or another.

Now, on the threshold of his 50th birthday, the self-styled troubled genius is repositioning himself as a man who has learnt much from his past, including years managing as a single parent, but is ready to move on using this knowledge. And MCBD clearly believes that he has much to offer. Helen Calcraft, the agency's founding partner, says: "Jonathan has been inundated with offers from outside and inside our industry, and we are thrilled that he has chosen to be a partner in our business. We have an ambitious growth agenda and Jonathan will make a material difference to our new-business efforts."

And Calcraft believes Durden's peculiar blend of talents are transferable to MCBD: "This is not a precursor to an MCBD planning department. Jonathan's talents as an agency manager and intellectual force are far less narrow than that. If we had wanted a textbook media planner, Jonathan, frankly, would not have made the cut."

It will be more than interesting to gauge just what sort of impact Durden makes at his new agency, because there seems to have been a censorious faction among some of Durden's colleagues, former and current, who've made a long-suffering art form out of tutting away just out of earshot. There's a coterie of Durden iconoclasts who believe it was, in fact, they who carried Durden during the difficult days, and feel they've never been given the credit they deserve and, consequently, are surprisingly bitter about it all.

All utter nonsense, his admirers say. The bottom line is the fact that, actually, Durden tends to deliver. And it's fascinating to watch him do just that, especially when he is able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

For instance, seeing him turn up for a meeting and stumbling through the first part of his presentation before asking for a glass of water and admitting he feels rather queasy. With most people, you'd be preparing to watch the rest through your fingers. On the other hand, with Durden, what you're likely to get next is a tour de force of utterly charismatic brilliance.

He has never been particularly modest about his ability to turn it on in this way, but he does admit to being a little bit anxious about whether or not he can deliver the equivalent in his new creative agency environment.

He frets generally about creativity, and the extent to which he can really cut it outside of the rather numbers-driven media world in which he has previously shone. In addition to his occasional duties at PHD, he has also been dabbling in peripheral areas of the creative world. In recent years, he has been associated at various times with a student radio company, the Il Capo restaurants, the Barfly clubs and the management company patronised by bands such as Kaiser Chiefs and Franz Ferdinand.

Durden's first bash at a novel (appropriately called Essex Drugs and Rock and Roll) has now been reconfigured as a film script (not yet in production), and he has also been developing formats and treatments for the Good TV "ideas generation" company.

He wants to be regarded primarily as a writer these days - and you can't deny that, from a lifestyle point of view at least, he has more than paid his dues.

Needless to say, when the book of Advertising Babylon comes to be written, Durden will have a chapter of his own. And if he's successful as an author, we'll actually have to file him under B - somewhere between Burroughs and Byron.

Topics