Best of Show

This year, the Clio Awards salute Tony Kaye for lifetime achievement. Kaye, a commercial director noted for his provocative and visually arresting TV work, including ads for Volvo, Guinness and the Museum of Jewish Heritage, discusses his celebrated craft with Adweek. Kaye has also contributed his talents to Hollywood, directing the controversial American History X.

We also asked James Lowther, the Clio chairman of the print and poster jury, to comment on the finer points of print advertising and the challenges a judge faces.

“I don’t want to fight anymore,” says Tony Kaye, the 48-year- old British-born director considered one of the most innovative—and contentious—filmmakers working in the ad industry today.

Honored by the Clios this week with the organization’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, Kaye now claims, “I want to make friends. I want to be liked.” Yet Sturm und Drang has followed Kaye, a painter, photographer, filmmaker and musician, throughout his 19-year career.

He’s famous for his public rows with agencies and clients over the direction of his work. After clashing with New Line Cinema over the editing of his first feature film, American History X, he not only blasted the studio in the press, he took out ads in industry trade papers. He even tried to distance himself from the film by changing his director’s credit to Humpty Dumpty. When that failed, he launched a lawsuit.

Kaye admits his reputation for being difficult only intensified after American History X. “People were really scared of me,” he says, adding he’s now taking himself out of the post-production process in order to keep things running smoothly. “I’ll shoot my stuff,” he says, but beyond that “don’t involve me. I can’t be a member of the committee.”

It’s been a learning process, says Kaye, whose greatest struggle as a commercial artist has been balancing art and commerce. “I really found my loves in the underground. I was very anti anything that was mainstream, other than The Beatles,” he says. “To find myself in the hotbed of advertising wasn’t easy,” he concedes, “but doing TV commercials has been a key to my independence as an artist.” Kaye says advertising lets him fund various projects, including a documentary on abortion.

“I’ve also craved the discipline of commercials—you have to get it finished by March 12, it has to be this way, this one and that one has to be pleased—those things are good for me,” he notes.

The proof, says Andrew Jaffe, executive director of the Clio Awards, is his work. “Kaye’s style has evoked images that are at times disturbing but often unforgettable, placing him in a class by himself,” says Jaffe.

But the last word, as always, belongs to Kaye, who refuses to rest on his laurels. “Good is the enemy of great,” says advertising’s rebel with a cause.

Clio print and poster jury chairman James Lowther is also chairman of M&C Saatchi, London. He began his career as a copywriter at Hobson Bates, then Wasey Campbell Ewald. His stint at Saatchi & Saatchi, London, began in 1977 and yielded notable campaigns for Castlemaine XXX, Schweppes, the National Lottery and Le Crueset. In 1995, he left to become a founder and joint creative director of M&C Saatchi, where he has recently been working on the Foster Beer account.

Adweek:How was the overall level of creativity this year? Any noticeable trends?

Lowther: I think the level was better than last year. I judged last year as well, and we’ve ended up giving about the same amount of golds and silvers but more bronzes.

There’s a particular trend that’s good in one way and regrettable in another. You have a photograph—a visual analogy of what you’re trying to say—and the name of the product. In some, I think the copywriter was out of the room when the ads were done.

An excellent example is a Kookaï ad. [It features] photographs of men with scars over their hearts saying that Kookaï’s sexy ladies’ stuff gives men heart attacks.

It cuts through very quickly because you don’t have to read a lot of copy or headlines. And it probably comes through well in awards shows because you are looking at a huge bulk of work quickly. Which, I suppose, is an analogy of what happens in real life. [But] if it goes too far, it can become a cliché, a formula.

Adweek: Is there a shortage of copy-driven ads?

lowther: What tends to happen is that you’ve got visual analogies, or you’ve got long copy and almost nothing else. I’d quite like to see more ads where the copy and the art direction work together in a more holistic way. There’s been less of that in the last few years. The trend is continuing and probably getting even stronger.

Adweek: Which do you think deserves more recognition: innovation or execution?

Lowther: I’ve always thought the Clios are all about ideas. We’re not there to reward execution. Having said that, a good idea well executed is better than a good idea poorly executed. But if there is a choice between an average idea brilliantly executed, or a brilliant idea averagely executed, I’d go for the idea every time. What we’ve done is reward ideas. When the hairs go up on the back of your neck, [the work] is usually slightly dangerous and brave.

Adweek: Which region of the world do you believe is experiencing a creative growth spurt?

Lowther: South America—Brazil and Argentina—have been doing some good work. They tend to take the more visual ideas and do it well.

Adweek: Chairman of DDB Worldwide Keith Reinhard recently called for awards-show judges not to reward tasteless advertising. Do you think there’s a glut of tastelessness right now?

Lowther: It’s difficult when you start talking about taste. You can characterize something as poor taste, but it can also be a strong, powerful piece of communication. On the other hand, gratuitous ads that use sex for no reason are simply not good advertising. Probably a couple of breasts got through [during judging]. But there were a lot more [in ads that got] lost along the way. It gets rather boring.

Some people could say the Kookaï ad was tasteless. It shows a man having had a heart attack. I don’t think it is tasteless. This was relevant to the product and quite witty. On the other hand, I have found some of the Benetton ads very tasteless. They have nothing whatever to do with flogging jerseys. That’s where I judge it—if it’s relevant and not nastily exploitative.