Interview with Paul Arden – former creative director of Saatchi and Saatchi and author
Former Executive Creative Director of Saatchi and Saatchi.
Paul Arden (7 April 1940 – 2 April 2008) began his career in advertising at the age of 16. For 14 years he was Executive Creative Director at Saatchi and Saatchi during the 80’s and 90’s. This period was recognised as the company’s heyday when it was the biggest and most decorated agency in the world.
Can you tell me a bit about your background?
Lower middle-class, London suburbs, council house.
Were you a daydreamer at school or were you focused on your studies?
Well, other people make the way of who you are. I wasn’t aware that I might be a daydreamer until I was fifteen or sixteen. Someone said to me that they thought I should do something with pictures.
Was advertising the first industry you went into?
Yes. My partner was a commercial artist. I was different from the others who were engineers etc. I always knew that’s what I wanted to do.
How did you get into your first job?
When I was sixteen I went to a junior arts school; they don’t exist now. It was a state school and between thirteen and sixteen I had a heavily biased art syllabus. It was a very special school; it had a unique course. So I had a good portfolio of graphic design with good lettering. I was trained in an old-fashioned way and got a job when I was sixteen in a terrible agency in Park Lane. It was in Disraeli’s house so it was terribly glamorous.
How long were you there?
About eighteen months. It wasn’t a very good company. I wanted to do good advertising; a good advertising agency was just down the road and I nearly got in there. I told my bosses I was going to leave and they said, ‘Well go’, and then I didn’t get the job. So I went to a studio in Holborn and I hated it. Perfectly nice people but it was not the glamour I wanted. I kept pressuring Cole and Prince to take me and they did.
So from a young age, you knew about perseverance?
No, not at all, I was really worried. I did write back to them about three times though.
What do you attribute your success in advertising to?
I’m lucky in that I knew what was good. I had high standards. I knew what was good and what was bad and I wanted to be part of the good. I simply didn’t have the diplomacy to be safe and steady. I can’t explain it. I just did it and got into trouble all the time. That’s why I was fired so often. I was fired five times. Either I’d spent too much, or done something they didn’t like, but I always had quality. I always wanted to do it well and in the end you win – it carries you through.
What made you think you were so good?
I didn’t. I thought I’d only last to forty or forty-five in advertising because that’s when you have to leave. Then I got to thinking, ‘Well, my dream is to be the creative director for a medium sized agency; if I did that I would be very happy’. I had no idea and with the Saatchi job I was blown away. I hadn’t thought that high, not when I was a young man. That was for the Gods – it was beyond me.
What kinds of people are suited to advertising?
The agencies are not as good as they used to be. It’s because of mechanics, because of computers, because of the avid; there’s no mystery and no artistry. All clients think they are artists, so everything is commonplace; everything is tacky and ordinary because clients interfere and there is no way around it.
Therefore there is always room for good, and great. I think anarchic people are suited – people who are determined to make it great. They will make it great somehow. People who are prepared to fall on their face.
Do you think it is a rebels’ industry?
It used to be but not any more. When I was at Saatchi I was quite rebellious. I would always back a great idea. I would say, ‘I am not interested in what the client thinks, what do you think?’ Their opinion was always the client’s opinion because they hadn’t the guts. They were unable to. There are a few exceptions but I don’t know who they are.
You talk in your book about accentuating the positive. Can you tell me a bit about this? Does this apply to promoting yourself to get into an agency?
It’s only recently I started promoting myself. I am thinking of the effectiveness of getting people to see things the way you want them to see it; in advertising you find out what’s good about the product. As soon as you mention something bad people remember the bad things. If you say plenty of good things and say one bad thing then people remember the bad thing. It means literally to take whatever is good and make it stupidly good. Exaggerate.
Do you think it’s difficult to get hired in advertising?
Very. You have to be very determined and lucky. I don’t know how you do it except you ingratiate yourself to it and you just keep being there. You have to be there. If you are a young person you go in. Whether they pay you or not, as long as you can get past the door. You have got to get in and people will become accustomed to you and gradually you keep doing it and you work a bit. I knew a young man who wanted to be a doctor, and he didn’t get the qualifications, so I said to him, ‘Don’t worry, just go to university and just go to the lectures, just do it’. He didn’t but he could have become a doctor. You can do anything.
I have a friend who works with me who helps me with the computers; this chap comes up with good ideas but he is always complaining that other people take his ideas, so I get cross with him. I say, ‘Well, that’s life I’m afraid, you just have to attach your name to it somehow’. Yesterday he told me about the riots at Ikea. He said, ‘I’ve got an idea, instead of taking 10% off they put 10% on; they could give that money to red nose day’, and I said, ‘Yes, that’s a good idea, what are you going to do about it?’. He said, ‘I’m not’. I told him to send out a letter, so he wrote out a letter to the Managing Director and told him.
The MD was sincere in his apology about what happened, but here was a better idea: put 10% on, signed Lenny Henry, and he put c/o his address. He could then get the letter and pass it on to Lenny Henry, do you see what I mean? At least he is then attached to it. He can get as involved as he wants to. You have to actually do something about it.
What if someone is talented and ambitious but they are getting turned down by the agencies?
They have to carry on trying. I was quite good at employing people because I felt sorry for them, and probably employed too many. There were those who squeezed in without me knowing. One chap took about three years to get in. He became very good.
Do agencies look at an applicant’s grades or is it portfolio only?
Only the portfolio, grades are irrelevant – although Oxford and public school doesn’t do any harm. Everyone likes a bit of posh around. Just go straight to it and get into an agency.
What was the most exciting time of your career?
In retrospect, it would be Saatchi and Saatchi but it wasn’t at the time. Now is fantastic because I’ve got the book, I’m doing another book, I’ve got my column to do and I’m running a gallery. I don’t have time to get the PR right but that is exciting.
On Tuesday I’m off to Poland to direct a commercial, which I also do. I have nobody to say no to me and I don’t have to fight all the time. I might discuss with my wife if it’s a good idea to do something, but I’ve not got people saying, ‘I don’t like that picture on the wall’. I don’t have to have a pretty new picture in pastel colours because a client wants it; I can surround myself with the things I like most without having to be diplomatic about it.
I can be rude to people if I want to. I don’t want to be but I don’t have to play games. And it’s really exciting. Do you know who Hammer is? He is a huge magnate in America; at sixty he started life all over again.
I got fed up with Saatchi; I couldn’t get any further and I couldn’t get where I really wanted. I thought that it’s not worth carrying on doing this just for the money, so I left and I started a production company, and that was different. I did that for twelve years and in the end I got bored with dealing with idiots, so I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do it’. I bought this gallery and did something different – it’s a risk when you take a drop in salary.
What state of mind inspired your best ideas?
I know if I got up at 4 o’clock in the morning I could go to my desk at home and by 9-10 o’clock I had something without realising that I had something, so you are not aware you have had ideas. When you go, ‘Hey, that’s a great idea’, it probably isn’t. When you are really struggling for an idea, they don’t happen like that.
But it’s usually when you are of a very calm sort of mind rather than an excited state of mind. When you’re straining too much it doesn’t happen. In the afternoon I couldn’t have an idea – it’s impossible when you are under pressure.
There was one job I had in Italy where every morning we had to meet at 9 o’clock for a creative session and people were coming up with good ideas. I was terrified of those meetings for eighteen months. I never came up with one idea – I just couldn’t under the pressure.
Did you ever have any low points in your career and how did you overcome them?
You get yourself fired. That’s one way you overcome them – it’s in my book. It forces you into a new job. I was low in Italy so I managed to get a job in England. Getting fired can go against you and it can also work for you.
What advice would you give to young people at school who think that making good career choices is too far ahead in the future to think about?
My point of view is that it’s the duty of the parents to find out what their children are good at, what their talent is and what their instinctive interests are. The parents can help guide the children into an area. In model making they might be good model makers, or they might be a dressmaker or they might be quite a good actor.
One may be interested in plants; there are all sorts of aspects of a person’s personality and the parents should develop those. Their natural vents should be developed. I am not saying, ‘Think what you are going to be’, the answer is ‘I don’t know’.
I was lucky knowing what I wanted; I do feel very lucky in that sense but it isn’t something you can put on show immediately. You go to university because you don’t know what to do, then you still don’t know what to do at the end of that. So you take a gap year because you don’t know what to do – then you still don’t know what to do and you are lost.
You go into a job and you are the tea boy or girl at twenty-four, all your good years have gone and at twenty-eight you find you are in the wrong job. So I think you have to decide what you want to do by the time you are sixteen. Sixteen is a good time. You have to know what all the options are; it isn’t just banking or computers.
What about somebody who doesn’t particularly have much parental guidance?
They should follow the thing they love doing. They are all going to say football; there is always an aspect of football. Not everybody will be a footballer though. They can become linesmen or referees, or they can start sports shops, or become promoters, or agents.
They can get into it from a different angle, if that’s all they want to do. You can’t be negative about it; you have to go with it in some way.
Did you ever have a mentor?
Yes. There was a man who made me feel I wasn’t useless when I was about twenty-four. I thought I wasn’t very good and he made me feel very special. He was an old man into rugby and he was mad, and we became friends.
So he did a lot for my confidence. Women can give you a lot of confidence too, more than men do. Having someone to give you confidence is like having a mentor, someone to say to you that you’re alright and not as useless as you think you are.
What do you think of rules?
Rules are for wimps. Rules are for people who don’t and can’t think. Most people don’t want to think. Butlins camps are very successful because you have these red coats marching people around; everybody loves being told what to do, not having to think for themselves. They had a jolly good holiday, all programmed for them. Most people want to be told what to do. You make up your own rules.
In your opinion, why do you think most people don’t go beyond average?
Because they don’t think it’s possible within themselves; they don’t see it, they don’t see what they can be. They want to be what their mates are. They see what their contemporaries are. As a young girl you can dream of being a film star; you can make yourself into a film star if you wanted. You can do it. You don’t have to be Marilyn Monroe or whatever, and when you are young you don’t think you can, but you can. You can certainly become a star. What I am pretty sure of is that whatever we want, we get. I’m pretty certain of that. You’ve got to really want it. It is the desire or the will to get it.
The majority of people simply don’t aspire to anything. They think it’s for other people. I have a very rich neighbour who lives next to the Prime Minister. I don’t know what he does but he automatically thinks tremendously big. I think bigger than most but I don’t think I’m what I’d call ‘rich man’s’ scale. Saatchi does.
That’s such a huge part of where people start isn’t it, the scale of their vision?
It all seems pretty magical to me when things happen in a way that you dreamed of. Everyone does things the right way. It all leads to the same conclusions and everything ends up the same. Do things the way other people wouldn’t do them.
What do you think that the best thing that somebody in school or college can do if they want to get into the industry?
Become a runner somehow. You get into the mail room or whatever the equivalent is, and you get the very best company in the field you want to operate in on your CV. So you have now got that on your CV. It doesn’t matter that you were a runner, because in twenty years time, you say, ‘I used to work for them’, and you are up.
Make tea, even if you are twenty-five. People want to help you because they want to repay the kindness of the young people who are always doing things for them. You bring them on and you give them breaks. There are plenty of other tricks, but making yourself useful to people rather than just showing your intelligence, allowing them to find you rather than you climbing all over them.
What about people who are in an industry or job they don’t like?
Stick at what you’ve got and bend it. If you’re working with computers for example and you don’t like it, then you can do something else with it. If you’re good at what you do but you don’t like it then find a new angle. With computers you can design on them, start a business with them or get other people to do it for you.
Do things within without having to actually go near a computer. If you wanted to play golf you could be using computers at a golf club. Everyone will want to talk to you and use you because you happen to be stationed at a golf club.
You could have a computer centre at a golf club; you can bend it instead of going into this big company every day working in a dull way doing something you don’t enjoy. Instead of giving that up altogether and saying you are going to be an artist, you can find a way to work with it.
Everyone wants to do something creative these days – it is fashionable. We say that if we do something creative then we will make money as a byproduct of what we do. If I take photographs I will make money. My attitude is that you can do anything. If you want to make a million pounds you have to be very smart and you need a different way of looking at creativity using what you already have.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you think people should know?
My arrogant attitude is: don’t go to university. You go to university because you don’t know what you want to do. If you want to do something then you can find out everything you want through your own research. Go to the school of life.
A friend of mine called David Trott – who runs a big ad agency – just won a big account with Sainsbury’s. I was having lunch with him and he said to me, ‘Just do it and fix it as you go’. I am beginning to live by that now. Don’t wait for something to work out because you’ll find so many defects you won’t do it. If you really think it’s a good idea then get on and do it.
This gallery is a perfect example. We were walking up the road and we saw this antique shop was for rent, so we thought about all these pictures at home that would make a nice gallery. I showed it to my wife and she liked the idea so we just did it. We didn’t know what we were going to do with it except that we had some pictures to hang.
It turned out I didn’t want to sell any of my pictures, so I am going to start developing people and having exhibitions. My plan is that rich people and Americans will hear about this lovely little gallery in the country and it will get a name in time.
I haven’t got it right yet but I will get it right in a couple of years. Rather than wait and deliberate over whether I should do it or not, I just did it. I didn’t wait for a publisher with my second book, I just started writing. I am not a writer so I don’t find it easy. Do it rather than talk about it.