In the 70s, the following joke used to do the rounds of London
A client rings three agencies to ask the time. He rang Colletts and they
told him to sod off. He rang Allen Brady and Marsh, and they put it into
a jingle and sang it to him. Finally, he rang McCann-Erickson, who said
’what time would you like it to be, sir?’
Let me apologise at once to McCanns, who are much less supine than they
used to be, and any youthful readers who do not know that Allen Brady
and Marsh was a singing, dancing agency famous in its time for setting
slogans to tunes. But the joke says just about all you need to know
about the history of British advertising over the past 25 years. Once
the world was dominated by huge US agencies, pack-shots, the hard sell,
the prejudices of the chairman’s wife and an approach to client service
that would have struck Louis XIV as sycophantic. Then the world was
shaken up by a small bunch of independent spirits led by Colletts, who
had a pride and passion in their creative work and weren’t afraid to say
so. They slaughtered the pack-shots overnight and sent the chairman’s
wife grumbling back to her Women’s Institute committee.
Actually, these new spirits were as committed to client service as the
old lot. They just didn’t see why that precluded them from sticking up
for their work; and for treating their audience like humans. One by one,
encouraged by the experience of Gallaher, Whitbread and others, the
clients began to agree. Now the renegades and their followers run many
of the top agencies in the land.
The point is this: compared with the ad industry, contract publishing is
in about 1975.
But the breakaway is happening. There is a small group of magazines and
publishers that are compelling, creative and innovative. In advertising,
it was Hamlet, Heineken, Fiat and so on. In publishing, it’s
Sainsbury’s: The Magazine, Hot Air, Saab Magazine and, some are kind
enough to say, High Life.
The British Airways people we deal with on High Life believe the more
corporate propaganda we shovel down people’s throats, the less likely
they are to read the magazine. Conversely, the more creative freedom
they give us, and the more they encourage us to take risks, the more
likely we are to be read.
Then there is a much larger group of magazines where the editors ask the
client what time he’d like it to be. And what photograph he’d like on
the cover, which layouts he wants and how many dozen pictures of himself
and his product he’d like to get in.
The divide is as much financial as creative. We, and BA, are in the
happy position of publishing a magazine that we have developed into a
strong advertising proposition and it turns in a healthy profit.
We are in a minority. Let’s take an example. I went to a meeting with a
company that wanted us to take its tired, off-the-peg title and
refashion it. But this costs money. You have to hire proper writers and
designers, commission original photography, think, plan and rework.
There was no way the revenue generated was going to be enough.
So the choice for my friends was simple. Stay with a publisher that kept
its editorial costs to the bare minimum and sold their ads as a package
with God knows what else, or pay to develop a magazine that meets their
marketing objectives. So they will have to sweet-talk the marketing
director. Convince him to make an investment; persuade him that a
well-produced, readable magazine can work harder, more successfully and
more measurably than anything in his promotions budget. Suggest that
once the magazine has a strong, lively presence, it might become
self-funding and even make more dosh. Tell him that a magazine can be
several marketing media rolled into one. Something that creates a
relationship with its existing and potential customers. Something that
people really want to read.
In this instance, I’m not confident. Sometimes you can push change
along, sometimes you just have to wait for it. This is 1975, after
So why did I move into this problematic world? Well, why does anyone
move jobs? More money and more fun, mainly. But there is also a very
sound journalistic reason.
Good journalism is all about knowing your readers. The editors of the
Daily Mail and the Guardian know who they are and how they will react to
any story, any issue. Others go by hunches. James Brown had a hunch that
there was a market for a laddish magazine, and, thanks to IPC, Loaded
was born. IPC had a hunch that the same lads wanted to read about food,
and Eat Soup was born. Loaded sells 380,420 copies; Eat Soup has closed,
with reported sales of 10,000. Research or no research, it’s hard to
read your readers’ minds.
With a customer magazine, though, it is a lot easier. Good companies
really know their customers. As for the rest, it’s a question of having
a bloody good argument about cover photographs, layouts, pack-shots etc.
So, if anyone rings to ask the time I will say: just past 1975, but
going further past all the time.
This article was first published on Campaign