Dave Trott: “The Cannes Lions prevent creativity”

By Dominik Imseng

British advertising legend Dave Trott is one of the greatest minds in our industry. On the occasion of his new book, “One Plus One Equals Three: A Masterclass in Creative Thinking,” Dominik Imseng sat down with Trott for an extensive conversation. Prepare to be challenged.

A lot of your creative mantras come from Bill Bernbach, Dave, like “Focus on simple, timeless human truths.” I’m going to challenge you on this. Bill Bernbach as a secret weapon? Come on, it’s 2015! Aren’t you underestimating the scale of the problem? People not only have developed powerful psychological filters to avoid advertising — they’ve developed powerful technological filters, too. People simply DON’T WANT advertising. There’s just too much of it. Even of the good stuff.

I agree with everything you said, except for your last sentence. The whole problem is: 90% of advertising is rubbish, and has always been. In the UK alone, 18.3 billion pounds are spent every year on all forms of advertising. Of that, 4% are remembered positively, 7% are remembered negatively, and 89% aren’t noticed at all. So around 17 billion pounds is wasted money. Until you know how to do it well, your advertising will be rubbish. I don’t care how much complicated theories and jargon you put behind it — storytelling, crowdsourcing, Behavioral Economics — , it’s still rubbish. The same is true for any media, by the way, whether it’s film, photography, editorial, book writing or journalism. Anything that’s rubbish will be forgotten, and anything that’s good will be picked up, and remembered, and a contribution to people’s life.

Why is so much advertising rubbish? Who’s to blame?

It’s because of all those university graduates who got into planning and into the client’s marketing departments. They are a little bit embarrassed about being in something like selling, so they have to make it look like it’s much more worthy, much more intellectually challenging. All those planners and strategic people want to get involved in saying what the ad should look like, what the script should be, how the script should be cast and how the film should be edited, because they see that all the fun is in the creative department. Stephen King — not the writer, but the guy who invented planning — warned planners against becoming mere ad-fiddlers. But that’s exactly what happened. You’ve now got strategists doing the tactics, which leaves the creatives — who should be the tacticians — not much else to do. It should be that the planners and the marketing people do the strategy, and the creative people do the tactics. If you keep it clean like that, you’re going to have the best people each doing their own job properly. It’s like a football team where everybody on the pitch tries to chase the ball around. They haven’t got the defenders in defense, and the midfielders in midfield, and the forwards up front. You’ve got the forwards running back to try and save a goal, and the defenders trying to score a goal, and nobody knows what they’re supposed to be doing anymore.

Aren’t account managers confused about their role, too? They either see themselves as project managers, making sure work gets done, or as the client’s representatives inside the agency, don’t you think?

Planners have taken over what account managers used to do, too. The account managers have become pretty much just traffic. And the creatives pretty much just go on YouTube and see if they can find a new technique that hasn’t been used yet.

Let me challenge the relevance of advertising once more, Dave. Isn’t it the penalty for offering a mediocre product or service? I mean: Did Facebook have to do advertising to become a huge success? Did Airbnb? Did Dropbox? No — these were great and relevant services that sold themselves.

Now you’re asking a marketing question, which is: Why advertise in the first place?


I’m not a marketing person — I’m a creative person. That’s the problem with a lot of creative people nowadays. They’re confused and think of themselves as marketing people. That’s not our job. Our job is not to decide whether or not to do advertising — our job is to do better advertising. Advertising that people want to sing along with or repeat the joke. Advertising that gets into the language. But most creatives have forgotten that. They don’t know what their job is anymore, which is to use creativity as a legal unfair advantage. Creatives should find ways to make the smaller clients beat the bigger clients, the one with less money beat the one with more money. That’s the whole fun in creativity, isn’t it? How to make the underdog beat the top dog.

What’s your stance on native advertising — advertising disguised as journalism? For some reason, only journalists get asked this question. I’d love to ask a creative.

Anything you’ve got to disguise, any form of dishonesty means you’re embarrassed about what you do. If you’re embarrassed about what you do, you’re embarrassed because you’re not doing it very well. So start doing it better. Go and do something you’re proud of. Don’t pretend advertising is something else. That’s what they used to do before Bill Bernbach. Most people around aren’t old enough to remember the world before Bernbach, so they all think that native advertising is brand new. But it’s not. They used to call it ‘advertorials.’ When you didn’t have money to do proper advertising, you would write something that looked like an article and pretend it was a piece of journalism and slide the product in. Eventually, they had to change the law so that they would have to write ‘advertisement’ at the top of those things. That’s what native advertising is. It’s just the same old crap with a different name.

Bill Bernbach, George Lois, Jerry Della Femina — they were all “ethnics” who not only wanted to change the WASPy advertising of their time, but its WASPy society, too. Their fight against the advertising establishment was also a fight against the political, cultural and moral establishment. Do you see a correlation between being creative and being socially conscious?

I definitely see a correlation between being creative and being rebellious. If you rebel, you rebel against whatever you think is wrong. What was clearly wrong in those days was that anyone in advertising was represented as White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Bill Bernbach began putting Jews and Blacks, Irish and Italians in his ads. When I came back to England in 1971, I felt that we ought to do that, too, because all you ever had in English ads at the time were middle-class people who spoke perfect English. But in London, for instance, there’s ten million people who speak Cockney, which was frowned on and looked down on by posh people. If you spoke Cockney as I do, you were automatically considered stupid. That’s why I wanted to do advertising the way they did it in New York, celebrating the differences instead of pretending they didn’t exist. So I started using Cockney expressions, Cockney songs in my ads. All of a sudden, you’d have ten million people enjoying those ads, singing those ads, talking about those ads. I wasn’t the only one doing it, and suddenly people weren’t ashamed to be Cockney anymore. That’s the power of advertising. It can be a force for good.

Do you think the ad industry is still rebellious?

Not even remotely. What the ad industry will do is look to see what the latest craze is. Right now, the latest craze is female equality, so every ad you’ll run has a woman in it getting the better of a man, and the man’s made to look stupid. That’s not rebellious, that’s just following a trend.

Do you think ad festivals like the Cannes Lions can change this?

No. Ad festivals prevent creativity. You’re not doing advertising for six million people in the street anymore, but for ten people on the jury, and for a few clients. You win an award, because then Martin Sorrell will give you a raise, and Martin Sorrell can go and tell Unilever that he won an award, and Unilever will maybe give him another piece of digital business. How has that got anything to do with the job we’re supposed to be doing?

The focus is wrong?

Totally. When I was young, I loved oil painting, and I wanted to be a fine artist. But when I got to New York in the late 1960s, it occurred to me that if I became a fine artist, that would have nothing to do with people. Just with a very small group of rich people who buy paintings. I didn’t want to spend my life doing that. I wanted to spend my life doing something that talks to the great mass. In New York in those days, you could see how Bill Bernbach was changing advertising. Everybody talked about it, everybody enjoyed it, and that’s a big exciting art when everybody in the country is repeating your strap line or your joke. That’s what art used to be in the Renaissance when art was for the people, because art became just dead stuff for art galleries after that. With ad festivals, advertising has gone back to just being dead stuff for art galleries again.

Your books are full of amazing stories. Where do you get those from? Do you spend all your time reading?

I don’t know. Some of the stories I read in the newspaper. Some of them I get from watching Discovery Channel and History Channel. And a lot of the stories I hear in the pub. I always carry a piece of paper and a pen with me, and when I hear something really interesting, I write it down. I think that’s the only difference between me and anyone else. We all hear great stories all the time, but I write it down before I forget it.

And you do this in a very peculiar way. A sentence a paragraph. With lots of white space.

You know who came up with that? That was Helmut Krone when he was designing the look of the Volkswagen campaign. Julian Koenig’s copy was just a big block, and Helmut Krone thought, “This is impenetrable, this is too hard to read.” So Krone got his scalpel and started cutting windows into the copy. The next day, Koenig came in and Krone said to him, “Can you re-write the copy like this?” Koenig said, “Well, I can, but some of the sentences will be only one word long, and that’s not grammatical.” Krone said, “It doesn’t matter. It looks good, it looks accessible, it looks readable.”

The funny thing is, because of all the white space, I can recognize a Dave Trott text from ten meters away. You started out as a painter, and now when you’re writing, you’re painting as well.

You’re right. You know, for me, the most important part about the writing isn’t the writing, it’s the editing. Once you’ve written it, you go back and read it. You switch off, and now, instead of being a writer, you become a reader. As you read it, you think, “This is a bit boring,” and you cut it out. And you go on, and then you think again, “This is a bit boring,” and you shorten it. You keep doing that until you can’t get it any shorter. That’s the whole trick. Someone asked the writer Elmore Leonard once, “What’s the secret to great writing?” Leonard said, “Lots of white space on the page.”

If there’s ever been an advertising philosopher, it’s you, Dave. What do you think non-ad people can learn from advertising? Is there a Zen of Advertising that your books can teach them?

I don’t think it’s specifically about advertising, I think it’s about creativity. When you read my books, you’ll find that there’s creativity in warfare, creativity in business, creativity in sport, creativity in raising children. Whatever you do, there’s an exciting creative way to do it that involves looking at the status quo and doing it differently. You can look at what everybody else is doing, and re-think it, and do it creatively. Once you learn that, you can bring creativity to whatever you do, take it wherever you go. That’s what I hope you’ll get from my books.

Follow Dave Trott on Twitter: @davetrott

Photo by Julian Hanford. http://www.julianhanford.com

This post originally appeared on The Advertising Week Social Club on Monday, June 22, 2015.

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