by Rafa Montilla
That’s how I got to know someone totally irrepressible. He was fired five times and he always came back. He managed to write a book about advertising –or was it about something else?– that has sold more than three million copies. Yes, I am talking about Paul Arden.
The last time I saw him was a fateful night: in a Mayfair pub I witnessed how Chelsea kicked Barça out of the Champions League. John Terry was in charge of scoring the goal and Carvalho made sure that Víctor Valdés could do nothing to stop it. It was the same match in which Ronaldinho scored a goal that seemed to be frozen in time, pure fantasy. Nevertheless, I was in enemy territory. Paul, with a smile, made sure he reminded me of it.
That same morning, he’d given a conference at the annual Shots meetings, although, to tell you the truth, that wasn’t a conference. Papers flew and were scattered on the floor and there was no way of placing them in order again, so a football ball and an ad-lib goal ended up being the main acts. While he talked about how lucky you were if you got fired and the crusade against mediocrity, he kicked the ball towards the audience, broke a spotlight, and had all the people standing up applauding like crazy.
Years later. English countryside. Sunny day. Spring. Incredible. A taxi had picked us up at the airport: Toni Arden had warned us that we shouldn’t try to find the place on our own. It was impossible to find. Three quarters of an hour later, on our way to Petworth, we glided on a narrow road meandering over green hills and prairies. We drove across the druid forests full of hundred-year-old trees of the South Downs National Park, refuge of Vanessa Bell, Joseph Turner or Virginia Wolf. “Overcome by beauty more extravagantly than one could expect”.
Toni was right. The clues to get there were impossible to decipher. For a moment, even the taxi driver got lost. Nevertheless, in the end, we managed to reach our goal: the cottage where Paul worked during his last years. Maybe in that landscape we would find the answers to so many unanswered questions.
I met Paul in the mid 90s. One day, a videotape appeared on my desk: Arden, Sutherland and Dodd. Behind that envelop and letter I imagined someone of refined taste. And, then: a surprise. Directors usually edit the ideas to include in their tapes. They know that, otherwise, it’s difficult to shine because it’s often difficult to separate the form from the idea behind it. Not him. He did the opposite. Form was so suggestive, so radically different, that it made mediocre ideas look good, even brilliant. So much so that, without watching all the tape, hurried along by an almost childish impatience, I phoned him. The following day I was in London signing a collaboration agreement with Paul and Nick.
I came back to Barcelona, eager to pass that tape along, unsure whether it would be understood or not. I was totally conscious that I had something completely different in my hands. My first stop was BBDO: “This language is probably too special for our market, a bit radical, isn’t it?”.
Then I went to Delvico Bates, an agency with a creative team that was bold enough so as not to furrow their brow with out of the box proposals.
— But, don’t you know who this is?
— Sincerely? No.
— Paul Arden is the best creative director London has produced in the last 15 years!
I’d never given too much credit to creative types that suddenly wanted to become directors, so I didn’t think it was too important. After seeing his work, Toni Segarra assured me that we would work together very soon.
Indeed, after two weeks they called me to share an idea with Paul, who, with the creative team sitting on the table, said: “I guess now you’re waiting for me to surprise you with something brilliant, creative. Well, I don’t have anything to say, I think the idea is fantastic and very well-structured.” Good. We were doing well. Nevertheless, he added: “Actually, how about we include a pink elephant?” Was he taking the piss? Not really. “Yes, yes, yes! A pink elephant, everybody will talk about the movie with the pink elephant! And the boy’s dad must be black! Let me think of something and I’ll get back to you in two weeks.”
A whole declaration of intentions: you don’t only need a good idea, but you also need to make that idea unforgettable. And that was the start of it.
Toni Arden was waiting for us at the wooden fence outside the cottage. Paul and Toni had met in a ferryboat, she was travelling with a friend to Great Britain. They got married very young, in their early 20s, and back then Paul had only one idea in his mind: working for Ogilvy and earning 1000 pounds. And he did it. Of course he did!
The first time I saw Toni was the night before my only crisis with Paul. At first sight you could see that she was a lady, the perfect counterpoint to an active and unpredictable volcano. Paul had come back to Barcelona to finish a job. He had to shoot again some of the scenes for an Audi spot and he’d reluctantly said yes. Although it all started well, at mid morning it started pouring and things turned sour. We had only one scene left to shoot, very important for the agency, insignificant to Paul. I thought about offering an easy alternative so that we could finish. And he exploded! That turned into a burst of shouts, insults and phone calls to England. Everybody (I, the first one), waited stoically until he calmed down. And when he did, he shot the scene.
I gave him a lift to his hotel in my car, and before he got off, I warned him that what had happened should never happen again and that all we’d tried was helping him get the best results possible. My words were about as harsh as his had been a few hours back, so I figured that was the end of our relationship. But it wasn’t. The following day, when I got to the office, I found a 200 rose bouquet and a letter form Paul, handwritten, thanking me for having helped him develop his work much better. The Audi ad won the Great Jury prize at the El Sol festival.
That was Paul. It was nothing personal. It was only about his work.
Toni told us to go in. Before us: the artist’s sanctuary. Tables jam-packed with books. Walls covered with photographs, sculptures, drawings, and oil paintings. Jim Dine, Colin Barker, Ruth Berhard, Gisele Freund, Jeremy Browne, Richard Avedon, David Bailey, Gilbert Garcin, Sebastian Salgado, Irving Penn… Paul’s universe preserved in what is still his den. Anyone observing the place in detail would realise that none of its contents are superfluous. Teapots watch you from above with the ceramic eyes of household gods. Contemporary sculptures, almost futuristic, on top of 19th century furniture. Chairs perfectly aligned, ready to host a last show, maybe the reading of a classic or else the newest work. And every window, the perfect frame to highlight a work of art, from Turkish dervish dancers under a lattice optical game, to the lilacs coming in, curious, before climbing up to the roof.
Paul’s legacy reflects his singular attitude: his apparently anarchist way of thinking leaks through, in fact, a very refined mental structure. That’s why what is touching, more than every object per se (although they do too) is the combination. And being there you realise why, when I said to Toni we wanted to write about Paul, she asked us to visit his cottage in Sussex, where nothing is left to chance, not even in the outside. The pond, overflown by fascinating dragonflies. The gipsy caravan, half hidden by the emerald green landscape, almost ready for an imaginary trip to nowhere. Or the wooden bench that looks like a wine barrel and lets itself be caressed, listlessly, by the last sunrays of the day. Each piece is part of the amazing whole.
I was always surprised by Paul’s capacity in finding beauty in extremes. Someone showed Paul once a picture of their kid and he simply said: “I love ugly kids.” He didn’t realised he might hurt someone’s feelings because his logic went beyond any conventionalism. For him, true beauty resided in originality, in what surprised him because it was genuinely different. That’s why he found symmetrical similarities in what the rest of us usually only distinguish between beauty and ugliness.
For a long time, we wandered around in silence, looking at everything. I was particularly taken by an image because of the force emanating from it: it was a man energetically holding his head, without showing his face. Toni told me it was Paul’s dad, whom he adored. I read once that his father was a commercial artist. How could you ever label an artist as commercial? An artist is an artist, and that’s it.
With Paul you had the feeling –or, rather, the certainty– that anything could happen. You needed to be ready for the unexpected, carry light baggage and empty yourself from any contents in order to soak in him. Each new encounter was an incentive to keep on teaching your spirit and tell it life was here to be lived. To keep on being that child that looked towards the future with big eyes and eager to learn whatever was new, that is, everything.
Paul’s style was very direct, never intricate. His books are the best proof of it. “I don’t know how to write. I’ve read George Orwell as much as I could to level up with him, eliminate adjectives and keep everything as simple as possible.” Managing to reach a risky height: “Risks are a measure of people. People who won’t take them are trying to preserve what they have. People who do take them often end up having more”.
In one of his meetings with the commercial team of publishing house Phaidon Press, Paul addressed them all with a naked man on his side: “This man can become whatever he wants. He carries no labels, not Gucci or Armani, you don’t even know his name. He could be a shoe shop assistant, a company owner driving a Jaguar, a government minister with two Jaguars. All that he needs is for you to love him enough.”
Paul hated mediocrity because, as Jorge Wagensberg says, it depends on a personal decision by each individual, it’s something that isn’t imposed on us. Mediocrity spells cowardice, insecurity, and fear. And Paul was the opposite of all that.
It’s easy to get close to Paul Arden. Everything written about him –about his photo collection, his departure, the manifestos he wrote, translated to many languages and still as valid as the day he produced them– talks about someone who was necessary. Very necessary.
Paul was, is and will be. He came here to stay.