Lunch With Tim Delaney

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It should be noted that Tim Delaney can be a pleasant guy. True, he's known for wickedly clever headlines and for sometimes using his acerbic wit to publicly skewer certain ex-clients, plus all account planners, plus various other empty suits of the advertising world. But on this particular day, even though Delaney had been kept waiting nearly half an hour by a clueless Yank interviewer who got lost in the maze of London's Soho district, he remained cheerful and upbeat. He was in a mood to celebrate - he'd just made a deal to sell his renowned and staunchly independent agency, Leagas Delaney, to a Canadian holding company known as Envoy Communications - and to reflect. And he did so with a bottle of white wine and a plate of risotto, amid the hubbub of a trendy Damien Hirst-designed restaurant called Quo Vadis.

Berger: Why did you make a deal at this time?

Delaney: We're now in five cities - London, San Francisco, Paris, Rome, and Hamburg - and so we're quite extended for an agency of our size. I mean, when you think about starting one agency, that's pretty scary; to start five, you have to be almost reckless. But we've sort of done that, primarily because Adidas and other clients were asking us, `Can you be here, can you be there?' So off we went, opening offices. But once you've got these places, you need to have the capital backup. So we went through all the various options - from venture capital injection to selling 25 percent of us to one of the biggies. And then along came this small communications group in Canada that was looking to add an ad agency to its mix.

Berger: How do you know you can trust them?

Delaney: Well, for one thing, they're not big - there's only a couple of people running Envoy. We met with them a few times and they seemed quite nice. Of course, you're always a bit wary of people who are nice. And you don't really know whether someone's good until things go bad. But I also liked the fact that they're not in our business. And so they're not interested in running our business. It's not like making a deal with Leo Burnett, where you just kind of give the whole agency over to somebody else. Within this construct, I can still run the agency. Which is good, because I have no intention of leaving advertising. I don't believe in retirement or any of that shit. I feel that if you can write, keep doing it until you drop.

Berger: How do you keep writing while also running a multinational agency? So many people say you can't run an agency and keep doing the work - one or the other has to go.

Delaney: Well, they're wrong. Or they're lazy. I set aside a certain amount of time where I just write. And I'll still deal with things that come up and take important phone calls. I'm fairly relaxed about writing, so I just do it. I'm not afraid of it. I'm not thinking, Oh my God, I'll never crack this. I learned this when I was young. I didn't have much formal training, but early in my career someone told me that all you have to do when you get blocked is keep writing any old rubbish. And it'll come to you, eventually. But most people don't do that. They sit there wringing their hands, or they get up and walk away.

Berger: Without formal training, how did you make your way in advertising?

Delaney: I left school when I was 15. And I looked in the paper and saw ads for two jobs - a bellhop at a hotel and mailroom boy at an ad agency. I wanted to do the bellhop thing but my mom told me to go for the advertising job, so I did. But I kept getting fired - I was fired from five agencies by the time I was 18. I was always making jokes and snide remarks. Finally, a copywriter at one of these agencies handed me a brief and I wrote a line for it. And then they gave me another one, and I wrote a line for that. It was very natural for me - whereas these guys seemed to be struggling with it. Then they told the agency management that they'd found this kid who could write copy - and, true to form, the manager said, "He'll have to wait a year." But eventually I became a copywriter.

Berger: You stumbled into it, more or less.

Delaney: Advertising is like that. I think of advertising as a business with tons of unmarked doors. And you tend to have to go through all of them to find out what's behind them. You keep trying these doors, and eventually you find one that opens up and lets you in.

Berger: Is there a time when the doors no longer open for people? Sometimes it seems as if creative people over 40 just disappear in this business.

Delaney: I don't think they suddenly disappear. Here's what happens to them: Let's say they get near the top of their agency. Then they get extra money to go somewhere not quite as good. And then they get even more money to go somewhere that's a little worse than that. They start this slow descent. Eventually, they end up at the big, bad agencies, where they just get devoured. Because those big agencies need soldiers - they just need wave upon wave of soldiers to go over the top and get shot down. Many of the people at big agencies are excellent people, they can still write good ads - they're just not required to. They then get jaundiced or bitter. And eventually they lose track of why they're in the business - which is to crack a problem. They lose their desire to do something interesting. My feeling is, if you're in this business seriously, you're trying to dignify an undignified business. So do it right. Don't do it halfway and strut around and talk about how much money you're making. I find the biggest strutters in this business are the people who do the worst crap. And the nicest, most unassuming people - in my experience, anyway - are often the ones who do the best work.

Berger: Your agency recently did a campaign for an Italian telecom company that featured Marlon Brando, Woody Allen, and Nelson Mandela. It's interesting that these days, we seem to be seeing people involved with ads who might never have done it in the past.

Delaney: It helps if they're not being asked to hawk something. This campaign is about the future of technology, and so we just we said to these people, "Look, we're going to talk about the future." So Marlon Brando talks about all the things that are coming and says, "I'm not going to be here for this, and for that . . . " And then he says, "On the other hand, the way things are going, who knows, they may be able to keep me here." And Mandela talked about technology leaving Third-World kids behind. He was making the point that when it comes to poor children in Africa, instead of their lives being enhanced by technology, they're going to be left behind even further.

Berger: Was it interesting working with these legends?

Delaney: It was great. Here's a little name-dropping story. I was in New York, to shoot the spot with Woody Allen. And I'd just gotten to meet him, which was great in itself, and then I get back to my hotel room, and the phone rings, and the voice on the other end says, "Hi, it's Marlon."

Berger: That's one call you'd better take.

Delaney: He was very cool. He began to ring me regularly after that, because he got very involved. He'd call up and say, "I was thinking about doing this, or I want to do that." He's an incredibly smart guy with wide-ranging interests, and really into language - almost pedantic about the use of words.

Berger: Have you ever thought about doing anything in films yourself?

Delaney: I've only had one tiny, tiny idea for a short film. And sometime or other I wouldn't mind seeing what happens with that. But it's tiny. And I've directed one commercial, which was kind of fun. It's not that I'm daunted by it, but what I am is a copywriter, so why try to do something else? Though I think if I was ever going to direct a film it would be political. Because the only thing I'm really interested in outside of advertising is politics.

Berger: Have you done political advertising?

Delaney: I worked as a communications guy for James Callahan when he was Prime Minister back in 1969. I loved it. A friend of mine who also worked in political communications once said of it: "You can see all the levers of power - and you can even pull some." And that's what I felt at the time. But it was tough. Callahan ended up losing the election, even though we won the campaign. We were 20 points behind at the beginning of the campaign, then seven points ahead a few days before the election. But then the other side just swept past us because they spent a fortune, just blitzed us in the last two days.

Berger: Now that you have offices in different countries, what are you finding out about advertising in markets like Germany, France, and Italy?

Delaney: To some extent, advertising is not taken as seriously in some of these markets. So when we come along, a bunch of British people taking it very seriously, with cerebral thinking and strategy, they tend to say, "Why are you getting so excited about this? It's just advertising." Except of course in Germany, where they take it extremely seriously. By the time they're done taking it so seriously, they're left with something dry and sterile.

Berger: Why don't the French produce better advertising? It's such an artistic culture, after all.

Delaney: They probably see it a little too artistically. They seem to see it as more as an expressionist thing. Whereas Britain seems to be the crossroads, where you have this Northern European discipline, with a kind of built-in irreverence. I think of it as we're in the dustbin, and the [English] establishment tries to put the lid on us and we're always popping that lid off, annoying the establishment.

Berger: What about when clients try to put the lid on you - how do you deal with bad clients?

Delaney: When push comes to shove, we'll fire them. Because they're bad-mannered. Or they don't understand the way we're thinking, or they don't appreciate what we're doing. If they don't want it, fine, they don't want it. I don't want the agency to give some client a hard time, but if they don't want we have to offer, it's not our problem. We often say to clients, "You came to us, remember? You're the patient and we're the hospital, remember?"

Berger: And that works?

Delaney: Well, it wakes 'em up. And if it doesn't work, it's time to say goodnight, and let them go and find someone they're happier with. Maybe they want to kick the dog, and we don't want to be the dog.

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