David Dye: Self-starter

No stranger to starting his own agency, earlier this year ad veteran Dave Dye launched his third start-up, small London-based company Hello People

Dave Dye first started out in advertising in 1985, a time when the industry, in the UK at least, was seen as highly influential and cool. Working at a small design company, he was keen to be a part of it. “At the time advertising was a fantastically glamorous, powerful thing,” he says. “John Hegarty was on [UK chat show] Wogan, for example, which seems bizarre in retrospect. The Saatchis had not long before helped to put Margaret Thatcher in office … it seemed like a very intelligent, cool thing, and there were lots of very artistic, interesting ads all over the place. That just seemed like a much more exciting world than diddling around doing jam jar designs, or whatever I was doing at the time.”

Breaking in was a struggle. With no contacts within the industry, he had to send in his portfolio cold, and initially got little response. A breakthrough came when he decided to take a more creative approach to his covering letter: inspired by Woody Allen’s Manhattan, it featured a number of different ways of addressing the recipient, each crossed out. Beginning in a strictly formal manner, his approaches got increasingly casual as the letter progressed. “Really it was quite truthful in a way,” he says now. “I didn’t even know how to address these people, I didn’t know how to get in. It got me lots of interviews, that one letter, which in retrospect is quite interesting, because actually when you’re a bit more honest and you reveal something, you’ve got more of a chance of making a connection with someone than if you pretend you know everything.”

While this inspired approach got him meetings, which led to his first job, at Brooks Legon Bloomfield, it still took Dye some time to get to the agencies that were doing the creative work he admired. He “moved in tiny steps up the ladder of agencies”, taking on free work on the side to build his portfolio, before joining Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow Johnson in 1992. Over the next nine years he moved around some of London’s most creative agencies, working at Leagas Delaney, BMP DDB and AMV.BBDO (in the latter two he was head of art), and was involved in creating reams of award-winning work.

Dye’s description of the culture at these four companies illuminates the power of the creative heads at agencies. “Every one is different,” he says. “They’re like four corners of a square.”

“My friend Mark Denton said it’s funny, it’s like there’s something in the water of agencies, that you end up doing stuff that they do,” he continues. “If I look back at when I was at Simons Palmer, I’ve got a lot of brash-looking ads for The Sun that are quite cheeky. Then if I look at Leagas Delaney, I’ve got a few very craft-y, long-copy ads…. Partly I guess that’s what’s approved by the creative director, but partly you acclimatise, you almost do it without noticing really.”

Asked to pick out his most significant piece of work from this period, Dye names his ad Lamppost for Adidas Running, created at Leagas Delaney in 1996, which pictures a street with various distance goals highlighted. It won Dye his first D&AD award, and like the covering letter he used to break into the industry, was rooted in personal experience. “It wasn’t me trying to write an ad, it was me trying to express an observation…. It was a very personal observation, and ironically it ended up doing well, it won a lot of awards and I suppose it gave me a bit of confidence to put some store by personal experiences and observations, rather than think you have to construct ads in a certain way. If you can do something that hopefully hasn’t been done that people have empathy for, that’s really powerful.”

Changing times

By 2001, the industry had changed significantly. Dye observed that the creative was becoming the most important requirement for clients. “The feeling was that there were certain things that clients couldn’t have done previously, that they can do now, particularly with the internet. But the thing that they can’t do is the creative, they can’t solve the problems. So we set up a very creatively focused agency, with three creative partners on the door.” This was Campbell Doyle Dye, set up in collaboration with Walter Campbell and Sean Doyle.

CDD produced lots of award-winning work though lasted only five years. On his highly detailed LinkedIn page, Dye signals his departure from the company, in 2006, with just one word: “Shafted”. While this suggests a juicy tale, he is circumspect in his discussion of what went wrong, citing external factors such as the impact of 9/11 on the industry as well as internal problems as the cause.
He describes the running of his own company as initially being something of a shock. “You get very managed and mollycoddled in agencies and the shock of the cold reality of being responsible for your own income and being responsible for client relationships is a different world, a different sport,” he says. “We didn’t really have a clue about business.”

Another surprise was how little the trio’s star-studded back catalogue mattered when it came to winning business, a sobering point for all new start-ups. “With some clients [the previous body of work] was almost discounted,” he says. While a bitter pill to swallow at the time, Dye recognises the reasoning behind this. “As I said earlier, some agencies do have a process of things happening and you don’t know what you’re going to do when you start an agency.”

Perhaps the biggest learning experience, however, was the realisation that having three creative partners was perhaps not the best strategy to go with. “The utopian idea that three creatives can agree between them what the best ads are was tough,” he says. “There were disagreements. It’s very subjective our business.”

Moving on

Tellingly, for Dye’s next start-up venture, in 2007, he was the only creative partner. Dye Holloway Murray started when the ad industry was in flux. With the rapid advance of digital, traditional agencies were unfashionable and were being forced to regroup. DHM launched with the intention of being a multi-disciplinary offering, though had a traditional-sounding name, a point Dye now regrets. “It just said ‘traditional agency’,” he says. “Whereas if we’d been called Monkeyfish or Cheese Omelette or something, they’d have thought ‘oh, they sound funky’.”

Despite this, the agency had a clear philosophy from the outset, based not on the shifts in media, but on a deeper observation about our changing world. “We were quite into truth,” says Dye. “I think that most people are smart, so … all this advertising that talks down to them or assumes that they’re thick doesn’t work. I think people get whether you’re bullshitting or lying, and the best work that I’ve been involved in or been around seemed like it was giving a good representation of who the company actually was. So if it was on the Economist, they weren’t trying to dumb down, they were trying to be even smarter. I’ve worked on Adnam’s and rather than saying ‘this is the most amazing beer on earth’, we said ‘this is from the brewery by the coast’. It’s just a true thing.”

This truthfulness doesn’t always go down well – Dye cites one client who was horrified by the idea, saying in response, “but I thought you were an advertising agency” – and he worries that it may at times appear earnest or “hairshirt”. But in a world where a brand can be quickly torn apart on Twitter for trying to pull the wool over customers’ eyes, it is an astute approach.

“I like things that are funny and simple and look nice,” he continues. “I like things that are entertaining and interesting…. I think in the 70s most of the good advertising was really entertaining but often telling lies – ‘if you want great beer, follow the bear’… it wasn’t great beer. I think people are less tolerant of that now.”

Clients’ needs have also changed, in his view. “Arguably now, creating personality is as important as ideas,” he says. “Twenty years ago, it was only ideas, whereas now there are so many products that are identical to other products that the feel of that company, and whether you’re empathetic with it, is everything.”

A new start

Earlier this year, Dye reinvented DHM, launching it as Hello People with two new partners, Hugh Baillie and Rachel Hatton, respectively former chief executive and group planning director at Ogilvy & Mather. The company has retained DHM’s staff and clients, which include Adnam’s and Google.

Eight months in, Dye sounds cautious about the company’s position in the industry. It now has the cool, ambiguous name that Dye desired for DHM, but the relaunch has not been without its frustrations. “We had a really good meeting with a bank, and in the end they said, ‘I think we’re too conservative to go with a brand new start up’,” Dye recalls. “You think, ‘that’s annoying’.”

Perhaps it’s his devotion to the truth but instead of the usual spiel that ad creatives can sometimes spin about a new venture, Dye is somewhat reserved when talking about what the future may hold. He admits that he’d like more business for Hello People, and also expresses a general observation on how competitive the market is for agencies right now.

“It seems a little bit tougher now to grow,” he says. “It feels like there’s either small or huge – it’s not the gradual incline that it used to be. There’s not many medium-sized agencies: there’s the small ones or the huge networks. And I think also the huge networks now seem to pitch for anything. You can get these projects that you pitch for and find you’re up against M&C Saatchi and Abbott Mead. And they’re either doing it for a little bit of extra income or because it’s quite nice. That makes it tougher because if you’re a client, there’s quite a lot of comfort in going with those big agencies.”

But despite the seismic changes that the industry has gone through during his career, he still finds the idea of working in advertising exciting. “At a basic level, I like solving and creating things,” he says. “I think if you’re a creative you have to be unbelievably optimistic and positive, so whenever anything turns up you think, ‘well that could be good, I wonder what we should do’. I still feel like that. And it’s still exciting when something happens and runs and you see it in real life.”


More at hellopeoplelondon.com. Dave Dye blogs at davedye.com

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