Valentines’ Day in Warsaw…

…and some of the other experiences, disadvantages and benefits
derived from being one half of an art and copy team.

One day, during our long creative partnership, Paul Smith remarked that he spent more time with me than he did with his wife. That’s the thing about being a creative team: it’s the nearest you get to being married, without actually getting married. You work together, you travel together, you eat together and you drink together. About the only activity you don’t do is sleep together, well, hopefully not – although two men, constantly in each other’s company, can often be mistaken for a gay couple. Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes not. It depends on the circumstances.

When we were at Grey, Paul and I were invited to the stag night of an ex-Saatchi account man. We met up with the account man at his Chelsea flat along with some other colleagues, plus male members of his family and his prospective bride’s family. Paul and I had previously been told that the stag night was to take place at the Directors’ Club. Naively, I imagined this to be the Palladian building in Pall Mall, which I now know to be the Institute of Directors. The Directors’ Club turned out to be a totally different kettle of fish – or, as The Beatles might have it, fish n’ finger pie. But I am hurtling ahead of myself.

As I drank Champagne in the account man’s flat I fondly imagined what sort of experience lay ahead of me. A private room in an historic building; starched white napery, liveried butlers delivering fine food and wine. In short, I looked forward to a civilised dinner in civilised surroundings. How wrong I was.

Paul and I clambered into a taxi with Nigel Sharrocks, our managing director, and headed into the West End. But, instead of Pall Mall, our destination was a grubby courtyard in Mayfair. As we pulled up outside the intended venue for the evening, the sight of two red lamps greeted us, one at each end of the long frontage. If it wasn’t a brothel we were looking at, it was without doubt a world-class titty bar. My heart sank, as did those of Paul and Nigel.

I should mention here that previously Nigel and I had been on a trip to Plymouth to make a presentation to Wrigley’s. On a whim (it’s a long train journey and we were both slightly drunk) we decided to call the account man who we knew to be on a business trip to Thailand with a client from Mars (confectionary, not planet, though with most clients that’s debatable). It just so happened that at the very moment we called the account man, he was travelling towards Bangkok airport in a limousine. He was breathing deeply and began to explain why. He was in what he described as a ‘silk sandwich’. This apparently is a service offered whereby two hookers accompany their client to the airport while performing lewd acts, one either side of the client – hence the word sandwich. Or, to put it crudely, our account man was the meat filling between two slices of female Thai bread. Knowing about this episode should have alerted Paul, Nigel and me as to what to expect. But for some reason it hadn’t.

When we got inside the Directors’ Club, the place was deserted –for about a Nano-second. Then, from every direction, women appeared wearing only underwear and high-heeled shoes. (It wasn’t all bad, then.) Two of these women sidled up to Paul and me and started badgering us to buy a bottle of the club’s overpriced bubbly while dropping big hints about what else might follow if the price was right. At this point, Paul and I did the only thing that two decent, clean living men could do. We told the girls that we were gay. Rather worryingly, they immediately believed us and left us alone. But it did allow Paul and me to enjoy the two glasses of white wine we had bought at highly inflated prices. So, being mistaken for a gay couple, albeit deliberately, on this occasion had been helpful. But it’s not always so.

Many years later I found myself in Warsaw with John Foster, otherwise known as Frosty. It was mid-February, snow was on the ground, and outside temperatures were perishing. Frosty and I had gone over to Poland to help out the local Lowe agency on a project for Nestlé; I forget now which one. We’d gone for a week, arriving late Monday morning and were due to leave Friday afternoon. We soon settled into our usual routine for this type of jaunt: meet over breakfast, take a cab into the agency, spend the day there working, then come back to the hotel around six. We’d then spend half an hour or so freshening up before meeting in the bar to do a bit more work over a drink. An hour or so later we’d step out into the freezing weather and slip-slide our way over the snow-covered pavements to one of the local restaurants for dinner.

We followed this routine religiously for what remained of Monday after our arrival, the whole of Tuesday and the whole of Wednesday. But when Thursday dawned so did a dreadful realisation. It was the 14th of February. Over breakfast I suggested to Frosty that as it was Valentine’s Day it might be prudent to book a table in the hotel restaurant for dinner, as all the local restaurants were likely to be full up with celebrating couples. As guests of the hotel they were certain to give us a table, and they did: a table for two in the hotel’s art deco dining room, overlooking the hotel garden. Confident that our dinner arrangements were sorted we set off for our day’s work.

When we arrived back that evening, we met for a drink in the hotel bar, as was our custom. We found that our usual table along with many others was missing and that the few tables that remained had been pushed against the wall. Another difference we noticed was a raised dais that had been installed at one end of the room, together with two giant speakers and what looked like a music-mixing desk. The bar appeared to have been transformed into a ballroom. Undeterred, Frosty and I ordered drinks and sat down, if a little uncomfortably, at a table squashed up beside a wall.

Now guests began to arrive for dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was reached by way of the bar. Very soon, Frosty and I noticed a worrying pattern emerging. All the men wore black tie; all the women, long dresses. By contrast, Frosty and I were in casual clothes and unlike every couple that now arrived, were two men, not a man and a woman.

‘I am getting a very bad feeling about this’ I said to Frosty. ‘I am going to talk to the maître ‘d and see what’s going on.’

I walked across the bar to the maître d’s station at the entrance to the restaurant.

‘My friend and I are booked into the restaurant for dinner’, I told him.

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Can you tell me what sort of dinner it is?’

‘Yes, sir, it’s a set menu, and everything is pink, even down to the Champagne. Special for Valentines’ Day’.

‘Yes, that’s what I am getting at. We’re two men and all your other guests are men and women’.

‘Oh, no need to worry, sir. We’re very modern here now. You being two men is no problem.’

‘No, I don’t think you understand’ – at this point I pointed to the lonely figure of Frosty, nursing his half-drunk beer – ‘we’re work colleagues’.

‘Yes, of course you are, sir, whatever you wish. Your table’s here for you whenever you are ready.’

Without further ado we ditched the pink set menu and ate burgers in the hotel’s coffee shop. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but for the fact that I’d been abroad with Frosty before on Valentines’ Day – in that earthly paradise for lovers, the romantic city of Paris.

We’d been filling in time between two trips to South Africa working for Lowe’s Paris office. This involved popping over there on Eurostar once, sometimes twice, a week. One of these trips coincided with Valentines’ Day. Alarm bells began ringing when Frosty and I arrived at Waterloo to see a giant net on the concourse containing pink heart-shaped balloons. These were being handed out to the many couples that accompanied us on our train journey to Paris. Frosty and I, of course, declined the one we were offered. But we did end up that afternoon sipping drinks together outside Deux Magots on Boulevard St Germain and polishing off pink Champagne on the return journey to London.

Despite all this, being one half of an art and copy team has a damn sight more benefits than it has drawbacks. For a start, you always have somebody to eat lunch with. And, if you’re a copywriter, having an art director in tow has many other advantages. More often than not, art directors have had a better education than copywriters. I’d better explain what I mean by that. We writers may have been to decent schools, universities even, but we haven’t experienced the finest form of education known to mankind: the art college.

Whereas schools and universities teach you what to think, art colleges teach their pupils how to think. Not only that, and much more importantly, they teach them how to see. So, if you’re a writer who spends almost all your waking hours sitting in the company of an art director, a lot of this rubs off. Pay attention and you can pick up an art college education second hand. Even if you don’t pay attention, a lot of it sinks in, like how to judge a photograph.

Neil Godfrey, for example, told Paul Smith – and thus by proxy, me – that every photograph or painting should be viewed upside down as well as the right way up. If the graphics are pleasing when inverted, they will be more so the other way round. If they’re not pleasing upside down, get yourself a new picture, or try re-cropping it until they are. Another example: Alan Waldie took Paul and me to the Royal Academy one day and gave us a faultless grounding in American artists of the mid 20th century. As a result, I now know my Pollock from my Rothko. And that’s not to mention how much art directors help when you when you do what you are paid to do: create advertisements. Another Neil Godfrey story is a case in point.

Paul and I had done a 48-sheet poster for the Fiat Mirafiori. It was to advertise a souped-up version that went from nought to sixty miles per hour in in 11.9 seconds. We had written a headline that flagged up the acceleration of the car, used an empty cage as a visual, as if the car had escaped from it, and put a line below the cage: The Supermirafiori twin cam. 0-60 in 11.9 seconds. Neil took one look at it and told us to dump the headline and use the subheading in its place. The result was much more oomph, and a place in that year’s Design and Art Directors’ Annual.

The poster that Neil Godfrey gave added oomph.

The poster that Neil Godfrey gave added oomph.

I have often joked, too, that art directors write better headlines than copywriters because they are not hampered by knowledge of the English language. That’s bollocks, of course, many art directors are extremely erudite, but they do have a knack of expressing ideas in a beautifully simple way, as an ad Paul and I did in the early eighties at Collett Dickenson Pearce demonstrates.

We’d been given a brief to write a full page for the Financial Times to soften up investors in the run-up to the privatisation of Rolls Royce. In our usual manner we’d knocked a few ideas around, but had nothing good enough, when the time came for me to take a week’s holiday in Brazil. On the way back I was upgraded to business class and given a seat by a window. As I grazed on a lavish cold collation of seafood washed down by a rather nice Chablis, I looked out of the window. There, hanging from the plane’s wing, like a nagging reminder of the ad I hadn’t done, was an engine complete with a giant Rolls Royce logo. I found the sight of the logo on the engine reassuring, but at the same time wasn’t really thinking about the ad – or so I thought.

On returning to work, almost my first question to Paul was to ask if he’d done the Rolls Royce ad. He said no, so I described the picture I’d seen of the engine and logo when looking out of the plane’s window. I also told him what a reassuring sight I found it as I travelled at 600 miles an hour eight miles up in the sky.

Paul furiously scribbled on his A3 layout pad, but kept hidden from me what he was drawing. With a broad smile he turned the pad around to show me the fruits of his labour. It was a sketch of the Rolls Royce logo on an aircraft engine as seen from within the cabin of a plane – just as I’d described it. Above the picture he’d written the line ‘Reassuring, isn’t it?’ That was it, ad done, time for lunch, except that it was 10 thirty in the morning, so we had a few hours to kill. But, to return to my point, the line he’d written, ‘Reassuring, isn’t it?’ was far simpler than anything I would have written, I am sure. And who says you can’t get ideas by gazing out of a window?

Interestingly, this idea wouldn't work nearly as well if it weren't taken from the airborne passenger's viewpoint.

Interestingly, this idea wouldn’t work nearly as well if it weren’t taken from the airborne passenger’s viewpoint.

So far, so good, but I have just read through what I have written so far, and realise I have made a glaring omission. It is this: one of the most valuable qualities displayed by art directors, one that almost always eludes copywriters, is immense practicality. Not only does every art director I have worked with have the ability to paint and decorate their homes to a high standard, they seem to be adroit at carpentry and other construction skills that escape me, despite the fact that I am the son of a builder. Of course, where these skills really come into their own is in the preparation and production of important items of agency trivia such as leaving cards. The art director’s abilities throw open a world of possibilities when a creative team is called upon to produce one of these mementoes for departing colleagues. No matter how bizarre the idea, or how complex it might be to produce, if you can think of it, your art director can make it. In fact, it was Paul’s inherent practicality that led him to spend an entire day producing one such card for an account man called Alan Howe.

I am not making this up, but Alan’s father was the Sheriff of Nottingham. Howe Senior was a local councilor and, as leader of the opposition, was entitled to use that title. Paul and I were so keen to impress the son of the holder of such an infamous office that we threw ourselves into the task. Eventually, we decided that as we’d got drunk with Alan on quite a few occasions, we’d make ‘a guide dog for the blind drunk’ to mark his passing. Due to my ineptitude at all things practical – and Paul’s great skill at making things – the construction of this monumental item fell to Paul, and Paul alone. My duties consisted entirely of going to the Bull Pen to wheedle industrial quantities of artwork board out of Frank Gaule. Paul needed loads of the stuff because we’d decided that Alan’s guide dog should be life-sized with the proportions of a large mastiff. In fact, when finished, it stood four feet high, two feet broad, and getting on for seven feet long. It was, without doubt, a masterpiece, the product of both ingenuity and a completely wasted day, during which the pair of us should have been doing ads, not creating a giant, cardboard hound. But you see my point. We wouldn’t have been able to attempt any of this if Paul wasn’t a practical man. And, in any case, seeing Alan’s face when presented with the dog was entertainment in itself. Which leads me neatly to the conclusion of this blog.

If there’s one commodity that being in an art and copy team generates in spades, it’s pure, unmitigated fun. In between doing the ads you lead an enjoyable, entertaining and highly amusing life. If you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by gifted, funny and clever people, as we all were at CDP, that’s doubly so. So I’d like to applaud Bill Bernbach for coming up with the idea of making art directors and writers work together in the first place. You only have to think of what might not have been if he had failed to do so. A gigantic, cardboard dog, for a start – and let’s not forget the thousands of terrific commercials, posters and print ads that have resulted from two people spending long periods of their lives working, drinking and having fun together. Being one half of a creative team may have its occasional drawbacks, but the advantages far outweigh anything to the contrary, even if you do sometimes have to spend Valentines’ Day with your art director.

Copyright: Michael Everett 2014

About Mike Everett

I am a freelance creative director and writer of all forms of communication.

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