Methods of the Madmen: CDP and the secrets of great creativity by Mike Everett

Mike Everett was a copywriter in the great days of CDP – the agency became the most-awarded in history – and his new book, Methods of the Madmen provides fascinating insights into not just what made CDP great but how creativity could transform brands and businesses. It still could, of course, given the talent, vision and sheer hard work that made CDP great.

Introduction

Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet. Hovis, as good for you today as it’s always been. Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach. These are three of the most famous advertising campaigns ever produced, and all the work of a single advertising agency, Collett, Dickenson and Pearce.

CDP was a magical place. There was something in the air that made it special. Some who worked there compared it with being in the Beatles. Others said it was like playing for a top Premier League club. Certainly, CDP possessed an ethos driven by an unshakeable belief in creativity: the new, the brilliant, the witty and the vital. Never satisfied with second-best, it was relentless in its search for ideas that not only contributed to the success of its clients, but also contributed to the happiness of the nation. The commercials CDP made became as much a part of the fabric of British popular culture as Fawlty Towers, The Two Ronnies and Eric and Ernie.

In 2012, at an evening to mark the 50th anniversary of Design & Art Direction, CDP won yet another award – for being the ‘most awarded agency’ of the last 50 years.

This book tells the story of many of the ads that won these awards: how they were conceived, the men and women who dreamed them up, and how they were transformed from germs of ideas into gems of ideas. Whether you are a student of advertising, work in the business, or are simply a member of the public who remembers these ads with fondness, I believe this book will entertain you.

So, sit back and read about some of the greatest pieces of advertising ever produced in the late 20th century: truly, a time when the adverts proved as popular, if not more so, as the programmes they interrupted. And, if you want to watch the commercials featured, there are QR codes under the stills of most of the films to allow you to view them using your phone’s camera.

Hamlet Cigars

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS OF HAPPINESS

The Hamlet campaign ran for a quarter of a century. Yet the way in which it was conceived could hardly be more humble.

About the hardest job any advertising writer and art director can be given is that of creating a new television campaign. Once you’ve got your head around the product, the target market, the product’s competition, and the competition’s advertising, you and your partner are left alone, staring at a blank sheet of paper. In theory, what you now have to do is simple: work out a structure that nobody has ever used before, say something that nobody has ever said before, in a way that nobody has ever said it before. And don’t expect the creative brief to be much help, either. Usually, this piece of paper raises more questions than it does provide answers.

Imagine, then, being Tim Warriner and Roy Carruthers. They are sitting in their shared office on the fourth floor of CDP’s Howland Street offices staring at a brief that asks for a TV campaign for a new small cigar that is being launched by Benson & Hedges. It is 1964 and the name of this cigar is Hamlet.

Tim and Roy are in good company. Arthur Parsons, John Reynolds and Alan Brooking sit along the corridor; Mike Savino is opposite. In fact, they are surrounded by a galaxy of creative stars presided over by the brightest star of all, Colin Millward, the creative director.

You might think that being amongst all this talent would help the creative process, but not necessarily. The intense competition of your peers can inspire, but it can also stifle. Tim and Roy have to overcome their fear of failure and bring their confidence to the fore. They must determine to produce one of the finest campaigns of their lives. But, as is often the case, when you try that hard, nothing comes. Well, nothing good, anyway.

You can work your balls off and still end up doing average work. This is why creative people develop techniques to provide themselves with inspiration. Some do these things instinctively; others have to learn. Generally, it has to do with what John Salmon, creative director of CDP in the seventies, once memorably described as ‘displacement activities’. As its name suggests, this is doing something that displaces what you are supposed to be doing. For example, writing a TV campaign for Hamlet Cigars. It could be going to the movies, going to an art gallery, or going to lunch. Or it could be when your working day is over, when you start to relax and so does your brain. The most famous example of a displacement activity is, of course, Archimedes. He cottoned on to his famous principle that a body displaces its own mass in water when his own body was doing just that, as he lay in his bath.

Tim and Roy had been working for a few days on Hamlet, but didn’t have anything yet that they considered good enough. It was the end of another miserable day during which they had made little progress. To add to their gloom it was dark, cold and pouring with rain as they traipsed down the steps of 18 Howland Street and headed for the bus home.

The bus arrived and they climbed the stairs to the upper deck. In those days, the top decks of London buses were the preserve of smokers. Hard to imagine today, but the seats were filled with people puffing away on cigarettes and, in some cases, even pipes. It may have been foggy outside, but inside a bus could be worse, if you were sitting upstairs.

Tim and Roy gratefully settled into their seats and each lit up a cigarette, something they hadn’t been able to do in the wet outside. The bus passed a poster of the Shultz cartoon character, Charlie Brown. The poster had a caption that began ‘Happiness is..’ Taking this in, Tim settled back in his seat and said ‘Happiness is a dry cigarette on the top deck of a 34 bus’.

The pair soon realised that if they changed what Tim had said to ‘Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet’, and put a suitably funny, but unfortunate event or situation in front of that line, they might have the campaign they’d been looking for. And so it proved.

Well, that’s one version of how Tim and Roy did Hamlet, the generally accepted one, the official one, if you like. But there is another story. Vernon Howe, one of CDP’s senior art directors told a friend of his, Steve Harrison, that Tim Warriner had been trying to sell the idea of ‘Happiness is..’ to any client who’d have it. It just so happened that Hamlet bought it. You can choose which version you prefer. I know which one I do.

The first commercial, filmed in glorious black and white, showed a man in a hospital bed with his leg in traction, happily puffing away on a Hamlet cigar. Tim and Roy did others: a music teacher, played by Patrick Cargill, whose pupil only plays the piano tunefully when his teacher smokes a Hamlet (below). And ‘Launderette’ – yes, launderette – more or less the same idea used by Bartle Bogle Hegarty for Levis more than a dozen years later. Instead of casting a hunk in the form of Nick Kamen, as Levis did, this being Hamlet, Tim and Roy filmed a meek looking city gent, complete with bowler hat.

Of course, the Hamlet campaign wouldn’t be the Hamlet campaign without the music, and we have Colin Millward to thank for that. Colin had served in the Royal Air Force. Shortly after the end of the Second World War he was posted to India where he lived in a hut for six months. The previous occupant had left Colin a gramophone, but only one record. On one side of this disc was Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’. On the other, Bach’s ‘Air on the G String’. Colin remembered the Bach music and suggested that it should provide the commercials’ soundtrack.

In 1959, a French Jazz Musician called Jacques Loussier had formed the ‘Play Bach Trio’. They released a series of albums under this name, featuring the simple combination of piano, bass and drums performing improvised versions of Bach. Amongst these was a jazz version of ‘Air on a G String’.

John Ritchie, who at that time was the account handler on Hamlet, was duly despatched to Paris to pursuade Jacques Loussier and his trio to record a 30 second version for use in the commercials. Ritchie tracked down Loussier to his apartment on the outskirts of Paris. Loussier wasn’t home so Ritchie camped outside for three days until the muscian turned up. To keep himself going, Ritchie had been popping uppers, so when he finally met Loussier he was hyper, unable to sit still, and conducted the negotiation with Loussier while running around the room. Nevertheless, he was successful and Loussier agreed on a £1,000 fee.

As I struggled to explain why the Hamlet music is so apposite, I sought the help of a musician who was a friend of mine, the late Mike Townend. Mike had worked with people like Smokey Robinson and Burt Bacharach, so he knew what he was talking about. As well as pointing out that the correct title of the piece is ‘Air from Suite No 3 in D Major’, he told me to study Bach’s original version. He said it is typical of Bach’s early work in as much as it builds tension, then moves towards a release, or ‘climax’. When I heard this, it sounded just like the structure of a Hamlet commercial – tension in the form of an unfortunate event or situation, followed by release as the protagonist smokes the Hamlet – so that may be why the music is so apt. That, plus the fact that it’s a damned good tune, of course.

Frank Lowe (left), managing director of CDP in the seventies, tells a story about Jacques Loussier and the music. “The music track was getting worn out so we had to go to Paris to re-record it with Jacques Loussier – John Richie, the TV producer and I went over and met with Jacques who played it several times… each time it was different and none of them were quite like the original. I had forgotten that jazz musicians normally extemporise differently every time they play any piece of music. We went to lunch at a very nice brasserie and during the lunch challenged Jacques that he couldn’t play it exactly the same as the original – nonsense he said (or the French equivalent) and went back and played it exactly as we wanted it – whereupon we dashed back to London.”

Tim and Roy’s legacy left the rest of us a lot to live up to. Year after year, members of the CDP creative department received briefs to write Hamlet commercials. Some of these follow up commercials came to be regarded as classics and became popular with the general public. And, as with the repertoire of a well-liked recording artist, everybody has his or her favourite.

A film that many people cite, including Frank Lowe, managing director of CDP for most of the seventies, is ‘Bunker’. This is the commercial that doesn’t show an unfortunate golfer whose ball has become lodged in a sand bunker. Neither does it show the cigar nor the pack. All we see is smoke rising from below the rim of the bunker as the unseen golfer consoles himself with his Hamlet (below). By the time this commercial was made in 1980, the campaign was so well established that the creative team, Rob Morris and Alfredo Marcantonio, and the director, Paul Weiland, could get away with this cavalier approach to the client’s product. Interestingly, when I spoke to Mike Townend about the music, this was one of the two Hamlet commercials he mentioned spontaneously. The other was what is undoubtedly the public’s favourite, Gregor Fisher in the photo booth.

What is undeniable is that ‘Photo booth’ is an outstanding piece of advertising, the brainchild of the creative team involved, Rowan Dean and Gary Horner. They spotted a sketch on a BBC programme called ‘Naked Video’. In this sketch, ‘Baldy Man’, a character created by comedian and actor Gregor Fisher, posed in a photo booth, only to be thwarted in his attempts to get the perfect photograph by series of mishaps culminating in the stool he is sitting on collapsing beneath him. Rowan and Gary immediately saw the potential for turning it into a Hamlet commercial, which they duly did. There’s no getting away from the fact that it worked – and promptly became the most memorable Hamlet commercial ever.

Not for the first time, the Hamlet campaign had proved itself to be unstoppable. As Peter Wilson, a marketing manager at Gallaher in those days, says ‘the advertising for Hamlet was incredibly successful. It built the brand into the best-selling cigar in the UK market. Four out of every ten cigars sold was a Hamlet’.

Were it not for the EEC, who banned all tobacco advertising in the 1990s, it’s tempting to think that the Hamlet campaign could still be running today. As it was, the campaign took a dignified bow, and left our screens for good at the end of that decade, 25 years after it had begun. In all, CDP had created over 80 commercials, every one of which was a funny, beautifully told story of disaster followed by the happiness of smoking a Hamlet cigar.

I wonder if back in 1964, those two blokes sitting in a dingy office, staring at a blank sheet of paper realised what a wonderful monster they were on the verge of creating. I doubt it. In all probability, they saw it as just another day’s work, albeit a pretty good one.

Mike Everett is a partner at Anatomized. Methods of the Madmen is available from Amazon and other booksellers here.

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