Smashing read: Sam Delaney captures the spirit of London’s adworld in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Back to the 70s for Life on Mars
If you’d arrived from another planet and were hovering above London’s Soho sometime during the mid 1970s, you might have been surprised to see a group of young, drunken and immensely wealthy humans having the time of their lives. These Bacchanalian admen had forged a revolution in their industry and had broken the monopoly of the suits and straight men who’d previously guarded client relationships on the golf course. As they experimented with their creative craft (and a number of illegal substances), they found themselves inventing ads about Martians in spacecraft. The Martians, however, weren’t interested in the admen. They were more concerned about potatoes.

Confused? Well, it’s time to take a look at Sam Delaney’s highly entertaining book Get Smashed, which documents the antics of the adworld from the buttoned-down days of the early 1960s, through to the hedonism of the 70s and the gluttony of the 80s, when the Saatchi brothers actually believed they were about to purchase the Midland Bank.

There were two truly influential agencies in the transitional period of the 1960s. The first was Doyle Dane Bernbach in New York City, which is perhaps best remembered for selling the Nazis’ favourite car – the Volkswagen – to an American nation that had been happily shooting Nazis a couple of decades previous. The other agency was London’s Collett Dickinson Pearce. Both traded in single-minded ideas, strong art direction and an unshakeable belief in the creative product. CDP were so certain of their proposals that they only ever took one concept to a client, who could choose to take it or leave it. Few agencies today would be so bold.

I was talking recently to Glenn Tutssel, Executive Creative Director of branding agency Enterprise IG, who’s been kind enough to host some of my students on a few occasions now. In his view, it’s only big ideas that are truly memorable. If something’s big enough and strong enough, it’s the kind of thing that you can sum up to a friend in a sentence the next day. An example he gives is the famous poster from Jeremy Sinclair at Cramer Saatchi who’d been briefed back in the 1970s to promote sex education on behalf of the government. His picture of a man with a bulging stomach was accompanied by the line “Would you be more careful if it was you who got pregnant?” Tutssel rightly makes the point that this idea stands the test of time. Take away the 70s haircut and cardigan and the basic premise is still incredibly strong. And when you mention the advertisement to a friend, it’s simple. It’s the poster of “the pregnant bloke..”

Another strong theme of Delaney’s book is the way in which advertising was a training ground for luminaries of the movie industry such as Alan Parker and Ridley Scott. This was an era in which advertising ceased to be a science and took on a new artistic and cultural significance. People were exploring and experimenting. Perhaps that’s why the story is packed full of outrageous anecdotes of transvestite chauffeurs, wanton acts of violence and Serbo-Croat account handlers who’d only ever address fellow agency staff in Ancient Greek. I’m sure it all happened, just the way they said it did. Unfortunately, I arrived a generation too late.

© Phil Woodford, 2007. All rights reserved.

Phil Woodford lectures in copywriting and creative writing at University of the Arts London.

Get smashed: the story of the men who made the adverts that changed our lives by Sam Delaney is published by Hodder & Stoughton: