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My Creative Hero: Paul Arden

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Atomic London ECD Dave Henderson on why a call from the former Saatchi & Saatchi creative director was his most precious memory in advertising

My Creative Hero: Paul Arden

It’s only now, after 30 odd years of working as a creative, that I look back and can clearly see that I’ve been exceptionally lucky. The '90s and noughties were a truly spectacular period for anyone who appreciated the art of advertising.

That it can be considered an art is probably down to one figure more than any other, who’s whole approach lifted the whole category, worldwide, to ever higher standards of creativity.

I consider him to be not just a maverick, for he certainly was, but a bona fide genius.

Paul Arden was born in Sidcup and left school at 16 and worked his way through several agencies as a young creative and has always looked back with pride on being fired several times from some of the best names in town at the time, Ogilvy & Mather and DDB to name a few.

He arrived at Saatchi & Saatchi and in 1987 he was made ECD of the most famous agency on the planet. He then set to work making them even more famous and for several years drove his department to create work that was simply untouchable. The world’s favourite airline, the nation’s favourite Australian tinny, the UK’s favourite cigarettes, the country’s most popular post war prime minister… can all put their success down to him. He may not have had his name above the door. But it was his agency.

I felt the first rejection from him as a young creative laying siege to his door back in the early '90s. In fairness my book was pretty average, but I was thrilled when he promised to take a look. He never told me what he thought but the silence was deafening. His influence on my own work though was huge. He heralded a period that was incredibly visually based and for a copywriter I was mesmerised by how his work was often wordless yet said everything about a brand so eloquently.

I think his finest work was created with Charles Saatchi, influenced by an Italian artist, who created works of stitched silk. Arden set about creating one of the most visually clever and arresting poster campaigns ever seen for Silk Cut, arguably the greatest ever, until the advertising ban brought an end to proceedings. I even remember the campaign used a fat lady opera singer with a split in her silk dress as the last poster. Just brilliant.

Eventually he resigned from his role at Charlotte Street, and set up a production company, bringing his prodigious talents to the world of directing. And this is where I first met him. I was at Y&R at the time, and we’d written a commercial for Colgate Toothpaste, which had a new breath freshening additive. Our script was very simple, basically lots of different people kissing throughout, and we figured Paul could bring some flair and style to the whole piece.

They do say you shouldn’t meet your heroes and to be honest I just didn’t care. It was incredible to be working with him for a few short weeks. His slightly odd and difficult behaviour was on show in the pre-prod, where after being introduced to the client and asked to give his vision of the script, he simply stood up and stared out of the window. For quite a few minutes. But to him it wasn’t odd…in fact he was thinking about a question he’d overheard the account man ask outside before the meeting had started and then spent the next ten minutes answering this. 

The ad came out very nicely and I was mesmerised watching how he worked, his thought processes and how he interacted with those around him. I wasn’t to meet him again until I worked as a CD for Saatchi & Saatchi… I think it was around 2005. We’d created a campaign for a little-known brand of Brazilian spirit which became the focus of a BBC documentary called Inside Saatchi & Saatchi. We created and produced a series of four posters as the film crew followed us through the whole process, culminating in a fancy shoot out in Brazil. The work itself was incredibly simple, a guy who looked like the Christ the Redeemer statue in various poses around a city. This visually led approach to my work was undoubtedly influenced by Paul and his simple approach still influences me today.

Then one day, after the documentary had aired the phone on my desk rang. At the other end was a gentle voice asking if I was the Dave Henderson that he remembered from a Colgate shoot many years before. “You know I watched you on TV last night and I thought where the bloody hell is this work going. I just couldn’t see how you were going to make it work?” he said. “But when I saw the finished posters, I was so proud, they looked excellent. You made Saatchi’s look good”.

It was only a short call, but from a man who was so famously difficult to please, who had fathered some of the greatest campaigns ever created, who had presided over a department stuffed with creatives like John Pallant and Graham Fink, Alexandra Taylor and Matt Ryan and so many others…it meant so, so much.

It was a brief nod from my creative hero, probably the creative hero of late 20th century advertising and easily its most influential creative. And it’s probably my most precious memory in advertising, simply because of that call. 

Incidentally, he also gave the greatest advice I’ve ever heard, which was given to a friend who also shooting an ad with him as director. When asked “which the best agency to work for?’, he bristled with anger and snapped back “the best agency to work for is the agency you’re at”.

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Atomic London, Tue, 12 Oct 2021 08:52:00 GMT