Len Potts, the creative mind behind some of New Zealand’s most memorable ad campaigns, died peacefully at home on 5 October after a short illness, only a few days short of his 75th birthday.
As far as ad men go, there could be no one more fitting than Potts to share his year of departure with David Bowie and Prince.
He was creative, bold and never afraid to push an idea to its limits. He was the consummate Kiwi creative, who drew inspiration from the land he called home rather than borrowing from abroad.
An oft-repeated anecdote of Potts tells of how he refused to fly from Wellington to Auckland, preferring instead to drive and stopping off at pubs along the way. The legend goes that it was during these adventures, outside the advertising echo chamber, in the conversations with ordinary New Zealanders, that he found his best ideas.
This thoroughly Kiwi creative voice is perhaps most evident in his own voice, which he lent to BNZ for its landmark ‘Who are we’ campaign. Rather than leaning on the British accent, which had for so long been used in Kiwi advertising, Potts instead chose to do the voice-over himself, and in the process established BNZ as a home-grown bank.
Potts worked on the BNZ ad during his tenure at Colenso, which at the time was still located in Wellington. It was at this agency, working alongside his good mate and other industry stalwart Roger MacDonnell, that Potts would carve out his legendary status.
Speaking about his old pal ‘Pottsy’, MacDonnell said the pair had an intense 14- to 15-year relationship, which, interestingly, didn’t start in New Zealand.
“I actually met him in Chicago,” remembers MacDonnell.
“I was at this terrible AdNews conference and he happened to be there too.”
MacDonnell, who was in Chicago with his wife, said that he was so disappointed in the conference that they decided to take a trip to Hawaii instead. It was while buying sunscreen in a store that he first met Potts.
“I was standing there when I saw this tall man with a mop of black hair, and I said to my wife, ‘I think that’s Len Potts’”.
It was Potts, and as serendipity would have it, he was also heading to Hawaii for a little break.
While in Hawaii, the pair met up and spent some time together, eating, having drinks and getting to know one another.
Potts left Hawaii earlier than MacDonnell, but the first domino of their history had essentially been knocked over.
At the time, Potts was working for Lintas and he would later go across to Australia for a short stint there. But the draw of the homeland remained strong, and Potts soon called up MacDonnell, requesting a job.
MacDonnell obliged, and Potts became part of the team at Colenso.
“I remember [a few people] questioning the decision to hire Pottsy because they didn’t think he was good enough,” says MacDonnell, laughing as he looks back.
MacDonnell says all this doubt was put to rest as soon as Potts started developing a consistent stream of standout work.
Of all the great campaigns developed by Potts—and there were a great many—MacDonnell says the one that has really come to symbolise his brilliance was Toyota’s Crumpy and Scotty ad.
“I honestly think that was the best piece of work Toyota had running in the world at the time,” MacDonnell says.
And he recalls Potts being perhaps a little over-invested in the creative process.
“Pottsy could do Crumpy better than Crumpy could do Crumpy,” he jokes.
But like many great creative minds, Potts also proved a bit difficult to rein in from time to time, says MacDonnell.
"We'd sometimes leave the office for a while to crack a brief, and it was always a challenge to keep him away from the golf course or the bar. It was a constant arm wrestle."
MacDonnell isn’t the only one with the odd quirky story about Potts. Another one of his friends, Mike Hutcheson is well known as a bit of storyteller and one of his favourite narratives involves a haircut Potts took during work hours.
The story goes that a particularly grumpy manager didn’t like people leaving the office during work time, but Potts obviously wasn’t fazed by this. So rather than waiting for the weekend, he popped down to the barber for a snip during the workday. Upon his return, the manager fumed about how he could take off work time to get a haircut. And Potts simply smiled and retorted, “Well, my hair grew during work time.”
While there’s clear sadness in his voice, Hutcheson can’t help but chuckle as he tells another story featuring Potts’ cheekiness.
“We once had a client who was worried about whether he could afford a full-page ad, so he asked Pottsy if he could rework his ad into a half-page one. Pottsy just tore the full-page ad in half and said ‘there’s your ad’.”
The random anecdotes keep rolling from Hutcheson and MacDonnell, as they recount some of their best years.
But perhaps the most accurate summary of the life of this great ad man lies in a single laconic sentence from MacDonnell:
“He was a dear friend and probably the funniest guy I’ve ever met.”
- Potts is survived by his wife Judy and four children.
Friends and family are invited to The Old Church, 199 Meeanee Road, Napier, on Sunday 9 October at 12 midday to celebrate a life well lived.
The family has requested that loved ones not send flowers, and instead invites them to make donations to Project Prima Volta in memory of the great man. Donations can be posted to PO Box 12223, Ahuriri, Napier.