Mike Everett: why CDP’s John Salmon was much more than a man in the right place at the right time

An appreciation of John Salmon by Mike Everett (left)

 

Back in the seventies, Paul Smith and I asked John Salmon (below) how he got the job of creative director at Collett, Dickenson and Pearce. “I was in the right place, at the right time, with the right expression on my face” was his answer. Well, he was certainly in the right place. CDP was arguably the best advertising agency in the world in the mid-seventies. And he was also there at the right time. CDP was winning awards and business, hand over fist. But what about the right expression on his face? This was typical John Salmon modesty. Yet, if I might borrow and corrupt one of Winston Churchill’s famous quips, he was a man who had absolutely nothing to be modest about. Quite the opposite, in fact, as Sir Frank Lowe who worked closely with John Salmon in the seventies will tell you.

Photograph by John Claridge

Sir Frank has described John, along with Tony Brignull and David Abbott, as one of the three great English copywriters of the last century. Sir Frank, of course, is right. John’s print work for Army Officer recruitment and the Metropolitan Police (below) still stands scrutiny 40 years later. He was also a marvellous creative director, acting with quiet authority as nursemaid, therapist, mentor, guiding force, and occasional policeman, to one of the most madcap and anarchic, albeit talented, creative departments in the history of British advertising.

One of his great talents was what we humble writers and art directors learned to call “Smokey’s deadly logic gun.” He could spot a flaw in a script or print ad a mile off. At close quarters he could be even more withering. Graham Fink once rushed into John’s office with an idea he’d dreamed up with which he was obviously greatly pleased. “John, John, look at this, nobody’s ever done anything like it before.” John briefly cast an eye over Graham’s idea then said, “yes, have you ever thought there might be a very good reason for that?” Another occasion concerns myself. I showed a piece of copy I had written for Texaco petrol to John. He read through it nodding along with it until he reached the last line. “Mike, this end line, why is that there?” “Because it’s funny, John,” I said proudly. “Yes, it is, isn’t it. Let’s get rid of it.” was John’s priceless reply.

When I became a creative director myself, at another agency, I sought John’s help. I found I was being bombarded with ten or so issues every day that were, according to the account handlers and creatives who brought them to me, in “desperate need” of my attention. John’s advice was to ignore all ten until the following day. “Nine of them will have gone away,” he said. “The one that’s left will be the only one that you really need to worry about.”

In later years, after his retirement, I was able to bask in the glow of John’s wit and wisdom during the many lunches I enjoyed with him. He remained sharp, drily amusing and highly entertaining to the end. And, like many writers and art directors, I owe him an enormous debt. It’s largely due to him that I am able to write decent prose. As I once said to him when he protested about me paying for his lunch. “What you taught me has enabled me to earn a great living all my life. The least I can do is buy you a meal to say thanks.”

Is he in the right place now? I do hope so. I know David Abbott’s already in Heaven, but religion hasn’t been getting a great press lately, so they might need another great copywriter up there to help out – oh, yes and somebody to keep all those unruly saints and angels in order.

John Michael Salmon 18 January 1932 – 7 April 2017.

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