Can Advertising Be Rock ‘n’ Roll?

1 Oct
The Arkwright van, being expertly parked at the Hotel du Cap, Antibes

The Arkwright van, being expertly parked at the Hotel du Cap, Antibes

Years ago, I made the foolhardy decision to launch an advertising agency. High on the successes won at the legendary HHCL, Jim Bolton and I felt we were invincible. What could possibly go wrong? Well, not involving a planner, account exec or new business director for starters.

We floundered. The money we sunk into Arkwright sunk without trace. True, we picked up bits of Unilever and even Dominos Pizza, and the kind (exHHCL) folk at Michaelides and Bednash used us as their in-house creative department. We shared office space in Camden with Karmarama who had set up a couple of years earlier (Dave Buonaguidi and Naresh Ramchandani were our mentors at HHCL). On paper it all looked great but without the business sense and silver tongue of, say, Rupert Howell or Robin Price, we struggled.

My salary dropped by 90% in 3 months. We were stung with a massive tax bill as our accountant turned out to be an incompetent ex-con. When my flatmate moved in with his girlfriend, I ate all the food he’d left in the flat and got ill as some of it had gone off. I had holes in my shoes and no money to get new ones. And I made myself a promise, that however much time passed, whatever happened to me, and however I looked back on what we achieved in the three years of Arkwright, I would never, ever be nostalgic. I hated spending 24p on a tin of tomato soup and a roll from Safeway in Camden because I had no money for anything else. It was brutal. I saw no future. Two years earlier, I was on the red carpet on the Croisette; now, the advertising dream was over.

But when I look back on some of the things we did at Arkwright, I feel quite proud. Jim and I had recently met a young rocker called Justin Hawkins, and he and I had driven from Las Vegas to San Francisco with ex Leo Burnett legend, Trevor Webb in a three-wheeled Reliant. Justin had recently formed a band called the Darkness who were pulling in crowds in the bars around Camden and Kentish Town. He lived just up the road from the Arkwright office in a tiny bedsit in Belsize Park, and we would meet in Starbucks, write songs then go back to his flat where he would record them. All during the working day. Often, Justin would come into the office for a cuppa and, realising his musical ability, Karamarama asked him to provide the music for their new IKEA campaign. Justin obliged and the £20,000 cheque paid for the first Darkness album, ‘Permission to Land’.

It’s fair to say that Jim Bolton is a metal fan to the core. I couldn’t stand the stuff but I liked the lunacy of it, and I particularly liked that the Darkness were playing alongside Britpop and bands like the Libertines who were just so darned serious. We went to every gig. We pooled money and bought Justin appropriate outfits that we saw in the shops close to Arkwright HQ. One time, we got so carried away, we put money behind the bar at the Camden Barfly and bought every Darkness fan a drink, as it seemed the right thing to do. It only cost us £50.

Justin designed the Arkwright website and, in return, we gave him half of our van. We’d read of an interview with Razorfish on the US current affairs show, 60 Minutes. The founders were grilled on exactly what it was they did. They threw jargon at the interviewer who played dumb. Finally, one of them offered:

“We create solutions that allow our clients to run their businesses better.”

“So does a trucking company,” he growled back.

That weekend, we went out and spent £500 on a battered VW Transporter, and put a sign on the roof saying ‘Arkwright.’ We drove the van to Cannes purely to enjoy some free parties, playing ACDC and Meat Loaf from speakers mounted on top of the van. It was only when we returned to London that we realised we’d won a Lion for a website that Justin had provided the music for.

A few months later, the Darkness were the hottest band in the UK. The Sun newspaper flew them out to Hollywood to take pictures by the sign before they headlined at the Roxy on Sunset Strip. I used the last bit of my overdraft to fly out for the night and got drunk with Dominic Mohan, the Sun’s future editor. I spent the night sleeping on Dan Hawkins floor and in the morning he played me the song they’d just recorded for Christmas – ‘Don’t Let the Bells End’.

Sadly, Arkwright didn’t last. The Darkness went on to win the Brit Awards, the MTV Music Awards and the Ivor Novellos, then split up. Justin and I put an album together which he toured round the country with his new band, Hot Leg. The last time I saw him, he was in Antwerp having opened for Lady Gaga. Now he’s a recluse in Switzerland, but still leading what’s left of the Darkness to new glories.

It was a brilliant three years, but mainly because of the soundtrack. You can keep the poverty and bailiff’s letters and debt repayments. You can keep the office phone that never rang and the Safeway canteen. Arkwright lived for the evenings and the sweaty bars of NW1; for the beer, the adventure and the ear pounding music that accompanied them. We were part groupies, part roadies. We helped keep our favourite band on the road, with advertising as a sideline. And that has to be a little bit rock and roll.

2 Responses to “Can Advertising Be Rock ‘n’ Roll?”

  1. barthulley October 2, 2015 at 11:55 am #

    Great story Chas.

  2. ben walker October 2, 2015 at 10:22 pm #

    enjoyed reading that. Nice one.

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