At St Martin’s Lane in the 70s

I interviewed at Leo Burnett London in the Spring of 1973. Prior to that I worked at 2 small agencies, one American, one Olde English. While getting my MA from the University of Sussex I wrote a freelance ad for  Blackburn Advertising (later Blackburn-Daily). They paid me £35 for the ad which appeared on the back page of Variety, the show business newspaper. I thought, this is the business for me. When I graduated they offered me a job. I wish I had saved the ad. 

Bill Blackburn wanted to be the new Bill Bernbach but he was shy and couldn’t make his mind up. He interviewed most of the major creatives in London and hired none of them. My first TV was directed by Alan Parker and Paul Windsor who had just left CDP. I could not understand why the writer looked in the camera and talked all the time. We casted a doe-eyed Harold Innocent, opera singer and actor who dead-panned the role of the dumb dad who made up the liquid breakfast drink while his kid just picked up the carton, poured and walked off. Simple, direct.  

Then I went to little known Stuart Advertising in Holborn where we tripped a woman carrying a paraffin heater down the stairs for the London Fire Brigade. Why was she carrying a lit paraffin heater? Apparently people did. 

So for me the Burnett job was entry to the big time. I asked people who did the good work there, which creative group to look out for. Ronnie Bond’s name was mentioned as was Chris Holland’s. Richard Asadurian got a nod. 

I was offered a job by Bryan Oakes. Bryan was no threat to Bill Bernbach. He approved of work he thought the client would approve. Much later, in Chicago, I met his soul brother. *

Meanwhile Carl Hixon, a transplanted creative legend from Chicago, transfixed most of the London department with his larger than life stories of Leo, words like nifty and concepts like the brick out of place. But Carl knew an idea when he saw one, or when he didn’t.

Dan Parfitt and I had gone to LA to shoot the launch of Cadbury’s Caramel. The idea was for Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy to meet for the first time in a casting office. When their names were called they bumped into each other at the door. After you. No, after you. Super theme: “Cadbury and Caramel. Some things were just meant for each other”. In LA Lee Lacey’s cast was so good we got smitten with the characters and forgot the idea was not Laurel and Hardy but Laurel and Hardy getting together. As Carl asked us after the screening in Cinema 2:  “Where’s the idea.” 

Leo press was mediocre until Mike Brant arrived, but its TV reel was one of the top five agency reels in town. It did standout work for Cadbury and McEwans and I soon found out who “it” was. The only thing Doug Buntrock liked more than beer advertising was beer. He was good at both. A workaholic/alcoholic in his faded blue denim uniform, he was not alone. 

Everyone at 48 St Martins Lane liked a pint or three. Barry Fox, an excellent writer, sharp wit and hopeless Fulham supporter, partnered on and off with Dougie. Barry was at his desk by 7:30 and did a day’s work by 11AM, turning out smart headline after smart headline. Doug turned most down because he hadn’t written them. At 11 The Green Man opened. Bob Stanners and Norman Icke joined Barry and Doug. Ken Mullen and later Bob Byrne would follow. Alec Ovens, a tall Scot who unaccountably did not drink, was the senior producer. Doug Huxtable ran the department under Gareth Bogarde with an ex-army discipline. Felicity Latimer greeted clients in 2ndfloor reception looking like Margaret Thatcher’s double. But her heart as well as her politics were Labour. The agency was headed by Gordon Barrett. Only in his early thirties he seemed a decade older. A kind man but like many account people from an earlier generation Gordon was interested in clients not ads. He was not excited by them. And this was a most exciting time in London with CDP posting one 48 sheet knockout after another, BMP started it series of bear campaigns by John Webster, while David Abbott accounted for the more literary and intelligently written end of the business with his Economist and Volvo campaigns. 

In any account of St Martins Lane in the 70s Anne Vigus and her late husband, Henry McQueen, must be mentioned. Neither was part of the creative world, but both were a core part of the of the place and time. Henry was a wonderful colleague and companion and entirely reliable. The agency driver, it was his smiling face you wanted to see at Heathrow late on a Friday after escaping a week of flights, hotel and meetings. Anne ran Travel, the best managed and most reliable department in the agency. She rescued me and many creatives from bad seats, bad rooms and fates worse than death (e.g., being stuck on a Friday night in Brussels). She moved from St Martins Lane to Chelsea to the End of the Known World behind the Tesco on the Cromwell Road. Now she resides in The Burnett/Saatchi shared building in Chancery Lane. Still the glue of the place, still rescuing travelers who need to get somewhere or out of somewhere, beside doing other jobs for the latest new management. We’re gone, they’ll be gone, but Anne remains.

For some reason Gordon asked me to a Christmas lunch with senior clients. 

In a rather stuffy Rules-like wannabe, we sat around a large table drinking gin-and-tonics and making self-congratulatory remarks fully of the Christmas spirit. When the waiter rolled in the trolley with an enormous roast beef hands went up asking for extra fat.  I knew I wasn’t in Kansas any more. Or the Bronx.

Then a human tornado hit St Martins Lane. Bob Barocci arrived, presumably to inject some energy, or perhaps to get him out of Chicago. Barocci’s strategy, conscious or otherwise, was to terrify the creatively unambitious account people until they were more afraid of him than they were of their clients. It worked. They didn’t understand that if someone pushed you, you pushed back. 

Many who probably should not have been in a rapidly changing business emigrated out. Baroccis’s aggression was easy to dislike, here and in Chicago, where traditionalists were many.

The 70s ended for me in 1984. I had refused a couple of invitations to move to Chicago. But after watching an attractive young woman with no experience hired as a creative director behind the closed door of her first interview with MD/CD/Chairman Dennis Barham, I thought better of it. Perhaps the Midwest, though frigid, was more promising.

*Peter Husting ran the Procter & Gamble business. On a group outing to the Southside to watch the White Sox just after I arrived he pulled me aside. P&G were in a funk about one of our brands. The agency had had several attempts to find a solution. His advice was simple: “Go to Cincinnati and don’t come back until they’re happy”.