Dave Monk: A Master Craftsman

The ECD of Publicis London has wielded his metaphorical hammer on projects such as Gordon's gin, Mentos & The Times and has no plans to down tools any time soon.

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Apr 06, 2018
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“I was a big Fred Dibnah fan,” states Dave Monk, towards the end of our chat. Dibnah, a British steeplejack and television personality, who from the 70s though to the early 2000s presented programmes about chimneys, steam engines, industrial buildings and their creation – and destruction – is maybe not the inspiration many successful creatives would point to, but, for Monk, it makes perfect sense. “He would go and build towers and knock them down and I think the idea of an agency-built hammer is great. You can build shit with it. You can knock stuff down with it. There is nothing like hitting something with a hammer.”

Over the course of his near 20-year career, Monk has put his love of building things to good use. But, instead of chimney stacks and suspension bridges, his skill has been in building brands. The Publicis London executive creative director has wielded his metaphorical hammer on projects such as Gordon’s gin, Mentos, Tourism Ireland and The Times and The Sunday Times newspapers and has no plans on downing tools any time soon. Though, like many successful creatives before him, Monk states that he never really had a particular plan to open his tool box within the advertising industry.

Seeks career in colouring and playing pool

In his early teens, during a discussion with a school careers advisor, he volunteered the nugget of information that he ‘liked colouring in’. Some sort of career in art, the young Monk was envisioning. The careers advisor recommended graphic communication or technical drawing as a possible path and suggested Monk take a raft of A levels, which, inexplicably, didn’t include art. So, after redoing his A levels, adding art to the mix, Monk headed to art college and, eventually, university. Though that nearly didn’t happen either. “I applied for university but initially didn’t get into any,” admits Monk. “I remember going to an interview at Nottingham Trent and they asked me if I read a newspaper and whether I kept up with current affairs. It caught me off-guard and I just told them I liked colouring in. I should say, that’s not always my answer to everything, though it is going through my head quite a lot of the time.”

“I remember going to an interview at Nottingham Trent and they asked me if I read a newspaper; whether I kept up with current affairs. It caught me off-guard and I just told them I liked ‘colouring in’.”

Just when he’d given up on the idea of university, a call from Leicester and the offer of a place saw him take up a graphic design course and, during the final semester of an advertising module, when he was “cobbling together some average work in my lunch hour”, he was approached by another guy from the course, someone he didn’t know, who asked him if he wanted to team up. “At what?” was Monk’s first response. That guy was Matt Waller, now creative director at Recipe. “Matt told me, on that first meeting,” says Monk, “that a friend of his had recently had a placement at a place called BBH and that he’d said it was brilliant, that they just sat around with their feet up or played pool all day. I said, ‘ok, sounds brilliant’.” He and Monk were a creative team from that point on, and for the next 17 years, and after putting their books together and “fannying about for a bit” they got a placement at DMB&B, which they loved. 

When the placement finished they went back to college and after graduating, moved to London where, two years, a variety of “crap jobs” and a lot of hauling their portfolio around to agencies later, Monk managed to lose all their work by leaving it on a bus. “That was November ’98,” he says, “so there was nothing on computer, nothing saved, it was all electroset and photocopies. It was a nightmare, but it was a lesson in preciousness because we had to decide what we loved, what to rebuild and what we could do better.” They obviously made good decisions because the first place they took the new book to offered them a placement, and 11 years later, they were still at BBH London. “It was brilliant,” says Monk. “We worked with amazing people; Nick GillTony DavidsonKim PapworthRussell Ramsey, a real education. Matt and I started there as two people, as two young lads, and left there as nine. In that time we both met our partners and had five kids between us.”

Reaching for his trusty toolbox

At BBH, Monk and Waller were running accounts including The Mail on Sunday and Vodafone, but decided they wanted to try something different. “We just felt that you can’t be a fully-rounded creative if you’ve only experienced one place.” The pair landed next at Grey, an agency then not renowned for its great creative output, but they were enthused by then-ECD Nils Leonard’s vision of what Grey could become. “We were like, let’s just give it 18 months, see how it goes,” explains Monk. “Day one, we got in and were like, ‘what the fuck have we done?!’ It was just so different. BBH was a beautifully oiled machine and Grey was just a little bit maverick. But we looked at it and they had all the pieces. It was like they were all there, on the garage floor, they just needed putting together.” 

So, Monk’s trusty toolbox came out again and he helped the agency to create some fantastic work for a range of clients; The British Heart Foundation, Lucozade and the mould-breaking Unquiet Film Series for The Times and The Sunday Times. “They were good clients – the best,” says Monk of the News UK team. “They totally got creative ideas.” The Unquiet Film Series, from 2014, was a set of short documentary films that covered a variety of elements of the newspapers’ staff and output. The Art of Satire looked at the work of political cartoonist Peter Brookes, Bearing Witness covered the kidnapping and eventual return of foreign correspondent Anthony Loyd and photographer Jack Hill, Bringing the World to Britain documented foreign affairs correspondent Christina Lamb’s time in Afghanistan. In all there were 12 films, each taking a compelling look at the inner workings of a brand that was more than 200 years old.

The campaign picked up a slew of awards – not least two Branded Content of the Year shots Awards over two consecutive years – and a mountain of critical acclaim. “It was a really massive job,” remembers Monk. “Just how do you sum up 230 years? But we landed on this idea of the ink on the paper. It’s quiet, but the stories it tells are noisy, they create noise around the world. There were so many stories to tell and how do you sum them up in a 60-second commercial that would probably have a 30-second cut-down? You can’t, so we decided on a series of films and when we sold that through [to the client], the journalists got involved. We had the archivist of The Times and Sunday Times, we had lawyers, the editors of the papers, the managing editor, then the talent. Pulling all that together and being part of that team was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It was just fucking brilliant!”

Finding rewards without awards

After five years, promotion to deputy CD and amicably parting ways with Waller, Monk once again decided to move on to pastures new, this time to Publicis London, where in 2015, he was named the agency’s ECD. “[I moved] for exactly the same reasoning as before; to try something new,” he says. How was the step up from deputy CD to ECD? “I guess it’s just that the correlation between the amount of problems you have and the time you have to solve them changes,” he says. “As a creative you’ve got a couple of briefs. As a creative director you’ve got a couple of briefs and you’ve got to meet clients and have a series of meetings. As ECD you get everything.” He says that having more on his plate doesn’t stop him from being hands-on creatively – “that’s the best bit about the job” – but that there’s no instruction manual to moving up the creative career ladder, you just have to feel your way. 

How did the announcement last June that Publicis was withdrawing from awards shows for 12 months go down with him, and with his staff? Did it throw a spanner in the agency’s finely tuned creative works? “It was definitely a massive talking point,” he admits. “I heard [the announcement] and thought, ‘ok, I need to take a step back and ask what this means’. The first thing you think about is talent, how it’s going to affect them? But most have been very chilled about it. It got me thinking that awards inspire people, and yes, we look to them as a gauge, but they’re not what drive good creative people. [Those people] are after brilliant ideas, and if awards come then that’s great. [Publicis creatives’] reaction was, ‘it’s ok, it’s cool, it’s not going to stop us trying to have the best ideas’.”

“It got me thinking that awards inspire people, and yes, we look to them as a gauge, but they’re not what drive good creative people. [Those people] are after brilliant ideas, and if awards come then that’s great.”

Monk says that the biggest surprise for him about that situation was that the clients themselves are so committed to creativity and want their campaigns to be recognised at awards shows, that they will offer to pay for entries if the agency won’t pay itself. “That was a revelation for me,” he says. “I thought then that the bar had shifted. If you can make work that the clients are so proud of that they want to enter it, that’s the gauge [of success].”

Beer-calmed contention and a TV show tapestry

Another success has been Publicis’ work for Heineken. The campaign, Worlds Apart, was a social experiment whereby people with opposing views – about Brexit, sexuality, politics – were forced to meet and, possibly, share a beer. The film has been watched nearly 15 million times on YouTube and struck a chord with consumers in what is currently a very divided UK. “People didn’t believe we’d done it for real,” says Monk, “didn’t believe that these were real people. But in terms of the casting process, it was really impressive. The casting director interviewed hundreds of people without telling them the idea and spoiling it. It’s all utterly genuine.”

Creating things is in Monk’s blood and spending time crafting something to be the best it can be excites him. Another Publicis client is Tourism Ireland and, for them, the agency created real, ornately carved, wooden doors for the award-winning Doors of Thrones tourist trail campaign, as well as a 77-metre-long tapestry illustrating key moments from Game of Thrones, which uses Northern Ireland as a key filming location. There’s something inherently satisfying about making something physical, he says, before heading off to lend a hand in creating something else, physical or otherwise. “Craft is the thing that gets me going. I remember, as a kid, my uncle had a carpentry workshop. I’d go down on a Saturday and just smell the wood, watch him use the planes and the lathe. You know, making stuff just really appeals.” 


What inspires...Dave Monk

What’s your favourite ever ad?

The advertising answer is probably The Lego Movie, but in terms of classic ads, probably Cog; it’s perfect. I also love Puma White Paper from Droga5; just brilliant. And one that gets me every time is The Centaur for Honda Bikes. That end shot gets me right in the spine. I know that’s four, but there’s so many to choose from.

What product could you not live without?

Bricks.

What are your thoughts on social media?

Mostly positive. The world has a voice in so many places it never had before. The algorithms need some serious looking at, but I love how a tweet from Barbara in Scunthorpe has a voice. Instagram is my social media of choice. Pure unabridged eye-ramblings. A hobby and a diary rolled into one.

How do you relieve stress during a pitch?

Put pen to paper, and whenever possible try and make sure everyone sits down to eat at the same time. Which is often easier said than done. 

What’s the last film you watched and was it any good?

The Post. Largely overrated. Streep just about single-handedly wrestles it into shape and apart from a 15-minute section in the middle and a mesmerising sequence inside the printing warehouse, and some charming directorial salutes to the 60s, it could’ve been better given the incredible story.

What’s your favourite piece of tech?

Bricks. Or the ISS (International Space Station).  

What film do you think everyone should have seen?

Lars and the Real Girl.

What fictitious character do you most relate to?

The real girl.

If you weren’t doing the job you do now, what would you like to be?

Composer *laughs* – not really very good at playing anything, but sitting behind the keys is a happy place. Or a carpenter, probably in the reverse order. I’d build a studio of wood and fill it with glockenspiels.

Tell us one thing about yourself that most people won’t know…

I was once in the British Judo National Team Champion squad.

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Publicis•Poke

We combine storytelling, experience design and commerce to help brands create ideas. Ideas that earn a lasting place in people’s heads, hearts and hands. Ideas that live and breathe in culture, and that can grow and evolve over time. We create Living Ideas.

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