We were a junior team less than a year into our first job at TBWA\London. Trevor Beattie, chairman, executive creative director and the man who gave us our first big break, made an announcement: a new deputy ECD was joining.
He didn’t say who; he just chucked on a Betamax (yep, it was that long ago) reel of ads. The John West bear, Withabix/Withoutabix, Scalextric, not to mention the bloody "Lynx effect" – the ads were so funny, the whole room pissed themselves sideways. Everyone knew who it was. The room became thick with a heady mixture of respect, fear and professional jealousy. The creative department was full of creative giants already, but all of them bowed down to the creative monster that was Paul Silburn.
We both knew we had to work with him and glean whatever we could from his genius. But how to impress him?
Well, luckily for us, we wouldn’t have to. We’d spent so long doing such a heroically average job on the John Smith's brief that Paul was helicoptered in to save it. We had an idea on the table involving a cowboy strutting through modern-day scenarios and six-gunning nonsense. To this day, we still don’t know why he kept us working on the brief. It certainly wasn’t down to anything we’d written. Plus, we looked and sounded like Beavis and Butthead 2.0. So it’s not like we charmed him into keeping us around either.
"Thanks guys, I’ll take it from here" is what he should have said. Or "Cheers lads, but I’ve got a department full of exceptional writers and creatives at my disposal", or simply "I’m Paul Silburn" would have sufficed.
Remarkably, instead he said "Try writing off this" and let us have a go on his brand new shiny idea: the soon-to-be Peter Kay "no nonsense man". It was like letting a pair of arse-out chimps test-drive your pristine new Lambo.
John Smith's had to be funny. Comedy was the brand. All eyes were on Paul. Yet, he still took the time to school a young team on the yawning chasm between humorous and funny.
Paul was a 24/7 comedy obsessive, a disciple of gags, a sensei of jokes. A copy of Private Eye always on his desk and one-liners came to him like, er, well only he’d have the perfect one-liner about his ability to drop one-liners. Nothing we wrote made him laugh.
However, thanks to his expert guidance and unwavering patience, after hundreds of attempts we presented a script involving the "no nonsense" description of the birds and the bees, where Peter Kay delivers some brutally honest reproductive harsh truths to a four-year-old called Britanny. The satisfaction of Paul finally reading something we’d written and saying (stoney straight-faced) "That’s funny" still remains a career high (alongside John being mistaken for one of the 118 runners).
But it was short-lived, as the "Babies" script was rejected by the Advertising Standards Authority. Apparently, you just couldn’t say "penis" or "vagina" in a beer commercial, no matter how funny it was. The client sensibly put their money into four scripts they could run on TV. There was no YouTube (it really was that long ago), so why spend money on an extra one that nobody will see? That was that. Our brief moment of being funny was over. Back to being humorous, then…
However, Paul convinced the client to shoot it using the location from one of the other scripts. He knew that if we made it, it would get out there somehow, that it would be known as the "banned one", that people who liked beer liked "a bit of blue f’dads". Like John Webster before him, Paul instinctively knew what people would find funny, not just what would tickle advertising awards juries.
Often when making your first work, you’re a passenger, merely "shadowing" the creative director. Yet, Paul included us throughout the whole process and at all times encouraged us to be vocal. It's just a shame our voice was so wobbly and nervous. We remember fanboying over Paul, Danny Kleinman and Peter Kay during the shoot. A comedy masterclass if ever there was one. We wanted to add something to Peter’s line to make it funnier. Paul spotted us mumbling to each other, going bright red, too terrified to say anything. He ordered us to suggest it to Peter and Danny. With a quivering mid-pubescent teenage voice, we suggested the new line. Peter and Danny actually liked it and it went in the cut. Peter actually laughed. Another career high, thanks to Paul.
From then on, we vowed never to sit on an idea, no matter how bad or weird. Ideas are like farts; better out than in.
He took us to the edit suites, sound studios and post houses, making sure we were there to learn the craft of funny. Why ending on the wide is just funnier. How a pack shot isn’t just the "client’s shot" and can always squeeze out some extra gags. He even had us working an entire weekend on the VHS cassette to be sent to for PR purposes. It was the "no nonsense" version of a video cover. "Some beer ads," read the huge Life of Brian-style type on the front. Not a single opportunity was to be missed. The funny had to be wrung dry.
He made sure our names were credited on the work. If it picked something up, he made sure we were invited to all the awards. He included us the whole way. Always generous with his generosity. At the time, we had no idea how lucky we were.
Although we only worked with Paul for a few months, our careers and lives would change forever.
That was the Silburn effect.
We’re not sure if he ever successfully taught us to be funny but, as we’ve got older, we realise he taught us a far more important lesson. He taught us how to treat young creatives, how to nurture them, how to involve them and empower them. He shaped advertising with not only his work (his ads were essentially recruitment ads for the industry itself) but in how he worked. Thanks to his patience and guidance, everyone who worked with him came away better at their jobs than before they’d met him. He will be greatly missed by many.
Recently, we showed the John West ad (among others) to our youngest creatives: our kids. They watched it over and over. Like the TBWA\London creative department many years before, they, too, pissed themselves sideways. Afterwards they said: "Why haven’t you written anything as funny as that?"
Cheers, kids. However, there’s a simple answer: nobody has.
RIF, Paul Silburn (rest in funny).
John Allison and Chris Bovill were former heads of 4Creative and most recently led Warner Music's content studio, The Firepit