Gerry Moira is one of the great creative forces of British advertising – and has been for an incredible 37 years.
There’s too much fear stalking the corridors of Europe’s creative departments.
He first started out as a copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather London back in 1977. For the past nine years, he has been working at Havas Worldwide London (formerly Euro RSCG London), where he now holds the position of UK Director of Creativity. Gerry has created lots of campaigns considered classics today, and has won just about every award the industry has to offer. High time, therefore, for Michael Weinzettl to catch up with one of the enduring stars of the UK ad scene.
Hi Gerry, you have been one of the beacons of British advertising excellence for more than three and a half decades now. How did you get into the business in the first place? What, as a young man, got you interested in joining the admen?
I joined the business through a mixture of default and accident rather than ambition. The default part stemmed from my total unsuitability for any other profession, and the accident part came from my best friend at school. His dad was an artist who paid the mortgage by visualizing Tony the Tiger for Kellogg’s at JWT. Their house smelled of Magic Markers and jazz. It seemed wickedly bohemian and fun to me.
What, would you say, are some of the main ways the industry has changed over those past 40 years?
Apart from the obvious changes in media choice, I think the business has grown up over the last 40 years. I’m just not sure maturity suits what we do. This is not a game for grown-ups. One of the reasons we don’t see enough women in creative management is that they find our willful childishness tiresome. Who would want to play Wendy to a department full of preening Peter Pans?
I’ve read a statement by you saying that adland is at risk of “becoming a middle class club again.” Could you elaborate on this please, also for our international readers, who may not be familiar with what you call the “class revolution of the 70s.”
I’m acutely aware that placement and internship programs favor middle class kids living with their parents within the M25. Only they can afford the initial financial hardship. Also, with one or two notable exceptions, regional advertising is dead in the UK. This is not healthy for the ethnic or social diversity of our business. Similarly, you are as likely to hear a Brazilian accent in a London creative department as a Geordie one. We have to create opportunities for working class kids from the rest of Britain to join the profession. Advertising was a posh boys’ club in the early 70s, so we are in danger of returning to that narrow talent pool.
I have, for a long time now, been a fan of your “Private View” pieces published in Campaign magazine, in which you review the latest work from the UK. Obviously, you are an expert on British advertising. What is some of your favorite work to have come out of the UK in the past years?
Private View is never going to be a serious appraisal of creative achievement. We have the market for that. I try to be fair but funny. I like to work that seam between the profound and the profane. It’s just not healthy to take ourselves, and what we do, too seriously. There’s still good work coming out of the UK. Most of it is no longer on television. Get any crowd of old duffers like me around a table on the Carlton terrace and they start moaning about the decline of creativity. I don’t subscribe to this pessimism but I would offer clients this caution: be careful what you wish for. You think you want more control and accountability but you risk killing the creative culture that comes up with the truly transformative ideas. There’s too much fear stalking the corridors of Europe’s creative departments. Ours is a “can do,” not a “watch out” business.
Which examples of your own work have you been most proud of over the course of your career – and can you explain why?
I tend to measure my creative work by the joy of making it rather that the awards it won. Sometimes, you can achieve both. I won a Gold Lion last year for a long format film celebrating the Credit Suisse sponsorship of a Titian exhibition at London’s National Gallery. The film succeeded because of the team of talented young artists who transformed my idea; working with them was pure rejuvenating joy.
Who were your influences in advertising when you started out and who are some of the most gifted admen (and adwomen) you have worked with down through the decades?
I started in the business doing my best to copy Bernbach and Abbott but I preferred the naughtier ones like McCabe and Trott. I’ve worked with some delightful, talented people but none of the greats. I always chose the agencies that offered the most money, not necessarily the best showreel.
How has the role of copywriter evolved and changed over the years you’ve spent in the business?
I don’t know that the role of copywriter still exists – it’s just that “concepteur” seems such a poncey option. Lazy writing still makes me mad, though. It’s like indifferent service in a store or restaurant. I always walk out.
The term “storytelling” has almost become a kind of cliché recently because so many claim it to be the most essential ingredient of creating a successful campaign (whatever the media). What is your view on that?
I recently gave a talk on Advertising in the 70s as I’m the only male left who can remember them without being wanted for questioning by Operation Yewtree. (Operation Yewtree is a police investigation into sexual assault allegations, mainly relating to the abuse of children, brought against the late British DJ and television presenter Jimmy Savile and several others – ed.) I showed a bunch of CDP commercials from that period: Cinzano, Olympus, Hamlet, Heineken – perfect short-form storytelling with the product at the center. There’s a lot of cool sponsored content out there today with the brand attached but not integral. Cheating.
You have been UK Director of Creativity at Havas Worldwide London since 2005. What does your job entail? Do you need to spend a lot of time on planes to meet up with other CDs from the Havas Group?
I have the perfect job. I can write and run my own accounts but I don’t have to run the creative department. I was never very good at that. I pitch and still enjoy the adrenaline rush and hand-to-hand combat of pitting your wits against other agencies. For a lazy person I’m quite competitive.
What are some of Havas London’s current campaigns you’re particularly proud of?
Did I mention Credit Suisse Metamorphosis? I’ve just finished a spot for Findus Italy that features a young man coming out to his mother over dinner. The work generated an enormous amount of media coverage in that very Catholic country – overwhelmingly positive for our client. We also won a Gold at Cannes for Durex this year and our new ECD, Mark Fairbanks, has a lot of fantastic stuff ready to go. Watch out for Chivas Regal, Ella’s Kitchen and Vanish in particular.
You also co-founded Woollams, Moira, Gaskin, O’Malley, which for a time was the fastest-growing privately owned agency in the UK. What are your memories of that period in your life?
I should look back on the WMGO years with more fondness than I do because we created a lot of good stuff and hired a lot of good people. In retrospect, we were like one of those bands who enjoy too much success too soon and tear each other apart. We’ll re-form, as the Eagles once said, when hell freezes over.
What is your take on the impact that digital has had on the business? A creative recently told me that, where once the 60-second TV spot was the career pinnacle for an a creative, it’s now the big interactive digital campaign, the kind you need a whole case of film to present at the award shows because there are so many interrelated elements in it that need explaining.
I’m disappointed with digital. Mind you, I’m nearly old enough to remember the birth of commercial television in this country and that didn’t get any good for a couple of decades. My disappointment stems from the gap between the promise and the delivery. When you break down the results of many much-lauded digital campaigns, they are not very impressive. We confuse hits and “touch points” with real persuasion. On the rare occasions I’m asked to judge digital, I always call to mind that spoof with the Shetland pony at the kid’s party. It’s funny and cruel because it’s true. The real digital story is data capture. Something to value if you’re an advertiser, something to think about if you’re a consumer.
You’ve won loads of awards for your work, nationally and internationally. How do you view the awards circuit today? Which of the awards are still important/relevant to you? D&AD? Cannes?
I won my first Lion and my only Yellow Pencil within the first couple of years of working at Ogilvy. There were some more gongs at Publicis for Renault and Pirelli. When you become a creative director, your personal tally becomes less important. I don’t see my most awarded ads as my best, I see them as my luckiest. Lucky to get made, lucky to get noticed, even luckier to get rewarded. You have to keep the awards business (for that’s what it is) in perspective. There’s a “bread and circuses” aspect to shows like Cannes and D&AD. Give the creatives their shiny baubles and they won’t worry too much about who’s really running the business - and who’s really making the money. For some of us it’s more than a distraction: we’re a bit like the “prawns” in the film District 9, a brilliant highly developed species trapped on earth by our addiction to cat-food. If you haven’t seen the film, you should.
What did you think of Cannes this year?
Cannes is out of control. It started as a cool creative competition, it’s become a bloated trade fair. The news from Cannes this year is about Kanye West. Or Mariah Carey. Or Jared Leto and Ralph Fiennes. Kim Kardashian and Courtney Love. Or Rudimental at the Google party. I worry that no one really cares about who won Film and Press outside the people who did it and the network that needs the Gunn Report points to keep score.
I’ve heard you’re a great reader. Who are some of the authors you admire most – classic or contemporary? Have you ever tried your hand at writing fiction yourself, or can we look forward to books penned by you one day after you retire?
American movie director John Waters once said: “If you go back to somebody’s house and they don’t have any books, don’t fuck them.” I have lived by this honest maxim most of my life. There’s been the odd lapse, obviously, but I encourage everyone engaged in this business to live a creative life. Books, theatre, film, gigs, exhibitions – go to as many as you can, especially the ones you don’t think you’d like. You can’t keep going back to the creative well if you don’t top it up. I read fiction all the time but from a fairly limited roster of authors: Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Sebastian Faulks, Edward St. Aubyn, William Boyd, Michael Frayn, Dave Eggers, Philip Roth, John Updike, Jonathan Franzen. Shamefully, all white, English-speaking men. Of course I’m jealous of their talent but if I wrote a novel it would come in just under 30 seconds. I am that habituated.
How do you see the future of print advertising? Has it got one at all?
Print advertising has a future like vinyl has a future. Small but precious and assured.
Do you think this is a good time for students to go into advertising? And, if so, what advice would you give them?
My son has gone into advertising when I really wanted him to go down the pit. I wouldn’t bore students with my advice but I would ask them one question on their first day in the department: “Look around you. How many people over forty can you see?”