Norman Berry (1931-2010)

A Personal Tribute from Richard Fowler

norman berry

I was always told that a good advertisement should have tension between the headline and the picture.  Norman was a good ad.

The headline:  a shirt like no other, inspired by seeing Dr. Zhivago and made by Turnbull & Asser.  A floppy mound of hair, hence Mr. Whippy.  A handsome face.  A propensity to stoop.  A rich, friendly voice.  Intelligent eyes.  And yes, a pall of smoke.

The visual:  an office full of honey-coloured old pine furniture, more at home in the Cotswolds than Manhattan.  Eighteenth-century pictures of dogs.  A convertible Bentley driven by an ex-typographer called John.

The great thing about this ad is that it could be adjusted to fit any space.  In New York, bowling alley size, in London a snug.

You couldn’t separate headline from visual either.  In London, shortly after we were led into the wilderness of Canary Wharf, everyone was to get new furniture.  My office was next to Norman’s.  The office manager came round, London accent included, “So Norm, when would you like the removals van to come and take away all this junk?”  Norman went apoplectic:  “If my furniture goes, I go,” swiftly followed by a call to Mike Walsh, Chairman of the London office at the time.

The furniture stayed and so did Norman, fortunately until well after his official sell-by date, dispensing wisdom and incisive thinking to those lucky enough to hear it.

• • • • • •

Norman was born to be in advertising. He and his brother were photographed as young boys in their white shirts sailing a boat on a pond for an early Persil "Mums" ad. His father was creative director for Lever Brothers.

Norman was at Lintas and then Young & Rubicam where he became Creative Director.  And then in 1964, Norman co-founded what became Davidson Pearce Berry and Spottiswoode.  It was the beginning of the flowering of the English ad scene.  There were wonderful ads from his agency:  the chimps for PG Tips, Woolmark, and a revolutionary campaign for air conditioning.  It quickly became one of the hottest in London.

The agency was acquired by Ogilvy & Mather in 1971.  Towards the end of the decade Norman was lured to New York, and he became Creative Head of O&M in 1980.  The agency was in the doldrums – safe and sound but not the place it had been in David Ogilvy’s hey-day. 

Norman always believed that great creative work invariably came from great strategic thinking.  “Give me the freedom of a tightly defined strategy,” he used to say.  He introduced UK-style planning, and for him, if the work was on strategy he didn’t care how outrageous it might appear to be. 

In the late 1970s the agency had hired one Dorothy Sarnoff to hone our presentation skills.  She was a public-speaking guru who apparently gave the White House advice about media appearances.  Everyone had to attend her sessions.  So there was Norman:  no tie, bent over a lectern.  He’d already rolled up his sleeves and taken off his watch.  He fiddled.  He broke all the rules – but he had charisma and power.

Norman was totally fearless.  He wouldn’t be bullied by clients as to how he should staff their accounts; he wouldn’t baulk at presenting a brave idea if it was on strategy.  And at the same time he wouldn’t let his creatives be bullied by account management.

One of Norman’s beliefs was that the creative director and the agency head should be equal partners.  It is something still carried on today – Ogilvy’s CEO and Worldwide Creative Director share an office in New York.  Norman disliked creative titles, and abolished most of them.

Perhaps more than anything else, he was passionate about getting good work on all accounts, from diapers to deodorants, from soaps to sports cars.  Norman won clients’ confidence.  He got to know the Chairman and the brand managers. Norman spoke at their training sessions.  He raised their expectations, paving the way for great work to be sold. Norman lived and breathed the business, he was tireless.

One of the things that he never did was to compete with his own creatives.  He encouraged, he inspired, he supported.  He imbued the creatives with the feeling that they could do great work, and indeed you wanted to do great work for him.  If you didn’t, you were letting down his faith in you.  If he didn’t like work he didn’t grunt and show you the door.  He was articulate.  And he could spot an idea a mile off, and an execution masquerading as an idea in a flash.

But show Norman an idea and he was off like one of his beloved dogs that had just found a bone.  He would leap up and lope round the room, wagging his tail.

Norman wanted to create a climate “in which great work can flourish.”  I was told a story about Jay Jasper, one of the Group Heads at the time.  He said to one of his creative colleagues Vel Richey-Rankin, “You know I used not to enjoy walking to work.  And now I walk a little faster.  I guess we all walk a little faster these days.”

In 1983, Ogilvy & Mather New York was named Agency of the Year, and in that same year David Ogilvy named Norman his successor as Worldwide Creative Head.  David wrote, “For ten years I have functioned as Creative Head at the international level.  The time has now come to hand over this impossible job to someone a bit younger.  I nominate Norman Berry, provided he can continue as Creative Head of New York, where he is indispensable.”

So it was no more well-chosen barbs or accolades from DO with the Touffou letterhead, it was Norman himself who came to visit.  I first met him in 1983 when he came to Melbourne.  I decided that rather than having my creative teams just present work that was finished and couldn’t be changed, I would have them present work in progress so that his input could be acted on.  They were understandably nervous. 

But one of Norman’s great strengths was that he talked to you as if you really mattered to him personally.  Very soon the teams were at ease and lapping up his insightful comments.  He took an active interest in the office, inspiring and encouraging.  Shortly afterwards we too became an Agency of the Year.

Norman spread infectious creativity.  Very soon he had what he called his worldwide creative mafia:  Don Arlett in London; Bernard Bureau and Chistian Reuilly in Paris; Luis Bassat in Spain; Robyn Putter in South Africa; Neil French in Singapore; Barry Owen in Bangkok; and I suppose me in Australia.

In 1986, I returned from Australia to become the first Worlwide Creative Director on Unilever – a difficult job.  Once a year Norman and I would would meet for two days to review all the work produced around the world on the account, from Buenos Aires to Bangkok.  Office by office he would dictate a note to the Managing and Creative Directors.  It was a lesson in how to critique work I have never forgotten:  constructive, encouraging, never rude or dismissive.

In 1989, Norman resigned from Ogilvy & Mather after a disagreement about roles; he had also become President of the New York office in 1984.  So Norman returned to London where he worked for WPP, and then he rejoined Ogilvy & Mather in London where he worked on a number of major international accounts such as Glaxo.  So for the last few years of my career I had Norman as a neighbour – a very prestigious neighbour.

• • • • • •

There has been discussion about whether he and David Ogilvy "got on."  The truth is that they did disagree about some things.  Norman felt that for too long the agency had hid behind so-called rules; David felt that Norman had dismissed his "magic lanterns."  But as David himself believed in what he called "divine discontent" it seems only right that they held their different opinions.

Jo, Norman’s adored wife, told me that Herta Ogilvy had called her to sympathise over Norman’s death.  Amongst other things, she said that, yes David and Norman had not always seen eye to eye, but now at least they could continue their discussion “up there”!

I wonder what Norman’s proudest moment would have been.  Agency of the Year?  Fermenting creativity around the world?

No, I think it is this.  And he often spoke of it.

Norman spent his National Service in the Gloucesters, a proud regiment that served in the Korean War.  He had been there in the 1950s, in a trench, in that bleak, deadly cold of winter.  Then after a long gap, in about 1998, Norman went back to Seoul, this time to help the Ogilvy office there, and to be key-note speaker at one of those International Creative Conferences.  As he walked to the platform the whole Korean audience stood up and applauded.  A hero in their eyes.  And a hero in mine.

Richard joined Ogilvy & Mather in 1969 as a Copy Trainee.  He worked as a Creative Director in London, Melboune, Vienna and New York.  He still works part-time for the agency.

Contact: Kevin Whitlock
Date: March 30, 2010
Office: London