He gave us The Man Who Sold The World, but was a brief stint in the advertising industry key to David Bowie’s illustrious career? And just imagine the heights he could have reached if only he’d stuck at it…
David Bowie turned 65 yesterday. The resulting media attention turned up one interesting theory – that Bowie’s facility for reinvention and his awareness of the power of image, were to some degree the result of an early, brief stint in advertising.
If any readers were listening to Radio 6 yesterday morning they may have caught an interview with Peter Doggett, author of The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and the 1970s, a comprehensive review of Bowie’s career, song by song. Speaking about Bowie’s famous ability to create new personas, Doggett advanced the idea, tongue perhaps partly in cheek, that this was in no small measure due to the year or so he spent working in an ad agency in the early 60s.
Bowie studied art at Bromley Technical High School (where he was taught, trivia fans, by Peter Frampton’s dad). In July 1963 he took a job at the New Bond Street offices of Nevin D Hirst Advertising as a trainee commercial artist. As Doggett says in the book, this wasn’t a period of Bowie’s life that he would later give great credence to: “His employment lasted no more than a year, and on the rare occasions when he discussed it in interviews, he tended to dismiss it either as a bore, or else a disappointment,” Doggett writes. “It was diabolical, I never realised being an artist meant buckling under so much,” Bowie said in a 1975 interview, a viewpoint quite a few agency creatives may greet with a sense of familiarity.
Nonetheless, Doggett argues that the skills he learned at the agency set him in good stead later on. “The agency ethos altered the way in which he viewed himself and the Kon-Rads [the band Bowie was in at the time],” Doggett argues. He then quotes Kon-Rads member David Hadfield saying that “His main contribution [to the band] was ideas. He had thousands of them, a new one for every day – that we should change the spelling of our name, or our image, or our clothes… He also came up with lots of sketches of potential advertising campaigns for the band.” Sound familiar, ad creatives?
This, Doggett argues, “confirms how seriously Bowie took the power of the hidden persuaders. For the remainder of the 1960s, he would present himself to the public in a bewildering variety of guises, as if he was still at his desk in Bond Street, presenting potential campaigns to his superiors.”
And, of course, Bowie first came to the nation’s attention as a result of a piece of self-promotion – guerrilla marketing? – that any modern brand manager would be proud of. With his manager Leslie Conn and the help of author Leslie Thomas, Bowie (then named Davey Jones and performing with The Manish Boys) cooked up the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men – supposedly a pressure group formed by Bowie after one insult too many aimed at his lustrous locks in the street. Initially a story in The Evening Standard, it was picked up by BBC show Tonight scoring Bowie his first TV appearance.
For all Bowie’s later dismissiveness, it seems that he was actually quite good at advertising. He was quickly promoted to junior visualiser, a forerunner to today’s art director. Bowie, Doggett argues, was symbolic of a changing industry where it was becoming possible for working class boys to attain senior positions. He exemplified the qualities of ‘creative imagination and visual awareness’ that a survey of agencies at the time revealed to be key to the success of this new breed called ‘creatives’.
If only he’d stuck with a proper job, who knows where he might have ended up? Bartle, Bogle, Bowie and Hegarty? It has a certain ring to it…
The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and the 1970s by Peter Doggett is published by Bodley Head, £20
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