Paul Arden On the Spot

It takes a certain panache to subtitle your book The World’s Bestselling Book, but British creative Arden, 63, has plenty of it. (In lieu of a speech, he once hired a string quartet to play as a model ran a slide show.) Arden made his name as a creative director on British Airways, Silk Cut and Anchor Butter, among others, for 17 years at Saatchi & Saatchi in London. He left in 1994 to become a commercial director (his latest spot is a U.K. ad for Fiat) and launch production company Arden Sutherland-Dodd. It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be, quick tips on how to get ahead in advertising—or any industry—was published by Phaidon in June.

Interviewed by Mae Anderson

Q: What advice would you give someone just starting out?

A: I believe everyone is good at something. Try to find what your quality is. Two [other] pieces of advice: One, you should learn to make tea. It will never happen in America because it’s not politically correct, but the youngsters in England should learn to make tea and make it willingly, and be of service to your boss. That way they’ll like you, and they’ll want to promote you. The other thing is, get something good on your CV. It doesn’t matter if you’re working in the basement, it doesn’t have to be meaningful—get the good company on your CV. But the important thing is if you’re lucky enough to find something you are good at. There’s so many young people that are really clever, and they never quite find their thing.

How do you get past a creative block?

I do exactly the opposite of what I should do—so if something’s going to smell nice, you say, “Let’s make it smell bad and see what happens.” The trick is to learn to play. You have to muck about. You have to have fun and be silly. That leads you to something fresh. For me it’s about having a bit of fun and not always being too serious.

How did you come up with the book title?

The book has two headlines, which is a crime in advertising terms. Of course, it’s not going to become the world’s best-selling book, but we can at least have a go at it. It’s not going to outsell the Bible—or Valley of the Dolls.

What do you think of the state of the ad industry?

Exactly the same as it’s always been. There was a period in the ’60s which was different, but we’ve always been nostalgic … we’ve always said it’s not as good as it used to be. There are good ads coming out, but not many of them. It always will be a struggle to stand out, because to stand out you’ve got to be remarkable, and it’s not easy. It can’t happen all the time. You can’t suddenly have all the fantastic ideas and everything fresh—it wouldn’t be fresh then. Also, there are so many constraints today, particularly in America: the fact that clients have become so sophisticated, so knowledgeable, and the fact that clients demand to edit themselves.

What are the best ad agencies out there today?

Mother. In London, Mother, full stop. They’re prepared to fire a client if necessary in order to maintain their standards.

What is the most disappointing creative trend going on now?

The fashion to be silly for its own sake has become fashionable among clients in England. You’ve got serious clients like Nestlé trying to be silly, and it doesn’t work, it’s stupid.

Why do you think the Silk Cut campaign became so well known?

It cut advertising down to an absolute minimum. It dramatizes the brand name. It was pretty outrageous at the time. People had to think about it. It wasn’t obvious what it was about. It was scary at the time—we didn’t know whether we were right, you see. Not a clue. Just the kind of gut thing when you say, “Hey, this is all right.”

Why did you decide to switch from being a creative director to a director?

I reached that watershed, at 50. In the company you had younger people coming up, becoming managing directors. I did not want to become a figurehead. I wanted to be involved. Secondly, the name Saatchi & Saatchi is glamorous, but it wasn’t my name, and I felt a bit ashamed that I was living off of somebody else’s name. I was always trying to get the agency further and further, when I reached the point where I couldn’t get to where Doyle Dane had been in the ’60s. That’s what I was trying to do, but I couldn’t get it there.

Is it true you once got out of giving a speech by hiring a quartet to play instead?

I hadn’t prepared, I’d been naughty, and I was scared witless. I thought, “I’ll rent a girl, and I’ll put her in a sequined dress,” and then I rented a quartet in bow ties. Then I sat backstage. I did something which I thought at least people would remember.

What is the biggest difference between American and British advertising?

Money. The more money you have, the more clients you have, the more layers there are, the more research, the more safety, because … there’s so much at stake. Everything has to be checked out. It’s very difficult to beat the system. Whereas in a small country, clients don’t claim to be sophisticated. They will listen to an agency. You can get that trust in America, and you sometimes do, but it’s more difficult. I’ll tell you, the extraordinary thing is that America, with all those restraints and the difficulties you have … you still produce the best advertising, because in the end your advertising is really quite hard-sell. There’s just something about it.