50 years since CDP was born – was this the world’s best agency?

There are lots of other contenders of course, Boase Massimi Pollitt in the UK, DDB in New York, maybe there are supporters of Crispin Porter Bogusky in the US and even Campaign Palace in Sydney.

But Collett Dickenson Pearce, now no longer with us alas, created what we now think of as the ‘British’ style of advertising – humorous, self-deprecating, stylish and, to many Americans still, mad.

There was method in CDP’s madness, it reasoned that there was a better chance of selling the client’s product if people liked the ads and didn’t evacuate the room when they came on.

And, as this timely tribute from Campaign shows, it produced some brilliant work: Heineken, Parker Pens, Cockburn’s Port, Fiat and Benson & Hedges. It also toiled for some big unforgiving clients including Nestle and Ford, although inevitably it fell out with both.

CD & P were ex-Army types who, unwittingly perhaps, broke the mould of gentlemanly London agencies in the 1960s by hiring a bunch of cocky young hooligans including Charles Saatchi, David Puttnam, Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson, Paul Weiland, Terry Lovelock and Alan Waldie. This unruly crew was presided over by a young account man called Frank Lowe.

The agency’s first quantum leap happened when it was the first to realise the potential of the then new and groovy Sunday Times magazine which introduced colour print ads to monochrome Britain. A bit later it had the foresight – or maybe it just forgot where he was – to let Alan Parker loose in the basement to make his own commercials.

In between times it got itself into a lot of tangles; it was a public company for a while in the high tax 1970s and got into trouble for buying chairman John Pearce a herd of cattle and then went to war with the powerful print unions who then had a vice-like grip on Fleet Street. Over an issue that eludes me but it seemed important at the time.

Charles Saatchi went his own way to form first Cramer Saatchi and then Saatchi & Saatchi, Puttnam (an account man) left to be a photographer’s agent and then film producer, Parker, Hudson and Weiland went off to conquer commercials before turning their hand to features.

Ridley Scott too was a fixture at CDP although only as the agency’s favoured commercials director, Hovis and all that.

But there’s certainly never been such a collection of talent in one London agency, or even smallish British company, before or since.

And when the presiding genius Frank Lowe, who also used to drive his nearest and dearest up the wall from time to time, left to set up Lowe Howard-Spink with planner Geoff Howard-Spink (it was unkindly rumoured that no-one else was brave enough to set up with Frank) the magic abruptly departed.

Perfectly capable admen like John Spearman and David McLaren, and long-serving creative director John Salmon who somehow never seemed part of the inner gang, couldn’t sustain the magic.

Tonight they’re having a reunion, to which I was invited by a lady who used to work there. Alas I forgot about it.

But we shouldn’t forget CDP.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.