Dave Trott speaks: Scam, Cannes, Trump ‘the winner’, Don Draper ‘the bad creative’ and ‘pure wind’ native ads

Adland’s favourite contrarian creative director Dave Trott – the man behind those memorable 1980s ads for Toshiba, Ariston, Holsten Pils and Courage Best Bitter – in conversation with Mumbrella Asia’s Dean Carroll

Firstly, if we try to deconstruct creativity: where do great ideas come from? Is it possible to use any sort of formula? Is it down to freak individual talents? Is it a combination of ambition meeting opportunity? Or something else entirely?

“Depends what sort of ideas you’re looking for. If you’re an art director you’ll always be in art galleries or at exhibitions. If you’re a writer you’ll always be reading (non-fiction) or watching documentaries. Those are the places for ideas.

“But as Edward de Bono said: ‘There are a lot of people calling themselves creative who are actually mere stylists.’ If you’re a stylist you’ll just look for the latest technique on YouTube.”

And as a creative director over so many decades, how would you explain your leadership style and how has it changed over the years as you’ve grown older and wiser?

“I think the job is like a sergeant or a football manager. In each case, the job is to take complicated information and simplify it for the guys in the team. Strip everything back to a simple powerful brief that they can do something brilliant with.

“I see it like this: it’s not my job to score goals, but it is my job to put the team together that scores goals. Then protect them from interference.”

You will have seen the industry before and after the frenzy of mergers and acquisitions in recent decades. If you were giving the industry as it stands a health check, what would it be? Many people complain about the long-hours culture relating to the big holding companies and the focus on shareholder dividends rather than great work that can be expensive and reduce profit margins.

“It’s not difficult is it? Accountants are running huge conglomerates and buying up agencies. The conglomerates naturally answer to shareholders. Shareholders are naturally only interested in profits. So those agencies now have one job: provide profits.

“The only way to do that is to increase the margin. You can only do that by either increasing revenue or cutting costs. So: new business or layoffs. You’re not going to say to the shareholders ‘the dividends and the share price are down, but we’re maintaining our creative integrity’.”

Are the clients complicit in this race to the bottom in that they often demand lower prices and are in turn willing to accept mediocre work?

“Clients are subjective not objective. So they think the agency’s job is to do work they like. They think this because agencies will say anything to keep the client happy and keep the account.

“Clients confuse this obsequiousness with collaboration. Lip service is paid to the consumer, but they really aren’t part of the equation.”

How do you feel about Sir Martin Sorrell, an economist, being effectively the public face and spokesman for the whole creative industry?

“Martin Sorrell is an accountant not an economist. But importantly, he is also an entrepreneur. We now have too few entrepreneurs in this, or any other, industry.

“He is not a spokesman for creativity, he is a spokesman for making money. If you think that’s good it’s good.”

And in the industry hall of fame, who would you pick out as the person who changed the game and why? I guess the usual suspects are Bill Bernbach, Leo Burnett, Marion Harper, David Ogilvy, the Saatchi brothers and Martin Sorrell but perhaps there is an unsung hero who hasn’t become a household name.

“Bertrand Russell said: ‘All philosophy is footnotes to Plato.’ All advertising is footnotes to Bernbach.”

Just playing devil’s advocate for a moment, is gender diversity as much of an issue for the industry as we are led to believe? And, if so, what’s the best way to solve the problem of not enough women being able to rise to the top in such a male-dominated environment?

“The best women don’t want to succeed because they are women. They want to succeed because they are the best.

“To me, people are just brains in bell jars. Everything else – sex, colour, age – is just a vehicle for getting the brain around.”

Beyond the human brain, some people predict that marketers (probably automated artificial intelligence) will be talking directly to virtual personal assistants in the near future to push brands, rather than targeting the humans those VPAs are serving? With the emergence of AI and machine learning, there is a risk that creative becomes no more than an algorithm isn’t there?

“That isn’t advertising so it doesn’t concern me.”

OK, the likes of Amazon and Spotify now recommend content tailored to a user’s previous preferences. What do you think about such curated content, it kind of kills any serendipity that might lead you to discover something new outside of your frame of reference, doesn’t it? Many call this an echo chamber I believe.

“This is a question for a technician, not a creative person.”

On a different note, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I love reading your blog. What compels you to go on writing it week after week, year after year, when it doesn’t seem to be monetised at all?

“I don’t do everything in life for money. I do what I enjoy, and sometimes money follows.

“But even if it doesn’t, if I enjoy doing it the time is well spent. I think money is a by-product not an end-product.”

Changing topic, there is an argument that Donald Trump is the greatest marketer of all time given the way he has turned his own moniker into a weapon to triumph over the establishment, first in real estate and then in politics. How would you rate his communication skills and marketing strategy?

“The main thing you learn from Trump is not to listen to experts. All the experts said he was a laughing stock.

“Well maybe so, but he won and they lost.”

Moving on, you’ve written disparagingly about industry awards lately. But aren’t they a useful bellwether for great work and a catalyst for great creativity?

“Awards, like money, are fine as a by-product, but not as a target. Our target is supposed to be ordinary people in the street. Not freeloaders in Cannes.”

Any thoughts on the issue of scam, given that scam work has won awards at some very high-profile shows like Cannes Lions in the past?

“Scam is for people who can’t win awards but desperately need approval. We even have award schemes now for ads that never ran. That’s how desperate we are for a gold star from teacher to prove we’re really good.”

Looking forward now, global ad agency CEOs often say that the US and Europe are too conservative as markets and that the future for the industry lies in Asia. Any thoughts on that?

“Financially that may well be true, not creatively. But I don’t think that’s something global ad agency CEOs care about.”

More generally, the grandiose ads of yesteryear are becoming irrelevant aren’t they? Young people use ad blockers online and none of them watch linear TV or reads print newspapers and magazines anymore. That means when the older generation dies out then so does the industry, right?

“For me, advertising never was just about newspapers and magazines. Bill Bernbach said: ‘It may well be that creativity is the last unfair advantage we are legally allowed to take over the competition.’

“So for me, we’re in the business of creativity: finding a ‘legal unfair advantage’ wherever and whenever we can. Creativity doesn’t die, it just changes.”

And on the content issue, there are lots of buzzwords and trends around at the moment – everything from programmatic and gamification to experiential and chatbots. But are we starting to focus on the wrong things, as in the quality of the distribution channel rather than the quality of the content itself?

“George Orwell said: ‘Political language is designed to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ That’s how I feel about ‘ecosystems’ and ‘scale’, and ‘algorithms’, and ‘native advertising’ and ‘storytelling’ etc.

“They give the appearance of solidity to pure wind. People who can’t do the job, they try to disguise it in complicated language. As Einstein said: ‘If you can’t explain it to an 11 year-old you haven’t really understood it.’

You use Twitter quite heavily, having sent 30,000 tweets to 25,000 followers. How valuable is social to the media and marketing industries now, has it overtaken the primary mediums of days gone by – TV, newspapers, magazines, outdoor and so on? And isn’t the social media influencer boom a bit of a bubble? There are all these people with millions of followers, gained through skulduggery, and no engagement. And yet brands are paying an absolute fortune for endorsements and activations via the so-called influencers.

“I use Twitter because it’s a bit of fun and it’s free. But I’m not a major brand trying to sell anything.”

Recently, the inventor of the worldwide web Sir Tim Berners-Lee called for tighter regulation of political advertising because of the rise of fake news and the idea that people are no longer in charge of their own data can be targeted with tailored nefarious ads. Is he right, should the Internet and political advertising be more stringently regulated?

“I’m just a creative guy, not a professional politician, but that would seem sensible. You’re allowed to say things in press ads that you’re not allowed to say on posters.

“Because a press ad is a voluntary purchase whereas a poster isn’t. Something like that seems reasonable.”

Most marketers and brands put significant budgets into advertising on Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and so on now. But given that there is no third party to confirm the metrics these companies feedback on the performance of campaigns, none of us really know what sort of return on investment they provide. Is it healthy for ad dollars to be spent in this way?

I’m a creative, not a marketing person. You need to ask Bob Hoffman (Ad Contrarian) things like this. He’s great at the actual numbers.”

You are well known for writing about the management execs with big job titles, but sometimes little original thought. I guess you’ve been through some frustrating times where you’ve been working with a CMO and a procurement chief has said ‘no’ because an ad is too expensive. Can you tell us about the worst of these experiences?

I’ve never worked with a client who’s said ‘no’ because the ad was too expensive. I don’t do expensive ads, if you do ideas you don’t have to.

“Usually clients turned ads down for being too daring, too controversial, but never too expensive. Expensive is where you go to hide instead of a daring, controversial idea. Expensive is an execution not an idea.”

So to end, as someone who did Don Draper’s job, how close is the Mad Men depiction of the story to real life?

“Don Draper was a not-very-good creative at a not-very-good agency. But he was good with clients.

“Everyone I knew was exactly the opposite: very good creatives at very good agencies. But not good with clients.”


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