Music and Marketing

There's a Famous Punk Musician in Adland's Midst

How Dave Allen, Former Bassist for Gang of Four, Wound up Working in Advertising

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Years before he was hatching digital marketing strategies for clients, Dave Allen was a bona-fide rocker. His transition from bass guitarist for the famous English post-punk band, Gang of Four, into advertising is a fascinating career turn. And it's one that exemplifies the ability for agencies today to mine for top talent in the most unexpected places.

Dave Allen
Dave Allen

He may not have been trained in a portfolio school, but consider Mr. Allen's ability to break through the pop culture clutter. Along with the original members of Gang of Four, Jon King, Andy Gill, and Hugo Berman, he put out a debut album, "Entertainment!" that was dubbed among the top 100 albums of all time by Spin Magazine. Rolling Stone named it amongst the top 500. And Sophia Coppola used one of their hits as the title track to her movie 'Marie Antoinette.' If he could achieve those sorts of results for himself, why not for clients?

After leaving Gang of Four in the 1980s and dabbling in a few other rock bands, he began exploring the then-nascent Internet world. He worked at and was director of consumer digital audio services at Intel. From there he broke into the agency business, working at Portland firms such Overland Agency, Nemo Design, Fight and finally, North, where he is currently a director of interactive strategy.

Going from being a rock star to pushing products is surely an about-face and Mr. Allen admits some friends at first thought him a sellout. He also had quite the learning curve early on when it came to playing by certain rules -- like that time when he posed for a local magazine for a cover story dubbed "What the Hell is this Punk Rocker doing working at Intel" without clearing it with the company's PR department first. But in the end, he found the career that's suited him the most. He's done reunion tours and owns an indie record label but says he'd never trade his day job today with touring and concerts. He enjoys the work and clients too much.

We chatted with him recently about how he broke into adland and his hopes for others from the non-advertising backgrounds to follow in his footsteps.

Ad Age: How did you get into advertising, given your past career as a punk musician -- a genre known for anti-establishment views and the promotion of individual freedom?

Mr. Allen: I spent two years with, the world's first paid mp3 download company and that's where I became more renowned in the business world than in music. The Intel thing really surprised people. It just took off from there. It was a surprise to all my friends and people who know me, and a surprise to Intel when they hired me and knew what I could bring. It was kind of like, "what do we do with this guy?" As a post-punk musician, the defining moment was 1993 and advent of the web browser. Suddenly the internet was as punk as punk rock -- it was affecting society, culture and really affecting business. I was interested in all three legs of the stool. Big labels were really scared of the internet at the time, and of course really scared when Napster came along.

Ad Age: How does playing bass in a band align with your current role in the agency? Any similarities or differences?

Mr. Allen: It's a bit of a cliche to say a creative team at North is the same as Gang of Four! But I have sort of put of side my musical ambitions whereas any day I could start writing a new album, give it away online and ask for people to pay what they like. There's a similarity between what [agencies and artists] are making available online. Like with the Oregon State side of the Obamacare campaign we did, we're making great arrangements with musicians directly. We commissioned all these artists to write all their own songs. They keep the copyright and the publishing and the agency licenses the tracks -- and are additionally compensated if used in TV, radio and elsewhere. Music is in our DNA.

Ad Age: Since you came from outside the ad world, what's your perspective on what kind of talent the ad business should be recruiting today? What are the benefits to agencies of hiring staff not trained in an ad school?

Mr. Allen: It's really beneficial. You need a mix -- which is what North has, there are some people who have spent their careers in advertising and people who come from a background with no experience in advertising like myself. It starts to become philosophical, actually. What in 2013 does 'advertising' even mean? Agencies need more information about real people more than ever need different mindsets and different brainpower when we have all these different platforms too apply ideas to. Today it's about asking bigger questions than the next campaign, or next TV commercial or next microsite -- and perhaps people from other disciplines can be good at that. In big ad agencies, titles get thrown around. I know why the titles exist but does it mean that if you're an account manageer you're less creative even though you work in a creative business? Or a CIO, a chief innovation officer, which weirdly makes you feel like nobody else is innovating, only that person? It is possible; there's a left-brain right-brain thing you can have.

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