Profile: Mark Denton

Coy Communications’ advertising and design virtuoso has made an art out of following through his whims, describing his work as ‘a series of schoolboy jokes with a high-end finish’. Jim Davies looks back over his long, multifaceted career

Bespoke is Mark Denton’s middle name. Well, it’s not actually, but it should be. When we meet at the offices of Coy Communications, he’s wearing a bespoke blue fleecy tracksuit, with the word ’Denton’ in garish orange fairground type across the back. He occasionally twirls his rakish moustache, as we reflect on a remarkable 30-year career in which he’s taken his own inimitable style into advertising, art direction, commercials direction, interior design, and more latterly, graphics and corporate identity.

’Most people go down the pub, come up with crazy ideas, have a laugh, and then think no more about it,’ he says. ’The difference is, I’ll follow it through. And I’ll do it properly, too.’ It’s true. The most extraordinary manifestation of this was probably his former west London bachelor pad, which he’d done up as a cartoon stately home, ’where Caravaggio meets Carry On’. The walls were festooned with cod-ancestral portraits of a wigged-up Denton posing variously as a Viking, an Edwardian footballer and a lecherous monk. Artist Ron Mueck and cartoonist Hunt Emerson helped create outlandish furniture and fittings, many of them roped off in the manner of National Trust properties and museums.

For Denton – who studied at Ravensbourne before making his mark on the advertising scene – flights of fancy very often get off the ground. And virtually everything he touches becomes an obsessive, extravagant labour of love. Take his current in-tray/ he’s developing a range of tweed jeans under the fledgling Denton label, and has ambitious plans to follow the success of 2005’s lavishly awarded Styling Lard with another self-initiated magazine. He’s also directing 18 30-second commercials for T-Mobile and a Bulmers cider campaign, and creating the identity for Coy, the ironically titled production company he set up with producer Sara Cummins two years ago. Coy was introduced to the world with a double-page spread in advertising magazine Campaign, featuring a pair of buttocks with a C on the left cheek and a Y on the right. Not sure what happened to the staple.

Actually, identities for creative service companies have become something of a Denton stock in trade. To date, he’s conceived and crafted an outré look and feel for commercials companies, post-production houses and sound studios. A Large Evil Corporation, a small animation studio consisting of ’really nice people’, is the latest outfit to have benefited from the mix of fanfare and hoo-ha that inevitably seems to accompany a Denton project. Their impeccably printed range of stationery and accessories feature hilarious 1960s grotesques, meticulously realised escapee villains from an Austin Powers set.

’My work is a series of schoolboy jokes with a high-end finish,’ says Denton. ’It’s extremely unfashionable, but I like to think it has popular appeal. The main thing is that people remember it, and I enjoy pulling everything together.’ Asked whether he could handle a commission from a group of bankers or accountants, he replies, ’Well, it depends how they want to come across. If they want to be different, I’m the man.’

Typically, Denton’s style is bold pastiche with a retro twist. It harks back to his childhood love of comics and TV, and accounts for his peculiarly British idiom and cultural references. These came across particularly strongly in his immaculate Beano-inspired work for the Creative Circle awards. Ever the stickler for authenticity, he co-opted ex-Beano artist Steve Bright to help out with the project.

As a keen member of the Ephemera Society, one of Denton’s perennial aims is to create pieces good enough to be collectable – he’s proud that his Creative Circle certificates are among the few to grace the walls of advertising creative departments. Another keeper was the infamous ’cunt’ poster for calligrapher Alison Carmichael, which catapulted her career to another level. Conceived as a piece of direct mail, it caused such a stir that she ended up selling prints for £100 a pop.

’Everything I do is obvious,’ says Denton. ’People can think too hard about things and miss the point. It’s all about creating awareness. Design is advertising. Advertising is design. Washing powder packaging has to stand out as much as a poster.’ Uh-oh, I can feel a move into fmcg coming on.’

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