Having begun his career as a journalist before being handed his first break in filmmaking by Tony Kaye, Theo Delaney is a prolific, award-winning commercials director and content creator who has made ads and digital content all over the world for numerous brands and organisations. Now heading up production company Hotspur and Argyle, here he shares with Jason Stone the ads that mean most to him.
It’s slightly unnerving to learn at the outset of our conversation that, prior to becoming a commercials director, Theo Delaney was a journalist. Indeed, I could be forgiven for a little professional jealousy when I discover that he became news editor of ‘Direction’ magazine when he was just 21 years old.
Not only that, he used to interview directors for a living. When he lists the directors he interviewed I start to feel like a municipal tennis coach who has just spotted Rafa Nadal among his new students.
Whole generations of his family worked in advertising and, because of this, you’d think he’d have learned everything he could ever need to know about the business before he’d graduated from short to long trousers.
But that was far from the case and instead, he confesses, he “thought advertising agencies made the commercials in the basement”. He blames his family, saying: “They didn’t come home and say, ‘the director’s done a great job making our commercial’. They’d come home and say, ‘I’ve made this great commercial’”.
Once Delaney’s eyes were opened to the reality of the situation, he swiftly came to the conclusion that “the really great job in advertising was the director’s”. He beams: “I just couldn’t believe that such a fantastic job existed”. But he quickly realised that he had “no aptitude whatsoever for production”.
He concedes that he was a “useless production assistant,” and a “useless production manager,” explaining that he had “no attention to detail or organisational skills”. And so he turned instead to journalism. Ouch.
Delaney gained an insight into what he calls the “director mentality” when he was given the opportunity to interview Adrian Lyne. On the back of the feature film Fatal Attraction, Lyne had become the hottest British director in Hollywood and when he agreed to be interviewed by Delaney, it was a real coup for the young journalist.
At the other end of a transatlantic phone line, Lyne reported that he had no plans to come to London in the near future but mentioned a forthcoming trip to Paris and they began setting up a meeting in the French capital. “Incidentally, what would happen if I wasn’t coming to Paris?” asked Lyne. Delaney revealed that he’d been given permission to fly to LA but only as a last resort. “Well, don’t tell them I’m coming to Paris then!” boomed Lyne. The interview was conducted in LA.
Lyne didn’t just teach Delaney how to become an opportunist: “He spoke to me as if we’d been mates for years and he had no ego about what he’d achieved. And he told me how he became a director... he was also a failed production manager who knew he wanted to be a director but didn’t really know why or whether he could do it. Before that point, I didn’t really know whether I could do it.”
Adrian Lyne wasn’t the only director pointing the way. When he returned from LA, Delaney met Tony Kaye and discovered that he too had initially struggled with the role: “For a while he’d been a laughing stock as a director, but like Adrian he just kept going and kept going. I found them both to be unbelievably inspirational.”
Tony Kaye was so impressed with his interview when it appeared in print that he bought every edition from an Old Compton Street newsagent so he could hand copies to members of his family and invited his interviewer to write a screenplay for him. This unusual offer ultimately led to Delaney getting his chance to direct... but not for a little while.
01 Courage Beer
Delaney chooses Courage Beer for one of his Desert Island Clips because he wants to pay tribute to John Webster, whom he describes as “kind of a God”. He remembers being unsure about it when he first saw it at the age of 12: “You don’t know if it’s good at first, it’s just different”. This seems to be a recurring theme throughout his selections.
It made superstars of Chas ‘n’ Dave and it was one of the first ads to demonstrate the importance of the soundtrack, something that reminds of Delaney of another of Tony Kaye’s epigrams: “I was editing an ad and he popped his head around the corner and said ‘sound is 51 per cent of any film’ and disappeared. Then, about five minutes later, he came back and said ‘and so is editing’.”
Although John Webster was meticulous about his craft, he also believed in the ‘happy accident’ and Delaney offers a reminder that one of Webster’s most famous ads was blessed by his willingness to go off piste: “The best bit in the Smash ads – the bit that everybody remembers – came about because the operators were fucking around during a tea break and Webster was ‘loose’ enough to spot it.”
Before Bartle Bogle Hegarty got its hands on the Levi’s account, McCann Erickson’s advertising for the brand was built on a contemporary notion of America, and even John Hegarty – who is disdainful of the ads made by his agency’s immediate predecessor – would probably concede that Adrian Lyne’s ‘Route 66’ commercial was an excellent piece of work.
“Most of the commercials that we remember from that era were comedy ads, but there were some films that were amazing because of the way they were visually.”
Delaney goes on to explain: “I chose Adrian Lyne’s ‘Route 66’ because, when it came on the telly, you were just transfixed. Every little vignette was beautiful.”
The other great influence on Delaney’s life was Barry Myers. He was meticulous in his preparation and Delaney describes how, a day or so ahead of the production itself, Myers would spend an entire day on location with key members of the crew working out how everything should work so there would be no surprises the following day when shooting.
On other occasions, Myers would sit for an entire day at the location all by himself, just so he could assess the light as the sun passed across the sky.
Myers once surprised Delaney by describing how insecure he’d been when he first started: “He told me that when he saw an amazing ad on the telly by Ridley or someone he’d just start crying because he knew he could never make anything that good.”
Delaney was impressed by both the passion and the humility of this confession – especially as it came from one of the most intimidatingly confident figures in advertising.
Tony Kaye was a huge influence on Theo Delaney and it’s clearly a source of huge pain that Kaye has refused to speak to him in the twenty years since he left his company. It isn’t for want of trying; when their paths cross, Delaney always tries to speak to Kaye but finds that he’s steadfastly ignored.
Despite this, Delaney says he still worships him and identifies Kaye as one of the two most important directors of all time alongside Ridley Scott. “Ridley was Elvis, and Tony was The Sex Pistols, breaking all the rules and changing the way everything was done.”
He also has no hesitation choosing one of his former mentor’s commercials, for VW, which is an exemplar of Kaye’s approach: “There was no storyboard and no permissions. Tony believed that casting was everything and he managed to cast this perfect looking child,” filming her amidst the real chaos of New York’s streets. “The creatives on VW were Gary Betts and Malcolm Green – an underrated team – and they just let him go with it.”
Apparently, Woody Allen was shooting a film in New York at the same time and legend has it that Kaye shot more footage for this ad than Allen did for his entire movie.
04 Jiffi Condoms
It transpired that Tony Kaye’s company was run along similar lines as one of the director’s commercials. In the same way that he would shoot thousands and thousands of feet of film to capture the few perfect moments that make a fantastic commercial, he had aimlessly hired a number of talented young people in the hope that something might come of it.
Unsurprisingly it was very chaotic, and the film Delaney had been hired to write – a biopic about Kaye – never happened.
Then he discovered that his new boss had offered him as a producer to Patricia Murphy, another of the young acolytes. When he protested that he couldn’t be a producer, Kaye said it was easy: “It’s just acting.”
Out of this madness came Delaney’s big break. He was handed an idea for a commercial for Jiffi Condoms which suggested that the contraceptives could have been used to prevent the births of some of the nation’s most annoying people.
There was no script, no budget and everyone involved knew there was little chance of it getting any airtime for it, but they hoped that the inevitable ban might yield some valuable publicity.
They got more than a ban. Bonnie Langford, one of those maligned by the ad, took umbrage at the idea that she should never have been born, and sued. She won £30,000 in damages but Delaney suggests it was a small price to pay for the resulting publicity.
The film was remade, this time with the help of patients at an old people’s day centre who unwittingly posed as the parents of some of the 20th century’s most notorious and disliked people.
Delaney chose to tell them as little as possible and the understated film he made was widely mistaken for genuine archive footage.
To Delaney’s amazement, it won a Silver Lion at Cannes. Looking back, he identifies it as a pre-internet viral and believes that the same film today would be a huge online hit.
The only other film on his list that was directed by Delaney himself is an actual viral for Coca-Cola. The soft drinks company was backing an initiative that involved club officials putting themselves through an ignominious experience in exchange for financial support from the fans. Like the Jiffi ad, it was largely improvised and Delaney deliberately left the protagonist, in this case the chairman of a lower league football club, in the dark.
Delaney opted for this strategy because his star “was a bit like a real-life Alan Partridge” and, as he was afraid of needles, Delaney thought it would create an interesting dynamic if they took him to the parlour where he’d receive a tattoo if his club’s fans donated enough money to buy a new player. The outcome has the edgy quality of an out-take.
Delaney describes Honda’s ‘Impossible Dream’ as “almost a perfect commercial”. He bases this assessment on a memory from his 20s: “Like a lot of people, I used to be out of it quite a lot of the time when I was young and I remember when we’d all roll in drunk and sit in front of something like ‘The Word’ and no-one would really be paying that much attention. And then, every so often, an ad would come on and everyone would look up.”
Delaney regards this as the ultimate accolade and he identifies ‘Impossible Dream’ as an ad that’s going to make everyone stop in their tracks and pay attention.
He remembers being perplexed by it the first time he saw it, but as he watched it unfold he started to recognise the passion that had gone into it and before it had finished he was convinced of its brilliance.
07 Southern Comfort
Delaney says he wanted to choose a current commercial, but explains that he wouldn’t have done so “unless there was one that was bloody good”.
Luckily for him he’s happy to identify Wieden + Kennedy’s Southern Comfort’s ad from last year which shows a middle-aged man swaggering along a beach as one of the greatest of all time.
After uncomfortably admitting that he first saw it while watching The X Factor (he does it for the family) he describes his first contact with the ad, saying: “It came on and it was a bit like the Honda thing… I really wasn’t sure at first. I’m thinking, ‘that’s a funny bloke to put in a commercial’ and then I’m thinking ‘nothing’s really happening,’ and then it hits me, ‘this is fucking special... this is genius’.
“I only had to see it once and I remember tweeting: ‘that is one of the greatest commercials ever made’.”
Any discomfort provoked by Delaney’s journalistic background is short-lived. He is affable, humble and extremely entertaining.
I should have known really, but if there’s one thing you know how to do after being on this side of the interview it’s how to be on the other side of it, and Theo Delaney is a perfect interviewee.
I’m just hoping when we next run into each other he doesn’t ask me to write the screenplay for his biopic.
This feature was first published in The Drum's 8 November issue.