Terry Murphy (1998)

There probably aren’t too many advertising people who would care to put on their CV that they left the industry to become a taxi driver.

Terry Murphy did and he’s proud if it. For the record, he left Young & Rubicam to become a cabby in Eastbourne, West Sussex where he was then playing semi-pro football. In those days dreams of soccer stardom had a stronger pull than copywriting.

In one of the less reverential comments on Murphy’s outstanding capabilities as an adman his longtime colleague and onetime boss Willie Sonnenberg said: “Terry was a great copywriter and a fucking good footballer.”

He would know. Their long association began at Adverto, an agency which is part of Leo Burnett’s ancestral bloodline in South Africa. Murphy arrived in 1967 to play as a semi-pro for Berea Park in Pretoria and to copywrite part-time. But for a couple of seasons it was the smell of wintergreen and the snap of old laces that had his attention.

In Cape Town briefly to work for Lindsey Smithers he returned to England on the death of his father. Three months in the cold was enough. Adverto had been pursuing him, reckoning perhaps that abandoning them for cab driving in Pretoria wouldn’t be an option.

0nce back in South Africa he stayed – through the inevitable agency name changes and repositioning until he retired in 1998 laden with honours and with the nameplate reading Sonnenberg, Murphy, Leo Burnett.

“Creative Director? I was, yes,” he recalls. “But at the end of the day I was a copywriter. They throw titles about like crazy in the advertising industry. I was a CD in the sense that I would look over the work that younger people were turning out and try and help. But if there was a big presentation of work to be made I couldn’t stand up and do it. I just couldn’t. I’d get ill.”

Murphy was at the cutting edge of the industry for a couple of decades, but even if he agreed with that bald statement – and he’d be mildly ticked by the tiredness of the cliche – most likely he would deflect the accolade. For the record Murphy, largely in a famed association with Sonnenberg, won over a score of top awards at the Loeries, at Cannes, the Clios (he has sat on judging panels at all three) and at both the London and New York Festivals of advertising. He didn’t earn them, of course, because these days there are dozens of creative awards festivals and shows and it is “virtually impossible now for a creative person not to win an award somewhere, sometime”.

“Thus,” he says, “have I profited.”

Murphy is diffident to a fault, the quintessential team player, a man who deliberately spurned the limelight to become, as he describes himself, “a backroom boy.”

Former colleagues remember him very differently: “Terry Murphy is without doubt the greatest copywriter this country has seen,” says Trevor Delaney, a CD at Leo Burnett. “He’ll never admit it, because he is possibly the humblest man I have ever met. His written words always intrigued, from the headline right through to the final paragraph. Every word had its place: not too many; never too few. He could be a very serious writer and within seconds his words could make you smile. A very rare talent.” Mark Varder of Varder Hulsbosch had this to say: “His thinking is absolutely razor sharp and precise. He had a surgeon’s ability of cutting a way through distractions and complexity and getting to the issue. And then he would articulate it.”

Varder was talking about ideas, not copywriting, but when he mentions Murphy’s particular skill he returns to the metaphor of the knife: “He was a real craftsman. He’d work the way people used to in fashioning wood or building an instrument. He would fashion the words so beautifully and render them as simple and succinct as possible.”

In 1998 he was admitted with Sonnenberg to the Hall of Fame. Their collaboration was legendary and had at its base mutual respect for the ideas and logic of the other. Neither had a problem discarding their own ideas if candid assessment showed them to be inferior to those of the other. “He had one of the best strategic brains I ever came across,” said Sonnenberg. “Logic was Murphy’s law.”

Sonnenberg was the agency front and its face, a charmer who could be impatient with mediocrity and abrasive with difficult clients. Thinking back Murphy ponders at an occasional paradox in client-agency relations: “Some clients don’t want their advertising people to be smarter than themselves, although if I was a client I’d want to buy the best brains in the business.”

The range of Murphy’s successes both in film and print is formidable, from Mercedes Benz and Liberty Life to an evocative and moving cinema commercial for the Johannesburg Zoo called ‘Faces’. Great work for Mercedes made the agency. Mark Varder believes Murphy, the co-creator, was not only suited by temperament to the manufacturer’s requirements but found a faint, almost whimsical reflection in the end of the Chapman’s Peak ad, where the driver gets out but you don’t see him. Mercedes is about engineering, not people. “That’s Murphy,” says Varder. “Always the product, never the person.”

Like Sonnenberg he was never short of ideas, mostly darned good ones, and he took time to let down gently those juniors who had laboured for days and produced dogs, not diamonds.

“He would resolve problems in minutes and would always end off saying: ‘That’s what l would do,’ never insisting on his view,” said Raj Ranchod, Leo Burnett’s deputy executive CD.

Murphy says there’s much in today’s advertising which he doesn’t understand. “l was brought up in a time when wit and ingenuity were revered, but relevance was mandatory. l see ads today that are so ambiguous I can’t figure them out. There is a great striving to take ideas to the edge, and some go over the edge. I think that nowadays there is enormous pressure on creative people to win awards. Perhaps winning awards has become the single most important thing.” He regrets that.

By Bill Krige