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Tales of the uninvited #3: The day they killed advertising

I can’t remember the exact date, the reason will become apparent soon enough, but sometime around the 2nd week of May 1986, someone killed off advertising as we knew it.

It had been on the cards for a good decade, but it took just one grand gesture to drive the final nail into the coffin.

All names have been changed to protect the guilty, but I’m sure someone reading this might recognise themselves – yes you, Bob, err… Ben.

We were on a roll; having won some big, high profile accounts, along came the chance to go for a whopper. BT.

If we won it, it would take the agency from the top 20 into the top 10. It sounds a bit glib now, but when you’ve got a 5-floor office in Covent Garden, the agency bleeds money, so an extra few million would’ve definitely come in handy.

Plus, a new senior creative team had joined the agency. And to be frank, salaries aside, they were high maintenance.

This was an agency that enjoyed the occasional snifter, but these gentlemen were on another level. Yes, the BT account would go a fair way to covering a bar tab or two.

DONG.

Hear that? That’s the first ring of the death bell for advertising as we knew it.

“We want you guys to lead the pitch”, the fateful words of our Creative Director.

“We’ll need to get out of the office to think”, said Ben and err… Jerry.

Yes of course you will.

Now here’s the thing. Back in the ’80s there were serious budgets flying around, and the will to spend them. Life ran at a different tempo. We usually got two or three weeks to crack an ad campaign and a normal lunch break lasted two hours.

It wasn’t unheard of for half the creative department to go AWOL for a whole afternoon, even several days. No one turned a blind eye at burbling Art Directors and Copywriters lying face down in the lift. Yay the Golden Age (?) of advertising.

So when this new creative team decided to set up camp in the Waldorf for a few days, no one batted an eyelid.

“Yeah, sure. Here’s a platinum card. Whatever it takes, just come back with a campaign idea that’ll win us the business”.

DONG.

So the Copywriter and Art Director got the Creative Secretary (yes, we had one of those in the ’80s) to book two executive suites. Oh, I forgot to say, they invited their wives to join them too.

DONG.

Three days later, no one had heard from them – it was a lot easier to go off-grid in those days.

Then the invitations started to trickle in.

Starting with the most senior teams (there were 9 teams altogether if my memory serves me correctly), hush-hush calls came in to the agency. “Psst, wanna join us for lunch? It’s on us”. Well, technically it was on the agency owners, but that’s a minor detail.

By the second week of their mini-break-on-steroids, the party was in full swing.

DONG.

Lunch now consisted of 4-hour sessions with 10, 15 or even 20 people (the agency producers and less responsible Account Handlers were now in on the gig) pushing the corporate boat out into ever-more-turbulent waters.

DONG.

The most enthusiastic bon vivants started turning up for dinner and nightcaps too. Well, why not. Crawling around hotel lobbies, foaming at the mouth, looking for that elusive big idea can be thirsty work.

A particular episode during one of these marathon feasting sessions will be forever imprinted on my mind. And this is verbatim, word-for-word.

DONG.

“Waiter.”

“Yes sir?”

“What’s the most expensive brandy you’ve got?”

“That would be the 1847 Lucien Foucauld Vintage Fine Champagne Cognac, sir.”

“Brilliant.

“Bring us the bottle.”

DONG.

Wait for it…

THUD.

And from that point on, ladies and gentlemen, advertising as we knew it, was no more.

I never did find out what the final pitch bill was. All I remember is, we didn’t win the BT account. C’est la Vie.

If this still left you with room for pudding, have a nosy at Tales of the uninvited #2: A brush with death in Kashmir

Jonathan Wilcock (that’s me) is a Senior Freelance Copywriter.
You can
drop me a line here, or email jonathan@sowhatif.co.uk