Tony Cullingham's reasons to be fearful
Continuing our frighteningly good series in which industry pros share thoughts on angst in adland, and in general, we speak to the legendary Tony Cullingham. The former Watford Advertising Course leader, now head of BBH London's incubator course The Barn, shares musings ranging from tales of genuine wartime horror, the hunt for brand conscience and his worries about his aggressive eyebrows.
Do the fears of the world at large (climate change, economic uncertainty, political division) affect your creative process?
When I was 14 my grandad told me about his days in a prisoner of war camp. It was a baking hot day. His mate asked for a glass of water. A soldier forced a hosepipe down his throat and turned on the tap. His belly quickly became a giant balloon full of water.
Consumers are going budget. Brands serving desires are slowly being replaced by brands serving basic needs.
Another soldier stepped forward and bayoneted his stomach several times. My grandad was scared to ask his captors for anything. Anything. Not even a glass of water. That’s real fear. My grandad’s recollections made me understand what fear really means.
When I was 14 my grandad told me about his days in a prisoner of war camp... his recollections made me understand what fear really means.
And I’ve never felt afraid in my working life. I work in advertising. It’s only advertising. It’s not important. Advertising isn’t important enough for the people in it to be truly afraid. Creatives don’t get killed when they ask for a glass of water.
WW2 British prisoners of war guarded by a German soldier. Cullingham was greatly affected by his grandfather's war stories.
How do you feel the world's worries are impacting Western consumer culture.
With income inequality on the rise, utilitarianism and functionalism is increasing. Consumers are going budget. Brands serving desires are slowly being replaced by brands serving basic needs.
Brands that kick the planet in will be booted out. It will be a slow process.
The West’s consumerism is unsustainable. We are now working out the difference between consumption and consumerism.
The young kids with their creative ideas will sort out the mess us old gits have passed on to them. Brands that kick the planet in will be booted out. It will be a slow process. We are not quick at adapting to the new, but we will get there.
Upheaval, crisis and uncertainty are the drivers of creativity.
Consumerism will diminish in the West and continue to rise in the East as the emerging nations expand their middle classes. Those with money will seek brand conscience. And those without money, well, they won’t care what brand the bucket is under the hole in their roof.
Is fear good or bad for advertising?
Upheaval, crisis and uncertainty are the drivers of creativity. When chaos rules, that's when creative thinking is at its best.
As Orson Welles once wrote, "In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed – they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and The Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!"
Fear is both good and bad for creatives. Fear releases all those wonderful natural chemicals in the brain which are used in the ideas process."
Creatives should embrace chaos and mayhem. Their solutions are, in the end, going to save us all. Fear is both good and bad for creatives. Don’t forget, fear releases all those wonderful natural chemicals in the brain which are used in the ideas process. The fear of failure is the big-scary-momma motivator for creatives.
I don’t take my pedalo beyond the red buoys, even when I’m wearing my Peppa Pig floaties.
Failing to come up with a good idea, or any idea, is a catalyst for the creative to focus and think harder. Fear is only bad if the fear is so constant and overwhelming it cripples the thought process. Mostly, we learn to control our fear. And we come to rely on it for our creativity.
Cullingham has a fear of drowning, having once nearly drowned. His Peppa Pig floaties are a comfort.
What scares you most about the future?
I’ve never feared anything in my life. Apart from drowning. That’s because I nearly drowned once. I don’t take my pedalo beyond the red buoys, even when I’m wearing my Peppa Pig floaties.
The fear of being judged is a barrier. Fear of not having a creative answer is uncomfortable for creatives.
What scares me is young creatives who ask, “Can I do that”? “Should I do that”? The fear of embarrassment holds people back. The fear of being judged is a barrier. Fear of not having a creative answer is uncomfortable for creatives. So, they come up with a solution quickly to rid themselves of that fear.
The most interesting and smart creatives learn to live without an idea for a longer period. The longer they can live with this discomfort the more likely they are to come up with better ideas than the ones who rush to get down their solutions.
What was your biggest fear when entering the industry?
When I entered the industry, I was a jerk. A fearless jerk. I walked straight into Saatchis in 1979 and asked the creative director for a job in the creative department. I knew nothing. Absolutely nothing.
The best thing now is, I still know nothing. And I’m still a fearless jerk.
There were three million people out of work and agencies were laying off staff quicker than an elephant loses money at the casino. Knowing nothing is the best thing when you are young. Naivety is a blessing. When you know stuff you start to take yourself and the industry seriously.
It’s only advertising. No one really cares. The best thing now is, I still know nothing. And I’m still a fearless jerk.
For a job like yours, is fear a friend or foe?
Some students have said that I’m scary. I never mean to be scary. I’m not smart enough to use fear as a considered teaching strategy.
I have been told I have aggressive eyebrows. Knowing some Gen Zers are super sensitive, I make sure I regularly visit my eyebrow plucker.
Candid, unpredictable, demanding, stupid and passionate, is what I am.
I’m not the girl with the long black hair and squid ink eyes from The Ring. I have been told I have aggressive eyebrows. Knowing some Gen Zers are super sensitive, I make sure I regularly visit my eyebrow plucker.
What are your biggest fears for the future of the client/agency model?
It’s not a personal fear. I think agencies should be fearful that if advertising continues to get more predictable, anodyne, uncreative and dull then the truly lateral thinking fun creatives will leave the industry to become comedians, film writers, directors, animators and artists.
If students were scared by anything I said or asked them to do, I’d say, I’m not going to kill you, so what are you scared of?
The industry will be left with process creatives not the disruptors agencies need. If students were scared by anything I said or asked them to do, I’d say, I’m not going to kill you, so what are you scared of?
I think I saw three, maybe four, good advertising ideas in 2022. Yet there were thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of advertising awards handed out to creatives.
My fear going forward is we forget what a good idea truly is, and worse still, we forget what it takes to come up with them.