Trending: Here's the pitch: Britain's mad men

As a new series of TV's favourite advertising drama starts, we should remember our part in the hard-selling, fast-living history of the industry, says Ian Burrell

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Say Scott Parker and most people will think of an England footballer. But it could so easily have been a name synonymous with the "Mad Men" who transformed British advertising, a London-based Sterling Cooper, if you will. Yes, Britain had its mad men. Their time came a little later than that of the Madison Avenue revolution portrayed by Don Draper and colleagues in the hit US drama which returns for its fifth season tomorrow.

Things took off in British adland a few years afterwards, in the Seventies and Eighties. "They were young. They were making it up as they went along. They introduced the world to Smash Martians, Honey Monsters and a beer that refreshes the parts that others cannot reach. And pretty soon they were millionaires," wrote Sam Delaney in the introduction to his book Smashed, which chronicled the rise of agencies such as Collett Dickenson Pearce ("Happiness is a Cigar called Hamlet") and Boase Massimi Pollitt ("Cresta: It's frothy man").

Scott Parker was an ad-agency name toyed with over lunch by two young turks at CDP, Ridley Scott and Alan Parker, before they went on to become Hollywood film directors. "He said, 'well maybe it should be called Scott Parker' and I said 'no mate, I think Parker Scott sounds better'," recalls Sir Alan Parker of the planned partnership. "We didn't get past that, so foolishly I never joined forces with him. I should have done because he was an extraordinarily brilliant businessman."

London adland was a "film school" for Sir Alan, who directed a famous CDP ad for Cinzano featuring Joan Collins before going on to direct films such as Bugsy Malone, Mississippi Burning and The Commitments. "You started off with this little world of TV commercials here in Soho and it actually had... an enormous effect on the feature film industry for the next 30 years."

They were also having a lot of fun. Sir Frank Lowe, another CDP graduate who rebranded Stella Artois as "reassuringly expensive" in the 1980s, explained the simple motives of the new Ad Men. "They went into advertising because it was a lark, you got paid lots of money, there were lots of lovely girls and you got a nice, fast car... You just couldn't believe your luck."

And they were men. The new agencies may have been breaking with traditions but they weren't easy places for women to build careers. Art director Carol Cass remembers being told by Charles Saatchi: "We'd make you cry, you know?"

The PR man Tim Bell, who went into business with the Saatchi brothers, Charles and Maurice, compares the rise of "a bunch of young upstarts" in advertising to the internet revolution of the past decade. "In the same way that the internet generation, [the] Facebooks and the Twitters and people of this world have completely challenged the old order, that's what we were doing."

Of course they worked hard, too. John Hegarty, who now runs the leading British ad agency BBH but in 1970 was a junior partner with the Saatchis, describes working in "an ideas factory on steroids". He says: "We worked out that we had to have a new campaign every week to pay the rent. If you didn't have an idea that day, you didn't get paid."

Another Hollywood director, Lord Puttnam, describes his time in adland as being "part of something extraordinarily important", when a new generation "super-charged consumerism", something that has since given him some cause for concern.

Dave Trott, a young Mod from the East End of London, crossed the Atlantic at the end of the Sixties to work for New York ad man Bill Bernbach, who is referenced in Mad Men as a risky innovator who challenges the position of Sterling Cooper. When he came back to a buzzing London adland he had a clear credo: "It's better to be different than it is to try and be just slightly better. Be outrageous. Be daring." He has since become one of Britain's most successful ad executives.

Oscar-winning film directors, political spin doctors, global art collectors, the heyday of British adland gave a start to a remarkable generation. The best-selling author Peter Mayle was there, too. "You met lots of interesting people and you did strange and whacky things from time to time and got paid lots of money," he remembers. "I was making more than the British Prime Minister when I was 26. Nowhere else at that time, short of being a movie star, could you expect to do as well as that."


'Ad Men' is on Sky Atlantic HD tonight at 9pm. The new series of 'Mad Men' begins tomorrow at 9pm