Friday, 13 February 2009

Star Stories: Rory Sutherland

Our next Star Story comes courtesy of Rory Sutherland, Ogilvy One London's Executive Creative Director and Vice Chairman, and the Ogilvy Group UK's vice chairman and the forthcoming IPA President for 2009/10. Oh, and he also writes an excellent blog on Brand Republic.


by Rory Sutherland

My story? A little similar to Jon Steel's, in that I thought I was going to become a teacher. A plan that was rapidly abandoned once I spent some time actually in a school. This experience terrified me. Not in the way you might think, though: it was rather a good school, and the pupils were well mannered and amusing - no, what frightened me wasn't the classroom but the staffroom.

Imagine your entire life since the age of five spent either learning or teaching in educational establishments. It's not a good idea. Remember, too, that this was the late 80s, a time when the lack of entrepreneurial spirit and ambition in much of the staffroom seemed completely at odds with the times. I remember one female teacher was married to a partner at a law firm in London. She drove to school in quite a nice car. Not a Bentley or anything, you understand, but something that wasn't an Austin Maestro. I think it may have been a Fiat X-19, if you remember the thing. Anyhow, once her back was turned she was routinely villified for having the temerity to drive this car. Sod this, I thought.

I applied to 19 agencies half way through the year, and had about six interviews and two second interviews. At JWT (which involved two days away at a place called Minster Lovell to check you held your fork correctly and owned the right part of Derbyshire and so on) and at Ogilvy & Mather Direct, the latter making me my sole job offer. From September 1988, and for about a year thereafter , I was the world's worst account man, then became a copywriter in 1990, a rare move (rarer still now, I suspect) which required great support from a number of people to whom I owe thanks to this day - Drayton Bird, Steve Harrison, Dan Gipple, David Watson, Andy Firth and David Nobay being many but not all of them. I also owe my job to an anonymous advertising copywriter who was the other candidate for the one available copywriting job in the department at that time, but who took one look at a long copy ad and a mailpack on the walls, loudly declared "I'm not writing all those words - I just do concepts" and promptly flounced off.

Two lessons, here. First, get a job at a good agency doing anything. After a while, if you're good you can probably choose to do something else and if you're bad (and I was a very bad account man, once even failing to turn up at a time management course because I'd got the date wrong) there's a small chance they may give you a chance elsewhere to see the back of you. It's only a small chance, but the odds are probably better from the inside than from outside.

The second thing? I can't help here much, but be lucky in the place where you start. We probably did not realise it at the time, but O&M Direct (now OgilvyOne) in 20 Soho Square was one of those supernode wellspring places you get in advertising and direct marketing (quite possibly it still is, but we won't know for another ten years). The assemblage of talent was tremendous: in addition to the above named were Rod Wright, Mike Simm, Randy Haunfelder, Derek Robson (now at Goodby), Miles Young, Paul O'Donnell (still here) and many more great people. Plus Drayton Bird had a Bentley Turbo even though he couldn't drive, which rather confirmed my suspicion that the automotive prospects were at least better there than in teaching.

Sometimes I feel a little like the Peter Sellers' "Chauncey Gardner"character in Being There. I had lucked into an interesting place with great people at exactly the right time. We were lucky in other ways, too. in the 90s we picked up an obscure Seattle company called Microsoft. I can still remember meetings where anyone new to the account had have explained to them what the company did - "You know when you turn on your PC is says MS-DOS for about a second? Well the MS stands for Microsoft." Looking back, this was rather a stroke of luck. Having software clients (and later we had Compaq, too, to be followed by IBM) meant we took IT quite seriously. And when the Internet became big, there were some of us who already knew what it was.

Advice on first becoming a copywriter? Advice which, now I think of it, holds good for any creative person anywhere, and at any time, for that matter. Work very hard and look for opportunity everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. Not only in the briefs you are given. And not only in the fashionable briefs. A few early breaks I had were a tactical ad for BT which ran on the evening Mrs Thatcher resigned and a wonderfully cute piece of work to small tradesmen for American Express. Mailpacks to small businesses - not promising. As Drayton Bird was fond of quoting (from Bacon) "A wise man makes more opportunities than he finds."

But a more important question than "how did you get started?" is "how do you stay interested?" What keeps you enthusiastic?

In the early days, I feel I must record my debt (a debt shared every one of us in direct marketing from those days) to Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury.

For the hottest agency in London in those days to do promotions and direct marketing because they wanted to not because they had to was an inspiration to all of us. Its approach to innovation was truly a revelation. I think, deep down, most British people in the business are either temperamentally BBH-ites or HHCL-ite - the school of "sexy" versus the school of "new".
Even though it lived less long, I think I am temperamentally a HHCL-ite. It's one of those Beatles or Stones things - everyone goes one way or the other - all, that is, except me.... I'm for Jim Reeves.

A little later (and what a shame it is HHCL never fully lived to see the digital age) , new media have added a new dimension to what we do, which has made possible innovation of a kind that seemed years off when we first started.

Subsequently? Well, I have been enthused by one simple fact, of which I remind myself every time I get a little low. This is one of very few jobs where doing almost anything of interest can make you better at your job.

Actuaries, bankers, acountants - their jobs aren't improved by watching people in a cafe, listening to conversations from bus passengers or taxi drivers, reading a book about history or economics or watching a film. We can become better copywriters in our spare time. Never forget what a rare and wonderful thing that is.


Anonymous said...

The final two paragraphs make an excellent point

DWGipp said...

Hey Rory:
Wonderful to read your story. I stumbled across it today. I think its important for anyone reading this to understand that you always had your own individual divine spark that shone through....and you stuck to it. I would encourage all who aspire to similar heights to find and hone their own spark.
Very proud of you Rory. Real talent always carries the day.
Dan G.

big suit said...

Ive heard this story already.. but i think its good for her to buy new outfit.. try our product if you need!

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