“I enjoy being a member of a faculty that consistently turns wide-eyed creative butterflies into creative killer bees”
Next up in our SCA Spotlight on… interviews is the fantastic Pete Cain. Pete’s a grad from the original SCA, having attended the school with SCA Dean, Marc Lewis. Pete’s worked at and been fired from some of London’s top ad agencies and he now runs his own creative ideas agency, The Raised Eyebrow Society. Since its coming up to Pete’s 10th year at the SCA, we thought we’d quiz our fave sharp-witted and sharp-tongued mentor.
Pete, tell us a bit about yourself.
I was a student at the original SCA in 1993, where I was lucky enough to be tutored by the late, great John Gillard. I was an angry young man who wanted to change the world back then. The aim was to instigate a revolution. I figured I’d need to learn how to mass communicate first to achieve it. So, what better place to study? As a student, I hijacked a 96-sheet poster for self-promotion, put a replica bomb on my portfolio to get quick book crits with ECDs, and won Campaign Poster of the Year whilst on placement.
My creative partner (Lou Bogue) and I made award-winning, product-shifting work for some of London’s top ad agencies for a decade or so before trying our hand at directing commercials instead. We also went on to write, produce, and direct a sketch comedy tv series that sold worldwide. To satisfy my desire to create change, I spent my weekends for 15 years performing as a professional stand-up comedian – my childhood dream. More recently, I co- founded The Raised Eyebrow Society – a creative ideas agency; we work with charities and for brands and businesses, looking for purpose-relevant ideas that are good for business and the wider world. I’m still trying to change it, of course, just in a different way from how I’d initially imagined – not a petrol bomb in sight. One thing is for sure, everything I’ve done can be traced back to what I’ve learned at the SCA.
Tell us a bit about your background and where you found your sources of creative inspiration.
I grew up in the 1970s on council estates in an angry London suburb at the west end of the central line. Boys from the area generally became professional tradesmen or career criminals. My father was a promising bank robber, but his career was cut short, and he spent most of my childhood in prison. By all accounts, I was a ‘bright kid’ at school. However, undiagnosed dyslexia, a rebellious nature, and my role as the class comedian led to me leaving aged 15 with no qualifications. Where I came from, exposure to ‘the arts’ was limited to misspelt anti-establishment graffiti, and the term ‘culture’ wasn’t a word I’d have been able to comprehend. I didn’t enjoy reading, didn’t particularly like music and only went to the museums to be somewhere dry and warm when we bunked off school. The kids around my way were very creative, though, just not necessarily in an artistic way.
However, one man had a massive influence on me, even though I didn’t know his name or what he did. I didn’t even know he existed until I’d worked in advertising for a few years; John Webster was the man behind many of the most loved and effective advertising campaigns of the day. He created lovable characters that persuaded people to buy things. He sold cardboard flavoured mash potato to millions with The Smash Martians. A German lager to anti-German men using a cool pool playing bear with the immortal line, ‘If you want great lager follow the bear’ (Hoffmeister). A warm beer to southerners with the long-running masterpiece that was Arkwright from the John Smith’s ads, to name a few. Such was his influence that, Aged 7, I entered a fancy-dress competition covered in red stripy drinking straws in homage to his invisible character ‘a Humphrey’ from the Unigate Dairy campaign (came 3rd). We even named our dog after it because he liked milk so much. John Webster influenced my life and the lives of the entire nation more than any artist, and all without us even realising.
How long have you been a mentor at SCA and what do you teach?
Next year will be my 10th year tutoring at the SCA. I do my best to help the students understand how to think in, and ultimately write executable thoughts (creative propositions) – get the thinking right, and the ideas write themselves. Essentially, ‘the thought’ is the springboard for the creative work. The fundamental principle is so simple it’s elusive, and trying to grasp it can be extremely frustrating, which makes it challenging to teach. So, it’s gratifying when the students eventually start being able to form, shape and execute them. I also enjoy being a member of an incredible faculty that consistently manages to metamorphosis wide-eyed creative butterflies into creative killer bees, capable of pollinating tricky briefs with tangible solutions in the short space of 10 very long months.
What’s your favourite thing about mentoring at SCA?
Being a mentor at the SCA is the best job in advertising. I’m only there one day a week, but it’s a privilege to work with raw talent and be part of their evolution, not just as creatives but as human beings. The course is character-building and life-enhancing too. It’s more than a gateway into the ad industry. It can be a pathway that leads creative oddballs and social misfits to discover their true passion and purpose in life. Many advertising creatives become film directors, authors, and successful entrepreneurs. This year alone, two former students appeared separately on Dragons Den. Both received offers. The ability to distil their business ideas and present them under pressure was undoubtedly honed at the school.
Any recommended reading for budding creatives?
People. Most important of all, learn to read people. Study them as individuals and collectives. Understand how they behave independently and in their various groups. A good creative should be part artist, part strategist and part psychologist. When you’re working on a brief, don’t sit in your ivory tower making assumptions. Go and hang out with your target audience. Watch what they do and listen to what they say. Know who they are.
I’m still not much of a reader. I prefer to listen, although I always enjoy how Dave Trott writes. Short, witty, and wise. Check out his body of work too. If you’re interested in the stories behind some of the best campaigns ever and the people who made them, try another Dave. Dave Dye’s, ‘Stuff From The Loft’ is fascinating (if you’re a nerd for ads). There are two other podcasts worth listening to, ‘Behind The Billboard‘, and ‘Talking to Ourselves’ – it’s American, so the presenter is a bit sycophantic and self-congratulatory. Still, it’s worth tolerating to hear from some great creatives about some of the best work they’ve made over there.
I strongly suggest you look through the D&AD Annuals. Not once, but again, and again and again. It’s easy ‘coz it’s all pictures innit. The world is overflowing with shit advertising. So, it’s essential to know what good and great work looks like. Pour over the pages and try to deconstruct the work. For me, advertising is simple; find something to say that compels the audience to respond in the desired way. Make it look good. And put it somewhere they’re likely to see it.
What would you say to anyone that thinks that a creative career is out of their reach?
The standard of work in the advertising industry is so low these days literally anybody can do the job, so if you’re unhappy with what you’re currently doing and you want to work in a ‘creative job’, see if you can get in the school. The training you get will ensure you get one somewhere decent. Preferably, you’re artistic in some way; a writer, an artist, a doodler or maybe a just rebel at a loss about what to do with your life. In which case, definitely apply. You never regret or forget a year at the SCA.
Being an advertising Creative is still one of the best jobs ever. I mean, you get paid to think of ideas, and every now and then, you get to make them.
Why do you think SCA students are so successful?
Marc Lewis is the driving force behind the school’s success. He’s the omnipresent inspiration that sets the tempo for the course. The in-house mentors are all top professionals or industry legends. There are 100’s of visiting mentors and a network of Illuminati now working in the best agency around. There is nowhere like this place. It’s more like a cult. Ultimately, it’s all about ideas. No bull. No Politics. No Egos. No reason not to, other than it not being the right idea. All those things set the SCA apart. Imagine what the standard of work would be like if it were a 3-year course, like most others. Thankfully, all you need to get a job in the best agencies is crammed into ten unforgettable months. And, who knows where you’ll end up?
Top tips for anyone wanting to succeed in the creative industry.
The answer is in the problem. Get the thinking right, and the ideas will write themselves. What you can do, is defined by what you can’t do. There’s always a better solution. Good is the enemy of great. Don’t work hard, work smart. Don’t be a dick. Be nice to work with.
And always be generous with ‘your’ ideas – they are not ‘yours’, you are just blessed with a good antenna for receiving them.
How does a future SCA student make sure they get the very best out of the course?
Put everything else on hold for 10 months. Immerse yourself in the course. Learn who to listen to, about what, when. Be humble. Listen and learn about what you don’t know and be open to re-learning what you thought you already knew.
Finally, what’s the best piece of advice you were ever given.
I rarely listen to anyone’s advice. I prefer to learn from fucking-it-up, first. Then I go and tell the advisor I’ve proved their point. But if I had to say one, it would be from Graham Fink, another of John Gillard’s students. He always say, ‘Take a leap and a net will appear.’ I’ve taken many and it always does. Go for it.