Former organ builder and now Paris copywriter Andrew Jolliffe has always danced to a different tune. His has been a wild, rolling, roaring, switchback, high-wire circus of a life, complete with fireworks. In fact, he’s such a good storyteller, he probably made it all up.
Thank you, I’m chuffed. Backstories are crucial to copywriters because real experiences are the fodder of original writing. Brilliant though the web is, it’s like a vending machine. It gives you what you ask. Experience often surprises. And surprises stick in heads.
So yes, I was an organ builder first. I quit school with six piss-poor O-levels and got an apprenticeship. The first few months, I swept floors, bought people fags, made industrial-strength tea, had a pint of animal glue poured down my y-fronts, learned my four-letter vocabulary and went from there.
I made it to foreman, and even tuned the organ in St Paul’s for Charles and Di’s wedding. Poor girl.
Organ building isn’t well paid so I lived in a grubby, fridge-less, cooker-less, fauna-ridden bedsit off the Essex road. My immediate neighbours were a porno cinema owner and a cheque-book forger from Barnsley.
To get out, I joined the London Symphony Chorus where we sang under Bernstein, Boulez, André Previn, Abbado and Jessye Norman. That was just in 18 months.
The joy about organs is that they last for centuries. Not like print ads, which take just as much effort, run for a week and wrap fish and chips the next. Organ building is about creating something of value. That’s something we can all learn from.
You ran off to Italy. Tell me more.
Correct. I was 25 with itchy feet, shoulder-length hair and the libido of a stallion. Remember that this was the Thatcher era when everyone believed the world was theirs.
The downside was that every Brit turned into a me-me-capitalist and lost all sense of unity. So I found an organ builder, Mascioni, in the mountains near Lake Maggiore, wrote to them and they said yes. Never underestimate a decent letter. It’ll get you anywhere.
A month there became a year. Organs have to be serviced on site so we often hit Rome, Naples, Montecasino, Amalfi and Manfredionia where I fell in love three times, proposed to a barmaid and nearly fell to my death off a church roof. One colleague said he wished I had as my Italian was terrible.
We often slept in monasteries in silence, but once in Benevento I woke up to screaming. A Holy Father found out that a workmate had unplugged the electric rosary in his room to watch a rugby match.
It was all a joy. I learned to socialise, foxtrot, keep pigs, make polenta till my arms nearly snapped and realise what single-minded belief was. Mascioni have been going since 1828. They know they’ll be there in 2128. Ask why, and they’d show you why. Enough said.
You then ran a fireworks business. How did that come about?
By chance. I got back from Italy feeling a bit lost. Perhaps I’d had too good a time. Organs fascinate me and still do, but I fancied a change.
I bumped into an old mate who did firework shows and hung about with him. His practices were lethal but he had good connections and we did shows for the opening of the Design Museum, Lloyd’s bicentenary and the campaign to save the Albert Memorial.
He then got bored and went to Madagascar to be a rock-crystal dealer, as one does, so I bought his business. He kissed my feet.
What people don’t see at firework shows is the hard slog. Humping crates of mortars across fields in the pissing rain. Cleaning blackened, clumsy, farty-smelling kit down at 4am and setting off for the next show at six. Being rained on by old shell casings, burned-out stars and black sooty stuff. I was welcome to it.
So I made it welcome me. I bought some new easy-to-handle modular kit, and went round the world with it. Fox Fireworks fired shows off Caribbean beaches, deserts in Dubai, Turkish ski slopes and parade grounds in Lagos.
Our clients included David Sainsbury, Desmond Tutu, Bill Gates, sheiks and royalty. It was a whirl, but hard. If you think advertising is cut-throat, try fireworks people.
Some are out to murder you. Spread stories, sabotage your kit and worse. So I learned fast to market myself. It’s not about making stuff up, but doing a fab job and therefore having something to say. Ding.
Any funny fireworks stories?
Plenty. There was the show on a beach where the tide tables were out of date and we were up to our balls in seawater connecting wires and praying. The London rooftop show, where a stroppy little weasel of a council official told us to stop firing. I talked him into letting us shoot one more sequence, so I jabbed every button on the panel and blew 20 minutes of fireworks in 10 seconds. It stopped all traffic on the A10 and won us the show for Microsoft’s 10th birthday.
The divorce party where a drunk surgeon ran onto the site and dropped a lit cigar down a loaded mortar. After the show, the ex-wife ran up and snogged me.
Blowing a shop’s windows out on Madagascan Independence Day.
The Dubai display, when we packed in a hurry to get a plane, forgetting there was a roll of fuse and a live shell in my case. There followed a sphincter-loosening police interview. A chair-and-lamp job. Horrible.
But I think the prize goes to Spencer House, next to Clarence House where the Queen Mother lived. Show over, we drove the truck past the armed guards, parked and opened up. I felt something cold in my back. It was a Kalashnikov.
Two tragedies, too. We killed a client’s dog, poor thing. It wandered onto the site as we were firing and leant over a tube. Its head was jam sponge.
The second was our nemesis. A freak air current took a shell into the crowd and burnt two supermodels. It wasn’t technically our fault as we went overboard on safety. But right then I was glad we spent £38,000 a year on insurance premiums.
It left a very bitter taste in my mouth. Six months after, I’d sold up.
So, a pretty impressive advertising career followed. What led you to that?
Not as impressive as many, but thanks all the same. Here’s a thing. One bit of the fireworks game I really enjoyed was designing shows and releases and stories.
They got me onto the James Whale show, ‘Midweek’ on Radio 4 with Libby Purves and full-page spreads in the Times, Tatler, the Telegraph and Standard. They wowed people.
Advertising, I thought, must be like that. It also sounded like a job where I could be my real self, warts, quirks and all, and get paid for it. And as I was picking my nose wondering what to do, I thought I’d try.
And how did you get in?
I didn’t have a clue, so hand-wrote letters to 50 creative directors asking how. I got three replies. Axel Chaldicott said ‘Go and buy a layout pad and some crayons, and draw some ads. This is called your book’.
Simon Kershaw said I was nuts. Actually many people said I was nuts because I was 33. Already over the advertising hill age-wise, even then.
Patrick Collister at Ogilvy sent me a copy test. He was maybe the last CD to set them. Though the ad business was looking more to colleges to supply ready-made talent, Patrick believed it came from the weirdest places. It does.
For my test, I described a stapler, invented a bar-code reader for nut allergy sufferers and wrote an ad for a cattery. It was a terrible ad, but Patrick gave me a shot. He gave me a daily roasting and paired me up with a Scottish lad who just said the three words, ‘Uh’, ‘Aye’ and ‘Och’, but had a heart of gold.
After two weeks, the look in Patrick’s eyes convinced me that was it, but by chance a bright veteran called Nick Parton had seen my book and offered me time under his wing. He’d just won that year’s awards for ‘Don’t rough it. Live life in Comfort’.
He lived on red wine and Ian McEwan. He taught me about being simple, the difference between abstraction and communication and the importance of arguing, never just agreeing. No effective piece of advertising has ever come about by consensus.
Getting in was luck, gumption, kindness, instinct and, knowing me, probably compassion.
Who were your early heroes?
Patrick and Nick for a start. A few doors down lived Norman Berry, nearly 80, who got through 50 Marlboro a day and taught me that the singular big idea is the vehicle for everything. It is. Meanwhile, Mark Fairbanks, Mark Denton and David Ryland worked me hard. It’s the easiest way. I’m grateful.
Like any starving writer, I worshipped Dave Abbott, Neil French and Chris O’Shea. His Death Cigarettes long copy ads were killers and even made me smoke more. They made persuasive writing look effortless.
Their work taught me to practise till sunrise, show my work to everyone from the CEO to the cleaners, and see criticism as nourishment. Some of today’s beginners get offended if you even comment.
One more hero. I moved to BBH later under Will Awdry, who’s both the kindest man on Earth and the most constructive critic. The two go hand in hand like a glove. We’re now best mates.
You’ve done some top work. Anything that stands out for you?
Again, thanks. Impostor syndrome kicks in here a bit. My portrait doesn’t hang in halls of fame. I’m not an icon, though some have patted me on the back. But I can write.
All the reviews, the critiques, the awards, they’ve mostly been for my knack for expression. I’m proud of Allianz’s ‘The only insurance catalogue you’ll ever want to read’, Vittel’s ‘There’s something in the water’, the Grey Goose vodka relaunch, the Dove Hair rebrand, Vuitton’s ‘Journeys’ campaign and the Wusthoff Knives print work with no copy at all.
We all should be proud of work that stays in minds for years. When I see ‘Moving your way’ on a Europcar van or ‘Playtime, anytime’ in a Golden Tulip hotel, I feel a glow. Their targets own them as much as I do.
Enough self-worship. Another top job is rearing young copywriters. I love teaching anyone who listens. In return, they tell me about this century.
We can use the past as a reference for standards, even methods, but they’re no good without new cultural references. I also have a sickening pathological fear of having an old mind. My body can do what it likes.
Finally, there’s Potapych. A film of a true story of a bear in Moscow Zoo, which I co-wrote with animator Darren Price about 15 years ago. It won us a Bafta. That’s an honour.
You’ve also had some amazing life experiences. Give us a story or two.
I suppose I have. Here’s a thing. When you write, any experience is material. Even suffering. Death. Misfortune. Adversity. So in that respect, I’m lucky. I’ve had cancer twice, cheated death even more times, been twice divorced, lost four close friends to suicide, lost another fiancée, been bust and boomed a few times over.
I’ll use them all one day. Life shouldn’t be just a middle-class prosperity curve. More a first-class switchback railway.
Just as important are things you do. Really do. I’ve written classical music, had a piece played at Kings Place a couple of years ago. I tell you picking up an advertising award doesn’t feel anything like taking a bow in a concert hall in front of 1000 people.
I went on a TV cookery show and lost because I said something dirty about Piers Burton Page and didn’t know my mike was on. I’ve helped MPs get to power. Kept bees. Learnt the cello. I’m still terrible but what the hell.
I met the Queen Mother twice. The first time, she dropped a vol-au-vent at a reception as we were talking, so I heeled it under a 16th-century sideboard. She thanked me and remembered next time.
When I was 25, I eloped with a 55-year-old divorced actress. Part of her settlement was that her ex paid her Harrods bills, so at weekends we picnicked on foie gras en croute, Beluga caviar, crème caramels with spun sugar domes and vintage Krug Champagne in breezy fields of wild poppies. You should try it one day.
What are you up to these days?
I’m a very busy freelancer in Paris, writing for clients here as well as New York, London, Sydney and Oslo. I came here 12 years ago to do a few weeks’ work at Ogilvy Paris and stayed for nine years till they shot me.
I’ve forgiven them, but luckily I’d built a database of everyone who’d moved on ahead of me, so when it happened I hit the button and the phone started to ring.
As well as writing strategies, ads and content, I counsel my clients and hold their hands as if they were my kids. I hold talks on what good writing does for brands, always do happy birthdays, get drunk with them and teach them politically incorrect English jokes.
Close-up fun means being at ease, which leads to stronger work. That said, I’m also frank. I say and why and bollocks more than just yes. The French have got used to it.
I’m busy and work as hard as ever because I’m at home here. Yes, France has its quirks. Its bureaucracy is byzantine. Calling the tax office takes as long as earning the tax. I wrote a 1000-word mail to the Bibliothèque National de France once and got a one-word reply: ‘Non’.
Order a sofa and they leave it at the bottom of three flights of stairs. But France does exist for its people. Here, socialism is a working human function, not some plonky political ploy. A baker, metalworker surgeon or top couturier are regarded as serenely as each other.
Our health service works because about 20% of incomes go on national insurance. Nobody tries not to pay it.
There’s a sense of unity that you don’t see till you learn French and embrace the place. If you want to live here, do that fast. Read papers, see films, talk, seduce. If you get only one word in 30, no sweat.
Get nationality and join things. I sing in the Sorbonne Choir, put on concerts and work in a soup kitchen over the winter. If you want backstories, that’s the place but with respect I share them with no one.
I came here as a gangly teenager, fell in love with it all and vowed to come back. I did briefly in 1989 to design the Disneyland Paris fireworks with Daniel Azancot, who did the big shows for Jarre. The call from Ogilvy Paris was like a holy calling. It was meant to be.
Who’s your dream client?
I have three, sorry. First, the people I work for now. They’re my second family. Number 2, the most obscure, tiny, hidden, unintelligible, squinky little brand with a world-saving product they’ll let me do anything to sell.
Everyone wants to work on Nike or Coke. I’d prefer to grow the next one. Blessed are the growers, cursed will be the braggers.
And of course, anyone who listens, knows what an idea is, sees what it’s worth and loves craft. It doesn’t have to be a mega-brand. They could make colostomy bags for all I care. I draw the line only at brands who fuck the world over with non-recyclable packaging. They should be shot.
Do you have any thoughts on niching?
Yes, for Christ’s sake have a niche. It’s elementary brand positioning, and if we don’t practise it, our clients won’t either. Get known for excelling at one thing and know others who complement you.
I’m an English ad writer who can draw on experiences to find unique styles. I don’t do one-style-fits-all copy, though some say it exists. I don’t write in French, though I can pen a love letter. I can’t art-direct to save my arse. Let it be always thus.
A freelancer trying to be an all-rounder is like a haircare brand that goes into body care, then onto care accessories, beachware, beach barbeques, then the sausages to go on them, loses its way then goes belly-up, flogs the lot to WPP and vanishes. Be your brand, whoever you are.
What does the future hold?
It won’t hold anything unless we stop haemorrhaging skills. The people who agency holding companies have ritually slaughtered have them all. Nobody can attract, intrigue and engage by recycling data, repeatedly nagging or boring the crap out of people. Consumers aren’t thick. They need intelligent reasons to act or change their ways, let alone buy anything.
We must be craftspeople again. Craft is about caring. About treating consumers as intelligent beings, not numbers or plankton. An amoeba could tell you that sloppy work says a brand doesn’t give a fuck. Craft is an investment. It shows the world you’re going to be about for a long time.
A bigger thing. Brands and economies can’t grow ad infinitum or we’ll all die. Advertising has to be less about encouraging consumption and more about changing behaviour. It’s just as fun. It’s just a bigger challenge than a car or a bag of Skittles.
Any advice for copywriting newbies?
Yes. Do more than me. Real experiences turn into thoughts, phrases and ways of saying things that catch eyes and ears. Ride an armoured car. Go down a sewer. Watch a heart operation. Shadow a train driver for a day. Get arrested. Anything but sit and gawp at a bloody screen.
Don’t arse-lick, suck up to your superiors, screw the boss or do politics to get ahead. That all stinks. You’ll get found out. Just be great.
Speak what you think. Today, people say something’s great because their colleagues do. Even when it’s crap. Say it’s crap. Make people wince. Nobody will fire you.
And just be kind. Do that and others will be, too, and teach you how to be great.
Thanks for letting me ramble. Time for a glass.