Interview with Trevor Beattie, founder of Beattie McGuinness Bungay

Trevor set up Beattie McGuinness Bungay (BMB) with colleagues from TBWA on Election Day 05.05.05.

Trevor Beattie has been responsible for a string of extremely visible and talked about advertising campaigns, having worked with icons such as Muhammad Ali, Buzz Aldrin, Richard Branson and Nelson Mandela. He has written as a columnist for The Guardian, GQ and Campaign Magazine and was listed as the 9th Most Influential Person in Media by Marketing magazine in 2002.

His links with the rape crisis centre, Women Against Rape led to Beattie co-funding the establishment of the Crossroads Women’s Centre for whom he regularly campaigns.

In February 8, 2011, Trevor was granted an Honorary Doctorate at the Birmingham City University. Within his acceptance speech Trevor announced he would offer a scholarship to forthcoming students in honor of his lecturer / teacher John Lowe.

If I can make it – and I’m some git from Birmingham – then anyone in any school in Britain can make it, and I want to be a testimony to that. Don’t give up because I don’t. It makes it more pleasurable and more fun that the people I have to deal with have had more privileged upbringings than me. And do you know what? I am their boss and I love that. So if I’m not an example then ain’t no-one!

Did you always want to be in advertising?


What were you like at school as a student?

I was a good kid; I think I was a bit of a swot actually. I was extremely well behaved: I never got detention and I loved school. I didn’t like college or university. I had a fun time at school and I worked hard. I did art, history, graphic design, drawing, and painting. I wasn’t good at maths and I got grade three at CSE. I did a retake and got grade three so I technically have CSE grade six! I was quite good at other things: English language and literature.

How important do you think education is to get into advertising?

I think education is the most important thing in the world. Without education there is nothing and one of the biggest crimes of apartheid in South Africa was withholding proper education from certain ethnic groups. It’s one of the biggest crimes of humanity. You take their future by robbing people of education. If you want to be anything in anything, or anyone in anything, you need education – it’s essential. Once you have it you can use it and abuse it.

So should people go on to further education or try and get a job straight away in an agency?

It depends how good you are. I was asked yesterday if it’s possible to teach someone to have ideas and I don’t think it is. I think it’s possible to teach someone to spot a great idea or to craft one but not to have one. If you are someone who has ideas coming out of their ears then you should work in this business straight away and if you are not then go to university. Some people are naturals for it; I don’t think age or education has anything to do with it. Footballers can be stars at sixteen or seventeen and yet in business for some reason you are required to go to university – why is that then? Why is a natural physical ability different from a natural mental or creative ability?

Someone might have a natural managerial ability at the age of sixteen and until we give them a chance we don’t know. Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney have a natural genius, not just at scoring goals but also with their vision of the game. Someone should be able to come along and be acknowledged as an ideas specialist – to be a Bach or a Mozart of business. What’s wrong with that? We are allowed to do it in music and sport but for some reason, it’s frowned upon in business.

So if a sixteen year old out of school came to you, and they were full of ideas and a bright spark, age wouldn’t matter?

I would give them a shot, yes.

Do you take people without training?

Yes, I’m only speaking for the creative side of things. In terms of creativity and creating the work, we have a placement system where you get a month’s stint on this floor and you work on live briefs with the rest of us. We have just hired four people who were on placement here earlier in the year. You give people an opportunity and if they seize it we take them on.

Is there a particular kind of person who is suited for a career in advertising?

Those who are suited are those who have boundless enthusiasm and have a sort of childlike view of the world. They lack cynicism and are full of ideas, but above and beyond that are willing to continue to fight when their ideas get knocked down. That leads us into who is not suitable – someone who won’t make it is someone who will collapse at the first notion of their idea being crushed. I get three ideas crushed per day, so that means I have to have five per day. Three get crushed, one is a draw, and one will live. You don’t care about that though and you’ve got to have a laugh. You have to take the knocks every single day and be able to talk about them.

Is it a difficult industry to get into?

Yes, and the people who are getting into it are so much brighter than the people who got into it twenty years ago. They understand the business and they are up for it. You’ve got to be in the right place at the right time as with any job.

What stands out?

Every now and again someone will absolutely stand out, but the standard is so high it’s terrific. The people fighting to get in this business are much better than the people who are in already. Creatively people have never been better and they really understand the industry.

Is there anything that comes to mind about people that have really stood out?

It’s an understanding of the business that I did not have until about a year ago. The students have because they study it, which goes back to education. I studied graphic design and photography, and in my final year I learnt a bit about advertising but advertising was in my soul so I worked from that. These days they know what it means and what it can and can’t do.

Does that mean someone could be really talented and still spend two years trying to get a job in an agency – is it that difficult?


Do people worry why they haven’t got a job until now?

No, and certainly not here. We hired a team and they had been on this creative placement thing for just under two years when we hired them. The first thing they said was that they thought they would never get a job. All their mates were telling them they had been out for too long. You can if you are in the right place at the right time.

I’ve heard stories about people standing outside agencies with billboards and stuff?

I don’t think that works. I get sent the most bizarre nonsense. I get sent pigeons through the post and letters from people’s mothers but I don’t think that’s very good and it doesn’t impress me. We are not in the business of stunts; we’re in the business of business and ideas.

What was the turning point of your career for good?

Getting a job. I’ve had several but getting a job was fundamental. I was made redundant in 1999, which hurt me to the core. I was then staring in the face the fact that I had come into this business which I loved so much and it had stabbed me out. I was finished and I did have a few dark nights. That was a turning point because I turned around and said ‘Well, I’m going to get back in there because I loved it so much’. I picked myself up and got back in to try and prove the people wrong who had knocked me out.

Is it that fickle?

I don’t think it’s fickle and I forgave them as it was a misjudgment on their part. I was laid off on the same day as about seventeen other people and I think they made a wrong decision.  It’s business. I got knocked out and it was for me not to buckle under that, though I nearly did because my dream was over. I literally had to get up and say to myself that if I really did believe in it then I had to get back in. Once I got back in I vowed that it would never happen to me again, and also that I would be aware of people’s emotions when it came to the point where I had to lay people off. That’s what you do in management, you hire and fire.

I know what it feels like and it hurts me to lay people off. A lot of people don’t know what it’s like because they have gone through life in a breeze – but I haven’t. Whether that has helped me or helped them I don’t know, but I like to think it has. So I think that was a fundamental turning point for me. When I got back in I had to make damn sure it never happened to me again, and I could only do that by outworking everyone around me – by working harder, having more ideas and being more enthusiastic than any other human being I could see. So that’s what I did.

Is there a fast turnover of staff in the industry?

No. I think people move around agencies a lot to different shops, but I don’t think it is a sort of axe-wielding industry. You are given a chance to do great stuff. What’s different about the creative community of advertising is that your destiny is in your own hands. Do you want to go skiing next week or do you want to buckle down and crack this brief and make yourself famous?  It’s your choice.

If you’re working in a factory bolting doors on cars there is no way of grasping your own destiny, whereas these people in this department can spend this weekend writing something which will make them famous in the tabloid press, and more importantly will sell a lot of pints of John Smiths and a lot of Play Stations. How many people in their lives have that choice?

I think you have it in pop music, you have it in TV and you have it in advertising.  There are very few other industries and professions where your destiny is in your hands. Do you want to have twenty ideas this weekend or do you want to stay in bed or go shopping? It’s your call. It’s fascinating and it’s scary and it’s very exciting. Any day now one of this lot will come in here and show me something that is potentially going to be world famous next week. How exciting is that? I don’t know what they’re going to think of next. If I was a client, that would fascinate me.

You look at iPod or FCUK – it’s part of our culture now. Of course, it’s difficult to get in and why shouldn’t it be when the rewards are so huge. I don’t mean financially, I mean emotionally and the iconic status.

Some campaigns not only get noticed but they get so much press coverage as well – like FCUK. Is that something you see others trying to do now, trying to come up with an advert that is going to cause a stir?

I think people do try to do it and I think they are wrong because it was never my intention. It is never my intention to garner press – I just have ideas. If journalists want to write about it then so be it, but I think it’s a by-product of the way I think and it’s not intentional.  If you think, ‘Oh, this will get controversy’ then I think you are onto a bit of a loser because you can smell a rat as well.

Do you see others trying it?

All the time. I was as surprised as anyone else to the reaction to FCUK. I still am to this day.

What is your opinion on negative advertising? For example, don’t buy a certain shampoo because it’s bad?

I don’t know. It can work but I’m not sure it’s a long-term strategy for a brand anyway. It might be a one hit short hit.

What do you see as the biggest mistakes people make with campaigns?

Not getting noticed and producing mundanity. An ad will come on and we won’t know what it’s for and we won’t care. Someone will have spent £10m on it so why are we doing that? If I were a client I would ask if my friends in the pub are going to talk about the ad you have just made for me? If not then why have we made it? Increasingly in this environment with so many TV channels, it needs to get noticed and talked about, and if it’s not being talked about then don’t put it on television, put it somewhere where it will get talked about.

What do you think makes a great ad?

It’s got to be true to the brand; it’s got to make you acknowledge it. It’s what we call ‘a knowing nod’. So you say ‘It’s right for that brand, you’re right, you’ve told me something about the brand I didn’t realise and it’s right for me’. Most importantly of all, I need to know who was talking to me, so when people complain about FCUK ads, they know who was advertising and they don’t say ‘I don’t really like that fashion ad’, they say the name of the product which proves that it’s working. If they don’t say the name of the product then it’s not working and it’s a rubbish ad. You’ve got to know who is bringing the message. You can whisper the name but they have got to know who it’s from.

Do you think people spend too much time playing it safe with their ideas?

Safe is the wrong word because that would suggest that dangerous is a better way to go and it’s not. There is right and wrong rather than safe – brave and dangerous. I think people don’t want to rock the boat, or cause a fuss and get noticed. Why would you not do that? Why would you not get noticed?

So do the greatest people take the greatest risks?

I don’t think there is a risk at all in doing great work. There is a risk in producing work no-one notices – a massive risk. £12 million spent and you’re not sure anyone will notice the ad. That’s a far bigger risk. Why do you want someone to not notice your ad?

Are there any ads that have impressed you?

Many – I think the Honda campaign is magnificent. I think that everything we do is brilliant.  John Smiths is magnificent. FCUK is brilliant. I’ve noticed things that enter the public domain. I’ve noticed things that move me. Of stuff that we haven’t done, the best I’ve seen is Honda.

What’s your attitude to what some people refer to as failure?

I was considered a failure in 1999 and I didn’t believe I was. I have spent every day since trying to prove to myself more than anyone else that I am not a failure. I thought they were wrong and I questioned their judgment.  Do you believe it?  If you do then do something else. If you are not one then prove that you are not.

What advice would you give to young people wanting to get into the business?

Never, never, never, NEVER give up! Wake up in the middle of the night still not giving up.

Did you ever have a mentor?

No, because I don’t believe in following anyone in the business who writes ads. There is no fascination for me because it’s what I do. If you do that it’s a downward spiral. My mentors are people, everyone from Mohammad Ali to Natalie Imbruglia. These aren’t people who create adverts; these are people who inspire me.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you feel young people should know if they want to get into the industry?

They should know that I am not from a privileged background. I am from an Irish Catholic family in Birmingham. My dad died before I came to London and I have seven brothers and sisters. I am from an extremely working-class background, and I was the first and only member of my family to go to polytechnic (now university). I’m chairman of the best advertising agency in the world.

I had no money until I worked in advertising and now I’ve got loads of money, which I put to the right use and my family appreciate that. I understand the value and the purpose of money because I never had any. I was not born into privilege. A lot of people wrongly think that advertising is an industry for people from privileged backgrounds.

Advertising is an industry where people get on if they passionately want to, and I want it more than anyone. No-one can beat me on that. So that’s the message I would send to kids. Whether you want to be a footballer or Prime Minister or you want to be a creative in an advertising agency – it’s a simple test. Do you want it more than the person next door? I do and that’s why you can’t take it off me.

That’s what I would say. It’s nothing to do with upbringing or background or wealth or birthright. I’m chairman of a massive multi-million-pound company and it’s nothing to do with smoking cigars or playing golf on a Sunday. If I can make it – and I’m some git from Birmingham – then anyone in any school in Britain can make it, and I want to be a testimony to that. Don’t give up because I don’t. It makes it more pleasurable and more fun that the people I have to deal with internally and externally have had more privileged upbringings than me. And do you know what? I am their boss and I love that. So if I’m not an example then ain’t no-one!


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