This industry is supposed to be a people business, so where have all the fun people gone?
Here’s a conversation to have down the pub next time you’re with your colleagues – why does there seem to be fewer ‘characters’ in the media and marketing industry nowadays? Where are the people who bluster into the office and make you laugh, smile, blush or groan. The people who do something outrageous and get everyone talking, not just in the workplace but after hours too. Rumours spread like wildfire of the crazy things they have done or said. Sure, there are a few funny, loud and even obnoxious people, but why are there not more real ‘characters’ who are able to turn heads?
“There definitely aren’t enough characters left in the advertising industry,” confirms Adrian Jeffrey, director of Mightysmall. “In fact the only characters I can think of are people we’ve all laughed with for the last 20 years. Which makes this the dullest time imaginable to be in a business that is meant to be fun.”
Former Halls and Faulds creative Jim Downie claims this could be down to a lack of investment in young people at agencies along with with the increase in turnover speeds. This has been a common complaint over recent years when reflecting on the current state of play. People seem to be either too busy with work or too busy with commitments to stop and actually enjoy themselves.
Rob Morrice, chief executive at IAS, disagrees that there are fewer characters out there, but says that because the business has become “more corporate” people have simply become “more serious”. He says: “Original thinking and being outspoken are seen as a sign of ‘off-the-wallness’, which is taboo in the brand new world of accountability and effectiveness. Every agency executive’s action has to be monitored; every quote has to be vetted – except if you are me!
“The current climate of overt political correctness doesn’t help. And with every journalist and random blogger dying for a sensational story, you never know who you are safe talking to or acting outrageously in private with.”
The industry has become more difficult since the often hazy days of the 80s when work was incorporated into the daily agenda rather than filling it. Long lunches have become a rarity, perhaps rightly so, meaning that madcap antics are rare, and tales that go around the industry tend to be from days gone by.
Clients too also seem to expect more commitment and professionalism from their agencies. Time is money and money is a little more sparse in the current climate.
“It is a bit of a shame really that there’s not more of them around. The likes of the Jim Faulds and the Gerry Farrells in Scotland who are great characters who everyone talk about but also create a sense of community,” admits Ben Quigley, managing director of Different.
“One of my ex-bosses, Mike Dethick of the late, great Yellow M, was one of the most madcap, crazy characters you could ever meet. He had his bad points and he had his good points but everyone had an opinion about him.
“When he recruited me from my previous employer he pitched his vision of the agency to me and offered to match my existing salary. He said there was no car as part of the package, he couldn’t afford it. I politely declined the opportunity as I was not prepared to accept an effective pay cut as I already had a very nice car in my package. There was a pregnant pause and then he said I could have a car. His car, as long as I gave him a lift to work every morning. On that endearing commitment I instantly accepted the job and the rest was history.”
Pete Armstrong, creative director at Iris in Manchester, says that part of the problem is that some of the mystery has left the industry, where as before it was a different type of career choice attracting more eccentric ‘maverick’ characters than now. “I have been lucky enough to work for some genuinely inspiring personalities from the whirlwind Gerry Farrell of The Leith to the quietly spoken, thoughtful and gentlemanly Jonathan d’Aguilar at The Bridge.”
He continues; “Advertising does give you permission to behave in a certain way but what some people may call personalities others would label arrogant bastards. So for me the most memorable have always been the talented people that are the most modest with it. They are unique. People like Ged Edmondson or Mike Coulter. Loads of talent but with very little ego.”
According to Gordon Bethell of Gratterpalm in Leeds, the problem lies in the lack of spontaneity that has developed as the need for planning and preparation increases while clients are less likely to allow agencies much leeway outside of what is required. He says this has limited the opportunity to stand out and make a real impression, while HR departments also have a lot to answer for in preventing people from causing problems internally.
“One of the reasons that we are seeing such a lot of fragmentation is that there’s a will to get out of the corporate framework and the bigger agencies. If you grow up to 100 people you need a fully qualified HR person and that’s a constant, which in recent times has perhaps not been key, but you need access to those types of services.
“If you do have 100 people that will create a whole host of issues which need to be looked after. The people need help, support and guidance. There’s definitely a willingness and fragmentation means smaller businesses and more new business start-ups is part of an expression to get out of the big businesses. But fundamentally, legislation, policies set by Government stop us from truly going back to the days of ‘I could work in that way’.”
As to whether agencies would shy away from hiring such characters in this day and age – were they to come along – Nicky Unsworth, managing director of Manchester’s BJL feels this would entirely depend on the individual, but believes they can have a positive impact within a company depending on their temperament.
“We would certainly not have a problem hiring someone like that,” says Unsworth. “But it depends on the personality. Agencies should always be looking for young, enthusiastic people with a bit of energy and spark when hiring.”
So if a young creative comes into your agency wearing florescent colours and sporting the look of 100 consecutive hangovers, maybe it’s a good thing after all.
What is a Character?
What makes a ‘character’? When we talk about characters we are often referring to people who are unusual or atypical in some way. Characters are interesting and memorable precisely because their unusual or extreme personalities stand out from the crowd. But it’s the crowd we’re in that helps determine what is considered unusual. A person seen as a character by their fellow librarians might not be seen as a character by a group of advertising executives. One person’s character is another person’s crashing bore, it all depends on the type of personality that is common in a given social situation.
Psychologists typically measure personality on five dimensions: extraversion, openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness and neuroticism. The dimension most associated with creativity is openness to experience. People who score highly on openness to experience tend to be unconventional, have active imaginations and like exploring unfamiliar ideas or concepts - all qualities that are vital in creative industries. ‘Characters’, then, in creative industries may be those who are especially open to new experiences, even more so than their already open-minded colleagues. It would seem that organisations looking for extremely creative, intellectually curious individuals would do well to recruit these types of people.
Openness to experience, though, is just one of the personality dimensions and is not likely to be the sole criterion on which people are recruited, even when the specific job requires high levels of creativity. In the modern workplace factors like low levels of neuroticism (high emotional stability) and high levels of conscientiousness are also sought after. Success, as defined by meeting deadlines, is difficult for people who are disorganised, can’t stick to a schedule or get tasks done on time. Research backs this idea up, finding that greater career success, as measured both in terms of internal factors like job satisfaction and external factors like income, is strongly predicted by higher levels of conscientiousness. Similarly, low levels of neuroticism are also associated with better job performance as emotional stability tends to predict business success.
At one time it may have been the norm to hire the most creative person for a creative job, but in the modern business environment more prosaic factors like budgets and deadlines can dominate. Perhaps in the scramble to hire people who are more conscientiousness and have more emotionally stable personalities, creative industries have lost their characters.
Jeremy Dean writes about the science of psychology at PsyBlog, www.psyblog.co.uk
So, what does make a character? Becoming a legend through personal involvement in an amusing story always helps, so we managed to dredge up a few stories that have certainly helped to cement ‘character’ status for a few ne’erdowells in the industry.
We’ll kick off with a tale that may bring tears to your eyes and involved Jonathan Shinton of Newhaven.
While on a night out with client Tennents, Jonathan was dared to stick a chilli up his rear end. Never being one to back down from a challenge, regardless of how ridiculous it may be, Shinton thought ‘why the hell not?’. He whipped down his trousers and duly obliged with said chilli.
Within minutes he was found in the nearest toilet flushing like mad to cool the affected area while Mark Hunter, now chief executive of Coors Brewers, looked on, shaking his head in total despair.
A somewhat less painfull but equally sickening story is told by Doctor Andy McArthur, head of social media at Barkers. While on tour with the Tartan Army Andy ‘endured’ five days of straight drinking. Perhaps not surprisingly, while on his flight home from one game, he became ‘rather unwell’. He was in such bad shape that a kindly stewardess began attending to him. This was a real emergency situation, so the pilot was informed, to which he put a call out over the aircraft tannoy system: “Could a Doctor Andrew McArthur please come forward to offer his assistance.’ Needless to say, that particular Doctor wasn’t much good.
A story which demonstrates that Stuart Feather, managing director of Feather Brooksbank, is a real Yorkshire man at heart revolves, as many good agency stories do, around a pitch in the days when acetate and overhead projectors were the leading technology (that’ll be the late 80’s probably). Feather was presenting his bit when he suddenly sneezed and duly covered all the acetates in green phlegm, which remained on the screen for the remainder of the presentation. Apparently in another presentation he started speaking only for his tooth to fall out causing uproar. It should be pointed out that Feather Brooksbank won both pitches, thankfully.
Deborah Hepburn had more than a few anecdotes to share about fellow RBH agency co-founder and chairman Tim Rees.
Such as the time, six months after setting up the agency, when the agency ran out of desk space... So Tim simply upped sticks and gave his desk to someone new and used the photocopier as a desk – for the next six months.
Then there’s Tim as an early adopter of mobile phone technology. On returning from a client meeting in a car with Deborah, who was chatting away on her mobile, Tim became angry that he never received any calls on his mobile, so he hurled it against the windscreen.
On retrieving the phone and checking it Deborah discovered it had been on divert...for the last six weeks.
Julie Hanson, managing partner at Brahm, tells a story about Underline MD Malcolm Wright.
As a very young junior designer at Underline (Poulters) in 1989 she was surprised to find her new boss Malcolm Wright getting a lot of attention when standing in line behind her on the dance floor at the Christmas party. Imagine how embarrassing it was for her and everyone else to turn round and see Malcolm with trousers around his ankles and him happily dancing along with everything on show. What a guy.
Another larger than life figure on the Scottish ad scene was Simon Scott, formerly of Faulds and The Union. He once got down on his bended knees and begged a client for a piece of business. And he got it.
Once when on location in Cape Town Simon was mistaken for Ridley Scott in a restaurant. His dinner guest had referred to him as “Mr Scott” and a waiter overheard. Turned out the waiter was a film buff.
He said, ‘I don’t mean to interrupt sir, but you’re not Ridley Scott are you?’
‘The very man,’ Simon replied.
‘Oh wow, what an honour. I totally love your work. You’re a legend.’
After some autographs were signed and free drinks poured, the starry-eyed waiter asked Simon which movie he was most proud of.
‘I was pretty chuffed with Gladiator.’ Simon replied.
‘And are there any movies you regret making? Any you would have done differently?’
Simon thought about it for a moment. ‘Keep it to yourself boy, but I’m deeply ashamed of Blade Runner.’
The waiter protested, ‘But Mr Scott, that’s ludicrous. Blade Runner is part of cinema history. It’s a master-piece.’
‘No it’s not,’ replied Simon, ‘It’s a pile of poo. And that’s why I make movies, son, and you work in a restaurant.’
And here are a few more goings on from yesteryear as relayed by another industry character Victor Brierley.
See if you can recognise yourself among this lot: “Misfits who drove their company car for ten years, without a licence. Drunks who were so impressive at rehab that they persuaded all the others to leave and come round to his house and get smashed. Closet gays who laid out and slept on their desk during the day and openly met rent boys in the woods behind work. People who brought three dogs into work who skittered all over the floor most weeks. Men who smoked grass at client meetings. People who dressed as a gay roller disco jockey (complete with pink satin shorts, which you could see his cock through). Guys who had a mobile disco in the office every Friday. Guys who would walked naked through the building, after swimming in the river Forth. Media girls who locked the door of their office and fucked the studio junior (whilst everyone was listening). Evening News employees who invited you round for dinner and then had a ‘who has the best tits?’ competition round the dinner table, topless, obviously. Men who clipped their toenails and ate them, in the middle of the office. A man who had a telescope overlooking the nearby campsite and used to vocally tell everyone he was ‘away to empty ma baws’ after leering at some Scandiavians in a state of undress...
“I worked beside them all. Sadly most of these fuckers are dead. There are others. Some of these people are me!”