Jason Stone of David Reviews catches up with Adam&EveDDB co-founder Ben Priest to discuss parental approval, John Hegarty's enduring influence and the ads he would want with him if he was secluded on a desert island.
Adam&EveDDB’s Ben Priest exhibits charming humility as he asks one of the receptionists at his agency whether there’s a meeting room available for our conversation. He looks perfectly prepared to accept that there might not be and seems almost surprised to learn that one is vacant and that it’s okay for us to use it.When we find the appointed venue, a junior colleague is using it to make a private call on her mobile phone. Priest couldn’t be more apologetic about displacing her and asks a couple of times whether she minds surrendering the room. He behaves more like a well-behaved visitor than one of the organisation’s most senior figures and it’s positively disarming. It’s perhaps unsurprising that he’s still trying to figure out where he is. The success of the company Priest co founded in 2008 has been meteoric and he’s literally been on unfamiliar ground since moving into DDB’s Paddington headquarters after Adam&Eve became part of the Omnicom network earlier this year. The complex corporate move that led to the creation of Adam&EveDDB completed a circle for the company’s creative director. For many years his father was ‘the client’ at Volkswagen and since the car manufacturer has had a famously long and fruitful relationship with DDB, Ben Priest is now responsible for its advertising in the UK. Priest says his dad is “still the toughest person to show work to” and it’s clear that the eternal quest for paternal approval is made even more complicated when your father is scarily well qualified to judge your creative output.
01 Wrangler Jeans - Pirate DJ
The first of Priest’s Desert Island selections provides him with an opportunity to acknowledge the importance of a week’s work placement at Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson during the agency’s brief but exciting 1990s heyday. ‘Pirate DJ’ for Wrangler Jeans – directed by Vaughan & Anthea from a script created by Chris Palmer and Mark Denton – provided the exhilarating backdrop as Priest and his partner David Harvey spent five days desperately trying to impress. Such a short placement may provide an opportunity but surely the need to make it count must be terrifying? “Not really,” says Priest, “because you’re at that age where you’re stupid enough to think that everything’s going to be all right no matter what... you just work – you’re at your desk at eight o’clock in the morning every day and you just work.” His memories of that week are tinged with sadness because David Harvey fell ill shortly after the placement and died just a few years later. Priest describes a partnership of contrasts: “we were perfect together... he was gay and from ‘up North’ and I was from ‘down South’, straight and went to a public school... somebody had phoned me and said ‘I’ve met this guy and I think you should work with him – he’s really, really different; he’s not into advertising but he wants to work in advertising’... an attitude that gave him a healthy disrespect for the business.” By his own self-deprecating account, Priest was Harvey’s polar opposite – an advertising geek with too much reverence for the great work he endlessly studied in his collection of D&AD Annuals.‘Pirate DJ’ was being completed during Priest’s week at Simons Palmer and he fondly remembers the soundtrack being constantly boomed across the offices as he and Harvey tried to catch their bosses’s attention. “Chris and Mark were an incredible team and I don’t think they always get the credit they deserve for the work they did at that time.”
Tango - Slap from Quiet Storm on Vimeo.
Priest’s second selection is the first of the great Tango commercials created by Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury (HHCL). It’s the one where a big orange chap slaps the face of a man to demonstrate the fruity impact of the advertised drink. “I love every aspect of it,” says Priest. “From the way it was filmed to the way they used Ray Wilkins for the voiceover... it seemed to break all the rules and I just loved it.” Howell Henry was enjoying a real purple patch when this commercial was broadcast and although the agency remains a successful company today, no one can deny that the era of Tango and Pot Noodle was its greatest. As much as he admires what Simons Palmer and HHCL achieved when they were at their creative peak, Ben Priest recognises there’s a warning in the brevity of their dominance. It’s clear that he aspires to build something more enduring and it’s telling that the agency he seems to most admire is Bartle Bogle Hegarty. John Hegarty is plainly a role model for him and after endorsing some of the views expressed by the BBH co-founder when he was interviewed for this series, Priest expresses the view that Hegarty has been the key factor in BBH’s ongoing success: “I know he’s not involved day-to-day any more but it’s still his agency.”It isn’t just the legacy he admires: “I can tell you for a fact that the best agency in this country last year was BBH. It produced great work for a whole range of clients. It’s not just Honda, Honda, Honda or whatever. And that’s what we’ve got to be aiming for. You’ve got to know where you are andwhat you’re aiming for in this business.” Ben Priest plainly knows which template he’s targeting.
03 Levi’s - Creek
This admiration for BBH is underlined by Priest’s third selection, Levi’s ‘Creek’. “I was amazed that John [Hegarty] didn’t have it on his list. It’s one of those ads where you can’t see what you would do differently.” What Priest particularly admires about ‘Creek’ is the way it’s successful even though its various elements suggest it won’t be: “It doesn’t really make any sense: it’s a fashion brand but we’re going back in time – it’s in black and white – the music’s actually pretty naff... but in the end, it’s perfect.” BBH had an amazing run with Levi’s but Priest feels it was impossible to sustain the momentum: “Success can be the Achilles Heel in the end. The problem for Levi’s came when it became so successful that the brand became unfashionable.”
04 Lynx - Getting Dressed
Next up is another BBH classic – Lynx ‘Getting Dressed’ which shows a young couple retracing their steps the morning after a passionate encounter. Priest takes the opportunity to express his admiration for Nick Gill’s script: “you think of Nick as a funny guy but look at what he does here. It’s so good that it makes you want to be the guy that wrote it.” Ringan Ledwidge’s execution also receives effusive praise: “It’s sexy but it’s not naff, it’s beautiful, it doesn’t try too hard, the actors are great, the story’s great, the idea’s great, the track is great, and Ringan – after seeing this, who wouldn’t fall over themselves to get to work with the guy? It’s just perfect.” In both these commercials, music plays a crucial role and Priest acknowledges the importance of finding the perfect track before revealing that differences of musical opinion are frequently a huge source of tension in his experience.
05 John Lewis - Only a Woman
John Lewis - Always a woman from Steve Wioland on Vimeo.
“Because of the way it looks and the way that it flows, people assume that John Lewis ad ‘Only A Woman’ must have been a joy to make”, he says of his fifth Desert Island Clip. But it was far from easy. Priest remembers an immensely difficult process with endless arguments about just about everything. It seems that his relationship with Craig Inglis – director of marketing at John Lewis – was at the centre of this tension: “We’ve had rows where I’ve thought: ‘I don’t see how we can get back from this’... it’s really been that bad. But I can never hold it against him because he’s just like me... he wants it to be brilliant. How can I be pissed off with him for that?” He compares the process of negotiating with a client as being like a difficult discussion within a marriage: “You can’t just bludgeon your other half all the time – even if you persuade yourself that you’re demonstrating commitment and passion, it won’t work because she won’t stand for it. At least, it won’t work all the time. It is a gear that you need.” It’s a gear that Priest is willing to use when his experience persuades him that he’s right about something: “You have to know when you’re right. You have to learn to feel it. I know that feeling so well now... and when you’re right, you’re right.” ‘Only A Woman’ was the John Lewis ad that really upped the ante for the campaign and it prompted the public to start anticipating each new instalment. Forget all the prizes and ovations at award ceremonies, this is advertising’s most precious accolade, and it is very rarely granted. Ben Priest knew that he wanted Dougal Wilson to make ‘Only A Woman’ and he feels that this decision was crucial. It’s a partnership that’s served both parties extremely well and it’s worth noting that all three of the John Lewis commercials selected by Priest were directed by Wilson. Thankfully for all concerned Priest says the rows that surrounded the making of ‘Only A Woman’ were far worse than any of the subsequent disagreements and he admits that it wouldn’t be “healthy” if the tension had stayed at that level. He says it is always the work that heals the relationship because once everyone looks at the completed films they’re able to say: “I might not want to go back there but I’m glad we did it.”
06 John Lewis - The Long Wait
The next of Priest’s three John Lewis selections is ‘The Long Wait’ – the 2011 Christmas ad. Also directed by Dougal Wilson, this commercial shows a little boy impatient for December 25. When the big day arrives, it emerges that his anticipation doesn’t concern what’s waiting for him in his stocking or beneath the tree, but his parents’ response to the gift he’s bought for them. It was a touching twist and the public and the industry alike lapped it up. An acoustic version of The Smiths song ‘Please Let Me Get What I Want’ provided the soundtrack and this inevitably led to dissent among the band’s notoriously spiky fans. Priest was unabashed however – especially after word reached him that both Johnny Marr and Morrissey liked the treatment and had given it the thumbs up.
07 Foster’s - Australian Advice
Priest’s second-to-last selection is another example of Adam&Eve’s output – the opening ad in the Foster’s ‘Good Call’ commercial series featuring a pair of Australians dispensing advice over the phone to people in Britain. In describing this work, Priest continually refers to it as a “proper campaign” and explains that everyone at the agency is encouraged to submit ideas for it. A simple, strong idea at the heart of this campaign facilitates the creation of each new execution in an appealingly old-fashioned way that’s pretty rare these days.
08 John Lewis - Snowman
The last word in Priest’s Desert Island Clips selection, as might be expected, goes to John Lewis. At the time of Priest’s interview, the 2012 Christmas ad ‘Snowman’ had just been completed but wouldn’t be shown on television for a further five weeks. There’s little doubt that after last year’s ad, the John Lewis Christmas ad was the most eagerly anticipated of this year’s seasonal commercials. Priest describes the pressure generated by the public’s expectations as “a high class problem”. He says it’s essential that he and his colleagues don’t allow the scrutiny to affect the approach they take. He’s reminded of a professional footballer who is about to take a vital penalty: “he can’t allow the fact that the entire stadium is watching him to affect what he does.” It’s fair to say that John Lewis’s ‘Snowman’ represents another ball being kicked firmly into the back of the net. Which obviously means only one thing – even more pressure next year. Ben Priest has a similar combination of charm and steeliness to John Hegarty and these qualities will serve him well in his bid to emulate Hegarty’s achievements. But equally important is a determination to ensure that every piece of work produced by his agency is good enough to pass the toughest test Priest can imagine... the nod from his father.