1966. The year of Geoff Hurst, Booby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Gordon Banks. The year of the immortal words, “they think it’s all over”. But for one 16-year-old, 1966 was just the beginning of a journey which would eventually lead to him becoming one of the most powerful men in the direct marketing industry.
Not that an agency career was the first choice for John Watson, who initially wanted to ply his trade on Fleet Street. “I looked at journalism as a career but that didn’t pay well enough,” he says. “I could have been lead guitarist in a rock and roll band as well, except I can’t play the guitar…”
Instead, he got a job at Brunning Advertising & Marketing on Whitechapel Road, joining on August 8, 1966 – just a week after the World Cup Final – on a starting salary of £286 a year.
And, ironically he was soon pounding the pavements of the hacks’ haunt. “I started in the post-room,” he explains, “where I had to go around old Fleet Street collecting copies of newspapers with client ads in as proof of insertion.”
By the early Seventies, it was his first love of writing that had come to the fore as a copywriter at the long-since vanished Gordon Proctor & Partners agency in Knightbridge. It was here Watson met a certain itinerant copywriter by the name of Drayton Bird and had been fascinated with his direct response skills.
He then switched to Samuels Jones Isaacson Page, an offshoot of BMP run by Ivor Samuels, a man who nearly 50 years later is still one of Watson’s closest friends and who has been the biggest influence on his career.
“Ivor has been a stalwart supporter over the years, who not only recognised my writing talents, such as they are, but my business skills too.”
At was at SJIP that Watson started working for Bob Scott on the Scotcade off-the-page business, which gave him a real taste for writing ads that actually got countable coupons in by the Wednesday morning. “I ran into Drayton again in the Bunch of Grapes, told him what I was doing, and the next thing I knew we were starting an agency.”
Set up in 1976, with Glenmore Trenear-Harvey as the “suit”, Trenear-Harvey Bird & Watson specialised mostly in direct mail and press. Watson explains: “We had splendid offices above Pineapple Dance Studios in Langley Street Covent Garden. DRTV didn’t exist, let alone digital. I learned a lot from Drayton (and maybe he learned a little bit from me). We had a great time, very long lunches, made no money, and then fell out.”
Watson left in 1982, and along with Chris Albert, Rinalda Ward and production man Bernie Varndell, set up Watson Ward Albert Varndell, with backing from his old boss Samuels, who was then chief executive of BBDO. Varndell quit after only a few months but WWAV went from strength to strength.
“We started in a basement room of BBDO’s St Petersburgh Place offices and we grew at a phenomenal rate. As BBDO shrank, we took over more space until we finally occupied the whole building with a couple of hundred people.”
The rest, as they say, is history, with WWAV going on to become a major powerhouse, merging with Rapp Collins, operating offices in Edinburgh, Bristol, Leeds and Amsterdam, and leading Omnicom’s UK DM division.
Watson left in 2000 but, unlike some, could not keep away from what he describes as “the junk mail industry” and joined forces with former WWAV (now Rapp) colleagues Maria Phillips and Tod Norman to set up Watson Phillips Norman in 2002.
In the early years, it was dubbed “the WWAV retirement home” by some in the industry as many of the staff were former “WWAvers”. But this has all changed and last year it merged with digital agency Chameleon, and is now just as likely to be doing digital marketing as it is direct mail and DRTV.
The industry has also changed immeasurably over the past 30 years, does Watson believe it has all been for the good?
“Procurement has created a commodity out of talent, and that’s not good. It’s not just that agencies find it more difficult to make money (which they do) but that talent becomes less and less valued. The sad thing is that it’s the talent that makes the difference, and it’s seriously daft to screw down the price of a campaign to a level where you put the junior trainee onto the job when for only a few pennies more (relatively speaking) you get a result that’s a 1000 times better.
“But this varies. Serious, grown-up clients don’t often make this mistake; junior clients who don’t have the experience to value talent make this mistake all the time. Many of them, I fear, will never grow up to be successful, because I don’t think they really know what success looks like.”
Of course, one of the biggest changes has been the rise of digital marketing, with many – including the DMA – questioning the demise of craft skills, such as copywriting. Watson says: “I just don’t see the same effort applied to digital copywriting as off-line. Most digital advertising is stuck in the days when ‘classified’ advertising took up the front page of The Times.
“Search is little more than crude listings, and the copy is little more than a bald description of what’s on offer. Copy started to change things when people started spending money on classified and realised they needed to stand out, and so ‘proper’ copywriting started to pay its way. As search gets more and more crowded, so the value of the words will increase.”
However, Watson holds no truck with notion that direct marketing is the poor relation to advertising. He explains: “We’re still down the pecking order as far as ‘Campaign’ is concerned, but that was only ever journalists’ conceit. If you talk to serious clients, DM (or whatever you call it these days) remains on very much an equal footing with adland – in some cases, ahead of it. Grown-up clients these days don’t see the same silos and are working with a much more integrated marketing structure.”
Not that all clients are as grown up as Watson would like. He adds: “Too often process overtakes inspiration. How many times do you see a pitch document where they say ‘we want an agency to challenge’ and when it comes to it, what they really want is an agency to just shut up and agree.
“Argumentative opinionated agencies get in the way of the smooth progress of the campaign and that really does annoy too many clients.
“You end up with getting the work out on time, but was it worth getting the work out at all? Agencies are staffed with difficult, arrogant and annoying people. If you can’t get on with the prima-donnas, you probably shouldn’t be using an agency at all. There are plenty of good studios…”
For Watson’s part, the heady times of WWAV Rapp Collins – when he was the Don Draper of DM – must seem like a different era. These days he is much closer to the creative work than the accountants’ spreadsheets, and although he maintains he would have liked to have been a full-time novelist – having had two books published, ‘The Iron Man’ and ‘The Final Act’ – he concedes that “it’s rather less remunerative than junk mail”.
Next year will be Watson’s 50th year in the business. When ask if he had his time again, what would he change, Watson concludes: “Very little. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve worked with some amazing people, seen the inside of some amazing businesses, and been lucky enough to enjoy some reasonable success as well. And I still do!”
Then again, with his old business partner Drayton Bird still hard at it aged 79, and even Lester Wunderman putting in the occasional shift aged 94, it could be a while yet before Watson decides to hang up his quill…
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