Chris Palmer got his start in advertising almost by accident. After a peripatetic childhood, he found himself in London in the early '80s doing various laboring jobs, only to end up as a bike messenger. Dissatisfied, he enrolled in various graphic design evening courses at Hornsey Art College and St. Martin's School of Art, discovered "this thing called advertising," and began to build a portfolio.
While delivering a package to Bartle Bogle Hegarty in 1985, he bumped into an art director he knew, and she suggested he meet John Hegarty. The latter was impressed and Palmer was hired. "On Friday, I was delivering parcels," says Palmer. "On Monday, I was John Hegarty's copywriter."
A lot has happened since then, and Palmer will tell you freely about it except that he's terrible with dates. He's not quite sure how long he's been running his celebrated London production company, Gorgeous Enterprises (actually, it's about two and a half years), and he's equally vague about his age (an educated guess puts him at 42). But he knows all about quality, and his work has it in spades. After a year and a half at BBH and a 10-month stint at Lowe Howard Spink, where he worked on the Heineken and Vauxhall accounts, Palmer became a creative director and partner at the cumbersomely-named Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson. "We went from zero -- people were quite patronizing about us at first -- to producing such high-profile, award-winning work as Nike and Wrangler," he recalls with obvious satisfaction. While still at the agency, Palmer and business partner Mark Denton became a commercials-directing duo that went under the alias of Bert Sprote. They only did "a couple of bits and pieces," but their extracurricular activities angered one of their partners and, eventually, "the shit hit the fan," Palmer sighs. The duo departed acrimoniously, staying together for another six months until Palmer decided to try his hand at running his own company, Gorgeous, in 1996.
His work is extraordinarily eclectic. He does everything from chiaroscuro surrealism (Guinness) to hi-tech eroticism (Haagen Dazs); low-key humor (The Sun newspaper) to quasi-documentary (One 2 One mobile phones).
"I don't want to be stereotyped as a particular kind of director," he says. "That way, you go out of fashion fast. Also, it would bore me shitless."
Earlier this year, Campaign magazine, reviewing the London production company scene in 1997, commented: "Palmer's own reel stood head and shoulders above many other companies' compilation showreels of all their directors' work." Some of Campaign's editorial staff were "hard-pushed to accept that one director could have completed so many high-profile jobs with such a diversity of directing styles."
Palmer, who is friendly, direct and not encumbered by false modesty, is by no means averse to crossing the Atlantic, but not for just any spot. "Though I'm very keen to work in the States, where we're tied up with Tim Case at CMP -- I've already done one commercial for JWT -- I'd rather do a good British job than a mediocre American one."
One of the keys to Palmer's success is his shrewd casting. His commercials are full of people who look just right for the parts and who don't come across as professional actors. Often they aren't. "I'm spotting people all the time," he says. "There are very few mainstream commercials actors in my work. For example, none of the people in The Sun ad [a diverse group of men and women reading the newspaper] were professionals. They were all real people."
The only unifying motif in his output is soccer, of which he's an obsessional fan. The sport appears, usually humorously, in several spots on his reel. He follows a London team called Tottenham Hotspur and says he wouldn't want to live abroad permanently because he couldn't bear the thought of not seeing his eleven heroes play.
According to Jerry Gallagher, a copywriter at Bates Dorlands who has worked on a number of commercials with Palmer: "His enthusiasm is his biggest strength. He never stops trying to improve a script. Unlike many directors, who just shoot what they're given, Chris keeps on thinking all the time, because he used to be a creative himself. He's not a prima donna -- he's always open to suggestions." What else? "Well, he thinks he's good at [soccer] and he's not, but at least he believes in himself, which I suppose is what matters."
Palmer is known in the industry as a workaholic and a perfectionist. Paul Simons, a former colleague now at TBWA/Simons Palmer, describes him as "incredibly driven and single-minded," while James Bradley, managing director of the now defunct production company Redwing, Palmer's first employers as a director, talks about his "awesome energy, dedication and discipline." Many people who have met him are convinced that he's heading for real stardom, probably even Hollywood.
Palmer admits he's interested in features. "I write in my spare time. I've got one script completed and several outlines prepared."
During a rare contemplative moment, he pronounces himself pleased by how quickly his solo directing career took off. "I thought I'd be spending hours lounging round the gym," he says, "but it never happened."