Bone idle gossip

I came back from the Algarve last week to find that I’d joined McCanns Birmingham.


Now I’m not saying that this opening sentence has quite the same power as “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to find he’d been transformed into a giant insect.” But it does seem to have prompted a few ripples in adland.

Firstly, a couple of friends texted me saying “Congratulations” and I didn’t know what they meant. It emerged that the two of them had seen a story running on The Drum website which reported that I’d “joined” McCanns in Birmingham.

(They should have run the headline as “Henry in Drum Brum Shock”.)

Now, both these friends would maintain that McCanns is a fine, long-standing brand and that Birmingham is, if nothing else, to be esteemed for all time as the birthplace of T. Beattie esquire (the nearest thing adland currently has to Jesus Christ). But they were still shocked that I’d apparently joined the agency.

As, indeed, was I.

Later that day, my former PA texted me to say that “everybody” was asking her about the rumours.

So – what’s the truth ?

(And this is where the story gets interesting, I think. Because adland has a tenuous relationship with the truth. And I’ll get onto that later.)

A few weeks back, I was invited by Robin Price to meet a mate of his – a smashing bloke called Dean Lovett. For those of you who don’t know, Robin was the fifth founding partner of HHCL – and indeed is know in some circles as “The Fifth Monkee”.

So we all met in Sheekeys, and it emerged that Dean was looking for someone to do some freelance consultancy work, involving a kind of mentoring role with a new Creative Director he was thinking of hiring.

I went to look at the agency. I went and met the bloke who was up for the CD job. And I really liked them both. So I agreed to do it – and it’ll be for a few days a month, for a few months.

Now, the thing about most freelance gigs is that they don’t normally attract or warrant any publicity.

And actually, the last thing I’d wanted right now was to “join” any agency full-time. I’ve told all the head-hunters that. Because I’m enjoying writing a book, (to be published by Random House, out in late summer), I’m doing freelance gigs with a variety of different agencies (including some of the smartest digital agencies in town), I’m doing a TV writing job with the lovely Peter Souter and the lovelier Mary Wear, I’m going to be teaching at the EACA European ad school, I’ve got about 18 projects on the go, and my diary is probably busier than it’s ever been.

It’s what the writer Charles Handy called a “portfolio” career, and what an American friend of mine called “going plural”.

So, when the Drum mis-represented the facts (by stating that I’d “joined” McCanns), it pissed me off a bit.

What does the story tell us? Firstly, perhaps, that adland has got a few snobs who actually don’t know that McCanns Birmingham is a hugely successful agency, with an enviably integrated set-up – I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it doesn’t produce some fantastic work in the next year under the direction of Gary Setchell, who is one of the smartest people I’ve met in ages.

And, more interestingly I think, that journalists use what you might call “journalistic license”. Or what you could call (if you were the wronged party) a bit of flaming cheek.

And I know all about that because, as an adman, I’ve written a few weasels myself.

(That sounds like that old joke which ends “But f*ck ONE sheep …”)

I admit it. I’ve coined a few weasels. There. It’s out now.

One of the few geniuses I’ve ever met in advertising, Paul Arden, had a brilliant weasel as the sub-head to his first book. Do you remember it? “The world’s best-selling book by Paul Arden.” This was when it first appeared. I was half-way out of the shop, having given Waterstones my money, before I realise what he’d done there.

And I work in the bloody business.

So – the Drum weren’t lying when they said I’d “joined” the agency. They were just putting a juicy spin on it.

But I’ve felt for a long time that that’s one of the dodgiest things about the ad industry. For decades it’s been telling weasels and half-truths. (From real truth-stretchers like “Guinness is good for you” to “A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play”, onto the subtler half-truths of today.)

And when you have a friend who’s always exaggerating and making stuff up, after a while you stop trusting them. So, how do you think the public feels about the ad industry?

However. What is interesting is that one agency in our industry has a motto which I’ve always believed the rest of us should live up to.

That motto is “The truth, well told”.

I love it.

The agency ?


(But don’t hold the front page – that doesn’t mean I’m going to join them quite yet …)

  • Dave Trott

    An ad agency once did a great anti-weasel campaign.
    I still hear it used ever day, by punters on the street, to mean “No lies, no bullshit.”
    Someone even introduced themselves to me recently, using the line to describe their personality.
    He said, “My nsame’s Simon, but everyone calls me Ron because I’m like that advert on the telly: “Does exactly what it says on the tin.”
    He was really proud that his nickname was Ron Seal, which indicated unsophisticated trustworthiness..
    So that’s an advertising line that got an anti weasel philosophy into the language.
    Brilliant, wish I’d done it.

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