Clients, colleagues and friends have joined together to pay tribute to the “living legend” that is direct marketing agency chief John Watson, who is celebrating his 50th year in the business.
Having begun as an agency runner, Watson went on to launch one of the UK’s first direct marketing agencies, then built WWAV into a powerhouse, helped set up both the DMA and IDM, and is still as passionate about the industry today.
It all started in 1966 when the 16-year-old Watson got a job at Brunning Advertising & Marketing on Whitechapel Road, on a salary of £286 a year. By the early Seventies, he had become a copywriter at Gordon Proctor & Partners in Knightbridge, where he first met Drayton Bird. In 1975, he then switched to Samuels Jones Isaacson Page, an offshoot of BMP run by Ivor Samuels.
It was at SJIP that Watson had his first taste of direct response advertising, working for Bob Scott on the Scotcade business. Within a year, he joined forces with Bird and Glenmore Trenear-Harvey to launch what was one of the UK’s first direct marketing agencies, Trenear-Harvey Bird & Watson.
By 1982, Watson was at it again, and along with Chris Albert, Rinalda Ward and production man Bernie Varndell, set up Watson Ward Albert Varndell (WWAV). The agency had backing from Samuels, who was then chief executive of BBDO.
WWAV grew exponentially, merging with Rapp Collins, and operating offices in Edinburgh, Bristol, Leeds and Amsterdam, leading Omnicom’s UK DM division. Watson resigned in 2000 but was soon back in the business, joining with former WWAV (now Rapp) colleagues Maria Phillips and Tod Norman to set up Watson Phillips Norman in 2002. In 2014, it merged with digital agency Chameleon to form WPN Chameleon.
At a private dinner to commemorate his 50th anniversary, attended by many of the great and good of the industry, Samuels quoted a host of industry figures, but it is perhaps the words of John Hughes – founder of the Mail Marketing Group, IDM fellow and DMA Roll of Honour member – which were most fitting.
Hughes wrote: “That we can now call direct marketing an industry is in no small part thanks to the dedication, foresight and creative talent John had in those early days when relational databases did not exist and the idea that advertising effectiveness could be measured was a matter of judgement.
“He worked harder than any other to put in place for this fledgling industry the professional standards to allow it to compete with its peers. John recognised the need for training and professionalism and was instrumental in establishing what is now the DMA from the early days of the BDMA and DMPA.
“Almost single-handedly he caused the founding of the Direct Marketing Centre that later evolved into the IDM. This all took time, money and determination with hands on involvement, even to the point of lecturing and teaching many of those that now run our leading companies.
“We all owe John a debt of thanks. Long may he continue to share not only his wisdom but also his experiences so that others can be inspired in having their dreams and knowing that those dreams can come true.”
Meanwhile, business partner Maria Philips, who has known Watson for 29 years, added: “John has never stopped surprising me with his fresh thinking, amazing writing skills and sheer bloody determination. He’s been an inspiration not just to the whole DM industry, but to generations of creative folk who worked with him and learned from him. And on a personal note he is one of the kindest and most loyal people I know. I honestly feel very honoured and lucky to still be working with him.”
However, the last word went to Samuels, whom, having praised Watson’s creative skills, business acumen and leadership, joked: “In his profile in Decision Marketing, John said: ‘Agencies are staffed with difficult, arrogant and annoying people’. I would like you all now to raise your glasses in praise of the most difficult, arrogant and annoying man I know: John Watson.”
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