Five things you didn’t know about advertising agencies: 1980s (1)

1/ The 1980s was the era when it looked as though ad agencies had taken over the world, not that they were trying to. Mostly this was due to the Brits, who saw themselves as the true inheritors of Bill Bernbach’s creative mantle at DDB and, in a typical display of Perfidious Albion-like opportunism, leveraged this into a short-lived assault on the world’s stock exchanges and Madison Avenue’s hitherto unchallenged status as the past, present and future of advertising.

2/ Leading the way were the inimitable Saatchi Brothers, Maurice and Charles, who persuaded mid-sized US agency Garland-Compton to effect a reverse takeover (Compton bought Saatchis and Saatchis emerged on top) which launched the brothers on their path to world domination. This amazing journey (Saatchi is still the world’s most famous advertising brand) ended when Saatchis bought Madison Avenue old timer Ted Bates in 1986 for a staggering $500m. This was far more than the agency was worth (five times what anyone had paid for an agency before) and netted Bates chairman and CEO Bob Jacoby $111m. The deal made Saatchis the biggest agency in the world with billings of $3.2bn but the debt mountain it had incurred gradually ground the business into the dust.

3/ Scores of agencies in London followed in Saatchis footsteps by gaining London Stock Exchange quotes and used the money they raised (and the high level of the pound against the dollar) to go shopping on Madison Avenue and beyond. These included Boase Massimi Pollitt, Davidson Pearce, Gold Greenlees Trott and Wight Collins Rutherford Scott. None turned into durable enterprises although WCRS did help to make French media buyer Carat into a worldwide force under the name of Aegis. One that did, though, was WPP, set up by former Saatchis finance director Martin Sorrell which bought JWT and O&M and is now the world’s biggest marcomms group.

4/ The DDB-style creative revolution became mainstream in the US rather belatedly but the cheerleader of this movement was a West Coast adman called Jay Chiat whose Chiat/Day commissioned the celebrated Ridley Scott-directed ‘1984’ commercial that launched the Mac computer for Apple, in 1984.

Apple only ran this once (in the Super Bowl) but Chiat Day cunningly aired it on an unwatched local channel late in 1983 to ensure it was eligible for the following year’s awards. The lady with the hammer was an 18-year old model and athlete called Anya Major.

5/ Just as noteworthy, and rather more significant, was another 1984 ad written by Hal Riney of Hal Riney & Partners and directed by Joe Pytka’s brother John called ‘It’s morning again in America.’ This set the bar for political advertising ever after and helped incumbent president Ronald Reagan win a second term by defeating Democrat Walter Mondale.

Reagan went on to turn up the heat on the Soviet Union, then embroiled in a disastrous invasion of Afghanistan (sound familiar?) and this pressure led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War. Politicians have armed themselves with an adman (or 12) ever since.

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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.