Bigger! Better! Richer! The golden age of advertising

The admen (and most of them were men) of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties created some of the most unforgettable images of modern times. Peter York celebrates the Golden Age of advertising
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My best school friend's parents had ineffably modern, glamorous jobs in the Sixties. His mother was in advertising, writing famous TV ads in Berkeley Square. His father was in PR – he was European Head of Public Affairs for a huge American corporation. His children said he was very good at taking people to lunch. This seemed miles more exciting to me than, say, being a literary novelist, let alone a poet, and even won out over Brit TV and Brit films because it related directly to the absolute source of all glamour, New York. My friend's parents were always going there to be re-freshed and re-educated.

Advertising was like that strap line The Rolling Stones' manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, used on their album covers, "The dividing line between art and commerce". But the real stuff, so insiders believed, still came from America. The country had invented TV-led consumerism – and particularly teenage-ism – and British mass-culture looked archaic and black and white by comparison until the 1980s.

Although I thought advertising sounded like a lovely job, the reality was that because it followed the middle-aged agenda of corporate Britain, it took a while to catch up too. Fifties and early Sixties British advertising had been astonishingly dull stuff, made by businesses that were either Old Brit with names like firms of solicitors – Colman Prentiss and Varley, say – or outposts of American empire – like J Walter Thompson or Young & Rubicam, who worked for global America Inc. Their clients were Kellogg's and Kraft, Colgate-Palmolive and Procter & Gamble. The output was either polite but patronising (the Brits) or formulaic, playlet-and-pack-shot, with jingles and mnemonics (the Americans). The people who ran the businesses were wartime gents with a survival instinct. Lord Puttnam says that when he started in advertising in 1958, "it might as well have been 1908".

For British advertising to assimilate with 1960s Britpop it needed a new workforce and a new sensibility. It needed Babyboomer social outsiders who related to the culture and who'd been brought up watching TV. What Sir Alan Parker calls "all of us yobbos coming into it".

I've been talking to the stars of that generation and watching their output for a documentary I've written and presented for the BBC. They're tremendously engaging and funny, much ennobled (three lords, five knights) and most of them believe what their cleverest contemporaries did in British advertising from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s amounted to a Golden Age. The best advertising in the world, ever.

They argue that from the mid-Sixties on, British advertising started to find a young British voice, no longer Fifties deferential or mock-American, one that used our shared history, cultural references, music and sacred symbols to make advertising – and particularly TV advertising – that people remembered because they enjoyed it, not because it had a tacky jingle. The majority of TV commercials that make those "100 best" listings come from this period. And overwhelmingly our imagery of the advertising business and its people does too. And especially from the Eighties.

Most accounts pin the origins of the New Brit advertising to the British-owned Soho advertising agency Collett Dickenson Pearce (CDP), where three young outsiders, later famous in the wider culture, all worked in the 1960s. David (now Lord) Puttnam of film, good works and everything; Sir Alan Parker, the film director and Charles Saatchi (art and politics). Puttnam and Parker are in our film; the Saatchis don't do interviews.

Frank Lowe (now Sir Frank), who later went off with his colleague Geoff Howard-Spink to found Lowe Howard Spink, was there too and remembers the CDP young Turks' admiration for the best American work – the clever crisp New York advertising created by writer Bill Bernbach for his agency Doyle Dane Bernbach. Particularly the dramatically simple, elegant Volkswagen ads which made the General Motors' brands look old-fashioned and over-blown.

CDP aimed for this dramatic simplicity too with challenging headlines, crisp art direction and clever laid-back copy, written for clever people. But the thing that made their work so distinctive was a particularly British kind of humour (the delicious embarrassments of class and pronunciation in Cockburn's port commercials) and the shared history of, say, the Boer War (used to "comic" effect in a cinema cigarette commercial that spoofed Zulu). CDP commercials were funny, clever and entertaining.

By 1966, Time's Swinging London year, the best ad agencies were part of the mix, the Neophiliac Sixties London world of restaurants and clubs, new photographers – advertising, not editorial, was where they made their real money – pop, fashion and Brit film. "They slept around a lot and they had a lot of money. They knew what was going on – they were at the heart of things then," says the novelist Fay Weldon, an advertising copywriter in the Sixties.

A nation that was notoriously prickly about being sold to directly, learnt to love advertising that engaged and amused. By the Seventies, Brits had started to say that TV commercials were often better than the programmes they interrupted. This dramatic change of status was all about that horribly embarrassing adland word, creativity. It meant the creatives' job – having big ideas and using the best directors, photographers and graphics people to realise them – was central, more important than client handling, clever research and big-bang media planning – all the old "scientific advertising" skills. New creative agencies were called "hot-shops" and the biggest, longest-established, most American agencies copied their work and hired their creatives to steal some of the excitement.

They couldn't lose then. With new money and new products coming on-stream, media scarcity (only one commercial TV channel until the 1980s), and a weirdly generous payment system based on a percentage of the clients' media spend, one big idea could generate millions of revenue for an agency. And a life high off the hog for the key men (and a few creative women). Top admen put on a great show. They knew that what their clients wanted, coming from the North or David Brent-ish office parks in Basingstoke, was glamour, so the front-of-house areas – reception and meeting rooms – always looked fantastic. As Lord Bell, then the Saatchi's main client handler, told us, "I used to get up in the morning and imagine that somebody had said 'Turnover... Action!'" They employed beautiful girls and handsome men.

Through the 1970s and into the 1980s, British advertising became more admired – the best in the world, seemed to be the consensus – and more ambitious. It sold more complex and expensive products – moving from little things like soap and shampoo, soup and sausages, to trains and boats and planes – and services like retailing and holidays. And the global ambition came with Saatchi and Saatchi, founded in 1976 by Charles Saatchi and his LSE-educated brother Maurice. S&S started on a creative high – the pregnant man advertising for the Heath Education Council – but added an unusual edge – a real focused ambition for growth. They wanted to build a global business through acquisitions. They started by building a national brand, becoming the first advertising agency most people outside marketing-land had ever heard of, starting with assiduous PR in the trade and business press, then moving into national media.

They had a big story. In 1978, S&S won the Conservative Party account and were attributed with some of that year's election victory for ads like the famous "Labour isn't working" dole queue poster. This gave them shaman status and raised the profile of advertising overall. They were also seen as acting like a real business – as important as some of their clients (S&S was, by 1987, in the FTSE 100 list of the UK's largest companies).

The Saatchi combination of creativity, perceived political-insider status, and substantive business success was irresistible. People talked about Saatchi's in the same way then as they did about the American investment banks – as a power in the Great World and a high-status employer.

In the 1980s the Thatcher government entrusted advertising with bigger, more important jobs, from social engineering – selling a range of government initiatives like the anti-drug campaigns – to helping re-structure the economy by selling shares in the privatisations (BA, BT, BG, etc), with famous campaigns like British Gas's "Tell Sid" privatisation work. And in the late 1980s, Saatchi & Saatchi moved from its unimpressive Fitzrovia 1960s block to a grand new building with a massive bankerly atrium in Berkeley Square. It was the symbolic high point of the Golden Age – S&S was then the largest advertising agency group in the world, a global player. But it was also the beginning of the end, marked by the company's 1987 bid to acquire the Midland Bank, then a pillar of the economy. The bid was rejected in a way that was taken to mean advertising had over-reached its natural mark. As the economy boiled over and went into recession at the end of the decade, rattled analysts were increasingly critical of advertising and marketing stocks as over-valued. In the mid-1990s, after declining profits, the Saatchi brothers were forced out of their business (they founded a successful new one, M&C Saatchi) and a number of other high-profile adland entrepreneurs looked shaky.

From the 1990s on, the growing force in UK advertising was the Saatchi's former finance director, Martin Sorrell and his deliberately unglamorous-sounding holding company WPP, a business carefully presented as sober, corporate and well-managed. (No more Big Lunch culture. No more divas.) WPP acquired businesses in research, direct marketing, design and corporate branding across the world to spread the risk from creative advertising into more practical, modest, recession-resistant areas.

The Golden Agers saw it as the beginning of the end. Sorrell (now Sir Martin), a Harvard MBA, was happy to be called a bean-counter while he built his massive business, the second largest "marcoms" group in the world. He thinks this is the Golden Age, with new media and the opening up of China and India to consumerism, with infinitely exciting business challenges that dwarf the old British battles. Certainly that Britishness is becoming increasingly irrelevant as advertisers look for ideas that work across cultures and languages – which means there's less room for jokes about correct English pronunciation or the symbolism of the Raj.

'The Rise and Fall of the Adman' is on BBC4 on Sunday 9 March at 9pm

Peter York's Top Ten Ads


Modern life's central dilemma at a stroke. The awful choice between personal gratification and traditional loyalties. And this commercial doesn't flunk it. The little girl chooses her future – chips – over her father. Brilliant.


This was the James Bond-y Euroluxe style for little English people, selling lovely sweet red vermouth. The best presentation of that Sixties dream world by far.


An astonishingy elegant way to re-habilitate a car brand – and it pioneers the use of opera as the music track.


I'm cheating here. TV cigarette advertising had been banned by 1979, so this is a cinema ad. They could never make it now – John Bird in blackface as an African chief! – but I adore it.


At last an advertisement for Sloanes! And very well-realised too. The darling girl gets taught to speak 'Stenders-style.


David Bailey's commercial is so 1980s it's killing. Paula Hamilton looks so Diana-like. And the fur coat left on a pole in the mews! Marvellous.


The point about Jaguar is their accessible, obvious-to-the-meanest-intelligence gorgeousness. And this commercial outs it with an ommphingly gorgeous updated Martini-world thing about beautiful people with beautiful houses in gorgeous tarty old South of France.


This is lovely any way – any commercial featuring a cat, a dog and a mouse has it half-made. But getting them together in a loving relationship is fantastic. And it features the greatest recording in the history of the universe – the Shirelle's "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?".


This had me on the floor when I first saw it back in the 1980s and I still love it. I'm a sucker for anything involving funny dogs.


Glorious north-London Jewishness in a whole campaign of really accurate and witty observations.