My Favourite Writing #10: John O'Driscoll

As our regular readers will know, it’s our belief that regardless of strategy, creativity and the creative crafts ultimately make the difference between great advertising and not-so-great advertising. And none more so than great writing. Regardless of media or technology, great writing is still the most powerful tool available to the marketer and advertiser. So we have been asking people whose opinions we respect to tell us their favourite three pieces of advertising writing. And thankfully most of them didn't tell us to fuck off. We’re running them as an irregular series. Today's is number ten, with fantastic selections and background stories from advertising luminary, legend, and all-round top bloke, John O'Driscoll. (There's a great new edition of "Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads?" the book that John co-created with David Abbott and Alfredo Marcantonio (which features some of John's classic Volkswagen work) more on that at the end of this post.) We really hope you enjoy this, as it's a real cracker...

"MY FAVOURITE WRITING – OR ADS THAT MADE A DIFFERENCE TO MY LIFE. Better own up straight away. I am an advertising nerd. Not as bad as Dave Dye but maybe a close second. Where most people can remember their first experiences, such as their first bike, first pet, first kiss, apart from my first fumble with a member of the opposite sex, the only other thing I remember with any real clarity is my first sight of a Volkswagen ad...

1 – Volkswagen. “The famous Italian designer suggested one change.”
It was in a copy of a magazine that my mum bought home from the posh house where she was a cleaner. The magazine was among others that were collected and put in a big pile in the shed for the sole purpose of helping to get the fire going on a winter’s morning. One day, while getting my bike out of the shed, I was attracted by the cover of a magazine that was on the top of the pile because of its illustration. I can’t remember what the drawing was of but it was an illustration and in colour.

This was my first encounter with THE NEW YORKER. In the late 50’s early 60’s, pre ‘Swinging London’ I loved anything American, its movies, its cars and its music. All American movies seem to be in colour, ours in black and white, they had the Chevrolet Corvette, we had the Sunbeam Alpine, they had Elvis, we had Cliff Richard. No contest. My hope was that the magazine might be full with pictures of film stars but on turning the pages I discovered there were none, in fact there no photographs to be seen, only page after page of text with the occasional cartoon with words underneath that were a little too sophisticated for a thirteen-year-old to find funny. The only thing that seemed to be in colour were the adverts. The ads for cars all looked a little alike and nearly all had pretty girls wearing bikinis or evening dresses and handsome men in riding outfits, standing by the car. On one page turn I came across a full page ad for the Volkswagen.

Click on image to enlarge

My first thought was why would you want to advertise a car that no one wanted to buy? In those days, here in the UK anyway, there wasn’t many VW’s on the road and when you saw one it was a bit of rarity. The impression I had as a kid was that they were very strange looking cars and I felt a little sorry for the owners as I imagined that they were very cheap and the best the owner could afford. And of course, they were German. The ad didn’t look like others in The New Yorker. It was not in colour and compared with the other ads for cars in the magazine it looked rather plain with its squared up picture with all the words underneath.

The picture of the car showed only its back view. There was what look like chalk marks drawn around the rear window. The ‘slogan’, as we called a headline in them days, read ‘The famous Italian designer suggested one change.’ The text, which was in three neat columns, then went to say that Volkswagen had asked a famous Italian car designer for tips to improve the look of the car and all he suggested was to make the rear window bigger. What? A famous Italian car designer didn’t suggest going back to the drawing board to start again. What was he thinking of? Obviously he thought the car looked okay and who was I to argue with him about that and he must know more about cars than a spotty youth. What I do remember about the ‘text’ was that they were the first words of an advert I’d ever read.

The next time I saw this ad was five years later. After leaving school at 15, first working as an apprentice signwriter, then as a messenger boy in a packaging design company, where I ended up doing finished artwork for Huntley and Palmer biscuit packets, I was now paste-up artist in a small ad agency called John Collins and Partners in Soho square. The ad was on the wall in the office of a new boy in the agency, his name was John Hegarty.

I had been off work with glandular fever for two months and John had joined in my absence. At that time and being a bit low down in the agency food chain I was unaware that John Collins was being considered as a catalyst for a new ‘creative’ agency of which John was to be a part. Two ex-colleagues of his, Charles Saatchi and Ross Cramer, whom he had worked with at Benton and Bowles and were joining from CDP to make it all happen. John had been told by the managing director that I was enthusiastic worker and keen (I was even a crawler in those days,) so he invited me into his office to tell me of the plan. Of course of what he told me meant nothing as my only ambition was to make the British athletic team as a triple jumper at the Mexico Olympics so I’d never heard of DDB or CDP or had ever considered that an ad could be ‘nice’ or ‘great’. To me an advert was just an advert.

I looked up at the wall and saw a tear sheet from a magazine pinned up. It was the ‘Famous Italian designer’ Volkswagen ad had I had seen in the copy of New Yorker five years earlier. I told John that I’d seen the ad before, and he informed me that it was done by an agency in America called Doyle Dane Bernbach and that the ad was one of the first in the campaign. John had kept it in his possession since 1961 as he too had seen the ad in the New Yorker when at art school. It was ads like that that inspired him to want to be in advertising.

2 – Talon. “Talon makes the nylon zipper for baseball players of all ages.”
There was another tear sheet taken from a magazine on John’s wall. At first glance it looked like it was a photographic version of a Peanuts cartoon. I had been aware of the strip but never had seen it as photograph. In fact I thought that’s what had happened, the drawings were now going to be all photography. Wasn’t till I looked closer that it had a logo. It was an advert too! Look at it. It’s wonderful. 

Click on image to enlarge
Was this the second, because of these two ads, that I felt that I might want to do this advertising lark? Well maybe not at that precise moment but it did cross my mind that if someone was having fun doing ads for an ugly German car and a zip, it can’t be a bad way to make a living. As time went on John encouraged me to check out other mags besides The New Yorker like Life magazine, The Saturday Evening Post and McCalls to see what other ‘great’ ads I might find. No visit to the newsagent for me as most of these American mags were all sitting in a pile at home. My mum never quite understood why would pore through them before they were put out into the shed.

It wasn’t long after that my dream of making it to Mexico was never going to materialise, as a triple jump coach, a tough scotsman called Tom McNab, told me unceremoniously on an Olympic potential course, that I would never make the grade as an international. “Your legs are too short laddie!" Which was just as well as dear John announced that he was making me his assistant. 

3 – Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce. “You've enough on your plate at Christmas, without worrying about cranberry sauce.”
I was working John Collins at the time when this ad appeared. It was pre-John Hegarty days so I was yet to be able to distinguish if it was a ‘good ad’ and just an ‘ad’. At home mum was still bringing those magazines from her job. By now the Sunday Times, accompanied by the new magazine, was on the reading list of mum’s employers and was also a candidate for the job as a fire lighter. One day I noticed my dear old Irish dad staring at the back of a copy before it was despatched to the shed. I looked over his shoulder to see what he was looking at. It was an ad. A really well taken picture of a Christmas dinner dominated the page. I could hear a little “umm” coming from his lips. Another look at the photograph showed that there was a great dollop of cranberry sauce being put on top of the slices of turkey. The ad was for Ocean Spray Cranberry sauce.


(Original was in glorious colour. Ad shown here is from the 1968 D&AD annual. Art director Neil Godfrey. Copywriter David Abbott. Photographer Tony Elliot.) Click image to enlarge.
*We now have a full-colour version of the above ad, kindly provided by Dave Dye. You can see it here.

The headline read “You’ve enough on your plate at Christmas without worrying about cranberry sauce.” My dad continued purr over the photo. In his gentle, but squeaky voiced Kerry accent, commented that we were looking at “a great feed” but you wouldn’t catch him putting any jam on his Christmas dinner.

The dream of a new agency wasn’t going to happen at John Collins as when I returned back from holiday it was announced that Ross, Charlie and John Hegarty were leaving to start a consultancy called Cramer Saatchi. I was crestfallen but not for long as John had arranged for me have an interview at DDB to work in the ‘bullpen’ (the American name for the ‘studio’) as a paste-up artist with the possibility of becoming an assistant there to one of the art directors which I eventually did.

At my interview with the studio manager Keith Craddock, I was shown around the agency and was led to a wall with some of the ads the agency had produced since it had opened in London. To my surprise and delight there on the wall was the ad for Ocean Spray that my father had spotted on the back of the Sunday Times. Of course relating story to Keith must have helped as I was hired. (Once a crawler etc.)

Now the reason for this lengthy missive about the ads for VW, Talon Zippers and Ocean Spray was to confirm the mantra according to the real sage of advertising Howard Gossage along with Bill Bernbach. 

Mr Gossage wrote: 'The real fact of the matter is that nobody reads ads. People read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad.'

Nowadays, since the rediscovery of Gossages legacy, that ‘mantra’ is often repeated by all the great and good but I fear not really taken seriously by many practitioners in our glorious profession, which is sad, as it’s maybe the only truism that exists in advertising.

An admission, I respond to Cillit Bang ads. Why? Because I am interested. Because I have OCD. 

Ask the wife, I’m a nutter. I respond to any cleaning ads. “Umm I wonder if that Barry Scott jollop will get the kitchen sink cleaner than with that Cif shit.” And do you know what, it works, even if it does strip the skin of your fingers if you don’t wear rubber gloves. 

My ancient anecdotes prove Howard Gossage was on the button. It was because I was just mad about all things American and came across a copy of THE NEW YORKER. Then after turning a few pages I happened upon the VW ‘Italian designer’ ad and found it interesting that an Italian designer suggested making only the rear window of the car bigger.

The attraction of the Talon zipper was down to the fact that I thought it was a Peanut cartoon but in pictures. Also the ad is funny. A laugh always helps when you want to interest folk. (I’ve asked the senior men at Sell! Sell! if they would attached the other Talon zipper ads I found on the internet - All good stuff and you’d wish you’d done them.) [We've added these at the bottom of the post]

Food in the 60’s never really interested me so I would never taken much notice of the Ocean Spray ad. It was only bought to my attention because of my dad's keen interest in all things edible. Especially Christmas dinners.

Interesting eh? Maybe not."

Thanks John, fantastic stuff. Now onto the book I mentioned at the top. You probably know the book "Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads?" In fact if you have any interest in advertising, you probably own a copy, or have read it at least. It is the definitive archive of the most influential advertising ever made. The good news is that John and Alfredo Marcantonio, two of the original authors of the book (along with the great David Abbott) have just released a new, updated edition.




"This much enlarged and updated edition is illustrated with over 450 reproductions of press advertisements and TV commercial storyboards primarily featuring the VW Beetle, but also the Van, Bus and Camper and finally the VW Fastback and Squareback vehicles. Also included is a new section devoted to the billboards created by DDB in Los Angeles, as well as some of the ads created by their offices in Europe. The book is the result of years of research and numerous face-to-face meetings between the internationally renowned authors and DDB and Volkswagen executives around the world." It's well worth a look, even if you have the original. You can get a copy here.

Previous MFWs:

My Favourite Writing #1: Mark Denton
My Favourite Writing #2: Drayton Bird
My Favourite Writing #3: Ben Kay
My Favourite Writing #4: Dave Trott
My Favourite Writing #5: Vinny Warren
My Favourite Writing #6: John Allison
My Favourite Writing #7: Stuart Harkness
My Favourite Writing #8: George Parker
My Favourite Writing #9: Steve Harrison

Or click here to read them all, in reverse order...

Those great Talon ads (click the images to enlarge)...







4 comments:

  1. Great stuff.

    Enjoyed reading John's stories, would love to hear more of them.

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  2. I haven't seen those Talon ads before – "Last night Mrs. Mrs Mary Powers opened on Broadway." is a great line.

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  3. A right rollocking, riveting read. A great piece of writing about great writing. Totally agree with the Gossage quote. Excellent copy seems to be a dying art these days.

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    1. Show me a great copywriter, and I'll show you one of the last earnest (wo)men on earth.

      If you want to write copy that produces affect - that actually changes behaviour - you have to be earnest. There's no way to signal "coolness" and no "pose" to be struck. Wryrony gets in the way of the argument more often than not. And most people just can't deal with that anymore.

      Why would you engage with something at all if not to show how disengaged from it you are?

      Delete