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BBH Leo Burnett Heineken

Colourful characters: Adman turned artist Julian Hanford catches up with Coy! Communications boss Mark Denton

By Julian Hanford |

July 16, 2014 | 7 min read

From putting on the UK’s first ever World Championship Mexican Wrestling event to creating his own brand of tracksuits, Mark Denton is one of advertising’s few remaining personalities.

The Drum tasked adman turned artist Julian Hanford to pin down the moustachioed Coy! Communications boss and sift through the fertile mind behind award winning work for Nike, Wrangler, Heineken and many many more.

So MD, what was the first advert you saw that made you think, ‘I could do that’?

I remember when the Heineken ‘Refreshes the Parts’ campaign first came out, I saw the ‘Policemen’s Feet’ ad on telly and thought, ‘That’s not very good is it? I could do better’. Little did I know I’d have a chance to prove it just over a decade later – and of course I found that it was a bit harder than I first thought.

What was the culture like in advertising back when you started out?

My first proper agency job was drawing up other people’s layouts at Leo Burnett back in the 1970s.

They didn’t have a desk for me in the studio so I had to share a room with a senior art director called Norman Ike. Norm was the inventor of the Milk Tray Man and brilliant at telly generally.

As well as being an inspiration he was also a terrible influence and used to drag me down the pub as soon as it opened at 11am. Unthreatened by my obvious potential, he let me have a crack at his TV briefs.

I remember coming back from the pub slightly worse for wear and writing what I thought were some of the finest ads I’ve ever written.

And were they?

I actually believe they were. It just proves that you don’t necessarily get the best work from a creative by tying them to a desk. Then you went from Leo Burnett to BBH, which had not long started up?

There were only 30-odd people at BBH when I joined and it was arguably one of the hottest agencies in town. I feel that was the moment that my career started; I’d only been learning the ropes up until then.

Your work is steeped in classic British irony. Who were your creative heroes?

When I was growing up in the business there was CDP and BMP doing the best work, so my principles of what made good advertising were really informed by them.

And then Gold GreenleesTrott arrived and suddenly introduced a completely different tone of voice into the mix. I loved their stuff, it was edgy and irreverent. It felt like the punk of advertising.

Is playfulness and comedy essential to your work?

I think the reason that I’ve survived in advertising for nearly 40 years is because I’ve never really grown up. Being a bit stupid is probably my most valuable asset.

Do you think there is an active agency agenda to cut out the rise of personalities?

There used to be really talented and expensive creative stars that used to trade jobs like footballers get traded around now. Who are the creative stars today? They’re not out there.

I often go into agencies and see a big bunch of creatives with their headphones on, all mixed up with other departments in open plan offices.

No-one’s communicating with anyone, they’re locked onto the screens in front of them.

If I was a client, I’d want stars working on my account, rather than someone from the chicken coop. Creatives used to be the geese that laid the golden eggs and now they’re battery hens.

The talent is still there, it’s the environment that’s changed.

How do you go about approaching a brief?

I write down everything that comes into my mind about the subject and then shuffle it around until it turns into an idea. I find that being able to draw helps too. I’ve never tried staring into a computer screen in order to find an idea, even though that seems like the popular choice nowadays.

How would you change the advertising model?

To me it seems that a lot of big network agencies are earning their money by keeping the creative process going on as long as possible and filling out timesheets.

It doesn’t seem to be about finding the big idea anymore and then putting it out into the world to make a difference.

I’ve never seen quite so many over-long and over-populated meetings at any other time in my career. There’s definitely too much talking and not enough doing.

How do you view the world of ads, post-internet?

Advertising on the internet is like taking the world’s smallest, most microscopic needle and burying it in the word’s biggest infinitesimal haystack.

You see clients setting up these websites where they think punters are suddenly going to ‘engage’ with their product or brand in a way that has been promised on a chart by some brainy planner with trendy glasses.

In reality, more often than not, they’ve got a ghost site that no one visits because there’s a squillion other more interesting things to look at.

So what advice would you give to aspiring ad creatives today?

If I was young and creative now (as opposed to being old and creative), I might consider other options.

There are so many exciting opportunities out there that didn’t exist when I was a student.

Like computer games, for instance, and you’ve probably noticed that television is going through a golden age – it’s never been better.

You talk regularly about the idea of ‘making creative stuff happen’. How important is it to ‘do stuff’?

People ring me up and say, ‘Oh, the reason my career is stuck is because I can’t get my work sold’ – ‘the client wouldn’t buy it…’ or ‘the planner said it was off brief’ or ‘this housewife in Sidcup in a research group thought it was too amusing’.

As soon as you become a victim of that kind of behaviour you won’t do anything at all. Why wait for permission from anyone to be creative? It’s bloody daft. If you can’t sell yourself or your work, how can anyone expect you to sell a tin of beans?

And I’m convinced that the best way of showing off your talents is by realising your ideas rather than leaving them to gather dust in your bottom drawer.

And what’s next then for you?

I co-produced a stage play called ‘Sex Cells’ that was written by my missus [Anna Longaretti] last year. We enjoyed the process so much that we’re writing a musical together that we’re putting on next year.

Then there’s the series of kids books we have currently got in production.

I’ve got a list a mile long of unrealised projects and I’m pedalling very hard to get them all made before I throw the towel in.

Interview and photography by Julian Hanford.

This interview was originally published in the 9 July edition of The Drum magazine, available to buy in The Drum Store.

BBH Leo Burnett Heineken

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