Paul Arden: Telling the whole truth of a business maligned

In advertising he was a maverick creative director. Now Paul Arden is bringing his unique communication skills to books, says Ian Burrell
Click to follow

A dvertising and spirituality are two words rarely grouped in the same sentence but Paul Arden, one of British adland's most remarkable creative minds, has attempted to use the techniques of a lifetime in the business to explain the small matter of the meaning of life – in a pocket-sized volume of 125 pages.

Arden, the executive creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi during the agency's halcyon era, has become exasperated by the way the ad business is almost constantly derided in British society, a frustration that peaked when he was watching Mastermind recently and observed presenter John Humphrys deriding a contestant who revealed that he worked in adland.

"Advertising gets such a bashing from the world. At parties you are always asked, 'Aren't you just selling people things they don't want?'" says Arden, who devised such campaigns as "The Car in Front is a Toyota", the fine ripped purple cloth of the Silk Cut ads and The Independent's own classic line "It is – Are You?"

But advertising's role is not that of the seller but that of an advocate, argues Arden. "You are a lawyer in court putting the case for your client. If you are a lawyer defending somebody then you put the best possible case for the client within the rules of the court. There are rules in advertising, and those rules are self-imposed by the client companies because they don't want their products to be seen as dishonest."

Humphrys might snort at this but Arden believes that every one of us engages in advertising. "We are all advertising, all of the time. If you want to sell your car, what do you do? You clean and polish it and make it the best you can. Some people bake bread when they are trying to sell their house because the smell adds a friendly feeling. Even the priest, with all his or her fervour, is advertising God. Everybody is selling. It's part of trade, barter, dealing and negotiating – it's a part of life."

So when an advert next riles you, don't shoot the messenger. "If anyone is to be accused, it's the manufacturer," says Arden, who also believes that the state should take responsibility for irresponsible ads. "Cigarette advertising should have been banned by government but they wouldn't because it brought in too much money. It's the government that's corrupt," he says. "We all in our heart know that casinos are wrong. They are a way of robbing poor people of their money. Why does the government allow them? Because they make a lot of money. It's not the people advertising the casinos or the lottery but the governments that allow them that are creating the cancer."

Arden, one of the great mavericks of advertising, has made the transition to the world of publishing by using the smart communication skills he honed in adland and translating them into book format.

He readily admits "I can't write" but, four years after publication, his first book It's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want to Be, (which, among other things, highlights the virtues of being sacked) was still shifting 50,000 copies in the first six months of this year. His follow-up, Whatever You Think, Think the Opposite, is selling 2,500 a month and his latest, God Explained in a Taxi Ride, is into its third print run already.

Typically Arden presents a photograph of the post 9/11 New York skyline with, sketched into the place where the Twin Towers used to be, a giant mosque. "If instead of showing strength by spending billions on weapons of war, the West was to build a mosque on Ground Zero, it would be a remarkable symbol of our understanding of the Islamic point of view. It would be a major step towards world peace," says the text in his new book.

Sitting at the kitchen table of the 17th-century former charcoal burner's cottage in West Sussex where he lives, he admits that the mosque "will never happen" but he has left us with a memorable image.

He has not been in good health and says, on page 84: "Until very recently, I had blind faith in a God who gave order to all things. I took a lot of comfort from that. Recently, I had Darwin dumped on me with such clarity that it has shaken my belief to its foundations. It's very disquieting not to believe anything. God help me." The spread is illustrated with a human figure, flattened by a copy of The Origin of the Species.

A line on Buddhism is accompanied by a picture of a man in a beret and the words: "You die. You're buried and fertilize the plants. The plants are eaten by snails. Man eats the snails. Now you are a Frenchman. Voilà!"

"I can't write prose but I can think," he says of his book style. "Because of my training from 40 years in advertising, I knew I had to make a simple point in a few words and to use an illustration as a tool of communication. I realised that long books often don't tell you more than a short book – they have written a lot of words about a small subject because it makes them sound learned and authoritative but it just means they're long-winded."

Arden's skill is to "reduce to the essence" and "present it in a way that's easy to digest". As a result, he accepts that some will see his slim volume as "a bit of fluff", but he says such critics have "tunnel vision" and that "the tunnel goes right up their arse".

Arden, 67, has rubbed a few people up the wrong way in his time. He once gave a conference address in which an actor talked gibberish for three-quarters of an hour, while he stood nearby pointing to meaningless charts. Some might have been angry at this apparent time-wasting but Arden argues that "they will never forget it".

Even now he is angered by the "gutless" young creatives who are scared of going against the immediate wishes of their clients. "If you just do what the client wants it will be dull, predictable and something he's seen before," says Arden. "For young people going into their careers with that attitude, there's no chance of them ever being any good."

But all is not lost for the church, which Arden says simply needs a few good ideas to better advertise itself. "You don't want hippy music but you do want good speakers. If you could get someone from the local Hell's Angels chapter, talking about what they do, or the gay antique dealer talking about good manners... or just someone with an exquisite voice." Good to his word, he has already brought an exhibition on Hell's Angels to the photographic gallery he has set up with his wife, Toni, in sleepy Petworth, West Sussex.

His latest book includes not only contributions from another great creative maverick, Dave Trott, but a tribute from the executive creative director of Maurice and Charles's current agency M&C Saatchi. "Paul Arden* is a brand. (*This product may contain nuts)," writes Graham Fink. "He stands for the unusual, the different, the oblique. I have never met anyone like him." Hear, hear!

God Explained in a Taxi Ride is published by Penguin, priced at £7.99