Half vicar, half assassin: the documentarian's camera turns on copywriting icon Tony Brignull

"We’d better get Tony quickly, he’s not getting any younger"

Tony Brignull, D&AD’s most-awarded copywriter of all time, is the subject of a new film made by students at the School of Communication Arts (SCA), London. The camera may have made him feel old and fat, but it also lent him the gift of reflection – and offered his young documentarians cutting insight into the future of an industry that looks very different from his own.

Tony Brignull is no stranger to compliments. His former shop, the Dentsu-engulfed Collet Dickinson Pearce (CDP), is often prefaced with ‘the world’s greatest agency’, while Brignull himself was resoundingly named D&AD's most-awarded copywriter when the organisation totted up 50 years of its awards in 2012.

Still, he was humbled when the SCA came to him wanting to document his life. A group of seven students on the SCA 2.0 diploma programme were tasked with the challenge, while their contemporaries were briefed to create films on the equally formidable line-up of MT Rainey, John Hegarty, Cilla Snowball, Alexandra Taylor and Drayton Bird.

“It was, of course, a compliment, one I never expected at my age – though there was the shadow that ‘we’d better get Tony quickly, he’s not getting any younger’,” Brignull drolly comments. “This apart, the experience was entirely good. The team was kind, patient and thorough. I love being around young people, and this was an especially nice bunch.”

The feeling was more than mutual: the students came away from their first interaction with Brignull positively enraptured.

“I didn’t think he was going to be that tall or look so strong,” recalls Twyla Lidén. “He’s 83 and he has such a presence. He’s just very elegant. He carries himself with a lot pride, which was really king of breath-taking.”

Brignull’s elegance – which, filmmaker Joey Sare notes, is compounded by the sharpness of his wardrobe – is undercut by the directness and vivacity of his personality. These traits are captured in the film’s title: Half Vicar, Half Assassin. The moniker itself was derived from a quote from Richard Foster, one of Brignull’s mentees who was interviewed for the documentary.

“On the surface he’s very demure and calm in his character – he’s very well spoken and gentle and kind – but beneath it there is an edge,” recalls Phil Le Brun. “I mean, he wouldn’t be the most awarded copywriter of all time if he didn’t have a desire to win, and a competitive streak to him.

“I think you can see that in his writing: he’s so sharp and so witty and intelligent. There’s real passion in him as well and his approach to work and dealing with unruly account handler and clients. He was a proper maverick and he didn’t really take any shit, which I kind of love about him.”

Brignull himself is, perhaps unsurprisingly, wary of the praise heaped upon him, particularly in the context of a documentary. Given that he gave the students the names and numbers of the film’s talking heads personally, he’s cautious that “films like this … give an impression of a totally good person whose career was a brilliant upward curve”.

“This can rarely be true of anyone and certainly isn’t true of me,” he stresses. “While I had so much to be grateful for in my career, so many good memories, there were periods which I still find distressing. I was rescued by the good, companionable, talented people I worked with, my lovely wife, and the fact that I always took the business seriously.

“When stressed I always worked harder: I don’t think I ever let a client down. That goes for my creative people, too. I tried to look after them. I never took credit for their work and allowed them to take credit for any help I gave them. These things saw me through the bad times.”

Le Brun, Sare and Lidén have yet to begin their real lives in advertising. They’re currently building portfolios at SCA; these will be sifted through by agencies and the students invited to placement on the strength of this work. Amid this environment – which even the most establish creative would describe as pressurised – it was Brignull’s comments on writing that gave the team the most comfort.

“One thing he told me about writing is for some people it’s just a straight road, where you get to the point straight away and very easily,” says Lidén. “I always assumed that’s how it was for Tony, as he was continuously putting out great work. But he described [his copywriting process] as zig-zagging around and around up and down. That was the way his road went for every single bit of copy that he wrote, which gave me – as an aspiring copywriter – a lot of motivation.”

Brignull recalls this account with pride.

“I had to write each piece of copy maybe 20 times, pinning each sheet to the wall, then coming in next day and writing it again,” he says. “Often it meant crossing out half of what I wrote yesterday. I took all the time I was given and often more. I wrote and rewrote until I was sure it flowed, one sentence into another.

“A client once said to me, your copy is too long. I said, if you can take a single word out and it still makes sense, I’ll shorten it. I knew he couldn’t because I’d already tried. Perhaps I’m a better example to young writers than others who were more naturally gifted than I am. I had to learn my craft.”brignull 1981

But Brignull and his documenters are astutely aware they’re working in two different worlds. When asked if they think anyone like Brignull is working today, the group is hesitant – astutely naming the overwhelming amount of media platforms, the death of long-form copy, nervous clients with short in-house tenures and shortening consumer attention spans as reasons why the career of a superstar copywriter may no longer exist.

And for the reasons above, Brignull “fears” for the students’ careers. He believes they’re inheriting more disadvantages than advantages, referring specifically to “failing” newspapers, “thin” magazines and non-existent press campaigns.

He goes on: “Posters? I can't remember when I last saw a good one, let alone one that made me go ‘wow!’ TV as a medium, despite the zapping of commercials, still offers some opportunities for creatives, but they seem fewer and far between. I think the whole business took a hit when media planning and buying moved outside agencies. Instead of being part of the creative process, media became commodity purchasing, and creative work followed suit. As for online advertising, I just don’t get it and I wonder if anyone does. I can’t see how it can charm, amuse, persuade or sell anything.

“What I guess I’m saying is, I don’t think the media exists nowadays for young advertising people to express the subtlety of their art. I only hope that big clients – car manufacturers, for instance, whose work is dreadful at the moment – will demand a change for the better.”

Despite the complexity of the new media landscape, the overruling advice that the students took from Brignull is simple: make “wonderful” work.

“That’s what he’d say to himself when he’d finish an ad: is it wonderful? Was it worth putting in the time and effort?” remembers Le Brun.

“You’ll know it when you see it,” emphasises Brignull. “You’ll recognise it. It comes with a tingle of fear, the fear of the new. Don’t settle for anything less. Be difficult.”

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