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Meet Dave Morris

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30 years ago I was a student trying to get into the business and Dave Morris was one of my course lecturers. Today he visits the leading advertising colleges in Milan, Amsterdam and England and has luminaries such as Dave Trott singing his praises. Dave Morris is also an accomplished photographer. As well as being credited in D&AD, this year he has been named Professional Photographer of the Year. He lives on the cliff edge at Cromer, Norfolk,where he spends his spare time watching stuff slowly falling into the sea.

Hi Dave, looking back, what sticks in my mind about being a student copywriter is making the mistake of thinking that I knew how to do it. I used to churn-out concepts assuming they were works of genius, punny headline, stupid picture - you know the sort of thing. Then I got the wake-up call from yourself and a few other creative directors who pointed me in the right direction. Do students still arrive thinking they know it all?

A few do, but most students I meet on advertising courses are desperate to learn, and some of course are bone idle  I don't remember you being a slouch. The important thing is having the will and determination to succeed, it doesn't really matter if you think you know it all, someone somewhere will pretty soon give you a rude awakening. Then what you have to do is learn from your mistakes  as long as your mind is open, you'll be OK.
I'm big on making mistakes  the bigger the mistakes you can make in your early days the better off you are later on. I do some teaching in Italy and it's interesting to see the difference. Here the attitude of some students is  'ok entertain us and then we'll let you know if we approve'. I find this arrogant, lazy, and a waste of time, I'd much rather work with a student who thinks he knows it all, but who has energy and drive  and the ability to admit his mistakes.

I hear you've introduced some interesting ways to engage your students. 'The Art of War' by Sun Tzu for example.

What I like about the Chinese General Sun Tzu is the ice-cold logic of the man, he was a brilliant man-watcher. He knew cause and effect, he knew how people would react to whatever he did, which is all we are trying to do in advertising  guess how people will react to our message, our proposition. We all have this ability  to second guess how people will react to whatever we put in front of them, but for some reason once you're a student it seems to disappear for the duration of the course and they start living in make believe world.
If you teach graphic design you can get into some pretty hot disputes with students as to whether or not their idea is a good one  it's a matter of opinion. But with advertising it's different. In a critique I once took, a student was adamant his message would be understood and would work. I asked him out of 100 people how many did he think would buy into it - he thought about 30. I asked him if he'd like to bet some money on that  some serious money, more than he could afford to lose, it's at this point he goes quiet and reconsiders his position. When I asked him again how many people will buy into his idea he now thinks about 3 or 4  which seems about right to me. It's only when you're risking something  money  or your life like Sun Tzu had to all the time that you're thinking really sharpens up. You see because the student's idea isn't going out into the real world, there's no incentive to really work at it, the student gives up at an early stage, thinking people will react to his message in the way he wants and not in the way the world really works. If he really had a good idea his gut feeling should be 'I can't wait to take that money off Dave'.
When I meet students who've been left the college for a few months and ask them what they're working on, they'll describe a campaign idea, and I think 'Wow, that's great', I don't even have to see it they can describe it so well, and then I think 'why weren't you like this at college.' It's hard to replicate the real world on a college course but at least you can tell them they ought to think like the Chinese General.

Which leads on to Dave Trott's post; 'Where's Dave Morris now we need him?' He said, 'I was knocked out to hear how Dave Morris taught advertising. He didn't start from advertising. He started from the object of advertising. And the object is to win something. To take something from someone else.' How did you feel about his comments?

The brief conversations I had with Dave Trott when I first started teaching were pretty terrifying, he didn't have a lot of time for lecturers or college courses, he'd dismantle any sloppy thinking you put in front of him in pretty short order, his eyes always reminded me of two gun turrets that had just settled on their target. But for all his tough anti-educational establishment talk he is a brilliant teacher and has revolutionised the teaching of advertising. I've watched him give workshops, each sentence told you something useful or interesting  like good body copy. He gave out tough practical advice that had ice cold logic backing it up. I once went to one of Dave's crits with a very experienced art-director, at the end of the crit the guy turned to me and said 'Do you know, I've just learned more in the last twenty minutes than I have in the last twenty years.'
Dave broke the creative process down into simple stages you could understand. He didn't tell you anything you couldn't have figured out for yourself  which was pretty annoying really because you hadn't.
So yeah to get a compliment off him was something special  he was always a test I wanted to pass.

What would you say is the biggest challenge about teaching advertising to students?

The numbers the courses are being asked to take. I've always worked on vocational based courses, so to be told you have to take more students than you can cope with, but 'don't worry about it we're not expecting them to want to work in advertising they're just here for the degree', is something I didn't like, and it robs a group of its focus.
But on the other side as a teacher you have access to some of the finest advertising minds in the world, and they make themselves available to education through D&AD and student workshops. I was shocked when I worked abroad to realise this doesn't happen in other countries. In Italy, Holland and Germany the industry doesn't expect to invest as much of its time in education as we do, a lot of the agencies seem to keep the students at arms length.
I think advertising creatives make great teachers  they treat the workshops like advertising messages  they make single-minded points simply and dramatically.
I remember when I was first teaching Ron Collins taking a workshop, he was famous for being a spiky individual to deal with, and part of the way through he came across a piece of work he hated. My word did he let the student know, he dismantled the work in fine detail, and then kept referring back to it as the crit' progressed, I was thinking 'you've made your point the student knows it's crap, leave him alone', but I was too chicken to say anything.
Fortunately Ron found a piece of work he really liked, so much so that he disappeared at the end of the crit' and came back with a bottle of bubbly for the student from the agency fridge. So the evening ended well, but as everyone was getting up to go he stopped them all and said 'the student who won the bubbly has done well, but that's all he'll remember from tonight  how good he is, whereas I think the guy over there will have learned the most from this evening because he's had a good kicking and it hurts and he'll make sure this never happens again, so I think he'll have got more out of this crit than anyone else.' I thought 'gee what a point to make'. And he's right.
I think it relates to Paul Arden's idea - when you're right you're wrong, and when you're wrong you're right.
In my first year of teaching I managed to get voted the worst teacher my group had ever had  ever!
It was not a nice place to be. But it made me determined to do something about it. I learned to be a better teacher from the agency workshops. I nicked and used everything I heard Dave Trott say and passed it on to my students. Dave Waters was another inspirational teacher who was both funny and clever and passionate about what he did. So I stole as much as I could from everyone I met  the list is too long to acknowledge, but it was such good fun, and a fascinating insight into the way people's minds worked, and they were so generous at giving this stuff away.
So that's why I'm a big believer in failure, it's a better teacher than I'll ever be.

How have you've changed from the guy that first started out in this business?

Well I was bad teacher when I started and I got better  at least I like to think I did! I also learned not to put people in boxes. You can't decide someone is never going to achieve, that they don't have it in them to succeed  I've been proved wrong too many times. Sometimes they just need different teachers, different experiences, different opportunities.
I also learned no teaching plan ever survives contact with students.
I've loved teaching, students can be a right royal pain in the arse, but they are also brilliant good fun. I've had stomach ache from laughing at some of the things they've got up to. But the thing that always impressed me was that although they never had a problem in indulging in bad behaviour, when it really counted they would do the decent thing  they had their parents values of right and wrong. They can also give you sound advice. I remember dithering over moving colleges, and one of my students Dave Weller sat me down and gave me a tutorial on my career options. He was right.
I've learned a lot from my students.

Where do you think creativity is right now? Better than 10 years ago or worse?

I guess the percentage of good to bad is pretty much the same as it's always been, but now we have more access to it from all round the world. I do hate the degree barrier we have these days  if you haven't got a degree you can't apply for a lot of jobs. I remember when we were an HND course we were told we did 'training' whereas a degree course was about '˜education', we produced students with '˜tunnel vision' but degree students had the '˜bigger more rounded view'. It was such nonsense. There's a lot of top creatives working in the business who were HND students and a lot who have no formal qualifications at all.
I think the creative business has always operated as a meritocracy; you'll get there because you're good, but I think the temptation now is to sift through the degree courses before you look at taking anyone else.

By the way, well done for getting your shots into D&AD. When did the photography start?

I did Graphic Design at Hull, the photography lecturer was a big bluff Yorkshireman, Clee Rimmer, he was an inspirational teacher with a big personality, he could also deliver, he didn't just talk about photography  he showed you what he did  he made the photography more interesting than the graphics.

Where does your story go from here?

I want to continue with teaching, but I not sure how sustainable that will be with the economic cuts coming in. I like being a visiting lecturer, all you do is teach, you don't have to deal with the administrative junk and politics the full-timers get stuck with.

I love doing the photography. I'm involved in a long-term photographic project on '˜Bar Life'. I think all life takes place in pubs, bars and drinking holes. It's a great place to do portraits and urban landscape, and cunningly it manages to combine two of my favourite pursuits  photography and drinking.

I'm also doing the photography for a book on the Cromer crab fishermen. They are a moody, independent, bloody-minded bunch, and it hasn't been plain sailing getting shots of them. I get the feeling I'm never too far away from a punch in the mouth. I think the Chinese General would approve, he would think that kind of experience should improve my photography no end.

As for the rest I want to carry on working, and learning, which I guess means making a lot more mistakes.

 

Links:

Where's Dave Morris now we need him? Post by Dave Trott

www.davidmorrisphotographer.com

www.cstadvertising.com/blog/ (creatives will know this already, but for students it should be compulsory)

John Fountain is senior copywriter at Avvio

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