The dreamers: TBWA London's Peter Souter on inspiration, screenwriting and why 'everything is copy'

Peter Souter

In a world of multiple channels and touch points, the best marketing is still defined by big ideas. In a new series, The Drum pays tribute to the people behind those creative concepts – the industry’s dreamers. In the first instalment, Gillian West gets inside the fertile mind of TBWA’s Peter Souter.

“Everything is copy”. These words of wisdom, passed down to bestselling novelist, director and journalist Nora Ephron by her screenwriter parents, are also the words of wisdom TBWA\ London chairman and chief creative officer Peter Souter lives by.

Starting his career at Delaney Fletcher Delaney in the mid-80s, Souter joined AMV BBDO in 1991, quickly climbing the ranks to replace David Abbott – a creative mind Souter says he grew up “devoted” to – and becoming executive creative director in 1997. After 17 years he took four years out to follow his passion for screenwriting, returning to adland in 2012.

“When I took those four years out, all that time I’d spent slumped on the sofa watching telly became research,” he laughs, “and that’s the great thing about being creative – everything you see or do or breathe in has the capacity to be helpful to your creative output.”

He says those years fed his creative output upon his return, and he advocates creatives taking the time to pursue more than just their day jobs.

“People in advertising are incredibly productive, inventive, genuinely creative, odd and funny, but there’s a slight inferiority complex. I found no one in the TV business I admired more than the people I work with in advertising.

“It’s like those Tex Avery cartoons where the character runs off a cliff. As long as you don’t look down you’ll keep going. If you can write commercially for a living, you can write anything.”

With Sainsbury’s ‘Try Something New Today’ ads starring Jamie Oliver, ‘D Rose Jumptore’ for Adidas and the famous Guinness ‘Surfer’ on his CV, Souter’s scriptwriting has included 2010 ITV drama Married Single Other as well as theatre and radio plays, the most recent of which was 13A 13B, a romcom for BBC Radio 4 starring Ruth Jones of Gavin and Stacey fame.

“I think it’s very important to have other outlets and other schedules,” says Souter, reflecting on his time out of the advertising industry. “As a writer nothing inspires you to write faster and more productively than not getting paid very much for it.”

“What’s interesting with copywriting is it’s all about getting things down in the least number of words. Longer form is a completely different kind of discipline when you have the time and space to develop characters.

“It’s like the difference between sprinting and running marathons. It’s great to sprint but sometimes you need to get out there and really run for a few hours. Both really feed each other creatively.” TV and radio are obvious passions for Souter, but when asked which he prefers, ever the diplomat, he says both as they’re “completely different” beasts.

“The great thing with radio, even within advertising, is that no one really cares about it. It’s a two per cent medium and even as a young copywriter fresh off the street I was recording and directing my own stuff within weeks.

“Even with the BBC, where you get a fantastic producer and director, you’re still involved with casting and production, whereas with TV, it’s the complete opposite. For example, Married Single Other took millions to make and was a huge collaborative process with so many people involved.”

As chief creative officer at TBWA\London, Souter inspires his “boys and girls” by sharing the work he wishes he’d done, with Breaking Bad currently top of that list. “It’s the best thing I have ever seen of any description,” he says while enthusing about being in a “golden age of TV drama”.

He describes the show as “funny and involving and ghastly and horrific” all at the same time. “I’ve never seen anything that takes you on a journey from a character you absolutely adore and sympathise with to being the worst person on the planet. It’s such a clever thing to do.”

Souter says the blurring of boundaries between advertising and content is increasingly inspiring, with clients finally recognising there’s something they can achieve in long form that they can’t in short form.

“There’s been a lot of rubbish talked about content over the years and really content is anything from watching plaster being peeled off on YouTube to movies. Wonderfully, if you create anything digital now you’re in competition with porn – someone’s only ever a click away from something very, very different indeed. I can’t see how we can avoid doing compelling content now.”

He is “inspired everyday” by TBWA colleague Walter Campbell, who screenwrote the Scarlett Johansson film Under the Skin with director Jonathan Glazer.

Souter also cites Richard Curtis as his “big hero”. “If I had written Four Weddings and a Funeral I’d have gone off for a nice long lie down on a beach forever, but Richard Curtis has raised a billion pounds through Comic Relief and that’s completely awe inspiring.”

The Drum's newest awards scheme, The Dream Awards, will recognise the big ideas behind the UK's best creative campaigns. The deadline for entry is 19 June.

In addition to this interview, Souter has also appeared in a film (below) as part of a series created by Lost Boys, featuring creative visionaries discussing the inspiration behind some of their biggest campaigns.

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