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  • Writer's pictureAlastair Blair

The last ever Recruitment Media Newsletter

Updated: Oct 17, 2018

In which our hero begins his career in the industry…

I did promise that I’d get round to writing this, but when I sat down to begin I quickly realised that there is just far too much good material to fit into one blog (the blog standing in for the old fashioned Newsletter that so annoyed Pete Clarke because he had to scroll up and down the page to read it all). Accordingly, you may regard this as part one of a series which will run for a little while, until either I get bored or a writ brings it to a juddering halt. Also, as an aside, I seem to recall Jamie Leonard stating on Facebook that he would like to see a history of recruitment advertising so there may be a bit of that in here too. Anyway, without further ado, let’s begin, at the beginning, which, I am reliably informed is a very good place to start.

I began my career in media in 1983. That was my first mistake, because the Highland News Group, for which I was now an – correction, the (as in the only) Advertising Sales Executive for their business magazine, a dire two-colour glossy called the Moray Firth Executive, didn’t tell me that they were not in good nick financially and in danger of going bust. This was my first introduction to newspaper management versus trade unionism, but before all this happened I learned many valuable things, including how journalism works.

In case you don’t know how journalism works, I’ll explain. In a desperate attempt to make more money, the staid Highland News (a weekly paper which struggled to compete with the Inverness Courier, an eight page paper owned by the formidable Miss Barron paper that came out twice a week) went tabloid and downmarket. The Courier didn’t have a rep but just someone who went round all the local businesses and told them that if they didn’t get their copy in on time then they would go to the back of the queue and it would be months before they could advertise again. Bit like the heyday of the Sunday Times recruitment section, where they could get away with a premium for page one.

Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, the Highland News becoming the Daily Star of the north. Bear in mind, that the Highlands in the 1980s was not remotely like London (or even Glasgow) today. There had been more schisms in the local churches than you’ve had hot dinners and sex and drugs and rock and roll, while undoubtedly present, were not allowed on Sundays. But let’s get back to journalism

I was driving back to the office in the company of a journalist (not sure why – normally in those days advertising and journalists hated each other – of which more in subsequent blogs). We passed a local newsagent, which had a Highland News bill outside with the alluring words, “Police deny terrorist link to guns found in (the river) Ness.” I thought this was highly unlikely, so I asked my journalist colleague how this story came about. “Easy,” he replied, “there were some guns found in the Ness, so we called the police and asked if there was a terrorist link and they said don’t be so fecking stupid, this is the Highlands, not Belfast.” As he explained, the headline was entirely true – the police had denied any terrorist link to the guns found in the Ness…

By the way, I’m sorry, you’ll have to get used to my meanderings as random memories flood back. I was telling you about why joining the Highland News Group was a mistake and how I first got involved in an industrial dispute. And if you want to know what happened then, in true Dick Barton Special Agent fashion, you’ll have to tune in tomorrow….

An advertising office where swearing was not allowed…

If you were with me yesterday, you’ll recall I was explaining how I got my first (ever) job at the Highland News Group, selling advertising on their business magazine. In those days, the HNG was slowly coming into the modern world. They had just taken the old press out and the place still had hot metal blocks lying about (I’ve still got some: they make good paperweights) but they were trying hard and had turned their main weekly title into a version of the Daily Star of the Highlands.

Anyway, I learned how to sell advertising (lie about how well it works basically) and also how to get on with management. The latter was particularly difficult because although they were nice people they were also Jehovah’s Witnesses. This meant it was the only advertising/newspaper office I’ve ever worked in where swearing was actively discouraged.

What they hadn’t told me at the time I joined was the company wasn’t in great nick. This slowly became apparent after about 18 months, so the advertising team did what all people do in these circumstances: we looked after Number One and joined a trade union. We also all applied for jobs all over the place and I was fortunate enough to get an interview with the Press and Journal and, while stories of imminent doom and disaster circulated daily at the HNG, I was offered a job. At the same time, a senior Union official (I think it was SOGAT, but I can’t remember) came up from Glasgow to negotiate with management on behalf of his new and somewhat hypocritical members.

I remember him coming out of his meeting, collecting the comrades around (he did actually call us that) and then telling us that if anyone wanted to leave there was £1,000 on the table. This may seem a paltry amount, but when I tell you that my house cost only £16,000 at that time, this rather puts it into perspective. I put my hand up…

The record for the slowest ever distribution of a newspaper…

Having escaped from the Highland News Group with a grand in my pocket, I then spent a couple of years at Aberdeen Journals, working first in Aberdeen and then in Inverness and then back in Aberdeen. The man who had given me the job was a Brummie and a ferocious Ad Manager of the old school. Fortunately, for some reason, he liked me and after a short spell in Aberdeen I was promoted back to Inverness as Highland Ad Manager. Millennials would never have lasted five minutes under his regime. Every night it was “how much have yew sold towdie?” - with the figure then put up on the white board, or with caustic remarks if you hadn’t sold anything. You soon learned to keep a few sales up your sleeve for a day when you hadn’t managed anything. Unlike the Highland News Group, swearing was mandatory, as seemingly was smoking (I was one of only a few who didn’t) and trying to get as many free meals on expenses as possible.

At Aberdeen Journals Ltd (AJL) I learned more about the relationship between advertising and editorial, and even more about the power of the unions in the newspaper industry at that time. As regards the hate-hate relationship between journalism and advertising, there was one famous occasion when the elderly editor of the Press and Journal allegedly told the senior advertising team (including the Assistant MD) “I wish you commercial bastards would just fuck off.”

To get our own back, whenever we were with journalists, which was quite often when you were a junior ad manager, we used to refer to the paper as “product.” This used to really annoy them, which is why we did it.

When it came to industrial relations, this was the era of Wapping and Eddie Shah and I had my own experience of this when the van drivers at AJL went on strike. By then I was the Field Sales Manager on their evening paper and basically on the lowest rung of the management ladder, but I was still included in the small group who took on the unions. Others in this group went into the building with the MD one Sunday and printed a Sunday copy of the Press and Journal (it was only a six day paper) and left piles of them lying about to demonstrate that the presses could still run if there was a strike. In the event, it was the van drivers who came out, not the print guys, but if there was ever a group who were going to do you physical damage it was the drivers rather than the printers. The management team drove the vans (expect for the MD, who bravely waved off each van, laden with copies of the morning paper and with the doors all locked, as it headed on its initial journey to the picket line. This was about 1.00 am and I recall that I wound the window down an inch (no more, in case they got the handle on the inside) and listened politely. I was told they knew where my family were (they didn’t – they were safely 100 miles away north of Inverness) but I drove through as instructed. Feel free to shout abuse if you are of a Corblimey persuasion at this point: all I was worried about was keeping my job and not getting hit by the printers.

Our instructions on where to drop the papers were on a massive cassette recorder which we were supposed to listen to as we drove along (this being before the days of elf and safety). Because I come from Perth, the Circulation Director had given me the south edition on the mistaken assumption that I would know the villages between Aberdeen and Perth. In Montrose, about 2.30 am, the instructions told me to go the wrong way up a one-way street in the town centre. At the far end of the street was a police car, which flashed me and beckoned me forwards. I then discovered what the box in the back marked “Police Frees” was for…

After setting off at 1.00 am for a trip that would take a normal driver about six hours at most, I got lost, ran out of fuel and got back to the Journals at 2.00 in the afternoon, well after most of the eveningpaper had been distributed. I had set a record that has probably never been beaten for the slowest ever distribution of a newspaper.

Frogs legs, expenses, telexes and the picture wire

The first, and so far the only, occasion on which I have eaten frogs legs, was not in France, nor even in a trendy French restaurant in the UK, but in the Mercury Hotel in Inverness. They tasted like chicken, in case you were wondering.

This meal was with an Ad Manager of the Press and Journal. He was famous for his ability to get lunches (and other meals) paid for by the company. In fact, it was rumoured that his boss, the Assistant Managing Director, used to bury his head in his hands and groan, “Aw no, it’s the big man’s expenses again,” when they landed on his desk.

The Mercury Hotel in Inverness was one of his favourite places for lunch when he came up to the Highlands to visit/shout at the small advertising team we had there. On one famous occasion, we had a presentation in the Mercury and he was (allegedly – well, not really as I witnessed it) so bevvied that he ate his steak with his bare hands rather than using the implements provided by the hotel’s restaurant. However, as we were all in awe of him (OK, shit-scared of him), no-one thought it prudent to point this out.

As a dour Presbyterian, who had lived in Aberdeen for eight years before entering the world of work, I was not used to this sort of largesse. Now you may be aware of the vile rumour that the Scots are careful with their money, but you may not know that Aberdonians make the rest of Scotland look rank amateurs when it comes to their canniness with the bawbees. It is certainly true that the reason they made 50p bits seven sided was so that you could use a spanner to get them off Aberdonians. Or to put it another way, I was somewhat naïve when it came to the expenses game. In fact, when I was promoted to Aberdeen from Inverness to become the Field Sales Manager on the Evening Express, my boss took me out for lunch in the first week there and said, “right, we need to do this every week,” I was slightly concerned this was somehow or other “wrong.” I soon learned.

Other things I recall from these days included some pieces of technology now long lost to the mists of time. Today, when technology does all sorts of staggering things, it seems amazing to recall that in my early days in the newspaper industry, telexes were still common (note to younger readers, a telex was an ancient way of sending texts, but instead of a smartphone you had to use a device the size of a suitcase). Even more impressive was a thing called a picture wire, which was rotary disk with a metal arm that received electronic signals and very, very slowly, allowed a photograph to be transmitted across long distances. This is one of the reason why some photos in old newspapers are grainy and crap.

Then there were flongs, hot metal blocks, stereo printing and, oh, look them up on Wikipedia. They have long since gone and, despite my general respect for the heritage of industry, it’s a good thing too.

The most important men in the newspaper industry

As the Field Sales Manager on Aberdeen Journals evening paper, I was the sort-of intermediary between the display advertising team and the deputy editor. The latter was responsible for making sure his esteemed organ was not sullied with too many down-market advertising features. My job was to get the reps to hit their targets and thus keep my boss, the Ad Manager (purveyor of lunches – see last blog) happy. One of the best ways of doing this was to run crappy advertising features. The general idea was to get a company which had something to celebrate (an anniversary, new contract, completed housing development, etc.) to take a big ad (minimum 20x4 I remember) and then sell supporting ads to their suppliers (e.g. “we congratulate X company on their fourth anniversary of success, even though they are miserable bastards who don’t pay their bills on time”).

In order to make all this happen, I had to keep in with the Deputy Editor, but of far more importance than him was a man called Bobby Rhind, a wee Aberdonian who held one of the two most important jobs at Aberdeen Journals. Bobby was the Caseroom Overseer for the Evening Express and he could make or break you. Never mind the MD, AMD, Production Director or Ad Managers: the caseroom overseers controlled the throughput and production of all the materials that went into each day’s newspapers. To say I worked hard to keep in with Bobby was an understatement. While you could get away with the occasional bit of cheek to the Creative Department (average time to produce visuals one week), the caseroom was where the paper was, literally, put together by the typesetters, compositors and others of that ilk.

On one famous occasion, a local builder had agreed to a feature. Miserable gits that they were (Aberdonian) they took the smallest advert they were allowed – a 20x4. Clearly they didn’t pay their suppliers on time because we really struggled to get any other company to buy even the smallest support ad. The evening paper went to press mid-morning and the day before, well after the deadline, I had a meeting with the Deputing Editor at which he expressed concern that this feature didn’t seem to have much advertising support. Perhaps we should pull it he wondered. We were short of target (i.e. the money to pay his wages) so I prevaricated and he agreed to let it go. Then I got back to the office to be told that the main advertiser had called to say they didn’t want the feature and could we pull it. We were so desperate for the money from even the support ads that I was sent down to plead with Bobby Rhind. To his credit, and my immense relief, he got the typesetters to create a new advert that looked like it was genuine (it had a big graphic of a house and a vague headline) and the feature ran. No-one noticed.

What is this recruitment advertising…?

I knew I wanted out of newspapers. Aberdeen Journals were, at that time, part of Thomson Regional Newspapers (TRN), which had a deserved reputation as the best trainers in the industry. I had worked exclusively in Display, so I had virtually no experience of classified and none of recruitment. However, we did work with the local ad agencies in Aberdeen (using the then standard ploy of having the most attractive female salesman – salespeople hadn’t been invented then - as the agency rep) and this had given me an indication of what life might be like on the other side.

Consequently, I bought Campaign magazine and applied for some agency jobs. One of them was with a company called Charles Barker. A man called Alan Kelly, who looked rather like Hank Marvin, invited me down to Glasgow for an interview and then again for a second interview over lunch. He didn’t invite me to join Barkers though – a fact of which I would remind him regularly over the subsequent years. However, these interviews gave me a flavour of this thing called recruitment advertising and I subsequently applied to another of these ‘rec-ad’ agencies, this time for a job as an Account Manager at a firm called Austin Knight. At my second interview with AK, the director said, “if you are TRN trained you’ll be able to sell.” I got the job and moved to Glasgow and into a whole new world. I had had my CV with a number of recruitment firms whose details I’d seen in Campaign and one of the recruiters called just after I’d accepted the job. When I told him, he was disarmingly honest, telling me, “Wow, that’s good, we could never have got you a job as good as that.”

My boss at AK was a celebrated character. Let’s put it no more strongly than that. Like the Press and Journals’ Ad Manager, he was not someone millennials would warm to: in fact they’d be in tears before their first day was out. I discovered this when, in my first full week in Glasgow, I was given a tender to read to keep me busy. This tender was for the Overseas Development Administration (now DFID) and had already been submitted. I found a typo in a job title in one of the adverts that had been prepared by AK Glasgow to show how good we were - and laughingly pointed it out. At that point, the sky went dark and the office cowered in fear – and I learned not to be so feckin stupid again. Mind you, the abuse I got was as of nothing compared to the studio and the account team. How would the ODA possibly trust an agency that couldn’t even get a tender right?

We won the account.

Sick gloves

Although I spent fractionally longer at Riley than I did at AK, there is no doubt in my mind that Austin Knight was the best recruitment advertising agency there has ever been. In fact, it would have been really interesting to see what would have happened if AK had been bought first by TMP and not some of the other agencies that Andy McKelvey scooped up before us. For a start, I suspect I would still be at TMP, but that comes later…

The standards at AK were first class. The management was, by and large (with some exceptions) also first-class. That said, in those days, bullying managers were not frowned upon as they are today and there were some five star, ocean-going bastards across the rec-ad industry (not just in AK). I was told of one manager in an office in England who, famously, was fed up with his staff leaving the kitchen in a mess, so he went in with a bin-liner, swept all the dirty coffee cups into it, went back out into the office and tipped them all over the floor. “Right, you can fookin’ well clean that lot up,” he shouted, and lo, rather than running to Personnel (HR hadn’t been invented in those days), the staff fooking well cleaned it up.

I settled in well at Austin Knight. I discovered I was quite good at this account management thing, and that there were no nightly “scores on the doors, how much have you sold” diatribes. I really enjoyed the actual work, writing ads, learning about media, driving around Scotland selling our services and, of course, the social side. This was particularly good fun around Christmas. I recollect a young administrator whose mother wrote to the office manager to complain that her daughter had come home from a Christmas party much the worse for wear. Unfortunately, the young lady had got a taxi home and, feeling the need to vomit and being aware that Glasgow cabbies don’t like customers chucking up in their cabs, had been sick in her glove. Her mum was not impressed.

Despite the advertising world’s reputation, there were no drugs that I was aware of in AK in Glasgow (although we made up for that with the drink). However, there was undoubtedly a real adrenalin rush to be had from winning new business. We were good at that, not just because we knew how to work calculators, but because we had some brilliant creatives. I don’t recollect any great prima donna creatives at AK then, even in London, but some of their work was excellent and often won awards, especially at the RADs, of which more below...

The excitement of sitting at a table at the RADS and not winning anything

My introduction to the RADS came about when a memo (younger people will not believe this, but memos – communications - were sent in envelopes through the post) was circulated asking all the regional Austin Knight offices if we had any good work that might be submitted for an award. We had done a superb advert for an oil company who had devised a very clever innovation for a production platform for the North Sea. Rather than having a solid steel structure anchored to the seabed, they had what was called a tension-leg platform, but I’m conscious that my reader is glazing over at this point.

Anyway, we had a pencil drawing of a gyroscope under the heading (mine) “the point of equilibrium.” It was too clever for the people in London who sat in judgement on what would be entered and what would not. It was not. That didn’t prevent AK from winning an awful lot of RADS, but it wasn’t until a few years later that something I was involved in would get nominated.

I can’t remember which year it was, but it was an advert for a whisky company with a headline and copy that I’d written. The headline was “Squeeze my lemons, make Zamos very happiness” with a subheadline saying “Put a smile on a rich Greek’s face.” It was about a 20 x 5 in full colour and it ran in the Sunday Times and, against our advice, in the Guardian. The copy was written in “pidgin” Greek and the big mistake I made was using the word “Greek.” The client was so worried about the possibility of the advert offending people that it was run confidentially with the response to an AK recruitment consultant (“him big Glasgow boy, you write to him now”) but the Sunday Times were so impressed that they called us up and wrote an article about it, as did Personnel Today. At this point, the client (Allied Distillers) became far less coy and were only too keen to see their name in print.

Unfortunately, the Guardian’s readers lived up to their stereotypes. There were some twenty letters of complaint, including one from the Greek Embassy. One lady copied her complaint to several luminaries and the Guardian editor. You could almost see the tear stains on the page. Doubtless she was a mother of some of today’s millennials. Someone else complained to the Advertising Standards Authority. Today, we would have to make a grovelling apology after being submerged by a shitstorm on Twitter and the ASA would have rounded on us for political insensitivity and probably also for annoying the EU and making Brexit even worse. Back then, we didn’t even get admonished. The complainant got told that the ad was clearly meant to be humorous and that therefore there was no problem. The subtext of their judgement was “get a life you boring sad git.” Yes, times have changed.

Anyway, this brilliant advert was shortlisted for a RAD. The client, now they’d had all the great publicity, was right up for a free night on the piss in London, so they joined us and several other AK people with their clients at the Grovesnor and we sat and listened to the comedian (Rory Bremner) and then watched as Bernard Hodes cleaned up that night. Our table had various different AK offices represented and was up for three awards. We didn’t win one. It was at that point I realised that the RADS are just a huge conspiracy with judges who wouldn’t recognise greatness if it was shoved up their bottoms with a baseball bat. Bitter, moi?

In which we get to know the media

One thing that was really good about Austin Knight was that we bought the media ourselves: there was no central media buying team. Well, there was Danny Cannon, who is the only person I know in the industry whose name is his job title, but Danny, while one of the great triumvirate of Media Directors of that era (the others being Mark Cartmel at Barkers and Robbo at Riley), operated mainly from his London lair in those days (those of you who remember the old AK Soho Square building will know where I mean).

In Scotland, we bought the media for all our clients across the UK. Any international media would go through London, but their use was very limited. Media buys were, believe it or not, hardly made back in those days, largely because we were still operating off full commission (for private sector clients at least) and also charging a goodly amount for artwork and typesetting, so there wasn’t the same screaming need to make money out of clients by spot buying. Whereas when I joined Austin Knight we used to send copy out to a third party typesetter, within a few years, a new device came onto the market. This was called an Apple Macintosh and we bought one, got a young lady from Coatbridge called Ann McMahon to operate it – and cleaned up. The model, if I recall correctly was an IILC (or something like that) and it quickly became clear that it was transforming the way in which we worked. It only had a limited amount of storage though and we had to buy a, wait for it, 500MB external drive to keep all our clients’ advertising templates. Years later, when we were clearing up and moving out of the AK office in Queen Street in Glasgow, we found the invoice for this Mac. It was, if I remember correctly, about five grand.

To return to the media, I remember when the Post Office went on strike. Again, the youngsters among you will scarcely believe this, but adverts had to be sent by post or courier (Red Star on the train was particularly good) or latterly by Ad Doc, a system devised by the legal profession but adopted by others as a cheap and effective means of sending documents about the country. Full colour adverts required film to be made (the old right-reading, emulsion side down nonsense) and prints of adverts were made on an enormous camera about the size of a very large desk which was kept in a dark room. These prints, often referred to as bromides or latterly PMTs (photo mechanical transfers – not the ladies’ thing) were what went to the papers. And when the Post Office was on strike that meant that someone, often me, would have to drive around Scotland delivering adverts.

This meant that you got to know the local newspaper offices and their staff very well. It also meant you started to form relationships with people which, in some instances, have continued to this day. I remember a young, talented Ad Manager in Berwick on Tweed called Stuart Birkett who today is a very high heid-un in the world of newspapers, and there were many others. Names from the past are friends in the present, such as Sean Montgomery, who I first recall as a rep for the Guardian and the Sunday Times. Another Guardian rep in Scotland became one of my best friends in and out of the industry and some of the other weel-kent faces and names have passed into legend and song, of which more anon.

Attractive salary plus company cat

I mentioned yesterday that when the Post Office was on strike we had to drive all over Scotland handing in our clients’ advertising. Even when they weren’t on strike, people drove to the newspaper offices with large envelopes containing all our ads. When Tayside Regional Council was a major client (£2.50 scc typesetting charge – happy days) we hired a driver to take the copy to the (Dundee) Courier every week. If he wasn’t available someone had to drive to Dundee from Glasgow with the envelope. I also remember driving home to my house in Glasgow and, as I pulled into the drive, noticing the envelope with the Herald ads in it sitting on the passenger seat. Fortunately, the Herald office was only about five miles away.

AdDoc, when we signed up for it, was a godsend. AdDoc, as explained previously, was a private mail system originally set up by the legal profession, but it had developed into other areas, including advertising. Rather than send adverts by post, you simply took the envelope, marked for the appropriate publisher, to a wee office on George Square in Glasgow. There were set deadlines for different media, depending on how far away they were. This was only a few minutes walk from the AK Glasgow office. On one famous occasion, we had a full-page advert in the Times Higher Educational Supplement for the University of Glasgow. This came about due to a substantial investment in a wide range of new posts by the university and as a result the advert had been proofed to within an inch of its life, by us and the client. The ad was worth about £18K and our office cleaner come general factotum (which he did quite a lot), had set off to the AdDoc office with the deadline for its arrival there only a few minutes away. Big sighs of relief all round, until I glanced again at the advert (you can never be too careful, especially with the tyrant’s tyrant of a boss we had in those days). One of the posts was a Lecturer in Public Law. In the body copy we had missed the ‘l’ out of public. I have almost never run so fast in my life.

Fortunately, I caught up with the cleaner and no-one was any the wiser (well, the client wasn’t which was what mattered), but this is only of many entertaining typos that have enlivened my career.

Amongst these were such gems as the headline in the ad feature on cowboy electricians in the Inverness Focus, the Highland News’s freesheet. The idea of the feature was to get a journalist to write about how bad cowboy electrians and then we would get the bona fide electricians to take out 5x2 ads to show they were the good guys. It was phenomenally successful and it seemed as if every registered sparkie in Inverness had taken an advert. Unfortunately, half of them refused to pay, because under the main headline, which was “Beware of the Cowboys,” was first paragraph which was supposed to begin “never tamper with the electric wiring in your house.” Someone – whether journalist or typesetter we never found out, replaced the “u” in the last word with an “r.”

Then there was the omnipresent danger which occurs when you have Inverclyde Council as a client. Inverclyde Council is based in Greenock, and one of our administrators, who (amongst other things) typed up the ads, had a regrettable tendency to jumble up the spelling so that it appeared as “Greencock.”

Perhaps the most famous was one for which AK was not responsible (fortunately). This was a full-page advert in Computing magazine, which was probably worth about £10K-£15 even in those days. It was for a then well-known large computer company near Stirilng. The introductory paragraph of this advert ran the full width of the page and some numpty had the bright idea of putting the client’s name in capitals every time it was mentioned in this introduction. All I need to tell you is the client’s name: Wang.

My favourite though, was not a rude one. You need to think about where the letters for “r” and “t” are on a keyboard for this. It was, and still is, very common to see a job title followed by a salary and then a note of any benefits. This job, which I think came from AK’s office in Norwich, didn’t specify a salary as such. Instead, it said…

“Attractive Salary plus company cat.”

Ee, in my day it was different….

A running theme throughout these blogs has been the way in which no young person in the industry today would begin to understand how things worked in days gone by. Today, with everything sent electronically, the idea that you would have to deliver advertisements by hand, sometimes, as described yesterday, driving miles and miles to the newspaper office, seems bizarre.

However, even when better technology started to become available it was difficult to get clients to use it, especially the risk averse public sector (and yes, I know that’s a tautology). AK was probably well ahead of the competition when it came to computing power, but when I joined we had workstations rather than computers. I remember one of them got a can of lager spilled over it during pre-Christmas outing drinks in the office session. The screens only had green text on them – basically posh word processors plus the order entry system – and this one proceeded to go all green and stopped working. We left it with a can of Irn Bru and by the morning it had sobered up and was fine again.

Sorry, off at a tangent there… Yes, the technology. When we won the Scottish Office (the precursor to the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Government), we sent the cleaner/general factotum on the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh every day to pick up the ads. We were making a fortune from the production charge (yes, £2.50 scc, even for full-page public notices) so that didn’t matter. Then, we got the internet and suggested to the Scottish Office that for a new contract (we’d won it again) we make use of this new fangled thing. However, risk averse public sector said no, you have to have a stand-alone computer in your office to which we’ll connect and then you have to download everything onto a floppy disc and you can then transfer it to your system. That way there was no danger of our technology contaminating theirs, but it was an improvement on having to type in all the ads as we’d had to do previously so we went along with it. Eventually, after about a year or two, they realised they were being complete dicks and we just connected via email as per today…

Not only was the technology different, so were the attitudes. For example, sexism and homophobia were rife. Playing golf recently with an old friend from the industry (round about the time all the Weinstein stuff was coming out), we discussed the possibility of there being an awards bash for “Sexist Behaviour in the Rec-Ad” industry and concluded that, good as our ideas for the different categories were (‘the biggest serial sha**er,’ ‘the most surreptitious groper,’ ‘most politically incorrect comment’ etc.), it would never happen because while we all know who would win most of the awards there wouldn’t be enough room in the Grovesnor for all the nominees. My friend recalled a boss who came through to see him after interviewing a young man, telling him “He’s got to be – he doesn’t like football and he keeps cats.” The homophobia wasn’t confined to men though: the ladies could be equally harsh with those of either gender whose sexuality was not of the conventional variety. That’s how it used to be folks…

Can also be used for wrapping fish and chips*

Today, the idea of spending thousands and thousands of pounds advertising in newspapers would be anathema to any recruiter. Yet when I joined AK in 1988 the company was billing £133 million, almost all of it in print media.

My colleagues at AK who had been around longer than me could remember the days when the Telegraph and the Times carried virtually every national advert of substance, but even then the Express, Mirror and the Mail got their share (I remember the Express was particularly good for low-level field sales engineers). Of course, in those days, recruitment ads only ran on one day a week (often Thursday), so if you missed a deadline you had to wait another seven days. However, a lady called Caroline Marland, who just happened to be the CEO (or whatever it was called in those days), at the Guardian, came up with a rather wizard wheeze, namely to offer different categories of advertising on different days – Media on Monday, Education on Tuesday, general public sector (called ‘Society’) on Wednesday. As well as revolutionising the recruitment advertising world, she also did a very un-Guardian like thing when she married a conservative MP (who I once met at the clay pigeon shooting at one of the Guardian’s famous Gleneagles weekends - he was a nice chap with a pair of incredibly expensive guns – Holland or Purdey or the like).

AK had a wizard wheeze of its own when it came to press advertising. We used to sell clients the idea of taking an advert in the “AK composite,” which ran in the Telegraph and also in the Glasgow Herald. Basically, for those who baulked at the price of a large advert, they could pay a smaller absolute amount and then be included in a large composite advert under the AK banner. This was free advertising for us and, as you’d expect, even though the clients saved money, somehow or other the combination of individual adverts generated more income than the actual cost of the composite advert itself.

Newspaper deadlines drove everything we did. The idea that you could just call up and advertise a vacancy whenever you wanted would have been dismissed as lunacy. This meant that whichever agency could operate closer to the deadlines than the rest would often win the most clients. AK was invariably better than the rest in this respect but it did mean that we had to work like euphemisms as the deadlines approached. But before the days of Apple Macs, when many clients did not want to pay the relatively high cost of getting an advert typeset (which required the agency to send the copy to an external typesetter), we had to send the media a typographically marked-up style-sheet with bromides of the top and tail logos/namestyles. Administrators, who handled all the ads, learned how to work out what size the advert would be depending on the amount of copy and the requirements of the style sheet. The whole lot – copy, style-sheet and bromides would then be sent to the paper, where their typesetters and compositors would create the advert. With all agencies trying to operate as close to deadline as possible, this meant there was rarely time to see a proof. This could cause problems, such as the client who had two separate divisions under the same name, in this instance Maxi Construction and Maxi Haulage. We sent the wrong logo (Haulage for a Construction advert) to The Scotsman. The client was not pleased and refused to pay. Fortunately, The Scotsman’s typesetters had cocked up the telephone number so we got a free re-run. Bear in mind this was still in the days of the ‘character’ boss at AK Glasgow, so I wrote all over the paperwork that we HAD to make sure we got the re-run right. What happened? We sent the Haulage logo again. As a result, we lost the client and all got a serious bollocking.

* actually, they can’t anymore. Elf and safety gone mad again.


Of course, recruitment was where the publishers made huge amounts of money: often the biggest single source of their revenue. In its heyday, the Guardian was making well over £1M per week, with, I understand, their record year being £97M from recruitment. The Sunday Times was cashing in massively too, helped by their incredibly high scc rate. At the very peak of the market, the Sunday Times charged a premium for advertising on the front page of its recruitment section. I can’t remember the exact figure, but I seem to recall it was c. £200 scc. This was an industry that was making loadsamoney. This meant loadsamoney could be spent on entertaining…

The extent of the largesse was phenomenal. I remember turning down a trip on Concorde, because I was sure I’d get another opportunity some time. Fat chance of that now obviously, but that didn’t matter because there were so many other opportunities to enjoy the hospitality of the media. Leaving on one side the joys of Harrogate and the IPD/CIPD conference (subject of a forthcoming blog), there was just so much fun to be had.

Sports hospitality was of course very popular. The best one I had was a trip to the Olympic Stadium…in Rome. This came courtesy of Stepstone and allowed me to see some of the greats of Italian football as Roma, in a season in which they went on to win the Italian league, played AC Milan in front of a full house, complete with three sendings off, lots of hurling of (plastic) bottles between the opposing fans and, before the game, a trip around all the sights of Rome and the Vatican.

Then there were trips to the Opera, to the Royal Academy, to the theatre, pop/rock concerts, regularly to Gleneagles (thank you, thank you to the Guardian) and, of course, the golf. Bearing in mind that most senior media executives were male, and that many of them played golf, there was lots of golf available, even for those who are, like me, not the best exponents of the Royal and Ancient game. Trips to some lovely courses in Surrey where you have to drive a Jaguar to be a member, regular outings on the Old Course at St Andrews in the days when you could still get onto it, not to mention Turnberry, Kingsbarns, Rosemount, Archerfield and, of course (thank you, thank you again the Guardian) the annual joy that was Birkdale, now, after over a quarter of a century, no more.

Then there were the lunches and dinners. You could be semi-permanently pissed if you wanted. It’s no wonder that at least one famous Media Director had to give up the drink as a result….

Sean’s pitching hat

When you worked for a rec-ad agency you had to be able to pitch for new business successfully if you wanted to get on. The best presenters are a bit like the best diplomats, sent afar to lie for their country/firm. Actually, the best presenters aren’t like that: although able to stretch the truth on occasions, the real superstars are just relaxed and confident, able to handle any question and totally in command of the situation. In my experience, the real superstars are very few and far between though.

Back in the day, when he was at Riley in Edinburgh, my good friend Sean Montgomery had a special pitching hat – a yellow hard hat if I remember correctly. Others swore by playing motivational music en route to the pitch but the only time I tried that it didn’t work. This was in Inverness, on the way to pitch for Highland Council, but to be fair my choice of music (China Grove by the Doobie Brothers) probably didn’t resonate with the 20-somethings in the car. That, and the fact that Highland Council wanted us to be first on, at 9.00 am in the morning, despite it being a three and a half hour drive from Glasgow in those days. We didn’t win that one.

AK, with its technological advantage of being first with email was able to offer a more efficient service than Barkers and Riley, the other two big players. This allowed us to win every university in Scotland in the 1990s. Once we had a date for the pitch, we’d call up the university concerned and say, “we’ve just got email so can we just send some tests to make sure it works with you?” We then turned up to the pitch with the account more or less in the bag. But not always…

In the days before procurement started to exert a baleful influence over organisations, pitches were decided by the Personnel team and then someone from “purchasing” rubber-stamped their decision. This meant that so long as you could deliver an efficient service (the mainstay of AK’s success), if you had a good personal relationship with the HR/Personnel Director you were pretty safe. On one occasion, a very large university’s Personnel Director called me after a pitch which, I knew, was not our best. “You’ve cocked this up,” he said, “but I’ve got another chance, so don’t cock it up again. And bring X this time (an attractive account manager). We did, and we won.

Pitching it strong

If you were with me yesterday, you’ll know I’ve been recalling some of the joys of presenting for new (or to retain) business. A constant theme of these blogs has been the way in which technology has changed the way everything works. Nowadays, while Powerpoint is the default software, any advantage that can be got from a new or different approach (dressing up with shirts that have letters spelling out the word “Shell” for the Shell pitch – that sort of nonsense) is regularly sought. Back in the good old days though, presentations were all done on A1 boards, with the graphics (all nicked out of those huge old photo books – there being no way the owners of said pix could find out) and ads all mounted on the boards using highly toxic spray glue.

This meant that presentations took hours to prepare and, given the huge amount of admin work that was involved in preparing, booking and distributing client ads it was always done at the last minute. Sometimes, you would work till 1.00 am, leaving the Studio Manager to finish spray-mounting everything (all the ads/graphics then had to be rolled over to ensure they were properly stuck down and wouldn’t peel off) while the account team headed home for some kip, prior to, on one occasion, getting up at 6.00 am to be in Aberdeen for 9.00 am. We won that one too, buzzing it on adrenalin and fear – it was still that “characterful” boss who was running AK Glasgow in those days and the prospect of making a mistake rather concentrated the mind.

Research is often presented as part of a pitch. Nowadays, of course, we have scurvy-monkey, which makes things a bit easier, but back then it involved actually going into the streets and asking people things. I remember one of the Account Execs who had been dispatched to Central Station to seek the lower socio-economic groups to ask them if they’d like a job in one of the call centres that were starting to proliferate in Glasgow at that time. I’d done this the day before and it was quite difficult to work out who was of the R2D2 persuasion. She, in contrast, came back quickly with all the work done. How, we wondered, had she been able to identify the right people so quickly. “Easy,” she said, “I just looked for men wearing white socks.”

Admittedly, the research we did was a bit, how can I put this, scabby. However, it was generously extrapolated to prove whatever we wanted (sample, “we asked 100 people in Uddingston if they would want to work for your call centre and 75% of them had never heard of you” – which meant that we’d asked 10 people and only one had never heard of them).

Mind you, this pales into insignificance with a major pitch for Network Rail when I had joined Riley. I was asked to be part of the pitch team in London (they belatedly realised we have trains in Scotland) and when we got to the gig one of Riley’s senior executives stood up to present the research. Given that we’d been gathered in the board room at Red Lion Court for a couple of hours preparation and practice beforehand and he had been nowhere to seen, I was really impressed by the stats and useful analysis he churned out. When we came out, I asked where he’d got the figures from – when had he had the research done? “I made it up mate,” he responded. We didn’t win that one (probably just as well).

Pitching to the Cooncils

There are some people who are very good at presenting. I’m immodest enough to claim to be one of them. However, not everyone is and they can be very testing and stressful occasions if you’re not used to them. I’ve seen account managers dry up entirely, causing embarrassment all round and instantly surrendering any chance of winning the business. I’ve seen this happen twice, and on both occasions it was in a presentation to a council.

Usually when you present to local government, you are only faced with HR and the procurement bods. Unfortunately, occasionally the councillors want to get involved. I have obviously met more Scottish councillors than English ones but, certainly in those days they were, how can I put this, interesting people, often distinguished by their zip-up acrylic cardigans. At SODOPS (the Scottish version of SOCPO, and one of the all-time great acronyms – it stood for Society of Directors of Personnel, Scotland), female account handlers were always wary of older, male councillors who asked them to dance. I recall sitting between two senior councillors at one of Scotland’s poshest hotels and after I’d introduced myself as someone who worked for an advertising agency, the female one said, “where’s the freebies?”

On another occasion, a Personnel Manager in a council on the west coast told me of a senior councillor who had been on a selection panel for a senior management appointment. Diversity was then just starting to be regarded as important (in some parts of Scotland that meant having a token Catholic on the team) and this councillor had been well briefed. He grilled the candidate on their views on equal opportunities and then, once the candidate had departed, turned to the Personnel Manager and, without any sense of irony, said, “way and see if you can find a wee lassie to get me a cup o tea.”

To return to the stress of the pitch, back in AK days (I was by then in charge in Scotland as our characterful boss had gone to weave his unique management style elsewhere), we were presenting for Dumfries and Galloway Council. We were faced with a veritable phalanx of cooncillors, of whom at least half had zip-up cardigans. The room we were in had obviously been painted very recently and the account manager with me went a bit green as she stood up. She was quick-witted enough not to boak all over the councillors, instead proclaiming that she felt ill and then being ushered to the ladies facilities. The councillors were worried about her. “Poor wee girl,” was the prevailing sentiment. At that point, I knew we’d win (we did), but my subsequent request for her to put on a similar performance at the next two presentations was met with a firm rebuttal.

Company conferences

It is apparently the case that millennials are drinking far less the baby-boomer generation. I have already referred to the amount of booze that was available to courtesy of the media. For agency Media Directors there was the opportunity to imbibe morning, noon and night should they wish. However, there were also quite a few occasions when the account teams could get wired into the bevvy too.

In fact, during my newspaper days, I recall some rather splendid sessions, notably one lunch in the boardroom at Aberdeen Journals after which I don’t really remember anything of the 100 mile train journey back to Inverness. However, when I moved into the world of agencies, I discovered there were myriad opportunities to hoover up the stuff in bucketfuls.

Apart from Christmas parties, the annual company conference was usually a massive piss-up. Yes, of course there were the usual sessions at which you were given the state of the nation address (shades of young Mr. Grace and “you’ve all done very well”), but there was always a big dinner with a free bar - well, until senior management remembered to close it (the spoilsports).

Actually, I quickly learned that at AK, the one thing that distinguished senior management was that no matter how much they had to drink they would always be able to remember what everyone had done and said. Going up to them in a haze of alcohol fumes and breathing “I jus wanna let you know you’re the bes boss I’ve ever had,” was not regarded as a good career move, but even worse was having a skinful and then not making breakfast, or even worse the first session of the next day (that’s a work session, not a bevvy session). I recall one of AK’s recruitment consultants from Newcastle who did this. He might as well have asked for his P45 on the spot. His absence was noted and he left soon afterwards.

Famously, one of the last AK conferences took place at Coombe Abbey in the Midlands. Apart from the drink, some idiot thought it would be a good idea if we had ‘team-building’ games. So, a bit like “It’s a knock-out,” we were strapped, six of us together, into giant skis and made to negotiate an obstacle course, as well as “enjoying” some other manifestations of corporate lunacy – all with massive hangovers. However, it was also at this conference that we were introduced, courtesy of some guests from AK’s offices in America, to something called “The Monster Board” and another thing called “Career Mosaic.” We dismissed these as of no concern and returned to the stupid games and the drinking. Bit dim in hindsight, but at the time we thought we were unassailable….

Another conference which I remember fondly was the Riley one just as the 2009 recession was swinging into gear. Someone had the bright idea that we’d have a sort of game show called “Punch the (credit) crunch” in which hapless individuals would come up to the stage, be given a pole with a boxing glove on the end and then “punch” a target, after which some senior person would smilingly explain how everything was going to be tickety-boo and we’d all keep our jobs at the end (total bollocks of course).

However, the best, most famous conference event (and rightly so) by miles was one put on by one agency, in which senior staff all dressed up as Star Trek characters and explained how they were going to improve the business. This was excruciatingly funny. It used to be available on YouTube but despite my best efforts I couldn’t find it. If anyone knows where it lurks, please let us all know.

STOP PRESS: Star Trek video located…. Here.

The Glasgow Pub Club

My last blog dealt with the perils and excitement of conferences and especially the amount of drink that was imbibed at these, but it was at Christmas that the really impressive swallying took place. And the most impressive swallying of all took place at The Glasgow Pub Club Christmas lunch.

AK were not really into this, but for Riley it was one of the highlights of the year. Ostensibly a charity bash (for the Variety Club I recall) it was, in reality, a hedonist’s wet dream. Basically, hundreds of advertising (not just recruitment but proper advertising as well) people crowded into a Glasgow hotel at lunchtime, started drinking and then didn’t stop until the wee small hours. Epic stories, virtually none of them repeatable, came from this notorious bash. The swallying, of all sorts, was legendary. Sex, drugs and rock-and-roll were the order of the day for those who were into that sort of thing (so, most of the audience then) and all in all it was one of the highlights of the year for the industry’s seasoned pros, while for the younger and more impressionable account execs it was as if they had wandered into a Glaswegian version of Dante’s inferno. A very pissed and Glaswegian inferno, but perhaps that was Dante’s original model….

I also remember the Pub Club was the only place I ever saw the late, great Frank Carson do his stuff and he was as funny as everyone said he was. We also had some almost classy music acts, such as the Three Degrees (well, one degree and two hangers-on) and you could also bump into famous actors (well, the lesser-known actors from Rab C Nesbitt). Usually, the acts were so bad and/or too loud that many people sidled off to the bar for yet more drink. By the time it all came to its conclusion and the human detritus had been taxied away to their homes or nightclubs, all that was left was the sound of the hotel staff counting the bar takings – an undertaking that took them till Boxing Day.


One place which was famed in legend and song for carousing and having a great time was the annual IPD (now CIPD) conference at Harrogate. The first time I attended, in 1988, I had to stay in a hotel in Leeds as we couldn’t get a hotel near Harrogate (well, not if you were an account manager, as I was then). Unfortunately, the Australian Rugby League team were also staying in that hotel and consequently the whole place was evacuated in the middle of the night because some joker set off the fire alarm.

Famous for the largesse of the media, every publisher held their own event at Harrogate and there were amazing spot prizes, including foreign trips, but if you weren’t in the room when your name/ticket was announced then you wouldn’t get the prize. This simply encouraged everyone to stay in the room and get even more pissed.

The Daily Mail used to take us to the Turkish Baths – always a good idea for those with a morning after head – and famously, the late Ed Larder, on the first time he was invited, thought it was an all male do and had not brought any suitable attire, expecting to be able to wander about in the nude. Fortunately for everyone concerned, a pair of briefs were found before he corrupted any of the chaste female media persons attending.

I remember going with a client one year and we came back, very late, to our B&B. We were careful not to make any noise and were somewhat put out the next morning when the owner angrily accused us of waking the entire household. He told us we’d never stay in his establishment again, which rather suited us as he was a bit of an arse, but to this day I would swear that we were quiet as church-mice when we came back. But that’s what Harrogate did to you.

The Guardian “do” was the great Harrogate event. I have previously recounted how I and a colleague blagged our way in to it back in 1988, using a bottle of champagne we’d “acquired” from the Independent, but since then I usually got an invite. The entertainment was always of the highest calibre: where else would you get to see stars like Rory Bremner, Lenny Henry or Bob Monkhouse (and I appreciate that the younger generation are going “who?”). There was one year they had four stand-ups (including Alan Davies if I remember correctly) and one joke (admittedly a tad scatological) had several people, including me, actually crying with laughter.

As well as the Guardian, there were loads of other media events. It was possible to spend an entire day going from one to the other in an alcohol-induced stupor. Any ordinary tourists visiting Harrogate must have wondered what they had wandered into. I particularly remember a Media Director, sitting with the rest of his office (and no, it wasn’t me) announcing in a voice you could hear in Kirkcaldy, “I always wondered if X was a true blonde but after what she’s told me today I’ll never find out.”

It should be remembered that there was actually a conference going on as a backdrop to all this, with “Personnel Professionals” trying to learn stuff and show willing to further their progress up the (extremely) greasy HR pole. However, I only went to the actual exhibition once and never attended a conference event. I did, however, attend as many media events as I could. One thing I do remember was the time, 4.00 am to be precise, in the bar of the Crown, when I discovered I had four whiskies still to be drunk under my chair… Happy Daze.

And the award for best venue goes to…

We are all very familiar with the Grovesnor in London, the well-known setting for virtually every awards bash in history. I have been to more than my fair share of awards ceremonies there: the RADS of course, but also LGC, THES, Target Jobs, The Recruiter and many more.

The RADS was always a joy. In the old days, the media took one or more tables each and entertained royally. Of course, back then it was all print advertising – none of this modern digital nonsense, so you could see the various contenders for each category on screen and pronounce your opinion before finding out that the one you thought a cert hadn’t won. I’ve heard many an account handler declaim loudly that “that Barkers’ ad was a lot of crap,” or similar, until the next year when they had moved to Barkers and realised that of course it was the AK or Riley advert that was a lot of crap. It may just be my age, but I can remember quite a few of the old print winners, but relatively few of the more recent online/social victors.

Similarly, I can’t remember anything about the food, apart from one occasion (not the RADS) when we were served baked beans, masquerading on the menu as a “stew of cannelloni beans in a rich tomato sauce.” I can remember the drink though, largely because even back in the 20thcentury it cost an arm and a leg. You’d go up to the bar after the gongs had all been handed out and ask for two bottles of beer (wee bottles that is) and get 5p change from a tenner. For a Scotsman this was a terrible experience and meant you had to swiftly find a friendly media person with an expense account.

However, good though the Grovesnor is, my favourite venue was the Dorchester, scene of Austin Knight’s 75thanniversary dinner. It was the only time I’ve ever been in the Dorchester (and judging by the prices I’ll not be back in a hurry), but it was a splendid do. The Glasgow office flew down on EasyJet, which had only been going for a year or so and not got round to buying any modern planes. I remember we had a debate as to whether we should put the office on two planes, in case we were all on one and crashed and wiped out the entire Glasgow team. Fortunately, sanity prevailed and we travelled together. Today, when “up-skirting” is in the news, it’s regarded as a terrible thing. Back then, if you were wearing a kilt, like all the men from Glasgow, it was a terrible thing too, although I suspect some of the younger recruitment consultants from Glasgow quite enjoyed it.

After the AK dinner was over, we retired to our hotel. Not being grand enough to have been put up in the Dorchester, we were ensconced in some hotel in Park Lane. There were lots of media people with us who clearly reckoned that where there were Scots there would be drink. Sitting in the deserted lounge at 1.00 am were about 15-20 people, one of whom asked for sandwiches and champagne to be brought. The champagne when it arrived was clearly marked “Bollinger” and we all quaffed merrily, until about two hours later someone came up to me and said, “you’re the most senior person here, can you sign for this?”

It’s amazing how fast you can run wearing a kilt.

Soho Square and the importance of keeping in with finance

Having reached the dizzy heights of AK’s management team, I was really enjoying this rec-ad thing. There were people there who have become lifelong friends. The HQ was at 20 Soho Square, which Austin Knight owned (giving us rock-solid security and a triple A credit rating), had five floors and in its heyday, an awful lot of people. Those older than me can remember the secretaries, typing up everything and keeping carbon copies (again, another world). On the fifth (or was it the sixth) floor live the high heid’uns and in the basement lived what some unkindly referred to at the troglodytes in dispatch.

Up on the third floor of 20 Soho Square lived the accounts department. There resided all the people who worked on ledgers, credit control (anyone remember Brian Finch?) and, of course, the voucher department. Once again, young readers (if there are any) will be bemused by the idea that clients would not pay their invoices unless there was an actual paper clipping of their advertisement attached. Accordingly, there was a small team whose lives were spent searching through newspapers, matching the printed ads to the orders and then cutting them out and gluing them to a bit of paper that was then attached to the invoice.

Barry Gasson lived on the third floor too. I quickly realised that Barry was the most important person there (from my perspective) and consequently made strenuous efforts to keep in with him as he could save me (and anyone else) from all sorts of disasters. It was from Baz that I learned the vital lesson that anyone who aspires to senior management needs to have finance on their side. Accountants (of whom more in a later blog) exist to protect directors from their own stupidity, and those lower down the food chain in finance exist to prevent all manner of hideous cock-ups from coming to the attention of the accountants.

It was the best of times. We had come through the recession of the early 1990s and the economy was in pretty good nick again. Money and bonuses were good. Then, at the senior management team level, we became aware of this American agency called TMP who had been buying up some of the smaller rec-ad agencies, notably MDK and MSL. The only person I knew from MDK was an Account Director called Andrew Wilkinson, whom I’d met when he came up to Aberdeen for a meeting with Amerada Hess, the oil company, which MDK handled in London and AK handled in Aberdeen. He was clearly on an exploratory mission to see if MDK could nick the Aberdeen business off us. I still have his business card from that meeting. I wondered what happened to him?

Too many people

If you were with me last time, I was getting around to the bit where AK was bought by TMP. I remember a senior management team meeting which, for some reason, was held off site, at a posh hotel in London where we stayed the night after our deliberations. For some strange reason I recall that this was when black pudding started to stop being a northern food and became a trendy addition to London menus, but that’s by the by. We were all pretty sure that TMP were intent on buying AK and told ourselves that this would be good because it would mean we’d get shed loads of investment. Remember that AK was still a family owned company, which made it difficult for Andy McKelvey, the boss of TMP to get his hands on the shares, but that didn’t stop him.

Bear in mind too that no-one outside the senior people at AK knew this was in the offing, so when I was on my summer holiday (in Wales) and the Glasgow office got a call saying, “do you know where Alastair is holidaying, we need to speak to him but it’s nothing to worry about,” they crapped themselves. There were not many mobile phones back then so it was really hard to get hold of anyone. We did have pagers (another thing I’d banished from my memory) but you would never take them on holiday. Anyway, a man turned up at the door of our holiday cottage and said I had to be in Birmingham the next day. Fortunately, it was the last day of the holiday so we toddled off to a hotel in the city centre where I found the UK senior team sitting round, still kidding themselves that this would be the best thing that could happen to us and how great it would be when the money started to pour in and we could invest in all this new tech that was coming along.

The sale went through, we had various meetings at which we met Mr McKelvey and the other top brass from TMP as well as the people they’d bought first (MDK, etc.) and we continued to kid ourselves that this was going to be hunky dory. It must be said that many of the American things that the people at MDK/MSL etc. had adopted (no ties, dress-down Friday, two mobile phones each) were anathema to some of my colleagues (and, to be honest I was a bit uneasy about them too).

Anne Riley, the lovely lady who was the UK CEO of AK, asked me if I could get Andy McKelvey to play golf at St Andrews, because my dad is a member there. We managed to do this, so I met Mr McKelvey off the plane at Edinburgh, drove him to St Andrews, had dinner with him and then, the following day, played golf with him and my father. I played like a drain, but I do remember that he was a real gent and wrote my dad a fulsome thank you letter.

As the months went by, the AK people found themselves out of kilter with the way the business was going. I recall one brave soul (a Regional Director) who wrote a letter to Mr. McKelvey, telling him what was wrong with the way things were going. McKelvey wrote back and told our new bosses “don’t fire him, he cares.”

However, no matter how much we cared, it was clear there was too big a gap between the way AK people wanted to operate and the way TMP was going. Andy McKelvey had made it clear that the reason he bought Austin Knight was for the people. The senior management team slowly drifted away, either by choice or by force. Of all those who were present at the meeting in the Birmingham hotel, only one remained two years later.

Was this a good thing? Did TMP need to get rid of quite so many talented people (and me)? If they had hung on to the immensely talented money-making machine that was the late Bob Townes, would there be a Penna today? Answers on a postcard.

AK was not a dinosaur. It was a really go-ahead and dynamic company, some way ahead of the rest in almost every respect. It is significant that most of the early technology used by TMP came from AK. We had even had plans (Project Sapphire anyone?) for an online system that would link up to an electronic BRAD (the bible for media buyers) and allow us to typeset adverts and share them with clients online. This was before TMP bought us. It was so far ahead of its time we couldn’t make it happen. Ah well. Time to head to Riley…


When you have spent ten years picking faults with the opposition, it’s instructive to find out what said opposition is like when you join them. Riley, God bless them, created a role for me and I set out to make the best of it. In those days, Riley in Scotland was as much a product ad agency as a recruitment ad agency. In fact, the biggest account was the regional Toyota business, which was all handled out of Glasgow.

All this business meant that there were loads of people working at Riley. Well, when I say working, in a few instances I mean turning up to collect a pay cheque. An office was found for me at the very top of the building – four floors up. As the studio was in the basement, five floors below, this meant that if I wanted any work done I had to go up and down lots of stairs (all this in a posh Victorian terrace. While good for my fitness, it was not good for morale, especially as the only other denizens of the garret in which I was ensconced were a) a recruitment consultant who had, like me, left TMP and b) a couple of creative who seemed to spend the time they were actually in the office looking at highly dubious videos and reading the Guardian.

The culture was very different to AK. There were a lot of really good people - and some others. As I got to know more people in the company, not just in Glasgow but across the UK, several characters emerged. One of them was referred to as “treble 17” due to his unfortunate toileting habits: another allegedly took his laptop to the IT department when it stopped functioning, only to be told that this was because the hard drive was rammed solid with some material he had been downloading to help pass the hours spent in hotels while he was travelling on business.

On the business front, I managed to bring a key associate from AK/TMP to Riley as she was someone I could rely on to make things work smoothly behind the scenes. We then set about trying to win a bit more recruitment business, as that side of the Glasgow operation had perhaps lost its way at that time. However, as fast as we were bringing stuff in, existing stuff was also going out.

Unlike AK, Riley had an office in Edinburgh as well as Glasgow and it was in a state of rapid decline. I was asked to go there and try to put some sticking plaster on a gaping wound, but to no avail. The Edinburgh office’s biggest client was Fife Council and it was up for review.

After the pitch to Fife, they announced that they wanted to do a site visit.

This was a bit of concern. Only a few years previously, in the days of Sean Montgomery and his pitching hat (as referred to in an earlier blog), Riley employed about 30 people in Edinburgh. Now, we only had three people permanently based in the Edinburgh office, so we assembled about 12 of the Glasgow team and all came through for the day. When the client turned up, they found a busy office with people running about with copy, ads being proofed, a finance person chatting about invoices with a senior manager and all the other paraphernalia of the rec-ad agency.

We lost Fife. We closed the Edinburgh office.

French lessons and a new CEO

It was period of turmoil. After the Fife Council debacle and the closure of the office in Edinburgh, Alan Fraser (a good friend), who had been instrumental in getting me into Riley, left the company. There was a period of disruption while the top brass worked out what they were going to do. I recall that they came up to Glasgow and announced their plans and I was so staggered/incensed that I went down to the boardroom and told the CEO and the new CFO exactly what I thought. The CFO came up to my office afterwards. “Have I just made myself redundant?” I asked. The CFO (who was a younger version of Rupert Grose) said, “I don’t think so…”

I hadn’t, and within a relatively short period of time I was in charge and able to start to try to claw back some of the market that we had built up and AK and which was now under TMP’s control….

We also got a new CEO about this time. John Crozier, who had been the high heid’un for yonks, had decided to retire. No-one had a clue who would get his job, but the smart money was on Rupert Grose, the CFO. The other directors (I wasn’t on the board at this point, having only fairly recently joined from TMP) were all jockeying for position and my boss, the one who had responsibility for several offices (Birmingham, Bristol and Glasgow), came up to see me to tell me what job I might get when he was in power.

In the event, we all went to a hotel in the Midlands, still none the wiser as to who was going to get the gig. It was quickly clear that one person who wasn’t getting it was my boss – or now my former boss. John Crozier took all the people from the Birmingham/Bristol/Glasgow offices in to a private meeting to explain (“difficult decision etc. = all the usual round objects) what had happened and then said, “any questions?” For a split second I was seriously tempted to ask “can I have his car?” but fortunately sanity prevailed.

We were then taken into the main meeting and our new CEO revealed – a nice lady who had been with the company for a long time. A lot of people were amazed – we all thought Rupert Grose was a shoe-in. Sadly, she didn’t last long and Rupert was the new supremo.

To make things even more exciting, we now had new owners – a French mob called Havas. This meant we met lots of senior French people and were introduced to the various other companies that they owned in the UK. One particularly memorable bash was at Coombe Abbey again, where we were taken round in groups to see examples of the amazing French creativity. The reason this was memorable was because one of said pieces of creativity involved, and I had better issue a trigger warning here, what can only be described as a penis (because it was) which became, ahem, aroused and starting singing (in French, naturally). I sometimes wonder if this was a hallucination, but others were there with me and they didn’t believe it either.

There were also meeting with the other Havas companies. This was always done under the pretence that there would be synergies (whatever they are) between the different Havas businesses and we’d all cross-sell and make lots of dosh for each other. I remember one event where we all met in the Globe Theatre in London and were wowed by these “proper” ad agencies and the like. What they made of us I have no idea, but I do know that the amount of cross-sellling that resulted was the square root of diddly-squat.

Still, they meant well…

Euro RSCG Garden Centre meets procurement

With the French now in charge we were trying to understand what this meant for Riley. I am not sure Havas really understood what they’d bought, but they knew we had a substantial turnover and made a decent amount of money. They were definitely different from the Americans from TMP and we didn’t see the wholesale change in culture that I’d witnessed at AK as people started to adopt a more mercenary, US-style approach to business.

There were a number of similar, recruitment-related Havas companies in Europe and some big cheese had the smart idea of bringing them all together under one umbrella. It was at this time that I was introduced to the concept of employer branding (a scheme for making HR people feel as if they could contribute some value to their organisations, but only if they spent gazillions with agencies like us), as well as various other novel ideas such as “early career professionals” – or young people as they are normally called.

The new company brand that we were going to operate under was possibly the most dim name that anyone has ever come up with in the history of rec-ad. Henceforth, we were to be called “HR Gardens.” A new website was created with what looked like a praying mantis cutting a share in a leaf on the home page. As virtually everyone who saw it said, “it makes us look like a garden centre.”

Fortunately, sanity prevailed and instead of HR Garden Centre we became the simple and easy to remember “Euro RSCG Riley.” Apart from the fact the ridiculously long email addresses, and the fact that not many people had a clue what the name meant (the letters RSCG were the initials of some famous French chaps who were four of the key players in the original Havas), everything was now just about sorted out and we started to get on with the business of trying to win more accounts and make money. By and large, most people still called us Riley (and other things), although gradually this changed and the full company name was more frequently used.

This was still a time when, despite the best attempts of TMP to monster the market, print advertising was the mainstay of the industry. However, the dreaded procurement wallahs were starting to make their presence felt and they had realised that agencies were prepared to offer big discounts, by way of returning some of their agency commission. Thus, the race to the bottom, which I had seen begun at AK, where we would offer to split our commission with the public sector, accelerated to its logical conclusion whereby we’d not only give all our commission back bar about one or two per cent, but we’d also offer free typesetting and a choice of the admin team for sexual purposes (I may have made that last one up, but there were rumours).

It was always a matter of debate which agency was first to start to offer to kick-back some of its agency commission to the clients. AK was generally blamed, but my understanding was that it was Riley, specifically the Riley Manchester office. I am happy to be proved wrong so if anyone actually knows, please get in touch. But irrespective of who had started it, the fact is that the industry basically shafted itself by kicking back commission. I was as guilty as anyone, but, at the risk of being immodest, was not bad at devising schemes for getting the money back by the well known gambit called “pulling the wool over procurement’s eyes.”

This wasn’t too difficult, because while it’s true that many procurement people do know the price of everything and the value of nothing, they didn’t always read the tenders as well as they should have and, of course, they didn’t really understand what we actually did. I have had many conversations with procurement officials in which I tried to explain that it was simply not possible to have a catalogue approach to our business because until we had received an advert we didn’t know what size it was going to be. I can also recall a conversation with a procurement person, after we’d won a very large account, in which she confessed that no-one on the assessment panel had realised that they wouldn’t get their discount unless they paid their bills on time. Being public sector, this hardly every happened and so we were able to make a decent margin.

Nonethless, slowly procurement got the idea and began to put out tenders where we really did have to promise not just the earth but several minor galaxies if we wanted to have a chance of the business. But by now you’ll be getting bored by procurement, so it’s time to call a halt for today. Catch up tomorrow for some stories of the amazing Riley Glasgow Pub Orienteering Challenge….

Keeping in with the media

We built up a really good recruitment advertising business at Riley in Scotland. The principal reason for this is that we had a really good team of people, from the studio to suits, not forgetting (which is impossible as they were the most important people in the office) the admin team

As I’d noted, TMP had acquired all AK’s business, but, while TMP tried to work out what they were doing, Barkers sailed into the gap left and hoovered up a huge number of clients, especially in the public sector.

In order to combat this, we “bought” SEPA, going in at a margin (on paper) of 2% plus free standard production. Of course, we made a bit more than this, but the key message was that Riley was winning business again. I was confident that once we had it, the quality of our admin team would shine through. While we were capable of the odd cock-up, we were, in my opinion, better than TMP and Barkers. It’s hard to retain clients when you have a full-page advert in The Herald for Glasgow NHS and the first job is a “Senor House Officer.”

One of the other reasons I was confident we would make money, even going in with what looked like on paper a ridiculous offer, was that we had so much coming in the back door by way of our retrospective deals with the main newspapers. These contracts could generate a six figure sum every year in some parts of the country (the Manchester Evening News one was especially generous) and the big nationals offered stupendous deals, especially if you had some of their big customers (the likes of Michael Page) on your books.

Then, of course, there were the spot buys: the pretence that the half page the client had asked to go in the Telegraph might also go in the Sunday Times if the Telegraph didn’t give you a humungous discount. This HD was, of course, rarely passed on to the client, largely because we were so desperate to make up the money that we’d (ostensibly) given away at the tendering stage of winning the business.

Some of the admin team were brilliant at “negotiating” spot buys. The media, naturally, were not dim and knew we were at it. I have it on good authority that at least one major newspaper kept a list of the favourite excuses agencies used to try and wheedle a deal, and I also remember a conversation with someone who is still very senior at a very big agency (OK, it is TMP) about what was the biggest spot buy we had made. I think I won on size but his was better on quality, if you see what I mean. I even remember asking for a spot buy because “it’s a nice day, come on, it’s only 25%....”. Of course, that great piece of sales training from my Thomson Regional Newspaper days kicked in and, having “asked for the order” I then shut up and waited till the pressure became too intense for the nice lady from the Daily Record and she agreed to the 25%.

Given that all these sources of additional income came from the media, they were obviously very important to us. I remember the late, great Bob Townes, at an AK conference, telling us we should all be very nice to the media and not just treat them as a cash cow who also bought us nice lunches and took us to hospitality at the football. Coming from a press background, I was in total agreement and we worked very hard at Riley (and AK) in keeping in with our friends (and to be fair, many of them became – and still are – friends) in the publishing industry.

At Riley in Glasgow, we came up with a novel idea for keeping in with the media: the Great Riley Pub Orienteering Challenge. This ran for several years and became famous in legend and song, but if you want to find out why you’ll need to tune in again tomorrow….

Pub Orienteering

We built up a really good recruitment advertising business at Riley in Scotland. The principal reason for this was that we had a lot of good people. We also, as explained in our last blog, had a good relationship with the media and one of the many reasons for this is that instead of treating them as a meal ticket (which, to be fair, we did as well), we also spent money entertaining them.

The best thing we did was the annual Pub Orienteering Challenge. Essentially, we invited the media to give us some money which we then gave to whoever was Riley’s charity of the year and then each publisher could bring a team of four people along. The evening began in our office, which had been plentifully stocked with booze beforehand. In fact, on one occasion, I remember going with Steve Hadden from our studio to Asda to buy the aforementioned booze and we got so much that once we loaded it onto the conveyor belt at the check-out it stopped moving because of the weight.

Anyway, all the media teams had one or two Riley people added to them, we got stuck into the drink and then handed out the instructions in five envelopes, one for each pub they had to visit. We had worked out (by extensive research) that there were roughly 50 pubs within a 10 minute walking radius of our office, so the instructions were based on proper orienteering (e.g. go out of the office, turn left, go 50 yards down the hill and you’ll find your first pub). We also handed out enough money (getting that idea past the accountants was a nightmare) for each team to buy every member a drink in every pub. If they wanted, they could top themselves up with more drink. In each pub they then had to answer a quiz question, which was usually fairly bizarre and often involved weird sexual practices. The first year we did this was before smart phones became universal, and so it worked much better, because in subsequent years everyone just Googled the answers.

However, the masterstroke (again, pre-smart phones) was to give everyone a Polaroid instant camera. There was a prize for the best photo of the night and I need hardly tell you that the combination of alcohol and media led to some rather, who can I put this, interesting photos. The one featuring the ad manager and the roll of - but no, I’ll just let you imagine for yourselves.

After they had been round their five pubs, everyone returned to the office where the drink that was left from the earlier part of the night was polished off, the prizes awarded and everyone went home in a very good mood. There was only one occasion when the police were called and also one occasion (the only one that I know of) when two media people were caught in a cupboard doing something that the cupboard wasn’t designed for.

But you know what - it was great fun and we ran it for many years. It cost a bit of money, but it paid for itself many times over because for at least three months after the bash, any media issue we had was usually “dealt with” at no cost to Riley. This wasn’t why we did it, but it was a useful bonus. The only downside was the next day, when I used to go into the office and clean up. It took about three hours just to shift the empties….


Warning, if you are a creative don’t read this, it will just upset you.

In its heyday, rec-ad needed those funny people who are, in their opinion, more creative than the rest of us. They sometimes have strange dress sense, use too much pomade on their hair, take drugs and turn up when they want to rather than at the accepted hour of 9.00 am. To be fair, many of them are actually much more creative than the rest of us and are essential to any successful agency (think 33) - but when you consider the average suit then it’s not difficult to appear creative. However, the suits tended to hold a bit of an upper hand because they/we were the people who, ultimately, had to deliver the creatives’ work to the client (it being inadvisable to take creatives to such meetings because they tend to get angry and want to punch the client when the latter says that they want the logo twice as big and at the top). This, if you’ll excuse me going off at a tangent, reminds me of my favourite ad agency joke of all time….

Two creative and a suit are driving around Ireland on holiday when, at the side of a country road, they see a leprechaun stuck in a rabbit hole (no, not like that). They stop the car and rescue the leprechaun. As is tradition, the leprechaun grants them three wishes. The first creative says, “I want my campaign for the Met Polis to win the “Work of the Year” at the RADS” and whoooosh, he’s gone and is on the stage at the Grovesnsor. The second creative says, “I worked on that campaign too and I want to join him,” so whoosh, off he goes to the RADS. The leprechaun turns to the suit and says, “what do you want?” to which the suit replies, “I want those two bastards back here right now.”

Sorry about that, where was I? Yes, creatives and their relationship with the rest of the world. Even in my newspaper days the “studio” was a strange place. I remember one studio manager who was going bald, but who believed that if he brushed his scalp regularly with an old-fashioned hair brush then this might stimulate the follicles and he’d regain his luscious topknot. Accordingly, he spent nearly every minute of every day scrubbing away, to no avail.

Another newspaper “creative” had a wee bit of a problem with the drink, and if he was on one of your jobs in an afternoon then it tended to be a bit crap. You tended to go in to the studio in a state of abject groveling and that was how they liked it.

In the “real” agency world, a lot of creative were/are, as I have said, very good, but the comment above about them punching people they didn’t like/agree with was not made up. There is at least one (OK, a few) that I know of who have allegedly decked an account manager or two – and probably about 100 more who would like to have done so.

The creative tension between suits and creatives could result in some stunning petted lip situations. I recall having a spat at a board meeting with a senior creative and the Chief Exec made the two of us sit down and make up, which we did with immense bad grace.

As I said, taking creative to see the client was always fraught with risk, especially at a presentation for new business. Some are very good, but I do remember one pitch where the creative took 45 minutes to unveil the stunning work. Our feedback from the pitch later said that up to that point in the presentation we were the clear leaders.

I also remember a creative who produced a retro advert for a client which had a picture of a spaghetti-eating competition at a 1950s Butlin’s Holiday Camp. I refused to take it to the client because it looked as if they were all being violently ill and this ended in a “discussion” along the lines of “I’ve had 25 years’ experience of producing this sort of stuff and if the client’s too thick to understand it that’s your fault for not explaining it properly.” I agreed, reluctantly, to take it along. The client was too thick.

Sorry - If you are a creative then I told you so…

Riley and the media

When I was made responsible for Riley’s relationship with the media I had a whale of a time. I was following in the late, great Ed Larder’s footsteps and, while I could not (would not) do some of the things Ed used to do I could at least drink a bit and was also not bad at negotiating.

These were the days when we were making seven figure sums from media deals and spot buys, so the job of the Media Director was an important one. The great triumvirate of Danny Cannon, Mark Cartmel and Robbo have passed into legend and song as representing the golden age of the Media Director’s role, but I think Ed was a worthy successor to Robbo and I tried my best to maintain the standard. Sometimes this meant making sacrifices like spending the entire afternoon in Vivat Bachhus or Rules with the Daily Telegraph or Trinity Mirror, but into each life much drink much fall.

We did try and bring some of the Riley Glasgow style, “give something back” to London, with events in the basement of Briset Street and even a period when we awarded a monthly award to the media salesperson we felt had done the most to work with us. This award consisted of us buying them lunch and it was, I think appreciated. It also meant I got another free meal ticket.

These were the days when the job-boards were becoming more important and characters like Dave (Geezer) Butler and Jamie Leonard came into my life. I’m not sure what Dave is doing these days, but Jamie is still very much going strong (and doing well with RecFest et al), but generally I found these people honest and good to work. As were all those from the conventional print media, who are too numerous to name, but include the likes of Tony Bowley, Helen Bird, Gemma Hennen, George Buckingham, Steve Playford, Steve McAuley, James Lancaster, Tim Bowman, Gary McNish, Jeff Lawrenson, Ian Clarke, John Seaman, Pete Clarke and everyone at RBI, Richard Bogie, Lawrie Procter and Phil Wrigley (and lots more – apologies if I’ve left your name off).

Phil Wrigley wasn’t actually much use when it came to doing deals because, traditionally, the Economist never discounted. This led to a most amusing incident (well, I think it was) when I bet Jerry Taylor, who had joined Riley as Head of Media, that I would get a discount off Phil. We agreed on the loser buying the winner lunch. We had a full page in colour for a university and I explained to Phil what I wanted to do, which was to get £15 off the online upsell but no discount off the main print ad. Of course, he was never going to do the latter, but as a one-off he agreed to discount the online bit. Free lunch!

Everyone else was up for a deal, whether an annual contract or spot buy. However, this, naturally, led to some entertaining cock-ups. Once, a major media group (OK, RBI) sent us TMP’s contract by mistake. The fact that TMP were getting a better deal than us (probably because they spent more money) did not go down well, but it all ended amicably.

Then there was the media person who came for breakfast at the Caledonian Club. Not having been in a gentleman’s club before he pronounced it a “nice gaff” before proceeding to pick up his bacon with his fingers and eat it. I stayed at the Travellers’ Club after that.

Anyway, I could go on for years about the media. I have made so many really genuine friends – genuine in the sense that they are still friends even though I’ve now been out of the agency scene for over seven years. To all of you, I raise a glass, especially when you’re paying.

Board meetings and accountants

I have written about board meetings before, but that’s no reason not to do so again. I must confess that my story that we all stood and sung the company song before each board meeting was not quite true, but most of the rest of it was, especially the bits about the accountants shouting “where’s the money?” Several senior media people got in touch after my Newsletter about board meetings to say that they recognised many of the situations I described, especially the shouting. The fact that most accountants couldn’t generate the money themselves in a million years never seemed to trouble them, but there we are – it’s the bean counters wot rule the world and there is not too much point in getting upset about it.

However, for what it’s worth, my view, especially as I ascended the career ladder and had regular monthly meetings with the CEO was – and still is – that accountants are there to protect business managers from their own stupidity (the business managers’ stupidity that is) and that they need to listen intelligently to those at the sharp end of the business. The good ones do: the bad ones just shout and want to fire people the moment the figures dip a bit.

Usually, it was a management accountant who would prepare your P&L and I had very varied experiences with these people. Some were really good, some were, well, not quite so good. However, seeing that the actually monthly meeting was an exercise in obfuscation (on my part) and that so long as there was more or less the right about of money coming in no-one much minded my attempts to use up the time by talking about football so as to avoid the issue of our deteriorating debtor days, it all generally went OK, until the recession of 2009 that is…

Talking of which, and to return to the Board meetings, one of my favourite memories of a board meeting was in the depth of the recession. We’d all been asked to bring an idea for generating money. There were twelve of us round the table. None of the ideas was ever realised, which is a shame, as I am sure that my suggestion that we did a “Calendar Girls” Riley calendar would have made a lot of money.

Other happy board memories are of Ed Larder simply not attending an afternoon session on HR and the company survey (on the grounds that it was a load of bollocks, and I’m not saying Ed was wrong), and, although it’s before my time, a report of someone saying to John Crozier in the week that Ron Atkinson had been fired as a football manager for some politically incorrect comments, “John, can we begin with a minute’s silence for Ron Atkinson.”

We are getting closer to the end of this series of somewhat off-the-wall blogs. The time is looming when I packed by bags and set up the good ship thePotentMix, but bear with me for a wee bit longer as there is still a little more madness to come….

In which I leave the corporate world …

I think this has gone on long enough now. Also, I can’t be arsed scanning my memory for good stories that I can actually publish. I do, obviously, have a lot of good stories that I can’t publish (e.g. the fiddlesticks episode in the lift at the Scotsman, as told to me by a Classified Ad Director there) but naming names tends to lead to gyves on the wrists and a spell in the hoosegow. However, before I go, here, for one more time, is the last – the very last – Media Newsletter.

The start of the last Great Recession in 2009 came as a surprise to some. I, at the risk of being immodest, had flagged up the possibility of a downturn in my 2008 business plan, presented in the autumn of 2007, which finished with the words (more or less) “and I think we can make these numbers unless the credit crunch comes to get us.”

I make no great claims for prescience: I was simply restating what was being reported in the business pages. However, once the market fell things were never the same.

Riley in Glasgow had had an amazing 2009. While the rest of the company was crumbling, we made over 50% of the entire profit that year. Despite this, we had to fire a lot of people because we could see the coming storm. For me, the worst thing in business is laying people off. Although I’ve done my fair share of it, I never got used to the grief involved. Telling a single mum with three kids that she’s being made redundant before Christmas is a hellish thing to do. Some people can do this without losing any sleep but I never could. But it had to be done, although as the entire world we had known for decades was falling off a cliff we didn’t even know where it would end.

The internet and those job-boards which I’d first seen back at that AK conference at Coombe Abbey in the mid-90s, had now started to take over the market from print media. There was not enough money in the job-boards for agencies to survive from media commission and we were simply not good enough at that time (not just Riley, most of the others as well) at adapting and bringing in new services quickly enough. Moreover, we didn’t have a sales culture, as evidenced by an accountant telling me that we shouldn’t offer any additional bonus to the admin team for media buys over and above their target. My argument that this would lead to the admin teams busting a gut to make serious money fell on deaf ears. Some agencies were better at adapting than others, but most had not got the necessary hard-edged sales culture in my opinion. Strangely, a lot thought they did have– but ask anyone employed in new business at a rec-con in the first decade of the 21stcentury if they thought they were offered enough in the way of bonuses and incentives and I doubt many will agree.

Come the end of 2010 and Riley had a senior level restructure. I was offered a job I didn’t want so I asked for a deal, which was agreed. After over two decades in the rec-ad world it was time to start anew. From this came thePotentMix – and all those Newsletters I used to send for years. Sorry about that. It was Gary McNish’s fault actually. After the first one he sent me a note saying I should keep them going. I did, but eventually, after about four years, I had run out of things to say. I was asked by Andy Bamford at Birkdale a few years ago why I’d stopped and I replied that there are only so many times you can say the media are fucked. It was a MediaNewsletter after all…

I do miss that old world. I’ve kept in touch with many media friends and some agency people. I miss those who have died – too many good people gone too early – and I miss the comradeship of being in the trenches at pitches, late night working, board meetings and in the pub with many great agency and media people. Would I go back though? Not a chance. Mind you, I doubt they’d have me back after the last 32 editions of this nonsense...

Thank you for reading.

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chris colgan
chris colgan
Mar 15

Hi Alistair

Seems I worked at Austin Knight around the same time period as you on the creative side. I've on just seen your article but found it a great read and true reflection of what recruitment advertising was about in fact your story of the coffee cups emptied into a bin then tipped is quite true - I was there. Great to read it (incidentally the first Macs AK introduced were LC475s)

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