How to cock up a winning formula

I have always liked working on the briefs that no one else wanted or had exhausted themselves trying to crack.

I guess that’s why I like Pharma.

I like the briefs where you can slip in at the end, be a saviour and avoid the months of hellish rewrites and death by a thousand affiliate opinions. Just arrive at the party at the point where everyone will gladly jump off the end of a cliff to avoid thinking again about that wretched product. That’s when they are so grateful for any kind of answer you stand a half decent chance of actually making something.

Stealth creative.

I’m not sure I agree with the old cliche that there’s no such thing as a bad brief, believe me there are. But many of the seemingly plainer briefs have potential if you look closely enough.

The great briefs, or at least the high profile opportunities, are like the prettiest girls at school who absolutely know it and are so highly prized that only members of the 1st XV even stand a chance. (Once a public schoolboy always one I guess)

Your Levis, your John Lewis, your Volkswagens, they’re easy to spot and the competition is high within creative departments to bag one.

Or at least it should be.

When I was at the long since forgotten TCB – The Creative Business for long (an ironic ad agency name if ever there was one) and finding my feet in my second full year in the industry, we won the London Weekend television account from GGT.

At least that’s what I thought had happened, but it turns out we never really won it because it was ours already, we just sort of misplaced it for a few years and then they gave it back.

It was basically a small trade account whose prime objective was to persuade ad agencies to spend their client’s media budget on the station airwaves.

Dave Trott’s partner Mike Gold had come up with the idea of putting weekly posters up on the same 48 sheet sites outside ad agencies, in black and white so they could produce them quickly, and with the same spend as their trade ads in Campaign.

Over lunch Mike Gold pitched this media idea and the account was somehow theirs. Oh, the eighties.

The ads ran on targeted sites, getting double the exposure of a trade campaign, lots of press coverage and gongs galore at the industry awards.

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It was genius media planning and ground breaking creative and yet they could run tomorrow and looking at them even now they still seem fresh.

GGT had somehow ended up pinching a straw account and weaving it in to Gold Greenless thread.

LWT-Hurricane-Higgins-Snooker LWT-Whoops-Apocalypse

Then, after a couple of very successful years the account inexplicably came back to us at TCB. Wow, a ready made award winning ad campaign landing in our laps. We all rubbed our hands and sharpened our pencils. What an opportunity for us youngsters.

But of course there was a reason that the account had slunk back in through the side gate.

Apparently the client had got fed up with being bullied by the agency. The story goes that ‘Trotty’ ( I have never met him so if he ever reads this I hope he forgives my over familiarity) would send off Paul Simons the account guy, to present an ad and the client would basically buy the concept.

Upon his return there may have been a few client comments…

” Er, just one thing…the client absolutely love the idea Dave…”

“Please, call me Trotty…everyone does”

” Er…he was just wondering if he could just change the…”


“but you see…”


“But if we could just…”

“That’s the way we want it, if you don’t like it we’ll do another one”

The client could hardly change a comma and the ad was thrown in the bin and the creative dept was asked for another execution. Or at least that’s what we heard.

Well, you can imagine how that would go down. Not least with the teams back at the ranch.

But the work they produced on that account inspired a generation of creatives. They were hilarious, sometimes poignant and always compelling.

I assume the dialogue with the client was swiftly reduced to, yes I like it, run it – or no I don’t like it and here’s why.

At least if the agency produced a bummer they couldn’t blame the client.

But they didn’t so they didn’t have to.



After a while of this, the client decided he’d had enough of being bullied and not being able to change anything so he mentioned this to his wife who just happened to be MD of an agency called…er…TCB.

Yes, of course we would like the account back darling. We’ll be far more accommodating.

Now at GGT, Trotty was famous for filling the corridors with young hungry creatives (many of whom went on to become agency bosses and industry legends themselves) all competing for the briefs and working all night to come up with the chosen concept. This was, at the time, almost unheard of.

Senior creative people had their accounts and they did the ads, before a spot of lunch and an afternoon watching the racing at Kempton.

The idea of an ‘open brief’ was simply appalling darling.

At TCB, sitting in the partitioned office spaces looking down the barrel of another Milky Bar kid TV ad, I felt like Robbie Williams in Take That in his ‘wanting to be Liam Gallagher’ phase.

At TCB we had several creative directors…the ECD was a man whose claim to fame was creating Monster Munch, an iconic brand without doubt. I’ll leave it at that.

But the guy in charge of the LWT account was another man of mature years. He had been what you call a ‘creative account man’ and had been associated with some great campaigns as MD in various agencies, but to my knowledge had never written anything himself and had managed to pull off the impossible by becoming a creative in his mid forties.

Sometimes it’s who you know.

Even though there were a couple of young hungry creatives working there, including myself, our CD kept these poster briefs closely guarded.

He knew their worth and not just to the agency, for a Creative Director with no ads to his name, this was his golden ticket to credibility.

So in precisely the polar opposite approach to GGT he wrote them all himself, under cover of darkness in a camouflaged hut in the woods, surrounded by barbed wire and guards (probably)

And I guess with a little of the client’s art directional expertise thrown in.

The resulting ads were poor imitations of the GGT work. They were in colour, so took 4 weeks to print not 1, so lacked that sparky spontaneity. They were overblown awful visual and verbal puns mostly and they were paraded to us juniors like they were the pinnacle of creativity, we could but dream of such brilliance.

But of course they weren’t. I’m sorry if you are reading this and recognize yourself, but that was the truth. It was like comparing A View to a Kill with Dr No.

I can remember one example. It was for a programme called HOT METAL, which was a drama about a newspaper. The poster was the words ‘hot metal’ set in…er hot metal. So, reading backwards yeah?…revolutionary.

I admit it, I’m still bitter.

The awards dried up as fast as the excuses began to flow.

Overnight it started to become the client’s fault. Guys this client is tricky…etc

Talk about making the agency look even more toothless and dated than it already did.

I often wonder whether LWT would have traded back their new accommodating agency for their old, bullying one had the relationship not hinged on an actual marriage.

And of course even though Trotty didn’t do any of the famous ads himself (as far as I know)  his unmistakeable hand upon the tiller gave him the kudos and created one of his agencies defining pieces of work, not by hogging it all but by giving the brief away to youngsters who had no real experience but passion by the weekend-load.

And my CD? well, I’m pretty sure you’ve never heard of him.

Poor work is ultimately always the agencies fault, sometimes because we let the client lobotomize it and sometimes because we let politics and egos get in the way and sometimes it’s because the talent just isn’t there.

Anyway, back at TCB they soon fired me for being a gobby little shit.

And for that I will always be grateful.