Creatives On The Legacy Of Tony Cullingham
Tony Cullingham nurtured a generation of world class creatives. His former students pay tribute
25 September 2023
As the leader of the tragically defunct Watford advertising course, Tony Cullingham played a critical role in engendering a generation of creatives with the craft skills, discipline and taste that has made British commercial creativity world class.
Sadly Tony passed away last week, and our industry has lost someone very special – a creative leader, an inspiration, a decent, passionate human. And something very precious – an impulse to nurture and celebrate raw, messy, challenging, alchemical creativity.
We asked his former students to share their memories of the man.
Micky Tudor, chief creative officer, The&Partnership
Tony taught so many of today’s creative leaders, that for a generation or two British Advertising has been Tony Cullingham shaped.
With every idea sporting an invisible mop of whispy, curly hair.
For years he had a virtual monopoly on young creatives being hired.
What was his secret?
His course at Watford was called the ‘School of Art Direction and Copywriting’ but surprisingly Tony didn’t really teach either.
He obsessed on something much more important.
He would often rip our precious scamps off the wall, our first experience of “killing your babies”. It was a brutal, invaluable lesson in how only the clearest, simplest ideas make the cut.
He believed in us when we often didn’t believe in ourselves.
The young people that left Watford, left with a fire, energy, and a pragmatic realism that the most exciting industry in the world was also one of the toughest.
But most of all we left with a portfolio laden with fresh ideas.
Tony leaves behind a personal portfolio which is much more impressive and weighty than any of ours could ever have been.
Actually no, not a portfolio, a monumental legacy.
A legacy that the ideas his students have produced can partly be attributed to his unique style of teaching, and have formed some of the most ground-breaking campaigns this industry has ever seen.
So it’s ironic that Tony’s very last idea is so hard to fathom.
The idea that he’s no longer with us.
Andy Jex, chief creative officer, TBWA\London
Like the class swot, one autumnal lunchtime I went for run round Cassiobury Park in Watford with Tony. True to form he pushed the run further and faster than I’d intended. I thought we were going for a casual jog. Once we’d finished, perturbed that he’d not quite shaken me off and I’d managed to keep up (I was in bits and struggling to hold myself together), he pointed to a tree and said, “See that tree, it’s exactly 100m away, I’ve measured it”. Before the challenge had even sunk in, he sprinted off shouting as he went: “onyourmarksgetsetGO”. He of course won. This behaviour in any other human would be read as a show of power or an ego trip. But that was never the case with Tony. Because despite all the mind games, competitiveness, and downright Machiavellian-ness, Tony was the most kind, humble, down to earth, nurturing guy you could ever want to meet. An all-round good soul in the body of a master teacher. The deadly combination of those things drove us all to strive for the different and the never seen before. Tony was in love with the simple things in life and that showed in the work he drove us to do. All he ever wanted was great work from his students and success for us all.
We know about the legions of besotted and dedicated Tony fans. His tribe that makes up so much of the industry and not just in the UK I’d add. What I find remarkable though are how many of those people weren’t actually taught by him. Many of them wished they had been, and all of them wanted to help when they could. That’s the mark of the man, his magic, and his legacy.
I’ll call him a genius and a legend. Words that get said too often and without merit, words I firmly believe are worthy of Tony. But if I dared say as much Tony would just reply with the words he said to me all too often when I showed him work: “nah, I’ve seen it before, it’s been done”. Those words just wouldn’t be original enough for him.
Whenever he came into Saatchi & Saatchi with his students, he’d point out the corner office he’d sat in as a copywriter. I often wondered if he regretted not staying a creative for longer and creating more work. Tony didn’t spend long as a practitioner. He found a higher calling and a higher purpose as a leader, teacher, and mentor. Truth is, by doing so he made way more work than any one person could ever have made alone. Tony is responsible for most of the best work this industry has produced in the last 35 years.
We are his work. And all our work is his.
Robert Doubal, chief creative officer, McCann London
When I was a naive ad student, I never understood why Tony was teaching advertising and not making it. He seemed to know all the answers. I’m now old enough to know why. His legacy will be a beautiful one. He implanted in every student an anarchic spirit. One which protected and proved the importance of challenging what has come before. His students are all bound by his knowing looks and ease at which his mind lent itself to joyous mischief and taking down the establishment. ‘That’s funny’ he would say with just the hint of a smile. A great great teacher with a beautiful legacy. And boy how he cared about his pupils. He will be missed.