Polite and amusing: advertising from another era

In a recent Q&A session, the founders of Collett Dickenson Pearce brought home how much the ad industry has changed since the 1970s

For many in the advertising industry, Collett Dickenson Pearce represents UK advertising at its zenith. The work created at CDP, especially in its heyday in the 70s and 80s, was witty, smart and surprising, and the agency launched the careers of many creatives and directors who would go on to be famous internationally, both in the ad industry and further afield, including Ridley Scott, Charles Saatchi, David Puttnam, Alan Parker, John Hegarty and Frank Lowe. So when D&AD announced that it was bringing together five core members of CDP’s alumni for one of its President’s Lectures this year, a packed audience was guaranteed. The atmosphere in the hall was warm and affectionate as Sir Frank Lowe, Sir Alan Parker, John Salmon, Tony Brignull and Alan Waldie took to the stage, introduced by the evening’s chair (and former CDP client) Anthony Simonds-Gooding as “advertising’s Dad’s Army”.

The format for the evening was simple – questions from the audience would be intercut with video segments playing examples of CDP’s work. The opening block of these included some bona fide ad classics, including TV spots for Hovis, Hamlet cigars, Parker Pens and Bird’s Eye. Intercut were stills of poster ads, many containing the long copy typical of the 70s and 80s, which highlighted the age of the ads on show, and set the tone for much of the questioning, which centred on the differences between the ad industry then compared to now. 

The five speakers gave an insight into life at the agency, and it became clear that it was a company focused on creativity yet carefully managed. As a way of ensuring quality, any ads going to clients had to be signed off by the entire management team first, and former art director Waldie in particular spoke often and amusingly of the fear involved in showing work to the creative directors. Lowe interestingly revealed that only one piece of work would be shown to clients, rather than offering choices, and that research groups were non-existent. He also stressed that creatives were given time to do their work, commenting that “our first thoughts are no better than anyone else’s, only when you keep dabbling do you come up with something original”. Parker pointed out the differences between CDP and other agencies of the time, saying that they allowed him “the freedom to improvise and change the script, and it didn’t have to go through layers of approval”. One such example Parker gave was the shooting of the much-loved Cinzano commercials starring Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins. Parker explained that the resounding joke of the ads, when Collins inadvertently spills her drink over herself, was in fact an improvised idea of Rossiter’s rather than written by the creatives.

As Parker himself remarked, such freedoms are just not possible now, no matter how creative the agency, and these reminiscences undoubtedly served to make the younger ad creatives in the audience envious. The whole event did teeter on the brink of falling into nostalgia for the ‘good ol’ days’ at times however, in particular when Lowe yearned for the days before computers, when they “sat with our feet on the desk talking to each other”.

Digital advertising in turn seemed to hold little interest for the panel, who appeared generally disenchanted with contemporary advertising. When asked which of today’s ads were current favourites, Lowe mentioned the Meerkat spots, while Parker talked at length about the recent John Lewis Always A Woman ad. Both are examples of good TV advertising, though cut from a traditional mould more in keeping with CDP-era ads than the experi­mental, integrated campaigns  pushing the industry forward today.

Less positive aspects of CDP’s era of advertising were also on show in some of the ads screened, though the respectful questions posed by the audience left no room for this to be discussed. One lengthy Silk Cut ad featuring a blacked-up John Bird felt sharply uncomfortable viewed through today’s eyes, and the dominance of cigarette advertising generally was striking. Tobacco advertising was banned fully in 2003 (TV advertising for cigarettes having been banned since 1965), and it would be interesting to know whether, looking back, it caused the panel any unease to have worked on such accounts.

Mostly, however, it was a night that celebrated an agency that pushed UK advertising forward, by proving that by fostering and championing creativity, exceptional work will follow.

And for all the differences that may exist in the industry between CDP’s heyday and now, certain aspects endure, especially the need to treat the audience with respect. “We didn’t shout at the audience,” said John Salmon when talking about CDP’s approach. “We thought we should be polite and amusing.” Advice that many of today’s brands and agencies would be wise to take on board.

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