This week, we’re grilling Martin Davey, Kent-based creative director, copywriter, author, visiting lecturer at UAL, dad, wannabe actor, and Spurs fan. Let’s find out why he takes a torch to bed.
I realised very early on in life that I liked coming up with ideas for things, all kinds of things, mad things, stupid things, and things that it’s probably best not to dwell on right now.
My mother didn’t speak to me for a week when I reimagined my new football kit into a superhero costume with handy new pockets and savage designs scrawled across it in biro. I wanted to be Wolverine that week – not Bryan Robson.
I was incredibly impatient too. I wanted to make stuff and I wanted people to see it – everywhere.
I remember seeing people in the cinema laughing at the ads but not the funny film they’d paid to see, or sitting on the tube and watching as commuters read the tube cards and smiled, even though they were surrounded by sweaty armpits and mouth-breathers on the Northern Line.
Then there was the Holy Grail, hearing children shouting, ‘You know when you’ve been Tango’d’ at the top of their voices!
That was modern magic – and I was hooked.
So, you studied at St Martin’s School of Art?
I did, and it changed my life. The St Martin’s that I was lucky, really lucky to get a place at was located on Long Acre in Covent Garden. The Art and Design BA course was a bit of a free-for-all, to be honest. It was manic and at times bewildering, but for the first time since I’d picked up a 2B pencil and an A3 cartridge pad, I was surrounded by lots of other square pegs and encouraged not to go looking for any circular openings.
The Registrar at CSM kindly decoded my signature on my first day and I was known to all and sundry for the entirety of the first term as Mortimer Darcy and not Martin Davey. An easy mistake to make.
What would you have done in another life?
I would have loved to have been an actor. Brendan Gleeson started his acting career later on in life, so there may still be hope for me, but don’t tell my children. I’m embarrassing enough already.
You worked at Y and R. Nice one. Any particular highlights?
Winning the entirety of the Ford account was a big moment at Y and R. Sam Hurford was the lead creative on that pitch and I learnt a lot from him. The creative department, led by Mike Cozens, was really good. It wasn’t a fashionable agency at the time, and it had a bit of an image problem, but we did some great work for clients that hadn’t been ready or confident enough to buy edgy work in the past.
One particular highlight that springs to mind is the moment I was nearly blown up by an overzealous film director in the Saharan Desert on an HP Sauce shoot. Excited directors with three Moroccan Army helicopters and far too many explosives is not a great cocktail for safety and restraint.
Then there was the time I was beaten up by a crowd of angry French film extras dressed up as policemen. I had volunteered to dress up as a bank robber. That’s showbusiness.
People in agencies often refer to big brands like Amex as being somewhat like an aircraft carrier, because they’re very difficult to turn around from a creative perspective. Creative teams often find ways not to work on clients like these.
When I joined Ogilvy, Amex was an aircraft carrier pulling another aircraft carrier behind it with the anchor still attached to the seabed, but luckily, it had recently received a new Captain and he was turning things around smartly.
You can create fantastic work on any client in any agency if you have the energy, experience and the backing of someone who believes in the work. I created some of my best work on Amex with an inspirational CD.
Anything else stand out for you at Ogilvy?
Dennis Lewis was my CD and mentor, and I was lucky to spend five years working with him on Amex, Ford and BP. We worked closely with the amazing Kuentzel and Degas design group in Paris on Amex. They were bonkers and Tres French.
One day they were creating film titles for Spielberg and the next they were having a screaming row with each other over the size of their new designs for a Mexican Day of the Dead-inspired digital speaker. I loved them dearly, but I didn’t love the late-night, smelly, Eurostar journeys back and forth.
What do you prefer? Creative direction or pure writing?
I’ve recently taken up the position of Visiting Lecturer at the University of the Arts London and because of COVID, I’ve had to take part in more than my fair share of the DOOM of the ZOOM.
When I see a wall of students’ faces, I can see how hard it is for them all right now, so, during these calls, I brief them on new projects, crit their work and do my best to make them smile and laugh. This is the creative direction that I love, and it fills up a different part of me to my writing, but don’t tell my writing that: it’s being difficult with me at the moment.
How would you describe yourself today?
After I ‘left’ my last agency, one of the senior account managers told a close friend of mine what they thought of me. On hearing what they had to say, I was hurt and happy in equal measure. “Martin is a brilliant creative but he’s difficult.” When my friend asked them to explain or enlarge on that, they said: “Well, he comes up with amazing ideas and then he fights to get them made.” Make of that what you will.
How do you come up with ideas?
I do my research. I find out everything there is to know about the product and the brand I’m working on. Then I scribble it down in my unique shorthand. My notebooks are full of doodles and sentences, sketches and sticky little bits of whatever I was eating at the time.
It’s all a bit random and chaotic, but that works for me. Those pages could make everyone at Bletchley Park cry. Then I look at what the brand’s competitors are doing. After I’ve filled my noggin up with stuff, I turn my mind off and make sure I take a torch to bed with me. It’s nothing kinky, I promise – my best ideas come when I’m not pushing myself too hard, and mostly in the middle of the night, hence the torch.
Any copywriting heroes?
David Abbott, Tim Delaney, Will Awdry, Steve Dunn, Dave Dye, John Webster.
How do you drum up work as a freelancer?
I’ve ditched the drums and started using a small fire perched on the top of a large hill and a blanket. There’s a lot of noise out there at the moment and you’ve got to find new ways to get someone’s attention.
Seriously though, it’s hard out there and it’s tougher than it ever has been. Some people like to take the-squeaky-wheel-gets-the-most-oil approach on social media, and it works for them. I think that there’s a massive issue with recruiters at the moment but that’s a subject for another day. I’m lucky enough to have a couple of friendly, small-agency contacts that send a flare up every now and again.
Who’s your perfect client?
SEAT Barcelona. SEAT’s headquarters are in a beautiful and yet brutalist building in the Zona Franca, which is a huge business park on the outskirts of the city. Franco would have been proud of the architecture and the layout.
The clients on the account were ferocious in their pursuit of an idea and there weren’t too many layers of approval either. When they fell in love with an idea, they fought for it. Sadly, there aren’t too many of those clients around at the moment.
Which ad campaign would you give your left arm to have come up with?
Volkswagon’s ‘Surprisingly Ordinary Prices’ was amazing, so was the VW Polo ‘Make Yourself Small’ campaign. I remember seeing the Jonathan Glazer TVC spot for it and getting angry with myself.
Marco! Marco! Marco! The Guinness ‘Good Things Come to Those Who Wait’ campaign was bright, subtle and clever, brilliant work.
My favourite campaign, if you hold a spud–gun to my head is the English National Heritage campaign from Leagas Delaney. Try this headline on for size and then read on. It was a long copy print ad – not one word is redundant, and the art direction is so sharp, you could remove a rowdy monarch’s head with it.
If you build a castle for a man who is renowned for chopping people’s heads off, you build a really nice castle.
How do you fill your time from five to nine?
If I had a bull terrier, I would be walking the pooch through the woods nearby and avoiding dear old QWERTY. Since I do not own a hound yet, my wife wants something called a cockerpoo. I have no idea what that is. I spend all of my time writing and hoping that Jose Mourinho can turn things around at my beloved Spurs.
Tell us about The Black Museum
My fifth novel in the Black Museum series should be out shortly. My agent and publisher, Adam Strange, might have other ideas about that, but that’s the plan. The main character in them all is DCI Judas Iscariot, yes, that Judas Iscariot: he leads the Met’s occult magic division and deals with the crimes that the normal plod avoid.
WW2 Black Sun Magicians, a couple of Archangels, mysterious gangs, ley lines and lots of other things that cross the boundaries between the worlds of the mundane and the Fae make an appearance or two. We’re in talks, very early talks, with a producer to take Judas from the page to the screen too.
Any copywriting books you can recommend?
The Trott Notes (If you can still find a copy).
The Leagas Delaney Perfectly Bound books are brilliant.
Anything by Dave Trott – obviously.
What do you do for breakfast?
Drink my coffee quickly and then hide from the children.