Saturday, 12 July 2008
Star Stories: Charles Frith
After a long break, we return with a star story from one of my best friends - Charles Frith, rather than tell you all about him, I'll let him do that. Charlie's blog is Punk Planning, check it out here.
I donʼt think that this should be a guide towards getting into advertising - if anything it should serve as a how-not-to-do-it with a few nuggets picked up along the way.
As a friend of mine put it some years back when I declared my occupation, ʻoh thatʼs so 80ʼs” and she was right. We were among a handful of people dancing on a catwalk after a fashion show was over (while the music still was kicking off) and so I guess the glamour remains in pockets if you keep your eyes peeled. Burmese royalty links or so she claimed.
Nevertheless Iʼve always loved advertising and when a vacancy arose in a small below the line agency called Counter Attack in London on the Albert Embankment, South London at the end of the eighties. I not only applied for the administrative role in advertising but was elated to be given a position that exceeded my experience based I was told on how I conducted myself at interview stage.
I loved all the people there and it was my ﬁrst full on taste of people who work within the creative industries. Iʼve been hooked ever since. When the ad business produces superstars they shine greater than any other business Iʼve ever know. Truly inspirational and clever people to work with.
I was however young enough to subsequently chop around and try a few different opportunities including a spell with a direct marketing printing outﬁt in Nottingham where I was a useless sales person in their London ofﬁce. However no incentive could have been greater than to strike out abroad on account of falling in love with a young East German au pair from Leisnig in Germany not that long after the Berlin wall had come down.
I had a fascination with politics and particularly Communism, that in part explains why Iʼm currently inhaling deep lungfuls of power and bureaucracy here in Beijing with a view to getting a grip on global politics for the next twenty or so years. They will be important decades.
My German experience proved to be a pure blend of Victor Hugoʼs Les Miserables (something positive only occurs about 200 pages in and nothing happy happens until the end) and Franz Kafkaʼs The Transformation. Itʼs a book in itself, that part of my life and I shall enjoy sharing it as I kept a detailed and extensive journal of that period which never happened again till I took up blogging.
On my return to the UK I had no intention of working, given the weight of events I had experienced during this period which even took me out to the Far East for six months where I learnt Thai and worked for a Direct Marketing company. So back in England I felt pretty numb about life with no inclination to work for some time, and so I enrolled for a marketing degree at the age of 23. They let me in on account of my advertising and marketing experience (and secondary school qualiﬁcations) and I had three wonderful years of doing what came naturally to me. Studying marketing and design.
My only regret was I probably could have scored a ﬁrst class degree if I put my mind to it. I was however diligent with the lectures and tutorials which compensated for my refusal to do exam revision, except for one memorable all nighter where an accountancy student took me through proﬁt and loss, cash ﬂow, and ﬁnancial statements. Amazingly 3 months of lecturing on a subject that bores me to tears was condensed into a night of rough scribbles on paper and I passed with ﬂying colours. Or at least just ﬂying.
As ever with these things some serendipity is needed. Just before I graduated I went to a party and spent a whole night talking to a young woman who later revealed that she was a copywriter from the ad superstars of the day called HHCL and partners - I think she found me interesting as she ignored her partner for the night. I was in awe of a living breathing creative from the agency I most wanted to work at. Yes folks I slept my way to the middle.
Thatʼs categorically not true, but meeting people and being interested in them is a sure ﬁre way of being seen as interesting. So is encouraging gossip like the anecdote above, and so when the opportunity arose to interview with HHCL. I grabbed it and was fortunate enough to have been mentored by one of the intellectually toughest planners I have ever encountered to this day.
It was Mark Piper who memorably gave me his copy of the Koran before it really mattered because he was that kind of guy. A voracious reader and a heavyweight intellect. If you donʼt know the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims youʼre probably best off working in a bank or something. Planners are information whores. They suck it in any way they can get it and the best of them know how to process that information into something that matters. Youʼre either into it or not. The rest is down to accumulating experience.
A year later almost to the day I joined Howell Henry, I resigned. I remember it well because I could have stayed on a couple more weeks and secured my annual bonus but I wanted to get as far away from someone as possible. So I jumped on a plane did some interviews, secured a position, and moved back to Thailand, with its welcome tropical heat, the most awesome food, amazing culture not to mention Thailandʼs unique place in the DNA strands of the planet and undeniably the hottest women in the world outside of The Emirates and maybe Estonia.
I decided to accept DDB in Thailandʼs offer, and due to my London experience became one of the few Planning Directors in that part of the world. I had an incredible time sharing what I knew with people who had never even heard of planning. We won business, banged out some ads and life was good. I was 29 years old, earned a comparative fortune and lived like a king. There are few ﬁner buttoned down yet buttoned up feelings in life than waking up knowing that your maid has crisply ironed to perfection every shirt in your wardrobe.
Moving on, about a year and a half after joining, our agency was mandated by New York to merge with a HUGE local agency that I knew I could never join on account of the Managing Director wearing a polyester tie. He wasnʼt trying to be ironic either so I took my severance and had the brilliant good grace to have a couple of clients that wanted to continue working with me. AXA insurance and my best ever client and later close friend VW.
This launched what Iʼve retrospectively called my ʻexecutive freelance careerʼ (thanks Rob) which took me round the world from Europe to Asia. The freedom of working for oneself is great as it allowed me to take some self indulgent yet also enormously rewarding lifestyle decisions like pile the rum and books in equal measure either side of me; shoulder high, and plough through the stuff that I believe has contributed to my intellectual calibre with more validity than any degree ever could. I cherish that more than any 73% increase in year on year sales ad that I was ever involved with. I probably thought I was Hemingway or something.
Iʼm thinking the likelihood of anyone having read this far is very low and highly likely that those same people if they exist are asking, ʻyeah but whatʼs this got to do with me?ʼ is high.
Bear with me.
Towards the end of 1996 I decided to relocate to London and get to know all these amazing people who were sharing their ideas and thinking through blogging. Those people were single handedly responsible for me falling back in love with communication theory, business and creativity all over again. I had been getting more and more stale with the more interesting work projects coming from things like market entry reports for multinationals into India, than cracking out another ad with superlative families, beaming superlative white shiny teeth and all the other things that I have talked about which are directly related to media literacy and is the most important subject to learn about if considering a career outside of the M25. Or rather how to challenge it.
I learnt something else while I was in London and that is the interaction of online and ofﬂine which is I believe not only the most critical relationship to be managed outside of the monologue to dialogue shift. Its the reason Iʼve set forth once again to take the next stage of my life here in China. Iʼm not sure if I can handle another winter here but whatever happens Iʼve learnt something important and met the people who matter because despite thinking this would be home for a while I now know I need to tick off a few more boxes before the energy begins to ebb.
Many young people have asked me how I could have led such a wild and exciting life. The truth is that I had the energy to do it when I was younger and was frightened of it all at the time. Now that Iʼm older there is little that fazes me but the energy to relocate once more diminishes with each passing year.
So what are the most important lessons I can share? Well read the 48 laws of power and there you have a comprehensive list of 48 immutable laws I have broken. Donʼt do that please. There is one maxim that is important and will help you in a planning/advertising career more than any abundance of intellect, more than any charisma or creative surplus or rock and roll lifestyle:
Itʼs nice to be important, but itʼs important to be nice.
Lastly if youʼre considering a move into the marketing communications business and you have no regard for the great challenges we face as a planet you will always be restricted by the limitations you have set yourself. Selling stuff is easy. Selling the right stuff the right way takes courage, vision and patience.
I know because Iʼm still waiting.....