Print is a true torture test for an idea.
Jeremy Craigen joined legendary London agency BMP DDB (later DDB and, as of this year, adam&eveDDB) as a copywriter 22 years ago. He was promoted to DDB UK’s board in 1996, and in 2005 became executive creative director. He has won countless awards on a number of accounts such as Budweiser, Sony, American Airlines, Harvey Nichols, Optrex, and in 2004 he added a Press Grand Prix at Cannes for Volkswagen. For seven years, Craigen was the agency’s sole executive creative director, and during this time DDB UK twice topped the Gunn Report as the most awarded agency in the world. Following the recent merger with London shop Adam&Eve, Jeremy has become the lead creative for DDB’s Team Blue, the division that runs the global VW business. Michael Weinzettl chatted to one of the top creative directors in the world on a sunny Friday afternoon in September, while construction work – made necessary by the merger – to convert the venerable agency building in Bishop Bridge Road was going on all around.
L.A.: Jeremy Craigen, what was your first job in advertising?
Jeremy Craigen: That was at Ted Bates, in 1984.
L.A.: That came right after university?
Jeremy Craigen: I didn’t actually go to university. What I did was a course, a very general type of thing, a CAM course as it was called – Communication, Advertising, Marketing. I don’t even know if this is still around. It was a one-year course but what it gave you was an overview of all the different career opportunities. I knew that it was of no use to me qualifications-wise, but it made me feel like, “Okay, now I want to go into advertising, the creative side of that.” I had always loved advertising as a child. The whole way through my life, I have always enjoyed the ads rather than the programs. And then I did a course through D&AD, their workshop course, where I met my later art director, Jeremy Carr, and we teamed up and got ourselves a job at Ted Bates.
L.A.: Where do you come from originally?
Jeremy Craigen: I was born in England, in Kent, have lived here all my life. I was brought up in the countryside near Oxford. Originally, I wanted to go into acting, did a few auditions, and realized the truth very early on that, maybe, I wasn’t that good.
L.A.: You started out as a copywriter. Were you someone who was very much into literature when you were growing up?
Jeremy Craigen: I was more into entertainment and the entertaining side of advertising than the writing side of it. I’ve never been a great copywriter, I have always been more of an ideas person. I’ve liked the use of words but that’s very much a dying trend … well, maybe not a dying trend; I think it’s making a kind of resurgence now. But the reason I went into advertising came when I once spent a day in an advertising agency, through the friend of a friend of a friend’s father, and I just loved that; you didn’t feel like you were going to work. It’s a business that doesn’t feel like a job, and you’re very, very lucky to be in it.
L.A.: Do you remember any of the ads that impressed you most when you were a child?
Jeremy Craigen: Strangely enough, they were mostly John Webster’s ads. You know, like the Honeymonster or the Cresta Bear. It was very humbling to end up in the agency where he was down the corridor, still being as competitive as ever, until the day that he retired. So those are the ones I liked. Of course I also loved seeing CDP’s ads for Parker Pens and Benson & Hedges, seeing that stuff in the cinema before the film started. Seeing these amazing films by Ridley Scott and Alan Parker, that was fantastic.
L.A.: Advertising has changed a lot since then, hasn’t it?
Jeremy Craigen: Massively, of course. I’m not sure sometimes it’s a change for the better. It’s cyclical and there is always this thing about, oh, we’ve got to be digital and we’ve got to be this, we’ve got to be that ... But when you look at the most amazing work done over the years, and the most amazing people, one thing becomes clear: Bill Bernbach. If he were around, and if he were running a top agency now, there’s no doubt about it … all quotes of his are as relevant today as they’ve always been. You just need a good idea. Now you’ve got more places to show them off. Where the ad business has really changed is that it’s become much, much faster. And in the old days clients would go to an agency and say, you are the experts, you tell me what to do, and maybe it was researched and such and such. Now, it’s more like, let’s see if we can all do it together. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. I mean, to me, working on Volkswagen, that works because there is an absolute trust and mutual respect. If you don’t know each other, and there is a lack of trust, the work is never going to be great.
L.A.: You recently changed your position after many years of being the sole person responsible for DDB London’s creative output. How did that come about?
Jeremy Craigen: It changed around the end of last year, actually, because it’s what I’ve been doing for the last two years. Internationally, the creative side of Volkswagen was getting a bit messy. It was about whether it was going to be a centralized business or whether it should be left to every individual country. And the then marketing director, Head of Marketing out of Germany, kind of gave a bit of a kick in the ass to DDB and said, you’d better sort yourselves out. So they asked me to go and help on some of the overseas creative projects. And we dragged it back. I’ve got a very good business partner in Berlin, and I’m spending a lot of time in Berlin. And I then realized that I couldn’t really do two jobs, and I spent a long time trying to hire someone to do that job. And I couldn’t find anybody and the longer it went, the deeper and deeper I got into it. So they said, we want you to do it. And I thought, after coming up to ten years of being ECD at London, maybe a change was in order. Then again, I wasn’t really sure about it. But after I sat through a few process meetings on this and that – money, budgets … – I thought, you know, it would be really nice to just go back to the work. And, in a way, it was the right decision to make. I wasn’t aware that the merger was going to happen, and I don’t know in what position I would have been if I had said, no, I still want to be ECD of London. I like the new challenges and I’ve got some exciting projects. I’m going to Russia in a few weeks and doing a workshop with the clients out there. I’ve been dealing with a project in China but I need to go out there because VW is a really interesting brand there. So there is quite a lot of new stuff. Somebody said to me the other day, wow, just working on Volkswagen? But it’s so many different cars to so many different people, to so many different cultures now, and it’s just trying to get this consistency for the brand across the world.
L.A.: What is some of the recent work for VW that you’re most proud of?
Jeremy Craigen: Well, I think this Beetle campaign we did recently. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the smoothest of launches because they had a few problems with the manufacturer of the car, so it didn’t have that big fanfare, you know, like “Here is the launch of the New Beetle.” I’m really proud of that campaign; there are 16 print executions (see pages 24-25 in this issue) and we’ve also done two commercials. It’s really about creating a great database for the different countries to buy in or not, not about saying, you’re going to run this. We’re providing enough volume for people to choose from. You’re not going to run all 16 but the three or four executions most relevant to your country. So it becomes a “pick-and-mix” rather than a “you must run this.” And a lot has to be said for the central board in Wolfsburg that allow the countries to do that. They don’t dictate so much, they do listen to what each country has to say. Because, for instance, Volkswagen is a different brand in the UK to what it is in Germany. The Golf is like the Ford of Germany, whereas the Golf here in the UK is still seen very much as an affluent car that people look up to. So our work is about trying to find common ground without dumbing it all down until the feeling is, as we say, vanilla.
L.A.: Can you tell us a bit about the Harvey Nichols account, which came to DDB London in 2000 from Mother?
Jeremy Craigen: Yes, sure. I didn’t work on it for about the first five years or so. We had Justin Tindall and Adam Tucker – they’re now at Leo Burnett’s, a very good and successful team – and then there was Mark Reddy, who looked after it before he went to BBH. It had had a very good heritage at DDB even before I took it on. It’s a wonderful relationship we have with HN; it’s two Sale campaigns a year, and then there used to be a brand campaign. Now we’re working on a new campaign for them, for a beauty bazaar opening up in Liverpool, which is basically just three floors of beauty, so you can have manicures, pedicures, massages and stuff. And we’ve got this fantastic campaign where I saw the shots today.
L.A.: Recently, their advertising has been somewhat controversial ...
Jeremy Craigen: They don’t go out to court controversy. They’ve just got a miniscule budget and they’ve got to make it work. They don’t have the budget to do brand ads. The Sale ads have to do a little bit more. For example the “Walk of Shame” commercial, which is basically just an Xmas message to their customers, just to say Happy Christmas. But we wanted to give something more, so we said something about the brand.
L.A.: And what a great spot it was! Even more controversial was this year’s Summer Sale campaign with the people unable to “contain their excitement” ...
Jeremy Craigen: The Summer Sale campaign did cause a lot of controversy, and lots of people might say it’s against-brand or it is not. I think the people who can say if it’s against-brand are at Harvey Nichols, not someone who’s working at an advertising agency in Sweden. So I think we should leave that up to the people at Harvey Nichols. For me, there was an awful lot of publicity about that. Yes, some of it was negative publicity. But, sometimes, bad publicity can be good publicity. At any rate, HN opened up with the best figures for their first day of the Sale ever. And that was their Summer Sale, which is very different to a Winter Sale. Everybody knows there’s a Winter Sale. Everybody knows it’s normally the day after Christmas Day, or, if not, then two days after. Summer Sales come and go, and the advertising has to take that into account. Personally, I thought it was very funny. I thought again, this is a brand that doesn’t take itself too seriously. We don’t go out to offend some of the Harvey Nichols shoppers. But, you know, what’s done is done and we move on. And I thought it looked wonderful on your cover! It’s a very iconic front cover! But that whole issue of Archive was a very good one for DDB London, We had a lot of work in there.
L.A.: How did DDB’s merger with Adam&Eve come about?
Jeremy Craigen: Adam&Eve have been a very successful business. There had been management issues over the last couple of years or so. And there are a number of things you can do: you can go out and try to create a new management team, which can take a bit of time or you go, “They’re successful, they’re a core unit, they’ve got some new interesting accounts.” We’ve got more and more European accounts and global accounts here, less local. Adam&Eve have got, I think, 98 per cent local. And it felt like the right thing to do. I mean, it’s still early days. As you can see, we’re still moving people around the building and the building adjustment, and everybody’s been away for their summer vacation. So in the time between now and Christmas we will see, but already they, we, have won a pitch. What’s interesting for me is that I’ve got to step back and let them get on with it; it’s their baby. Of course I want the best for this agency. I’ve given it 22 years of my life. I don’t want, as I step back and do the global role that I’m doing now, to watch this be a failure. And I’m absolutely convinced it won’t be – the exact opposite, in fact. The creativity that’s in the heritage of this building of BMP and DDB and the dynamism of Adam&Eve will make for a great combination.
L.A.: Will there be a conflict between DDB’s HN account and Adam&Eve’s John Lewis?
Jeremy Craigen: It seems to be okay. I think there were a few questions at the beginning. I had to step back from Harvey Nichols now that I have to concentrate on Volkswagen but I think if it’s the team that I think it is, who’ve won many awards … But, you know, there are some very, very good people around. I’ve always felt the joy of working on Harvey Nichols was: “What don’t you pitch?” It always seems to be the creative department showing off. Over the years we changed the strategy slightly. There was a lot to do with fighting, fighting, fighting. It did approach the stage where you would be thinking, okay, now it’s getting repetitive.
L.A.: Is HN’s only competitor Harrods?
Jeremy Craigen: Well, Selfridges, too, really. Harrods doesn’t really advertise, Selfridges does a bit. I think most people, given a choice, would want to work for Harvey Nichols.
L.A.: How do you handle digital at this agency? Because some agencies go to a digital shop, others try to integrate digital.
Jeremy Craigen: It’s a never-ending conundrum, I guess. Here, it’s just a question of how independent they want to be. I think the plan is to have the best of both worlds, which is have them working as a separate entity, but we tap into each other’s specialism when needed. When I ran a department, I always believed in specialists who collaborate – rather than having generalists. There are two camps, obviously, and I’m in that one. Generalists are people who are good at a lot of things but with specialists who collaborate they will be brilliant at one thing and know their weaknesses, and they tap into someone who is brilliant at that and create something together. And it goes back – again – to John Webster. He couldn’t write a press ad. But he was a brilliant TV person. And does that make him a bad creative? No, the guy was a genius. So as far as digital is concerned, I do think we need to be digitally savvy these days, but we are anyway. We all have mobile phones, we have computers, we watch digital TV. People get so, Oh my God, I need to know how to design a website! and I go, Oh, come on! I know what a good idea is and I know that if somebody comes up to me with a good digital idea, I can probably tell that it’s a good one. Where the difference between them and more traditional creatives lies is that they know what makes people stick to a website a little bit better than, you know, this old-fashioned idea of, “Oh, I know what we’ll do, we’ll run a viral, and everyone’s going to come to our website.” So, again, with the new regime coming in here, I think things will change. I know for certain, from talking to Ben and James from Adam&Eve, that they’re very much about, “Everybody has a voice and that anybody can contribute to an idea.” I mean I’m not saying that’s necessarily great. I think you have to manage it because, otherwise, it can be anarchic if it’s just a free-for-all for the top people, but it’s not going to be crazy like that but more like, “Oh, I saw that. That’s really nice but what if you did something like that?” rather than, “Oh, I want my name on it.” Also, in this day and age, people are learning that the time of the two-person creative team, the two people who walk up to the stage to collect an award, has pretty much passed by. Most people’s goal nowadays is “Integrated,” Titanium Lion, and all that, and that will tend to be a group effort and involve group skills. And that’s great. I remember doing certain things last year on Volkswagen and I was having conversations like I had never had before. It wasn’t, “So which director are you going to use?” but, “How are we going to get this stunt together and how are we going to seed it?” etc. etc. etc., which was great to be part of.
L.A.: What about print advertising? How much longer do you think it will be around? Is its end nigh?
Jeremy Craigen: No, what I do see is a change. Print has become more tactical. I can say that I see it with Volkswagen in the UK. I can say that I see it with Harvey Nichols, going back to the fact that they haven’t cut their sale campaigns but they cut their brand campaigns. But of course your print ads have to work harder. And I’m very proud actually of the Value campaign that we’ve done recently for Volkswagen, which is just a very witty way of saying their cars are almost as cheap to buy as bread and stuff. So they are still asking for a little bit of intelligence from the reader but they are really, really hardworking at the same time. So I don’t think it will go away. I think it will become like TV, a bit more specialist. Because it’s a very, very personal medium, I think. If you’re picking up The Week or The Economist (and I’m not pretending I read the Economist, by the way) and you come across an ad, there is something where you almost have a one-to-one dialogue with it. I think that’s still very important. And still a great way for people to show off their set of skills, art-direction, and writing. And, also, it’s a true torture test for an idea, print is, and certainly outdoor is too. I was more of a print person when I started and I think it’s easier to go from that into film ideas, TV ideas, whatever, because you take an idea and then add the genius of a director or cinematographer. Whereas if you’ve come from the other direction, learnt all that craft, the question is if you know how to distill the idea. You may end up with a brilliant commercial but you might go, “I don’t really know what the idea is.” It’s still bloody good and it still makes you want to buy the product. When I look at some of my best TV work that I’ve done over the years, I always felt they were almost like sixty-second press ads that would have a fifty-second visual and a headline at the end that made sense of it all but you enjoy it in a different way.
L.A.: Can you give an example?
Jeremy Craigen: Well, “Protection,” which I did with Jonathan Glazer back in ‘97, ‘98, for Polo, which is all about, have you ever noticed how protected you feel when you make yourself small? It was a black-and-white thing about how, you know, when you’re in riots, you protect yourself. The brief was, “Here’s a small car, do a big ad.” At the time, everybody had been doing cheeky young housewives driving around town … Ours was about these people who, after their children have left home, they’ve got these big Volvo estates, so they get rid of them but they still want that feeling of safety, of being protected. So it was, like, give this big-feel ad to a small car. But you see the structure of it was very much image, image, image, image, image … line, packshot (laughs). Maybe I’m doing myself a disservice here, but it was not intentional.
L.A.: What about the print work you did? What are some favorites?
Jeremy Craigen: One of my favorite press ads I did was for Budweiser. It was called “Labels,” which was, like, the eleven labels in the history of the Budweiser brand, with the one for Prohibition missing. It was funny … there was another creative on that brief and he said, “It’s impossible, you can’t do that.” What I liked about it was to actually get eleven logos into one ad (laughs), even though they didn’t ask for it. I like some of the Volkswagen ads I did over the years. I liked “Extra Miles,” which won at Cannes. I did an Optrex campaign, eyedrops … Well, you know, I’ve done a few that I still like.
L.A.: And you’ve won lots of awards for them. What do you think of advertising awards?
Jeremy Craigen: I always think you should not chase awards. They should come to you. You should absolutely try to write stuff that you love as a person, and that other people love. You’ve got to get the consumer to love it because of the research here: it ain’t gonna leave the building if they don’t. And if it wins awards, then great. If you produce work just to win awards, and you don’t really like it and you don’t win awards, then you have nothing there. I’ve won a few awards but not as many as I hoped I would win. But it doesn’t make me like the work any less five, ten, fifteen years later. And the awards will come. And if they don’t, well, sometime you might be ahead of yourself, the work might be ahead of the times. Then people go, “God, this should have won that award last year,” or so.
L.A.: How do you get inspiration for your work?
Jeremy Craigen: I don’t know. I never know how to answer that question. Having a good bunch of people around you that you respect and have fun with, that’s really inspiration enough – and clients that respect and enjoy what you do. I would love to say, every day I go for a walk and I go to the Tate Modern and I do this and that, which inspires me to come back and create stuff. But it doesn’t. I think this is a great business to be in and that’s inspiring enough, really. Of course competition inspires. But I don’t think I’ve ever come back from Cannes inspired by the things I saw. I’ve only come back from Cannes very ill (laughs).
L.A.: But pop culture, movies, entertain-ment still inspire you?
Jeremy Craigen: Oh, totally. And I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve always been more kind of mainstream in the films I’ve liked or the books I’ve read. It’s very easy to get lost in a world that is not the consumers’ out there. Which is not to say I would watch a Michael Bay movie (laughs). It doesn’t have to get that bad. But I’ll take the Ridley Scotts and that. I’m just not interested in art house cinema. But, definitely, it’s always nice to be compared to the programs you’re interrupting. And, nowadays, being shared on the internet. Being sent back something that you created. It’s gone right around the world and you get it from someone who doesn’t even know that you have anything to do with it. That’s just amazing. To go onto YouTube and see comments on things like “Walk of Shame.”
L.A.: Those reactions were amazing.
Jeremy Craigen: Yes, that was really quite a lot for something that cost £20,000 to put together, which included girls from the agency and stuff like that, and shooting just one day and down the road … That shows the power of a great idea. And you’re getting comments from the States and Australia, so it is amazing!
L.A.: What is the advice you would give young people starting off in advertising?
Jeremy Craigen: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes while you’re young and can still afford to.
L.A.: Did you?
Jeremy Craigen: Well, yeah, we’ve all done our share of ads that were bad, that didn’t turn out. I remember saying to one junior team, who really took my advice and then the next year won a Gold Lion for us, “You at the moment are a really, really good creative team but you don’t scare me. I’ve got lots of senior, better-paid people that do your job. I want you to come to me with work where I go, ‘Wow, that’s amazing. It’s the luxury of being paid little.’” And, I told them, don’t forget what you’re doing because it’s very mature and sensible but, at your age, what you don’t want to be is safe. And I think if there’s this fear of failure, then you will fail. Whereas when you go, “Here is something completely mad, it could be like this …” then use the talent around you, senior talent, great producers, directors to make sure you get a first-class production, make sure you go along that way. The great thing about this agency is that it’s never had a culture of fear. The boss who hired me, Tony Cox, he created a brilliant environment in which people just thrived and he hired well, and he let us just get on with it. You kind of became your own boss quickly.
L.A.: Do you think young people in advertising tend to play it safer nowadays?
Jeremy Craigen: No, but I think there is a slight problem now. Creatives are being trained very, very well; there are some good colleges, but they’re going much broader. So we’re coming back to the generalists problems. Are you going to get these brilliant writers and art directors coming in that used to? I don’t think you are. The people who come in nowadays are savvy, business-savvy which is good but … well, we have got a couple of really good young teams, and one of them did “Try to contain your excitement.” And that’s the work I look for!