Paul Simons: a tribute to a friend with empathy and courage
A view from Carl Johnson

Paul Simons: a tribute to a friend with empathy and courage

Anomaly founder Carl Johnson pays tribute to advertising legend Paul Simons, who has died aged 72.

Just when you think 2020 hasn't got anything more to throw at you, a friend dies.

It doesn't matter that I've been away from London for over two decades, my memories of working in 'adland' with Paul Simons for about 15 years, across two superb agencies, are vivid and overwhelmingly positive.

Was he perfect? No – but who is? Was he as good as he sometimes thought? No – but who hasn't done the same? Did he like a long lunch? Yes – and maybe he was right! So why did I like him? Why did I enjoy those years? As always for me it's key personal values that were a part of his make-up.

1. He was true to himself

The first time I worked with him he was one of the big bosses as vice-chairman of GGT, where I was a lowly account director straining on tip-toes to show I could do the job, and dodging the banter, jibes, and 'helpful' comments from peers such as: "You're not going to present that campaign are you, Carl?", as you're about to go in to see the client.

This was an agency – or maybe more of a metaphorical assault course – that hustled like hell, loved a fight, preferred to take the hard road and who knew what it meant to focus relentlessly, uncompromisingly, unambiguously on the power of its creative work. (Thank you Dave).

They were though also the finest embodiment of what Netflix later codified as being key: the highest density of talent.

Everywhere you looked at GGT it was a case of iron sharpening iron. This included fast-talking, wise-cracking suits with mouths and minds so sharp they cut.? A lot of work, of pressure, of individual and collective success.

Paul was though a vital counter-point to that edge. He was from the then unfashionable agency world of the Midlands, had been on the client side, did not go to Oxbridge, listened as much as he talked, and would rather shake your hand than clench a fist.

He would not do what so many weaker agency people do and ape the environment they're in just to fit in and be accepted. He knew he was different, but he knew that was the very reason he had been brought in.

2. He was courageous

From the crucible of extraordinary talent that was GGT, it's no surprise we all learned so much and that it spawned so many agency start-ups... including Paul's.

When Paul realised after a few years that you were never going to run an agency being its vice chairman with three active founders still around, he took the bold step and walked out of GGT to do it himself.

So many people talk about it, dream about it, even write fabulous business plans, but in the end don't do it. And that's totally understandable with responsibilities, mortgages, families and risk in every direction.

Paul though leapt into the unknown and did give back the flash car, the monster salary, and the comfort blanket of not actually being ultimately accountable.Instead he offered two promising, albeit junior, talents – Simon Clemmow and me – the chance to make it all up and build an agency from scratch with him.

Unlike Paul we had nothing much to lose and few responsibilities, so it was a no-brainer. Persuading the phenomenal creative talents Chris Palmer and Mark Denton to join us was the final piece we needed to form the band that Paul wanted to play in.

As Campaign so kindly put it when Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson launched: "It's a long list of names, but no-one has heard of the last four."

Great writing that, framed by Paul, created fuel not fury, on our drive to succeed. Paul's courageous mindset and inherent big thinking, was an ever-present context when we thought about anything from pitching, hiring, expanding and even our office space, over the years that followed.

"Why not?" he often said. Why not indeed.? For two or three years we were white hot and pretty untouchable with award shows turning into a procession.

3. He had endless empathy

Finally, when I close my eyes and think of him I see him talking to others, smiling, listening, laughing and sharing stories. (Often with a drink and a cigarette). He genuinely cared about, and was interested in, others – not just himself.

He particularly enjoyed helping develop younger talent, always made time for them, and he understood that sometimes the context he created was what was needed for the content of others to be recognised.

In an industry that has more than its fair share of ego, giving up the time to think and care about others is more rare than it should be. So why did I like him? He had values that I saw, appreciated and enjoyed. For years. And I learnt a lot. That's as much as most of us can hope for.

Carl Johnson is founder and executive chairman of Anomaly

Paul Simons died earlier this month aged 72 after a long illness. The agency he founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson merged with TBWA in 1997 and he went on to run Ogilvy & Mather (now Ogilvy) as chairman and chief executive of the group.