Paul Houlding: why Paul Arden is my ad hero

The founder and managing partner of London independent agency Isobel chooses as his Ad Hero a “bonkers but brilliant” creative genius who put his stamp on Saatchi & Saatchi’s finest work.

The other week I was at the Festival of British Advertising opening night.

And I must admit it I loved it. For someone who began life as a graduate trainee at Saatchi in the mid eighties it was a wonderful trip down advertising lane.

Legends who have shaped my time in the industry graced the screens, many graced the event itself and the Exhibition referenced some of the most significant and game changing campaigns of the last 50 years or so.

It was a great celebration of the sheer talent that advertising attracts, full of entrepreneurs, game-changers, mavericks and eccentrics.

Which neatly brings me to my ad hero. Paul Arden (below). In truth he was probably all of the above but I thought of him simply as creative genius. He wasn’t a mentor or someone who gave me my break. He wasn’t someone I worked closely with or would claim to know at all. But for a lowly account man starting out he was God.

I guess he is best known for British Airways, the Independent and Silk Cut campaigns. But as ECD of Saatchi he had his imprint on absolutely everything. He was original, he was a different league art director, and he made good creatives look ordinary. He was a class act.

But to be honest it wasn’t the work alone that makes him my ad hero. I loved his whole attitude. He was bonkers but brilliant. He didn’t compromise. Nothing was ever good enough. It could always be better. He wasn’t there to be sensible. He was there to be the best. I am not sure I ever encountered a creative at Saatchi who particularly relished the prospect of presenting their work to him but I would imagine most would say they are better for the experience.

His books ‘Whatever you think, think the opposite’ and ‘It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be’ sum up his whole way of thinking and are well known to people now in all walks of life. But back then none of his pearls of wisdom were articulated. He was just Paul Arden, executive creative director and you learned from him.

He was, of course, a nightmare for any account man. Sweeping up overspends, buying more time from clients, waiting whilst he rejected internal ideas again and again until he was happy were mere everyday occurrences. Somehow it didn’t really matter. Back then the only thing that mattered to Paul, the agency and therefore to you, was the work. Excel at the work and everything else would follow.

Do people like Paul exist these days? Do people have ad heroes in the same way? I am not so sure. It’s difficult to describe his character to anyone who didn’t know him but perhaps an interview with Herman Vaske that appeared in Lurzers Archive in 1993 comes close to giving you a feel for the man. Ten minutes these days seems a precious commodity to spare but if somehow you can eke them from your daily schedule, do have a read.

Paul Houlding (below) is a founder and managing partner of Isobel.

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