Real people advertising

In the early 1970s, I’d just come back from four years in New York, so I didn’t know anything about UK advertising.

John Webster said he was going to meet “the English Howard Zieff” and asked would I like to come.

Howard Zieff was the biggest thing in US commercials, he directed the VW “Funeral” ad, so of course I wanted to see the English version of this legend.

When John and I got to the bar, there was no-one there except a young bloke, early thirties with long hair and jeans.

John said: “Dave, this is Alan Parker, the best director in London.”

I wasn’t expecting that – Howard Zieff, like all the other New York heavies, was in his fifties, they all had grey hair and wore suits and ties.

Alan said: “Ello, ‘ow you doing?” I thought, blimey he’s a cockney.

I thought this can’t be the English Howard Zieff – but I was wrong, he was better than that.

When I left London, four years earlier, ads were pretentious, everyone was posh.

But in Alan’s work, the people weren’t ashamed of being working class.

Alan was first, other than David Bailey or Michael Caine, to make it OK to be cockney.

That was just the first of the rules he broke.

He didn’t cast his actors by sitting in London going through Spotlight, he went (gasp) up north, to Leeds, and cast local actors, people never seen in London.

Once he did a commercial for me about trawlermen and navvies in a pub.

He didn’t go to shops and buy clothes for them, he went to the docks and worksites and bought the clothes off real trawlermen and real navvies.

REAL people with REAL accents in REAL clothes, no-one else had even thought of it.

He worked hard but the crews respected him, not like some of the other directors.

On one shoot, I was talking to one of the sparks while a trendy director was lying on his back, looking through a viewfinder, smoking a joint.

The sparks said: “We’ll get loads of overtime on this job, look at this ****. The wife likes it when I work with Parker, he knows what he’s doing, finished by 5.30 and home for tea.”

When I was a junior, Al gave me a great piece of advice.

I was sitting on the set looking at the script, trying to decide which way to go.

He came over and said: “Thinking? That’s a bad idea. We’ve got 16 crew getting paid to do nothing while you think. If you’ve got two ways to go, just pick one – it doesn’t matter which – and go with it. Pretty soon you’ll find out if it’s right or not, and you can either carry on or go the other route. But you won’t have wasted time sitting round thinking.”

Although Al took work seriously, he didn’t take himself seriously.

He said a French arts channel was interviewing him and asked what his father did.

Al said he was a painter. They said: “Ah, what style did he paint in?”

Al said: “Well, just the one colour really.” They said: “Ah, so he was a modernist?”

Al said: “No, he painted the railings for British Rail.”

I loved Al’s irreverence, he took the work seriously but not the business.

He and Ron Collins were doing some freelance and didn’t want their agency to know.

They needed a consultancy name, they wanted it to sound New York, ethnic and creative.

So they got a Jewish cookbook and picked it from there.

And in the index at the back of D&AD, you can still see their ads listed under: SCHNITZEL, KARTOFFEL, AND KRUPNICK.

In the last interview Al did, Dave Dye asked him what he thought of advertising today.

He said: “When I see a Banksy on a wall, I think: ‘Advertising used to be clever like that.’”

For me, that’s a poignant reminder of the truth about where we, the business, is today.

Al said the best lesson he ever had was what Len Weinreich told him when he was a junior.

“Never forget who it is you’re talking to, and write as you speak.

Don’t preach, don’t show off, and never be boring.”

For advertising in those days, it was revolutionary – strangely enough, it still is.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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