TBWA\London’s chief creative officer on the creative environment in the age of the lads’ mag, turning agencies around and why brands should have opinions
TBWA\London feels like an agency on an upward trajectory right now. In the past few months alone, it’s won the creative accounts for computer processor manufacturers AMD, car buying comparison site carwow and iconic British biscuit maker Pladis, who owns brands including McVitie’s, Jacob’s and Carr’s.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with the agency’s chief creative officer Andy Jex, to understand the man at the creative helm of all this.
LBB> Where did you grow up and what was your relationship with advertising like early on?
Andy> I grew up in suburban north London, hence the estuary accent. I had a bit of a fascination with advertising That came from growing up as a kid seeing that golden era of [John] Webster, CDP and GGT on TV all the time.
I did school projects where I got in contact with those agencies at the time. When I was as young as 15 I was using it as a research tool, even to get a copy of a Benson & Hedges ad or a Silk Cut ad from Saatchi & Saatchi. That’s all I was doing for my projects, so I did have an understanding of the names of the agencies.
It’s a bit of a cliche but you didn’t really know how to get into it or that there even was such a job. I just thought the guy who pasted up the billboards was the person who wrote the ad. It wasn’t until I got to university that I realised there are actually places you can go. So I decided when I finish my degree I’d go to Watford [the famous ad course].
LBB> So after Watford, what was the industry you found yourself in like?
Andy> When I got into the industry, agencies, particularly creative departments, were really formidable places. People had offices, they shut their doors and had their feet up on the table. They had all their awards out and everyone’s office was filled with these ads that you had seen and loved. You were like ‘oh my God, those two did all of that!’
They behaved in a way which is not acceptable anymore. It wasn’t necessarily nice. It was all part of that culture then and it was quite intimidating. Massive egos, pranks and taking the piss. If you were a youngster you were fair game too, and that made it all the more intimidating. None of that put me off, but it made me realise how hard it was going to be to get in.
LBB> What experiences do you remember from that time?
Andy> I worked with my partner, Rob Potts, for nearly 20 years. We were doing all this together since Watford. We had a year doing placements. Along the way we had so many different experiences of having those pranks played on us.
At one agency there was no room for us to sit, so we were by the toilets, effectively underneath the snooker table. Someone came over like, ‘boys, you should come and sit in this office. No one sits in here.’ So we sat in there. That was the ECD’s office. We didn’t know. He came back from a shoot and we were there with our feet up on his table. Even when he walked in we had no idea who he was. He kicked us out, obviously.
Stuff like that would happen all the time. It’s very different now. Things like that would never happen. It’s effectively bullying.
LBB> That was the ‘90s in London though. It sounds like the age of the lads’ mag sort of culture.
Andy> That’s what it was. It was the height of Loaded.
It also felt like we were coming into the last days of a golden era. We got to work and see a lot of those great people working as well. We sat in an office next to John Webster for months. The level of the people you had contact with and could learn off was amazing.
We were some of the last from our course to get a job. It was quite hard. We didn’t get offers from anywhere. But we ended up in a situation where we’d got an offer from DDB and Mother at the same time. We’d gone through all that then suddenly got our two dream offers.
Mother was brand new. We chose DDB because, as much as we loved Mother and wanted to work with Robert [Saville], we wanted to learn from the masters before we learned to break the rules. Mother felt too crazy for us. We didn’t understand what we were doing yet. That was the way we justified it to ourselves.
At the time there were so many great people at DDB. It was going through an amazing period. We ended up only being there for eight or nine months because the team that had got us in - Richard Flintham and Andy McLeod - had left to set up Fallon London and we thought we were going to get fired. They phoned us up and said if we were to come to them and ask for a job, they’d say yes, to be able to get themselves round the clause that said they couldn’t approach anyone. We were gobsmacked. We didn’t know our American advertising history well enough to know the importance of Fallon. We very quickly found out. But the choice was made because of those two.
LBB> So you made that first move because of the people. It’s so interesting to see the flow of talented people around the industry and how creatives often follow.
Andy> It’s so true. When you skip those 20 years and get to the role I’m doing now, it’s only now that I really understand the effect the importance of those people. Especially when you’re growing an agency and helping reestablish an agency again, like we are here. We’re around 100 people. I’ve been at Saatchi & Saatchi when there were 400. It’s a reasonably small agency. So when one person comes in, the impact they have is phenomenal. As long as they’re the right person, it’s felt throughout the whole agency.
We’d always made our decisions when we moved based on the people more than the agency. We were lucky because we were at DDB, Fallon and Mother very early in our careers, which were as far as we were concerned the most interesting agencies. We loved those.
We were at Fallon five years, Mother five years, then we went to Saatchi’s. It was a big move to make. It was a great learning experience and I’ve brought an awful lot of what I learned there here. Friends would ask why we were going there. It had the reputation it had of being an iconic agency in London that took over the world and created a new kind of network. And of it being a bit of a dinosaur, I suppose. That was a hurdle we had to overcome but we liked that as a challenge - to go somewhere that needed a bit of a turnaround, a bit of a change in the work that we produced.
We also chose that because the CEO was Robert Senior, the account partner at Fallon. And Paul Silburn and Kate Stanners were the ECDs there. On the one hand there’s the romance of getting the agency back on its feet again and doing amazing work again. But also it was a choice made because of those people.
LBB> What work at Saatchi & Saatchi are you most proud of?
Andy> All the work we did for Kerry Foods on Wall’s sausages and Mattessons. We did the dog in the box campaign, a lot of stuff with Mattessons, selling Fridge Raiders to gamers instead of a ‘white van man’. That was really instrumental for getting a different shape of work and a different level of work.
Then the launch of EE was about T-Mobile and Orange coming together to create a new network in 2012. That was massive. We hadn’t seen a launch like that for 10, 15 years as far as ad spend was concerned. So creating and producing and then continuing to write on that was a big thing.
They’re at either end of the spectrum. One is a huge launch of a new brand and the other is reinvigorating a brand.
LBB> After all that great work and eight years at Saatchi’s, you decided to join TBWA\London as chief creative officer in 2017. What was the attraction there?
Andy> The challenge was to make the work great again and help grow the agency. Really simple. Really difficult at the same time.
It was a great challenge, one I thought long and hard about. There were a couple of things that were really interesting and exciting about it.
One was the legacy and the history of the brand and the way the collective works, globally. And the history it has in London. At the time that I came into the industry, Trevor Beattie’s TBWA\London was on fire and was for a number of years after. It created so much outstanding work across so many different clients across so many years. That had always loomed large in my mind. That was the TBWA I always think of. It hadn’t been that agency for a while.
There was a new leadership team globally in Troy Ruhanen, global CEO, who’d been in a couple of years. Then there was Chris Garbutt, global CCO. These people at the very top globally looking after the collective were really interesting for us.
Probably the most important factor was about being in control of our own destiny, being part of a new leadership team who all started on the same day. It wasn’t to be a CCO joining the management team and carrying on as we were. It was a new CSO [Anna Vogt], CCO [Andy] and CEO [Sara Tate] all together. Things have to change when that happens.
LBB> Two years in, those changes feel like they’re bearing fruit with various account wins and the great work for BECO. being a standout moment. Does it feel that way?
Andy> I think it takes longer than you think, longer than you want it to, and sometimes you get frustrated with it. But we know what we’ve got to do. It’s been about getting the shape of the agency right, getting the right people in, feeling confidence in people, knowing we can do it, being really simple about what we’re out there to achieve and how we’re going to do it. And how we promote the agency, what we believe in and how we want to work with clients.
I think BECO. is an example of exactly that. I think it’s the best bit of work that we’ve shown to a client recently who’s then bought it and gone to make it. I’m really happy. You can sit in an agency and tell people about the kind of work you want to do until you’re blue in the face. Then when you’ve actually got the agency producing that work they all go ‘oh that’s what he’s been talking about - more of that!’ That’s a great benchmark for us to progress and move on.
LBB> What was the key to the BECO. work being the one that let you get to that point?
Andy> I think it’s because there’s so much, particularly in the awarding of advertising, around purpose. Much of it is jumped on for the sake of advertising and it’s got no relevance. For a brand that comes from a point of view where 80% of their staff have a disability, you’ve got a tangible reason to talk about that. It’s absolutely at the heart of who they are, what they believe in, how they operate and the product they produce.
I think just creating something that’s got that tension, that counterintuitive nature to it which is ‘steal our staff?’ What’s going on here? There’s that immediate hook. It’s not a headline, but it’s how a traditional headline would have worked in a poster or a press ad.
Then I think it’s got legs. It’s quite broad. I like the fact that it’s got a design sensibility. I love the fact that it’s almost a recruitment campaign done back to front. It’s the CVs of the staff on the product. It never runs away from the product because it’s a product people don’t know. It’s not Dove. It’s a small brand that’s just got itself on the shelves of Waitrose, Boots and Sainsbury’s.
But making sure we did a campaign that was purpose led but didn’t run away from its product was really important. Staying true to who they are and using their staff in a way that felt honest and fun rather than worthy, was really important as well.
LBB> How do you apply that to a bigger, less obviously purpose-driven client?
Andy> There will always be clients it’s not relevant for. I think you’ve got to find tension points in either the way their consumers are, or something that’s out there in culture, or something that they believe in. There’s always a place to find resonance, to create a tension point or something of interest. So you can have something that’s provoking.
It’s just having brands that go out there and have a point of view. Which we’re lacking a bit these days. I think brands should go out there and have an opinion and not be afraid to say it. Nobody’s prepared to put their neck on the line. That’s why we end up with so much stuff that swims around the middle. It doesn’t mean you have to be controversial. But you do have to be relevant. If it’s not right for that brand it’s not right for that brand.
LBB> How do you run your creative department on a day-to-day basis?
Andy> It’s kind of a small department. I work with that department every day. I don’t sit in an ivory tower anywhere. I’m hands on with all the team, whether a young or a senior team they get my attention, my time.
When you’re young you come in with 50 ideas because you haven’t got any perspective on what’s good and what’s bad. That’s a thing you gain in experience. As you move up you show less work. And some senior teams will give you one thing. And of course there’s confidence in that, but also experience in knowing how to answer a brief.
People always talk to me about having teams for certain projects, but a really great team should be able to answer a brief and talk to any people. Of course you have a style but you shouldn’t have a tone. A great team should be able to answer a brief whoever they’re talking to.
LBB> Finally, do you still hold the record for longest Scalextric track?
Andy> I don’t think we do. I think James May’s got it. We did hold that for a while.
We were talking about Loaded earlier. When the lads' mags went weekly with Zoo and Nuts magazine, we were at Mother. And Zoo came to us and said they wanted to advertise. We asked the client how much we had for each ad. They said we could have £10,000 for production. So the idea was that the two guys in the office had been given 10 grand to make an ad, but rather than make an ad for Zoo they were going to fly a jet plane, or take a black cab as far as they could for the money, or build the biggest Scalextric track they could, or go lingerie shopping with a Page 3 model. Those things became the content. It was a very fun campaign. I loved doing it. It had that edginess and knowingness to it. It felt appropriate to that audience. So the world record wasn’t for a love of Scalextric, it was purely for the job, but it was fun doing it.