Trevor Beattie: Man Behaving Adly
He is one of the most influential men in media, his ad campaigns have been used to promote governments, Wonderbras and Playstation. As outspoken as ever, he sounds the death-knell for bad ads, Conservatives - and olives. Sholto Byrnes listens to the Trevor-lution
Monday 31 January 2005
In the corner of Trevor Beattie's office in Fitzrovia sits an old, grey typewriter that belonged to Salman Rushdie in his days as an advertising copywriter. Rumour has it that Rushdie used it not only to create the "naughty but nice" slogan, but also
Midnight's Children. But the chairman and creative director of TBWA is not impressed. "No, I haven't read the book," he says. "I don't read books." He asks if I remember when U2 invited Rushdie, then mostly in hiding because of the fatwa against him, on stage at Wembley as a gesture of solidarity. "There they were, all being so smug," he says. "They should have killed him on stage instead. That would have been much cooler."
In the corner of Trevor Beattie's office in Fitzrovia sits an old, grey typewriter that belonged to Salman Rushdie in his days as an advertising copywriter. Rumour has it that Rushdie used it not only to create the "naughty but nice" slogan, but also Midnight's Children. But the chairman and creative director of TBWA is not impressed. "No, I haven't read the book," he says. "I don't read books." He asks if I remember when U2 invited Rushdie, then mostly in hiding because of the fatwa against him, on stage at Wembley as a gesture of solidarity. "There they were, all being so smug," he says. "They should have killed him on stage instead. That would have been much cooler."
Beattie, who is best known for his work for French Connection ("FCUK") and Wonderbra ("Or are you just pleased to see me?"), has never been afraid to shock, a fact which was turned against him when a spate of stories appeared last year announcing that he had been "reappointed" to handle Labour's advertising campaign in the general election. "Beattie is most famous for the FCUK French Connection advertising campaign," wrote one commentator. "No advertisement has done as much as Beattie's squalid play on words to degrade our public space. If the Prime Minister had an ounce of moral sentiment, he'd never go near a creep like Beattie."
"The story ran for six days," says the object of this ire, "and it got more and more vicious, culminating in me being called the son of the devil or whatever. But it wasn't news, because it was based on a lie. We were appointed to the business four-and-a-half years ago. We weren't reappointed last year."
As the date of the general election has not yet been officially announced, Beattie insists that talk about the campaign is "hypothetical". That hasn't stopped another row blowing up over one of the designs TBWA has come up with for the consideration of Labour party members. Either side of the words "the day the Tory sums add up" are the heads of Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin superimposed on two flying pigs. As both men are Jewish, it has led to accusations of anti-Semitism.
Beattie, however, remains undeterred, believing that the publicity generated by a campaign is as important as the campaign itself.
Further clues as to the direction he will take can be gleaned from his response when asked how his task will differ from his previous campaign in 2001, which featured a picture of William Hague with Mrs Thatcher's hair. Hasn't the Iraq war damaged Labour's support? "It's an interesting question," he says, "but you also have to ask if opinion of the Conservatives has changed. And the answer there is 'no', which is even more interesting. It has not changed by one percentage point. Why's that, then? It's because they're the same beasts. Michael Howard?" He repeats the Tory's leader's name with increasing incredulity. "Michael Howard? Michael Howard? And the big step they've taken, the new blood they've brought in is... John Redwood. John Redwood to freshen up the party. Brilliant. Good move."
What about the loss of trust in Tony Blair? "I didn't realise it was a presidential election," he retorts. "I'm voting for Labour. And Labour voters have to ask where their hearts lie. My heart lies with Labour. I think when it comes to it, when you're in that polling booth, that's what happens. You vote for the party in whom you believe, or who is closest to your belief."
Beattie identifies one trait in voting intentions that he considers disturbing. "It's what I call the party of one," he says, "where voters have started wanting from politics what they get from everything else in their modern lives. If they have Sky, they want Sky News, Sky Sports 1, but not Sky Sports 3; the movie package but not Film 4. They want the same from a political party, and I think that's unfair. They say - I want a political party that agrees with me on Europe, on immigration, taxation, international affairs, the environment, and if you disagree with me on any of those five points I'm not voting for you. Well, grow up a bit. Because you need a party that appeals to the masses, not the one. And Labour is for the many, not the few."
I tell him that his politics sound instinctive, even tribal. "Yeah, I think that's a good way of putting it," he says. "It's in me, it's in my soul. I can't do anything about it. I am what I call a left-wing person. There is a way of seeing the world which - the only badge I can put on it - is Labour. The Lib Dems don't do it and the Tories don't do it. I know what they stand for in my soul, and I don't like them. I know that the left thing is the right thing to do."
Beattie's other tribal allegiance is to his native Birmingham. These days he lives in Canonbury, north London: "It's in my favourite street," he says. "I always used to go through it on my way from Dalston to the office and say to myself 'one day, I'll buy a house on this street'. Then I thought - what's the matter with you, man? You can buy a house there tomorrow - so I did." But when he came to London on a "creative scholarship" to work for the Allen, Brady & Marsh agency, he felt "a stranger in a strange land". "In terms of identity, I really got that by coming to London," he says. "I wrapped myself in Brummieness as a protection against this weird, posh, middle-class advertising world that I'd found myself in."
Back in Balsall Heath, Trevor grew up as one of eight children; the son of Jack Beattie, a car mechanic from Lisburn, County Antrim. "He came to Birmingham and he made it," says Beattie. "He didn't go back to Ireland that often." As a child, Beattie was around during the Birmingham pub bombings, but despite having a Northern Irish Catholic father, he didn't feel a personal connection to The Troubles. "I found all of that quite baffling," he says. "I see myself as very English, not half-Irish. Although I probably get a lot of my madness from Ireland." After attending Moseley Art School and Wolverhampton Polytechnic, where he studied graphic design and photography, Beattie won his scholarship to the agency, and within a year was working on the Weetabix commercial, which featured hard-nut breakfast biscuits marching to the words, "If you know what's good for you - OK". During his rapid ascent of the advertising ladder, his work included ads for Liquorice Allsorts, warning consumers that if they ate too many they "might turn into Bertie", and for cat food - "Cats Like Felix, Like Felix".
It was the Wonderbra ads in 1994 that made his name and brought him controversy. This was not just because claims were made that the first poster, featuring Eva Herzigova and the words "Hello Boys", was sexist; even that roadside hoardings bearing the ad could cause car crashes. Beattie was involved in the campaign, and wrote the words for the second poster, but not the first. But by the point that the campaign was being talked about, the author of "Hello Boys" had left TBWA, and because he was happy to talk to the press about the campaign, Beattie's name became inextricably linked to both slogans. Some accused him of stealing the credit.
"I got a lot of stick years ago," he admits. "People might have thought I was a flash in the pan. I used to talk to jour- Turn to page 6
Continued from page 5
nalists when you weren't supposed to. That was considered vulgar. But a lot of the people who slagged me off haven't got jobs any more, which is quite interesting. I think people just put up with me now."
The "posh, middle-class world" that he first encountered in London still irritates him. Radio 4, for instance. "There are certain influences that I refuse to accept," he says, "and Radio 4 happens to be one of them." Has he ever tried listening to the Today programme? "It bloody annoys me. It's middle classed, it's middle aged, it thinks it's funkier than it is, and I'm not going to fall for it. I have listened to it. I'm not one of those who say, 'I've never heard it but I think it's rubbish'. Although I am like that with olives, by the way," he adds, in a slightly surreal diversion. "I've never eaten an olive in my life and I hate them. I know that they'll taste disgusting."
We return to Radio 4. " The Archers is another one. I have heard it and I don't like what it represents." So it's an informed prejudice? "It's more a prejudice about the people who consume it than the thing itself, whoever they bloody well are. And they know who they are."
Are there any equivalents on television? " Newsnight Review," he replies. "I love Newsnight, then they go and bloody spoil it on a Friday night with Newsnight Review." Anyone in particular he doesn't like? "Yeah, Germaine Greer, and that Northern Ireland bloke who really thinks he's clever and important." He means Tom Paulin, I venture. "Who else is on there? Oh, that bloke who presents it, Mark Lawson. He's terrible. It's the same people. It's Radio 4 on BBC2."
Does he seem himself as a bit of class warrior? "Yeah, yeah. It seems old-fashioned to talk about class and socialism, but I like the words. Socialism versus capitalism. They're old-fashioned words, but they're very powerful. And socialism means a hell of a lot to me."
The quality of Beattie's work is also very important to him. Money and desperation to keep the business, he suggests, are what matters more to his competitors. "A client will now say to an agency, 'I want you to do it for £20,000 less'," he says. "We can't, but down the road they will. Their work won't be better, but it will be cheaper. I should be happy that other agencies produce mediocre work, but I'm not, because it brings down the standard of our industry, which I love."
The result, he says, is that "the quality of advertising has never been lower". I ask him to elaborate. "It'll come on in a moment," he gestures towards the television in another corner of his office, "what now passes for advertising. It's pretty shoddy." How long has this been going on for? "You sound like a doctor," he says, leaning back in his chair as though in a surgery. "Well, I first noticed the symptoms about two years ago, and it's been getting worse. I'd like to know if it's terminal. Last year was particularly shabby."
Which ads in particular does he dislike? "There's a commercial with a designer talking about buying a Ford whatever, and how it changed his life. It's appalling. There's a commercial about drinking Flora - drinking butter. Which is disgusting. And the way it's done is appalling. There's a commercial for indigestion fluid with some woman traffic cop dancing and singing 'What a Feeling'. That's a new low. Then there's one for Strongbow cider which is set - I kid you not - on the tongue of a blue whale.
"Most of the ads on TV now are not good enough, and no one seems to care. No one's ranting about the fact that everyone's ads suck. Because they're all taking the shilling for doing it; compromising for fear that they'll lose the business."
Beattie has no desire to return to the "good old days". "There's a certain amount of that in advertising - oh, the halcyon years, when we'd come in, have a genius idea, go to lunch till Thursday, the client would agree and we'd shoot it," he says. "Those days are gone." But he laments what he sees as the current lack of pride, both on the part of the agencies and the clients.
He likes clients who will challenge him and push the envelope with him. For French Connection, he has taken the step of producing an ad that doesn't mention the logo at all. "With all the palaver around FCUK," he says, "we thought that those who knew us, knew us. They knew our tone of voice, they knew our font, they knew the look and attitude of our models and our ads." These people, he says, are "the coool, with three os. The coool with three os who see our ad will tell the cool with two os who our advertising is for. And the cool with two os will tell the uncool what it's about. And the uncool will tell their parents. That's how it will go. In the same way that you find out that there's a great club somewhere. The coool don't shout. That was the philosophy behind it. I don't think it's daring; it's about understanding your audience."
Beattie describes this as creating the same intimacy possessed by people who know each other so well that they greet each other on the phone by just saying: "Hi, it's me." The idea came from Prince's abandonment of his name and its replacement with a symbol a few years ago. "He was saying that you don't use the name of the people you're closest too," he says. "You could spend an entire weekend with someone and not say their name - until the second you upset her and she says, 'Trevor'. Then you know you're in trouble." Where do his ideas come from? "If I knew that..." he begins. Does he ever have them in the middle of the night? "Oh yes," he says, "but they're always rubbish. I've proved this because I have notepads in my bedroom, so I'm always writing things down." The problem, he says, is that "your brain lulls you into believing that the thing you wrote last night was genius, because it wants you to go to sleep. It says, 'Oh Trev, you've had this brilliant idea. Write it down and I'll let you go to sleep'. So you write it down, and sleep content in the creation of genius. You wake up - it's rubbish."
Beattie only personally writes copy for two or three ads at a time. "It's because, when I'm working on a project, I see the world through the grid of that project. So if I'm currently working on Gossard, I see women's underwear. Wherever I go I see things through that. It's an interesting filter." Can he switch this off at weekends? "No, I can't, because it's the way I live. But I put it on mute. Unless it's women's underwear projects, of course."
With his corkscrew hair and workaholic energy, what will 45-year-old Beattie, who has famously never taken a holiday, be doing in 20 years' time? "I won't be writing adverts in 10 years, never mind 20," he says, "I'll be in my garden, pruning my roses. I don't want to become an old fart who says 'it was better in my day'. I see people doing that, and it's just crap."
Although he won't talk about his private life, Beattie tells me that he does want to settle down. "I do want a family and I love what John Lennon did," he says. "He switched off and he became a father. He looked after his son, Sean, and he baked bread for five years. He devoted as much time to being a father and being a husband as he had to being a rebel and a Beatle. I really admire that. I'm surrounded by divorced blokes, but I won't be that." When the time comes, he says: "I'll do it properly, in the same way that I dedicate myself to my job."
Before then, Beattie has the campaign for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which aims to allow ordinary passengers to reach "the final frontier". On the first flight will be William Shatner, Gene Simmons of Kiss, and, of course, Beattie, who called up to pledge the £100,000 for a seat as soon as he heard of the plan. Why was he so keen to go? "Oh, why would you not do it?" he asks. Then he smiles. "Being the first Brummie in space," he jokes, "obviously that is the key for me."
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