Close-Up: The care home that's every adlander's business

John Tylee visits the Nabs-run Peterhouse and finds out why today's youthful industry should continue looking after its old.

Andrew Farish was making his daily phone report to the agency chairman at his home in Switzerland when the connection began breaking up.

"Never mind," a fast-fading Richard Lonsdale told his managing director. "Just get on a plane and tell me yourself." Farish did. The personal briefing lasted ten minutes. The pair spent the rest of the day polishing their putting skills.

In those far-off days, there were no finger-wagging shareholders to pose awkward questions about first-class travel, Lonsdale's suite at the Dorchester or his box at Ascot, Farish, now 91, says.

Ena Leech is a one-time copywriter turned agency personnel director who actually hired Martin Boase and Gabe Massimi for Pritchard Wood, but then declined the offer to join their Boase Massimi Pollitt breakaway.

She doesn't much like most of today's commercials. "I think advertising should be simple and direct," she says. "It's got far too complicated and I don't understand what it's trying to tell me." Leech is about to celebrate her 90th birthday.

Both are residents of Peterhouse, the retirement home set up by Nabs in 1966 to care for people from advertising and marketing in the autumn years of their lives.

Set in three acres in the shadow of a medieval church, Peterhouse stands on the outskirts of the picturesque East Sussex seaside town of Bexhill. It's a place with such a large pensioner population that having a disabled badge for your car bestows little advantage and where the local pharmacy recently dispensed prescriptions for three centenarians in a single day.

REMINISCING ON ADLAND'S PAST

At Peterhouse, however, Farish and Leech, both still sharp as tacks, are legacies of an adland culture which, although considerably older, is still refreshingly anarchic and not much in keeping with its genteel surroundings. They like to stay in touch with the industry - Campaign remains a regular read - and the home's corridors are filled with vintage ads courtesy of the History of Advertising Trust, as well as hundreds of memories.

Farish remembers having such a limitless expense account that he was ordered never to lunch alone. "We spent money like there was no tomorrow," he recalls. "We thought it would go on forever."

Small wonder that Lesley Crisford, Peterhouse's general manager, sees what she says are a lot of young minds trapped in old bodies, some now paying the price for so many liver-punishing lunches. However, she seems quite pleased that a number of her charges are growing old a bit disgracefully.

She giggles at the thought of having to remind a couple of Peter Pans that if they really wanted to smoke a joint, would they mind doing so outside. And don't mention the lady resident who got trashed in a nearby pub and was found horizontal in the churchyard. "It gets a bit stressful at times," Crisford admits. "But we have a lot of fun."

THE MONEY ISSUE - OF COURSE

It's not always been so. Back in 2003, Peterhouse was itself showing its age. And to such an extent that some wondered if its malaise might be terminal.

In the 80s, the home had prospered along with ad and media industries that made good profits and were, in turn, generous sustainers of Nabs. But as feast turned to famine, Peterhouse was becoming a drain on the charity's resources.

For those managing the place, the choice was stark: get it on a firm financial footing or sell it on. "We simply had to get bums in beds," Colin Clarke, a former senior ad executive at The Sunday Times and the chairman of the Friends of Peterhouse, says. "We had to reduce costs and increase occupancy."

When Crisford arrived to take charge five years ago, she found the place dysfunctional and in disarray. New staff needed hiring, but there was no recruitment strategy. Many working there "had to be made to realise that it wasn't a sinecure", Clarke adds. Also, neither the staff, nor Nabs, were aware of the huge changes in legislation affecting care homes and their impact.

To make matters worse, Crisford found there were no proper figures from which to produce a budget. "I can't tell you how many hours I worked in the first six months to put the place back together," she says.

Much has changed. "Lesley has steered us along the right course," Clarke declares. The 65-strong workforce is stable and it's a measure of its improved business performance that the home now has an Investors In People accreditation.

Nabs still helps with some funding - it contributed towards a new extension and aids some of the home's most needy residents. But Peterhouse has moved a lot closer to fulfilling Crisford's aim of becoming completely self-financing. This has been helped by the Charity Commission, which has allowed the home to "top up" with some local people in need of care with-out affecting its charitable status.

Peterhouse currently comprises a care home and 34 sheltered flats, where the oldest resident is Vera Nicholls, 95, whose late husband, Harry, was an ad manager and agency account man. The home's previous most senior person was Eric Brown, a former Daily Mail executive who planned his own 100th birthday party, telling everybody they could turn it into a wake if he wasn't around. He died recently aged 102.

VOLUNTEERS NEEDED, PLEASE

Nevertheless, Peterhouse has some ongoing challenges, not least in capturing the interest of an ad industry growing ever more youthful. Almost half the people working in UK agencies are under 30. What's more, the home is almost a two-hour train journey from the industry's Soho heartland.

As a result, finding new blood from the industry to refresh an ageing board of management chaired by Keith Fowler, who previously headed the KLP and Euro RSCG marketing groups, has been a thankless task. Hamish Pringle, the IPA director-general, visited Peterhouse three years ago and was sufficiently impressed by what he saw to launch an industry-wide appeal for board members. It failed to get a single response. Another initiative spearheaded by the former Nabs chief executive Kate Harris to raise the industry's awareness of Peterhouse fared little better.

"It's pretty demoralising," Crisford admits. "We really do need the help of industry people, either as volunteers or as members of the management board."

Whoever volunteers better be ready to have their ears bent. Brian Baker, a one-time assistant ad manager at The Observer, likes to recall how he bowled out Denis Compton at a charity cricket match.

And if anybody wants to hear yet another story of adland's bygone excesses, Farish is a willing supplier. Like the time he and Lonsdale were dining with the agency's tobacco client who was lamenting the fact that Britons, unlike Americans, were smoking less. "Fly to America in the morning," Lonsdale told Farish. "Take your wife. Find out if this is true." After a week enjoying the delights of New York, Farish was able to report that it wasn't.

"We lived the life of Riley," he smiles. "Would I want to go back now? Are you kidding?"

AN ADLAND ASSET

Why Peterhouse needs adland

- To refer potential residents with marketing and advertising backgrounds so that the home can retain its charitable status.

- To continue backing Nabs so that the advertising charity can support Peterhouse.

- To find people from within the industry who would be willing to serve on Peterhouse's board.

Why adland needs Peterhouse

- Because it can offer a complete range of care facilities not only for former industry people, but the parents of those currently working in it.

- Because it offers residents the opportunity to be with like-minded people from similar backgrounds.

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