Matt Williams: four things I learnt from an Hour of Advertising with adam&eve founder Ben Priest

The best bit about sitting down with advertising leaders for the Hour of Advertising project is witnessing the passion and enthusiasm they have for the industry.

There’s a lot wrong with the industry, sure. And agencies are being threatened by new and different challenges every day. But every person I’ve spoken to so far seems to have got where they are today because, despite the testing times, they absolutely love what they do.

My latest chat, with Ben Priest (below), was no exception. Here is one of the most important creative directors of the past 30 years. He’s launched the UK’s most successful agency in recent times, won an eye-watering amount of creative awards and, thanks to his work on John Lewis, changed Christmas advertising as we know it.

For his Hour of Advertising, we discuss those John Lewis ads, what it’s like to run a successful start-up, the merger with DDB and other great adam&eve ads that may not have got as much PR as the Christmas spectaculars.

But we also talk about how Ben started life as a misguided account executive, what he looks for in a creative team, and, yes, his obsession with the industry.

You can read the whole piece here. But to start you off, here are four nuggets in particular that caught my eye.

Know your history

Priest is an unashamed advertising fanboy. He cares about the history of the industry and reveres the legends that came before him. And that obsessive passion is something he believes took him far. “I wanted to be able to be the one who knew everything about it. Until I had a mass of brilliant work, it was the best way that I could show that I loved the business,” he says.

“The shittest, ill thought-through words of advice I ever heard anyone give was when I heard a creative director say not to read the Annuals or anything like that. He was trying to be flamboyant and exotic but it just sounded really dumb. You’d never make The Godfather or Apocalypse Now by having ignored all cinema prior to that.”

Creatives can love clients too

A lesson, Priest says, he learnt from Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe founder Mark Roalfe. “Mark was a great creative who liked his clients. He looked forward to seeing them and bringing them something brilliant. When I looked at my time at an agency like TBWA, clients seemed to be seen as provincial fuckwits who were lucky to have us in a room… I learnt to build a relationship with clients – to learn about their business and then give them great work that would truly make a difference to them, rather than just work that was going to impress your mates at JWT.”

A good creative doesn’t necessarily make a good creative director (and vice versa)

This is a point that’s come up in a few of my Hour of Advertising conversations now. When searching for a new creative director, why do agencies always look for who has the best book, rather than the best leadership skills? Priest picks up how becoming a creative director changed him – for the better.

“Before it I’d definitely been an aggressive, arguing-the-toss-over-full-stops pain in the arse creative. Then I found this job where you couldn’t do that – all your teams would leave and your clients would say they didn’t want to work with you any more. And it was a blessed relief to actually have a conversation and be decent. So I thought, ‘that’s what I want to do now.’ I wanted to help other people do work.” In my opinion, too few creative directors take that approach.

Tackling the John Lewis Christmas campaign isn’t intimidating

And not just because, as Ben says, “it’s (just) an ad.” It’s not intimidating because there’s a formula and level of consistency to the process. “Craig Inglis was always the client, I was always the creative director and when I went to pass it on to Rick Brim we did it together for a while to handle the transition.”

Priest continues: “The only two things that really change is that underneath that you need lots of different creative people who don’t know what the rules are and can come in and look at it with fresh eyes. And that you’re going to work out what you’re going to do based on what you’ve done. No-one has a crystal ball to say ‘this year it’s about inanimate objects.’ What you do say is ‘we’re never going to make another ad based around a little kid as good as ‘The Long Wait,’ so that’s why this year (for example) it’s two snowmen looking for love. Brilliant.” And brilliant it almost always is.

You can read the full interview here. Illustrations by Guy Sexty. For the entire Hour of Advertising series, click here.

Matt Williams is head of content at MSQ Partners. He is a former Close-Up editor of Campaign.

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