Tuesday 17 November 2009

How I nearly got fired as a junior writer

Back in the 80’s, fairly early in my career, I worked for a financial DM agency in Nottingham. Our clients were established finance companies like Sun Life, Ambassador Life, Friends Provident and Debenhams Finance.

The latter was a particularly big client and we produced all of the literature for their Debenhams Homemaker Charge card – DL leaflets, statement stuffers and so on.

The Marketing Director at Debenhams Finance was a hard-nosed, senior marketing pro called Malcolm Findlay who was a stern taskmaster and had everyone at the agency running around after him. He also seemed to be constantly changing copy and making pointless amendments. Malcolm had a very close relationship with our own MD, a charismatic copywriter called Keith Barnes who had set up the agency.

One afternoon when I didn't have very much to do, I decided for some reason it would be a good idea to add some extra copy to a printed Debenhams Finance Homemaker Charge card leaflet which was lying on my desk.

Among the reams of copy extolling the virtues of getting massively into debt and paying exorbitant interest rates for the privilege of shopping at Debenhams was a Summary of Benefits panel:

Ten good reasons why you should open a Debenhams Homemaker Account today!

You know the kind of thing. Pounds of extra spending power! Invitations to exclusive shopping evenings! Spread your repayments to suit yourself! Blah, blah, blah...

Without even knowing why (perhaps Malcolm had been particularly savage to a piece of my copy) I absent-mindedly wrote on the leaflet in biro just below the tenth benefit:

11. If you don’t, Malcolm Findlay will break your legs.

Laughing to myself at my wit and brilliance, I closed the leaflet and put it back on my desk.

Some time later, we had a major strategy meeting with Debenhams Finance. Malcolm Findlay and two or three of his chronies came up to Nottingham to discuss their marketing plans for the coming 12 months.

Everyone in the agency was on their best behaviour, desks were tidied and even the toilet had a new air freshener – it was going to be a big, important meeting.

We were all keeping our heads down and looking as professional, dedicated and hardworking as we could. (A big ask.)

From time to time, Keith would pop his head out of the boardroom and shout to someone to bring in something the Debenhams team needed to see – a piece of artwork, a competitor’s ad or leaflet, a print quote and so on.

At some point during the afternoon, the door opened and Keith boomed out,

“Jamie, have you got the latest Homemaker leaflet – can you bring it in?”

I quickly looked around my desk, saw it, picked it up and took it into the meeting. I went back to my desk and forgot all about it.

The meeting broke up. Malcolm and his team got the train back to London and we all relaxed. I was around in the studio chatting to a few of the artworkers when Keith appeared around the corner.

“Hudson, you spotty little twat. What’s this?”

“What’s what Keith?”

This didn’t sound good. Keith had previously given me my first job at a large and very good above-the-line agency when he was Creative Director. He had trained me up from nothing to being a promising junior copywriter.

He was a brilliant writer – perhaps the best I’ve ever worked with. If you did something good, he praised you and you felt fantastic.

If you did something bad, or simply hadn’t thought something through, you were in for an almighty bollocking, which would make you want to run away and become a dustbinman.

I knew that tone of voice....

“If you don’t take out a Debenhams Homemaker card, Malcolm Findlay will break your legs.”

Reddening very quickly and feeling my stomach churning and my bottom tightening, I suddenly remembered. The only thing I could think was, ‘Oh, fuck.’

Thankfully, after what seemed like a lifetime, the spotlight was taken away from me by the sound of the studio spontaneously bursting into laughter.

“Luckily for you, he saw the funny side of it.”

“Sorry Keith.”

“But don’t do it again, you little worm. And I’ll tell you why. I did something similar when I was a junior writer. I once wrote a brochure for a ladder company. I thought it would be funny to drop in a little joke as I was typing out the copy. So I said that their products were endorsed by the Dutch Olympic mountain climbing team.”

We all fell about laughing.

“It went to print.”

I never, ever did it again.

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