Who talks the most bullshit at Cannes? Do the best ideas start out as jokes? And why is it getting harder to make good, risky work? VCCP London’s Jim Thornton catches up with LBB
He launched a magazine about death, has cultivated a country gent alter ego so well-known he’s been interviewed in the trade press, and once staged an award-winning musical in which the script was totally rewritten by advertisers. Jim Thornton’s career is littered with mad ideas that started off as jokes and took on lives of their own – and isn’t that what creativity is really all about? He started off his career as a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson London, before taking in stints at the early days of Mother and Leo Burnett. These days he’s revelling in the ‘entrepreneurial zeal’ of VCCP, where he’s Deputy ECD. But along the way he’s also managed to fit in the kind of spontaneous acts of creative silliness that prove there’s more to life than advertising.
Jim talks to LBB’s Laura Swinton…
LBB> You’re coming up to two decades in the business – in that time do you think advertising has changed for the better or worse?
JT> I think it’s coming up to nearly three decades but given the state of my memory it might as well be two…
Advertising as a business is still as great as it always was. It’s still better than a proper job, still populated by smart, entrepreneurial people and still gives you the opportunity to work with and learn from extraordinary people from all walks of life, whether they be colleagues, clients, comedians or custard designers.
Advertising as a product…well, suffice to say never has it been so hard just to make anything, let alone anything different or dangerous or risky or good. Or long running…
Dave Trott summed up the problem beautifully, as always, here: “Why doesn’t most advertising work? Because it’s ‘right’. It’s been debated, discussed, argued, briefed, researched, debriefed, rebriefed, until it’s ‘right’.”
How and why that’s come about is down to the convergence of many things; it’s a mature business now, and a respectable profession into which people come via marketing, advertising, and communications courses. Which means they’re learning implicitly, if not explicitly, that there are rules and formulas for how to do this. But there aren’t. It’s not a perfect science. The only thing you can teach, or indeed guarantee anyone, is mediocrity because you can only teach the known and the existing. You can teach someone the structure and dynamics of writing a joke but that doesn’t mean they’ll ever write a funny one, let alone be able to tell it.
Another reason is the lifecycle of clients. It used to be us who moved around a lot, but now it’s them. Which means our business ends up suffering from the same short-termism that blights business as a whole. There are many contributing factors to the absence of big, long-running entertaining populist campaigns, Meerkat excepted, these days, but the career cycle of clients is one of the biggest.
And then there is the obsession with empirical measurement. This is not a perfect science. It never has been and it never will be, despite what the endless array of pseudo-scientists who hang around client offices selling their snake-oil will tell you. I’ve never known a time in all of my 30 years where there has been so much emphasis on the ‘input’ to briefs with so little consideration for the ‘output’. If the two years of ‘positioning’ research, data analysis and ‘insight’ mining are so bloody effective, how come most work is so deadly dull and dismal?
LBB> You’ve worked with some incredible people over your career – who do you think has been most influential or inspired you the most in your own work?
JT> Christ that’s tricky. I have, as you say, been immensely fortunate to have worked with and been inspired by way more amazing people than it’s possible to list here. And my main inspiration is the constant stream of brilliant youngsters who simultaneously excite and terrify me.
But I would have to single out Robert Saville, the last great maverick in advertising, as both the biggest inspiration and the single greatest influence in my career. It would require a whole new internet just to store a list of the infinite ways he has influenced and inspired me. Anyone who ever got successful at anything got a lucky break somewhere down the line. And mine was meeting Robert at a party some 25 or so years ago. We bonded over a deep and abiding love of populist advertising, and a desire to bring back the jingle. The latter is just about the one thing that between us we haven’t managed to achieve. But we will…
Other honourable mentions go to Mark Waites, the best writer I’ve ever had the privilege to sit beside; the late great Allen Thomas at J. Walter Thompson, who gave me my first job whilst dressed in a Tuxedo prior to attending a dinner to celebrate Andrew and Fergie’s wedding day. Only at JWT…Allen was a fantastic ECD. Never the greatest creative himself, he was a phenomenal manager of creatives, a singular talent in itself, and inspired you to want to do your very, very best for him. I can’t talk about JWT without mentioning the immense writing talent and unequalled mentalist that is Richard Phillips, creator of the Maureen Lipman BT campaign which is still probably my most favouritest campaign ever, and the genius that was Ian Hutton. Finally, I can’t forget Trevor Beattie who, like Robert, trusted me with some great opportunities and continues to be an inspiration as one of the sharpest minds in the business.
What all these gentlemen (sorry ladies, it’s a frighteningly male list I know) have in common is an absolute and unshakeable belief in advertising as unashamedly populist. Which brings me to probably my greatest influence - someone I never met, let alone worked for; the late great John Webster. He’s the reason I do this job. If I had my way I’d force the entire agency and our client base to sit down and watch his greatest hits every Monday morning for the duration of their career.
LBB> You’ve been with VCCP for about three years now - what are your thoughts on where the agency sits within the London market? And how have you found your time there?
JT> I love VCCP. It’s the closest thing to early Mother I’ve experienced and I think the commonality is that there are still founding partners coming in every day with as much entrepreneurial zeal and passion for the business as they had when they started. Having worked in many network agencies I can tell you those are rare and precious things that cannot help but have a positive influence on everyone else. Passion is arguably the most vital quality for anyone hoping to make great work that becomes part of popular culture and you don’t find much passion in the networks. Except for profit margins.
I also have a man-crush on our Esteemed Leader Darren Bailles. (Let’s face it, who doesn’t?) I think what Daz has achieved here in the last six years is amazing and a tribute to both his passion and his patience, as well as his talent. Advertising seems to me to be becoming increasingly charmless, and yet without charm why on earth should anyone give us the time of day? Daz brings a warmth, wit and charm to everything he touches. The way he has turned a small insurance comparison site into a rapidly expanding almost universally loved global entertainment franchise is nothing short of stunning. I keep reading about how everything these days is about multi-channel brand story-telling (like it was ever about anything else…) and the finest example of this, possibly ever, is the Meerkat.
If I have a criticism of VCCP it’s that it’s too quiet and modest. It doesn’t blow its own trumpet nearly enough with regard to creative work which combined with (thankfully) being a long way from Soho and Shoreditch, means we end up like the stealth bomber of the industry. People think we’re just Meerkats and O2 but I’ve rarely worked anywhere with so many creative opportunities.
LBB> You’ve recently been promoted to Deputy ECD - what are you hoping to achieve with the role?
JT> To be perfectly honest, mostly exactly the same as I’ve always hoped to achieve whether the title’s CD, ECD or DECD (I love that the job titles are getting longer, the longer my career continues…):
To help the agency do better work, to mentor the youngsters, to help shape the delicate ego-system that is a creative department and the agency as a whole, to help create an environment in which people can excel, and to lead from the front and by example.
The only difference with the addition of the D is to be an even greater support to Daz and to help young Lever to avoid my myriad mistakes, largely by telling him what I would do in any given situation, and then suggesting he does precisely the opposite.
LBB> Which recent projects have particularly resonated with you and why?
JT> Getting the chance to relaunch Avis with a big telly ad was a delightful surprise, as was being involved in the launch of Be more dog. But actually now I think about it, producing two big poster campaigns for O2 International Sim and The O2 has probably been the most satisfying work I’ve produced. I’m a lifelong fan of the commercial poster whether it be the travel posters of yore or gig posters, and so to produce two campaigns which are first and foremost designed as posters, rather than adapted press ads, was very pleasing.
LBB> You joined Mother in 1999, a couple of years after it opened its doors… what was it like being involved in such an idiosyncratic place in its early years?
JT> Brilliant. Just brilliant. The work, the people, the ethos, the organic nature of campaign development which didn’t treat the brief as a tablet of stone but as a starting point, and the emphasis on big populist character based comedy campaigns made it a dream place to work. But the most striking thing about it then compared to now was how EVERYTHING was about the ‘output’. No-one will ever care about your thoroughly researched ‘positioning’ if the work isn’t charming, entertaining and rewarding at the end of it.
LBB> I’m really intrigued by ‘The Worst Idea’, the award-winning project you were involved with where a West End show was hijacked by advertisers. What was that project like to work on? In the age of ‘native advertising’ and growing acceptance of product placement, it all looks rather prescient! Do you feel that life has imitated art in this case?
JT> It was a lot like having a baby; it was both completely brilliant and an utter nightmare, pretty much simultaneously. It was one of those that started off as a drunken idea on a stag weekend. I was playing pool with a guy I didn’t know at about three in the morning and asked him what he did. It turned out he was a theatre producer responsible for Saturday Night Fever at the Victoria Apollo, amongst others.
‘Ah eggshellent (it was 3am on a stag do remember), I’vealwayswannedtodoliveadsonstage,’ I said.
‘That’s the worst fucking idea I’ve ever heard in my life,’ he said.
Well, of course as soon as anyone throws down a gauntlet such as that I have no choice but to follow it through. So we did. And thanks to the amazing commitment of about 10 people at Leo Burnett’s, we pulled it off. But special mention has to go to Camilla Harrison – without her incredible organisational and motivational talents and ‘nothing is impossible’ attitude we’d have all been crushed by the enormity of the task.
In terms of being prescient, I’m not so sure. I’m a real believer that in this business everything changes and nothing changes. Product placement is as old as advertising itself and early TV and radio always included live commercial breaks. They were just very straight and boring.
In the end we were just taking those credits at the back of the theatre programme one step further – you know, ‘thanks to Unilever for donating fabric conditioner, High & Mighty for the XXXXXL Giant Trousers, and Gallagher Ltd for the 20 Bensons’, that sort of thing. But rather than a mere credit, we rewrote the script of the show to incorporate ads. And we did it rather cleverly and wittily, if I do say so myself.
LBB> Your alter ego Lord Plumpton crops up on Twitter, on your website, it’s the name of the company you founded to publish magazine projects… Why does the village play such a large part in your life? As a creative person, have you found this connection to the countryside and a rural community particularly helpful?
JT> Ha! Inevitably it started out as a joke – we moved to the country 20 years ago after the birth of our first child and despite the reality being that we’d bought a derelict two up two down old estate cottage everyone for some reason assumed we’d bought a mansion. So in the end I decided to go with it and created this alter ego who started to take on a life of his own. I used to write all my all-staff emails from him at Mother & Burnett’s. Lord P even wrote a 24 Hours In The Life Of column for Campaign, which in retrospect almost certainly hastened my departure from Burnett’s!
I’m afraid I think the village has played such a large part in my life for the disappointingly shallow reason that it’s such a comedy name, certainly initially. But it’s also a strangely fascinating village in that it’s very small – effectively one, four mile road – and yet boasts a world class agricultural college where the French are now coming to learn how to make wine, and a National Hunt racecourse.
What I do love about living there is that I’m not surrounded by ads, people talking about ads or indeed anyone who gives a shit about ads. In fact I’m thinking of doing a 30 Years In the Business talk entitled ‘I don’t give a shit about advertising and nor should you.’ I love writing, making and creative directing ads when I’m at work but when I’m at home I’m resolutely a punter. I think the ability to spot whether or not anyone in the real world will give a shit is the most important weapon in the CD’s armoury these days.
LBB> You seem to have a fascination with magazines – I see you’ve been involved in a few ‘zine-y projects over the years. Where does that interest come from and what have you learned from these projects?
JT> I think my love of mags, along with my love of radio, stems from a sickly childhood in the days before daytime TV was even a twinkle in Lord Grade’s eye. I still love the feel and the smell of them. I have tried and failed to love them in tablet form but it’s just not the same.
If I hadn’t done this I’d have been a journalist of some sort (a very poor one probably, in every sense) of that I’ve no doubt, and I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to write for a variety of publications on a regular and occasional basis. I even wrote a gardening column (mainly about not gardening it has to be said) for the late, lamented and truly wonderful Marmalade Magazine.
I can also trace my love of mags back to a lifelong love of the football programme, which I’ve always devoured avidly, so it was the fulfilment of a lifetime ambition to write a column for the Lewes CFC programme every home game for a whole season. It was called A History of Football Through Advertising and featured a different football related ad each time.
Writing columns or think pieces is a welcome chance to exercise my writing muscles outside of work and involves many of the same disciplines as copywriting. You just get more space to exercise them in. Which suits me perfectly as I’ll over-write my signature given half-a-chance…
LBB> In particular, one of your projects was a magazine all about death and grieving... err, obvious question perhaps but why tackle death? And did the process of making the magazine change your own perceptions about death?
JT> Death is the last great taboo. Someone came to me with the idea, and it was unfortunately perfect timing as my wife had just lost both her parents in separate RTAs 14 months apart. We were right in the middle of the nightmare that is the aftermath of the deaths of loved ones: financial, spiritual, legal, practical to name just a few of the components of that nightmare.
As we’ve lost our faith as a society, we’ve also discarded many of the rites and rituals that have helped people through the grieving process down the ages. And it’s staggering how little help or advice is available out there in any form, about something which affects absolutely everyone at some time in their life. It’s amazing how unscrupulous businesses can be when dealing with the grieving. We were ripped off by caterers, printers - just about everyone when I think about it. Probate is an unfathomably complex and expensive business. And the way banks treat widows is frankly outrageous. Then there’s the many and varied spiritual, cultural and social aspects of death, not to mention the darkly humorous side of it. In the end and only because there was little choice, I effectively ended up editing Eulogy which turned out to be surprisingly similar to creative directing a massive ad campaign, only about 50 times more stressful and complex.
A magazine about death sounds like a terrible idea but actually it was, and still is, a brilliant idea (I can say that as it wasn’t mine). In pure business terms it seemed like a no-brainer as there was both a huge need AND a gap in the market. On top of that, the question of assisted suicide was starting to become a public debate, and on the basis that the baby-boomer generation have decided how they want to live their lives so it will be only natural for them to decide how they want to manage their death, it seemed like the timing was perfect.
WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
Unfortunately one of the partners turned out to be a charlatan and a fraud and it died, costing me a lot of money in the process. And while its death after only one issue makes for a good joke, it’s sadly symptomatic of my unerring ability to always find a way to lose money on good ideas. To the extent that my wife has banned the words ‘I’ve got a great idea…’ from our house.
LBB> And… is it a subject the ad industry and brands should engage with more? Or… not?
JT> Almost certainly. Not least those brands happily making a killing whilst helping to kill their customers…..
LBB> Any other passion projects up your sleeves that we should keep an eye out for?
JT> We’ve produced a book through VCCP called ‘Kids Bounce’ which has been my pet work project. It’s a catalogue of the many entertaining examples of crap parenting people across the VCCP Partnership have survived, and in the odd instance, inflicted. It’s designed as a gift for all new VCCP parents as an antidote to all those hideous guilt-inducing parenting manuals. It’s been contributed to, designed, illustrated, written and produced entirely by VCCPers.
Outside of VCCP, I’ve had a Lord Plumpton Podcast called Jolly Good Show percolating in my head on and off for about 10 years now which I really need to get out there before I die…. And I really should do more with the series called Other Villages which you can find at https://audioboom.com/users/58014/boos and the dozens of further episodes lying unedited on my computer.
Unfortunately I’m now at an age where work takes most of my failing reserves of energy and the rest of the time is spent asleep in order to cope, so it might be another 10 years before these appear!
LBB> And to round things off, Cannes is just three weeks away - what do you think will be the big conversations dominating the Croisette?'
JT> The same as they always are: the curses of scamming, too much rose (with an acute accent on the e), and block voting.
Plus an awful lot of bullshit will be talked, mainly by media companies, that will almost certainly involve the words ‘programmatic’ and ‘personalisation’ but avoid the one thing they should provide that we need more than anything – smart channel planning;
But mainly, as this will be my first Cannes since I gave up drinking, I’m just looking forward to not just hearing some big conversations, but actually remembering them.
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