Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce – what would the UK equivalent be?

The fourth series of Madison Avenue drama Mad Men about the Sterling Cooper agency began in the US at the weekend with our heroes Don Draper, charismatic creative director, and smoothiechops CEO Roger Sterling, freshly fired by their villainous new British owners, setting up their own agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Cooper, Roger’s father’s partner, needn’t detain us. Pryce is a sharp English financial type who engineers the firings of Draper and Sterling so they can set up the new agency with him.

So we have a new superstar agency in town, just as the same period (late sixties through the seventies right to the early eighties) saw numerous London equivalents. In those days you weren’t on the map of adland unless you set up the commercial equivalent of a music ‘supergroup.’

The English firm that bought Sterling Cooper in Mad Men gives us some clues. Writer Matthew Weiner called them Putnam Powell and Low.

Now David Puttnam began his career at Collett Dickenson Pearce before going on to be a successful photographers’ agent and then a celebrated film producer. He never actually set up an agency.

Could Powell be named after Chris Powell, now Sir Christopher, brother of political apparatchiks Charles and Jonathan and the cerebral long-time managing director of famous London agency Boase Massimi Pollitt (now DDB London)? Chris was hardly a Mad Man but never mind.

And Low? Well the inspiration for this moniker must be Sir Frank Lowe (CDP, Lowe Howard-Spink and The Red Brick Road) surely. Frank would have been in his element in Mad Men.

The three never worked together although Lowe and Puttnam did at CDP.

So which were the famous English breakaways?

In the Sixties BMP was a breakaway from an American-owned agency called Pritchard Wood. The B was Martin Boase (who surely deserves a gong), a laid-back and accomplished account man and chairman. The M was Gabe Massimi, the American creative director who rapidly incurred the displeasure of his partners and left to be succeeded by the brilliant John Webster, creator of the Cresta Bear, Sugar Puffs Honey Monster, Smash Martians and loads of other great advertising properties.

The P was Stanley Pollitt, a researcher who pioneered the use of gualitative research (focus groups) to support the agency’s off-the-wall offerings. As such he, along with Stephen King at JWT, is credited with the invention of account planning. Chris Powell joined the agency a little later.

BMP was arguably the best ad agency of them all and provided the template for a generation of breakaways. All you needed was an accomplished chairman cum account man to win business and keep the show on the road, a brilliant creative director and a super-bright boffin to help along the brilliant ideas and persuade clients that the public would love them, really.

There were plenty of accomplished account men around but not so many brilliant CDs or boffins.

Frank Lowe left CDP to set up Lowe Howard-Spink with planner Geoff Howard-Spink. The agency was eventually sold for megabucks to Interpublic. Lowes had many star creatives on its books over the years but never a Webster figure. But Lowe, who many clients thought was the creative director anyway, easily overcame that.

A bit later came Gold Greenlees Trott. Mike Gold, a media man, had been a partner in another bright agency French Gold Abbott with account man Richard French and creative David Abbott (later of Abbott Mead Vickers fame) and he set up with two refugees from BMP, Mike Greenlees and Dave Trott.

Greenlees, who only recently left TBWA, was a super-smooth account man, known, mysteriously, as ‘Legsy.’ Trott was the nearest thing going to a Webster but, for some reason, BMP promoted his less-talented rival Graham Collis to be CD and Trott left. Trott, currently a partner in Walsh Trott Chick Smith and a famous Brand Republic blogger, produced a series of singularly iconoclastic and populist campaigns for GGT. One favourite was ‘you can’t k-nacker a k-nirps’ for Knirps umbrellas (you had to be there).

Perhaps the nearest to the classic BMP model in terms of both make-up and achievement was Bartle Bogle Hegarty, still with us of course, 49 per cent owned by Publicis Groupe.

This was formed in 1982 by three refugees from TBWA, planner John Bartle, account man Nigel Bogle and creative director John Hegarty (now Sir John).

Its rapid success was extraordinary in that TBWA, then a kind of fusion agency featuring American and French principals, had signally failed to set London alight despite the presence of BB and H. Hegarty created a celebrated animated campaign for Lego that is still talked about but found commercial success much harder to achieve.

But Bartle, now retired from agency life, was both clever and genial, still one of the most popular people in adland. Bogle is as much businessman as account man and the architect of the agency’s growth. Hegarty is a talented creative who, earlier in his career, had worked with Charles Saatchi. Hegarty looked and sounded the part as well and, crucially, was just as good at being a creative editor as doing it himself. In his sixties he’s still uber-cool.

And the agency took off with accounts like Audi (still there) and Levi’s, which it recently resigned after 28 years. It won big slices of Unilever business, helping it to form a global micro-network in Europe, the US, Latin America and the Far East.

Things haven’t been so good recently with heavyweight redundancies in London and the loss of Cadillac in the US. But it remains a formidable achievement.

One could go on, but won’t. Abbott Mead Vickers, now owned by Omnicom, is still London’s biggest agency and there have others like Wight Collins Rutherford Scott (still around as WCRS) and Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury (long gone, alas).

The most famous London agency of this vintage, Saatch & Saatchi, wasn’t actually a breakaway agency. Copywriter Charles Saatchi had left CDP to set up a creative consultancy, Cramer Saatchi, with art director Ross Cramer.

Cramer Saatchi intended to work for other agencies, charging sky-high prices for Saatchi stardust. But clients kept asking them to handle their accounts and so Charles recruited little brother Maurice (now Lord Saatchi) from Haymarket Publishing, publisher of Campaign, to deal with these importuning cheque books. Cramer Saatchi became Saatchi & Saatchi, Ross Cramer left to make commercials and the agency recruited luminaries such as Tim Bell (now Lord Bell).

As Saatchis rose to (brief) world domination it recruited one Martin Sorrell as its financial director even though he was not actually an accountant. Sorrell devised the earn-out deals that helped the agency grow so quickly and which ultimately brought it down as the recession of the late 1980s struck (Sorrell had left to do something else by then).

I wonder if Sorrell (now Sir Martin of WPP fame of course), the English financial wizard and wheeler-dealer, is the inspiration for Mad Men’s Lane Pryce?

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.