Tony Cullingham: The Way I See It
Describing himself on LinkedIn as 'half candle, half mushroom, half geranium', Tony Cullingham is so much more than the sum of three halves. Having run the Watford Advertising Course for more than 30 years, he is now leading BBH’s refreshed creative placement scheme, The Barn. He tells Carol Cooper how it all started with gnomic notes to the milkman.
I came in to this mad, mad world on the same day as Marc Almond. Tuesday July 9th 1957. He was born in Southport, me in Harrogate. Marc is my spiritual twin brother.
My first memory? The giant spiders laughing at me in the outside toilet we shared with the other tenants in Highfield Street, Leicester. I would go to the toilet dressed as a cowboy with my cap gun and the spiders would run for cover. Around the same time, I climbed out of our garden, crawled along the pavement to cuddle the wheel of a parked ambulance.
I see advertising as a working-class pursuit. Instead of working in a factory or coal mine, creatives dig away all day with mind shovels.
The driver started the engine and was just about to drive away when a policeman came around the corner and shouted at him to stop. This memory may have been planted by my mum in subsequent family conversations. Either way, it’s true.
80s pop legend Marc Almond is Cullingham's spiritual twin. Portrait by Pierre et Gilles.
My early years were largely spent trying to avoid being beaten up. I was a lanky, skinny kid who liked glam rock and ska. My frizzy hair didn’t help my aim to remain at peace with the bullies. [Martial arts star] Bruce Lee was all the rage at the time and he didn’t get beaten up so I joined a karate club and practised a violent form of karate, Kyokushinkai.
The bullies then left me alone for some reason. My shoulders became less stooped.
As a boy, Cullingham was inspired by Bruce Lee to take up karate.
My family weren’t at all creative. Graft was our DNA. My granny left Dublin in 1916 at the age of 16 and arrived in London. She scrubbed the steps of rich people in Notting Hill before becoming a waitress. My mum worked in the DHSS dealing with dole claims and my dad was a cabbie. The work ethic was instilled in to me. It explains why I push my students so hard.
The teacher asked us to paint the World’s Last Ever Painting. I snapped all my paint brushes in half and handed in a blank piece of paper.
I see advertising as a working-class pursuit. Instead of working in a factory or coal mine, creatives dig away all day with mind shovels. I’ve always been told that a job is a privilege.
I started to write when I was five. I used to leave notes in the empty milk bottles for Charlie our milkman. Notes like: "No milk today. We have a cow now." "Is milk happy?" "Do cows cry?"
Cullingham slept in a cemetery for three nights to prep for an acting role as a corpse.
My first art class at secondary school was a disaster. It was 1968. The Vietnam War was in full swing. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been assassinated. I thought the world was going to end.
The teacher asked us to paint the World’s Last Ever Painting. I snapped all my paint brushes in half and handed in a blank piece of paper. He sent me to the Head to be spanked with a slipper. He actually spanked me with a frozen fish.
Football has been my greatest passion. In 1968 aged 11, I went to Filbert Street Leicester. Leicester beat Manchester City 3-0 with an Allan Clarke hat-trick. I was hooked. A year later, Allan Clarke was sold to Leeds.
I cried tears in to a jam jar and buried the tears in a field. My step dad’s ashes are at Leicester and his brother’s ashes were scattered behind the goal. I played too.
I asked Brian Eno if he wanted to join in the [football]. He said he enjoyed listening to the sounds of our shoes on the concrete while we played.
My last 11-a-side game was at The King Power Stadium. We beat The Alliance and Leicester building society. 3-1.
I came off the pitch crying looking for a jam jar. The shirt I played in will be on my dead body when the time comes.
I had many nicknames at school. Teachers called me, WHATYERPLAYINGAT? The council estate kids called me Puff. They found out I went to a Lou Reed concert wearing my mum’s makeup. My mates called me Bones.
I hated school. I left at 18 and tried to get a job in a bank. One interviewer said I was far too smart to work in a bank and told me to go to college. I found myself at Bristol Polytechnic studying business.
I didn’t fancy washing dishes for 10 years and auditioning for, ‘guy in the crowd scenes’. Instead, I wanted to write ads.
One of the lecturers had been an actor and he encouraged me to write plays. I joined a theatre group. I rewrote my scenes. I wrote plays. I had some poetry published. I studied Stanislavski’s Method Acting. In a Tom Stoppard play I played a corpse. And for three nights I slept in a sleeping bag at the local cemetery.
While studying at Watford, Cullingham started hanging out with designers who worked with punk band The Clash.
After Bristol, I had a series of auditions at several drama schools in London. My audition piece was a soliloquy from Autolycus, the rogue peddler from A Winter’s Tale. My interpretation had Autolycus as an East End gangster. I blew the heads off the selection jury at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. They offered me a scholarship.
At the same time, I was offered a place on the Watford Copywriting programme. I didn’t fancy washing dishes for 10 years and auditioning for, ‘guy in the crowd scenes’. Instead, I wanted to write ads. I never thought that one day I’d be running the programme that would change my life.
Saatchis was full of northerners escaping the dole queues; sprinkled with literary, cerebral types who knew the difference between Turgenev and Pushkin.
At Watford I hung out with the graphic designers. They designed the centre of Clash singles and socialised with people like [impresario/designer] Malcolm McLaren. For the first time in my life I was surrounded by cool people.
Brian Eno came to the college to talk about the ideas process. He was a big influence. Eno was the most intelligent and thought-provoking person I had ever met in my life.
Musician Brian Eno was a big influence.
One lunchtime we were playing football on the concrete concourse outside the art studios. Eno sat on a wall and watched us. I went over and asked him if he wanted to join in the kickabout. He said he enjoyed listening to the sounds of our shoes on the concrete while we played. A year later Eno launched his music label Ambient and this new musical genre took off.
I joined Saatchi’s in 1979 as a trainee writer. I was wafted through the doors of 80 Charlotte Street with all the money-bags clients after Margaret Thatcher’s election victory.
My first brief was for a full-page colour magazine ad for a skin lightening cream aimed at black women in Brixton. I remember thinking that the brief was a standing joke for newbie creatives. An advertising version of asking a young labourer to fetch a left-handed hammer. It wasn’t a joke and I still have the ad I wrote.
The client came back from a boozy lunch and I showed him the ad. His brandy-stained lips quivered in rage. ‘What are those fucking elephants doing on my sofa?’
My second brief was to write a print ad for a furniture company. The proposition was strong, durable sofas. I put two elephants on the sofa and wrote the headline, Nelly and Melly watch Telly. The client came back from a boozy lunch and I showed him the ad. His brandy-stained lips quivered in rage. ‘What are those fucking elephants doing on my sofa?’ ‘Watching Tarzan’, I said.
The client turned to the account man and said. ‘Get that idiot off my account.’ You knew where you stood with clients back then.
At Saatchis, Cullingham designed a print ad for Elastoplast.
Saatchis were very good to me. The department was full of northerners escaping the dole queues; sprinkled with literary, cerebral types who knew the difference between Turgenev and Pushkin.
I read The Beano. That put me in good stead as ironically, I ended up writing a full-page ad for Elastoplast which went in the comic.
I went on to work for various agencies, ending up at Lintas. Campaigns for Walls Ice Cream, Birds Eye, Citizen watches, Minolta, Japanese Airlines emerged speedily from my office and I was soon promoted to Associate Creative Director. I saw an ad for Watford Course Leader and applied. I was offered the job with the idea of staying for three years. I stayed for 32.
I tell my students I can’t teach them anything. Anything worth learning cannot be taught.
Strangely, I’ve never considered myself a teacher. I tell my students I can’t teach them anything. Anything worth learning cannot be taught.
I’m a big Frank Zappa fan, he nailed my attitude to education when he said, “Schools train you to be ignorant with style they prepare you to be a usable victim for a military industrial complex that needs manpower. As long as you’re just smart enough to do a job and just dumb enough to swallow what they feed you, you’ll be alright. I believe that schools mechanically and specifically try and breed out any hint of creative thought.”
Early work included the Just One Cornetto ads for Wall's Ice Cream.
It was a real shame that The Watford Ad Course died. Launched in 1962, it was the first Ad School in the UK, the first to develop the placement system and the first to train up creative teams.
I tried to get a free ad school off the ground.... I realised that the industry gives love, respect and their time to me. They just didn’t want to give money.
We had 100 applications per year and we would train up to 26 students. The numbers started to drop off around 10 years ago when the Government pulled the funding and the onus of fees fell entirely on the student.
In recent years I tried to get a free ad school off the ground. No fees for students. I partnered with The Creative Circle, Dave Buonaguidi, then Creative Director of Crispin Porter, and a charity called Future Rising.
I’ve always believed that people learn more from criticism than they do from praise. Praise feels nice. Criticism gets you places.
We pitched the free ad school called Gratis, (Dave came up with the name), to the industry. Despite a piece in Campaign, no one came forward to help. I realised that the industry gives love, respect and their time to me. They just didn’t want to give money. We could have trained 26 students at a total cost of 35k. It was not to be.
Portraits of Tony, by Rosie Matheson.
Covid pushed a lot of folio building to online platforms. Advertising agencies started their internal apprenticeships and incubators. When I found out that Ogilvy’s free creative training programme, Pipe, receives over 1000 applications I knew the game was up for Watford.
Some alumni describe Watford as a cult. I never really understood that. Dan Scott at Pablo defined Watford as an attitude. I prefer that.
I’ve always believed that people learn more from criticism than they do from praise. Praise feels nice. Criticism gets you places. Gets you to question more and to push yourself further.
Our Monster Raving Loony Party poster made the national news and was on the front page of The Daily Telegraph, which at the time had a circulation of 1 million. Today you’d call it going viral.
All my teams who left in June 2021 are in agencies and whatever shit comes their way I know they’ll deal with it. They are resilient. That explains why so many Creative Leaders started out at Watford. I’m often more impressed by the positions they rise to than the work that takes them there. Getting a job in advertising is easy. Having a great career and loving what you do is the important bit.
Cullingham's ad for The Monster Raving Loony Party 'went viral' in 1992.
The Watford Course became the best Ad School in the UK. This was down to the students. Not me. I picked the passionate, the most energetic and super lovely people I could find. And they did the rest. I love humility. I don’t like people who say how good they are. I like people who know how rubbish they are. I like people who laugh at themselves.
I remember Caroline Pay telling me she threw her test in the bin. Her parents fished it out, she did the test and got on to the course.
I had a coffee recently with one of my ex-students who didn’t tell me that he was twice Bafta nominated for two films he’d written and directed. When we got up to leave I asked him what else he had been up to. He told me that he had written some of Joe Biden’s presidential speeches. How cool is that? I had to prise that nugget of information out of him.
I think one of the things that made Watford good is that I can write ads. I’m not an academic. Ads and ideas that make people smile is my thing. That’s why I got involved with The Monster Raving Loony Party back in 1992. I was the unofficial creative director of the party.
The Barn is going to be just like Watford. Tears. Laughter. Anger. Passion. Hiding behind the sofa shouting for Mummy. And it’ll be the same for the students. It’s going to be great.
The students and I ended up making two films, one billboard and creating the first visual political manifesto. Our poster made the national news and was featured on the front page of The Daily Telegraph which at the time had a circulation of 1 million. Today you’d call it going viral.
Cullingham's current students at The Barn.
A lot of people found my selection process daunting. The creative test in particular caused many a sleepless night. I remember Caroline Pay telling me she threw her test in the bin. Her parents fished it out, she did the test and got on to the course. Before the end of the course, Caroline and her Watford partner, Ben Tollett, secured a placement at a new agency in Amsterdam called Kessels Kramer. As we know, Caroline is now Chief Creative Officer at Headspace. Here are a few of the questions:
1. When? Who? Why? What happened ?
2. I love my cat. Make me want to eat it.
3. What does the future hold for jelly?
4. Why should you never underestimate a handsome bear?
5. How would you convince people to fly on a concrete airplane?
I decided to resign because there were so few applications to the 2021/22 Watford programme. Helen Rhodes my ex-student and Executive Creative Director at BBH and I were quick to start a conversation. I’m now running the Best Ad Course in the UK. The students have been hand picked from 100 applications. They have the best mentors. They have access to some great resources. And they all get paid a salary to be in front of me. Cool, eh?
The Barn is going to be just like Watford.
Tears. Laughter. Anger. Passion. Hiding behind the sofa shouting for mummy. And it’ll be the same for the students. It’s going to be great.