’YOU’RE ONLY AS GOOD AS YOUR LAST AD’ ... Can a creative’s worth be truly assessed by the quality of their latest work, or is it just an adland myth? Leading creatives spill the beans to John Tylee

Like mums warning naughty children about the bogeyman, creative directors have long encouraged their charges to believe that ’you’re only as good as your last ad’ to ward off the natural sloth that often accompanies talent.

Like mums warning naughty children about the bogeyman, creative

directors have long encouraged their charges to believe that ’you’re

only as good as your last ad’ to ward off the natural sloth that often

accompanies talent.

Alas, as with all bits of dogma, its essential truth has become obscured

by many caveats. Are you really only as good as your last ad? The answer

is a definite maybe.

Legend has it that Dave Trott, role model for a generation of creative

wannabes, used to banish complacency from his department by insisting

that his people pinned their latest ads up for others to scrutinise and


Trott insists he never did any such thing and that the ads went up only

so that everybody knew what everybody else was doing. And it’s true that

many reasons - not all of them to do with talent or the lack of it - can

explain why a triumph is followed by a turkey.

Sometimes producing a stonking ad can have as much to do with time and

circumstance as anything else. ’The notion is fine in principle, but

flawed in practice,’ Trott claims. ’What if you’re working for a crap


What if the planner or the account man can’t sell the ad? The fact is

that everybody has to share the shit by working on accounts that are

only there because they pay their way.’

Often, though, it’s creative directors themselves who end up cleaning

the latrines. Trott recalls a number of times when he had to knock out

work on pariah accounts which were taking up too much of his

department’s time and resources. John Bacon, FCB’s creative director,

also remembers his days as Ogilvy & Mather’s joint creative chief when

’I used to do things too dreadful to ask anybody else to tackle.’

All the more reason not to take the saying too literally. While past

reputations can sometimes mask present inadequacies, it’s true that even

creative geniuses have their off days. As Ken Mullen, Warman &

Bannister’s creative director, asks: ’Would anybody have suggested to

Shakespeare that he was only as good as his last play?’

For creative directors, the knack is knowing which staffers are worthy

of support during a bad spell, which may have more to do with personal

than professional problems - or a legacy of their previous agency - and

which ones have lived off past glories for too long.

In those cases, a good overall recent record will usually trump a short

bumpy patch. ’All creative directors know the people they can rely on,’

Bacon says. ’They’re the people you tend to forgive when things aren’t

going right for them.’

The choices can be made more difficult when an agency’s creative output

seems to dip for no obvious reason. Peter Souter, the Abbott Mead

Vickers BBDO creative director, acknowledges that his own department is

having to be managed through just such a period.

’We didn’t perform as well creatively last year as we usually do,’ he

admits. ’It’s hard to explain why. We’re still putting out the same team

on match days so I have to reinvigorate rather than change it. I don’t

believe you’re only as good as your last ad. You’re only as good as the

best ad you’ve ever done.’

Further complications arise because the judgment of someone’s last ad

will always be subjective and not based on standard criteria. Paul

Wilmot, the Summerfield Wilmot Keene creative director, still squirms at

the recollection of his swansong commercial at Euro RSCG for Procter &

Gamble’s Biactol spot remedy. ’It was disgustingly successful and sales

doubled,’ he says.

’But you won’t find it on my reel.’

Another reason for not interpreting the saying too literally is that the

authorship of many creative ideas is blurred. A creative director may

come up with the seed and encourage his teams to make it grow.

Despite all the provisos, however, few doubt that the famous mantra

still has worth. ’Deep down, most creatives know it to be true and it

helps keep them on their toes,’ Steve Grime, the Mitchell Patterson

Grime Mitchell creative partner, says. ’And it’s becoming even more

relevant as media explodes and lack of talent is more quickly


To put the theory to the test, Campaign asked eight top creatives to

show us the last ad they produced that has actually run. They’ve all

sworn on the gospel according to St David Abbott that they’ve not


MIKE COURT - executive creative director McCann-Erickson

’You’re only as good as your last ad, eh? The last ad I did (that has

run) was for the Natural History Museum. It was actually a campaign of

five cinema films and a set of tube cards, and the budget for the

production and media was pounds 250,000. So it was a bit of a challenge.

Nick Scott and I were really chuffed when we cracked the idea. Nick made

the ads look beautiful and I was pleased with the endline. It was so

nice to think like a kid and not get bollocked for doing so!’

SHAUN McILRATH - joint creative director FCA!

’In most creative departments, there’s still a serious discrepancy

between what’s good for your client and what’s good for your career. As

soon as you stop flicking through annuals for your next idea and start

reading your client’s market reports and business plans, you arrive at a

broader conclusion: that you’re really only as good as the results of

your last creative idea. If you want to sell product instead of just

create ads that are liked, work from your client’s offices, go to every

consumer group you can and don’t let anything leave your desk that

doesn’t have bite.’

TIM MELLORS - chairman and creative director Mellors Reay & Partners

’At university, I had a holiday job scraping up orange peel in a

bottling plant. I thought, ’I’m never going to do anything like this

again.’ Ripple dissolve to T Mellors in our creative department once

again picking up slippery briefs a careless operative would go

arse-over-tit on. Nicotinell is typical. With New Year resolutions

coming up, catching vulnerable smokers down the tube was too good to

miss. I wrote, ’At times like this it needn’t be hell with Nicotinell.’

TDI and our media man, Luca, made it happen.

We persuaded the client to drop the packshot and stump up about a tenner

each to make them in enamel. But a gold, luv? I don’t think so.’

GREG DELANEY - creative director Delaney Fletcher Bozell

’Who was it who said, ’An ad a day keeps the sack away’? A sadistic

creative director, I think. Of course, a good creative person shouldn’t

just be good every once in a while, they ought to keep proving


They usually want to do that anyway. But a creative director should also

allow people to fail occasionally, too. That’s why you have a creative

department: if X can’t do it, get Y to solve it. And if Y can’t do it,

the creative director(s) have got to do it. I certainly don’t hold a

temporary loss of form against anyone. Alex Ferguson kept faith with

Andy Cole because he knew he was a goal scorer and would eventually

score goals again. A good creative will continue to be a good creative,

if you give them confidence and opportunity. You can’t give them luck,

unfortunately. But they’ll need it.’

SIMON DICKETTS - joint creative director M&C Saatchi

’I don’t agree that you’re only as good as your last ad. You’re only as

good as your next one.’

KEITH COURTNEY - creative director Leagas Shafron Davis

’Are you only as good as your last ad? Yes you are. But the rise of

integration is redefining what an ad is. Is a Website for Invest On-line

an ad? I don’t know. But that’s the latest project I’ve been involved

in. To creatives, though, the phrase has nothing to do with marketing

effectiveness. It really means that you’re only as good as your last

award-winning ad. And in this context, it’s nonsense. Everyone finds

themselves ’resting’ between golds at some time. Unless you’re David

Abbott you can’t produce award winners every time. Hang on, though. What

did his Alpen ’singing cowboy’ commercial win?’

GERRY MOIRA - creative director Publicis

’For me, writing a TV ad is like making love to a beautiful woman.

Firstly, you must court your muse, seduce and subdue her, bending that

capricious spirit to your base commercial needs until, together, you

reach that place where real communication happens. Secondly, it’s all

over in 30 seconds. Consequently, as a creative director, I feel the

need to get back in the saddle every now and then. It shows your

department that you’re prepared to risk failure alongside them and it

keeps you sharp and up to date with new toys ’n’ talent on the

production side. I’ve just completed a spot for the Renault Scenic with

Tim Pope, using a visual idea looted from one of his excellent Cure

promos. Whether it’s any good or not depends on your definition of good.

Increasingly, the only measure that satisfies is the consumer. The rest

is vanity.’

ADAM KEAN - executive creative director Saatchi & Saatchi

’Like most cliches, it has bits of truth in it, means different things

to different people and shouldn’t be taken too literally. (I’m lucky

that the last ad I did is the one of which I’m proud, but ask me at the

wrong time and do I suddenly become a bad copywriter?) I take it to mean

don’t be complacent. Strive to be better all the time, be your own

sternest judge. You could say it really means you’re only as good as

your next ad. Or, to borrow the sentiment of John Pallant and Matt

Ryan’s poster for Paul Arden’s IPA talk: ’It’s not how good you are,

it’s how good you want to be.’’