Interview with Peter Souter
He’s the former Executive Creative Director of AMV BBDO, the former president of D&AD and the former screenwriter of ITV’s Married Single Other. Now he’s bored of being ‘former’ and is currently throwing his considerable creative energy into embracing TBWA’s Disruption principle.
Peter says he wants our work to be “Wonderfully written, beautifully art directed, deeply insightful and thoroughly modern.”
I try to be happy more days than I’m not. I always tell students to ask anybody if they like their job to find out if they should do it. There are lots of reasons why you have to do stuff. Everybody has to earn money but I just think if you are alive you should look for something that pays and you like – because if you like it then you will always do well at it, and if you don’t like it you will always be shit at it.
Can you tell me a bit about your background?
My name is Peter Souter and I’m the executive director of AMV which is a very good consulting agency. We’re the biggest in Britain and we win lots of competitions. I did a graphic design degree and about half way through I found it very frustrating. Most people who do graphic design do it because they can draw – which I can – but I was trying to solve problems in words and a teacher told me that I was actually a copywriter. I’m very grateful to that tutor.
I went and looked up what that is in a book called ‘The Design and Art Directors Annual’, which is a collection of the best ads of the year. My office as you can see is still filled with them. I thought ‘That looks really exciting to me; I really want to learn how to do that’. It’s called copywriting which is interesting because the best way to learn how to do anything is to copy.
So I looked at lots of good things and they looked really exciting and like something I would like to do. Somehow if you study enough you will learn enough to do it yourself by osmosis. I put together a book of rough ads, which is all you do to get into advertising. You need a portfolio with about thirty speculative ads and I did that. In order to do thirty well enough, you need to first do thousands. I went to a design and art director’s course in the evenings and I got a job.
Was the teacher that told you you should do the copywriting your mentor?
She was a graphic design teacher and she recognised it. It’s very hard to get on without any help but the way to get help is to ask people. Most people I’ve come across are willing to help you if you approach them correctly. It’s good to have a hero, to admire them and to try to emulate them rather than copy them. Someone whose work I really like is a man called David Abbot and I’m now doing his job after he retired, so it can happen.
What was your first job in advertising?
I worked at an agency called Delaney Fletcher Delaney. This is going to sound horrible to students who spend eighteen months trying to get a job. I did the evening class and the first class I went to was run by this guy called Barry Delaney. I did one halfway decent ad and he liked what I’d done. I liked him too so I tried to make contact with him. I’m slightly weird because I got my first job in the first place I went to. Having said that I always wanted to work here at AMV and I kept trying to do that.
Did you keep reapplying?
Yes. There is an old Volvo ad, which is a photo of a student standing holding a sign saying ‘Cambridge (Volvo) preferred’. It’s an ad about how this kid has loads of signs and he changes them. I found out where David Abbot lived and stood outside his house with a sign saying ‘Abbot Mead Vickers (Volvo) Preferred’.
It was 6am as he went to work early. The first day he drove straight past me as he’s actually quite vain and wasn’t wearing his glasses. The thing I am most proud of is that I went back the next day even though it was slightly humiliating and this time he stopped. Even though he was the most powerful and famous man in advertising, if you approached him in the right way…my sign was intriguing. It was a tribute to an ad he had done and it appealed to his vanity I guess. It didn’t actually get me the job. He saw my portfolio and it wasn’t good enough but it did get me a connection with him and a couple of years later I got the job when I had the work to prove it. I would have come here to lick the stairs and now I’m now I’m in charge – hoorah.
Peter worked on the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005 which is the campaign he is most proud of.
How important do you think education is for someone wanting to get into advertising?
There are two answers to that question. I do believe massively in education. My wife teaches at Saint Martins and I go back there and teach occasionally. I do believe in education but it’s not essential. Advertising is me trying to get you to do something or buy something, and the best way to do that is to have an interest in people. Although there are a lot of people from art colleges in advertising creative departments, there are also people who have done English and people with no qualifications at all.
Probably the best copywriter who ever worked here was a guy called Tom Carty and he started off in the post room. So it’s about who you are and whether you are alive and looking at people. If you get the chance to do a degree I would, because it’s a great thing to do and it’s a great way to meet other smart people. I learned so much from the other people on my course so I am in favour of it, and I’m really in favour of vocational courses.
I was poor and I didn’t want to stay poor so I did a course where I thought there was a job at the end of it and I would recommend that to anyone who doesn’t have rich parents, to tell you the truth. It wasn’t the job I thought I would have. I went to a graphic design course and I’m not a graphic designer.
Are there preferred places to learn to get into advertising?
There are some really good and terrible courses. All you need is a pen and paper and you largely have to be self taught in order to do it well. Colleges get £6,000 a year per student so there are lots of advertising courses. I taught on one in Preston where I discovered afterwards that the lady who was teaching it was the Head of TV Administration. That meant she was a secretary teaching a creative advertising course and I felt so sorry for those children. Saint Martins is exceptionally good. The one at Bucks is good and Watford is patchy but has been good sometimes. The Design and Art Directors’ Association is a great organisation worth ringing if you’re interested and they will point you in the right direction of courses.
Can you give me a brief description of what a creative director does?
We work in teams of two and they always consist of art directors and copywriters. You can divide them into words and pictures – someone to make sure the ad looks good and someone to make sure the ad is written well. Both do both and it’s a collaborative process and that’s how it breaks down.
Most of the art directors can draw but not all of them, and I hope most of the writers can write. At a basic level, as Creative Director people will come and show me ads and I tell them whether I think they are good enough to show to the client. There is a whole lot more to it. A big part of the job is developing relationships with the client. It’s a great job.
What do you attribute your success to?
On a nuts and bolts level I am reasonably articulate and my Grandma read to me a lot when I was a child so I can string sentences together. When I did my A-levels I studied Art, English and Sociology. That’s very good preparation for advertising actually, but I can’t pretend that it was anything other than accidental. I really like people and I find them interesting. I liked trying to find out how they work and what makes them want to buy things.
So is there a huge element of psychology in advertising?
Yes – I don’t think anybody in this department will claim to be psychologists, but they have a good understanding of people and how people work. I like the idea that it’s not burdened with the language of psychology. It’s to do with paying attention. If I am going to sell you something then I have got to know something about you, the language that you speak and the movies that you watch and so on.
What do you look for when you are hiring?
I try hard not to do what most creative directors do and that’s that they all hire themselves. There is a terrible thing in advertising, there are far too many men and not enough women. There is no reason why it should be like that although I could give you lots of reasons why it’s like that currently.
I look for somebody who has the things that I’ve just said to you. I’m quite unusual because many creatives are quite introverted, not in terms of being shy but they go into themselves for the answers. Very few are extraverts and will chat away to you in the interview. At a very simple level they bring in a book. Often incredibly quiet people bring in a book, but they have this great book and you hire them for that reason, so I’m looking for someone who is good at ads.
Is it hard to get in to show the book?
It is quite hard and I would say it is deliberately so. At any given moment I would say three hundred people are looking for five jobs. I need to find somebody who really wants it so I don’t make it that easy to come and see me. I am hoping people will find other ways, though not necessarily the way I did.
I would love them to contact the most junior team who have just come through the process and know what it’s like to try and get a job; they are much more likely to have half an hour to see them. If that team thinks their work is good they might give them some advice on how to make it better. Then if they got to a point where the junior team thought they were good, I would try to create a secure environment where people don’t feel if they bring in a good book they’ll get fired themselves. I’m always interested in people who find a way of getting their stuff to me. I don’t sit here all afternoon interviewing people because I wouldn’t be able to do my own job.
What are the most original ways you have seen?
Nobody has done stunts. I also go looking for people. I read things all the time about people who seem to be good and have done something I admire. Most of the teams come to me through other teams here. It’s not as if they have to be massively creative in getting your work seen although I would encourage it. I think you should admire people and you should concentrate on the people you really want to work for and find out what they want to see and give it to them.
Did it take you two years to get in?
Six years before I could work here.
Did you keep trying throughout?
I probably didn’t approach it in the way I would with what I know now. I thought if I did a great ad David would look at it and think that was fantastic and phone me up, but I found out that he didn’t pay much attention to these things. So in the end I sent him work and occasionally, wrote some letters. Eventually, I accumulated a showreel that I was proud of and one night my partner and I drove up here and stuck it through the door. We said ‘We think this is really good, do you think it’s good?’
What would you say are the biggest things you have learned since you started?
The way to be good at this job is to look at fantastic ads, and go back and back and try and work out why they are good. Work out what the person who wrote them and art directed them was thinking when they thought of this idea, and see if you can work out what the brief is from the ad.
It’s incredibly simple – all you have to do to get into advertising is to study these books until your eyes bleed. That won’t make you brilliant but I guarantee it will get you a job of some description, and then if you have a talent you might go far. It’s studying the subject and being alive. What’s great about this job is that any time you spend watching a movie, watching TV, reading a newspaper etc isn’t wasted, because it all feeds your ability for me to try and convince you to do something or buy something.
Can somebody who can write get into it with no creative skills?
Absolutely. What you will find is because of the severe level of competition that somebody who is good at writing will have to seek out a partner who is good at making it work in pictures because a whole bunch of headlines won’t do it. You have to have an understanding of how words and pictures work together but yes, you don’t have to be able to draw to be a writer, but you have to be able to write.
You don’t have to be able to draw to be an art director. It helps, but you don’t draw it yourself and you don’t shoot it yourself. What you need is to direct other people to do those things. You commission a photographer and work out what you want, you work with a typographer and say what looks right to you. You direct others so a strong feeling of what’s right is important.
So you can get hired as a pair? Is that easier or harder?
It’s easier to get hired with a partner. The thing that’s bad is there is very little training. Because there is such competition we can afford to wait until we see the person who can already do it. There’s a lot of me that feels very uncomfortable about that being the way it is. If these guys go or leave, I’ll have an empty office and I want it filled so it’s as easy for me to do it with a pair.
How difficult is it for someone over the age of thirty to get into this industry?
A guy called Jeff Stark who worked for the Saatchi’s as a brilliant copywriter and now is a very successful director didn’t start till he was thirty-two, but he is a freak because most people start much younger. What’s great about advertising is that it’s a meritocracy – we just want people who can do it. The thing that’s difficult when you are thirty is you have probably accumulated some need to be paid, because of a family and mortgage.
The starting wage is £18,000 and most people have to work for a year on placements and stuff where the pay is £100 a week so it’s difficult for people to change their lifestyle in order to be able to start. But I would say we are desperate to find the next person who is really good no matter what their age is. So if you have got the portfolio and you can afford to start on £18,000 you can start any time you like.
Do people have a short shelf life?
I’m forty-two – it depends. You make a fantastic amount of money. I earn three times what the prime minister earns. The reason is at the top end it’s very highly paid, very stressful, and very hard to carry on doing it. Not all these people are fired. Most people say I’ve had enough, and a lot of them can afford to say that. However I would point out that all of these people end up doing something else.
So when do people move on?
We are slightly unusual because I think we have the most mature department in London. It is, relatively speaking, a young person’s job. But a lot of people go on to do other things, better things. You find advertising people writing and directing movies and writing for books and newspapers. The job itself is just hard to do for thirty years. I’ve done it for twenty.
How long or short is the time from entry level to your position?
I was made director when I was thirty-two so that was twelve years. At the time that was quite unusual but it varies a little bit. You start off on £18/20,000 and when I was twenty-six I earnt about £50,000. When I was thirty I earned about £120,000 and it’s gone up like that, but most people stop around £100,000. There isn’t much in the way of promotion – you are here to make ads and how you gauge how well you are doing is by how much you get paid.
How many chances are people given to come up with consistent good ideas before they are out?
The truth is you have to be able to do it day in day out. Most people have a good ad in them, but what the people who work for me have to do is they have to have a good ad in them every day. I think creative people are slightly incorrectly wired, there are very smart people here who can’t think of ideas because their mind is correctly wired. They connect this and that and make the answer that everyone would. What we are looking for is somebody who can make a connection that not everybody would make but everybody can understand.
Do you ever have a case where people get creative blocks for a while?
I don’t believe in them. I believe people get tired, rich and drunk. I believe there are lots of reasons why they stop being able to do the job, but I don’t believe in creative blocks. I believe in the miswired computer. If you keep feeding interesting things in the top there will be interesting things coming out.
What is your attitude towards what some people refer to as failure?
One reason why men get in is that the student and I talk and I might say their work is shit. It’s my impression that women being smarter and more sensitive might think that I’m right. It’s my experience that men will say he’s an idiot and go and see someone else. I think there is an element of that. You have to have some self-belief because there is a lot of failure. There are hundreds of failures in this building every day because they write an ad which they think is great, they come and show it to me and I don’t. Or they write an ad which we both think is great and the client doesn’t like it so it fails.
Failure is a huge part of it. It’s a daily part of it and you have to have the resilience to say ‘OK, that didn’t work and I’ll do another one’. We pitch and we pitch against other agencies and 4 out of 5 times is the industry average to lose. So you have to have the ability to say ‘OK, I’m not a failure and that thing I put on paper wasn’t to be. I’ll do another one’.
Is it a fickle industry?
I don’t think it is. I think it’s brilliant, so exciting and interesting and you do something different every day. I never know what my problem each day is going to be. I really enjoy learning about why somebody likes certain things. The people in advertising are so sharp and funny and great to be around and that’s one of the main reasons I come to work. The pay is good if you are good.
Should somebody who wants to be a copywriter study the same things as an art director, should they go to the same course?
Increasingly that is the way it’s done. I don’t think it’s necessary and I am worried that it’s producing a fairly homogenous sort of creative. I would love you to go and do a degree in English literature or psychology or something that makes you interested in solving the problem of how I get you to do something or buy something.
At the end of that you will probably have to do things that help you meet art directors and other people to get in there together. It’s not vital but it’s probably slightly easier if you go to a course that at least has an advertising option. I would encourage anybody who thinks that they can write and that they want to write ads to try because I’m certainly not holding up a sign saying, you haven’t been to Saint Martins so I’m not hiring you.
What’s your one life rule that you live by?
I try to be happy more days than I’m not. I know it sounds stupid but I never understand people who don’t like their job. I always tell students to ask anybody if they like their job to find out if they should do it. There are lots of reasons why you have to do stuff. Everybody has to earn money but I just think if you are alive you should look for something that pays and you like – because if you like it then you will always do well at it, and if you don’t like it you will always be shit at it.
With regard to women getting in, it seems to be quite a male-dominated industry?
It is but it’s got to change. The only way is if people like you decide you want to do it and have a go. There is no reason why there shouldn’t be a demographic in this department that reflects the one we are talking to. 70% of all purchasing decisions are made by women, and way too many ads are written by blokes to entertain other blokes when the target audience is women. There is a crying need in this industry for women.
I believe it’s changing and most of my clients are women. I think the client community could help by saying they want an all-girl team working on their all-girl product. That would mean it is impossible for agencies to run the ratio that they are at the moment. I think we have the highest proportion of women of any agency out there but we need more women to apply.
It’s not sexist as such?
I don’t think it is. I think there are things that make it slightly more difficult for women. You don’t get paid at the beginning and that could be a reason. It’s a little easier for a twenty-one-year-old bloke to sleep on his mate’s floor in London and probably a little scarier for women to do that. We talked about resilience. I think more women should do it and I think they should be really determined to do it.
Finally, is there anything I haven’t asked you that you feel young people should know before getting into advertising or if they want to get into advertising?
I don’t know if I skipped a little bit on the amount of hard work it is. It’s a great job with fantastic social and financial rewards, and because of that loads of people want to do it. I believe that if you work harder than anyone else you will get in and if you don’t you won’t. If you have talent and you don’t work very hard and your handbag has less talent but works much harder than you, then that handbag will get employed every single time and you never will.
I want to emphasise that. I get frustrated sometimes at my wife’s students who don’t know how lucky they are to be in a place which allows them to do ads all day, because I meet people who are account people or in the post room, and they have to do it at night just to get the chance. I would say there is no substitute for hard work. It’s a cliché but not a very well understood one. You have to not go out, not go to that party and sit and do your book and then do it again the next night.
So should they get in any way they can?
Yes, I worked in bad agencies for six years before I worked here. Get somebody to pay you to think of ideas and work for them until lunchtime. They can’t tell. I could be drawing a picture, doing the crossword, or thinking of an idea on the brief you have given me or I could be thinking of an idea for my book. When I worked at a place that I didn’t think was my last job I worked on my book whenever I could. This is now my last job. I needed to do enough to keep the job but worked for them half the time. Work for yourself the rest of the time until you get the job you want.