An interview with Dave Trott.


UK advertising legend Dave Trott has a new book out. It’s called CREATIVE MISCHIEF. The Sunday Times says it’s “genius”. My copy is waiting for me back in Chicago. And I can’t wait to read it.

Dave has seen and done it all. His work has impacted the UK culture many times. He’s won all the awards many times over. Yet he remains relentlessly curious and analytical. His blog has become a must-read for myself and many other people who love advertising. When I was first starting out in advertising in London Dave was the guy I desperately wanted to work for. Fate had other ideas. Reading his blog gives me some idea of what I missed out on. Oh well!

Anyway, I recently asked Dave if he’d let me interview him. He delivered in spades. Eleven pages in all! The following are his responses to the questions I most wanted to ask him. Buy the book!

Going to art college in the Pratt Institute in New York clearly left
an indelible mark on you. What was it about America that mostappealed to you?

I’m sure it will be similar to the experience you had Vinny.
Before I went to New York I was a failure at everything.
The English education system finds out what you’re bad at, then concentrates on making you less bad at it.
The American system finds out what you’re good at, ignores the bad stuff, and concentrates on making you better at what you’re good at.
Consequently I was a failure in the UK, because that’s where the attention was.
But I was a success in New York, because that’s where the attention was.
Also, New York teaches you confidence.
The country is built from rebels and rejects.
People who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, fit in with established European traditions.
People who questioned everything.
New York is where I learned to question everything.
At school in east London I had the class record for getting caned.
In New York, everything I got in trouble for in the UK was just what they wanted me to do.
Also, because America is a younger country it has a clean slate.
This gives it a ‘can do’ attitude.
If it’s a great idea let’s go for it.
As an older country, the UK has a ‘can’t do’ attitude.
This idea’s never been done before.
There must be a reason why no one’s done it.
So we’d better not take a chance.
Also I loved the anti-elitism of America.
In the English education system, they only take the best and then let you relax and go at your own pace.
In the American system they take everyone.
Then they set about weeding you out.
So everyone starts off equal, and only those willing to work harder survive.

You worked under John Webster. I can’t think of a better teacher. He really had his finger on the pulse on the culture and the comparatively new medium of TV. Was he a complete natural? Was that his thing? Or was it something else?

The amazing thing about John was that he had this natural zen approach to work.
He wasn’t carrying any mental baggage.
Every time he looked at a script it was like the first time he’d seen it.
So he was always fresh.
I’d see him pick up a script he’d written the day before and start reading it.
Then start laughing with surprise at something funny in it.
He’d written it himself but forgotten what was in it.
This meant he never got tired or bored with a problem.
But beyond that he was just a natural.
He told me he hated writing scripts because he could never get down what was in his head.
The funny noises, the charming visuals, the surprising edit, the pace of the movement wouldn’t translate to the page.
I think it would be a bit like asking Michelangelo to draw out the Cistine Chapel in outline, and put little numbers where the different colours were going to go.
When I was young, he said my problem was the finished film was as good as it was ever going to be at script stage.
I never allowed room for fortunate accidents that could be improvements.
That was a good lesson.
An ad is a work in progress, a script isn’t a legal document.

What drove you to start GGT?

There were two deputy creative directors under John Webster.
Me and a guy called Graham Collis.
Graham was much better at politics than I was, and eventually he got John to make him Creative Director.
I would have stayed at BMP working for John, he was better than me.
But I wouldn’t work for Graham because he wasn’t as good as me.
So I decided to get a CD’s job elsewhere.
But I wasn’t famous enough.
So I thought the way to get famous in a hurry was to open an agency with my name on the door.
And if I put it next to David Abbott’s old partner, Mike Gold, people might think I was in Abbott’s league.
So that’s what I did; Gold Greenlees Trott.
We only had enough money to last 6 months , then we’d be out of business.
So every ad we did had to make as big a noise as possible.
That way, when it folded, people would at least have heard of me, and I could get a CD’s job somewhere.
But with that attitude, we were accidentally a success.
Campaign described our work as having “the muscularity of the best American advertising, with the class and style of the best British advertising.”

You’re famous for your ability to spot and mould talent. Why is that?

Again, what I learned in New York.
I’m sure you’ve noticed the same things Vinny, in going from this side of the pond to that side.
England is a white collar society, America is a blue collar society.
The English like to take simple things and make them complicated.
They think it sounds more intelligent.
Americans like to take complicated things and make them simple.
Question it, break it down, see how it works.
I love that.
So I just pass on what I learned in NY, the way I learned it.
Question it, simplify it, work harder, be the underdog.
It’s a lot like the film about Brian Clough, ‘Damned United’.
He could train youngsters to go out and beat bigger, richer teams full of superstars.
But he couldn’t handle managing established star players.
I’m a lot like that.
I can pass it on to kids who are desperate to learn.
But I can’t work with middle and heavyweights who think they know it all.

What’s your favorite ad that you’ve done? And why.

Anti Third World Debt didn’t exist as a client, only a problem.
5 million kids dying needlessly every year.
But we did dozens of ads on the subject for free, even the media.
One ad I really like is a cinema commercial.
I shot with Paul Arden at the end of another job he was shooting.
Ken Livingstone, the controversial ex-mayor of London, walks through Gilbert and George’s ‘Naked Shit’ painting and leans on a turd.
He talks about how there’s more goodness in the turd we flush down the toilet than a Third World child gets to eat in a week. I was always told one of the absolute taboos in advertising is you can’t show a turd in an ad.
Like you, I love doing what you’re not supposed to do.


What’s your all time favorite ad? And why?

There are loads of ads Iove and wish I’d done.
But the only ad I’ve ever hung on the wall was done by a graphic designer.
It was for the Tate Gallery.
It was the London underground map squeezed out of different colour lines of oil paint.
At the end of the blue line is a tube with ‘Pimlico’ on it, and the underground logo.
The headline just says ‘The Tate Gallery by tube’.

I like it because it’s so stripped down, yet it’s got all the information.
What do we do?
Oil paintings.
What makes us good?
Modern, stylish design.
How to get here?
The underground.
What’s the stop?
Pimlico.
It takes a design icon, uses it as short hand, and tells you only just enough.
This is the sort of ad that works like the New Yorker cartoons.
It treats you as having the intelligence that you don’t need to be spoon fed.


You’re a big fan of my former boss Ed McCabe. Why?

I trained at Carl Ally under a guy called Mike Tesch.
He did the Federal Express ‘When it absolutely positively has to be there overnight’ campaign.
It was just after Ed had left Carl Ally to open Scali McCabe Sloves.
That’s where you trained under him right?
I envy you that.
Ed’s advertising was aggressive, confrontational, witty, powerful.
Neil Drossman once told me all Ed McCabe’s headlines read like they should have “HEY SCHMUCK” on the front of them.
Like, (Hey schmuck) “My chickens eat better than you do.” (Perdue)
Or, (Hey schmuck) “Where do you think fancy restaurants get the money to pay for all the decorations: out of thin air? No out of the food.” (Horn & Hardart)
Or, (Hey schmuck) “Open the window and take a deep breath. It’ll make you feel rotten.” (Coalition For Clean Air)
No one had ever done advertising like that before.
It was the opposite of the urbane, waspy Madison Avenue, martini and golf course advertising, that had a perfect family you should aspire to.
This talked directly to the person reading it.
As if you were intelligent enough to make up your own mind.
While other advertising would just patronise you and lie to you.


i’m guessing you were a big fan of Margaret Thatcher. Were you?

There’s a lot to dislike about Thatcher as far as her policies go.
But Thatcher understood the working class.
They like things simple, and they like order, and respect.
Take my mum for instance.
For fifty years she voted Labour.
Then, in 1984 she voted conservative for the first time ever.
I asked her why.
She said it was about the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday.
(The day when they remember the dead of two world wars.)
She said, “Did you see that old man wearing a donkey jacket? At least Mrs Thatcher showed respect and dressed smartly.”
The ‘old man’ was Michael Foot, leader of the Labour party.
He was an intellectual, and thought he was showing solidarity with the working class by wearing working clothes.
Which the working class just read as an insult to the memories of those who died.
I didn’t like Thatcher, but I don’t think that’s the job of a Prime Minister, to be liked.
Tony Blair thought that was the job, so do David Cameron and Gordon Brown.
That’s why they’re weak and ineffectual media creatures.

You grew up in the East End of London. I used to live in the east
end, in Leyton. It’s the Brooklyn of London. The richest culture in
the UK arguably. And there are many rich cultures there. But growing
up there in the mod era must have been a total trip. What was that
like?

It’s a good analogy Vinny, well spotted.
It makes sense: Manhattan as the West End and Brooklyn as the East End.
What makes East London different is it grew from around the docks.
So it always had a much greater proportion of immigrants than other parts of London.
When I got to New York people were surprised that I knew so many Yiddish words.
But I didn’t know they were Yiddish, they were just the way everyone spoke.
Growing up as a mod was different in different parts of London.

Check out the photo on my FaceBook page, taken when I was 19.
http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/profile.php?ref=name&id=716541268

West London mods all looked pretty much the same: scooters and parkas.
East London mods were much more about individuality.
Being the first to do something, and getting out quick before everyone else caught on and copied it.
Young people like to rebel against their parents.
So rockers tended to be middle class, wearing leather and greasy hair like Elvis.
They were reacting against parents with white collar jobs.
Mods were reacting against parents with manual jobs.
So they’d spend more on a pair of shoes than their dad earned in a fortnight.
Great movements always come from a reaction against the status quo.
At the end of his life, Helmut krone said, “We were very anti-establishment. Nowadays the kids want to be part of the establishment.”
Maybe that’s what’s wrong with advertising.
Nobody’s trying to change it, just be accepted and approved of.
That’s why I always quote what you said Vinny.
“We shouldn’t be worrying about awards, we should be way ahead of them. I want to be doing stuff they don’t even have awards for yet.”
You’re basically a mod at heart Vinny.

Best UK ad guy ever. You? Charles Saatchi? Paul Arden? David
Abbott? John Webster? I forbid you from voting for yourself.
Who’s the next best in your estimation?

I’m good, but I’m not in that league.
I’d have to say, for me, Charlie Saatchi.
John Webster was the greatest TV writer, no argument.
David Abbott was the same for press.
But Charlie Saatchi was different, in a bigger league than just advertising.
He took on and questioned everything, nothing stopped him.
He was the UK version of Ed McCabe.
But he took it to a bigger level than Ed ever did.
He would have public fights in the media that other people were too embarrassed to have, like Ed.
He revolutionised political advertising, like George Lois.
But then he built the biggest agency network in the world.
Really clever people would follow him anywhere.
Then he went on and revolutionised the art world.
Damien Hirst and Paul Arden both said the same thing about him.
They said however big you’re thinking, however big, it isn’t big enough for Charlie (sorry, Charles nowadays).

it was your campaign that got me drinking Holsten pils as a youth.
And Wassup!and Gertcha! both have exclamation marks and are
cathartic to say. So clearly you’ve been a big influence on me. what
do you think is the essence of a great beer campaign?

You once said to me, you and I ‘get’ beer advertising.
That’s true.
It starts with loving beer, and pubs, which we both do.
The beer market is the best example of the Pareto principal.
Which, roughly stated, is that 20% of your market accounts for 80% of your sales.
So usually, it makes sense to just spend your money talking to that 20%.
That 20% will be guys who like to drink a lot of beer.
So you’ve got to think, why do those guys drink beer?
To have fun, right?
So what we’re actually selling is the kind of fun you can have in a pub, over a beer, with your mates.
Lots of laughter, interesting stories, jokes.
Stuff you can laugh about and pass on.
‘Wassup’ was exactly that.
It gets a laugh as soon as it’s said, wherever you are in the world, in whatever language, it works.
Everyone can join in, and every time someone repeats it, it’s a free ad.
And it says you understand, you’re part of the gang, you like to laugh.
You don’t take yourself too seriously.
That’s someone we’d all like to go for a drink with.

You’ve started several agencies in your time. Are you just restless?

I didn’t start them by choice.
I started them because I fell out with the people at the previous agency.
Kind of like George Lois, I guess.
If you’re not trying to do great ads, you can concentrate on being a nice bloke.
If you’re trying to do great ads, being nice takes a back seat.
There’s the tension of trying to beat the best.
The fear of failure.
Competing with people at other agencies that you know are as good or better than you.
And there’s a lot of pressure and frustration around that.
So you argue a lot with account men.
Who are more concerned with keeping the client happy.
They think you’re just being a pain in the arse for the sake of it.
They get fed up with the aggravation.
They think they can have great work without the pain.
I don’t think that’s true, and I think history bears me out.
That’s why I have sympathy with Roy Keane.
He was trying to win the world cup, while the blokes in blazers were sitting around drinking champagne and being nice, amusing chaps.
Anyone can be nice if that’s all you’re trying to be.

What do you look for in a business partner? You’ve had some good ones.

For me, the most important person among the original partners is the account man.
Without him you haven’t got a client.
So you haven’t got any ads to do.
And without him the ads never get sold.
No matter how great they are.
So that’s the start point for me, a great suit.
And for me, a great suit equals energy plus pragmatism.
An old-fashioned salesman.
Someone who understands that what we do is sell stuff.
Like Ernie Bilko, or Del Boy, or Arthur Daley.
Or Tim Bell, or Frank Lowe, or Mike Greenlees.
Also, I found media guys make best suits because they are real operators.
They’re not strategists, or brand specialists, or new media gurus, or great thinkers.
They make stuff happen.
As George Lois said, “Don’t show me your drawer full of great roughs.
If it don’t run, it ain’t advertising.”

I’m guessing you’ve been told that you were too intense on several
occasions. Am I right? And if so, how did you respond?

Got fired usually.
The interesting thing is that getting fired is seen as a shameful thing in the UK.
Whereas it’s almost a badge of pride in the US.
In the UK it’s like ‘I wasn’t good enough.’
In the US it’s like, ‘Those wimps couldn’t handle me.’
Recently I got an email from a guy I was at college with.
He’s from Brooklyn.
He wrote, “Glad to see you’re still a troublemaker, Trott.”
In the US that’s a compliment.
In the UK that would be an insult

It slowly dawned on me that you are married to Cathy Heng(French
Abbott Gold, Brignull LeBas etc).Am I right? I know her work from the
D&AD annuals i memorized. How has that worked out? I know my wife is my soundest sounding board for ideas.

That’s right Vinny, Cathy is an art director.
She’s from Singapore and came to the UK to go to art school, about the same time I went to New York.
Her first creative director was Paul Arden, at Roe Downton.
Then she worked for David Abbott, at French Gold Abbott.
Then David Abbott again, at Abbott Mead Vickers.
Then for Ron Collins & Robin Wight, at WCRS.
Then she wasTony Brignul’s art director, at CDP.
Then she was head of art at Masius, when Tony Brignul was creative director.
But she doesn’t like to work with me.
She says I would get too intense and angry.
We met when I turned her down for a job at BMP.
And she didn’t speak to me for 2 years.
So now we keep work and home separate.

What’s the secret to winning new business? Or is there one?

There’s a saying basketball, “You can’t shoot the ball if you ain’t got the ball.”
I think new business is like that.
It’s no good doing great work if it won’t win the account.
So first win the account, then do great work.
It’s the same in any sport, American Football, Soccer.
The defence wins the ball then gives it to the offence.
The suits are the defence, the creatives are the offence.
At BMP we often lost accounts by trying to sell great work at the pitch.
So I learned, and at GGT we let the suits be creative directors for the pitch.
They should know what the client will buy.
Then, when we’ve won the account, we can junk that and sell the great work.
When we’re not in a competitive situation.
At Saatchi they used to say, “There are 4 media: TV, print, radio, and pitches.”

You’ve worked with Gordon Smith for yonks. Did you ever worry about
becoming too familiar and relaxed? And why Gordon?

I was first guy John Webster hired, when he was made creative director.
Then, when I got a group of my own, Gordon was the first guy I hired.
I’ve never really been in a team.
I needed an art director who could make me look good.
We’re not a team like Tony Brignul and Neil Godfrey.
More like David Abbott and Ron Brown.
Gordon and I don’t hold hands and go everywhere and do everything together.
Recordings, photo-shoots, gradings, edits, client meetings, briefings.
The general rule is, if it’s pictures it’s Gordon, if it’s words or sounds it’s me.
That’s largely because I’m colour blind, plus I have a short attention span.
Whereas Gordon, like most good art directors, is a fusspot.
He loves detail.
As Helmut Krone said, “I can’t wait for the copywriter to go home, so I can stay all night in the studio trying different type faces, point sizes, line breaks.”
Someone’s got to do that.
Gordon wants to, and I don’t.

What did you see in Steve Henry? A nice guy btw.

Steve has a theory about football.
Nowadays every manager knows the secrets about how every other team plays.
And all teams have great players, and great strategies, so they pretty much cancel each other out.
A game can end in stalemate.
That’s why you need a code-breaker.
Someone who sits a little outside the team, but can do something unexpected, outside the predictable.
Ronaldo was like that for Manchester United.
Steve Henry was like that at GGT.
The spine of the team would be: me, Gordon, Paul Grubb, Dave Cook, Dave Waters, Nick Wray.
That’s the equivalent of Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville.
Then you need someone who can surprise you.
A Ronaldo or a Beckham.
For weeks you may not seem to be doing much.
But in the big games they can be the match winner.
Over the years, I’ve had three of those.
Steve himself, Mary Wear, and now we’ve got Anna Micheli.
People who do something I can’t see coming.
People who can surprise me.
But I understand why you would ask the question Vinny.
Steve and I do very different kinds of advertising.
I think we still agree on the fundamental principals of what advertising is about.
We probably don’t agree so much on the detail of what it should like.
But differences of opinion can be a good thing.
As Tony Benn said, “The object of democracy isn’t to crush the opposition. The object of democracy is the vitality of the debate.”

What’s the future of advertising?

You must get asked this all the time too, Vinny.
I bet your answer is the same as mine.
Great ideas.
It’s always been great ideas.
Technology changes, but people don’t.
There’s too much communication to be able to notice it all.
Apparently we each get about 1,000 advertising messages a day.
TV, posters, print, radio, online, whatever.
Quick, think of one you remember from yesterday.
If you can’t, that’s the scale of the problem.
Even if you can, that’s one out of a thousand.
That’s the problem.
Getting noticed, getting remembered, getting acted on.
The future is to get what we do off the screen and into the language.
So people become our medium.
But that’s always been true.
The technology moved from cave walls, to fresco, to oil paint, to photography, to film, to TV, to digital, to whatever’s next.
But it still has to stand out from what’s around it.
It still has to get into people’s minds and get repeated.
And although technology changes, people don’t.
But you know that.
It’ll always be about people who can out think other people.
What we have to do is stand out from our competition.
That’s what we get paid for.
When the technology changes, it changes for everyone.
New technology won’t make us stand out because everyone else will have it.
So we can’t rely on technology to make us different.
It’s what we do in that technology that has to make us different.
Always has been, always will be.

Dave Trott has a new book out. It’s called Creative Mischief.
What’s it about Dave? I’d honestly be happy with a collection of
anecdotes.

As you know Vinny, sometimes the best thing you can do in advertising is get out of the way of the product.
So I’ll do that.
This is what The Sunday Times said.

“Dave Trott is not only a brilliant advertising copywriter, but a great team leader.
He now shares his thoughts about how you do advertising and run departments.
His ideas are equally applicable to writing a novel, making a film, launching a product, managing a football team, instituting life changes and any activity you can imagine.
Genius.”

7 responses to “An interview with Dave Trott.

  1. Great interview. Names like Ed McCabe, Neal Drossman, and George Lois that inspired me to go study at SVA when I read a interview of McCabe at Archive Magazine, when I was an intern here in Brazil.The only thing I knew about dave was his agency GGT, I can’t forget his Campaign for Red Stripe beer (that sucks just like reggae). Besides that I really tend to sympathize with troublemakers (it seem’s that I’m one of this breed myself), since my CV looks like more a criminal record with so many agencies for a short period of time. That interview made think how I had being absorved by the “Status Quo” that Dave’s refer here. Sometimes our survival instinct and cynicism make us act like that(specially in the markets that I’ve worked for). Thumbs up, Vinny!

  2. good stuff!
    I read Dave’s book yesterday
    Charles Saatchi’s next…

  3. What a pleasure. Thanks to you both.

  4. Great piece Vinny & Dave. Absolutely loved the George Lois quote (I used to work for him ), and the advice on winning new business is dead on.

    Just a great read.

  5. Pingback: What’s the future of advertising? : James Dunlop Copywriter

  6. Top stuff, Vinny. In a world saturated with ‘expert’ opinion, it only seems right to listen to someone who’s been ’round the block’ and then some. As you will know from his blog his spirited advice and worldly wisdom elevate the blog experience to something more than the sum of its parts.

  7. A colourblind man sees more in a great idea than people with 20 20 vision.

    Thanks Vinny.

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