MADchester to MAD MEN

In this episode Brian Connolly talks about growing up in Moss side, studying art and design at Manchester Polytechnic, following his creative path to London and eventually breaking into the world famous ‘Mad Men’ world of advertising in New York city.

Where are you right now? 

I’m on East 54th street in midtown Manhattan.

Mancunian in New York! 

That’s right. It’s a strange feeling. My journey has come a long way but yes, it’s great. It’s a great feeling to be here. 

Do you have much of a Brit community in New York? 

No, actually it’s interesting – most of my friends now are American. I don’t have any British friends, apart from when I go and watch Man United play. Sometimes there’s a couple of guys I meet in the pub but they’re not really friends, they’re sort of acquaintances, I suppose. Most of my friends are sort of New Yorkers really. 

How often do you walk around humming the Police song to yourself. 

Sting song — yes, I did it when I first arrived. It was a bit of a cliche. Bizarrely enough, when I first came to New York, which was probably in 1992 or 93, I actually had a little Super 8 camera so I was going around doing a little film at the time and when I got back… 

You edited it to that soundtrack? 

Yeah! It was a real cliche but it worked. But yeah, not since then to be honest with you. 

Okay, so can you tell me when you meet somebody new today and they ask, ‘What do you do?’ how do you respond? 

I will always say I work in advertising which is my job which I do. I’m not really specific about the stuff I’ve worked on over the years but yes, in general I would just say I work in advertising. 

And then surely that leads to further questions or are they quite happy with that? 

Yeah if they show a little bit more interest then I’ll tell them some of the the brands I’ve worked on. Mainly I will tell them stuff I’ve worked on in the U.S really because they probably don’t know a lot from my days in London and the U.K. 

And where are you originally from in Manchester? 

Yeah I was born in Moss Side and spent many wonderful years there as a kid and into my early teens. It was a great grounding for me and a big part of that, I suppose, was the cultural mix of Irish and Afro-Caribbean and Polish kids and families. It was amazing. And then after that I moved to Fallowfield with my family — my sister, Mum and Dad — when I was around 14 and lived there for a few years before eventually moving to London. 

And was advertising always in your mind as something you want to do? 

No, not at all really. I was always good at art and I felt I was artistic in a way and I always felt that I wanted to do something art-related. I was lucky at the time because there was a degree course at Manchester Polytechnic that allowed you to try out different areas in the arena and then you could specialize. It was called a Foundation course so at the time, I tried fine art, I tried illustration and sculpture. Neither of those really appealed to me, I wasn’t really great at painting and I hated using my hands. I wasn’t going to use my hands as regards to sculpture and model-making.

But then there was another course specialized in advertising. And that was more about creative thinking coupled with design so that really appealed to me. And I think it was the only course outside London so I got into advertising by default, really. 

Do you remember your first, entry job in the business? 

It was hard to get in. London was a difficult place at the time. I’d go down to London and you know I think I was on the dole for a year or two trying to get into it. 

So you moved to London without a job? 

Yeah, you know, I was up and down many times on the train and on the bus coming home at weekends, trying to get internships as they call them now. It was tough. 

It was brave to move down without anything. You’re kind of chasing the dream. 

I think you have to chase the dream. I think that’s a Mancunian ethic, or spirit. I think you go for it. No one stands in your way. My folks — they were behind me as well. And it was a time when we didn’t have mobile phones and the internet, so I was in call boxes making interviews and trying to speak to people and it was a tough time.

But it’s like even today if you really want to do something and you really want to make it happen, you’ll do it. I mean hindsight is a great thing you look back and go, ‘How the hell did I keep doing that for a year and a half?’ I was definitely making headway and then I eventually got a job in an agency called Lintas, that doesn’t even exist anymore.

Doing what?

I ended up going in as a junior Art Director. 

That’s not bad. Did you have a portfolio? Did you have any work? 

We had a portfolio yeah. I mean that portfolio, you know coming out of polytechnic and two years walking the streets of London and trying to make it better and better, because obviously the portfolio is what gets you your job and I had teamed up with a writer then because when you when you initially work in advertising — it’s still the same case now — you usually go in as a team unless they team you up because you tend to sit in a room when you think of ideas on brands with a writer and an art director, even though you both think together.

That’s how they used to work: one was supposed to write the words and one was supposed to think visually. So yeah, eventually I got into an agency which was great. 

And what were some of your memories of the first big clients you worked with? 

I remember working on Japanese Airlines when i first got a job there and I was thinking, ‘When are you going to fly me to Japan so I can experience the airline?’ and I realised, ‘No, no, no.’

You gotta use your imagination! 

Yes, you’re far too low in the packing order to be on a flight to Japan. I mean eventually I moved to various agencies, I spent probably my longest period of time at Saatchi and Saatchi in London for over 10 years.

And over the years I worked on various brands that took me around the world. I mean, I worked on Fosters and they said, ‘Well you’re going to work on a Fosters pitch, why don’t you go and experience Australia?’

And once I worked on another alcohol brand — Southern Comfort — they said, ‘Why don’t you go to New Orleans and spend a week there?’ and it’s like, ‘Really?’ and it was great! I mean advertising helped me travel and see the world and it opened my mind a little bit — a lot, not a little bit. So it was great from a creative point of view, also great from an experience point of view as well. 

So how long did it take you to move up from junior Art Director to traveling around the world with Saatchi?

(Listen to the full conversation on the podcast)