Why former prime minister Margaret Thatcher was UK adland’s greatest patron

One doesn’t want to be parochial about these events – we’re reminded of issues of far more moment than the fortunes of adland by the death this morning of former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher – but the one-time celebrated iron lady did have more impact on the fortunes of UK advertising and some of its leading denizens than just about anybody in the last century.

Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter from Grantham, became leader of the Conservative Party, Britain’s habitual rulers, in 1975. Unlike just about all of her predecessors however she wasn’t a toff (or a man of course), neither did she aspire to be one of the landed classes. She surrounded herself with self-made men (few women, alas) who, in earlier days, would still have been Tory supporters but kept firmly below the salt.

And among these were various admen, most notably Tim (now Lord) Bell and Maurice (now Lord) Saatchi; two old muckers who, once Bell had left Saatchi & Saatchi, became fierce rivals, not least for the lady’s ear.

Bell (left) was the silver-tongued and shrewd account man who garnered the Tory Party ad account for Saatchi before the 1979 General Election, a move that alarmed Charles Saatchi who felt it would make the agency famous for the wrong reasons. He probably also feared it would make Bell too famous; which, from Charlie’s point of view, it did. Bell broke the news of Lady Thatcher’s death this morning.

At one time, in her latter years in power 10 Downing Street, seemed to outsiders to resemble a Feydau farce; Bell going in one door, Maurice Saatchi the other and would-be interlopers like Y&R’s John Banks (which profited mightily from the Thatcher years through handling the British Gas privatisation) lurking outside the tradesman’s entrance.

Because Mrs T rather liked these dashing admen (Bell was dashing anyway) with their ‘nothing is impossible’ philosophy and Harvard-level schmoozing abilities. They told her what she liked to hear while senior politicians in her own party rather baulked at many of the things she did; like provoking a ferocious dispute with the mining unions (she won), turfing the Argentinian invaders out of the Falklands Islands and introducing the Poll Tax (she lost and lost her job as a consequence).

But more significant than her personal favourites were the measures she took to ‘liberalise’ the British economy; in particular the spate of privatisations (like British Gas with Y&R’s ‘Tell Sid’ campaign) which raised much-needed funds (although the discovery of North Sea oil was much more significant – Thatcher was, mostly, lucky). This, in turn, producing a spectacular windfall for a number of agencies who then continued to profit as governments of either hue went on to spend heavily on all sorts of advertising.

And agencies have played an important (although less prominent) role in political campaigns ever since. No-one has come anywhere near to matching the perceived (possibly mythical) success of Saatchi’s ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster since those days but, as Charles Saatchi anticipated, it made Saatchi the agency famous and gave it access to all those Tory -supporting self-made men, like British Airways’ John King, who were only too happy to give their business to this supremely well-connected (although decidedly un-posh) crew.

The Thatcher favourites are now gloomily contemplating their Seventies. But, like her (although in a much more minor way) they helped to define the business climate which, for better or worse, still prevails in the UK and, to a certain extent, in other countries too.


  1. Stephen…
    She kept the Saatchi’s in rollers, castles and rotting dead sharks in fish tanks. Not bad for a couple of “Cockney Gits.”
    Cheers/George “AdScam” Parker

  2. A good observation. She was practically the first politician to use TV and press to any real effect. Do you recall all those dreary PPBs back in the 70’s? Edward Heath looked like he was stuffed. As for Michael Foot? The Labour Isn’t Working poster is still one of the best ever. Tim Bell’s team really new how to get down to work and together with her speechwriter Ronnie Miller simply overpowered any attempts by rival candidates to take the high ground. Advertising was a direct beneficiary as you say, due first to privatisations (I worked on three – Rolls Royce, Water and National Power; Powergen) and then to the use by government of agencies for many different initiatives and to great effect. Of course, this point was not lost on TB and the New Labourites – remember them?

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