George Parker: McVitie’s goes global, the world’s most expensive shoot and me

Reading that McVitie’s is looking for a new global agency brought back memories of my tenure as Dorland’s “Agency Fireman” back before most of you were born. The agency’s most profitable account, McVitie’s, was about to exit, taking all those lovely fees that paid for management’s dining, wining, golfing and generally fucking around, somewhere else.

You should understand that though most people consider America the home of bad fast food, in England, back then we’d been eating shitty food for years. When I was called in, sales of McVitie’s were going down the tubes, and the agency was stumped. For years they’d been using a tagline… “McVitie’s bake a better biscuit.” Meanwhile, the advertising showed smiling mothers giving their snot nosed kids McVitie’s. (Not puppies!)

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In reality, the Mums of Britain were using the biscuits as pacifiers to keep their kids quiet between meals of canned beans, or spaghetti on toast. It’s no wonder kids preferred the biscuits to the beans. Yet, research showed the Mums felt guilty about giving their kids all this crap to shut them the fuck up between meals.

In my inimitable wisdom, I came up with a campaign based on proving that McVitie’s really did bake a better biscuit, ‘cos they baked them with better ingredients. However, the agency suits, as usual, disagreed. Their point-of-view was that the Mums didn’t give a shit. But, I wasn’t buying it, so I insisted we should do Focus Groups. Yes, I suggested research, which I usually regard as a giant wank. But guess what? The concept… “With the best from the world… McVitie’s bake a better biscuit”, tested like gangbusters.

Isn’t advertising great?

Particularly when it lets you travel the globe at someone else’s expense, staying at luxury hotels in exotic locales, while drinking, eating, smoking dope and screwing your brains out. (Again, this was before most of you were born. Tough!)

The plan was to shoot everything that went into the biscuits, from wheat, to milk, to butter, to ginger, to chocolate, to cocoa. We could get everything we needed in the Caribbean and South America over a six weeks schedule, with one week in the UK to shoot a few scenes. It would cost 500,000 pounds, which in those days was a shitload of money. However, the client signed off on it, and we were in business.

I would go ahead and do all the “reccies,” based in Trinidad, making sorties all over the Caribbean and South America, finding plantations, exotic beaches fringed by palm trees, smiling workers bringing in the harvest for two cents a day, schooners on azure oceans, etc.

However, one location was crucial, as it would represent flour, a core ingredient. We needed somewhere with fields of ripe, golden wheat. As it was winter, there was nowhere in Europe to do this. However, research showed that wheat grew in Venezuela, so off I went. I had to get to Merida, fifteen hundred miles inland; however, getting there was a saga. First I had to fly from Trinidad, to Caracas, Venezuela; from there I flew eleven hundred miles inland to Santa Maria, and then switched to a small plane full of Indian ladies wearing bowler hats carrying noisy, smelly chickens and pigs in wicker cages.

After a two hour flight, I was deposited at a dirt runway in the small and scruffy town of Merida, to be met by a local government representative. This gentleman bundled me into a Land Cruiser and we set off through the jungle. After two hours of driving on primitive roads, we finally escaped from the canopy of never-ending tropical forest and pulled up in front of a truly vast area of steaming swamps.

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“What’s this?” I asked. He looked at me quizzically, “This is where the rice grows,” he answered. It took me a minute to comprehend. “Rice,” I shouted, “What bloody rice?” He looked at me as if I was an imbecile, “Mr. Parker, Merida is famous for its rice.” I attempted to sound less churlish. “But, I was told that wheat grew in Merida.” There was a pause, then a smile started to cross his face, followed by a grin, then an unsuccessful attempt to stifle laughter. “Oh dear,” he said, “I think there has been a misunderstanding. You are in the wrong Merida.”

Not yet grasping how fucked up a situation I was in, I asked, “What do you mean, the wrong Merida?” “Well,” he explained, “There are two Meridas in Venezuela, one grows rice and the other grows wheat. Unfortunately, you are in the one that grows rice!” Gritting my teeth, I asked the inevitable question, “Then tell me, where exactly is the Merida that grows wheat?” This was when he began to again go through the smile, grin, and guffaw sequence. “Ah,” he replied, “The Merida that grows wheat is in the Andes, near the Columbian border, which is two thousand miles north of here!”

Well, at least I’d only wasted a day, and if you throw in the day it will take to get back to Caracas, losing a couple of days is not a big deal. “OK, you’d better get me back to the airport so I can get the next flight out.” The smile on his face disappeared. “Ah, there is one small problem.” I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like what was coming next. “What would that be?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders. “The next flight out isn’t for three days!”

And so, for three days I was marooned in a place that made the town in the movie “The Wages of Fear” look like The Palace of Versailles. How best to describe it? The crotch of the Orinoco would seem to be about right, as it was situated on the banks of South America’s second longest river. The town consisted of a single unpaved street full of beat to shit pickup trucks, chickens, pigs, scrawny dogs, and even scrawnier people. On the street was a series of wooden shacks, the biggest of which, being two stories high, was the Hotel Prado, an establishment destined to be my home for the next three days.

Now you have to understand, when I am traveling on someone else’s tab, I religiously stick to the advice of Joe, my first New York boss: “Make the bastards pay.” So, you can understand my lack of enthusiasm when checking in to the Hotel Prado. It was certainly never destined to become part of the Ritz Carlton Empire.

The next three days passed in a haze of sweat and flies, bad food, and lots of Pisco, which is a Peruvian brandy made from diesel fuel. Thank God for Pisco. On the third day I boarded the same plane I had flown in on, to be greeted by the same ladies in bowler hats, the chickens and pigs, etc. For a moment, I thought they might live on the plane, flying around until someone took pity on them and let them off. Or maybe it was because the gallons of Pisco I’d imbibed over the last three days were turning this Odysseus-like drama into a surrealistic dream.

Anyway, I finally arrived back in Caracas, and checked into the Caracas Hilton for a couple of days of sleep, hot showers and hedonistic pleasure with the gorgeous senoritas lounging around the rooftop pool. But soon it was time to hit the road for “The Other Merida.”

To be continued!

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About George Parker

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George Parker has spent 40 years on Madison Avenue. He’s won Lions, CLIOs, EFFIES, and the David Ogilvy Award. His blog is adscam.typepad.com, which is required reading for those looking for a gnarly view of the world’s second oldest profession.” His latest book, Confessions of a Mad Man, makes the TV show Mad Men look like Sesame Street.