The changing man

Chris Palmer’s career has seen him go from dispatch rider to copy­writer to award-winning director.

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Take a flick through Chris Palmer’s considerable archive of commercials and you’ll be met by a mixture of advertising classics alongside a formidable collection of recent successes, including spots for Skoda and Carlsberg which saw him pick up the two biggest gongs at the recent btaca awards – Best Direction for Carlsberg Old Lions. The latter features a group of veteran England players who form the ‘Best Pub Team in the World’, and Best Crafted Commercial of the Year for Skoda’s Baking Of…, where he oversaw an entire car being crafted out of cake.

Palmer is now best known for his work as a director, yet he has explored all aspects of the ad industry, from working as a copywriter and running his own agency (Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow Johnson), before moving into directing and launching the production company Gorgeous Enterprises. Now his ambitions are leaning away from advertising, towards directing features, with a number of possible film projects in the pipeline this year.

This move towards features could be seen as simply a natural progression of his directing career, yet it is also prompted by ongoing frustrations with the advertising process. “I’m really interested in film,” he explains. “The difference is, with commercials you rely on someone else providing you with the script, and then you have to pitch for it. And you might do something they’re really interested in, but the client isn’t. At least with the film stuff, I’m not pitching all the time, they want me to do it.”

After over 20 years of extraordinary success within the industry—he has racked up nearly 20 D&AD awards, including three for direction, and four Cannes Gold awards—Palmer is in a good position to see how much it has changed. His intro to the business is the stuff of legend, when, straight out of art college, he got the opportunity to show his work to John Hegarty, who hired him as his copywriter. “Initially I came to London lured by dispatch riding, which back then was sexy,” he says. “And I set up my own company. But I used to do drawings, cartoon strips. Which actually, on reflection, were quite like storyboards, and someone just said to me, ‘you should go to art school’.”

Study at Hornsey College of Art, St Martin’s and on the d&ad advertising course followed, all supplemented by his dispatch riding, which also helped him win his first big break. “I delivered to BBH,” he continues. “And I knew the receptionists from a party, and I knew one of the girls there from D&AD, and they said, ‘bring your work in’. And John Hegarty saw it and gave me my first job as his copywriter. I was only a copywriter because he was an art director.”

From the casual way Palmer describes it, this might all sound like a case of being in the right place at the right time, although it is clear that he had a natural aptitude for advertising right from the beginning. “The attraction to advertising was that you just came up with an idea, which was easy, and that was it,” he comments, “I thought, ‘Oh, I like that’, because you didn’t have to do anything.”

His ongoing habit of running his own companies also seems a contributing factor to his success, allowing an enviable degree of control over his career from the beginning. Gorgeous Enterprises is now over 12 years old, but is still a tightly run ship, with only eight directors on its books. “Our employment policy to date has been taking on mates who do stuff that’s not too embarrassing,” Palmer says. “You can only take on so many people on that basis. And I feel more comfortable like that than just having a roster of as many people as possible making as much money as possible… We’ve never done a job for money, it’s always been about trying to do a good job. I guess if you’re hampered by that naïve attitude, it rules out expanding for the sake of financial gain.”

Palmer’s prowess means that he is in high demand as a director. “To just get a meeting with him is really nice as it means you have a half-decent script,” says Dave Henderson, creative director at ddb, who worked with Palmer on the Carlsberg Old Lions spot while at Saatchi & Saatchi. “Then he tears it apart in front of you and it comes out better than it was… He’s a great storyteller.”

Despite this, Palmer appears weary of the convoluted pitching process that even he still has to go through, alongside the increasing influence of clients on the creative process. Would he go into advertising now if he was the beginning of his career? “I don’t know, I don’t know… The spirit of the thing has changed. I’m not sure there are as many good ideas around as there used to be… A lot of people don’t want to rock the boat, or don’t want to risk the market share, are happy just ticking along… When I was in an agency I was probably a real pain in the arse, because we were desperate to do good ads. We’d write a script and we would really fight for it, and would try and get the best director to do it. Now you just seem to sit in meetings where it’s the client this, the client that…”

The new multi-media opportunities that are slowly shaping a new direction for advertising hold little interest to Palmer either, who instead seems more focused on directing movies, with a potential feature project already lined up for this year, alongside others being developed through Gorgeous. “I’m much more interested in long-format,” he says. “I mean you can just make an average film and it’s there forever. You can do a number of award-winning commercials, but they’ll come and go. And the internet is further down than that.”

Feature directing seems a natural fit for Palmer, for while his advertising may be eclectic in terms of style, what consistently reappears is a knack for extracting excellent performances. Despite this, the road from commercials direction to film direction is often far from straightforward. Yet, judging by his career so far, Palmer will no doubt make it appear easy – the ad industry can only hope he continues to squeeze out the odd brilliant commercial too.