Remembering Tony Cullingham

As leader of the renowned Watford Advertising Course, and latterly BBH Barn, Tony Cullingham inspired (and challenged) hundreds of creatives with his unique approach and devotion to creative thinking

Fame and recognition in advertising can be a complex thing. There are the ‘stars’ of the industry who regularly appear at conferences or in the trade press, but there are also hundreds of others who contribute in vital but less widely acknowledged ways, who may not get to stand on stages receiving awards but are nonetheless crucial to creating a vibrant creative industry.

One figure who exerted an enormous influence behind-the-scenes was Tony Cullingham, who passed away last month aged 66. Leader of the Watford Advertising Course and latterly BBH Barn, Cullingham was responsible for nurturing huge swathes of young talent entering the ad industry in the UK.

Many, many of those who were trained by him have reached top positions in creative departments, and travelled all over the world. As Matt Lever, CCO at BMB puts it: “His impact on the creative output of our industry was so enormous, he should be spoken of in the same way that we speak of the Abbotts, Websters and Silburns of the world.”

Cullingham was particularly committed to opening the advertising world out to people from all backgrounds and experiences. He taught at Watford for 30 years and when he decided to close the course, joined BBH in London in 2021 to continue offering access to the industry via its ‘creative incubator’, Barn.

He should be spoken of in the same way that we speak of the Abbotts, Websters and Silburns of the world

He was renowned for his unusual methods of teaching, which challenged his students to think differently about the world and about what creativity could achieve. But ultimately his focus throughout was practical: to get the students he taught into jobs.

“I’m just very single-minded,” he said in an interview with CR last year. “I’ve never been about awards, I’ve never been about PR and saying how great the Watford ad school is or how great the Barn ad school is. The primary single-minded objective of mine, and this comes from the fact that my father struggled to find work … is those students get jobs after being with me. It’s all about jobs, jobs, jobs, nothing else. If they get jobs at BBH and other fine agencies like this, then I can say I’ve done my job, and that’s really important.”

He achieved this ambition in spades. Below are a number of recollections of Cullingham, from those he taught and worked alongside, which offer a sense of the many individual lives he touched, and his wide impact on advertising today.

Image courtesy BBH Barn

Helen Rhodes, ECD, BBH London
Tony was such an individual and his impact on the world of advertising so far reaching that it’s almost impossible to put into words what he meant to me and so many others. Lots of people have talked about his endless creativity, his anarchic spirit, and his unconventional teaching methods, all of which are true and worthy of a thousand words. He was a teacher, friend, father figure, mentor, matchmaker, headhunter, the list goes on. But most of all he was just a lovely, lovely man who loved people and people loved him.

It was amazing to see him at BBH as he worked his way around the creative department chatting to teams, so interested in what they were working on. Always happy to hand out a headline or two to those in need, or even if they weren’t, he just couldn’t help himself. But he didn’t confine his charisma to the 4th floor, everyone in the agency chatted to Tony and he had something in common with them all. Whether it was obscure world cinema, sci-fi graphic novels, surrealist comedy, Greek tragedies, Greek islands, Greek food (he liked Greece), football, theatre, books, Tony was interested in everything and that’s why he was so interesting. Bumping into Tony in the corridor meant you were often late for meetings, but it was worth it every time, and I would give anything to bump into him in a corridor again.

Dan Watts, ECD, Pablo
Tony didn’t just teach you how to get a job in advertising. He taught you how to think. How to take criticism. How to simplify. How to question. How to work hard. And how to have fun. Things that make the world a better place. I hope he knew just how loved he was by the people that will miss him.

Caroline Pay, CCO, Dentsu
Tony made my life hell for a day, really hard work for a year, and then pretty much a privilege thereafter. I don’t think he had any idea of the profound effect he had on each of us that did the course, and in truth everyone we’ve worked with since. He taught us how to think, how to sell, how to ‘kill our babies’ (his words, not mine). It was the most traumatic but game-changing year of my life, and it was all him.

Cullingham with BBH Barn mentors. Image courtesy BBH Barn

Tim Collins, children’s author
I did the Watford Course in 2000, and stayed involved with it as an external assessor for many years. Tony was a lovely guy, but he’d begin the course with a fierce persona designed to prepare students for the difficult creative directors they’d meet in the wild. This abrasive version of Tony would berate new students for their terrible ideas and rip their woeful concepts down from the pinboard. He’d even keep some of the very worst in a drawer, so he could blackmail them when they became wealthy and successful. I wonder if he ever made good on this threat?

In the 90s and noughties, Tony could keep this formidable persona up well into the second term, when students would be coming up with better stuff. But the truth that he was actually incredibly kind and supportive came out earlier every year. In the final years of the Watford course, he was probably struggling to stay angry until the first lunch break.

Watford was called the ‘Oxbridge of advertising’, and at one point was getting over 500 applications every year for the 20 places. But Tony didn’t want the course to become elitist and fought hard to keep the fees low so it would be open to anyone with good ideas who wanted to learn how to do great ones.

Tony wasn’t just the unsung hero of advertising. He was the unsung hero of many creative industries, as plenty of ex-Watford students found success as authors, screenwriters, stand-up comedians and other things. The secret of his course was that it wasn’t really about advertising at all. It was about ideas, and how many exciting ones are waiting if you abandon the route one stuff and keep going. It’s no wonder so many applied the thinking to other areas.

Danny Brooke-Taylor, founder, Lucky Generals
Tony didn’t just teach his students how to do advertising, he encouraged them to learn how to really think. It was a wonderfully generous way to inspire hopeful creatives. He wished for us to leave his course not just with a book full of ads worthy of a job, but also with heads full of ideas for life.

Stuart Harkness, founder, Gentle Forces
Tony is possibly the most successful creative leader in British advertising on paper. If you consider the brains he moulded in terms of industry accolades, he is peerless. But more importantly he was the most inspiring and truly loved oddball within the M25.

Image courtesy Damon Hutson-Flynn

Damon Hutson-Flynn, creative director
Above is a photograph of Tony Cullingham, Rob Brown and myself. It was at the end of a day guest tutoring with Tony at Watford. I have always been fond of this photograph, because it exudes the massive love and proudness that was always this great man. Just one of the many countless moments that Tony would have constantly enjoyed throughout his many years.

Proud of his job, proud of his students now professional, proud of what the students of that year had presented and the whole connected joy of it all. Such a powerful love of life and creativity that he shared so infectiously. The photograph also catches some of that beaming, sparkly, bright-eyed look of love and warmth he would throw at me sometimes and that he had for all of us.

Dan Scott, creative, Pablo
Tony wasn’t just a great mentor; he was a best friend and a father figure to many who were taught by him. He looked out for you long after you finished the course, because for him his job wasn’t done until you were safe and sound in a job. That unselfish dedication is why his impact is felt right across the creative industry, and why his legacy will live on. If there was a Mount Rushmore of creative advertising, TC’s face would sit there amongst Bernbach and Webster as one of the all-time greats.

Nick Sheppard & Tom Webber; Watford 2007-08 and Barn mentors
Tony would have given us five minutes to write this. He would have wanted to see 20 different versions. He would have said keep it simple. Keep it relevant. And make sure it’s emotional. That bit’s easy. Tony taught so many of us so much. He made us laugh. He made us cry. And he made our careers. He loved his students, loved his family, and loved Leicester City (when they were winning). He was full of imagination, full of life, and full of anecdotes. He very rarely stopped. But if he did, over a cuppa he would have asked: Are you happy? Well, TC, we’re so sad you’re gone, but so happy to have known you.

Image courtesy BBH Barn

Rajeev Basu, former VP creative director, Maximum Effort
I owe so much to this wise, silly, and brilliant man. A teacher and friend I will miss very much. I remember how he’d award whoever came up with ‘campaign of the week’ the chance to pick something out of a biscuit tin that was full of rubbish he’d collected from a charity shop. Alternatively, you could opt for however much change he had in his pocket at that time. The choice was yours. The prizes got increasingly bizarre as the weeks went on – one week the winner received a very smelly giant puffer jacket we suspect he’d found in a bin somewhere. I don’t think any of us will ever be able to explain his methods, but there is no doubt none of us could be more grateful for what he’s enabled us to go on and do. This year’s winner of the course lettuce is you, TC. It always has been.

Craig Ainsley, director, Arts & Sciences
Tony didn’t just give us all careers, he changed our brains. That thing of learning about how ideas work, what makes them good or bad or interesting, understanding the whole architecture of an idea and then figuring out how to distil it and communicate it in only a few words so that it lands in a fun way – it’s the education of a lifetime. You never stop doing it. You have a new way of taking in the world. It improves the way you absorb art, music, culture, comedy – it improves your interactions with everyone you meet.

He armed us with skills to make our lives more interesting and I can’t think of a better gift. He loved his students and we loved him. And it’s only now, the more I think about it, the more I realise how much he gave us. And I’ll probably keep realising it. He would write the words DULL and IRRELEVANT on the wall, and the idea was to avoid having your work placed beneath those words. Well, he was never, ever dull. And the other night we went for drinks and there were hundreds of Watford alumni there, from agency owners to people just starting out, all raising a glass to him – a clear demonstration of just how fully relevant he is, and will continue to be, for so many of us. I’ll miss you, TC.

Image courtesy BBH Barn

Nicola Wood & Andy Forrest, ECDs, Ogilvy
We’re struggling to put into words a short tribute for Tony. It’s almost like trying to write to one of his impossible-to-answer copy test questions. There is so much and too much to say, it’s too hard a task, though of course we can hear Tony telling us that nothing is impossible. As well as to ‘keep it simple’. So we will.

He was more than just a tutor. He was a mentor and a friend. A legend and a giant (and not just because he was 6ft3). Watford wasn’t just a place, it was a man. It wasn’t just nine months, it was forever. His tough love and wisdom etched into our hearts, our minds, and every creative review since. Adland will seem so strange and empty without him, but we suppose he’ll never really be gone because he’ll never be forgotten. Big love our dearest TC! You were definitely on life’s INTERESTING and RELEVANT board!

Matt Lever, CCO, BMB
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Tony changed my life. His impact on the creative output of our industry was so enormous, he should be spoken of in the same way that we speak of the Abbotts, Websters and Silburns of the world. In fact, if you were to add up all the Pencils, Lions, Arrows, Circles and Sharks won by people who benefitted from his genius, I reckon he’d probably be the most awarded figure the UK advertising industry has ever known.