Just about this time last year, one of our more charismatic advertising leaders took off to write ads in the sky. Lots of people miss Devo. But even as emotion and nostalgia lead us to chat about ‘good old days’ and ‘legendary lunches’. I think he’d think we missed the point. So I’d like to take a moment to celebrate the influence of a man who was never shy to share an opinion – and why those opinions continue to help people like me, every day.
David Walden – Chairman
I first met Devo about ten years ago when he ‘vetted’ me before joining his agency. Those ten-minute, three-question interviews were famous. His questions were irrelevant. He had this way of clocking exactly who you were, from the minute you walked in the room. But it wasn’t until five years later that I realised how well he’d clocked me.
I started an agency at about the time Devo retired from his. He instantly assumed the role of chairman. It was unofficial, uninvited and often-as-not unwanted. But nobody says no to Devo. And I can’t express the privilege of the ultimately precious time he shared with us.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, you’ll go effing bankrupt’
Devo wasn’t one to hold back. Straight between the eyes with no room for misinterpretation. I have never been so battered, bruised and bullied by anyone in my life. “Clients buy smarts, not smart arse.”, “No-one works for you, everyone works with you”, “I keep hearing your name where I shouldn’t, pull your fucking head in” and his standard opening to just about everything: “Don’t be ridiculous…” Every caning left a mark. But those welts reveal wisdom over time. And in spite of significantly less contact time recently, I’ve learned more from Devo in the last year than the previous ten combined.
Fail fast. Learn something. Move on.
This was the most important lesson. And being someone who likes to touch the fire to make sure it’s actually hot, it resonates with me. “If you’re not learning, you’re not growing” he’d tell me. “And If learning doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right.”
And, like so many of his irritating and often condescending one liners, he was right. In an industry that changes at the pace of fashion, and actively celebrates the breaking of rules, it’s impossible not to fail. But it’s dancing through the minefield of failing and learning and doing it all again that makes it so much fun.
Everyone is a mentor
During my time with Devo, it also became apparent that Obi-Wan was Yoda and Yoda was Obi-Wan. While everyone needs a mentor (or three) there’s plenty of them out there. It’s tempting to think you should look up to find a mentor. But you only need to look out. I’m lucky enough to get great advice from various people – and many of them are significantly younger and significantly wiser than me. In an industry that gets paid to be opinionated, there are brilliant mentors everywhere.
Advertising is not a cure for cancer
That’s one of Devo’s most famous (and ironic) one liners. And again he’s right. The very last time I chatted to him he had one more lesson. We were reminiscing about fun times and he looked me straight in the eye and almost turned serious. “The lunches, the parties, the stories, they’re not the real story, Michael…. The only story is people.”
And he’s right about that too. Like any well-crafted brand, every new campaign or selling message ladders up to the core vision: Look after family. Look after the team. And look after the client – in that order of priority.
If all else fails, drink Pinot
It wouldn’t be right to write about Devo without acknowledging the anaesthetic value of Roaring Meg. But the parties and the drinks and ego-led bravado are simply a cushion for the chaos, confusion and rounds of rejection that advertising can throw.
No matter how much we love the industry, we have to love to hate it too. It’s how you bounce the bad stuff, it’s how you focus on family – and it’s the only way to get up in the morning and do it all again… – “with some passion this time”.
It’s beyond sad that Devo isn’t around to watch his puppets and playthings grow up and make mistakes and learn. But we all know he’s watching. And no matter what trouble he’s causing at the big board table in the sky, Devo Is still hard at work at Hunch. Every single day.
That’s what I reckon. What do you think?
Michael Goldthorpe is managing partner at Hunch and Stretch.Media – if you’re looking for him on 03 October, he’ll be having a drink somewhere ‘with Devo’.