I've been in advertising since I was 15, but what I always wanted to be was a journalist. I dogged my 11 plus, just didn't go, so I was sent to a junior secondary school in Coatbridge, Lanarkshire, and left three years later without doing any O-levels. None of the papers would take me on even as a copy boy without O-level English, so I found a job with an advertising agency delivering ads to newspapers. I got a great thrill from being in the newsrooms - you knew the news before it hit the street - but the editors used to chase me out because I wasn't supposed to be there. I remember I was at the Evening Citizen in Glasgow the morning Robert Kennedy was shot. It still didn't get me a job, though.
Eventually I became an account manager in Scotland, but I felt my career wasn't going anywhere so I moved to London with Masius, which was the largest agency in the UK in 1975, and is now known as DMB&B. Three years later I was considering a job in Singapore when I saw an ad for Harrison Cowley of Bristol. They wanted someone to open an office in Scotland for them. I was only 24 but applied for a bit of a lark. No one was more surprised than me that I got it. There were two of us in the running, and two jobs. They asked us each if we would take the deputy's position if we didn't get the top post. I said no, the other fellow said yes.
David Harrison taught me how to run a business, but in 1984 he sold out to Saatchi & Saatchi. Neither he nor the Saatchis were willing for me to go, but I thought it was time to set up on my own. I have to be careful what I say because the Royal Bank of Scotland is one of my clients, but this business has never borrowed a penny. I have two partners, Alan Tait and Dennis Chester, who have been with me since the start. Between us we put up pounds 25,000, and raised another pounds 125,000 from British Linen Bank under the British Enterprise Scheme for 48 per cent of the company, which we bought back five years later. We opened our doors on 21 January, 1985, less than eight hours after Sarah, my second child, was born.
Our first client was the fund manager Martin Currie. We talked to it before we opened, had it signed within weeks and still hold its account. Then it was the long, slow process of building up a business. It's always been profitable and has grown steadily but, as with any business, there have been nightmares, and not just involving pigeons.
Given my love of the press the most embarrassing ad I ever made was for the Edinburgh Evening News. The idea was to have an over-the-top game show hosted by a local comedian dressed in a pink suit. It was made cheaply and looked worse. It was dreadful. I was at the shoot so it was my fault. Even though there wasn't a very big budget it was our responsibility to give quality and value.
Another early one that was really cringing was for a double-glazing company. The production budget was only pounds 2,000 and all we could do were some computer graphics of figures dancing along to the jingle they gave us. Unfortunately, it worked so well that they kept running it. We knew we were taking a risk getting involved with them - a credit risk - and inevitably they went bust. We were left holding a bad debt of pounds 12,000, which was a hell of a lot to us. Fortunately, we got hold of a list of their customers and approached them before the receiver did. We got 90 per cent of our money back and under Scots law were able to keep it.
Since then we have become more successful at attracting blue-chip clients. The way we have done that is by investing in people who can produce top quality ads. We currently hold the Epica D'Or, the top award for advertising creativity in Europe, after beating 4,000 entries from 26 countries. The winning campaign was a series of television spots for BBC Radio Scotland. We went through thousands of hours of broadcast tapes and picked out interesting snippets. The visuals were words in unusual typefaces. And the slogan was "Rediscover the power of the spoken word". Their audience went up by 9 per cent.
But the ads I'm most proud of are the ones for road safety. We don't have a lot of traffic in Scotland, but we tend to drive faster. We had a dreadful record for child pedestrian deaths. The statistics went up steadily for 16 years to 1988. Since then that trend has been arrested. I get a lot of satisfaction out of the small role we played in that. Advertising has its critics, sometimes justifiably. But it can be used to good purposes, too. Usually our skills are employed to make profit for companies so it's nice to do something that is helping to save kids' lives.
In the last three years we have expanded laterally into other businesses. The first was Navigator, a direct marketing company. Then came Redpath, a design company, The Glasgow Agency, which also does advertising, and most recently Magellan, which is aimed at closed-circuit television for businesses and multimedia such as CD-Roms and web sites on the Internet. Our growth is managed and measured, though. I have never been a believer in scale. I never wanted us to be the biggest agency in Scotland; I wanted us to be the best. The dash for growth is a false god.Reuse content