My First Job: Before his year in Provence, Peter Mayle was an advertising copywriter

'I could have been very rich if I'd stayed'

Jonathan Sale
Thursday 22 September 2011 03:48

The years have been pretty good to Peter Mayle. There was the book and TV series of A Year in Provence. Later came the novel A Good Year, which has just been filmed by Ridley Scott. But before all this he had two-and-a-half decades - good decades - far from France, in advertising.

After leaving school, Mayle became a trainee at Shell, where the only thing that interested him was the advertising agency used by the oil company in the USA: Ogilvy & Mather. David Ogilvy was the (very) English founder of the Madison Avenue agency. He died in 1999. Two years ago, when a survey asked admen who had inspired them to join the industry, David Ogilvy topped the list.

Young, unqualified, Mayle had one obvious talent: "I wrote good letters." Ogilvy replied: "We're going to make you the most junior account executive." But, rather than dealing with clients, Mayle had his eye on something more creative: "I surreptitiously took the copywriting test."

He passed and was soon taking his scripts to Ogilvy's office, where the carpet matched the vivid red of the boss's braces. If Ogilvy was nowhere to be seen, it meant that he was in the en-suite bathroom, so Mayle would slide his copy under the door. "He would send it back covered in red ink. 'Get to the point,' he would say. 'Nobody buys a newspaper or switches on the television to see your stuff. It should be clear, uncluttered prose.'"

It was a bad sign if Mayle was particularly proud of a piece of work: it would probably be dismissed as "belles-lettres" - over the top. "Quack quack!" was Ogilvy's dismissive response.

"I'm surrounded by fornicators and drunks," Ogilvy confided to Mayle. In the second category, he may or may not have been referring to the model for Hathaway shirts, one of Mayle's campaigns. Baron George Wrangell sported an eye-patch. There was nothing wrong with his sight but there was with his drink intake, which brought wobbliness to the photographic sessions: "There was an apparatus to hold him up and stop his hands shaking."

Then another agency offered Mayle twice the money and sent him to their London operation, which he and a colleague bought when the parent company hit trouble. It was the mid-Sixties; he was in his mid-twenties. Their accounts included Watneys, Olivetti and Sony. And Harrods, who wanted to promote a new enterprise: "We think they're called boutiques."

After five years, he was bought up by a larger American company and eventually sent back to the US, but soon abandoned the advertising business to write full-time. "I could have been very rich by the time I was 40. I left at 35."

'Provence A-Z' is out now, published by Profile (£18)

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