Peter Souter in 5...
Chairman & Chief Creative Officer, TBWA London
Issue 41 | December 2016
'In 5' is a series in which Directory asks top creative people to describe their careers through five pieces of work.
Today's subject: Peter Souter.
This is a guy who has reached the very top in advertising and isn't far from it in the adjoining world of screenwriting.
God knows how many D&AD pencils he has won, nor how many Cannes Golds. He didn't tell me. It would have been the first thing many other top advertising bananas would have wanted to talk about. How damn good they were/are.
Instead, Peter spends all this interview talking about other people.
Normally, when people as successful as Peter are as self-deprecating as he is, you think "what a smug, insincere tosser you are."
The thing about Peter is he really is as open, decent and intelligent as everyone says he is.
But somewhere behind that smile there must be a massive ego, surely?
Today's job is to find it.
So, Peter how did you get started?
PS: I'm very dyslexic so it was a bit tricky at school but because I can draw a bit I went to art college. At St. Martins, I thought I was a typographer because I kept answering the briefs we were given with words. One of my tutors said, actually what you are is a copywriter.
I didn't know what a copywriter was. I went to the library (remember libraries?) and looked in all the D&AD annuals they had.
There was one guy.
All the ads I liked seemed to have been written by the same man.
He wrote about his wife and his family and how he wanted to wrap them in a big, sturdy Volvo so they would be safe and he wanted them to read a business magazine so they would be smart.
So I stalked him until he hired me.
It took six years."
I believe creative people have a number of characteristics in common. They are curious; investigative; they don't get embarrassed easily; they are persistent. And Peter demonstrates all of the above in pretty much everything he does.
This is how he got started at Abbott Mead Vickers, regarded as the best agency in the UK.
"This is going to sound creepy but I heard David Abbott's daughter was going out with a young account man. So I befriended him until I found out where David lived.
There had been an ad with a picture of a student hitch-hiking, holding a placard saying: Cambridge, Volvo preferred.
Well, I made my own version of this. Abbott Mead Vickers, Volvo preferred. I got there at 5.30 in the morning. Eventually he came out, climbed in a Mercedes and drove off.
So I went back the next day. This time, I stood in the road so he had to stop and pick me up.
My work was okay, I suppose, but I had put my name somewhere at the back of his head and a while later, when a team left the agency, he gave me a call.
I worked there for the next 17 years."
First piece of work
PS: "I have never considered myself a fantastic writer but if you stand next to someone brilliant, it has to rub off on you.
I worked with an art director called Paul Brazier.
He was understated but brilliant.
The Economist was an open brief. Once a year, everyone had a crack at it.
We decided to work our asses off to get something accepted.
I got in one morning and Paul slid a piece of paper along the desk to me, saying "I think there's something in this."
He had drawn shredded paper and without thinking I just wrote on top of it, Industrial secrets for sale.
It won a ton of prizes and it got us accepted. Abbott Mead Vickers was a wonderfully benign place but you had to be good.
I suppose that poster was a stepping stone. And there were other little stepping stones too that took me eventually to David's office and I sat in his chair for a short time."
Little stepping stones?
That poster was in 1994.
A Grand Prix at Cannes for Queen Alexandra Hospital, a yellow pencil at D&AD for RSPCA.
A host of other intelligent pieces of work.
A personal favourite was "Evansville Indiana", the most miserable place on the face of this earth. Why? Because they make Indiana Gold, an extra smooth, triple-filtered beer. Which you can't buy in Evansville. It's all exported to Sainsbury's in the UK from Evansville – most miserable place on the face of this earth.
Being a creative director is usually like being a Prime Minister. Your career can only end in ignominy and embarrassment.
Not for David Abbott.
He left the agency that bore his name on his terms.
Still at the top of his game, revered and wealthy.
He anointed Peter as his successor.
What a tough gig that was.
Everyone expected him to fall short of The Master.
Plenty probably wanted him to.
But he didn't. It seems the nicest man in advertising must be made of steel because he set about turning the best print agency in Britain into the best TV agency in the world.
A couple of years into the job, Abbott Mead Vickers was Agency of the Year at Cannes.
None of this he mentions in the interview.
Second piece of work
"I think it was around 2000 that I got into campaigning through Richard Curtis.
Now, if we want to feel shit about ourselves, Richard's movies have made over $2 billion and he has raised more than $1 billion through Comic Relief for people who have nothing.
Richard rang me.
He had been to see Tony Blair because the G8 leaders were meeting for a summit in the UK and Richard saw this as an opportunity to get the prosperous world to cough up some money for those living on the borderline.
Blair said he thought he could get the G8 to agree to $100 million.
Richard wasn't having that. It wasn't nearly enough.
So he rang me and said will you help.
I asked, 'How much money have you got?'
Nothing. The budget was zero.
But I said okay and off we went.
Mary Wear wrote the line, the brilliant line 'Make poverty history' and I worked on a film with Richard. "Click" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFfIIW_xQq4) .
I used to think you could only launch once.
What Richard taught me is you keep launching till the bloody thing floats.
So, he wrote an episode of 'The Vicar of Dibley' in which they do something very similar. They wear white bands on their arms like the idea we had for Make Poverty History but the same night the show ran on TV, the tsunami happened so no-one noticed.
Four weeks later he got a hundred female vicars to march on Downing Street, demanding the G8 set about making poverty history.
It got a tiny bit of coverage.
Eventually he got Nelson Mandela to come to Trafalgar Square and say the words, "Make poverty history'. It was Mandela's last visit to Britain. And it got everyone talking about it.
The leaders of the Labour party, the Conservative party and the Lib-Dems all said "Let's make poverty history" so it suddenly became a-political.
We organised a concert and about a third of the world watched it and the G8 signed up to give an extra $50 billion.
Some analysts have said it was actually only $25 billion. Only £25 billion.
When you consider the budget was zero, the ROI isn't bad on that one.
If I never do anything at all useful again, that was good to do."
What Peter fails to mention is that he got a bunch of people to give up their time to write ads, have ideas, produce and direct films. For free.
And they did this for him.
Not for Richard Curtis.
But moving on:
Third piece of work
"Now I'm going to wander away from advertising.
What happened was I got a really bad cold and couldn't move. I was in bed and left to my own devices.
I wrote a radio play over the next two days.
Now, when you're a junior copywriter they leave you alone to do the radio. You get to talk to the actors, to direct them.
So I thought the world of screenwriting would be the same. Junior screenwriters started in radio before graduating to telly so that's where I started.
Actually, it doesn't work like that at all. But I didn't know.
You know those Tex Avery cartoons? Wily Coyote? When he runs off the cliff edge, everything is absolutely fine. So long as he doesn't look down.
That's the way it was for me, I didn't know I wasn't allowed to write a radio play and get it made.
What I did was google the Head of Drama at the BBC.
I found out that it was a man called Gordon House.
I emailed him and got the feeling he quite enjoyed a good lunch so I took him out to a swanky restaurant and pitched my play to him. And that's how it happened.
While that was in production, I wrote another radio drama called 'Goldfish Girl', which won the Tinniswood Award in 2009. That's the Gold pencil equivalent in radio drama.
It's one scene, one exchange between two people and because I didn't know that you weren't supposed to write for radio like that, I got away with it.
And then I was really pleased with myself and thought, this is easy."
Reader, please don't think he actually meant this.
Peter's being the self-effacing Englishman again here, laughing at himself because, as he told me, "I was about to discover just how hard it is to be a scriptwriter."
Well, hard it may be, but he went on to write eight more radio plays.
And in parallel to all that, he was creating an environment at AMV BBDO in which others could shine.
Guinness "Surfer", Alka Seltzer "Lifeboat" were just two of many gold-winning commercials to come out of the place.
Not that he talks about these.
Fourth piece of work
After the success of his radio plays, Souter decided to try his hand at writing for TV.
First, he needed an agent.
So he chose probably the best agent in Britain, Anthony Jones, who represented Curtis but also luminaries like Tom Stoppard and Alan Bennett.
He had seen how agents' and publishers' offices were stacked with unread manuscripts, curling sheaves of paper on every surface. Again, bringing his skills as an adman to bear, he put his four radio plays together in one dark-green, leather-bound volume.
"It had a wax seal. It looked like Shakespeare."
He had this delivered to Jones.
"It just looked so very different to anything he had ever been sent before. I think he read my work. Anyway, he took me on."
Now having an agent, Peter thought he should probably write something for his agent to sell.
He had an idea for a six-part romantic comedy and wrote the pilot.
"I didn't know I wasn't supposed to do that."
The other thing Peter did that rather stunned them at ITV was he presented his ideas for what was to become the hit series "Married, Single, Other" as he would have pitched to a new client.
"I had big boards, one for each of the characters so they wouldn't forget who they were and I themed each episode of the series around a famous movie so there was a board for "The Big Chill" and so on."
The commissioning executives had never been sold to like that before.
"It seemed to work though they did say they couldn't buy it the way it was. The way I'd written it, the central character died in the first episode. Apparently there was another series about to go out in which that happened as well. So I told them in my version the character could die at the very end and I'd write five prequels."
To write the six hours of television drama, Souter did some sums, worked out he could still provide for the family and quit AMV BBDO. He embarked on what he describes as 18 'amazing' months.
At the end of it, 'Married Single Other' began airing on Monday 22nd February 2010. It got more viewers than 'Downton Abbey' and was a critical as well as a popular hit.
But what Peter hadn't considered was that his main character dies. At the very end now rather than at the beginning. And that left him with a problem.
How to write a second series without the lead.
In fact, it wasn't going to happen.
"ITV simply felt they couldn't commission a second series. And, you know what, I don't mind. It was as it was."
That said, not a mistake he is likely to make again.
"If you write for American TV, you have to have an idea that will last for 100 episodes. At least it's only six over here," he says with a laugh.
Real life has a habit of intruding
Souter had written a script for Ealing Studios.
He had written twenty-four drafts, putting in far more work than the £30,000 he was paid for his eighteen months labour. Then he got fired off his own project.
"I was a little bit pissed off," he told me.
This is a flash of not so much anger as the recollection of anger. He's smiling almost immediately and he shrugs as if to say, that's the way these things are.
"Anyway, that same week I got a call from Omnicom.
I'd been doing the sums. When I worked out we could live as a family on what I'd saved up and on my income as a screenwriter, I had forgotten you have to pay for your kids to go to university. And I had three kids all in the pipeline so I went back to work again."
Fifth piece of work
Peter's wife, Maggie, is a lecturer at St Martins. Many successful writers and art directors in UK agencies today owe her a debt of gratitude for the grounding she gave them in advertising.
"Maggie is so smart, so multi-faceted in a way that men aren't", Peter says. "She's so balanced and it was great to be able to do something with her.
It was like a brief, actually.
Sky have these little short films they call 'Christmas Crackers' and I'd been asked to have a go at one. They couldn't have a Christian theme because they were going to appear all over the world but they did have to be cheering.
We were driving up to Leicester and Maggie and I wrote it together on the way up."
So, here he is, one of the loftier figures in UK advertising, and he's just told me his wife is brilliant; his art director was brilliant; Richard Curtis was brilliant; his radio play won awards because the actress, Juliet Stevenson, and the actor, Alex Jennings, were brilliant; his drama series was a success because his agent was brilliant.
There have been a couple of little give-aways. While the humility is genuine, you don't get to have achieved as much as Souter has without putting in some hard yakka.
He let slip that while he was the executive creative director of Abbott Mead Vickers, the largest agency in the UK, he got up at 4am every morning in order to write for 90 minutes before girding his loins for a day in the office.
Not everyone can do that.
Not everyone has the ambition.
"But, you know, I think it's so unambitious to only want to do one thing. I always wanted to do more than just write advertising. That's not to demean advertising because I love it. I just want to do other things as well."
So, my last question for him.
His foray into the wider world of creativity, has it helped him bring something different to the role of the executive creative director?
Two things, he thinks.
Firstly, a real appreciation of the talents and skills of people in advertising.
Secondly, an endorsement of those ambitions. His message to creative people is, don't limit yourselves. Have a go at anything and everything. Don't be bound by the rules.
He quotes his favourite saying, "If you think you can or if you think you can't, you're right."
I ask him, "Do you think you've become a teacher?"
"Maggie will roll her eyes if she reads this but yes, I do. I think the thing I do best is identify talent and enthusiasm in other people and smother it in praise.
I've become very interested in coaching. What I try to do is make people feel appreciated enough to do their best work."
He's still talking about other people rather than himself. And if you look at his website, petersouter.com, there is a section dedicated to the work of his teams at both AMV BBDO and at TBWA London, work he's overseen.
Of course, Peter Souter has an ego. But it's not a strutting, overbearing, cock-of-the-roost sort of ego, which all too often masks a brittle psychology.
No, Peter's ego is expressed in his output, not in his person.
Before we part, he gives me a slim book. It's his play, "Hello, Goodbye", which was performed at the Hampstead Theatre a year ago.
For somebody who has declared three times in the course of the interview that he's not a very good writer, he's writing a lot.
He leans forward to tell me that what he's working on right now is a TV series about a girl who takes over the dreams of all the men she sleeps with.
This time, he's going to make sure it could run for 100 episodes, if necessary.
That's the thing about creative people.
Nothing you've done is ever as good as your next ad is going to be.
Or, in Peter's case, his next TV series.