A List Contender:
Alex West began his career selling rather than making ads, working for Richard Desmond at Northern and Shell. An interesting start, to say the least.
“On my first day, when I was 18, he came and tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘you’re the first public school wanker I’ve ever employed. You better be fucking good.’ It was a baptism of fire, but a fascinating one.” Within a few years he was running three of Desmond’s magazines.
This is the closest West comes to identifying anyone who may have influenced his career. Traditional figures such as Frank Lowe, Leo Burnett or John Hegarty have not inspired him as they might have others in the industry. “It’s not the grand old man of advertising or the guys who make millions of pounds. It’s less any single person within the industry inspiring me or mentoring me and more me wanting to be in a business with lots of incredible people,” he explains, simply.
If anything, in his role as head of talent and partnerships at Mother, he’s the one who gets to inspire others by facilitating their creative passions — a Jim’ll Fix It for the ad industry. Part of his role is to encourage employees to hone their skills on exciting projects that are completely outside of their day jobs. “If you want to attract creative talent, you need to give them the opportunity to work across a whole bunch of different things, not just wave a chequebook in front of them,” he says.
One of Mother’s talented copywriters was given the chance to work on a feature film with a high-profile director, for example.
The atmosphere at Mother certainly suits West’s passion for eclectic talent. “We have such a wide range of skill sets within Mother: we can do feature films, books, design, experiential, music, comics, theatre,” he enthuses.
After learning the consumer press business at Northern and Shell, he became a publisher at Shots. Next, he set himself up as a consultant to ad agencies around the world. “I regard myself slightly as an outsider at Mother. I came in at 40 and with a totally different background. Working here is the first time I’ve been in the advertising industry. I’ve always been on the periphery. I did enjoy maintaining some independence from it until I was asked to join Mother.”
It seems no agency other than Mother could have tempted him into the heart of advertising. “It was an exciting opportunity, to do for Mother what I had been doing on a smaller scale as a consultant for other businesses. It was an opportunity to put a lot of theory into practice. I knew them and I knew the partners and they run a progressive business.”
As head of partnerships, West tracks down talented people with whom the agency can collaborate on projects, from furniture designers to interactive installation artists. “We’ve been talking about media platform fragmentation for probably over a decade now. We have to work across every touch point to get the brand message across in the right way and advertising agencies don’t necessarily have the skill set to do that in house. The kinds of people we want to work with on single projects are also not the kind of people who want to be employed by us,” West notes.
Nurturing talent is based on a core belief that he shares with Mother: talent is the difference between a successful business and a mediocre one. “The pressure is on agencies to learn new ways of creating revenues and learn new skill sets, which aren’t necessarily brand orientated but are done as a partnership. I think that’s a really important lesson for advertising agencies to learn.”
West predicts some “very fundamental changes” to the ad industry over the next five to ten years. “I think only the really great creative agencies will survive, not only for doing great creative work, but for innovation, developing brands themselves, and working across a wide range of media platforms.”
While West hasn’t spent his career worshipping advertising heros, he still has plenty of respect for the industry’s most successful current figures, not least Robert Saville and Mark Waite, founders of Mother. Of Saville, he says: “The purity of the vision he has created, and the single minded dedication to creativity is astonishing. The frustration is plain to see on his face if we haven’t managed to really deliver a great piece of work for a client. That is exceptional.”
“I’m also a huge admirer of Dan Wieden, Jeff Goodby, and guys like that,” he adds. “The same goes for some of the marketing people out there. Keith Weed (the chief marketing officer) from Unilever is a great guy, and it will be people like him who are far more fundamentally able to change our industry on a grander scale than any individuals within ad agencies.”
Surprisingly, West reveals that he would have been a banker if he’d not gone into advertising. “Just so I could retire early,” he insists. “Many friends went into banking, and over the years I’ve always wondered why. I’ve been running my own business, working in and around communications, flying all over the world, having an amazing time while they’ve always had their heads down working. Now they have their second homes and kids sorted, I understand why.
“In reality though, I don’t think I could have spent 20 years doing that,” he reflects.
Indeed, with such a passion for creative talent, it’s hard to see how he could be motivated by anything else.
First published in collaboration with Campaign in July 2011 as part of our A List Contenders series.
Update: In April 2014 Alex became the Managing Partner of Construct