Advertising agencies' Christmas parties used to be synonymous with wild abandon and almost unimaginable extravagance. Now the whole industry is said to be depressed. Have the excesses of the Eighties gone for ever? Stephen Armstrong investigates
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The Independent Culture
As Christmas rolls around again, it's time to spare a thought for those less fortunate than ourselves: the homeless, the poverty-stricken and, of course, the advertising industry. No, really, times are tough for our persuaders in Soho. The recession has bitten deep, and they are getting pretty disillusioned, according to the adland bible Campaign.

The magazine recently surveyed some 600 in the industry, and found that only 28 per cent of them thought that advertising worked and just 17 per cent thought that most advertising was good. Shocking. It's not surprising that 57 per cent of them had used drugs or knew someone who had. They're depressed, run down and overworked. The whole business just isn't much fun any more. This malaise is a far cry from the Porsche-driving, champagne- drinking, cocaine-snorting image of 1980s advertising. Then, the British advertising industry led the way in creativity, excellence and getting completely off their heads on big-budget nights out. Especially at Christmas.

To be fair, this wasn't simply a matter of uncontrolled hedonism. As UK advertising agencies battled to win the increasingly large number of multi-national, billion-dollar accounts that decided to centralise their business in London during the 1980s, entertaining clients became a high priority. So, in due course, did entertaining staff. An agency's capacity to party came to symbolise its capacity to do everything else: win business, attract the best staff, make advertisements. It was all a question of prestige. Or, to put it another way: being in UK adland in the 1980s was rather like being a bloke on a constant first date. It was all about confidence, machismo and showing your staff and clients the best possible time. Especially at Christmas.

There are Yuletide stories in advertising lore that could have happened to anyone - such as the adman who was given his agency's traditional gift of a 13lb turkey just before catching a train to Birmingham much the worse for drink. He put the bird on the shelf above his seat and slumped forward on to the table in front of him. He awoke in Coventry with his face in a pool of blood and the woman opposite him staring in horror at the bloody bag above him that contained an object the size of a human head.

As I say, that could have happened to anyone. What advertising was famous for in years gone by was parties that couldn't have happened to anyone - well, not unless they had pounds 30,000-plus to spend on a Christmas do. Modern wisdom about office parties may be all about firms exercising responsibility towards staff by not giving them too much to drink; 10 years ago, staff had higher expectations. In the 1980s, if your agency didn't annually throw the kind of orgy that people associate with the decline of empires, you'd be looking round for another job pretty sharpish. It was all very well during the rest of the year to spend most of the day at lunch and then jet off to the Caribbean for a two-week shoot, but at Christmas you expected something special. And the quest for the perfect Christmas bash was the one thing that Soho's finest used to work really hard at.

Consider, for example, Saatchi & Saatchi. (When you think of advertising in the 1980s, you generally do.) Everything the agency did in those days was larger, brasher and more confident than anyone else. The parties were more spectacular, the escapades were more incredible and the antics more outrageous than those of any other agency and possibly any other group of people since the Romans. Even a simple, low-key Christmas Eve drink usually got out of hand.

"Most Christmas Eves the staff would work through until lunchtime and then there'd be champagne and mince pies in the reception for everyone for as long as they wanted," says John Perriss, world-wide chairman of Zenith Media, Saatchi's media buying subsidiary. "One year, during one of the IRA's Christmas bombing campaigns, there were hundreds of police patrolling the West End, searching litter-bins and looking completely frozen and miserable. One bright spark had the idea of inviting two of them for a glass of champagne, the word went out on their walkie-talkies and, before we knew what was going on, there were about 20 policemen and women getting rapidly pissed with us.

"Obviously, most of the staff were pretty drunk too, all the policewomen looked very attractive, and the flirting was getting slightly out of hand. Suddenly, one of the policemen I was talking to saw a man, who is now in a senior post at one of the UK's top agencies, snogging this policewoman across the room. He dived through the crowd of people, grabbed our bloke and punched him. The Saatchi's man wasn't taking this, so he squared off and smacked the policeman back, breaking his finger in the process. At once, the whole place erupted, with policemen and ad-people swapping punches around the room until one inspector jumped to his feet and tried to arrest all of us. We explained to him that, if he did, we'd report him for drinking on duty. There was a bit of muttering, then we all shook hands and they left."

This was a simple Christmas Eve drink, remember. The Christmas parties were something else again. In 1986 and 1987 Saatchi & Saatchi was about 700 staff strong, and it held two office parties that thrashed the living daylights out of all other office parties. The first was held in a disused warehouse in Docklands and was rumoured to have cost pounds 80,000. The brothers Saatchi imported a complete fun fair. Not just a set of dodgems, mind, but merry-go-rounds, tombolas, mini-Ferris wheels, the whole works. Bands played, including top 1980s acts like Imagination, there was a disco, drink flowed like water, and almost everyone there did at least one thing they shouldn't have done.

The following year, the agency decided to top that one. They took another, larger, warehouse in Dock-lands, paid a bit more money and built a small- scale replica of Charlotte Street, Soho, where the agency offices were based. Every bar was there, every restaurant, every shop and every pub. Each of them had provided staff, booze, food and gifts so that Saatchi employees could stroll down the street popping in and out of the venues that they loved the most and eating and drinking to their hearts' content on the company. To this day, adland talks of that Saatchi party with a wistful glint in its eye. "Ah," they say in Soho bars, "that was when we knew how to party."

IN FACT, there was more to it than that. Partying required skill, determination and expert coordination. "At the Saatchi main Christmas parties only the staff were allowed," explains Moray Maclennan, joint chief executive of Charles and Maurice's new agency, M&C Saatchi, who also served with the brothers at the old place. "We would always have a birthday party in October and the clients would come to that, and we'd have a big party at the Tory Conference on the night before the Prime Minister spoke. We still do those things of course, but our Christmas parties are lower key these days. We are, after all, a very young agency."

A very young agency, with huge clients like British Airways and the Conservative Party, can still afford quite a reasonable bash. This year's staff party for M&C Saatchi was at Brown's night-club. The theme was Stars In Your Eyes. Everyone - M&C included - came dressed as their favourite star, with a star turn prepared, and the five or six most promising were asked to do their party pieces on a Karaoke machine with dry ice pumping and lights flashing.

This party could hardly be described as modest, but it was certainly not an orgy, and it was the only one the agency threw this Christmas. The old ad types knew how to party with quantity as well as quality. No agency would have simply one Christmas bash. There would be the staff party, the client party, and then each department - creative, media, etc - would have its own special team party. These last were the really notorious ones. A close-knit team of people who had worked together through the year, struggled against the odds and formed strong bonds reviewed their achievements over fine food and drink. These were the parties where people hit each other.

"After one of our department's Christmas lunches we all came back to the office a little the worse for wear to get ready for our evening bit of the function," says one agency chief executive who knows better these days. "I was with a bloke called Roy who was quite a big lad and he had it in for this account planner who'd been giving him gyp all year round. Roy decided he was going to sort things out with the bloke once and for all and stormed up to account planning to have a word.

"The account guy saw him coming and locked the door of his office, but Roy did martial arts and managed to knock down the partition wall around the office with his bare hands. By this point, most of the agency had been attracted by the noise and the account guy knew he was in trouble but decided to put a brave face on it because all the women were watching. He sat back in his chair, crossed his legs and put them up on the desk. Roy was furious and shouted: `Put your feet back on the floor and stand up!' The guy refused, so Roy knelt down, pushed up the bloke's trouser- leg and bit a great chunk out of his leg. He then spat it out in the corner and strode off to get changed."

Of course, things could also get out of hand at the main agency parties, as adland played with the wealth of the boom years. When one 1980s creative hot-shop threw its festive beano in the Oasis sports centre near Covent Garden, the guests were impressed with the high balcony that overlooked the Oasis swimming-pool - calm and still after the gym-users had all gone home. Then one creative accidentally dropped his wine glass into the pool. Then another. Then another. And so on. It soon became the party game of the evening as bottles and glasses rained down into the water until there wasn't any water left. Somehow, the entire swimming-pool had become filled with glass, entirely displacing all the original liquid. Stunned Oasis staff set about the repairs the following day but it took two weeks before the pool was fit to use again.

Sometimes, clients could be very helpful in sorting out a good time for the boys and girls at the agency. Seven years ago, BMP DDB Needham handled some part of the sprawling British Rail empire, which lent the agency a whole train for its seasonal high jinks. Around lunchtime on the day, the engine pulled out of Paddington station - two doors down from the agency - and drove through the Somerset countryside while the company got more and more drunk. Finally, the train returned at about 5.30pm. As it began the last 10 miles or so into Paddington, it had to slow down through commuter belt stations where hundreds of office workers were waiting for the train home. Once or twice the signals were against them and the train actually stopped. Baffled commuters got ready to board, only to recoil at scenes of Caligula-style debauchery. This wasn't what normally happened on the 5.45.

ARE THOSE days gone for good? It depends how you measure it. No one is reconstructing Charlotte Street, or Berkeley Square, any more, but an industry doesn't simply forget how to party overnight. Indeed, one might argue that, as times get harder, the need for seasonal consolation becomes more intense. Trevor Beattie, creative director at Wonderbra's agency, TBWA and a former passenger on the BMP Express, thinks that although the vulgarity may have gone, the wildness is still there. "All that `Look at the money we've got to burn' sort of party is over," he says. "And it's a good thing. Nowadays you feel guilty about what you got up to at the agency party, not about the party itself. We seem to have more fun now, because everyone gets involved and lets their hair down."

This year TBWA has had two parties - the official agency bash and the unofficial but now traditional "Trev and Steve's Christmas Spectacular" hosted by Beattie and his colleague Steve Chetham. The official do was on 17 December at a venue in Chelsea which was transformed into a winter wonderland scene with trees, dry ice and fake snow. There was a cabaret and all sort of bits and pieces. Trev and Steve's Christmas Spectacular was on the 19th, had fancy dress on a jungle theme, and ran from noon to midnight. It was on a smaller scale than in the old days - but not necessarily any less outrageous.

Throughout the year, for instance, moles at TBWA have been at work ferreting out staff affairs and office gossip - to be listed publicly at the party in the Top Ten Best Kept Secrets of the Year. This list is traditionally announced at 5pm, so that guilty staff have seven hours of humiliation ahead of them; there are also awards for Best Quote of the Year and Worst Ad Produced By This Agency.

Detailed reports of this year's event were not available at the time of going to press, but past experience suggests that there will have been plenty of excitement. "Last year," says Beattie, "the same campaign won the top three places in our top 10, and the client was actually at the party, although I didn't know it. I was running through these ads and slagging them off and everyone was getting quieter and quieter. The great thing was that the client was so drunk, she thought this was the award for the best ads of the year and came up and collected them with great delight."

Beattie insists the Thursday evening time slot is crucial: "If you do the staff party on Friday evening, you're wimping out," he says. "The gossip, piss-taking and hangovers on the Friday after our do are half the fun of it." But the days of gossiping and bragging about how much it all cost are, he believes, gone. This month's adland parties, he believes, have been restraint personified - just drinking, snogging the wrong people and getting up to all sorts, but keeping the budget below that of the US military's weapons acquisition department.

SOME of the excesses of advertising party legend have nothing to do with money, of course. For example, there was the agency chief executive who set the packet of Camels in his breast pocket on fire with a candle while leaning over to rebuke a colleague during an over-enthusiastic Christmas lunch. Because he had been drinking for England all afternoon, our hero was utterly bemused by the smoke that began to waft before his eyes. His colleagues were too in awe of him - or too helpless with laughter - to explain, and the smouldering became a conflagration. "It's the fags in your shirt pocket," someone croaked eventually. The chief executive feebly patted at the pocket; the gentle wafting merely fanned the fire. Finally, his least helpless colleague grabbed a large jug of water and hurled the contents all over his boss. "Thanks Bill," slurred one of today's finest business minds, and casually reached for the brandy.

Graham Hinton, now chairman of Bates Dorland, recalls a similarly awkward moment at a party given by another agency, at which he was present, a few years ago. A senior account director was enormously fond of his secretary, who happened to be terribly deaf. "At one of the agency's Christmas shindigs, she took a shine to a young creative and dragged him upstairs to her boss's office for a `getting-to-know-you' session. Unfortunately, everyone spotted them leaving, and they were followed up by a media buyer, who soon summoned most of the rest of agency to watch through the account man's office windows.

"The account man, desperate to protect her, forced his way to the front of the crowd and spreadeagled himself across the window to prevent anyone from getting a glimpse of what was happening. Tragically, the poor woman was too deaf to hear the laughter from outside the door, so he was stuck there for 20 minutes, listening to her cries of pleasure getting louder and louder while the entire agency stared him in the face, smiling evilly."

THAT kind of embarrassment could theoretically happen to anyone, in any industry. The difference is that advertising people positively ask for it - and still spends thousands of pounds in search of it. They also accept such excesses as normal, to an extent that makes even journalists' jaws drop.

John Banks, partner at Banks Hoggins O'Shea, insists that during the 1980s his agencies, Ogilvy & Mather and Young & Rubicam, watched the purse strings pretty tightly. "Our parties would be nothing," he says. "Maybe they'd hire out a theatre or cinema in the afternoon and give us a presentation of the year to date, hand out bonuses and all that. Then we'd all nip into black tie and head for a hotel ballroom for a dinner, a cabaret which sometimes the staff would do and then a disco. It was pretty low key."

John, you want to say, that wasn't low-key, mate. A cabaret at a central London hotel may seem tame compared with the corporate orgies of the 1980s, but it sure beats the messy fumble with the office junior behind the photocopier that is most people's Christmas entertainment. On the other hand, in John Banks's defence it must be said that, compared to much of the advertising shenanigans that went on around town even during this straitened December, a pounds 20,000 night was indeed small beer. And staff who remembered the glory days of the 1980s might well have felt short-changed.

It wasn't all that many years ago, for example, that Coca-Cola's agency, McCann Erickson, spent more than pounds 100,000 on its Yuletide hoe-down. On that occasion, in the mid-1980s, staff were alarmed to find removal men taking out their desks one Friday morning. A rumour flew around that the agency was about to close. In fact, each floor was emptied of all furniture, so that it could be re-fitted with its own themed bar, dance floor or restaurant. There was Rick's Cafe from Casablanca, and a Monte Carlo casino for guests to play on, while Freddie and the Dreamers played downstairs. More than 1,000 people turned up to join the fun, and the agency group's global chief executive even showed up from New York.

The poor man couldn't quite believe what he was seeing - especially when one time-buyer chinned an account planner right before his eyes. In America, they had no idea that this kind of party - let alone this kind of party behaviour - went on. But then, when it comes to creativity in advertising, Britain has always led the world. !