One morning while studying graphic design at Leicester De Montfort – and without any real idea what he was going to use that degree for – Dave Monk met Matt Waller. Three hours later, the pair had decided they were going to be a creative team and go into advertising.
As Dave discusses in this interview, it was a pretty knee-jerk decision. But sometimes those split-second decisions pay off.
A little over 20 years later, and Dave is running the creative department of one of the UK’s best-known agencies. He’s won Cannes Lions and D&AD Pencils. He’s enjoyed a decade at BBH, learning under the likes of Sir John Hegarty, John O’Keefe and Rosie Arnold.
He was part of the team that added some colour to Grey, working with Nils Leonard, Vicki Maguire and co to mastermind one of the most notable agency turnarounds in the past decade.
And he’s done it with infectious enthusiasm, a healthy dose of northern charm and a firm held belief that an agency only works when all egos are checked at the door…
Part one: losing portfolios, spontaneous pairings and joining an all-star creative department…
Do you remember the first time in your career that you really fucked up?
The first time I really fucked up was before I even got a job in advertising. My creative partner and I had spent a couple of years putting our portfolio together post-college, and of course, this was in the days where there were no computers, no cut and paste, so we had one copy of the book and I was heading into Covent Garden to make a second copy of our book. Two copies. Imagine that! On the way into town, I left the whole book on the bus. It was lost forever. That was a pretty big fuck up.
It was actually a good lesson in preciousness though. We quickly recalibrated and said ‘ok, we’re only going to save the campaigns that are worth keeping’. There were three that we quite liked. So we quickly recalibrated and wrote a few more campaigns over Christmas. This was November 1998. We took our new portfolio into BBH in the January, and they offered us a placement, based on the new book. So that worked out alright.
So as often is the case, it provided a good lesson…
It was a great lesson in killing your babies, essentially. It gave us the chance to say ‘look, they’re not good enough, let’s give it another go’. And that’s always stuck with me a little.
And it’s good you got your big fuck up out of the way early!
Well, there have been loads since too! In fact, there was another early on. Could even have been day one… John Hegarty had a pool table outside his office – and we decided to creep out of our office (we had offices in those days) to knock a few balls around. Anyway, Hegarty’s door slides open. I just stop dead and think ‘shit, he’s going to bollock us’…I had no idea what he was going to say.
He came over to us and said ‘Hello, I’m John’…as if we didn’t know who he was! It was a wonderful lesson in humility – he shook our hands, spoke to us for a while. It was great, but when he first clocked us, I got the fear – which is hilarious really because John’s arguably the most charming man in advertising.
Could you comprehend the aura of BBH and indeed advertising before you went in?
I was at university in Leicester and I wasn’t thinking about advertising as a career at all. But Matt Waller, who’d become my creative partner, had a mate who went down to do an internship at BBH. He’d come back and said to Matt, ‘mate, this advertising lark is great. Everyone wears what they want, it’s really chilled, you get paid to think up ideas…’ and Matt was like ‘that sounds good, I’ll give that a go’. So Matt got some interviews lined up down in London and he needed a creative partner. He wandered around the graphic design department at De Montfort Uni in Leicester, and I was there finishing some art direction on an assignment. He came and had a chat and in a properly spontaneous moment we decided to work together. My career has been pretty serendipitous ever since.
And here’s me in these interviews asking people for insights on what to look for in a creative partner…
For me it literally was as simple as having a chat with Matt one random Wednesday lunchtime.
That Wednesday morning: ‘What are you doing with your career Dave?’
That Wednesday afternoon: ‘What are you doing with your career Dave?’
‘I think I’m going to give advertising a bash’.
It really wasn’t more calculated than that. It could’ve gone either way and I might not be doing this job had it not been for that moment. I often think about how easy it is to not even know about this industry and how to get into it. Other than the work we make, we’re a terrible industry for selling ourselves. Especially to people from the far-flung creative corners of Britain. We need to showcase ourselves better, especially if we want to be a bigger and broader community. The more eclectic backgrounds we can tap into, the more diverse our thinking will be, and that can only be a great thing for ideas, and the industry as a whole.
What’s it like turning up on day one on placement at BBH then?
It was an incredible department at BBH. You had the likes of Nick Gill, Tony (Davidson) and Kim (Papworth), Ed (Morris) and James (Sinclair), John O’Keeffe, Russell Ramsey and the remarkable force of nature that is Rosie Arnold, who really took us under her wing in the early days. It was a phenomenal place and the calibre of work going out of the door on a monthly basis was astonishing. I loved being surrounded by the energy and the talent. They also had this ‘be good and nice’ policy which permeated through the agency. Everyone was generous with both their time and their ideas.
It was also really well organised. There was Jon Peppiatt as head of creative services – he was the first person I think we met. Lovely man. We’d get a bash at lots of great briefs, and because the creatives in the department were so lovely they’d give us guidance when we needed. We were there for three months, and then they eventually hired us.
So by early 1999 you had yourself a gig at one of the biggest agencies in London…
When we joined it was the time of the Johnnie Walker pitch. I think we had a route in it that went to the client. So people started to pay a little bit of attention to us. And we were like ‘we have absolutely no idea what we’re really doing’. But we got lucky.
Work Dave loves #1
The Swedish Tourist Association ‘The Swedish Number’
I remember seeing this as an idea in its infancy while at the Grey Creative Council in Sweden. Just a simple slide with the idea. The sheer red tape they faced must’ve been mind-boggling. A huge idea from the immensely talented Bjorn Stahl @ Ingo.
Part two: The creative process, building client relationships and leaving BBH after 11 years…
Did you and Matt have a way you liked to work back then, or was it a case of finding your feet when it came to a ‘creative process’?
I think everyone’s constantly finding their feet. If you find a creative who says ‘I’ve got a process of how I come up with ideas’ and they actually get it right every time, they’re lying, or they’d be worth millions.
I think you surround yourself with the work that you love, you look at the work that you want to be doing, and you constantly try and do better. That’s the only ‘process’ I’ve got. You take each brief as it comes.
One of the first briefs that we got was a poster campaign for Lynx. There was an amazing planner called Paul Matheson who gave us the brief and we all agreed that we wanted to try a new spin on the ‘Lynx Effect’ campaign, which as we all remember at that time simply featured beautiful female models being attracted to geeky guys. So we came up with the idea that words in French are always either feminine or masculine. We thought it funny that rather than showing women in the ads, could we show inanimate “feminine” objects being attracted to guys. We wrote hundreds of ads, but ended up with three faves, a wheelbarrow “La Broutte” pinning down a man in the street, a cement mixer “La Bétonnière” pulling a duvet off a guy in bed, and a chair “La Chaise” peering in through a window at a bloke in a bath. I remember Hegs framing them and put them on his wall, which at the time we were chuffed to bits about.
The reason I give you that example is that we were consciously trying to do something that wasn’t the obvious. It wasn’t the beautiful girl and geeky guy coming together because of Lynx, it was something more lateral that people hadn’t perhaps thought of before. And when we had people like Rosie Arnold coming up to us and telling us they loved it, it gave us confidence to approach more briefs the same way.
Do you enjoy presenting your work to clients?
To start with I used to absolutely hate it. I’d sit quietly and Matt would do all the talking. He was way more articulate than I was. Of course it comes down to confidence – the more you do something, the more comfortable you feel doing it. But it can take an awful long time to find your feet.
I did a bit of ‘acting’ as a kid. I hate telling people that. But I guess I called upon that a little bit to try and bring some confidence through. And nowadays, I really love it. But I firmly believe that you can only really walk into a room with an idea that you passionately believe in, and if that passion comes through when you’re presenting, then it should be straightforward to do. That’s easier said than done I know, but it’s how I see it.
Do creative directors have to be good in front of clients too? Or can they still get away with having an ‘elusive’ aura?
I think you have to be good with clients. I don’t mind being the quiet ‘creative person’ in the room who just drops in something that hopefully resonates, but I think you’ve got to have a business mind too. The client is expecting ‘creative stuff’ to come out of your mouth, they’re rarely expecting ‘business sense’ to come out of your mouth, so the more little strategic insights and understanding of their business that they feel the creative person has got, it goes a long way.
A lot of the people you worked with at BBH now run the industry – did it feel like that would happen?
It’s easy to look back now and look at the brilliance of the Charlie Rudds and Alex Grieves of the world and see how truly great they were, because you know they’re fantastic. But I don’t remember thinking at the time that half of BBH would be running half the agencies in town. It’s great though and what’s even better is seeing people you like and respect doing well. It was a great culture at BBH and I still feel pretty lucky to have been part of it.
So how big a moment is it when you decide to move on?
It feels like I need to give a bit of context. At any agency you join from placement, you’re only ever seen as the placement team. Certainly until more placements come in and do the same. Eventually we grew up and we became creative directors on a couple of brands, then we got invited onto the board, and I guess we got to a place where we’d been in the same agency for 11 years and we knew that although we loved it at BBH, to be a fully rounded creative, we needed to go and see some more ‘world’.
At that point we didn’t really know where to go, but John O’Keefe had just taken on the role of global creative lead of WPP, so we phoned him up to ask for advice. He’d been a great mentor throughout our career. And he suggested we go and have a chat to Nils (Leonard) at Grey…
…Which at the time was a very bland agency, certainly compared to what it became?
And that was a reason it intrigued us. Because you looked at the likes of Mother and Wieden and they were great agencies, but they weren’t much different to BBH. Big. Successful. Amazing. Of course they had their own cultures and style of work, but it wasn’t the risk we knew we needed to take. We went to talk to Nils and he was great. He told us he wanted to be the frontman on pitches and needed people to come in and ‘do the work’, which sounded like a brilliant opportunity. It was an agency that no-one was expecting anything from, but we could give it 18 months, see where it goes. We had nothing to lose and all to gain, so we jumped in the deep end.
What did people at BBH think of your decision?
I remember we popped in to see John Hegarty to say thank you for our time there. He asked us where we were going and when we told him we were going to Grey he went ‘what!? Where!?’ I also remember him saying ‘the thing is, if you want to work in a creative business, you need to surround yourself with creative people, and I don’t believe Grey has many of those’.
So we were like ‘oh, ok, thanks’. But he did wish us all the best, and added that if we made a go of it and he saw us again at any awards evenings then he’d be the first to stand up and shake our hands. We saw him about a year or so later while we were walking off stage at a ‘do’ and he stood up and shook our hands. Pure class, but that was BBH. They just had a habit of doing everything the right way.
Work Dave loves #2
Microsoft ‘Adaptive Controller’
Some ideas change the way you think of a brand, at best some will change how you think about life. The potential of this idea could be life-changing for people. A remarkable combination of creative thinking and tech ingenuity.
Part three: Grey’s rapid revival, creative optimism and a tearful divorce…
I don’t think I can remember an agency that went through such a transition as Grey did between, say, 2011 and 2016. It’s easy to say in hindsight, but was it clear to you that it was about to make such a journey?
Look, it wasn’t just that we were seduced by Nils – though we all know what it’s like looking into his crystal eyes. Before we joined we looked at work that was coming out of there – there were pieces like ‘Space Chair’ that they made for Toshiba and ‘The Angina Monologues’ for British Heart Foundation that made the industry’s head turn a little – I think they started to act as a beacon for people like myself and Matt to go ‘they’re good brands, they clearly can do good work, so let’s get stuck into that’.
But I think the other thing about Grey is that they had David Patton, who was the original genius behind the transformation. He was a brilliant ex-Sony client (PlayStation, Sony Balls etc) who had moved agency side and didn’t want client relationships to be the same as they’d always been. He saw an agency that needed transformation and he completely tore up the book. He broke up departments, knocked the offices down, restarted relationships with clients and created this whole new open culture.
So the groundwork was in place…
Yes. And I think at the same time – this is my understanding of it anyway – there was a bit of momentum globally behind Grey. One of the best things about Grey was the Global Creative Councils that were put together – a bunch of amazing creative leaders around the network who were just all inspiring in their own ways. So as London was building, there was momentum beyond that too. And the slight competitiveness between each office drove each other on further.
You had some real creative stars all in one department – the likes of Nils, Vicki Maguire, yourselves etc. To use a football analogy, that’s a lot of ‘big personalities to have in one dressing room’. Which can often be an issue…
It wasn’t at all. There was a lot of respect for each other. I think we all felt like one team, which is always a good thing in a dressing room. There was a brilliant sense of pride in Grey at the time, and we all felt it. If you hire well it can build momentum, and at the time we had Dani Bassil, now chief executive of Digitas, who did a lot of the hiring and found some belting talent. We didn’t just look in London – we went to Berghs College to find talent, we went to European agencies and brought in unknown creatives. Beyond the creative department too, the strategy department was amazing and some of the best account directors I’ve ever worked with – it was exciting times.
And of course it did help that together we all had something to fight for and something to prove. We had to believe in each other, and it was a huge collective effort. It was hard work though – non-stop really – but they were good days.
Throughout your career you’ve done some amazing work on what I’d consider ‘every person brands’… for an industry often accused of being stuck in its bubble and not ‘getting’ real life, how have you done that?
I could be overanalysing it here, but I think it might come down a little to starting out at BBH, where there were so many great brands and so much great talent, that we’d never get to work on the likes of Audi and Levi’s. Things have changed now – the way I run the department at Publicis.Poke is very much that everyone gets an opportunity for everything – but in those BBH days it was slightly more regimented and more of a hierarchy. You had to earn your stripes to get the big Levi’s piece. I don’t think we got a TV brief for the first three years.
So by natural default you’d be doing the more mainstream stuff with amazing brands, but things creatives didn’t traditionally want to work on. So we took pride in trying to ‘raise their floor’ a little bit. Turning small Lynx Christmas briefs into things that were bigger. We got noticed that way.
And I think it’s made me have a lot of love for taking a brand that people aren’t expecting much from and moving the dial up so people go ‘oh, I didn’t expect that work from that brand’. I’m also an optimist – I believe that with the right brief and the right clients, you can get good work out. Without those two though, you’re fucked.
In 2013, Matt goes to BMB. The man you’ve been part of a team with your whole working life. Did it feel like a bit of a divorce?
Oh yeah, we had a divorce party and everything! There were tears, there was a party, there was a fond farewell. I’ll cry at anything – I’ll cry at DIY SOS – but I never really saw Matt cry. And then on the final day at Grey, outside the lifts, he turned and had a bit of a blub. He’ll hate me saying that, so I think you should definitely print it.
Work Dave loves #3
K’s Galleries ‘Eva’s Stories’
I don’t think there has ever been a better use of Instagram Stories. Absolutely heart-breaking storytelling. A perfect use of the medium. Powerful work from Leo Burnett Israel.
Part four: Taking over a creative department at Publicis, building a creative culture and the ideal traits of a new employee…
Did ‘splitting up’ as a creative team change the way you work, or are you senior enough by that point that you’re working in a different way anyway?
It was a long time coming really to stop working together. We’d sort of decided that eventually we’d part ways – four or five years beforehand we’d talked about it. Why? Because it feels like that’s what a creative team does – it’s rare that they stay together forever. And because we’d had this in our mind for a few years that we’d probably end up going our own ways, the seed had been sown.
We then got into a position at Grey where we were winning so much business that there weren’t enough creative directors to go around, so we physically had to divide and conquer. We’d still sit next to each other, but Matt would go and run a car account, I’d do a pitch, and we’d start to do our own things. We’d ask each other’s opinions still, but we were too stretched to work how we used to. So it was a natural parting. I’ll always love Matt. Wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.
So you then go to Publicis London (now Publicis.Poke) and you’re now running the department yourself… did you have a strategy for the first day? Go in and fire the gobbiest person to make a statement etc?
I decided to join Publicis because I wanted to do something that I hadn’t done before. I’d been a deputy executive creative director, but never an executive creative director. My predecessor there was Andy Bird, who I knew from BBH days, so I knew there was some talent in the building doing good work, and there was also a new box of toys to play with, the likes of Renault, Tourism Ireland, Nescafe, Heineken etc, so it gave me the confidence to give it a go. Also, with Poke in the same building and Arthur’s creative ambition for the network, it felt like it was on the brink of something good.
So my approach wasn’t to bulldoze in there. It was to go in, see the lay of the land, talk to everybody, see what we can do together. I wanted to make everyone feel like they had a voice and they’d have the potential to be their best.
Was it another culture shock?
Starting at Publicis was very different. There was a completely different style and approach, a completely different work ethic etc. But I didn’t want to completely rip that apart – Oh look at this bloke from Grey thinking he’s Billy-Big-Bollocks. I wanted to take the good bits of BBH, the good bits of Grey, the good bits of Publicis and thread that all through into something new.
What does that look like?
I’m always a big fan of rolling up your sleeves, leaving your job title at the door and everyone bringing a view to the table. I love Ed Catmull’s book ‘Creativity Inc’, and my favourite chapter of the book is the opening chapter where he says that the most valuable thing he’s learnt in setting up Pixar is the design of the tables. There’s the hierarchy of long corporate tables versus the collaboration of circular tables etc. We didn’t have any circular tables at Publicis. I did think about hacking all the corners off them, but didn’t.
Anyway, collaboration has been at the absolute heart of all the best work we’ve done over the last few years and I think that’s what I love about where we’re heading with Publicis.Poke.It’s built on this entrepreneurial spirit of collaboration and embracing different specialisms in order to get to work that looks and feels different. Work that goes a bit deeper, has more than one dimension and lives with people longer than just an ad campaign. I think a lot of agencies promise this, but few have the backbone and structure to pull it off. It’s exciting times. A new shaped agency, with a lot of experience in different specialisms to back it up.
Did people respond to that?
I do remember in my first few weeks that there was some work going out for Tourism Ireland. There was something that had been sold through the client, sold through HBO, was almost all done and dusted and I looked at it and thought ‘it’s all just a bit complicated’. So I asked if there was any way for it all to be pulled. Which, looking back, was a pretty ballsy thing to do.
The account director came back and said, ‘I’ve managed to pull it, now get yourself in a fucking room and sort this out!’. We put a load of our heads together and came up with “Doors of Thrones” which was infinitely better (thank god!) but difficult to pull off. And the reason why I tell you that is because it was one of the first instances of what I wanted Publicis to become, which was purely collaborative, no egos etc, (and I know people criticise this phrase) but I do believe that an idea – at least the spark of an idea – can come from anywhere. I’d like to think that people bought into it and the Doors of Thrones work for Tourism Ireland was the exact shape of work that I wanted to make and working in exactly the kind of way that felt right.
Does it alter who you hire? How high on the list is looking for those people who will roll up their sleeves and won’t expect a corner office on day one?
When you’re hiring, you look at the work creatives have in their portfolio – or at least the potential of the work they have in their portfolio – and you can see straight away if it’s been an interesting collaboration. There are some ideas that you just can’t make without a bunch of people coming together to make it.
One of my favourite things to say to our team is to think of an idea that gives our Head of Production a headache. Because if they don’t know how to do it, then you’re doing something interesting! And luckily, we have in Colin Hickson, our Head of Production, one of the most creative people in our building. You need these kinds of people. The doers are what make the world go round.
Then, when you meet potential hires, you get a sense of who they are pretty quickly – if they aren’t afraid to share ideas then that appeals to me. They don’t have to be extroverted or introverted, the way they talk about their work is what speaks volumes, and you can always tell if there’s a piece of work in someone’s book that they may have been loosely associated with, or god forbid, wasn’t even their idea. I love a grafter, I love the doers, they speak equally passionately about big thoughts and minuscule details, they’re my favourite kind of creatives, they’re few and far between, but you can usually spot them a mile off.
Work Dave loves #4
Newcastle Brown Ale ‘The Superbowl Ad’
This perfect anti-commercial commercial. Funny and timeless. Utterly jealous of this.