Paul Silburn On The Spot

Silburn has two Johns to thank for two gold Lions at Cannes: He was copywriter on 2000’s “Bear” spot for John West salmon, which showed a bear fighting a fisherman, and cd on 2002’s “No Nonsense” campaign for John Smith’s, which featured comedian Peter Kay. The London native, 44, spent time at shops there including Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Lowe Howard-Spink, Leo Burnett and Leith London before settling at TBWA, where he has been for four years and is now deputy cd. He is this year’s D&AD Awards jury foreman for Television & Cinema Advertising. The awards will be given out on Wednesday.

Q. Why is TBWA the right place for you?

A. Its attitude is absolutely right. A few years ago, before I joined, just around the corner from us was the Saatchi & Saatchi office. They were going through construction, and the whole front of the building was covered by those builders’ boards they put up. Somebody around here had the idea of fly-posting over that, “You’ll get a better reception round the corner at TBWA.” That’s the kind of thing I would expect from a little kind of hot shop.

Do you think Mother will be successful here?

I hope so. If the American industry feels it needs a shot in the arm, Mother might be the agency to do that. They’ve won some big accounts [in the U.K.], and I detect at the moment they’re struggling to maintain the freshness in their creative work while handling this bigger business. I hope they’ll be able to stick to their principles.

What would you be doing if you weren’t in advertising?

Music is a big passion of mine. I love going to live concerts and discovering new bands. I’ve got very eclectic taste. I did some deejaying as well, but it didn’t lead anywhere. That’s when I decided to get a proper job. If you can call advertising proper.

What inspired you to get into advertising?

It probably started with a conversation with someone in a bar who made it sound incredibly glamorous and well paid and exciting. Then for the first number of years in the business I realized he was lying.

What was your first ad?

There’s so many early on I’d rather forget. My first award was in the Creative Circle Awards for the best ad that never appeared. So it never even ran, but it was a radio spot for Hamlet cigars. For years they had a very famous line, which is, “Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet.” It was basically things going wrong for people, but they would console themselves by lighting up a Hamlet cigar. The radio ad was a piano tuner trying to tune a piano and the strings continuously breaking. The theme music for Hamlet was Bach’s Air on aG String. It was always played when the guy was lighting up his cigar. [In this ad] it was played on an out-of-tune piano.

What work are you the most proud of?

I’m torn between John West and John Smith’s. One is a one-off ad, which was for a can of fish—hardly glamorous—and the reaction and response to the ad was quite astonishing. We’re now on to our sort of second series with the John Smith’s ads.

What about the John West ad resonated?

I think people just loved the fact that they were fooled by it. It just looked so natural and outrageous.

And John Smith’s?

The honesty of the main character, the humor. He says the kind of things that we only dare to think and not say.

What’s the last ad that that made you think, “I wish I’d done that”?

PlayStation, “Mountain” [by TBWA London and creative director Trevor Beattie]. It’s just awesome, as you say in the States. I think the scale of it, the fact that it looks like there’s a whole mountain of people is a great, simple little idea. Everyone wants to be king of the mountain, if only for a few seconds.

What is the most overrated campaign?

I don’t know if there’s anything which is overrated. I think there might be a tendency sometimes—this is going back to the D&AD judges in some categories—to award work they’re seeing for the first time because it appears fresh to them, which, if it had been around for six months or so, they may not award so highly.

What’s the dumbest business decision you ever made?

It’s not a dumb business decision, but when I was very junior I went to an awards do, and I saw a lady I used to go and show my portfolio to. And I went up and said hi, and then I said, “Oh, congratulations.” And she said, “On what?” And I said, “Oh, the baby,” and pointed to her stomach. And she said, “Oh, I’m not pregnant.” That was embarrassing.

Name one person you’re dying to work with?

[Directing team] Traktor, because every script I’ve ever sent them they’ve passed on. It’s a funny little joke now that I have. Every time I send a script I go, well, they won’t want to do it. Better not tell them it’s me.

What was your most recent creative coup?

I’m really proud of the Adidas [London Marathon] ad. It’s a double-page press ad containing nearly 8,000 words. The words make up the image of a runner. The idea was, it’s a really long race, how about a really long ad, during which we get to feel the emotion and spirits and thoughts of the thousands of runners taking part? It took three of us a week and a half to write it. It was probably easier to run the marathon.

What’s your biggest fear?

Running out of ideas.