Spooner on…so farewell then Tod Norman, one of a kind

spooner 414“Change has never in history happened as fast as it is happening today; and it will never happen this slowly again.”
This, from Graeme Wood of the New Yorker, was one of Tod’s favourite epigrams, one he used as a touchstone in much of the work that he did. His position in reference to inevitable change was that of a committed, lifelong socialist and idealist, who, despite much evidence to the contrary, firmly believed in humanity’s capacity to build a better world.
I for one, may try that little bit harder to do so, now that dear Tod has gone.
I have met a lot of people in the advertising industry but have made few proper friends in it; Tod was an exception.
Exasperating, obstinate, opinionated, ‘difficult’, it was no wonder that Tod got on so well with creative people.
I first became aware of him as an enormous, burly, wise-cracking presence – with an extraordinary unplaceable American accent – filling the meeting rooms of WWAV Rapp Collins with words and more words. I was deeply suspicious of him for a variety of reasons, until it fell to me to work with him for the first time.
Tod was an unashamedly passionate intellectual with a voracious appetite for information that matched his immense appetite for life and ALL of the good things in it. He knew shit that I didn’t. And what’s more it wasn’t the usual ‘plannery’, Simon Sineky, pseudo-psychological shizzle. It was what he might have described as ‘the real deal’. After all, his discourse was an astonishing mixture of folksy Americanisms, Lacanian apothegms, lurid analogies, Yiddisher ‘qvetching’ and lord-alone-know-what-else. Astonishing was the right word.
But Tod was also a gentleman and therefore capable of calibrating his ‘spiel’ perfectly for his audience, rendering lugubrious pitch-panels of traditional stuffed-shirts speechless with a mixture of admiration and fear. Never before had I heard someone in a position of such authority in such a formal setting swear so heartily and with such emphasis. One could see the hair on the heads of assembled account directors whitening at the temples as he spoke.
It was a delight.
But it wasn’t just posturing. The language was always carefully directed in the service of the idea and in the presentation of that idea in the perfect way to surprise and delight a customer as much as a pitch-panel. It was his insight, as many tributes in this publication have already indicated, that set Tod apart. Clients would buy the most unlikely ideas from him because they were all grounded absolutely in the realities of customers’ lives.
I think this was the product of his very American brand of socialism, his commitment to ensuring that ‘the little guy’ got ‘a fair deal’. Whatever it was, this passion for seeing things as the consumer sees them, coupled with his extraordinary delivery, was what persuaded clients again and again of the down-home rightness of what he had to say.
As a creative person, standing up to show pitch work after Tod had finished speaking, was a delight. After all, very often the client had bought the idea before one had even begun to demonstrate how it might be executed.
And it was at pitching that Tod absolutely excelled. The inevitable adrenalin rush kept all of his world-weariness at bay, the lack of time spoke directly to his impatience and the theatre of the pitch itself was the perfect stage for his maverick flamboyance.
I can’t be the only one to have noticed that the 12th iteration of a concerted marketing campaign for an esteemed and well established client didn’t, perhaps, fire Tod up as much as the process of WINNING A PITCH.
I remember waiting nervously in some enormous glass and steel atrium with a dozen colleagues preparing to pitch for an agency-redefining account that would deliver bonuses for all and a party that’s probably still happening.
A svelte, exquisitely elegant receptionist shimmered over to say that the client was ready to see us. For some reason she approached a slightly dishevelled Tod Norman rather than the MD or the CSD. He said ‘thank you’, stood up, and proceeded to run through a number of operatic scales in an extremely loud and not unpleasant bass baritone that filled the cavernous foyer with breath-taking sonority and tremendous, very-slowly-diminishing echoes.
I shall never forget the expressions on the faces of my colleagues and of the svelte receptionist. “Gotta tune up ready to perform,” said dear Tod. We won the pitch, I don’t think Tod slept throughout the process.
Latterly, as Tod and I began to ‘pursue portfolio careers in the gig economy’ we would meet in an ancient Punjabi restaurant in Neal Street at the grubby Holborn end of Covent Garden and Tod would, like so many of us, launch into a long, eloquent lament at the state of things in general. I remember meeting him there one bitterly cold Tuesday in March and feeling the urge to push the conversation away from the idiocy of clients, the intransigence of colleagues and the lamentable state of the world.
Inevitably this meant talking about motorcycling.
Tod told me about his motorcycle journey from one end of New Zealand to another. To hear him speak, this stubbly Jewish-Texan anglophile, was to hear a man transported to another world upon a magical steed that swept its rider through the majestic mountain landscapes of the land of the long white cloud, an unearthly, perfect machine that took a crotchety planner and turned him into a god or hero speeding through an exquisite landscape in joyous pursuit of the ultimate sublime.
The last time I saw Tod, for a moment there on his beautiful terrace, surrounded by swaying trees in the golden sunshine and with his family within earshot, knowing that he didn’t have long, he still had that faraway look in his eye.
Though he was at pains to tell us that he believed in nothing after death, I would like to imagine Tod, in radiant health, helmetless, upon the perfect apotheosis of all American motorcycles, cursing joyously as he sweeps at angel-defying speed around the exquisite curves and hairpins of Elysium.
So farewell then Tod Norman.
We shall not see your like again.

Jonathan Spooner is consulting creative director at Spoon Creative

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