COMMENT:

New Zealand-based advertising executive Paul Catmur reveals what life was like at advertising agency Y&R, which announced recently it would be merging with VML.

After 95 years the famous old Madison Avenue advertising agency of Young and Rubicam is being merged with (a.k.a. being taken over by) VML of Kansas City. Y&R was one of the largest agencies in London when they hired me in 1990, a foolish act from which they never recovered.

On my first day as an intern, when I sat in reception with Mike O'Sullivan, professional Irishman and part-time art director, I never imagined I would be there for nearly ten years. We were straight out of advertising school and desperate for a first job so, as I perched nervously on the voluminous black leather sofa, I prayed nobody would get close enough to notice just how bad Mike's desert boots smelt.

The reception was, itself, bigger than most NZ agencies and was designed in the Versailles manner. Into this hall of excess swept a glamorous lady in a cloud of perfume, lipstick and hairspray talking imperiously to a colleague about her amazing weekend and ignoring the two losers cluttering up the reception. Mike and I steeled ourselves, convinced this was the managing director. In fact, the glamorous lady turned out to be the receptionist, Joy. And thus began an introduction to the eye-opening ten years of working for Y&R where nothing was ever quite what it seemed and I was lucky to escape with the shreds of my career and sanity intact.

Despite being one of the biggest agencies in London, Y&R seemed to operate as a last resting place for those living on the sniff of past glories and a home for frustrated malcontents unable to get into one of the sexier agencies. Over the next decade, a combination of economic stagnation and management incompetence led to the agency falling from being the second biggest in London to barely scraping into the top twenty. Although I was almost the only constant presence during this decline, I refuse to accept all the blame. Their problem was that I was too good to fire, mine was that I was not good enough to get a sexier job.

We might not have been sexy, but we certainly had characters. There was the cigar-chomping, Ferrari-driving CEO who at peak-Y&R had flown clients by Concorde to see the Rolling Stones in New York. One of his public-school replacements mistakenly wandered into our office on his way back from lunch. He spotted a stock shot of a 60-foot yacht we were using for an ad. 'Nice boat, is it yours?' he asked without irony. Yes, that's right, the intern team who were existing on stale sandwiches left over from meetings and lager from the agency fridge owned a yacht for weekends. Pillock. Another of our CEOs lined up a new business prospect, then resigned the day before the pitch leaving the remainder of the team to explain to the client why his new best friend wasn't in the meeting.

There was the gay ECD who amused himself by sidling up to the unwary at the urinal and telling them about how he'd cracked his tooth on a Prince Albert in the toilets in Charing Cross. He was a multi-millionaire who would invite a group of junior agency folk to his lavish apartment for pizza then split the bill between them. One new account director was fired on the morning of his very first day for turning up stinking of vodka. Another was politely handed a tissue by his secretary (remember them?) to remove the residue of cocaine which was dripping from his nose.

One thing Y&R London was very good for was Air Points. After I'd been there a month I was sent to New York to present work to Y&R New York in Madison Avenue. Mike and I flew to Canada for two days just to look at photographic stock shots. We also spent a week in Cape Town on a shoot only for the director to get so sick the shoot was cancelled. Insurance paid up, and we returned a month later to finish the job with another week in the sun. A global campaign for Schweppes involved a two-week shoot in Florida with Leopards, Giraffes, Alligators, baboons, hyena and a zebra. And in 1998 on a shoot for a children's cereal I flew down to New Zealand for the first time and was seduced by the wonders of Queenstown.

Agency parties were memorable affairs, the best being when we went to Paris on Eurostar for our Christmas lunch. On the way back the train's bar was soon ankle deep in beer and blanketed by cigarette smoke, even though smoking wasn't allowed. None of the other passengers dared enter the bar because of the raucous singing of reworded Christmas carols. The staff were worried for their safety and called ahead so that when the train arrived at Waterloo it was met by the police. We adjusted our jackets and Paul Smith jeans and strolled casually though the police line while they looked in vain for the football hooligans who they were told had been trashing the bar.

When I eventually escaped to Auckland and joined DDB NZ I found that anyone from management I met in the whole DDB network was nicer and more talented than the Adams family of Y&R. It was great. However, after six years of great I got bored, had a brain explosion and headed off to Melbourne to rejoin Y&R. Once bitten, twice stupid. New country. New people. Same idiots in charge. This time I didn't hang around and scurried back to New Zealand as soon as the airport was open.

Farewell then Y&R, you have disappeared like a dodo: clumsy, awkward, outdated and ultimately doomed. But for one thing I am extremely grateful: A smooth sea does not a sailor make. Had I spent all those years at a well-run, creatively excellent agency I would have learned little. Ten years in a maelstrom of conflict, greed and incompetence taught me everything I ever needed to know about how not to run an agency and those lessons have been invaluable in setting up what is now BC&F Dentsu.

So thank you, Y&R, for giving me my first break in advertising, introducing me to some great friends, and giving me an intensive ten-year course in foolishness. I'm sorry if my hiring started your decline, but personally I reckon Mike's desert boots may be more to blame.

- Paul Catmur is the chief executive of Barnes, Catmur & Friends Dentsu.(Paul.Catmur@BCFDentsu.com)

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