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5 Minutes with… Dave Dye



JWT London’s new Head of Art on obsessional curiosity, ‘offline’ searching and the excitement of a blank page

5 Minutes with… Dave Dye

Is advertising getting worse or do we just remember the good stuff? Are agencies prioritising niceness over talent when it comes to recruitment? And what’s Google doing to our creative thinking? I leave my chat with J. Walter Thompson’s new Head of Art, Dave Dye, with more questions than answers. This usually isn’t a great sign in an interview. In this case, though, it’s the sign of well-spent hour, exploring everything from psychology and Pixar movies to more, err, relevant work stuff.

But then, isn’t creativity all about drawing seemingly unconnected things and ideas together to make something new? As Dave puts it, ‘if you don’t have anything on your hard drive, you can’t make anything’. He explains that he’s a big hoarder of ideas and influences and knowledge (hence his Pinterest addiction). That curiosity manifests in his rather prolific blogging habit. Stuff From the Loft includes interviews he’s done with former bosses and influential art directors, photographers and more. These days we tend to assume that everyone and everything is online, he explains, but he’s found that it really, really isn’t; for his pet project he’s often had to hit the phones and scour physical archives.

I wonder, as I take notes, if he’d be a pretty solid addition to my pub quiz team.

The conversation and prior email exchange is refreshing. Dave got his first major career break at Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson, twice set up his own agency and has worked at the likes of AMV BBDO and Mother before joining J. Walter Thompson. But he’s not big on blind nostalgia (when asked whether he thought the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were a golden or silver age for advertising, he replies that when he started out, the ‘golden age’ was New York in the 1960s).

“It’s useful looking at a magazine or ad break from 1984. The shit was worse, the best was better,” he says, musing that the biggest difference between now and then is that contemporary advertising sits in a samey middle ground and suggesting that romanticising about the past is due, in part, to a ‘curated view of history’. Less than a week after our chat, a collection of old Telegraph and Sunday Times mags from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s arrives from Dave at LBB HQ. And he’s right; there’s some rich art direction for Johnnie Walker Black or Technica and plenty of engaging, witty long copy. But there are even more stuffy wine ads and dodgy offers for sash windows and food processors. Point proven. 

A Soho man for most of his career, Dave’s still getting used to his new West End digs at J. Walter Thompson (though the rooftop lawn is a lovely spot) – but his blend of borderline-obsessive curiosity and thoughtfulness means exciting times for the agency.

LBB> What was it about J. Walter Thompson and the opportunity they presented that appealed to you?

DAVE> I liked Russell [Ramsay, ECD].

LBB> What are you hoping to bring to the team?

DAVE> Answering that question is a perfect way to make yourself look like a complete twat. It’s probably better to assess that in a year or two.

LBB> In an age where everyone in the industry seems to be so enraptured with technology and ‘innovation’ and data and all these buzzwords, is craft and design in danger of being overlooked and ignored?

DAVE> At the moment there appear to be a lot of comms that are simply a new bit of tech with a logo Sellotaped to them, but there have always been lots of comms that are just a bit of art direction with a logo Sellotaped to it.

Craft on its own is as useless as tech on its own.

I don’t really separate craft and tech, they’re just tools.

The key is knowing how and when to use them...

LBB> How did you first end up in advertising? Did you know much about it going in or was it a bit accidental?

DAVE> I could draw, so people would say ‘you should be a commercial artist’.

I didn’t really know what it was, but it sounded cool.

I did Fine Art then Graphics at college, but in retrospect came out knowing nothing.

So I started applying for jobs with titles like ‘Studio Assistant’, ‘Design Studio Tea Boy’, ‘Dogsbody to Some Design Folk’.

I got one of those jobs. It turned out it wasn’t as glamorous as the ad made it sound.

But I started reading magazines like Creative Review, Direction, Campaign and looking at the tatty copies of D&AD the studio had. 

It made me want to think up ideas for ads.

LBB> What advice do you wish you’d had at the beginning of your career?

DAVE> Never set up an agency in a year with ‘2’ in it. 

LBB> I kind of got a bit lost in your blog and ended up losing a good chunk of time in there. The diversity of people you’ve interviewed and the detail you’ve gone into is an education. What motivated you to start that up and what do you think you’ve gained personally from that process? 

DAVE> It was a perfect storm.

I was moving house, so became aware of the enormous amount of ‘shit’, as my wife calls it, that I’d accumulated.

At the same time I was getting frustrated that I could never access my old stuff when I needed it. 

A succession of studio people scanning or creating ads and not tagging them properly.

An Adnams ‘Beer From The Coast’ poster featuring a crab, may be tagged as ‘Seaside lager ad/lobster’. So it was invisible in a search on a hard drive.

I remembered that a friend had bought me ‘’ about a decade before, and fortunately it had not expired.

I thought I’d tag and dump all my stuff on there.

As I was doing that, I thought I may as well write about why I did it, what the decision making process was.

After running an agency for ten years I became used to taking prospective clients through the thinking behind certain work, so I could rattle them off pretty quickly.

Then I guess it’s changed a bit.

I’ve always got obsessed with things, so instead of looking into something or someone and moving on, I turn it into an interview about whatever or whoever’s interested me at the time.

For example, I got a bundle of old Sunday Times Magazines, trying to locate an old David Abbott ad for a friend. I couldn’t help thinking how amazing the photos in the ads looked; richer, blacker, more expensive-looking, somehow.

So I contacted about half a dozen of the top photographers of the time and interviewed them. 

That’s lead to, ‘Why the hell isn’t Lester Bookbinder’s stuff online?’

LBB> You entered advertising during something of a ‘golden age’ of British advertising and you worked with an amazing bunch of people in that time, people who are now real ‘legends’ of the London industry! What was it really like? 

DAVE> I started in shit agencies that did shit work, so it wasn’t a golden age for me. (Although I’m lucky and grateful they hired me. Particularly the first one; thanks Barry.)

But I guess agencies at the time certainly had more influence and money.

The dilution of media has been a disaster for ad agencies; the client/agency spreads money thinly across a whole bunch of channels, so often it doesn’t create much noise. 

Because it doesn’t create a lot of noise the client/agency doesn’t want to place a big bet in one area, so they spread their bets across a whole bunch of media channels. It’s a vicious circle.

LBB> This is a potentially contentious question, but here goes… Does the London industry look back at that time (‘80s, early ‘90s) with nostalgia-fuelled rose-tinted specs, or was there really something quite special about it?

DAVE> I don’t know? I don’t really represent the London Industry.

I hear some creatives moaning that it’s not like it was, but I’m sure back when it was like it was, there would still be people moaning that ‘it’s not like it was…’. “These new-fangled typewriters aren’t the same as my trusty quill pen, no ‘feel’.” “This gimmicky piece of tech they’re calling Television, it’s dumbing down the whole business!”

People look back at everything with rose tinted specs: music, film…plumbing, you name it.

As I mentioned before, when I got into the business, in 1985, the ‘Golden Age’, I was stuck in an agency no-one would describe as ‘creative’, having my ideas for Findus Lean Cuisine, Sarson’s vinegar and Denby Stoneware plates rejected by clients on a daily basis.

So it didn’t seem very ‘Golden’ to me.

But there were some incredibly talented guys doing great work back then.  So I don’t mind looking back at their work, we could learn a lot from the likes of Lester Bookbinder, Paul Arden and Jeff Stark, to name but a few.

LBB> Of all the people you’ve worked with, who do you think’s had the biggest influence on you?

DAVE> That’s the kind of daft question I ask, then berate them when they give me a long list.

In no particular order:

Barry Brooks – Gave me my first job when I didn’t really know what I was doing.

Brian Stewart – First good art director I worked with.

Dave Trott & John Hegarty – I used to look at their agencies’ work and wish I could do work like that.

Mark Reddy – He told me I could be one of the best art directors in the business when I had a book full of scribbles. 

His confidence in me made me gave me confidence in myself and made me work harder.

Derrick Hass – Taught me it’s possible to have an idea 30” after being briefed.

Paul Arden – Every ad he did looks different, simple effortless and doesn’t date. It’s a tough trick to pull off.

Chris Palmer & Mark Denton – They took a chance on giving me job at a good agency when other good agencies wouldn’t.

Tim Delaney – I don’t know where to start. He taught me a lot.

And looking up at the question again… you said ‘worked with’ didn’t you? Oh well.

LBB> Back to the present – is there anything that’s particularly exciting you about advertising right now?

DAVE> My blank pad.

I’m always ridiculously optimistic that things will be good.

I think you have to be.

LBB> I saw an interview where you pondered whether young creatives these days just cobbled their ideas together down the pub – I think you were getting at the idea that a lot of what they were coming up with wasn’t always that relevant to the brand. Is that something that you think’s become worse or is it something that dies down a bit with experience?

DAVE> Yeah, not all young creatives, more students. 

They’ll come up with ideas like beermats that are linked to your twitter feed. 

I’ll ask, “sounds cool, is it possible and how much per item?” 

And they’ll reply, “‘I’m sure someone, somewhere, could make it…and make it REALLY cheaply…in China or something?"

Or the other popular one is saying, "We think company X should just give all their stuff away…to like…homeless people…or…drug-addled mums…Company X will get loads of really good P.R.”

And I always say, “‘Company X prefer ideas where we actually sell their stuff, rather than give it away…they make more money, enough to pay our fees.”

LBB> What do you do, where do you look, to keep your eyes and ideas fresh?

DAVE> Everything, I’m lucky I’m a very curious person, so it could be trying find a documentary on Carole Lombard, Lester Bookbinder’s Management Today pictures, digging out the original route of the M25, finding out whether David Bowie really worked at JWT London. All kinds of nonsense.

LBB> Outside of advertising, who are your creative heroes and why?

DAVE> Jeez…Erm, Woody Allen – Funny, Louis C.K. – Funny, Preston Sturges – Funny, P.G. Wodehouse – Funny, 

Jean Paul Goude – Cool, David Bowie – Creative, Charles & Ray Eames – Style, Steve Martin – Funny, Wes Anderson – Stylish, Barney Bubbles – Creative, Irving Penn – Good Eye, 

Shakers – Stylish, W.C. Fields – Funny, Adam Curtis – clever, Robert A. Caro – thorough, Bill Forsyth – Funny, Guy Bourdain – Stylish, Saul Steinberg – Inventive.

I could go on like this forever, they’re the first ones that spring to mind, should’ve put some serious people in there like Ghandi and Mandela to make myself look more thoughtful. Damn!

LBB> What’s your position on awards? Are they important to you?

DAVE> I’m just to the left.

Are they important? Sure, the networks take them more seriously than ever and creatives can earn more money by winning them.

They used to be the only outlet for creatives to get noticed; now they are just one channel.

LBB> One of my favourite projects of yours was the 2009 Creative Circle Annual that you designed with Mark Denton – the D.C. Thompson-inspired characters and typography had a real humour and warmth, and (at the risk of sounding seriously corny) I think it summed up the spirit of UK advertising community. What are your memories of working on that?

DAVE> Maybe, it depends on which creative in the community you ask; Dave Trott absolutely loved it, he’d agree with your view.

David Abbott, on the other hand, hated it.

I gave him a copy hot off the press, he was featured in it, he’d received the Presidents Award, or as Mark Denton had re-christened it – The Hall of Heroes Award.

He looked at it, quite shocked, then put it down without saying a word.

He phoned me later to say he hadn’t realised that I’d done it and was so glad he wasn’t rude about it.

I know a few creative thought advertising should be more ‘respectable’ than a load of Beano cartoons. (Yes I’m talking about you, Nigel Roberts.)

Unfortunately they only printed 350, so if you have one it could be worth anything up to about £10 today.

LBB> Which of your advertising projects across your whole career are you proudest of and why?

DAVE> Setting up two agencies. Not many people do it; I now know why.

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Wunderman Thompson London, Wed, 09 Sep 2015 17:04:16 GMT