5 Minutes with…Dave Monk
Publicis London’s executive creative director on doing ‘all the things’ as a kid, good luck, bad luck and how hip-hop taught him to write
Dave Monk has always been what certain people might now call a ‘maker’. He grew up with a passion for building things from raw materials, working with his hands to create, but he also had a passion for practically everything he encountered, by the sound of it. Acting, judo, making furniture.
He eventually found a way to channel his general interest in creating stuff in the form of advertising and went on to work as a creative at BBH for 11 years, before moving to Grey to be deputy executive creative director during some of the most exciting years for the agency. Since 2015 he’s at Publicis London as executive creative director, overseeing celebrated work for Heineken, Morrisons and the incredible Game of Thrones-based work for Tourism Ireland.
LBB’s Alex Reeves dropped by to understand where Dave’s coming from.
LBB> Where did you grow up an what sort of kid were you?
DM> Macclesfield, the home of Joy Division. You know that film Control? The opening scene of that is Ian Curtis walking past a block of flats in November 1973. If it was in real life my mum and dad would have been staying with friends, pregnant with me in that block of flats at the time. It was proper black-and-white Manchester. Funny old town.
I was a bit inquisitive. I was always into colouring in. A lively, active kid and I suppose a bit creative. I was lucky enough to get the lead roles at school plays, so I grew up doing a bit of acting. I definitely wasn’t shy. If you ask my mum she’d probably give you the same answer.
I had probably too much energy. Particularly for my mum. She shoved me into a judo class at the age of six. I did that for about seven years and got relatively handy at that. I was in the national squad by the age of about 13.
I did all the things. I’d sing in the church choir, play football, do judo, act on stage. I think mum just wanted me out the house.
LBB> What did you think about advertising growing up? Not many people know what an advertising creative does when they’re a kid, really.
DM> No, but you know what adverts are. In the ‘80s I grew up with brilliant ads. The Warburtons ads, I remember - always a lot of catchphrases. Mum and dad used to quote them back and my little sister would always remember ads almost verbatim. It sticks with you that stuff. It had to become entertainment as much as the TV shows in those days, which I kind of think we need to get back to.
Someone asked me this question recently and I tried to go all the way back and think about how I got to it. There’s a series of little moments. Age 13, the career advisor asked ‘what is it you love doing?’ and all I could think of was I really liked art. I liked making shit. My uncle owned a pine furniture shop. I used to go down there with my dad and watch them planing out these tables and chairs. So craft was a big thing. Dad was a big fan of steam engines. Making stuff and doing things, starting with nothing and building something - I guess that was the origin of it.
LBB> Did the careers advisor have any idea what to do with that?
DM> No. I liked making signs on my bedroom door. It was all typography. I measured it all out. I told the careers advisor I was into graphic design. So when they asked me I said I’d quite like to do graphic design. They said ‘you need to do these courses’. But they were wrong. I was like ‘do I not need to do art?’ They said, ‘No. You don’t need to do any of the arts’. I got to the interview for art college and they said I needed art. So I went back and did that, got my A-levels and went to art college.
I applied for graphic design courses, totally failed, got into no universities and was going to take a year out. I was about to leave the house and a phone call came in. It was the advertising lecturer saying they had a place for me at DeMontfort University in graphic design. It starts in three days. He sold me the course. I packed my stuff up, told my girlfriend (broke her heart), got in the car and off I went.
LBB> At what point did you realise it was advertising that you’d end up doing?
DM> The last year of university we’d done a bit of an advertising module. I’d learnt fuck all. I’d written some terrible puns (still doing those!).
I was desperately trying to get some work done in lunch hour. Some bloke on the course wandered past, saw what I was doing and said: ‘Hello. I quite like what you’re doing. How do you fancy teaming up?’
I was like, ‘At what?’
It was literally like that. We got married there and then. He was looking for a partner because he’d got some interviews down in London and they’d said to him ‘bring your partner.’ So he’d just gone shopping! Totally serendipitous. It was Matt Waller. He and I were partners for 17 years.
LBB> How did you get your first job with him?
We came out of university, came down to London, lived and were waiters together - we did everything together - meanwhile we were putting our portfolio together. We didn’t do Watford. We decided there was a certain style Watford had. We thought we’d stand out if we didn’t have that style. So we just made our own way. We learnt loads from working as waiters - the way they interact with each other and how you learn to talk to people.
We’d spent two years putting this portfolio together with Letraset and photocopies. We had one copy of our book and I was going to big London to make a second copy of the book. Hungover. Left it on a bus, never to be seen again. The irony of it!
We decided there’s no point being precious about what we’d done. So we looked at all the books and asked which ones, truly, could we be arsed to rebuild? We decided to keep some, write five or six more over Christmas.
The first place we took our new book to was BBH and we got a placement off the back of it and were there 11 years.
LBB> So fast-forward, you’re now ECD at Publicis London, running the creative department. What’s that like to balance?
DM> Grey was good training for that. There was Vicks [Maguire] and me running the department, so the only difference was there were a couple of us. And Nils [Leonard] was there as well. It doesn’t feel like a big department. It feels relatively tight-knit. They’re a good bunch. It’s all about creating a gang and a team of people that can bounce off each other when they need to but have got their own individual skills and bring something to the party. It’s about building a department whose reference points are completely different.
You inherit a department when you move to an agency and it’s always good to bring some different flavours to that. You look at the scope of the department, see what skills we have and what we’re missing. Inject a female Russian creative director, inject Romanian copywriter of the year, inject a couple of guys from Brazil that haven’t worked together since college but come together to work here, and you start to get a different shape. I don’t say that just because I’m trying to bring in the world. It’s just a reference point. They’re all completely different, talking about different music videos, different films, directors and mentalities that they bring. I buzz off that. There’s no point hiring a bunch of people that you feel like you’ve met before.
LBB> Publicis as a Groupe has had a hugely transformative year. In your work there, how has that mostly manifested itself?
DM> Just absolute intrigue. Arthur [Sadoun, chairman and CEO of Publicis Groupe] announced that we were pulling out of Cannes and we were going to invest in Marcel and I think the whole industry went ‘wow!’ That’s a pretty bold move. And from a creative director’s point of view the first thing you worry about is the talent. How am I going to retain it? How am I going to keep people in the building interested if we’re not entering awards? The good people, and I say this absolutely hand on heart, it didn’t seem to phase them. They were intrigued by Marcel. Good people always believe that a good idea should exist anyway, irrespective of awards. It’s good recognition, but it’s not going to stop us from having a brilliant idea. A year is so quick in this industry. It’s gone like that.
What’s been really nice is a couple of pieces of work we’ve done that have been the most celebrated, clients have wanted to enter those awards under their own steam, which is amazing. That’s a proper bit of confirmation that we’re doing the right thing. It’s like you recalibrate your mind when you hear that stuff. What a brilliant thing to do - think about ‘is this a piece of work that we are all incredibly proud of?’ That’s the judgement. It’s not a piece of work we’re trying to do for glory. It’s good business sense. And the clients are holding your hand and saying ‘you’ve done alright here and we like it.’ That’s my feeling.
LBB> What projects have recently made you most proud?
DM> The bits I’m most proud of are the two Tourism Ireland ‘albums’, if you like. The first one is testament to the client. I arrived here. There was a bunch of work on the table. It was good but I felt in my heart of hearts that there was something better out there. So we pulled all the work off the table and then quickly got the team together, sat in a room and asked what we were going to do.
The principle that we talked about was if Game of Thrones was made of Ireland, as in where they shot it, then the work should be too. So that was where we started - it’s “made of Ireland”. And we thought about what physical things we could make.
In the first year we made some stamps, a set of knives out of Valyrian steel (meteorite), we hung a fake painting in the Ulster Museum with one of the giants from Game of Thrones in it and we made the doors, which was always going to be the big one.
That came out brilliantly. The craft of it, thanks to the legend that is Joshua Norbury, our creative, and the producer Kal Parmar, who really made that happen. The first question was ‘can we got hold of the wood?’ and as soon as we’d got a nod we got hold of the wood and all the craft came after that. It took off. It was just massive.
That went down quite well. It felt right, was good, did wonders for tourism over there. Then you get to the second year, the difficult second album. We had a bunch of ideas on the table year one and this one was a really good one. We had a bunch of other ideas for year two but we just kept coming back to the tapestry, thinking if we can pull that off… Then the trick was pulling it off. How on earth are we going to weave this in the next four weeks? It was a really slim amount of time given that Bayeux had taken however many years [estimated to be as many as ten, although academics aren’t in agreement] to make.
LBB> I imagine there aren’t many people out there who can still make tapestries.
DM> No. There aren’t. We found someone that could weave it, then we had an army of embroidering nanas in Ireland. There’s some brilliant footage. And they stayed the weekend, bless them. Then that rolled out. It was fantastic. I think at the time it was the biggest selling exhibition the Ulster Museum had ever had.
I can’t talk about it but in the pipeline there’s some very interesting stuff we’re going to do with it. And obviously finish it up after the next season.
Then there’s retaining the business, which is a big thing. I couldn’t be more chuffed about that. When it came to the pitch we were fighting off some of the quality agencies in town. We were fending them off like a swordsman in Game of Thrones! It meant a lot, that one. You take it really personally when you’ve got a pitch like that.
LBB> Who are your creative heroes?
DM> I always keep coming back to Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest. I love their music and I think he is a creative genius in every respect.
I got into graphic design and in 1988 did a work placement in Macclesfield, opposite those flats I mentioned. It was the time of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest and Jungle Brothers - that music changed my view on music at a time when I was absolutely obsessed with graphic design and typography.
LBB> And hip-hop culture has so much of that in it!
DM> Yeah! It’s so graphic and visual. I’d never really thought a lot about the words side. I’d always been incredibly into the image of something. Then this guy started to talk and tell stories in a way that I thoroughly enjoyed. And it wasn’t all the gangsta rap, the aggressive hip hop that was around at that time - people just talking about themselves - this was a guy telling really honest stories in really playful ways about relationships and life. I found that absolutely fascinating. I’ve always been incredibly fond of A Tribe Called Quest. You know those albums that you just go back to time and time again, when something just gets you.
Hip hop taught me to write. It totally seduced me. The way that Q-Tip wrote and the way things rhymed. When you’re so into visuals and craft and building stuff, working with your hands and banging out machinery - to see completely the other side and be seduced by something somebody’s written on a bit of paper that paints a picture.
I did a bit of work at Grey for The Sun and I think if I hadn’t been into hip hop I never would have written that.
LBB> You did a lot of different activities in your childhood. Do you still keep up any of those hobbies?
DM> I’ll sit at a piano. I’m no good. But there’s nothing better than just sitting there and making some tunes with your hands. I learnt the organ and sung in the church choir, so I have a relatively good ear for music. I couldn’t read music. I just about scrape it now. I got to the age of 40, had a son who was showing some interest in music and so that was my excuse to buy myself a piano. I adore it. When all is going to shit, sitting behind a piano is the best thing. I’ll play Frank Sinatra, Adele, Elton John, anything.
That and cycling. And a bit of cooking, but I never have time. When I get to the end of the day and I’ve done nothing creative, it’s the best way of feeling I’ve achieved something. As an ECD you do have those days.