In 1977, The Allen Brady Marsh Advertising Agency (ABM) pitch for British Rail’s advertising, was for scheduled in their ABM London offices, for 11am.
A new business pitch is a nervous day for any Agency, but then the ABM Agency was only 3 years old and was in a pitching fight against the big Agency boys.
British Rail was a big Client, huge in fact, especially to a smaller Agency like Allen Brady Marsh (ABM) which was not an obvious choice – like an Ogilvy or a Saatchi – who were in the same round of pitches.
Frankly, ABM were probably surprised to even be pitching for such a multi-million, mainstream, quintessential British Client.
But then, when you are coming from behind, you do something different.
You never win a race by following other people, as they say in sailing.
ABM had to stand out to be within with a fighting chance because on paper, they were coming from a long way behind.
Creative though, they were.
The M in ABM was Peter Marsh, 46 at the time, an actor of sorts, who married Elsie Tanner from Coronation Street, and was known to write jingles on a white baby grand piano. Rod Allen, The A, often wore a white top hat and tails beside him and sung them.
In 1981 they came out singing at a Woolworths pitch, “That’s the wonder of Woollies”. The original ‘song and dance’ men.
Of course, on that pitch day, the 5 well suited, professional British Rail team were more than austere.
From the Board of British Rail, headed by Chairman Sir Peter Parker, and bang on time at 11am as they strolled in business-like, to the ABM Agency London Reception. A senior crew.
The ABM Receptionist, 26, was however, on a personal phone call as they arrived, and she wasn’t going to be distracted.
Phone cradled deeply between her shoulder and her ear, blonde head ponytailed back, allowing both hands free for filing her brightly coloured red nails, (which she occasionally blew on to remove the filing dust) as she chatted to her pal.
Her phone call was clearly loud and personal, whilst the 5 very important Clients politely stood in front of her, as they waited for it to end. Wait indeed, they did.
She continued her call, unperturbed by the waiting potential Clients, ignoring them as if they weren’t there, looking with more interest at her emery board, filing her nails.
Her conversation continued uninterrupted…..
“Yeah, it was late, late last night when I got home….. Very late…nudge, nudge, you know yourself…..but I struggled in here this morning I can tell you!
Lovely bloke, Steve maybe? I think?
Not sure? Simon? Definitely an ‘S’ name….
But look, hold on for a sec….” as she moved the phone just slightly away from her ear to be able to address the ‘bothersome’ Clients interrupting her call.
“Hello, Can I help you?” she asked.
“I hope so”, came the British Rail chairman’s reply, “We’re here to see Mr. Peter Marsh please”.
“And have you an appointment?” she enquired, as if to protect Peter Marsh from stray salesmen off the street.
“Actually, we have a presentation pitch for our Advertising business at 11” the Chairman curtly replied, more than a little bewildered. Not what you’d call, a good start.
Surely the Agency should be expecting them at least?
“Okaaaayyyyy?” the receptionist said, a little unclear, “Have a seat and I’ll tell him you’re here…. British Steel, was it?” she asked again…..
“No, British Rail” the incandescent chairman replied and duly moved his team to the low black leather seats in the Reception, as the receptionist returned to her personal phone conversation and her nail filing.
“Anyway…” she continued, with more salacious chat about her night out.
Shortly after, another Reception door opened with a gentle foot and a young girl arrived in jeans, balancing a brown Formica tray, as she desperately manoeuvred it around the door.
The tray moving side to side, created coffee spills, as she did.
On it, were some loose sachets of sugar, now slightly soaked; wooden stirrers; 5 white polystyrene cups with instant coffee already made in them; and a small carton of milk with the corner roughly torn off at the top. Just along the scissor mark.
The Milk, half used (obviously opened by someone else earlier in the Agency) was signified by a splash of white on the tray which added to the already other dark pools of spilt coffee.
Some plastic packets of Marietta biscuits in twos were scattered about. Sloshingabout really, as she placed the tray on the small, glass table between the Clients chairs with a cheery casual “Help yourselves”.
Without waiting for a response, she quickly returned through the door from which she had come.
It was now 11.15 and an incredulous British Rail Chairman made her no reply being literally, lost for things to say. Not what he had expected, is what you would call, an understatement.
They were, after all, potentially a major Client?
The Receptionist had by now, finished her call to her pal and seemed to phone someone else internally.
She was overheard by the British Rail team to say….
“British Steel? Or British Rail? are in Reception to see Peter?” and then turned to the Clients to add simply, “He knows you’re here, won’t be too long”.
By now, already 25 minutes past 11, the British Rail chairman looked at his watch and was past waiting. No one kept him waiting that long – nearly half an hour!
He was, after all, the busy Chairman of a large British business and he had already seen many more “professional” Ad Agencies. Choosing ABM to even pitch, now looked like a big mistake.
By half past 11, the British Rail Chairman had simply had enough and stood up, taking his briefcase and so too, the other 4 team members followed his cue, ready to go.
The Chairman walked, with his team in tow, back to the Receptionist at her desk and simply, but politely, said;
“Please, would you tell Mr. Marsh that clearly, this is not the Agency for us and that we’re leaving.”
And so, they turned to the front door from whence they came, a good half hour before.
As they did, the double doors in Reception burst open and in jumped Peter Marsh with a gleeful, smiling voice.
“Gentlemen! you’ve just seen what the public think of the way British Rail treat them, now, let’s see what we at ABM can do to put that right! Please follow me!”.
And so, the pitch had in effect, begun.
The whole meet and greet had been a set-up to make a point.
A totally staged act.
The Receptionist, a hired young actress, the coffee delivery girl a set-up, the wait was deliberate and the British Rail problem, identified.
ABM had showed them what was wrong with British Rail and how British Rail was seen to treat their customers. And of course, how ABM Advertising was going to go about fixing it.
In those earlier days, as an Ad Agency, you always wanted to stand-out to the prospective Client and make sure your pitch would be at least memorable, from the likely 4/5 other Agencies that the Client was seeing.
If the Client, when reconsidering the pitches later, and they remembered yours, that was at least a good start, as the ABM pitch showed. They were hard to forget, for sure.
Good honest pitching with good honest Advertising solutions.
Peter Marsh died in 2016 and for his funeral he was dressed in his favourite tartan suit and went out to the strains of ‘Give em that old razzle dazzle’.
Did they win the British Rail business I hear you ask? It was the biggest Account win in history.
Not only that, but within 5 years, ABM was one of the UK’s Top 5 Agencies. By 1979, 2 years later, it was the fastest growing Agency in Europe.
I learnt (or stole) from that in giving a pitch to another multi-million Client, Irish Rail, where my first words were to the Irish Rail Clients, “I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of Irish Rail…”and I had 5 rail users around the boardroom.
The rail users stood up and explained why they were fed up with Irish Rail too, with their own real-life examples.
Regular users who explained their problems with the train.
And then, how we could fix it (which became a relatively well known, controversial campaign, called ‘Irish Rail, we’re not there yet, but we’re getting there’).
We won the business and kept it for 25 years….our big Agency anchor Client. But to be fair, Irish Rail and British Rail knew they had a problem and wanted someone to help them fix it. They just didn’t know how.
And that’s where Ad Agencies fitted in then.
They knew how to solve problems because they clearly understood the problem first.
You cannot fix something unless you know why it is broken.
They used to say, that Advertising was the best fun you could have with your clothes on. And so it was, in the days of the madmen, the real Advertising people.
I know, I grew up with it and became a part of it. I loved it, every second. My Dad, a Creative, would draw ideas or ‘scamps’ on the breakfast table as we scurried around carefully, so as not to stand on them. A cigar on one side, a bottle of Chivas Regal on the other.
Agency Presentations or ‘pitches’ were always the big, nervy days. The key moments when you won or lost, business. The days you loved and, the days you dreaded.
The mad rush to prepare, literally often up to the night before and the sleepless nights. The downer once it was over.
But that was how Agencies grew. Pitch by pitch organically. Pitches were instrumental in the way you grew your Agency.
Through winning new business Client-by-client, and, when you won more Advertising accounts, than you invariably lost over time, you grew the business. And created excitement, news.
Win more than you lose.
It was the hard-fought way of the Advertising world. Because the very reason Advertising Agencies existed was because of the Ads, the work. More than that, the ability to think about a Client problem and solve it through Advertising.
Paid for messaging that the Advertiser controlled, giving a message they wanted customers to hear or see.
It is an Art and never a Science, so it attracted those who were culturally in that art vein. It was never about today’s ‘better data’ nor should have been. You were only as good as ‘your last Ad’ which brought pressures in itself. Staying on your game between bouts of pressure reducing indulgence.
Being part of it at the time, I of course knew the story of the 1980’s and 1990’s when Agency money-men imagined that a quicker, better way, to grow was to acquire other Agencies and combine them into the now infamous, ‘Holding companies’. And how it was also the sowing of the seeds of their very destruction.
That ‘awakening’ some would say, when a realisation by outside financial men that there was more money in the Ad business than they had thought, and notably in Media buying, heralded the end.
More money than anyone had realised and they wanted it, at all costs.
How this new breed of 1990’s grey financial Advertising people, who identified Advertising as a way to make money, and frankly, nothing else, became the new Advertising leaders.
The financiers without a passion for the advertising craft, the people who did not understand it, who did not grow up in it, who didn’t care about.
Nor had they any need to understand advertising in fact, as they were chasing the money and nothing else.
God bless the Allen Brady Marsh’s of this world.
There’s few of them left. Why is that?