What the greats knew and we’ve forgotten 2: Paul Arden

Paul Arden was revered as living god while at Saatchi’s. His departure coincided exactly with my arrival there. Unfortunately, my only interaction with Paul was to accidentally spray him with Champagne at his leaving party. But when Paul left the agency, he wrote a couple of books, one of which is called It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be. Here are our five favourite pieces of advice, with some thoughts of our own.

1.     It’s right to be wrong. 

In his own words: “Start being wrong, and suddenly anything is possible. You’re no longer trying to be infallible.”

Our Thought: According to legend, a nervous young art director was shocked when he slid a tentative layout across the desk for Paul’s approval. Paul exclaimed that he loved it – it completely upturned usual layout convention. The art director was suitably deflated when he realised that Paul had mistakenly been viewing the layout upside down.

Prevailing wisdom about verbal and visual style usually reflects current fashion rather than absolute truth. Throw best practice (i.e. lazy acceptance) out of the window: who knows what you’ll discover.

2.     Don’t be afraid of silly ideas.

 The best way to overcome a mental block is to lose one’s inhibitions and stop worrying about being “right”.

Paul offers two methods for overcoming a block:

  1. Do the opposite of what the situation requires and see what happens.
  2. Look out of the window and make the first thing you see the solution to your problem.
Our Thought: Just because it's a Bad Idea doesn't mean it isn't a good idea.

Our Thought: Just because it’s a Bad Idea doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea.

3.     Exaggerate the positive.

In his own words: “If you know a horse can jump a ditch, therefore you accept it can jump the Grand Canyon.”

Our Thought: Paul says this trick accelerated his career more than any other. We think it’s more than hyperbole, it’s an act of mental bravery.

4.     The person who doesn’t make mistakes is unlikely to make anything.

 In his own words: “Failures and false starts are preconditions of success.”

Our Thought: Take a walk around the British Library sometime, and see that the price of grand success is often many small failures.

Pictured: A page from a J.G. Ballard manuscript, now in the British Library collection.

Pictured: A page from a J.G. Ballard manuscript, now in the British Library collection. (source)

5.     Rough layouts sell better than polished ones.

In his own words: “If you show a client a highly polished computer layout of your ad, they’ll probably reject it. There’s either too much or too little to worry about. That makes clients uneasy. Instead, show them a rough scribble. It’ll let them see the big idea, and give them an opportunity to choose the smaller details.”

Our thought: Never ever write body copy when you’re trying to sell the ad. Inevitably, the client will want a line of copy to be the headline. Instead, write the first line of copy. It’ll leave the client understanding what you’re going to say…and wanting to hear you say it.

One final legend about Paul: An ad had been signed off by a particularly harsh client. It had been a tough sell. But then, it was a great headline. Everyone happy. A couple of days later, Paul asked the writer to come and see him. He needed him to rewrite the headline – with ‘one more descender’ so it’d fit his layout.