‘The task wasn’t to be creative, it was to be correct. Get the advertising right and only then can you set about making it creative’.
A few southerners. But mainly northerners. No desks. A 1950’s canteen with comedy menu. A kid who’d been in the circus. Two lecturers and a Jedi Master. A Sega Megadrive. London luminaries. A book of briefs. ———— Right, off you go then, Adland beckons. This was day one of our HND advertising course at Doncaster (or more affectionately, Donny) College, South Yorkshire. The year was 1991. The lecturers were Dave Bullers and Steve Dixon. More engineering brick than red brick with the only dreaming spire atop the church next door (our campus was aptly called Church View – sadly now demolished).
Still ringing in my ears from a couple of years earlier, my classmate David Brazier had boasted how well his brother was doing in London as a ‘printer’. He even drove a BMW. Get him I thought, this was big news for Dudley. Turned out the printer, (Paul Brazier) actually worked at WCRS as an Art Director and would go on to chair the UK’s largest agency, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.
Anyway, back to Donny as me and my fellow intake stood in an underwhelming studio within a completely unremarkable town. Nothing whatsoever to write home about – so I didn’t. Instead I went home every weekend for the first few weeks because I thought I’d made a terrible mistake. How wrong I was though. Because what an influence this place would turn out to be over Jon and I over for the rest of our working lives. The welcome speech couldn’t have been clearer. We stood and listened through necessity not choice because the studio furniture hadn’t turned up in time for the start of term. ‘This isn’t a graphic design course. If you want to do graphic design, leave now.’ No grey areas there then. The sole aim of the course was to get us jobs as creatives in leading advertising agencies.
The qualification itself was purely incidental. A hand scrawled note on the door was unequivocal : ‘Adders only beyond this point. No graphics wank’. One lad had even been in the circus. So we set about working on a book of briefs. Properly written, propositionally fortified briefs for everything from a home bread making machine to a vacuum cleaner and a sports walkman. To start with the task wasn’t to be creative, it was to be correct. Get the advertising right and only then can you set about making it creative. A couple of weeks passed before Steve and Dave started to seed in other lecturers to help us. Practising copywriters, visualisers and art directors – all with London agency backgrounds. More studio culture than lecture theatre, it’s fair to say you could work hard or just piss about – and many more chose the latter than the former. The canteen menu bore bus depot style sticklebrix lettering which was wide open to naughty kid defacement – frequently exposing the very fragile territory between ‘corned beef hash’ and ‘corned beef gash’ – much to Doreen and Marians’ abject disgust.
You may already be scoffing but for all its obscurity, it soon became clear that there were some pretty formidable overlords at work behind the scenes at Donny. John Driver, the course moderator had successfully run the Design for Communication course at Manchester Polytechnic that had spawned several agency luminaries. Soon enough, these glittering alumni would be paraded as visiting lecturers to our course with two of the most notable being Nick Gill and Tony Davidson (currently of BBH and Wieden & Kennedy respectively). Jon and I teamed up early on in the course thanks to the matchmaking prowess of Jocelyn Fiske – another member of our esteemed visiting lecturer team and also a bloody good writer. I had a penchant for writing headlines but was advised to ‘lighten up’ and crucially, think more visually. Jon had just created a much feted campaign for the Sony Sports Walkman and regularly turned up late following another big night on the piss and was said to need some ‘order’. I was known as ‘Duds’ because I hailed from Dudley. Jon was from Kimberworth in Rotherham. Oddly though, he wouldn’t be known as Kim. And so Duds and Jonny were born. The teaching style combined light touch with brutal honesty. In the first year, we’d choose a brief, settle on a strategy, get said strategy signed off by Steve & Dave (so the resulting advertising was propositionally sound) and only then would we set to work on creating a four ad’ campaign. Punctuating the hallowed book of briefs, London based creatives also set live projects and then jumped on the train from King’s Cross up to our humble college in order to assess our output. Visiting lecturer days were nervy days. The likes of Ken Grimshaw & John Donnelly from JWT, Bill Gallagher at Saatchi’s and Ian Sizer & Alun Howell from Ogilvy & Mather were all lined up to see books. One of the second year group by the name of Paul Okey even secured an appointment with David Abbott himself but succeeded in getting the date and time wrong. Not ones to let such a huge gaffe pass, someone pinned the famed IPA event ad’ penned by Tim Riley on a wall featuring a God like character addressing the assembled, wretched masses with the headline: ‘David Abbott speaks’. Beneath someone had daubed….’but not to Paul’. Brilliant.
The culmination of our first year was to prepare a wall mounted assessment which would grace the main thoroughfare corridor. Mac’ visuals were in their infancy so everything was magic marker visualised with ticked in type. Six to eight campaigns were put before the meticulous, steely eyed scrutiny of John Driver (affectionately known as Yoda – more for his wisdom that his stature) plus Steve Dixon (a highly analytical Paddy McGuinness sound-a-like) and Dave Bullers, our plain speaking Course Leader from Hull and the pen behind several Yorkie TV ad’s. Unlike today’s pastoral environment where ‘everyone wins with no losers’, our assessment grades were pinned to the wall for all to see, envy and deride. Fortunately for us that year, we both got a distinction. Get us.
So year one was done and dusted and there should’ve been a whole Summer of pissing about to look forward to. Not for us though. We decided to look for an agency placement and ended up at Cogent honing our skills on such lovely stuff as Milton Keynes and Jewson under the elegant stewardship of Jane Warwick and the brilliant Mike Fox.
Donny year two kicked off and the pressure ratcheted up. Not only did we have to produce brilliant campaigns but also carefully choose the products/services we wanted to advertise too. This was deliberately designed to get people identifying potential USP’s / unexplored territory within brands in order to create laterally rigorous ideas. Steve and Dave harried people regularly to show their book around London and to get advice from leading creatives. We’d heard the anecdotes and Soho folklore of glove puppets being used as props to tear young hopefuls’ work apart and students told to simply ‘burn their book’ and come back with completely new work from scratch. Not the stuff of the feint hearted.
Book crit’s would take the form of finding a phone box and repeatedly calling the PA to the glittering creatives we were stalking to arrange an appointment. We had a real thing for Abbott Mead Vickers (remember ‘the printer’ I mentioned earlier?) and so frequently tried to reach Paul Brazier who’s patience and guidance would come to help us enormously over the ensuing months (and decades). As well as criticism (and it has to be said, some praise), we were also invited to do work placements at Saatchi’s, O&M and Faulds in Edinburgh. On placement during evenings in our £5 a night hotel, we played Masters Golf on an old Sega MegaDrive because we couldn’t afford the pub. Dinner was a £1 slice of less than fresh pizza from those grotty counters you see all over London. We’d arrive early at the agency and work very late. It was relentless but we loved it….but we were skint having spent far more than the £35 a week placement allowance.
Towards the end of our course, we were hand picked from several colleges to take a placement at the most creative agency in London at that time – BMP DDB Needham. We didn’t do it because of ever worsening money woes and yep, we still regret it but hey ho, that’s that. We both finished top of our course by a mile but that didn’t matter. Everything we had been taught and the fantastic agency people we used for guidance far outweighed any grade or certificate. During our course we were lucky enough to be flanked by some really talented people and peers. In the year above, none more so than Mick Craven and Gary Delaporte (currently Deputy Creative Directors of McCann Manchester) who provided wise counsel throughout along with Tom Richards (currently Creative Director of Havas Lynx).
At last year’s Roses awards, an impromptu re-union took place between us all and it was fantastic that Donny guys were still doing it – just wish I’d taken a group shot of Donny lads all together. Our business has changed immeasurably since the class of ’91 but the way we were tutored remains eerily relevant today. The discipline, the extremely high standards, the work. Always the work. After Donny, a few of us decamped to Wolverhampton University and the final year of their degree course. But it wasn’t Donny by any stretch of the imagination and it’s true to say that we owe everything to that little building and it’s room bereft of furniture but crammed with talent.
In every respect, Donny gave us the belief in ourselves to work hard and to do good stuff. Years after graduating, we’re still devout followers of this unique credo consecrated at Church View. We always will be. And yes, I still laugh at the obscene cafe menu today.