Paul Arden’s death came as a shock.
I’d got used to Paul ignoring the normal little everyday rules that restrict the rest of us, it just never occurred to me that he’d find a barrier he couldn’t ignore. When Paul was diagnosed with an incurable problem with his lungs, a condition that would worsen inexorably, a condition that eventually restricted his movements to the length of the oxygen tube stretching from his breathing machine, I thought Paul’s life would wither as his lungs did.
But during that period, and while attached to the oxygen machine, Paul directed commercials for agencies in Spain and Italy, wrote advertising campaigns for agencies in Denmark, Iceland, and Germany, opened and ran his own photographic gallery (Arden & Anstruther in Petworth, Sussex), and wrote three worldwide best-selling books.
I told Paul I admired the way he hadn’t let his condition slow him down in the slightest, quite the reverse, he’d accomplished more during that period than most able-bodied people.
Toni, Paul’s wife, said to me “You have to understand, the only way to cope with this is to live in complete denial.”
There in that sentence is why Toni was the perfect wife for Paul. Paul lived his life in denial of the sort of barriers that stop the rest of us before we start. Fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, fear of what other people think, fear of losing our job. All the things that look like insuperable obstacles, Paul just didn’t see them, he went right through them as if they weren’t there. So they weren’t.
When Paul wanted to quit his creative director’s job at another agency, to be an art director at Saatchi, it didn’t look like a smart move to me. It was step down to go from creative director to art director. But Paul wanted to work at an agency he admired, with people he admired, so he saw it as a step up. And in his first year at Saatchi, he did a brilliant press ad which won a D&AD award.
He said he wanted to learn to be great at TV, not just press. I thought he won’t find that so easy. But over the next couple of years he won several D&AD awards for television. He said he wanted to be the overall creative director at Saatchi. I thought lotsa luck. But he became creative director, and created Saatchi’s best and most creative decade ever.
He said he was going to leave Saatchi to direct commercials, I said “Paul, you’re mad. Don’t do it.” In his first year as a director, his production company won the Palm d’Or at Cannes, beating every other production company in the world.
Then came Paul’s chronically debilitating breathing problems. And Paul said he really fancied being a best-selling author. And I said, “You know advertising books have a very limited market. It probably won’t sell outside London.” Paul’s son, Christian, told me last week that Paul’s first book has sold another 100,000 copies just in the first 3 months of this year, and it’s already in its fourth year of printing. Wherever I’ve been in the world, I’ve seen copies of it printed in German, Chinese, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, whatever is the local language. In New York, CEOs buy it by the crate to give a copy to everyone in their agency. But ordinary people don’t do extraordinary things like that. And the last thing you could ever accuse Paul of, was being ordinary.
In fact, to most people, Paul Arden looked like a complete nutcase.
Which Paul, of course, would take as a huge compliment. Because he didn’t aspire to the same things as those people.He was irascible, awkward, tempestuous and sulky. He was also brilliant, original, electrifying and inspiring. He was going to do his job to the best of his ability, no matter what. And his job was to do ads that knocked your eyes out. It wasn’t until he worked for Saatchi that he found someone smart enough and powerful enough to understand the value of a true creative maverick. What Charles Saatchi and Jeremy Sinclair spotted in Paul was someone who didn’t think like other people. It gave them another dimension to the talented creative department they already had (like Alex Ferguson bringing Eric Cantona into Manchester United).
Paul would look at the same things everyone else did, but he’d see things no one else did. He was once telling me about a night he’d had at the theatre.
“It started of marvellously. We sat down and they opened the curtains, and there it was: a massive wall filling the stage. Nothing else just a huge brick wall confronting the audience, I was stunned.And then they went and ruined the whole bloody thing by bringing on actors, just like any other play.”
Paul didn’t want the predictable, or the expected, the ordinary, or dull, or safe, what was the point? He wanted the risky, the unusual, the daring, that brought with it fear, insecurity, and adrenaline. Wasn’t that the whole point of being alive? Instead of trying to make Paul another tame creative director Saatchi gave him his head. He demanded Paul shock him It was a marriage made in Heaven. The next years were the best in Paul’s or Saatchi’s history. Ads that had the visual style and class of Collett Dickenson Pearce at its best. But ads that also had the confrontational aggressiveness of Saatchi’s at its best. And, what no one had seen before, influences derived directly from fine art. He certainly changed advertising. Suddenly art directors had to know where the art galleries and museums were, not just the restaurants. Paul introduced influences from Duchamp to Cocteau, from Man Ray to Ruscha.
But Paul not only changed advertising, he changed the way films are directed, he changed book publishing, in fact he changed everything he turned his hand to.
The title of Paul’s book is the title of Paul’s life. “It’s Not How Good You Are. It’s How Good You Want To Be.”