The Vice Squad

There are many apocryphal tales of agency pitches that have gone horribly wrong. But there are many more that are based on fact. Jon Rees spills the beans on the old vices of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll

When WCRS pitched for the British Energy nuclear privatisation account last month it went to extreme lengths.

It built a Dr Who time machine, the Tardis, to usher the client out of bleak midwinter to a time in the glorious summer of privatisation. The Dr Who theme tune was played; though WCRS chief Robin Wight did not, as rumour had it, dress up as the Doctor himself.

Sadly, perhaps, the agency failed to win the business (Lowe Howard-Spink triumphed), but its approach to the pitch showed commendable, if misjudged, verve at a time when these things appear to have become far too serious.

The story, which first appeared in Marketing Week’s Diary, prompted a flood of recollections from within the advertising industry about the golden days (ie anytime before today, or the last time the agency concerned won an account).

The following anecdotes are about what happens when agency meets client, and weeks or months of preparation hits the fan. In part it’s a tale of the things now considered vices, rather than virtues, and above all it’s an analysis of the importance of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, money, violence and cardboard in twentieth century advertising pitches.

Some names have been changed to protect the embarrassed and some because no one’s quite sure of the details anymore; some stories are recent, some are not; some tales have no doubt been embellished, but that’s what tales are for.

The first, unusually, shows an agency given the opportunity to act with dignity and taking it with aplomb.

Some months ago, the owner of an immensely successful worldwide fashion company arrived for a pitch at Leagas Shafron Davis Ayer. He arrived late, with a glamorous female personal assistant in tow, and sat down for the agency presentation. During the course of this, he appeared distracted, and made agency chairman Ron Leagas increasingly impatient. As Ron tells it, he “happened to glance under the table” where he saw the glamorous personal assistant assisting in a deeply personal manner.

Before she helped her boss unburden himself entirely, Ron rose magnificently to his feet saying: “Well, we’re passionate about advertising, but I can see you’re passionate about something else.” He asked the client – who was planning to spend about 10m – to leave.

Now on to drugs. Mention Coke nowadays around an agency, and there’ll always be a few sad old wags who deliberately misunderstand and start sniffing ostentatiously.

However, you do still meet gaunt, sunken-eyed, shambling wrecks in advertising, some of them with carefully nurtured drug habits. One of them was at a pitch not so long ago.

Throughout his agency’s presentation, he appeared to be struggling under a heavy cold and sneezed constantly. As the pitch was winding up, our man rose in his seat, gave one last almighty sneeze, and deposited his nasal membranes all over the table, much to the disgust and stupefaction of all present. Wiping the blood from his fingers, he made his excuses, and rushed to the toilet to clean up. A colleague followed him and asked if he was okay: “Fine,” he said blithely, “do you think anyone noticed?”

The world’s best-known advertising guru, Maurice Saatchi, was confident enough – or sufficiently bereft of imagination – to exhibit cardboard cut-outs of David Kershaw, Bill Muirhead and Jeremy Sinclair, the “three amigos” who were contractually prevented from joining him at his new agency, during his successful pitch for the British Airways account last year.

Everyone knew the three would join Maurice as soon as they could and this was his none-too-subtle way of reminding BA of the familiar faces who would be working on their business.

Perhaps best, then, that Kershaw was absent from the BA pitch.

He was rumoured to be the author of a damaging missive which may have tipped the balance when Saatchi & Saatchi was neck and neck with Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO in the pitch for BT.

Half-way through the Saatchi pitch the agency team was asked to leave the room, while BT discussed the presentation. They did, but left a piece of paper behind on which was written in Kershaw’s hand (allegedly): “The wanker in the glasses looks like trouble.” BT chose AMV.

Another agency thinking along the same lines as Maurice was less successful. The prospective account handler set up a life-sized cardboard cut-out of the agency’s famous creative director in the car park, just as the client, who wanted the man to work on the account, was getting out of her car. Unfortunately the ruse fell flat when she mistook the cut-out for a pervert, screamed, and locked herself in.

Sex, drugs, cardboard and now violence. Who can forget the ripples of sheer pleasure which went round the advertising industry when the man voted “most hated” in advertising, Kevin Morley, was assaulted as he led his agency’s pitch for the Iceland frozen food account in 1994.

During his presentation, a small, bespectacled man in a suit walked in and asked which of the assembled throng was Kevin. Drawing himself up to his full six feet four inches, Kevin owned up, and was promptly punched in the face by the intruder.

The reason was never clear, though Kevin was renowned as a demanding boss, and there is some suggestion that he’d upset his assailant’s fiancée one way or another. Either way Iceland took its business to WCRS.

Money must of course rear its ugly head. This one shows its age, it’s from the Eighties, but it’s about an agency household name which can only look back with wonder on its glory days. The agency was at the height of its success with clients practically begging to add to its billings.

At the close of a pitch the managing director, so the story goes, would throw a confident arm around an already eager prospective client and lead him to the window. Looking at the car park below, he would casually point out the number of Ferraris, remarking that an agency that could afford to pay its staff so well must be highly regarded by its clients. A bravura, if sadly dated, performance that would be inconceivable now.

Then there’s rock ‘n’ roll – of a sort, since it concerns British Rail. It concerns Peter Marsh of Allen Brady Marsh. When the men from BR arrived, they were shown into a room and told the pitch team would arrive shortly.

They ended up having to wait 20 minutes, while being served dreadful coffee out of paper cups and offered a number of inadequate excuses for the team’s tardiness – the wrong type of snow in the corridor for instance. It was a fine chance to see themselves as others saw them, though no one who recounts the tale now can remember if the agency won the account.

That’s it. There’s no conclusions to be drawn, and there are certainly plenty more tales to be told – in fact there’s one final one which again concerns Ron Leagas and a table – this time when he was at Saatchi & Saatchi.

The agency was pitching for a sherry brand called El Cid – pronounced El Thid by the Spanish client. Halfway through the pitch, agency man Tony Dalton passed a note to Ron: “Who is this thunt?” it said. Ron collapsed with laughter under the table.

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