Have you ever wondered where ideas come from? For adland, over the past few decades, the answer has been Paul Silburn. Paul wasn’t like us. Our lot is to sit around all day, moping and hoping we’ll get rained upon from Ideas Heaven on high. It only happens once, maybe twice, per career. And, boy, do we get damp with success when it does. Half-soaked bastards that we are.
Not so Paul Silburn. Paul had an inherent humility. But he also had that celestial ideas warehouse on speed-dial. A direct bloody line to Ideas Heaven, 24/7. Ideas coming out of the wazoo. Spoiler alert: he was better than you.
Big ideas, small ideas, daft ideas, dark ideas. Very dark ideas. Funny ideas, bloody funny ideas, funny are-you-kidding-me-we’ll-get-locked-up ideas and, perhaps most importantly, ideas which could be shot and shown for about 50p, yet still retain their power and (im)pertinence for an audience of bloody millions. People like you and me, who up until that point were utterly convinced we had better things to do with our lives than watch a fat lad from Bolton perform a perfect running bomb with aplomb into an Olympic-sized swimming pool. How wrong we all were. How right he always was.
Paul may not have invented the iPhone, but his shit was going viral before Steve Jobs had learned to poo unassisted on his iPotty.
His language has entered our language. I find myself saying "Ooh look, an eagle!" all the time. Without ever having actually seen one in real life. "‘Ave it!" is not only part of our vernacular, it regularly graces the front pages of our very vernacular bible: the tabloid newspaper. Even the blessed Beckham has been known to give it a go. Paul’s work touched people. And he’d have had 12 grubby repostes to that comment in the time it just took you to read it.
I’ve always believed that genius is in a hurry. It knows it doesn’t have long. It works without pause, doesn’t suffer fools and never seems to settle. Because there just isn’t time. Paul was a peculiar hybrid of The Lone Ranger, Lassie and The Littlest Hobo. He’d turn up, make everything better and leave. Usually before anyone had a chance to say thank you. And wherever he went, hey presto, the glory rained down from Ideas Heaven.
Simons Palmer? Advantage Nike Sampras. Lowe Howard-Spink? Stellar stuff for Stella. Hey, Leo Burnett. So you think you have a great new campaign for John West? Hold my bear. On and on he went. Starting up a Leith office in London. No big accounts to work on? I’ll just redesign your company logo while I’m waiting. Bang. D&AD Design Pencil. He wrote. He art directed. He designed. He made you bloody sick.
I lured Paul to TBWA\London with the promise of free reign to do what the hell he bloody liked. Run his own accounts, approve his own work and inspire the kids. Within 12 months, he’d lifted Peter Kay (no mean feat) from the Edinburgh Fringe and transplanted him into the hearts of the nation. He’d also transformed the raw timid saplings that were Carl Broadhurst and Pete Reid, and Chris Bovill and John Allison, into the creative giant redwoods they remain today. And he enabled me to quiver with pride as he and the wonderful Di Croll collected TV Agency of the Year for TBWA at the British Arrows.
Let me tell you a story which will probably get me into trouble. Because that’s exactly what Paul would’ve wanted. It was a pitch. For a very large tech company. I had prepared a TV showreel to display our most recent golden goodies, my favourite being Paul’s John Smith’s commercial in which a no-nonsense Kay bluntly explains to his mum why a taxi has arrived to take her to "an old people’s home" (at the age of 55).
Back in the room, I’m asked to wait a moment as the company’s new chief executive had decided to join our meeting at the last minute. The door opened and in strode a woman who sat directly opposite and locked me in a fierce stare. There were two things I couldn’t help but notice about her. She was almost certainly 55 years old and the small furry mammal on her upper lip would’ve made Burt Reynolds punch the air with delight.
I hit play. And immediately had an out-of-body experience, watching myself in my own excruciating sitcom. Written by Paul and delivered with deathly deadpan by Kay, at full meeting room volume.
"Come on, Mum. It’s time to go."
"The old people’s home. They’ll look after you now. It’s for the best."
"Are you mad? I’m 55. Why would I wanna live in an old people’s home?"
"Because I wanna put a snooker table in your room and the kids are frightened of your moustache. Now come on. Avanti!"
Back at the agency, I explained to Paul what had happened and that we had absolutely, positively not just won a £20m account. It made his day.
And, funnily enough, it’s the what-might-have-beens that break my heart now. We’d planned to make an unbranded-branded TV comedy series with Kay, called No Nonsense. A fly-on-the-wall documentary on the fall and rise of Paul’s beloved Wimbledon football club. And a dark comedy thriller based on PlayStation 2. Paul’s natural habitat was television. Just imagine what he and Phoebe Waller-Bridge might have done together. (He very often gave that Knowing Look to Camera during client meetings). But he was far too in love with adland to ever leave.
You see, although Paul had a very strict contract with Ideas Heaven, which forced him to share his genius equally across the ad universe (no single agency getting more than a couple of years with him, no creative partner more than a few gold Pencils), in the end the sheer volume and quality of the ideas he was generating eventually took their toll on global stocks. It can’t have escaped your attention that both M- and L-sized ideas have been a bit thin on the ground of late. And adland is fresh out of XL.
So word has it They called an extraordinary board meeting Up There. Which resulted in a novel but heartbreaking solution. Instead of Paul labouring down here to provide the world with endless flying penguins, tiny talking dogs and flashmob-jiving commuters, he’d be summoned back to HQ. Avanti. A hero’s return, if you like. He’d spend eternity doing what he loved. Replenishing stocks. Making mischief and magic with the darkest of jokes. And sending oven-ready ideas down to those he felt most deserving.
This idea was unanimously approved. Heaven couldn’t wait. So he’s Up There now. Executive creative director of Ideas Heaven. Santa may come and Santa may go. But there'll always be Paul. Beavering away, 365 days a year. So next time you’re struggling to crack a creative brief, turn your eyes to the skies and ask: what would Paul have done? And if you’re very, very lucky, he might just lob you something golden. Top bombing.
Trevor Beattie is chairman and founder of BMB and TBFilms