An Hour of Advertising with… Wunderman Thompson creative director Paul Snoxell

In an Hour of Advertising, Matt Williams sits down for a drink and a chat with some of the industry's most inspirational people. Then he publishes the results pretty much verbatim.

The subject of the last Hour of Advertising of 2019 was my first boss. The subject of the first Hour of Advertising of 2020 is one of my most recent.

I worked with Paul Snoxell between 2012 and 2017. And I’m not sure I’ll ever work with anyone again who has such relentless energy and enthusiasm for great ideas. His care and attention to crafting great copy is infectious, he seems to know absolutely everyone, and he’s one of the direct marketing industry’s most decorated creatives.

Known to literally everyone as ‘Snox’, he began his career in the late 80s as a runner, which seemed cliched back then but is a rather rare career path now. His big break came in 1995 when he moved to EHS Brann, an agency that, as we’ll discuss in the piece, grew exponentially almost overnight.

During his time at EHS, Snox was made creative director at the ripe old age of 26 (yes, 26), running the likes of Microsoft, The Economist and Vodafone. A spell at digital hotshop Zinc followed, before he founded his own agency, DS-J in 2003. DS-J was sold to Partners Andrews Aldridge in 2007 and it was there, working alongside Steve Aldridge, that Snox remained for a decade.

At PAA, Snox won countless awards for work that helped people stop smoking, join the army and buy a Rolls-Royce (not all at the same time). And after a couple of years working as a consultant and running a (bright pink) prosecco van, he’s back in the agency world as creative director of Wunderman, linking up again with Aldridge.

In our Hour of Advertising we find out what Snox has learned from working with creative minds as bright and diverse as Aldridge, Ken Scott and Chris Evans. We discuss how the industry formerly known as direct marketing has changed so drastically. And he reveals what it’s like being made a creative director so young. Not bad for a man who says that all he really does all day is walk around drinking tea…

Part one: scalpel chaos, life as an agency runner and top tips from top creatives…

Do you remember the first time in your career you fucked up?

My first job was as a runner in a business-to-business agency in the advertising hub that is Leighton Buzzard. I was paid £15 per week in cash out of the chairman’s back pocket, until about five months later they offered me a more general job.

It was a typical runner job – I made the tea, did the copying and answered the phones when the receptionist was out at lunch. But one of my biggest jobs was when we did a shoot with a client. You’d have a large format transparency from the photographer and it was one of a kind. So I was shown how to do a presentation frame. You get a piece of card, mark the corners, trim out the frame, put the tranny inside, seal it up and you’ve got yourself a presentation.

We’d just shot this amazing injection moulding machine, and we were running late. It was about three weeks in, I was in a hurry, and as I sliced through the side of the frame, I included the tranny in that. Bearing in mind that a tranny would be about £1,000 in today’s money, but also because we hadn’t scanned it, there was no other image available at all. I’d basically fucked up the entire shoot just by going too fast with the scalpel.

If that was done three weeks in, it’s fair to say you didn’t do it again?

Oh no, the scalpel issues didn’t end there. In the ensuing couple of months I reckon I sliced the end of my fingers off twice. But I wasn’t fired from it because it turned out that everyone had done it at one time or another. It did mean though that I learnt very early on that honesty was always the best policy. I had to own up to it, I knew I’d get found out otherwise, I just came out with it and it was way easier in the long-run.

I love that you started off as a runner though, that’s a cliche you don’t find much more…

I think I was probably one of the last to do so. I did apply for Watford after working as a runner. I’d just about started copywriting – I still wasn’t allowed to do concepts at this point – and I went to see Tony (Cunningham, the leader of the Watford advertising course). He said: “Your book is just full of ‘stuff’, it’s all finished work, where are the ideas?” I just totally didn’t get it.

He showed me loads of the type of thing he was looking for and told me to go off and work on that. And I went away and thought ‘no I’m just going to carry on doing what I’m doing and I’ll see where it takes me’. I still wasn’t even completely sure that I wanted to be a creative then, I just wanted to work in an agency.

What was it about agencies that grabbed you?

Because I knew they were full of loads of interesting people. Loads of weirdos. You know we talk about the ‘bubble’ right now where everybody has the same beard and the same glasses and the same trainers? That didn’t seem the same back then. Everyone had different opinions. I found it very interesting that I could talk to a man who used to be a nuclear engineer who found his way into the planning department of a business-to-business agency, and someone who used to be an estate agent who was now an account man. You just got exposed to loads of interesting people and interesting things.

So how did you end up deciding what you wanted to do in an agency?

My first creative director, Paul Bennett, gave me the best book, which is Alastair Compton’s ‘The Craft of Copywriting’. The way it broke down who does what in an agency is superb. I remember reading its description of how a creative director could make an impact and I was hooked. I asked Paul if I could help out and because he was unfeasibly busy he asked me to write copy the way he wrote for one of our clients in the same tone of voice. I did one and it was ok. I did another one and it still wasn’t as good as his, but it was enough for him to use, and eventually I became the ‘agency copywriter’.

So you owe a lot to that first creative director?...

I would say every creative director I’ve had has had a positive influence on me, whether intentionally or unwittingly! Paul was an art director and copywriter and he’d do everything himself. He smoked 60 fags a day and drank 20 cups of coffee a day. But what I learnt from him was to fall in love with every product you sell, because it makes things so much easier. Paul would absolutely rhapsodise about a business that would make experimental plastics. You’ll know having worked with me since that to this day I still get a little too over excited about stuff most humans shouldn't get excited about.

Does that take work to do that, or can it come naturally?

I think for some people it’s natural. For others you have to work on it. Although they were never my direct creative directors, I always thought that Billy and Ross (Faithfull and Neil, creative directors at WCRS) would be able to find something to be absolutely fucking enthusiastic about in every brief. They were just into it. And that was really encouraging.

Then other creative directors like Toddy (Andy Todd) who was my creative director and my partner when we first started working together – there were only two of us in the agency so it kinda had to work like that – for whom it didn’t come naturally. I’d say that 80% of the creative awards I’ve won, I’ve won with Toddy, because he just has that knack of knowing what clients and awards jurors will buy. But he’s always said: “I’m just answering the brief. I’m not getting over excited and I’m not thinking about what would win an award, I’m just trying to answer the brief.”

Part two: growing a thick skin, the ‘open plan v office’ debate and what it’s like to be at an agency that grows tenfold overnight…

You stated working with Andy Todd at Arc/Tomahawk, which always sounded like a pretty fun agency…

It was fucking nuts. I remember we went on a company day out to Calais once. We essentially drank ourselves into oblivion, kept drinking on the ferry back – having had to blag our way back on because we’d almost missed it – kept drinking on the train back to Charing Cross, and I remember staggering across London from Charing Cross to Kings Cross and there were police horses everywhere. There were people fighting, things on fire…it was the day of the poll tax riots and it was totally unbeknown to us. It was like this psychedelic experience that the agency seemed to conjure up on a weekly basis.

Then EHS Brann came calling? That was another pretty crazy agency at the time…

EHS didn’t initially come calling. I went to Rapier for three months which was a fucking disaster, but I’d won what was called the Graeme Robertson Trust Award at the DMA Awards. I won it for copywriting and a guy called Paddy Hall won the art direction side. So EHS put us together and hired us. They were the fashionable agency and were picking people up left, right and centre. It was all part of the ‘new EHS’ – I was employee number 40, and then four months later Tesco Clubcard has taken off and there were 400 employees.

What was it like being in an agency where it just explodes like that?

Exhilarating. For five years it was insane. I started as a writer, won some awards, and we quickly became creative group heads on Microsoft and The Economist. And they liked the creatives front and centre – you’re in your early 20s and you’re in the room with the big dog clients justifying your existence, but knowing you always had Ken (Scott) and Terry (Hunt) to back you.

The whole agency was really young. Most people were under 40. I remember one year there were over 100 of us in the agency celebrating our 30thbirthday. At its peak the creative department was 300-strong. Because we had Clubcard, we had Legal & General, we had Vodafone, we had a lot of BMW work, we were Microsoft’s European agency, and then we won the entire British Gas business. That’s madness.

So you were made creative directors very young then?

I was 26 when I was made creative director. And I was just rubbish at it. But I worked insanely hard – I knew I needed to learn on the spot, so I worked 18-hour days, and then went out drinking with the creative department, footed the bill, wondered how the hell I was going to foot the bill, all those kind of things.

You also make really good friends with the strategists, with the account directors, with the senior clients. I always took the Peter Mead approach of being nice to everyone and hoping that would get me through. And in all my years I had very few rows, I very rarely even lost my temper, because being reasonable meant you’d always win through – there’d be no rancour or no one to come back at you who wanted to get one over.

I know it was a young agency, but how did you find managing people who were a similar age, or even older than you?

By allowing them to tell you that you’re being an idiot. If you’re managing people who have the same experience as you, they have every right to tell you when you’re wrong.

I pulled rank once, and never did it again – because it was a fucking stupid thing to do. It made the team very unhappy and they left soon after. They were a really good team who did great work and they’d just got a bit arsey with the client services team. And instead of taking everybody out for lunch and clearing the air, I went a bit over the top and did the whole ‘please come into the office we need to talk about something’ routine. That’s when I learnt that pubs are not just for entertaining in, they’re where you have your most telling conversations with everyone.

I hate the whole ‘closed door’ thing. And the rise of – and I do sound like a fucking old fart now – the rise of HR practice is overwhelming good, apart from the informal smoothing over of issues that get people working together.

Why do you say that?

You can’t tell how resilient people who work in this industry are. Back in the day it used to be that people with the thickest possible skins worked in advertising – because you’re getting your work pushed away, you’re getting challenged all the time, it’s long hours and demanding, the atmosphere in creative departments became what was to be known as ‘laddy’. And that’s not acceptable anymore, for many, many good reasons. But the one thing I miss is how things don’t have to be done formally, in rooms, with witnesses. If you’ve got someone who is slightly more sensitive, or paranoid, or is going through a difficult time and takes it out on their place of work, you can’t do it like that.

You’ve got to be able to manage people, not process?

It used to be more of a people business. I still think relationships run advertising and marketing full stop. You’ve got to be able to share goals and values with the client. Open plan offices were meant to bring everything together, but it’s probably now even more ‘us and them’. Because you don’t have that little release and little bitch and whine. That’s human nature to want to do that. You could get it out your system and then play nice again.

So you’re an advocate of offices?

I used to love having my own office when I was a writer. Because I could sit in there, have a think, have a chat with my creative partner, go to someone else’s office and bounce ideas off them. It felt intimate and strong.

When we switched to open plan it was good for me because by then I was a creative director so I could see what everyone was up to. But as we now know, open plan offices have been proven to be great for collaboration but bad for creative teams and creative thinking. Suddenly people were going out to work, which never happened before. And that was in the weird time before mobile phones, so I couldn’t actually get them back if I needed them – and of course whilst you make work better in solitude, you never really work as well when that solitude is in the pub.

Part three: founding and selling an agency, championing creativity and the art of copywriting…

After five years at EHS and a couple at its sister agency Zinc, you did a startup (DS-J). What prompted you to take the plunge?

I’d been at Zinc for two years and had a call from Edmund Smiley-Jones, who I’d worked with at EHS. And he told me he was thinking of doing a startup, and did I want in? And I thought ‘that’s interesting – David Abbott had his own agency, I’ll do it’. It was almost as basic as that, I just wanted to be David Abbott. I didn’t think ‘Terry Hunt and Ken Scott had their own agency and it went under because some fucker stole all the money and they had to remortgage their houses’ – that didn’t even occur to me!

We started off in the Midlands and then we moved to London, won loads of awards because we got Andy Todd on board, but we never got enough money to really succeed. At that time Partners Andrews Aldridge had a load of work but not enough senior people, so we merged with them.

Did you know much about Partners before joining?

Toddy and Steve (Aldridge) knew each other socially. And we knew Phil Andrews, because he was at Tomahawk with us. I obviously knew of Steve, because he was famous in the industry. But because he’s so painfully shy, at awards judging he’d be there glowering in the corner with a cup of coffee, and he’d never come over to you. So everybody who didn’t know Steve would think ‘my God, he’s scary’, when really Steve’s always really thinking ‘I’m not going to talk to him, he’s really popular and everyone’s getting on with him and laughing and joking’.

So take me through day one after you’d sold the agency to Partners…

The most important thing to know here is that about 12 months before we sold to Partners, I’d started growing my hair. And when the deal came around my hair was down to my shoulders. Why’s that important? Because obviously we went in the room to talk about the deal and there’s Steve Aldridge with his long hair too. He was so excited!

It took a very short time to get the deal done – about two weeks – and in that time I had all my hair cut off. So the day we actually started, Steve was mortified. That was the main topic of conversation on day one! And when I told him that I did it because I ‘just fancied a change’, Steve literally just couldn’t compute it. This is the man who has two full sets of Wallpaper magazine, one in his house in London and one in his house in Cornwall. He doesn’t ever ‘just fancy a change’. When he has his hair cut, he has a hair cut.

Did you realise the day you started working with Steve that you’d be working together at the same agency for the next decade plus?

Oh no, after the deal we didn’t even know if we’d be kept on. Shaun (Moran, Partners’ creative director at the time) had just left to join Lida, so Steve said to me and Toddy: “I think you’re going to be the new creative directors, but I don’t want to give you the job yet.” So we joined and sat down with the teams and did all the things that creative directors do for about two months, and then we went out for lunch with Steve on the roof of the old Soho House. And we’d done a drawing that had loads of little things on it that explained why we should stay on as creative directors – the sort of thing that a junior team would do to impress a creative director – except Toddy and I were old farts trying to impress Steve Aldridge. But it worked and we stayed.

So who were some of your favourite clients to work on?

I remember when we worked on The Economist. We simply wrote the subscription cards – but we treated them like mini-posters. We approached them the same way that AMV would approach the ads. And we had to do a new one every four working days – so there was a lot. And they would go on the same approval process as the main ads, so once they went out of the agency, they’d go in a bag around The Economist and so many people had to approve them. The subscriptions team, the commercials team, the marketing team, the editorial team… there were like 20 names on this sheet who all had Economist DNA. You had to answer all of them and get the ad through. It was probably the hardest but, ultimately, I’d say the most rewarding client I ever worked on.

Do copywriters need championing more?

I think all creatives need it. I think art directors, writers, designers, retouchers, flame artists all need to be recognised for how creative they are. There was this feeling that anyone can write copy and it’s been proved wrong. Now there’s this feeling that ‘anyone can be a designer’ because they’ve got a piece of kit and ‘it’s only going on Facebook’. And that’s wrong too.

When I first started doing some work with digital designers, the lack of care or attention on crops used to drive me mad. Because the people doing it didn’t consider themselves creatives, they considered themselves as performing a function. You’d ask them to do something and they’d do it, but too often they wouldn’t think creatively for themselves. The people who did, it was incumbent on them to change it.

How do you feel about co-writing?

I have co-written things before, but probably not in the way you’re thinking of as ‘co-writing’. I’d often write things at Partners, for example, then give it to two writers, who would then come back with ideas to improve it. Because why hold it to yourself? You’re writing it for wider consumption. I found that process helpful if I felt I was a bit too close to the subject, or if I didn’t have time to sit down and indulge. If time was an issue, it was a great way of short-circuiting the process.

It was great to get people testing you, making suggestions for new lines etc. It’d push the work further and I never felt pressure to keep it my own. However, that is very different from the idea of a team sitting there with an open Google doc and writing something together at exactly the same time. That feels like you’re just in a race to get your words down first. It’d infuriate me.

Part four: the oddities of being a creative director, dealing with your creative partner moving on and what happens when you cross Chris Evans with a pink Rolls-Royce…

You mentioned earlier that you became a creative director at a very young age. What was it about you that EHS saw to be able to make such a call?

Well funnily enough when Ken and Terry came to me at EHS and said that they wanted to make me a creative director, I responded by saying ‘why do you want to do that, all I really do is walk around with a cup of tea talking to people?’, and they said ‘that’s exactly why we’re making you creative director’. I’d only really seen creative directors sit at their desk all day, look at work, tell people that they’re shit and come up with ideas ‘just like that’. But in fact Terry saw that whilst he was brilliant at 99% of things, the one thing he didn’t have in spades was people skills. And whilst Ken had great people skills, those skills tended to be reserved for clients who had loads of money. So that’s why I got the job.

How did you find being that ‘people-focused’ creative director, balancing being an agony aunt but also being relentlessly enthusiastic and still trying to get great work out?

You want to tap in to the parts that people enjoy about their job. So if someone is completely focused on money, make it about the money. If they’re in it for the glory, make it about the glory. If they’re in it for the social side, then facilitate that. Everyone has a box that they want ticked. Whatever it is, find it out and talk to them about it.

I remember when I started, one team were really unhappy. So I said to them ‘I can’t pay you any more, you’re at the top of your pay grade already.’ So I talked to them. And teased out of them that what would be a good substitute for that was to run an account. So I gave them an account to run. That was quite easy to do.

How has the type of creative you’ve hired changed over the years? Has it changed?

Well obviously some of it has changed because at one point long copy fell out of fashion. So you needed different writers. Then a year and a half later ‘storytelling’ became the buzz phrase and those great writers were suddenly the most important people in the agency – which is just amusing.

I always tried to hire a writer and an art director – it would always send Steve nuts when we interviewed a team and asked them which was which, and they responded by saying they both did both. We’d say no, no, no…one have you has really got to be able to write.

So how did direct marketing agencies change as you worked in them?

They always pushed creativity forward – you had some incredible creative directors like (Steve) Harrison, Rory (Sutherland) and (Steve) Aldridge who demanded quality. But obviously digital was the big fundamental shift – and again it genuinely felt like it happened overnight. Our agency DS-J was at the last glory knockings of print mail, and then everything was digital. And there was this terrible period where digital budgets weren’t big enough to do anything justice. We had these great ideas, but didn’t have the bandwidth or budgets to do them. Clients weren’t buying into it – they just thought everything digital was banner ads – and it was just horrible.

It’s shaken out now, but it was quite a dark time for direct agencies. Ad agencies completely ignored it – quite rightly too, they just didn’t want to do banner ads. But the direct budget was being pushed into digital and to chase the dollars, direct agencies had to do it.

You were a team for a long while, then your partner Andy Todd departed. How do you deal with the transition from a team to an individual?

Well you go to the pub first, obviously. There is time for reflection. You have to think, ‘what do I do now, what do I do next, what do people now expect of me?’ If you were part of something, which you are when you’re a creative team, you need to know what you’re losing, and be honest in whether it can be replaced in the way that’s required.

Then of course there’s the whole emotional side of it too. I remember feeling a whole load of pressure to deliver more, and the urge within to just relentlessly do more was insane. You need to stop trying to people-please all the time. And that’s hard – I’m an inherent people pleaser and always love hearing someone say I’m good. A lot of creative people have to hear that, I think.

It’s interesting because this is such a fast-moving industry, reflection seems a hard thing to come by…

But it’s so important. And not just if it’s a creative partner. If your account manager leaves for example – maybe they’re the one who’s getting your work through. You need time to reflect and think about how you’re going to move forward. Maybe it’s the strategist who you got on with best. You need to be aware of the dynamic – because our job isn’t about ‘you’, it’s about a team working together to get to a result.

So let’s end with the biggie, what’s the favourite campaign you’ve ever done?

Not long ago, Rolls-Royce phoned Partners up and said ‘we’ve got a request from Chris Evans, which we’re going to agree to, but we don’t really know what to do about it after that’. Chris Evans had written a piece in the Mail on Sunday saying how he’d got the ‘Fab 1’ number plate that’s famously used by Lady Penelope in her pink Rolls-Royce in Thunderbirds. He’d spoken to his Rolls-Royce dealer and they’d decided to get a pink Rolls-Royce made up, put the number plate on it, and rent it out to raise money for cancer.

What a gift. So Evans had done this and wanted to know how Rolls-Royce was going to use it. We got our creative department together, told them the story, and by the end of the day we had a binder of ideas about what we could do. We went to see Chris Evans after his show the following morning, took him through the ideas, and he went with one thought ‘Fab 1 Million’, to raise £1 million for breast cancer with this Rolls-Royce. I’d dearly like to claim I had the idea, but I think about four of us had written down, so I really don’t know who would traditionally get ‘the credit’.

Working with Chris Evans on an idea must have been fun?

Well we were in the meeting room, and literally as we were going through the ideas, Chris was on his phone, calling up his chauffer company, who said they were going to donate a driver, phoning up his mates – Gary Barlow, James May, Professor Brian Cox, and someone else who I won’t name but couldn’t do it – to join him for the launch event where they’d drive the car from Land’s End to John O’Groats! He then phoned up the Mail on Sunday who said they’d get behind it too. It was remarkable to watch.

We went out to find the charity to work with, got the car kitted out, and this ‘unofficial team’ had sort of sprung up between our agency and Chris and his team. We had a bizarre brainstorm at Chris’s house in Sunningdale, where his two alsatians, both the size of wolves, prowled around the room eating everyone’s biscuits, and suddenly this project was live and ready to go. Three days later we were in Earls Court with celebrity photographers and filmmakers, 100 amazing people representing Breast Cancer Care and we shot a whole load of campaign material. I wrote a script for a promo film for Chris on A3 boards. He of course threw it away and did it without script, perfectly. A true pro.

We did things like created a site, gave the car a social media personality – which was still quite a new thing then – generated content from other people who rented out the car going forward, it was an amazing campaign and we raised so much money for Breast Cancer Care.

The kicker is that we didn’t enter it for any awards – I can’t remember why. And a year or so later I was chatting to Patrick Collister at one of his dos upstairs at the Crown & 2. He has featured the campaign in ‘Directory’ and was surprised to see that it hadn’t cleaned up at Cannes. When I admitted that we hadn’t entered it, he looked at me like I’m a fucking idiot. Which, to be fair, is true.

Artwork by Guy Sexty

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