Our second installment of The Creative Jukebox, a series which speaks to some of advertising's best known creatives about their favourite choices of music, features Dave Trott, former chairman of The Gate Worldwide and revered creative director who talks to Rose Lang about working with John Webster, the power of music in advertising and he relays his experience of working on a freight ship.
As I sit in the reception of Jungle Studios waiting for my guest to arrive, I admit, I’m nervous. There aren’t many people in the advertising world who could rival Dave Trott’s fierce intellect. His advertising blog and books are read by the industry religiously and quoted as if it’s the scripture - hence my nerves.
But as soon as Dave walks in, I am at ease. His accent is refreshingly cockney - I had feared his years in the industry would have beaten his East London twang out of him. He is also quick to take the mickey out of my own accent, making Crocodile Dundee references ‘call that a knife’ etc. I am in fact from New Zealand but I’m not comfortable enough to start correcting Mr Trott.
We hunker down into the recording booth and begin. In my best English accent I ask Dave about his first track. It’s a song that reminds him of being a teenager and being as Dave describes as ‘thick as a brick’. I look at him unconvincingly but he assures me he really did fail at everything growing up.
It’s obvious that Dave is most definitely not thick. I ask if it was more the school system failing him rather than him failing school. He concedes a humble ‘maybe’.
As we talk more it becomes clear that throughout his life, Dave created his own school by which he would gain his education. The incredibly talented and charismatic people he encountered became his teachers, and the challenging and exciting experiences he threw himself into became his lessons.
The first one of these life lessons that Dave shares with me is how he learnt about risk and reward. Dave begins his story and I lean forward – he’s naturally a very good storyteller. So much so, that at times it feels like it would be more fitting if my sound engineer Jim and I were listening to Dave around a camp fire roasting marshmallows.
The story begins with Dave finishing art school in New York. He wasn’t quite ready to join the Mad Men scene of Madison Avenue and was looking for a sign of what to do next. Then one day he had an epiphany while riding the Staten Island ferry under the influence of LSD (“it was the sixties, we were all doing industrial amounts of drugs”) and reading Joesph Conrad’s ‘My Years Before The Mast’. He decided he wanted to work on a freight ship and sail the seas.
To get on the boat Dave confesses he told some porkies, but as he reasons, “if you’re from London you don’t always have to tell the absolute truth”. So when the Brooklyn Navy officer asked if he had been on a boat before, if he was a good swimmer and had 20/20 vision, he was quick to say yes to all three. The truth as Dave tells me now “I am blind as a bat, couldn’t swim a stroke and had never been on a boat in my life’.
And so late one night, he was the lookout when the freight ship almost crashed into ten tonne aircraft carrier, missing it by a fag paper. This made Dave realise that lying about his eyesight to get on board wasn’t really worth it if it meant drowning in the Atlantic Ocean. Now he lives by a simple motto ‘is what you get, worth what it costs’, if it is do it, if it isn’t don’t”.
Dave tells me other tales from the boat that I later judge too risqué for the show – believe me, he has stories that would make Keith Richards blush.
Before Dave can disclose any more – I ask him about working with John Webster at BMP. Dave worked closely with John and was able to watch and absorb so much of what made him one of the greatest creatives all time.
One of the many things Dave learned from John was that the measure of a great ad wasn’t how much metal it attracted at awards. The real glory was found in “55 million little units out there singing your song or repeating your strapline or talking about your joke. Now they call it viral, it used to be called word of mouth, it used to be called getting into the language and that’s what we used to aim for”.
Another important thing John passed on to Dave was never to forget who the real audience was. Dave speaks with so much respect and admiration for the way Webster “would never talk about advertising with other advertising luminaries. I’d see him at night in his office and he’d be reading his ad to either George the van driver or Arthur the caretaker or Pat the tea lady and if they laughed – if it caught on with them, John knew he had a winner”.
During our time together we rarely talk about the music he has selected. I quickly come to realise that Dave has so much to say and is so in command of the conversation that any attempts to steer the interview are futile. I decide to throw my cue cards overboard and just go with the flow.
We do briefly touch on the power he sees in music in advertising. Something again he credits to John Webster, who used to always tell the Dave the story of when the lauded director Stanley Kubrick was making his space epic, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Famously Kubrick refused to watch any of the space ship footage without a track on it. The proper music had yet to be recorded so the editing team played the only thing they had to hand – The Blue Danube Waltz. Everyone waited for Kubrick to fly into a rage but on seeing he track and pictures together he just smiled and said “‘you know when I do this for real they’re going to call me a fucking genius”. From this Dave says he learned “you get the pictures and you try a lot of different soundtracks against it and you won’t know, you can’t judge it till there’s one thing coming in your eyes and another thing coming in your ears”.
Once the session is over, Jim and I both compare notes like two students after class. We’ve both learned a lot from our time with Mr. Trott who after a lifetime of learning has a lot to teach others.