#1 An Hour of Advertising with… John Tylee

John Tylee has never worked for an agency. Never worked for a client. Never created an ad in his life.

But for this series, he seems like the perfect person to start with. By complete accident, he’s become a bonafide advertising industry legend.

Who else could have a leaving do that would see Dave Trott, Cilla Snowball and Jeremy Bullmore all turn up? Who else has interrogated the minds of every great agency leader of the past four decades? Who could pick up the phone and get Maurice Levy to drop everything to take your call?

I suppose that’s the power of Campaign magazine. An industry bible for which John has spent more than 30 years writing.

His stories are stuff of legends. Yet they’ve rarely been committed to print. Ever since first meeting him (I began my career at Campaign and John was one of many incredible journalists there who became great mentors) I’ve wanted to change that.

So, sitting in Shampers on Kingly Street — the place in which John has secured so many advertising scoops — he reminisces over his lifetime covering advertising.

Prepare yourself for plenty of “I can’t believe the industry was like that” moments. But also expect great insight into what makes for a great Creative Director (after all, John’s interviewed most of them), how agencies have changed over time, where they may be going next, and of course, what you actually need to do to get in Campaign’s good books.

Part One: how it all began, getting to know the industry and meeting agencies for the first time.

It’s been almost 35 years since you first started working for Campaign, how did it all come about?

I was a different breed when I came to Campaign. I’d been made redundant from Thomson Newspapers, so I went into PR briefly.

And then I found an ad for Campaign. I had no idea what they did. But I wrote to them and they asked for cuttings, which I sent. I still have the letter I got back, somewhere. It said ‘we have no vacancies at this time, but we’ll keep your name on file’.

Six months later they got back and said there’s a reporting job going. And that’s when I came.

So you knew nothing about the industry starting out?

I knew nothing about advertising. I only had preconceived ideas about what the industry was like. The first thing Campaign did was send me to see a guy called Nigel Grandfield to do a trial piece which involved interviewing Grandfield about an international network he was setting up. I arrived at his office and he was exactly what I thought an ad man ought to look like. He had the tasselled shoes and the cufflinks the size of Frisbees. The pinstripe suit, the braces and the silk tie.

I had to write his obituary a few years later actually, but I owe him a lot. I told him ‘I know nothing about advertising and I’ve been sent here to write this piece, and on the basis of what I write, I may or may not get a job at Campaign, so if I ask you some stupid questions, perhaps you could bear with me.’

So that’s what we did. And he was very good — he explained lots of things that I didn’t understand.

I wrote the piece and gave it to Robert Heller, who was the Campaign editor at that time. And I sat in front of him whilst he read it. He said, ‘well that seems fine, when would you like to start?’. That was my introduction to Campaign.

How was Campaign different to your previous journalism roles?

In the kind of newspapers I’d worked at, nobody ever bought me lunch. At Campaign, everybody wanted to buy me lunch, everybody wanted to be my friend. And the magazine had journalists who reflected that. The most famous was Gail Amber, who was the doyen of Campaign. She was the diary editor — you can’t imagine it now, but back then they had a dedicated diary editor. Her classic pose was a glass of champagne in one hand and a cigarette holder in the other. And everyone would sort of melt at her feet. She was powerful.

It took a while to get my head round the way the industry worked. I remember my second day — they sent me off to a lunch to interview a Creative Director who’d been fired by one agency and taken on by another. I went with full writers’ indignation — ‘this guy has been fired and these people have behaved like Victorian Mill Owners’. But of course, it soon transpired that this guy left with a very generous severance package and he was going to get even more money. That was my first lesson — everything not being as it seemed.

Do you remember going into agencies? Was it a different world?

Oh yeah. This was a time when the industry still had money sloshing round. They hadn’t learned discipline. But it was a great time for a Campaign journalist to be around. I remember Lintas — who were struggling in the UK but had a big reputation in the US — said to me ‘we’ll take you to New York and show you how good we actually are’. So I spent 4 to 5 days in New York — in the best hotels, best restaurants, seeing Broadway shows every evening. It’s inconceivable today.

You must have been coming across some interesting personalities?

The one who really sticks in my mind is Don White. He was the outrageously camp Creative Director of McCanns. They were a very mainstream and established agency, they had a succession of flamboyant creative directors. He was the most flamboyant of the lot. I remember him sending me a Christmas card once with himself naked on a bearskin rug with a bottle of Bollinger just covering his private parts. I discovered later on, fortunately, that I was not the only recipient!

But I’m not sure the industry would find a place for the Don Whites of the world anymore. You could say that’s a good thing — it’s got more professional. But it’s a shame that it’s got so corporate now that it can’t contain its mavericks. I miss them.

Part two: Favourite agencies, iconic ads and what makes a great creative director

Was it the creative directors you liked meeting the most?

Well they were the face of the agency. Certain agencies reflected the personality of the creatives. David Abbott is a prime example — his agency always came across very honourable and dignified but with a real creative flair, and that’s a reflection of David Abbott. Trevor Beattie has always been a calling card for his agency. Whether he’s the greatest creative of all time is a matter of some debate, but he could galvanize an agency.

There have been a number of Creative Directors over the years — going right back to the great Colin Millward at CDP — who may not have been world class creatives themselves, but nevertheless ensured that the agency’s output reflected their personality, which they did because they had a great talent for spotting talent and spotting a great ad.

Is that what makes a great creative director?

I think down the years we’ve seen it so often, that an agency makes a fatal mistake if their ECD job suddenly becomes vacant to look around and say ‘who’s the best guy we’ve got in the creative department? Let’s make him creative director.’ On the surface that looks like a compelling idea, but in practice it doesn’t often work out that way. Because these guys may be indistinctively great creatives, but they don’t know how to manage a creative department. As well as being a very astute judge of creativity, it’s knowing who works well with who, how you’re going to get the best out of your teams etc. Creative directors don’t ever seem to be taught how to be Creative Directors. They’re too often chucked into a job and they either sink or they swim.

Who were the agencies and haunts you most enjoyed visiting during your time at Campaign?

Well Abbott Mead (Vickers BBDO) I suppose in terms of favourite agencies going in to — because I’d known them for a long time but also because I enjoyed their culture. They were also grown-ups; you were talking to grown-ups. BMP in its heyday was very much like that too.

Favourite haunts? I’m going to be very boring and say the Ivy. It has something special. It transcends fashion. What sort of stories could those walls tell? It’s like a club where nobody knows who the members are. And you only know you’re a member when you ring up and don’t get a table at a strange time in the corner.

And what about the work itself? What were the ads or brand ads that you looked forward to seeing?

I used to love car advertising. Stuff like BMW and Audi. If there’s any industry that’s regressed it’s car advertising. I look at the stuff I see on TV now, or I look at print work, and you only have to change the logo on car ads. It’s so banal now. They do look like campaigns that have run out of road. And if there’s ever a sector that needs re-galvanizing it’s the automotive sector. I see very little that’s differentiating. Which is a shame because car advertising used to be the work you most looked forward to.

Do you remember the first time you saw certain era-defining ads? And did they feel like it at the time?

I suppose it’s easy to post-rationalise things like Gorilla. With the benefit of hindsight you can see why they did it, and I suppose there’s been a number of campaigns down the years like that, which you can say were great with hindsight. Campaigns at the time where you got the immediate buzz? I’d suppose I’d pick obvious ones like Levi’s ‘Launderette’ and Guinness ‘Surfers’. I remember seeing the Guinness spot in the agency and being completely knocked out by it.

Levi’s ‘Launderette’ was a real game-changer because when it came out, you were getting The Sun covering it as a double page spread, with quotes from the cast and agency. That was when it felt like big campaigns had really entered popular culture. When the nationals would pick up on them. And we of course see it now with John Lewis.

But I would say the time I saw David Abbott’s Economist work was the first time I was really blown away by an ad. I thought it was just brilliant. Not many words, a simple ad and a perfect line.

Part three: Life at Campaign – difficult interviewees, mind-boggling scandals and when a story goes wrong

Do you remember your favourite Campaign headline?

I do. It was 1992, and the headline was ‘Sex and fraud scandal at CM Lintas’. It revolved around a guy called Hugh Salmon, who ran CM Lintas, which was part of Lintas London. He’d been fired on what turned out to be trumped up charges that accused him of having inappropriate relationships with girls in his office. It was totally untrue and Salmon actually issued a writ against InterPublic (the owner of Lintas).

Because what he alleged was that the chairman of CM Lintas was involved in a scandal of his own, involving financial irregularities. Particularly involving one client. It was a tourist board and he was travelling standard class but charging the equivalent of First Class and pocketing the difference. To cover this, Salmon alleged that this was why he fired him.

With a writ being issued, of course the writ is a public document so we found we could go to the High Court, pay 50p and access it. This writ was half an inch thick, detailing all these allegations. And we could quote from it, getting reaction from Interpublic and Lintas and the like. That formed the basis of our front page. In the end Salmon was due to go to the high court — and I’d been subpoenaed to give evidence. I’d spoken to the then head of Lintas Europe to get his reaction and in a very unguarded moment he said ‘it’s alright really, everybody does this…’ So I rang HMRC to get a reaction and they said they’d rather like to know more about it… Interpublic went absolutely pale at that point.

It never got to the High Court but it did cost Interpublic half a million to settle — which was a lot of money at the time.

You’ve seen it all down the years, but was there a particular story that really took you by surprise?

Well to be honest, what’s going to match the Sorrell story? For a story that made me gasp for breath it was that one. Who would have thought five years ago that Sorrell would no longer be running WPP? It all came to a head in a very short space of time. I suspect there was stuff bubbling under for a while that we didn’t know about — and I can’t imagine we’ve heard the last of it yet either. All down the years I can’t think of anything to rival the Sorrell story for taking your breath away.

Do you remember a time when a story went wrong?

It didn’t go wrong but the one I remember in that mould was the launch of Barker & Ralston. You had Derek Ralston who was MD at Publicis and David Barker who was a very good creative — and together you had an agency that within a week of setting up they got the Abbey National business. I don’t know how they did it — it was a huge account for a start-up, incomprehensible.

When they started we had the tip that they were going to break away. So we’d done the interviews, had the photographs taken early in the week and told them when to resign so we’d be able to put in a call to their previous employers to get a reaction and everything was ready to go. I was doing the story and had everything set up. It got to the appointed time so I had to ring Rick Bendel who was the chairman of Publicis UK. I rang Rick and said “it’s about Derek’s resignation to do a start up and I wondered how you were going to rearrange the furniture going forward.”

And Rick replied “no, no, Derek’s not leaving, he’s not resigning. In fact, he’s with me now. Derek, I’ve got a strange call here, you’re not resigning are you? [Long pause]… You are? Fucking hell, I’ll call you back John.”

Do you remember the trickiest interviews you’ve had? Any you’ve really been nervous about?

One of the trickiest interviews I ever did wasn’t actually that long ago. I’d left Campaign by this time. It was Jean-Yves Naouri. Maurice Levy’s supposed heir apparent. No-one knew anything about Naouri really outside of Publicis but he seemed to be very much a favourite son and looked like the heir apparent. I really wanted to do an interview with him and had tried to go through Publicis London, who directed me to Levy himself. So I contacted Levy and I think because Levy said to Naouri “you have to do this” he was immediately going in to the interview kicking and screaming anyway. He was a backroom boy — didn’t like or enjoy the front of house thing at all.

We met for breakfast in London when he was over, and he was one of the prickliest interviewees I’ve ever had. I said to him “will Publicis ever make it as a force globally because of their ‘Frenchness’?” He said ‘you wouldn’t ask Leo Burnett if they’re too American or Saatchis if they’re too English, what kind of question is that?’. So I thought ‘ok, on to the next one…’

I asked, “you have a lot of responsibility in Publicis, you’re looking after developments in the Far East, particularly China, you’re looking after the healthcare business — it even seems you’re running a lot of the procurement in Publicis…” and he said “you wouldn’t ask Maurice Levy that, you wouldn’t ask Martin Sorrell that, why are you asking me?” And he wasn’t saying it with a laugh either, he was quite serious. That was a difficult interview.

Indeed, it doesn’t surprise me that Naouri never got the top spot because he was always such a divisive character. Front of house-wise, Levy always brought that, and I’d say his ultimate successor Arthur Sadoun is almost perfect at it.

You must have had some fun interviewees too though?

Tim Bell. I went to interview him about his memoirs and more specifically his time at Saatchis. He’s terrific to interview — he’ll say the most outrageous things but of course he can get away with it. He sat in his office and actually chain-smoked Benson & Hedges for our entire 2-hour interview, without any conscience. In 2014! Of course he was a complete Thatcherite, totally unreconstructed. But it was the most entertaining 2-hours I’ve ever spent with anyone.

How do you balance your relationships with agencies you cover and keeping impartial as a journalist?

It’s always been such a tricky one. Certainly in my time there were fewer agencies and more Campaign journalists. So every journalist had 12–15 agencies at most that you covered. So you dealt with them on a daily basis, and you did have to strike a balance because you needed to get close enough for people to trust you and give you stories, but you mustn’t ever have got close enough to be in their pockets. And often some agencies confused the two. Sometimes you really had to draw back. They would often call you ‘our’ reporter — and I’d often have to say ‘yes and no — I am your reporter in that I report the goings on at your agency, but not as such that you control me’.

In my first years at Campaign I spent an enormous amount of time in the agencies I covered. Because there were more journalists so you had more time to do so. So if an agency wanted to take you through a campaign, you could go in and get a much more rounded view as a result. These days it’s about getting a press release in and writing it up. There’s no time to go out and chase stories. I remember a time at Campaign when if it was a good story you could spend a good couple of days covering it. That’s not the same now.

So what’s your advice to agencies when working with Campaign?

I always thought there was just one simple rule as an agency dealing with Campaign: never lie. Because you will get found out. And when you do get found out, it’s hard to trust you again. When I joined in the mid-80s it was true then, and it’s just as true now.

When I came from newspapers, usually the people I dealt with were pretty upfront or honest, then agencies I found were telling you great big porkies. That would be my golden rule — don’t patronise them, don’t lie.

Part Four: The dream management team, the future of start-ups and the biggest threat to agencies

I’m really interested in your personal view on the industry. Let’s start this section with a game… If you were starting an agency, who would you — from any era — want your co-founders to be?

So let’s say we’re going for a traditional agency set up of suit, creative and planner. Creative-wise, I’d say David Abbott, undoubtedly. An absolute genius. We’ve talked about him and his work, but the way he approached life and his agency, they clicked together like Lego. He defined the culture of an agency.

Planner-wise, maybe John Bartle. Someone who learned at the feet of Stanley Pollitt at BMP. I once sat on an awards jury with John and I was struck by how astute and insightful he could be. He gets it — he gets the nub of the problem so quickly. An amazing talent.

CEO? I suppose I’d say James Murphy. Who’s done better in recent years? He’s somebody who’s led a small agency into a large one. And since then he’s gone into an agency like DDB that’s living somewhat off past glories and made it succeed. Very often when someone ‘new’ goes into an ‘old’ agency it ends in tears, but that one has been textbook really. You have to put a lot of that down to James Murphy’s approach.

That’s some start-up! Do you still see the start-up scene thriving?

It’s interesting writing Campaign School Reports right now, as it’s invigorating to see how many small agencies are still there — who have managed to hang on in there. A little while back we all thought we’d be writing their obituaries. That’s not to say there hasn’t been causalities, but agencies like Joint and Lucky Generals have managed to survive and thrive. Some have huddled together for warmth, but they seem to be able to pull in decent business and must be doing something right.

It’s somewhat ironic isn’t it that if you go back a number of years, Marion Harper launched Interpublic, the whole idea was that it would separate accounts. You’d have agencies under the same umbrella who would take competing business and it would be fine. And now of course that’s been thrown out of the window. They’re setting up teams and letting clients cherry-pick talent across agencies. It means client conflict becomes a very difficult thing.

But there are clients now offering real optimism — I was speaking to Keith Weed at Unilever a couple of weeks ago for instance — who was saying how they’re investing in some of the leading-edge creative agencies. Because they want to see what’s going on. They want to see what’s happening, see where things are going and want to be ready for the next development.

It’s obviously important to have clients like Unilever actively talking about maintaining the industry’s culture of creativity and innovation. What about from a Campaign point of view? Does the industry still need championing?

I think so. If you work for Campaign, it’s important that you like advertising. I can remember a time when that wasn’t the case. It’s an awful case of name-dropping, but I remember talking to David Abbott, and him saying ‘what really worries me is that there are so many people at Campaign who don’t like advertising’. He was right. And I think the importance is that you have to like it and go in to bat for it. That’s not to say you shouldn’t criticise, but you criticise for the right reasons. It shouldn’t be destructive.

If you want to do that, go and write for a national. It should be criticism intended to make the industry better. If you can’t think like that, then don’t write for Campaign. It’s not your place.

So without trying to criticise for the sake of criticising, what do you see as the biggest threat to agencies?

I don’t think clients rely on agencies in quite the same way as they did before. Clients are starting to win the race for talent now. Once upon a time a creative team might have left and gone off to work in a client company, and the agency would laugh behind its hand — and they would be back within a year because they’d get bored rigid doing the same thing day in and day out.

I think now clients can offer advertising people much broader experiences now. Creative, planners, programmatic experts — they’re much happier to look at a place client side. There’s a huge number of people client side now who have agency experience — and that’s because clients can now match salaries — which certainly wasn’t the case a few years ago — and they can also offer better insights. Clients it seems to me won’t let their data out — they want to keep their data to themselves and go out to third parties because it’s too precious. So they’d rather hire the people to come in and use their data effectively in-house.

Clients used to accommodate the agencies in a way where they’d stand back and let them come in and sprinkle their magic, and actually pay them decent money to do it. But of course things got out of hand — when you had Peter Marsh going to a client presentation by dropping on the client’s back door in his helicopter — clients started thinking ‘hang on a minute, we’re paying for that!’. That’s when things started to change.

Part Five: The arrival of Sir Martin Sorrell, his rivalry with Levy and feeling his wrath

Looking at your stories so far, when did that point come where everyone in the industry recognised that more rigour was needed!?

The arrival of Sorrell was a gamechanger. Whether you love him or loathe him, he made what was essentially a cottage industry fit for purpose on the global scale.

I was first really aware of him when he made his first acquisition — which was JWT. He was — as he proved — a joy. He was user-friendly. I knew that if I emailed Sorrell that within 20 minutes I’d get a reply. He was always very approachable. But he was also intimidating. I could understand why young journalists didn’t want to speak to him. He didn’t suffer fools — and he didn’t suffer journalists who he thought didn’t know their stuff. And he could be brutal if that was the case.

The most discomforting thing he would do was to turn around the question and throw it back at you. He’d ask you ‘what do you think?’ and to have to give Sorrell an intelligent answer could be very intimidating!

Were you ever on the end of his wrath?

I’ve found him a difficult interviewee at times — he seemed to be in a perpetual bad mood! I remember ringing him up a couple of years ago when I was doing a piece for Campaign on zero budgeting. It was becoming rather fashionable at the time and I remember I had to ring him up. He said “You lot at Campaign know nothing! I’ve been going on about zero budgeting for years and you’ve never taken interest in it until now.” I had to say to him “hang on a minute Martin — we write about all sorts of things every year, with due respect you can’t expect us to have your intimate knowledge of zero budgeting.” And he did say “I’m sorry I ranted…” and that was the end of it. He’d always move on.

He’s certainly not robotic that’s for sure. He is driven in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever encountered. Maurice Levy was driven in a very similar way. Levy and Sorrell just hated each other — it was a real vendetta. But strangely they were very similar. They optimised their companies, they were so hungry for success, they had all the top level client contacts, which makes you wonder what will happen to the likes of WPP now Sorrell is no longer there. It was Sorrell who was the glue that held it together. Does it matter if JWT or Grey is part of WPP or not? Those sorts of contacts and the synergy that Sorrell brought is now gone.

You said Sorrell changed things on a global scale. How has the UK’s place in the industry changed?

Down the years I’ll always say that the UK has held up well, it’s always punched above its weight. Of course the industry has had good years and bad years — and a lot of that is reflected in how buoyant the economy is. But these things are cyclical — I’ve always found if the UK has a bad year at Cannes, it’s really nothing to get too worried about…and if it has a good year, then it’s not something to get ahead of yourself on either.

Illustrations by Guy Sexty