This man of mischief is in a different class

Proud of his blue-collar roots, Dave Trott has made some of Britain's most popular ads. He talks philosophy to Ian Burrell
Click to follow
The Independent Online

'Most of it's fake, this is fake, it's all fake..." says Dave Trott, gesturing to a painting on the wall, part of what must be one of the finest modern art collections you'll find in a British living room.

Among the best-known names in creative advertising, Trott is responsible for some of the most memorable endlines from a golden era of television commercials. He kicked off his career with Pepsi's "Lipsmackin' thirst-quenchin'..." campaign, introduced pub singers Chas & Dave to the nation in the Courage Bitter ads "Gertcha", and persuaded rock singer Ian Dury (the subject of an imminent film biopic) to voiceover "'ello Tosh, gotta Toshiba?" for an ad promoting televisions.

Trott's portfolio is unashamedly "blue collar", reflecting his Cockney roots, and brash, a by-product of an art school education in New York City, where he had his first job in adland. "My work is intelligent working class, they don't mind being sold something but they like a good joke and a singalong. It's like The Sun. You don't have to take it deadly seriously, it's not The Guardian," he says. "Have a bit of fun, but be intelligent, don't be patronising and crass. That's what I learned in New York – blue collar doesn't have to be stupid."

Or lacking in style either. The "fakes" in Trott's north London home are remarkable pieces of art in their own right. A favourite postcard image of a boat at sea has been copied by an artist friend on a grand scale, varnished and cracked to give the impression of an old master. A Velazquez-inspired still life features a couple of items bought from a market. "That's a Picasso," he says, gesturing at a sculpture made from clay, rubbed with graphite, to imitate the rusty steel of the original. There is a bowl made from a vinyl LP and an African-looking pot crafted from car tyres.

Such concoctions represent a favourite Trott maxim: one plus one equals three, or the whole should be greater than the sum of the parts. Just as East End plus Brooklyn equals Trott. He quotes a lot of philosophy for an adman, referencing the lateral thinker Edward de Bono and the medieval intellectual William of Ockham and asking: "Are you familiar with gestalt, how your mind works?"

And now he has written down his own creed in a book, Creative Mischief, in which he details what he has learned in a 40-year career. More than just a handbook for advertising copywriters, it is a source of inspiration for anyone who wants to stand apart from the crowd, which should be everyone in these times of media convergence.

In the book we get pearls of wisdom such as "Predatory Thinking", which explains the need to outwit the opposition. So, two explorers are in the jungle, cornered by a tiger, and one takes out his running shoes. The other explorer tells him he will never outrun a tiger. "I just have to outrun you," comes the reply. The mischief is exemplified by an anecdote from Trott's early days at the legendary British ad agency BMP, where he learned that one of the senior executives had been so horrified by The Exorcist ("the most evil book he'd ever read"), that he threw it off the end of Brighton pier into the sea. Trott then went to a book shop and bought another copy, ran it under the tap, and left it dripping in the executive's drawer for him to find.

He tells of how he lied his way aboard a steamer to travel to South America and how he encouraged his young children to come into his agency and swear in front of his colleagues, to teach them that "nothing is wrong, just inappropriate".

But the central message is the importance of not being restrained by establishment rules. He is exasperated by students who ask him what they are "allowed" to do and fail to see the need to do something different to stand out. "Everyone's frightened to be different. That's my whole point, you don't have to be better, you have to be different."

Trott pulls five coins from his pocket and holds them up, one after the other. "Which one do you remember?" he asks, knowing the answer will be the 50p coin among the four £1 pieces. "They're all worth double what that's worth, but that's the one that's different, it's not rocket science is it?"

It's why Trott, as a recent judge at the prestigious D&AD advertising and design awards, preferred the "smart little ideas" to the "big budget productions" that he says have become the new establishment in British advertising.

"English people are basically embarrassed to be in advertising so consequently they get much more into the craft of what they're doing," he says. "They get much more interested in film and photography than in the creativity of selling." The result, he says, is million-pound blockbuster ads which fail to mention the name of the brand they're advertising. That doesn't impress someone whose "Ariston ... and on ... and on" washing machine ads were so effective they were mimicked in a speech by Margaret Thatcher.

As a teenager in the late Sixties, Trott felt like a failure when he was rejected by seven art colleges. On the advice of his New York-based sister he enrolled in a Brooklyn college, where he was an outsider, a sharp-looking London mod living in Bedford-Stuyvesant and studying with badly-dressed American art students (Trott digs out a black and white of his teenage self in suit and tie, cigarette dangling like Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless).

But at New York ad agency Carl Ally he learned a fresh "punch the consumer in the nose" approach to advertising, which was a world away from the Mad Men culture of Madison Avenue in the Sixties.

He took that attitude back to London where at Boase Massimi Pollitt (BMP), he worked for the great John Webster (creator of the Smash Martians and The Sugar Puffs Honey Monster) and built one of Britain's most successful agencies. Now running Chick Smith Trott (CST), he has built a large following for his posts on Dave's Blog, which display the same distinctive thinking that appears in Creative Mischief.

Adland can buy Trott's book and heed his advice, or it can ignore it. Either way he wins. "If everybody is doing that dozy, big budget advertising that's fine," he says. "It's easy for me to stand out when people are doing that dull, lazy stuff."

Creative Mischief by Dave Trott is published by Loaf Marketing, £7.99

Comments