How the “outsiders” upped British creativity in marketing as well as music, literature and film in the 1960′s and ’70s

I am indebted to the brilliant contemporary British historian and storyteller Dominic Sandbrook and his excellent new history of British creative industries, “The Great British Dream Factory” (Allen Lane) for this post on creativity through diversity.


I, we, talk a lot about diversity in our PR industry. A lot of our focus, rightly, is on greater gender equality. Indeed my firm has just published new research which looks at gender as a new driver of corporate reputation.

In advertising The 3% Conference  – see below – has highlighted that until recently only that tiny percentage of advertising creative directors were women, and now thanks to their campaigning that’s up to 11% and rising. I am also focused on racial and social diversity, the subject of previous blog posts and action by the PRCA, The Taylor Bennett Foundation and others.

Sandbrook highlights a previous case study in the British advertising industry in the 1960s. He notes that at the time agencies were “introverted, conservative, stuffy places dominated by the old officer class”.  Creatively ambitious recruits headed for New York and joined the Mad Men.


When a young John Hegarty joined his first agency in 1965, he found “the staff consisted of public school educated account men who were trained only to say yes”.  He thought they were good for pouring the perfect G&T and little else.

Compared to their American counterparts, British TV ads were clunky, pedestrian, badly shot, badly acted and often hectoring and lecturing in tone. At the end of the 50′s British ads made up around 20% of TV and cinema entries at Cannes, but won few if any awards.

Within a decade or two, all this had changed. A golden age of British advertising came about, from the bike pushing Hovis boy to the hysterical Smash Martians, from Hamlet cigars soundtracked by Bach to the Sugar Puffs Honey Monster, and most admired of all Hugh Hudson’s surreal “Swimming Pool”.


From 1974 to 1978, British ads went from winning bugger all at Cannes to dominating the festival, winning half the Golds as well as the top Grand Prix awards.

What changed? Sandbrook sees a crucial element being the rise of the ambitious, creative, post-war generation educated not at Sandhurst and Eton but grammar schools and art colleges (an interesting parallel with the rise of British pop that took America by storm in the 60s, The Beatles, the Stones et al, through to Roxy Music and Mick Jones, Viv Albertine etc in 70′s punk). “As outsiders they were naturally hungry for fame and fortune” notes Sandbrook, “but their ambitions were artistic as well as financial.”

Hegarty was the son of an Irish labourer who attended Hornsey College of Art. Alan Parker, who after advertising went on to direct “Fame”, “Bugsy Malone” and “Mississippi Burning”, was a painter and decorator’s son from North London. Another adman turned movie maker, David Puttnam, was also a grammar school boy outsider.  The Saatchi brothers were the sons of Iraqi Jewish immigrants. Ridley “Bladerunner” Scott went to Stockton on Tees Grammar and Hartlepool College of Art.

They were young, working or lower middle class, creative outsiders. They were the John Lennon’s of commercial visual art. Puttnam has talked about he and his fellow outsiders dreaming of ripping up “the world of privilege and position and place and deference”.

Fast forward to this decade.

The 3% Conference was founded to act on the depressing stat that only 3% of US advertising creative directors were women. “Diversity is the best thing that could ever happen to creativity” declared founder Kat Gordon last year,  talking of advertising being “broken due to a failure of imagination”. There is a growing body of evidence that diversity boosts creativity.

In PR we need to break the self-perpetuating cycle of largely white middle class university graduates who hire yet more white middle class university graduates. As Kat Gordon says; “What can we get from a room full of people in the same situation, validating instead of challenging each other?”

For the golden age of PR, itself rising at Cannes, we need more outsiders.

Links With History

This week I attended the funeral of my neighbour Dick at our West Sussex ancient village church. Dick had reached 95 – a good innings as they say – and until six weeks ago had been a regular sight to us heading off in his car for his morning paper and taking a walk down the lane. It was as much celebration as sadness.

When we got to the church we were handed the order of service. On the front was a picture of our familiar friend, smiling. On the back was a sepia picture of him in his army uniform. It was almost a shock to connect someone we knew to real, world changing history.

Dick had been born in 1920, two years after the end of WW1 and into a Britain struggling to recover from the decimation of a generation. WW2 broke out when he was 19. One of his first jobs was to be stationed in Richmond Park to fend off enemy parachutists who fortunately never materialised. Then he was sent to fight in France and returned with a back full of shrapnel.

We do still have links with WW2 in my family, as do many of us. My mother was six when war broke out, and was evacuated to the Lake District. My grandmother couldn’t bear the separation and after a few months brought her back to Salford. My grandfather built an Anderson Shelter in the back garden. When a German incendiary bomb slid off the roof of a factory opposite and blew their home to shreds, my grandfather’s skills as a builder had saved them.

My eight year old is doing a project on WW2 at school. My mum wrote him a long note on what it was like to be a child in the war, being torn away from family to go live with strangers far away, the air raids while at school, and emerging from the shelter to find possessions ripped and burned. It’s a piece of family history.

To have known someone who had actually fought in the war, these days is rare. I feel our community has lost another important link with history. Later this week I found my eight year old in tears. He said he was sad about Dick and sad that he never got to talk to him about being a soldier in the war he was studying.

To be in PR or not to be in PR, that is the question

ICCO ‘Tis the season of international public relations conferences, with IPRA Congress in Jo’burg two weeks ago, ICCO in Milan last week, and The Holmes Report Global event in Miami later this month.

Like IPRA, ICCO was excellent. Under the leadership of my Ketchum oppo David Gallagher and PRCA head Francis Ingham, ICCO is now really relevant to the challenges and opportunities facing the global public relations consultancy industry.

Big themes last week were – again – creativity, measurement & analytics, talent, the battle with advertising and for the ears of CMOs, and the relevance of what we do (dialogue, engagement) to the challenges facing the world.

One recurrent question – again not new – was: is “public relations” the right term for what we do in an integrated, earned/paid/owned/shared digital world? Is “communications” a better term? Does “PR” attract talent or potentially scare it off.

All good questions.

Here’s my take.

I have now been in this business – PR – for 33 years, probably longer than the average lifespan of my colleagues at Weber Shandwick. So I am fairly proud of the term “PR”. That said, part of my career was as a political spin doctor, one of the branches of PR which has brought the profession into some disrepute (not the only one. Look at the celeb publicity industry. Look at the behaviour of brands flouting convention and trust on sustainability etc.)

I am very wedded to the definition of PR in the ‘idiot’s guide’ that my first boss gave me after I failed as a music writer: “public relations is the dialogue between an organisation and its publics”. Dialogue! In a world of rising levels of fear, suspicion, cynicism, scepticism, cultural barriers – isn’t that more relevant than ever??

But – until the social media revolution were we really in the dialogue business? We were largely in the press release business, not that different from the advertising business (except their clients paid for space and they had nicer offices and company cars). Talking at, in broadcast mode, not dialogue.

Then the Internet, and it’s child prodigy social media, arrived. Everything changed.

Now we are still in the earned media business. But we are also in the paid, shared, owned media business. Some of those involve dialogue and engagement. Most actually. Some don’t. But all require engagement. So we are in the (integrated) communications business.

OK, I am losing myself now!

You get my drift.

Kinda angels on the head of a pin stuff.

But is it? PRPR has a reputation problem. Some of this is our fault, we haven’t focussed enough in recent history on things like measurement and ROI (impact on our clients’ or employer’s business as opposed to image and media profile), innovation, creativity. Caricatures like the PRs in Sex & the City, The Thick of It, VEEP, Ab Fab etc were partly based on the way some of our practitioners liked to prance and preen themselves in front of the media and opinion leaders, who then took sweet revenge. That problematic reputation still hampers our attempts to recruit talent from diverse industries and communities.

So maybe “communications” is a better way to go.

But if we stick to our principles, our founding tenets as an industry – see the “dialogue” definition above – then we should be proud to be part of the industry.

After all, PR is both growing as well as growing in influence. Almost 60% of senior in house CCOs now report to the CEO or chairman or board, which is up 10% on less than a decade ago. 35% of global CCOs now have responsibility for brand communications as well as corporate comms – the rise of the CCMO.

So, are we in PR or communications? Does it matter?

Imagine the conversation at a dinner party, or with your mum.

“And what do you do?”

“I’m in PR.”

“In what?”

“Actually I’m in the communications business.”

“You sell phones?”

Go on, you decide.