An Hour of Advertising with… Creature’s Dan Cullen-Shute
If you don’t recognise Dan Cullen-Shute from his picture (he’s the one on the right, by the way), then you may recognise him from his avatar.
This is the man behind ‘Adland Suit’, a boisterous, sweary blog and Twitter account extolling the virtues of the industry’s account men and bemoaning the daily shit that they have to put up with.
In reality, Dan is just as sweary and passionate as his online persona was (he still uses the same avatar, but the nature of his Twitter account has changed after he revealed his identity in November 2009).
But whereas the beauty of the Adland Suit account was seeing passion channelled through incredulous, brash rants, Dan channels his real love for the industry through an agency and a culture that he deserves to be proud of.
Creature London is an agency that’s fun, optimistic and full of energy. It tries to do interesting things — from sponsoring Watford Football Club Ladies to launching its own honey brand.
Not everything comes off. And the agency is probably still a few big accounts and a couple of pieces of award-winning work away from truly fulfilling its potential. But it’s a business that, in my opinion, the industry desperately needs.
The industry needs agencies based around its people. It needs leaders who have a level of self-awareness and empathy that invigorates teams to come to work of a morning. It needs more cultures and environments that fosters inventive, exciting work that puts real people at its heart.
Dan himself started at Ogilvy, before spending six years at Delaney Lund Knox Warren — a powerhouse for brilliant suits. He did the digital thing with Glue Isobar for a couple of years before teaming up with Ben Middleton, Stu Outhwaite and Ed Warren in 2011 to help US hotshop Creature launch in the UK.
I’ll let him pick up the story from there. We meet at the Horse & Groom, Creature London’s local, and Dan is his usual personable, entertaining and self-effacing self.
And after a brief chat about our hopes for Wales in the Six Nations (if you weren’t sure how that panned out, we won the Grand Slam), we sit down to discuss everything from what it’s really like to launch an agency, to what makes a good account man, to how Adland Suit helped his career — and how a front page story about Halifax Howard nearly killed it…
Jump to a section:
- Opening an agency, dealing with the press, and the curious case of advertising’s new golden generation
- Changing responsibilities, the importance of keeping perspective, and advertising’s long-hours culture
- Understanding the real world, working with arseholes and the curious case of the agency business plan
- Stumbling in to the industry, Friday afternoons in advertising and the emergence of Adland Suit
- How to be a good account man, morals in advertising and the need for versatility
- Arrogance and insecurity in the industry, being a ‘toxic voice’ at Ogilvy and hitting the front pages with Howard
Part one: Opening an agency, dealing with the press, and the curious case of advertising’s new golden generation
Day One, starting Creature London. Feelings?
I’m trying to think of a clever way of saying ‘sheer abject terror’. We didn’t know what we were doing, we knew just about enough to know that we didn’t know what we were doing but nowhere near enough to know about what we should know we were doing. And literally not having the first clue of what we were getting ourselves into.
But we still had this precocious voice in the back of our heads just whispering really quietly that “you’ve started an agency now so you’ll all be billionaires in a couple of years’ time, because that’s what happens.”
How did it all come about then?
The genesis of Creature is a slightly funny thing. There had already been a Creature in Seattle for a long time. They were a decent agency run by lovely people and they’d won a big Microsoft project that demanded a European presence. Matt and Jim who started it got very excited about opening a London office and found us and offered us what we saw was — in our weird combination of insecurity and precociousness — a ‘protected start-up’…or as we really called it: the opportunity to have a ‘Fisher Price My First Start Up’.
The deal was that we’d come and get a chunk of it, in return for turning it into a proper agency, then they’d get a chunk of it in return for looking after us, funnelling clients our way, teaching us how to do it etc. Because we didn’t have a fucking clue. But it became apparent very quickly that — with the best will in the world — they didn’t either. In a way it was a very positive but also a very painful journey of realising how much we knew, I suppose.
Is that what you felt personally, as well as a collective?
I knew I was a very good account person and I knew how to run big bits of business. I learnt very quickly how different that is to running a business. Because I think our precocious plan was to do this protected start up for five years, sell it — because that’s what everyone does — and then we have the knowledge and money in our pockets to go and do it ourselves. And it didn’t quite happen like that.
We discovered early on that the guys in the States weren’t helping us in the way they said they would. So we got rid of them but ended up in a big financial hole that I think, if we were more financially savvy and less precocious, we would have walked away from at that point. But we didn’t, we said “this is ours now, we’re grown-ups now, so we better be grown-up about it.”
To us, being grown-ups meant getting our heads down and dealing with it. And we did, through a combination of experimentation, luck, being good and working really fucking hard. It was weird because from the outside it all looked rosey. We looked like part of this bizarre Golden Generation that had come from nowhere, but actually the thing we were building was very much built on sand. And at the same time that we were building this lovely castle we were also desperately trying to build some foundation under it.
You talk about this ‘Golden Generation’, but when you launched the UK ad industry seemed to have had a period where there were less and less start-ups emerging. It seemed to me like the industry was crying out for a new, fun start-up we could back. Did it feel like that to you?
It felt a bit like that. Though I think it depends on who the ‘we’ is there. I’d agree with you from an industry point of view. And in the trade we did have some massive cheerleaders — Jeremy Lee at Campaign for example was so excited about us when we started and was supportive of us — which was an amazing thing. But our honest feeling from a trade press point of view was that they were very happy in what they had.
How do you mean?
Because I think we did it all in a slightly funny way. Every other start-up — at least until recently where you have a wave of young people doing things differently — has been advertising superstars who had been sitting in a corner office somewhere, doing amazing things, owning La Croisette etc. We didn’t do that, we skipped that middle bit and our position was slightly odd I think. Whereas the trade press had Nils Leonard busy becoming a superstar at Grey, Johnny Hornby still a big part of the day-to-day at CHI, Adam & Eve still going, and they were happy to concentrate on those.
You can’t really beat people up for that. We were a tiny agency in Shoreditch, certainly for the first two years, doing half-decent work for half-decent clients, and there were other bigger stories. When you’re in the building you of course feel like “why don’t people care more about this, it’s fucking killing us?” But there were other bigger stories.
Part two: Changing responsibilities, the importance of keeping perspective, and advertising’s long-hours culture
How did you find the transition from managing people as part of something bigger at DLKW or Glue, to running a start-up and thinking “shit I’m literally responsible for these people”?
The biggest part of it boils down to cash. And that feeling from when payday goes from the best day of the month to the worst day of the month because for everybody else it’s still the best day of the month. That for me defined the first 18 months of Creature — because around the 12th or 13th of every month I started to get a bit fidgety and a bit nervous, because I knew that there’s a bunch of people just assuming that on the 25th of the month their money would arrive in their bank accounts.”
Yet despite the obvious scary moments — and the need to take it seriously because people’s lives really are at stake — Creature always comes across as positive and optimistic. How and why is that the case?
If you get the balance right, this thing that we do is the most wonderful thing in the world. Because you have to be a grown up, serious business and understand that what we do contributes enormously to the economy, and pretty much any successful business is out there in some part because of advertising or marketing or whatever you want to call it. But it’s also wonderfully silly. We’re shooting an ad on Tuesday for a pet food brand, which meant some of the agency has spent the last week casting dogs. Chatting about whether that dog looks ‘too sad’. And yet I’m sitting at a table doing this with a bunch of really smart people, because it matters.
Then of course there’s the human side that sits at the heart of it. Our business, more than any other, is so reliant on emotion and subjective opinion, that there’s much more human involvement. If you’re a trader then there’s a lot of gambling that’s all very intellectualised and abstract. If you’re an artist then it’s all you in it. Whereas in advertising it’s a bunch of smart people gathered around a billion different problems every day, having to be both humanly sensitive and humanly abstract, focused on both the ‘now’ and the ‘then’ all at the same time.
Do you remember that first moment with Creature that you looked around and you thought ‘yeah we’ve got something here’?
There’s one answer that sticks out. It was in 2014 and we were in South Africa shooting a Carling ad. It was a massive production, a fifth ad in the campaign, and the day after the shoot we went out for lunch at this lovely restaurant on the coast and we had a nice meal. There were seals rolling in the sea outside and Stu and I turned to each other and almost at the same time went “this is a bit mental isn’t it?”.
For whatever reason it struck us both at the same time that all of this was happening. Hundreds of thousands of pounds were being spent and all these people were here making this ‘thing’ because a few years prior we’d got together and thought “that might be fun, why don’t we give that a go?” That’s probably the first moment where we had a real “fucking hell this is nuts moment”.
Is it stuff like that that starts to make up for the late nights and long hours?
Sort of, but I think the danger we have in advertising is when that trade-off becomes explicit and deliberate. When we hold up the shiny things to distract people from the ugly stuff.
It’s really funny because we’ve always tried very hard at Creature not to be the agency that expects people to stay late and start early. Yet one of the first pieces of advice I was ever given when starting out as an account manager was to either be there before everyone else because that would count, or always leave a jacket on the back of your chair because people think you’re there. And now it’s like “fucking hell, that shouldn’t be how we judge people.”
The flip side of that of course is that sometimes you have to work all the hours God sends to make something that’s really, really good. We try really hard to make it a place that people want to be, and want to work late if that’s what’s needed, but not feel they have to if they don’t.
So you’ve definitely experienced times when the trade-off became explicit?
I absolutely loved my time at DLKW, but there did come a time there when at 18:30 all of the account managers would go and order dinner, and then at 19:15 when the dinner arrived they’d all go and sit down somewhere and eat together. And I just didn’t understand it. It wasn’t right. Finish and go somewhere else. Because ironically for us to be good at this, our lives have to involve other things. You need to see the world. You need to go to the theatre or read a book or even just go home and watch television.
We are so lucky in this industry with the amount of stuff we get exposed to and the danger has always been that you become over-exposed and don’t appreciate that. But there’s also an equivalent danger which is that that’s used as an excuse for treating people badly.
Part three: Understanding the real world, working with arseholes and the curious case of the agency business plan
Is understanding the ‘real world’ still a problem for the industry?
Yeah of course it is. But I’ll caveat that by saying it’s not always necessary. Some of the best people I’ve worked with weren’t ‘normal people’. Richard Warren is probably the furthest person away from being a normal person there is, and his counterpart Charlie Snow is the most empathetic, understanding person I’ve ever worked with.
What Richard was incredible at was getting people to open up as if they were explaining earth to an alien. So Charlie would do focus groups where he’d listen intently and show that he understands and cares, whereas Richard would get so excited that people would enjoy explaining these bizarre concepts to him. So I don’t necessarily buy that planners need to be watching EastEnders every night. But there is definitely a case where we as an industry get caught up in ourselves too often.
In terms of the clients you wanted to work with and the way you wanted to approach business, how different is Creature to what you had initially envisioned?
When I look back at what we were and what we felt and what we believed, I wish I could bottle it. But then I wish I had a complicated filtration system that removed the idiot from it and just keep the essence. Because some of the stuff we talked about was just wonderful — and still I hope sits at the heart of what we do.
We talked about the irony of a creative company being purely reactive — calling yourself a creative company and then waiting for someone to ask you to do something is nonsensical. So right from the beginning we made things, be it short films or music videos or books or fringe theatre, we always went out of our way to ‘do stuff’.
How have you tried to get the balance between big and small clients — and of course by that I mean ‘big and boring but pays the bills’ versus ‘small and less profitable but allows you to do some interesting work’?
We never did the ‘small client/big client’ Ben Affleck indie/Hollywood thing…because our belief was that if you found the right people at the other end, it doesn’t matter where they’re working or what their budget is, it’s that person that can help you make something out of it.
I’ve always struggled with the question ‘what sort of clients are you after?’ — whether that’s in interviews or business plans. Because people want the answer to be ‘well we want a £2–5 million automotive brand’ and I’ve never bought into that. I’ve made car ads for a long time and I’d love to make more car ads, I’ve made financial services ads for a long time and I’d like to make more of those. But more than that I want to work with brilliant people who make brilliant stuff, because that’s what makes brilliant brands.
Is that an outlook that you had from the off or is that something you’ve had to learn?
If I’m honest, I think you pick that up by working with some twats. That’s the honest answer. Again, I’ve been really lucky in that I can plot my career by people. Where my desk happened to be made much less difference than who it was next to. I don’t think there was any point in which I consciously realised that working with good people made the difference, but when we started at Creature we were very self-righteous — and I think we probably are still now — and I quite like that.
Were you conscious about culture when you started Creature?
I’m not sure we actually ever thought about the ‘agency culture’ in truth. We certainly wouldn’t have labelled it as that. We knew we wanted to build a business that people loved working at, we knew ‘us’, and perhaps most importantly we knew what we hated. One of the weirdest things I find about advertising is that, given that our job is to understand people, how terrible empathetic learners so many people in the industry are.
How do you mean?
There are two schools of account directors — there are the account directors who say ‘I know what I’ve been through and I know what I loved and I know what I hated and I’m going to adjust to make it better for people under me’, and then there’s the ‘my turn now’ account directors who think ‘right, here we go. It was shit for me and do you know what? Now that means it’s shit for you.’ And I’ve never understood that second approach.
There is the old mantra though that ‘nice guys finish last’, and it can feel sometimes that in certain areas of our industry you have to be a real arsehole to get ahead…
Well I think there are a lot of real arseholes in this industry. It’s one of the things that keeps us coming back stubbornly on the bad days. I continue to hope that you don’t have to be an arsehole to do well. I have specific examples of where if we’d been arseholes we’d have done better, but I like us more for not having been that. And I think it’ll benefit us more in the long run.
One of the things I’m most proud of about Creature is the people who have been through it, and the number of people who have left Creature and then left advertising because other agencies aren’t like it. And it makes me equally proud when I see people leave Creature to go to another agency and end up getting a bit cross, because they’re wondering why everyone is being a prick now.
Part four: Falling in to the industry, Friday afternoons in advertising and the emergence of Adland Suit
So let’s dive into your advertising career. How did it start?
I stumbled into advertising, I did French and Spanish at Uni which meant I had no idea what the real world was really about. So when it came to choosing a career, I went to Careers Services and there was a questionnaire that asked me whether I wanted to work in the City, work in management consultancy or work in ‘other’. I thought that the first two sounded awful, so I was definitely an ‘other’ kind of guy.
This gave me a weekly work experience bulletin and one day it had in it a summer work placement at Ogilvy. I went along for the interviews and it was a brilliant joke — I had two interviews, one for chemistry and one for knowledge. The chemistry one went really well, the knowledge one was terrifying. I didn’t know a thing. They asked me what adverts I liked and I could answer that, but then they asked me what I liked about advertising and I realised I didn’t really know what advertising was. I remember they asked me in particular about the Orange Cinema Gold Spots and I didn’t have a clue what to say other than ‘I like them’. But I stumbled through and ended up in the industry because of that…
…And it’s taken us to this pub in Shoreditch. Do Friday afternoons in the pub still exist as much in advertising?
For you and me advertising has never been what it was when people talk about advertising with a capital ‘A’. And you hear all these stories about all-day benders and people doing coke in the toilet. I left every agency convinced that there was never any coke done there because I give off that good public-school boy vibe so was never offered any. Of course, you then realise that there always was stuff knocking around.
But it’s like all these things — Monday mornings are shit if you allow them to be shit and Friday afternoons can be fun if you try every so often to let them be fun. There are certainly times where you just can’t do it, but I do believe that if you’re not really busy then you shouldn’t have to make it seem like you’re really busy. And it’s good to be in an industry where shit like Friday afternoons in a pub can exist.
So just be measured by it? Sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t?It’s a small question but it requires a weirdly big answer. Defining the mood and feel of an agency is something I don’t think we appreciated the importance of or how much control we had over, for quite a long time. We worked really hard and we tried to enjoy what we were doing, and we thought that was enough — which it was when it was going well. But then you go through bad bits and you realise ‘fuck this is hard’ and only looking back you think ‘fucking hell when my shoulders drop an inch, everyone else’s drop too’.
I want to talk about being Adland Suit. What was the initial intention behind that? Was there an intention?
I guess I was bored. I was bored and I still have the same feeling around the lack of value placed on account management in our industry. Back then I was a bit of a geek — I still am now but now have a family so have less time to indulge in being a geek — so I spent a lot of time reading blogs by strategists and creatives, and there was no voice for the suits. I can’t remember the exact wording but there was something written on Scamp’s blog that was really shitty about account people, and I remember just thinking ‘enough’.
It’s not normally something I’d do — I’m a geek but I’ve never really been an ‘early adopter’ — it just happened. I was one of few people on Twitter, it was still the days you’d get a text message when someone tweeted, and a friend had a pretty successful blog (though weirdly his was about meat), so I just thought “fuck it, that sounds fun, I’ll do that.” For whatever reason I decided to take on the voice of suits. I had no right to do that. I was just a pretty good account director at a really good agency. But no-one else was doing it, so I did and it all went slightly nuts.
When did you really know it had taken off?
Well, first let me say that when I say it went nuts, it went nuts by 2008’s standards. By today’s standards it’d be a tiny drop in the ocean. But I remember Mark Denton made a thing for Creative Circle about the history of advertising and there was one bit where he panned across a doctor’s surgery and there was a newspaper which had the headline ‘suit with spine found’ and the image was my avatar. I was like ‘fuck!’. It really is the thing that’s had the biggest impact on my career. In terms of profile, but also in terms of making me think about it and be conscious of who I am.
And helpful for when you started Creature?
Yeah it was. We had a combination of Ben and Stu coming from Mother who were great creatives who had done all the Pot Noodle and PG Tips stuff, so they had a profile that was high but still ‘surprising’ for two people starting an agency, and then adland suit wandered in and a smaller group of people went ‘oh yeah him, that’s interesting’.
When you ‘came out’ as adland suit, how conscious a decision was it for you to do so?
Like everything in my life there was absolutely no plan whatsoever. I found it unexpectedly stressful running an anonymous Twitter account. It was a different world. My employers had no idea I was doing it for a long time.
Did you tell them before you revealed yourself?
Yeah. I’m not sure I had to, but for the sake of my job I decided I probably should. They basically had no idea what I was going on about but thanked me for telling them. I’m not sure I wanted to tell them too much as it basically just showed them how little work I’d had on that previous year…
Part five: How to be a good account man, morals in advertising and the need for versatility
What makes a good suit then?
Good suits are sort of irrelevant — they just make stuff happen and may as well be project managers at times — but great suits make everything better all of the way through the process. I guess to the culture point we were talking about earlier, one of the things we do make sure of at Creature is having an enormous amount of value placed on everyone. We’re a creatively-driven agency not a creatively-led agency. The output is the work, but we recognise that everybody has a part to play in that. And I do mean everyone.
One of our founding principles of Creature is that there are a fuck-ton of bored people working in advertising. These are smart, interesting, creative people in our industry who chose to work in a creative industry and then got put in a small box with limited creativity. And you think ‘fuck that’. We’ve always wanted to take those bored people and set them free. Not set them free in a hippy commune way — there’s a job to be done and clients pay for structure and process and a need to know what’s going on. It’s not anarchy — but I would never want anyone at our agency to feel like they don’t have value to add or they can’t make the work better as opposed to just making it happen.
And what’s the suit’s role in making the work better? Does it mean being loved by the creative department and trusted by the client at the same time? Is that possible!?
Yes, that’s the dream! But to be that person you have to go through moments of not being liked by either of them. It’s like any good relationship — romantic or otherwise — if you just say ‘yes’ to everything then there’s no relationship there. For there to be value in it you have to be a point of friction sometimes. And there’s a weird push in our industry to remove friction from stuff. Actually friction is great. Forgive me for sounding like a cunt, but friction is where fire happens.
But sometimes it’s hard to remember that…
Oh don’t get me wrong I’ve been guilty in the past of just wanting to be loved. But that shouldn’t be why you go into it. The best suits end up being loved because they don’t give a shit about being loved. They just care about making the best possible thing for everyone involved.
So a good suit is someone who’s passionate about the work — but when it comes to brands, how different is it when working on brands that you love or hate, and more to the point, have you found yourself learning to love brands you previously didn’t?
I think there’s lots of different angles on that question. I think part of our jobs as an account manager is to be ‘interested’ people. I don’t think people talk about that enough — everybody wants you to be interesting and exciting, but nobody ever says: ‘make sure you’re interested and excited’. And I think that’s part of it for me, I get really excited about most things.
I guess to a certain degree it’s more important for a suit to like the brand you’re working on, but it’s not only important for the suit. That’s the joy of our jobs, right? You could be talking about renewable energy one minute and ready meals the next. And you have to be able to find the energy and excitement within that. Anybody who says ‘I can only work on a brand if I love it’ is getting it the wrong way around.
You do find that ‘versatile’ comes up when you’re trying to look for a good account man…
It’s a David Ogilvy thing where he talks about account people needing to know more about the client’s business than the client does, and I think you have to have that element of curiosity in you. But ultimately I think you have to love what you do — I think it’s very difficult to fake that. That comes from what we do rather than who we’re doing it for. If you’re coming in to work every day thinking ‘Fuck I hope I get to work on Adidas one day’, then go and work at Adidas. The love of our job has to be in the variety.
Part six: Arrogance and insecurity in the industry, being a ‘toxic voice’ at Ogilvy and hitting the front pages with Howard
You’ve talked a lot about wanting to build an agency that isn’t defined by its output. What do you mean by that?
I’ve worked above-the-line and I’ve worked digitally, and the second you pick your lane you’ve sort of already answered the client’s question before they’ve asked it. When I was at DLKW we were a brilliant above-the-line agency and we desperately wanted to shift towards digital. But when you’ve got 30 TV producers who need to be kept in sushi and chardonnay, the answer tends to have TV somewhere in it.
And then I worked at Glue. I loved Glue in so many ways. But whilst I went there thinking digital was this flexible, nimble, agile world, the reality is that you’re doing the exact same job only now instead of selling TV time you’re selling developers. So just substitute the sushi and chardonnay for Red Bull and Wotsits. It’s so limiting. And at Creature we just didn’t want to be part of that. We wanted to be creative and strategic partners.
How do you make that happen? Because it’s very easy to talk about partnerships but a lot harder it seems to put them in place.
We often talk in chemistry sessions about how our industry is a weird combination of arrogant and insecure. Arrogant in the sense that if you’re not called a creative that ‘you don’t know’ anything… but then insecure that creativity is this delicate butterfly or rare orchid that if a strategist with their logic or a client with their numbers go near it then it’ll wither and die. So we force ourselves to be very open with that. All our creative work lives on walls and we invite people to gather round it. It’s then working out how to have the sometimes ‘heated’ discussions around what’s right.
When I left DLKW I was the director of engagement and participation, and if ever there’s a job title to define someone who works in an agency that isn’t digitally savvy but likes the internet, that was it. I wrote it for myself — and it was when it was announced to the company and the MD laughed I knew that whilst they were right to laugh, it wasn’t the place for me to be anymore.
Do you remember the first time you fucked up?
Fucked up big? I think I’ve forgotten most of those. But when I was a grad at Ogilvy there was this perception that Ogilvy would spend lots of money on training up their grads but then they would fuck off and showcase their brilliance elsewhere. Because they’d give you all these amazing opportunities but wouldn’t actually train you up. They’d let you visit all these amazing places instead of actually being on hand to help out all these pissed off account managers.
So at one point Paul Jackson got all us grads in a room and said “ok guys, this is a safe forum, a safe environment and I want honest answers — how do you think that the grad scheme is treating you?” And I — looking back grossly naively — took that to mean that this is a safe forum and I should be honest and open. So I said “listen, I don’t want to sound ungrateful because everything we’ve experienced has been amazing, but I still don’t know exactly if I’d be able to do my job tomorrow. I know a lot of people are pissed off, I’m finding it hard with my line manager and I understand why.”
The next morning my managing partner called me in to his office and said “erm, what the hell did you do?” I had absolutely no idea. And I had a really good relationship with my managing partner — he was a lovely man. But he told me that he’d just come from an emergency meeting called because they wanted to get rid of me. Apparently he was told that “I was a toxic voice in the business and we can’t have him around anymore.”
And I’d never been more scared in my life. I’d never had a job before, let alone been fired from a job for being toxic. My boss was lovely and he sorted it but that was the first time that l what you could call ‘fucked up’.
And what about your biggest fuck up?
The biggest fuck up I’ve ever made was in 2008. The financial crisis was starting to bubble away — Lehmann Brothers had already gone under and journalists were all talking about it. We’d just repitched for Halifax and we’d won, and I’d had the biggest agency night out I’d ever had to celebrate. And during the night somehow word had got out that we’d won. So on my way back to the station I had a call from a journalist from the Independent — I still have no idea how he’d got my number. And instead of saying to him “sorry, I’m just an Account Director, I can’t talk about it”, I was feeling like ‘fuck yeah I’ve just won a pitch, I’m brilliant’, so I talked to him about our approach and plans. I can’t really remember what I said to him, but I remember putting the phone down, getting on the train and feeling slightly uneasy.
And then the next day the front page of the Independent was ‘Halifax drop Howard because he’s ‘unsuitable’ for tougher times’.
BUT, that day I didn’t go to the office directly as I had to go to the dentist, and by the time I got into the office Lloyds had bought HBOS and the world had changed. I don’t think I could have done anything that could have got me more fired than what I did, and I don’t think anything other than — literally — the world’s finance falling apart could have saved me. To the point where if you now ask Tom Knox, who was the agency’s Chief Exec at the time, whilst it would have been the biggest thing in his life, I doubt he remembers it, because within a couple of hours everything else was happening.
So what you’re saying is the financial crash was good for some people…
(Laughs). God I was so lucky. So lucky. I still have the paper actually.
But look, everyone fucks up. And it’s so very rare that your fuck up is genuinely catastrophic. And everything can be made to feel catastrophic. There are things I don’t even think about anymore, like when I was on holiday and someone covering supplied a press ad with the wrong URL, and that quickly escalates into a conversation about how many tens of thousands of pounds of media that’s been lost. And that chat just as quickly decelerates and everyone forgets about it too.
It goes back to that philosophy — of course what we do matters, cumulatively it really does. But the little bits of it rarely matter as much as we think it does. You have to strike the balance between caring about everything, but recognising that things are going to go wrong at times too.