MINISTERS WITHOUT PORTFOLIO BRITISH CREATIVE STARS CHRIS PALMER AND MARK DENTON HAVE BEEN CUT LOOSE FROM THE HOT LONDON AGENCY THEY HELPED FOUND. IS IT POSSIBLE THE U.K.'S LOSS IS AMERICA'S GAIN?

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WINSTON CHURCHILL IS AN UNLIKELY role model for an adman, although he was a consummate self-publicist. As Mark Denton points out, however, it was quite something to run a country, win a war and still find time to paint and

build walls. But it was his talent for designing his own leisure wear-the military-style romper suits so at odds with his omnipresent cigar-that endeared him to Denton. The young art director also wears his own creations, made up by a gentleman's tailor. While he has no political ambitions, he dislikes the thought of spending all his time on one kind of professional activity.

It may yet prove fortuitous, therefore, that Denton has recently found himself unexpectedly free to diversify, following his mysterious sacking in mid-February along with copywriter 'Just Do It' Simons Palmer-style, where Nike women's print thrives as well. The client won the U.K. Marketing Society's 1993 Advertiser of the Year award partner Chris Palmer "for neglect of duty" from Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow Johnson. This is the agency they helped to found six years ago and, as joint creative directors, were responsible for it having developed one of the hottest creative reputations in London.

The expulsion was as much of a surprise to them as to their many colleagues and admirers in the business. (The whole matter is currently in the hands of lawyers and accountants, who are trying to come up with an acceptable buyout figure for the two.) Tony Kaye, for example, who directed their award-winning Nike and Greenpeace commercials, professed himself "stunned." He said their dedication to the agency was epitomized when he found Palmer working in the office at four in the afternoon on Christmas Day.

The mystery of the creative coup is yet to be explained. Insiders suggest it may well turn out to have its source in corporate troubles outside Denton and Palmer's control, rather than the improbable creative neglect. Meanwhile, there has been a rapid fallout of the agency's other talented creatives in Denton and Palmer's wake. The caliber of the young team they built is indicated by the fact that those who have left were snapped up by top agencies. One of them, art director Tiger Savage, received three job offers in one day before opting for Bartle Bogle Hegarty. Denton and Palmer themselves are still freewheeling-not for lack of offers, one suspects, but because they've decided to stop and ponder what they want to do next.

Unlike contemporaries whose entire careers have been spent in advertising, both came to the business late. Palmer was previously a construction worker and a motorbike messenger. Now 38, he had a peripatetic army childhood and studied illustration at art school, which he attended as a mature student, paying his way by doing caricatures. Afterwards he continued as a messenger, until one day in 1985 when, along with his packages, he dropped off his book at Bartle Bogle Hegarty. He was promptly taken on as a replacement for John Hegarty's writer, who was on maternity leave.

Denton, 37, was an even less likely recruit into the ephemeral world of advertising than his partner. Coming from a long line of scrap metal dealers, he was destined to follow suit until, flicking through the Eagle Book of Careers at the age of 10, the term "commercial artist" caught his eye. That is what he became, graduating from pasteup artist to visualizer (one who draws roughs and layouts) at Leo Burnett/London, moving up to art director in 1981. The two teamed up when Denton joined BBH in early 1986; both had been told by various friends that they simply must meet, as they were so like each other, apart from piddling physical details like a shaved head and a luxuriant ponytail. They next moved on to Lowe Howard-Spink together in '87 and promptly won a Cannes Gold for a Heineken spot and worked on the Vauxhall Cavalier car launch campaign. A year later, in 1988, they ended up as co-creative directors of their own shop.

The unorthodox backgrounds may help to explain Palmer and Denton's total lack of snobbishness about the work they'll take on. "Nothing's too embarrassing for us," says Denton, with scarcely a hint of mockery. "We'll pay the same attention to a tiny trade ad as to a huge television campaign. What matters to us is the opportunity to explore untapped areas and the chance to do something different. Sometimes ads tell you more about the agency than the product, but our work at SPDCJ could never be accused of that."

Nor could it be accused of elitism or the self-referential knowingness of some British advertising. A clue to their success could be their insistence that "we try to remember that we're making ads for Mr. and Mrs. Average Normal," Denton explains. "That means our ads can be mold-breaking or traditional, but they should crack a problem, not reconstruct or deconstruct it."

Their attitude produces work that is distinguished by its comic accessibility. Influences range from the sparring comperes of '50s variety shows (whence they got the smarmy Stan and Don characters of their Tandon computer campaign) to nostalgia about the heroes of Victorian England, celebrated in their Marston's Pedigree beer commercials. And, lest these ads come off as somewhat smug, they're quick to dispel suggestions that they might be sending up their subjects: "Entertainment, not satire, is what we are after," Palmer says. "We know so few people in advertising, and we came to it so late that we have to rely on gut feeling."

Their recent difficulties have, ironically, served to show how respected they are in the industry. They received a standing ovation at the recent Creative Circle Awards in London, where they carried off seven Silvers, two Golds and the President's gong. One of the Golds was won, appropriately enough, for a trade campaign for The Sun, Britain's biggest-selling daily tabloid. The two are unashamed Sun readers, their only regular reading apart from Ray Gun, the American rock magazine, and they insist they empathize with, rather than patronize, fellow readers.

The widespread popularity of their work does not mean it lacks sophistication. A series of three British Telecom commercials, for example, combines absorbing narrative with wit and sincere sentiment. In them, the telephone becomes a device that reunites friends and families and enables young love to flourish.

Their Greenpeace Antarctica spot, shot pro bono by Tony Kaye, which used the Monopoly board as a means of showing the world's last unspoiled resources being traded between politicians and tycoons, displays the same acute sense of what is appropriate for the client. "Saving the planet is different from selling beans," Denton observes, "but it still comes down to ideas that solve problems."

Occasionally, Palmer and Denton's work verges on bad taste. The commercial they wrote and directed for the television lottery game Telemillion features the voluptuous Pandora Peaks and comedian Chubby Brown, hugely popular on Britain's club circuit but too crude and politically incorrect to be allowed to appear on mainstream television. The script appropriately makes a direct appeal to crass greed, while the brash, music hall glamour of the set is positively kitsch.

By contrast, their rap "DJ" commercial for Wrangler, for example, shuns predictable cowboys-around-the-campfire or 1950s settings to associate the brand with something closer to the hearts and minds of today's young consumers. This is the spot that gave directors Vaughan & Anthea their first big break in commercials (see story on page 26). "It was," says Vaughan, "like working with your best friends. You could argue tooth and nail without them getting upset because basically we were four people with similar ideas who each knew what we were good at."

"Kick It," for Nike, a Cannes Gold winner, is the duo's best-known and most widely rewarded commercial. In it, they wanted to show "the passion and romance" of soccer, keenly felt by Palmer, who never misses a home match played by Tottenham Hotspur, his London team. Kaye's direction captures this emotion, as it conveys the poetry of the game as played by British stars and by kids on the street in Ghana.

The director says he "never had any doubts that it was going to be good. When you work with these people you know they'll defend to the hilt what you've agreed to." He adds, "They might be into directing, but they won't bring you in, then want to do it themselves."

The directing aspirations to which Kaye refers have found expression in their co-direction, which they pass off as the work of Bert Sprote, a pseudonym borrowed from the villain of an Audrey Hepburn movie they've long since forgotten. Sprote's work includes the Marston's commercials, some British Telecom work and Telemillion. Of particular note are a series of spots for Marston's Low C low-calorie beer that feature obese people with hideously fat faces (thanks to prosthetic makeup) who curiously defend their choice of Low C beer because, while it's lower in calories, it's not lower in alcohol. One particularly amazing spot features actors parodying Japanese people with the kind of buck-toothed reckless abandon not seen since World War II U.S. propaganda films. The Sprote oeuvre is impressive enough to have frustrated a D&AD official who wanted the mysterious director to join the association, but failed to track down his production company (which is Redwing).

But directing does not represent the isolated pinnacle of Denton and Palmer's creative ambitions. While they "definitely hope to do more over the next few months," they're also working on a short film project and ideas for television programs. There's also talk of a book that develops their bizarre collaborations with Malcolm Venville, rising star of British advertising photography. In one of these projects, which ran in a recent issue of the British graphic design magazine XYZ, Venville took a series of photos of Denton masquerading as his fictional ancestors from various periods of English history. Within a month of their dismissal the pair claim to "have passed through misery, elation and boredom to a state where we're more enthusiastic and fired up than ever," Palmer says. Sadly, not more affluent, however. Having poured their profits back into the business, they inhabit the same modest apartments as when they started, unsullied by planned refurbishments. Unencumbered by real estate, they feel free to move anywhere and find the States an attractive prospect, if offered the right project. London has been a great training ground for their craft, they say, but they'd clearly relish a chance to exercise it in the U.S.

The diversity of this duo's talents is reflected in their selection of mentors. It includes Mad illustrator Jack Davis, Frank Zappa, various boxing champs and, of course, Churchill. On reflection, Denton's admiration for the old war-horse is not so surprising. Famous for changing direction in midstream and moving from party to party, he nevertheless did everything with passion and conviction. Given Palmer and Denton's tendency to do the same, they seem certain to survive this local skirmish and emerge victorious on a more international level.

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