When the two Mikes and I thought about opening an agency, we thought we’d give it a trial run first.
Mike Greenlees briefed me to do a pitch on Holsten Export.
I did a TV campaign and showed it to Mike.
He said “This is really good example of the sort of work everyone is doing for beer right now. I’ll have no trouble selling this. But it doesn’t frighten me. I’m not thinking ‘How the hell am I going to sell it?’ Can’t you do something like that, something that scares me?”
I could have kissed him.
Right there I wanted to open an agency and work with this guy.
So we did.
And the work I subsequently did won the pitch too.
And lots of awards.
Now let’s look behind that story to the relationship between creatives and suits.
I would never admit it, but in my heart of hearts I knew the work I had done the first time was boring.
I was even a bit embarrassed about it.
But like any creative I can’t admit that, even to myself.
What Mike could have said, which would have been equally true, is “This work is dull. It’s what everyone else is doing. Can’t you do anything a bit more exciting than that? Is that the best you can do?”
That would have been equally true, but it wouldn’t have been very likely to get the result Mike wanted.
I’d have said “Fuck off” and stormed out.
Mike didn’t say that, he didn’t put me down.
He gave me a challenge that no creative guy could resist “Can’t you scare me?”
Suddenly, instead of being deflated I’m excited, thrilled.
I can’t wait to start work on a new campaign.
Mike is doing what all the very best account men do for creatives.
He’s making me believe I’m better than I am.
Exactly what the very best football managers do for their players.
He’s making me play at the top of my game.
Most account men, clients, creative directors, planners can’t do that.
They think it’s their job to be a ball and chain.
To hold the creatives back.
To reign them in and curb their worst excesses.
They would never dare to say “Shock me” to a creative.
They’d be terrified of losing control.
One of the main reasons CDP was the best agency in London (if not the world) for two decades was Frank Lowe.
Frank was the CEO and a suit, but he was like Alex Ferguson to the creatives.
He didn’t expect you to play down to a safe, easy to sell, level.
He expected you to be amazing, outrageous, surprising.
Don’t bring him anything that wasn’t frighteningly good.
And the better it was, the harder it was to sell.
And Frank knew only the best suits could sell it.
And Frank (like Mike Greenlees, or Tim Bell at Saatchi’s) knew he was one of the best.
The worst crime wasn’t to be wrong.
The worst crime was to be dull.
That’s largely what’s happened to advertising nowadays.
We work down to the level of what the suits/planners can easily sell.
Down to the level of what clients can easily buy.
We do work that’s predictable, comfortable, unchallenging.
So that’s what runs.
Just like the campaign I did before Mike said “Scare me”.

The creatives make the great work.
But the suits make the creatives make the great work.

  • Ideal Word Brand CSR

    The best thing you’ve said for ages, Dave.

  • paul c-c

    But why did you produce dull safe work to begin with. Didn’t the original brief from the suits enthuse you to be scary or were you in already in a ‘they’ll never buy that’ mind set when you started to craft?

  • Dave Trott

    It wasn’t bad work, it was just predictable, safe work.
    The same as everyone else was doing.
    It’s very painful and difficult to push yourself beyond that.
    Certainly if the incentive is not to do it because the suits/planners/clients don’t want it anyway.
    Why would you do that?
    You need someone to interrupt that chain.
    Someone to say “If you can do it, I can sell it”.

  • JL

    Spot on Dave. It seems to me that the suits are increasingly becoming the “clients’ men” within the agency. They pretend to know what the client wants. But in reality what they know is what they can sell to the client. And they don’t want more than that because they are either too lazy, or not good enough to sell it in. Suits need to remember that they are agency representatives first and foremost, not “the client’s man at the agency”

  • Alan Blake

    Dave – I hope this excellent piece results in a deluge of mail from creatives desperate to tell us about courageous and inspirational account people………….but there’s probably more of a chance that Harry Rednapp will get Southampton back into the Premiership.

  • Alan Blake

    Correction: I mean QPR !!


    “The trouble is, people are too frightened to do great work or take a risk” he said looking for work overseas. Broke into my first agency last week unannounced. Great fun getting past the sentry guard…

  • Cm

    The best work comes from the discomfort.
    Love this text.

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