Tony Cullingham

Tony Cullingham: A Tribute

The man who made a generation of creative leaders. We all owe Tony Cullingham a debt of gratitude - let's not forget what he taught us

By Claire Beale

I wonder how many marketers know the name Tony Cullingham. You should. If you work in advertising or marketing you almost certainly owe him a debt of gratitude.

As the leader of the tragically defunct Watford advertising course, Cullingham played a critical role in engendering a generation of creatives here with the craft skills, discipline and taste that has made British commercial creativity world class.

Sadly Tony passed away a few days ago, 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.

It’s an impulse that is now all too often smoothed over in the search for consensus, for the inoffensive, the easy, the unchallenging. More and more agencies now groom their own creative talent and there’s little space for nurturing creativity that can’t easily be harnessed to client briefs and time sheets.

I’m no fan of looking backwards, of “better-in-my-day” moaners, but without the pipeline of talent that came from courses like Watford - courses that made time for creativity in all its chaotic, discomforting forms – creative standards are under threat. BBH recognised this and over the last few years worked with Cullingham to recreate The Barn, taking on new creatives all from very different backgrounds, all with little to no experience, and under Tony’s stewardship, unmatched energy and brutal honesty, the Barn’s grads have gone on to secure jobs at some of the best agencies in the country.

“He wanted to find people who thought differently, who would approach a problem with something most of us would never have thought of,” says BBH’s ECD Helen Rhodes. “He was a legend, a one of a kind, with the most unique teaching style of honesty, unpredictability and passion. It is no understatement to say that most of the creative departments in London are staffed thanks to his unwavering commitment to creativity and diversity over the last three decades and more. This is his legacy.”

I’ve spent a fair amount of time this week reading things written by Tony. Most I’d read before, but all still hold so many truths, so much wisdom and so much gentle humour, and warmth, and humanity that reading them again has been utterly pleasurable and life-affirming. This piece from Shots gives you a real flavour of the man.

In one of his more recent articles, again for Shots, Cullingham wrote about his fears - his fears for the role of brands when people are struggling to afford food, when the West’s consumerism is unsustainable, when desire has to make way for need. These are challenges the best creative minds in our industry can help address.

But how many "best creative minds" do we really have, and are we protecting the pipeline? In Tony's words: “I think agencies should be fearful that if advertising continues to get more predictable, anodyne, uncreative and dull then the truly lateral thinking fun creatives will leave the industry to become comedians, film writers, directors, animators and artists. The industry will be left with process creatives not the disruptors agencies need.”

“My fear going forward is we forget what a good idea truly is, and worse still, we forget what it takes to come up with them.”

Are we going to forget?


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