"You’ve all done very well." It seems appropriate to begin the introduction to this year’s A List with the words of the 1970s classic situation comedy Are You Being Served?’s benevolent but geriatric owner, the Young Mr Grace.
Hearty congratulations all round to our A Listers for managing to put in a very creditable performance in 2016 – even if you do say so yourself – although we can’t help detecting that some of your other answers reveal an underlying fear that we’re headed back to the unenlightened 70s.
But back to the first point. It’s Campaign’s fault, of course, for asking you if you’d had a good year, and we are pleased to hear that – other than a few jokers at the back prepared to make lame gags about alternative brands of tyre – this has largely been the case. It’s also the answer we had been hoping for – there’s no room in The A List for under-achievers, this year or indeed any other year.
Sir John Hegarty, aged 72, says that his highlight of 2016 was being called a
dinosaur by Sir Martin Sorrell, aged 71
While we’re pleased to hear that business has been going well, despite a rather large bump in the road that seems to throw up challenges for the future (of which we’ll come to later), there were some particular individual highlights.
Nicky Bullard, for instance, found that her year was made all the better by 70s throwback crooner Dean Friedman, who started to follow her on Twitter. She is thanking her lucky stars accordingly. Certainly, given the sad deaths of so many of adland’s other heroes – including Ziggy Stardust creator David Bowie; Prince; winner of New Faces 1974 Victoria Wood; and even dear old 70s TV star Ronnie Corbett – such moments are there to be cherished.
Even more excitingly, Sir John Hegarty, aged 72, says that his highlight of 2016 was being called a dinosaur by Sir Martin Sorrell, aged 71 – although whether Sorrell accompanied this statement with a flourish of his walking stick, Young Mr Grace-style, we’re unclear.
So on a personal and professional level, the year was largely good. But scratch beneath the surface and there is one thing that niggles our batch of A Listers and it’s the B word (it was inevitable so let’s try to get this over with as painlessly as possible) – Brexit.
You really didn’t like the result, did you? In fact, we can confidently say that this has been the most politically charged edition of The A List we have ever produced. You’re disgusted with the referendum and possibly the electorate – you didn’t like what the country voted for and, if the opportunity presented itself and you become prime minister, some of you would impose a dictatorship to make sure that we never leave the European Union. Cut to the opening credits of Citizen Smith and a rousing chorus of Ode to Joy.
Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and David Davis (and to an extent Jeremy Hunt) must be hoping that no shock coup occurs and one of adland’s finest ends up at the door of No10 ready to defenestrate them – or worse.
That said, there are some tantalising new policy opportunities that were on offer beyond stringing Boris up from the nearest lamp post, Mussolini-style.
Matt Davis would prefer to hang the first mezuzah to appear at that address (the Jewish-born Benjamin Disraeli having converted to Christianity before occupying the prime minister’s office). And talking of faith, Billy Faithfull (see what we did there?) promises to spend a romantic evening with a pig’s head should he find himself in Downing Street. The age of satire lives on.
But what else were the 70s famous for? Ah, yes – tax. On a macro level, 2016 showed us that tax remains an area that large organisations (Twitter, Facebook and Arcadia to name a few) like to minimise. Mark Howe – presumably in the spirit of his tax-efficient employer Google – would impose an increase on the inheritance tax threshold as his policy priority. Perhaps he thinks this is the only solution if the opportunity to channel your inheritance through the Republic of Ireland (which of course remains a part of the EU) is not forthcoming. Unlikely that this is going to happen, we’re afraid, Mark – if the 70s are coming back, then so is the era of super-tax.
But back to the EU – we love it so much, don’t we? Come March, when Theresa May plans to invoke Article 50 – an adland-inspired coup notwithstanding – think of poor Martin Brooks. What’s he going to do without his Greek doctor, French dentist, Polish car-wash lads, Bulgarian cleaners and Danish masseuse? And what of Philippa Brown, who worries about how she’ll source Milky Way Magic Stars ("they can only be sold in the EU", we learn).
Paul Lawson’s Olympic-sized achievement is equally impressive. He’d win gold for "being more overweight than anybody relative to my ideal weight"
But for the rest of the less cosmopolitan types, it’s the lovely wine (French, not German) you’re going to miss most of all. Wine and cheese. Well – wine, chocolate and cheese, and maybe German (but not French) cars. All these wonders will now be put beyond reach as you settle down with a Vesta curry in front of an electric fire and a flickering black-and-white television set to watch some unsophisticated and probably unreconstructed sitcom. That’s possibly what the future holds (if there isn’t a return to 70s-style three-day weeks and associated power cuts) if some doom-mongers are to be believed.
But it can’t be all bad, can it? After all, The A List should be an opportunity to celebrate the industry’s consid-erable collective achievements – of which there are many. Top among these must surely be the triumph of our Olym-pians and Paralympians (and thank you to Dan Brooke for calling us out on this) who did so well over the summer and thumb our nose at the Chinese.
While our A Listers might not quite manage to match all the athletic achievements in Rio, there are still many secret talents on offer that other nations can only dream of and for which they think they could win gold.
Oli Beale’s Olympic skill can probably never be bettered. Apparently, he once dared a chap in his class to eat a newt. Beale continues the story: "He got terrible septicaemia and the school was banned from Kew Gardens for life. Does that count?" Yes, yes it does, Oli – even the French would eschew eating newts.
Paul Lawson’s Olympic-sized achievement is equally impressive. He’d win gold for "being more overweight than anybody relative to my ideal weight" – a consequence of too many Little Chef Olympic breakfasts, perhaps.
But one person’s real talent shone through – Karen Blackett would win top honours for "a displeased and ‘I’m disappointed in you’ look that can wilt flowers". An essential prerequisite in these challenging times ahead.
Oh, no, we’ve done it again. Slipped back to the looming post-Brexit gloom that is in danger of threatening our wine and cheese and chocolate consumption and the very existence of that most luxurious of continental treats, Viennetta (if Paul Weiland is to be believed).
It’s fortunate, then, that this year we offered you a chance to escape to a fictional world of your choice. Revealingly, the most popular choice was Hogwarts, the fictional school of magic for children aged 11 to 18. Maybe its location in Scotland – which somehow hopes to be able to extricate from this Brexit nightmare – is its appeal. Or maybe it’s because adland’s reading list is a bit limited to books for children (of course not – you don’t get to the top of this business without an intimate knowledge of Les Binet and Peter Field’s work).
The hit HBO series Game of Thrones is also a popular choice. The violent dynastic battles among the noble families in the fictional Seven Kingdoms of Westeros for the Iron Throne perhaps chiming with the intense competitiveness innate to an A Lister.
But there are softer, gentler – more wistful, even – suggestions. Sir Nigel Bogle harks back to Arthur Ransome’s 1930 classic Swallows and Amazons, which traces the adventures of John, Susan, Roger and Titty among others and was memorably turned into a film in 1974 featuring Virginia McKenna and Simon West.
Juliet Haygarth goes back further still – to the 1926 Winnie the Pooh collection of stories by AA Milne and Hundred Acre Wood. "What’s the worst that could happen," she asks? "Being bossed about a bit by Rabbit?" Well, quite.
Emma de la Fosse also yearns for somewhere reassuring – the world of Jessica Fletcher, the retired English teacher turned successful mystery writer, set in Cabot Cove, Maine. "It’s just so damn comfy," de la Fosse comments. Given the per-capita number of murders that occur in this small coastal town – it tops the FBI’s national crime statistics in numerous categories and is probably the murder capital of the world – not everyone would agree with de la Fosse’s assessment. Certainly, there’s more danger than Winnie the Pooh’s bossy rabbit adversary.
And talking of Pooh – and we’re afraid that this "joke" was unavoidable – it was intriguing to read of Danny Brooke-Taylor’s latest purchase. He says that he’s just bought some little bags for his best friend, Eric, to put his excrement in. No further comment required on this – Eric is obviously a dog (isn’t he?) – and Brooke-Taylor’s civic duty is to be admired given that, back in the 70s, the streets were littered with peculiarly white dog turds.
His purchase is also rather more interesting than those of you who took our question on your last purchase literally: Daniel Bonner’s 56 litres of diesel and Tess Alps’ Italian chicken salad from Pret being a bit more prosaic than Moray MacLennan’s "natural swimming pond" – whatever that is. Naturally, we hope that it proves to be a better buy for him than Lean Mean Fighting Machine, of which he was so publicly dismissive this year.
Hindsight, they say, is a wonderful thing, Moray. And looking back to their own childhoods allowed our A Listers to reflect on what they have become and tell their younger self about their lives. Think about it for a minute. It’s a profoundly moving and powerful thought: how have the dreams of a ten-year-old you translated into your real life, with your expensive taste in wine/Polish cleaner/ natural swimming pond (delete as applicable)?
"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity."
- Albert Einstein
Alex Grieve has obviously thought very deeply about this: "When I was ten I lived in the Seychelles. So I think he’d be pretty unimpressed." Oh. Perhaps life inside that old RBS building on Bankside isn’t quite the dream that he thought. George Bryant is rather more wistful. "You might have a good life," he says, "but you still haven’t got my Chopper." (For younger readers, that was a popular make of bicycle in the 70s.) Dan Clays cites something that is echoed by other contributors when he laments his loss of hair. Time and tide, Dan, time and tide.
And, on a brighter note, those subsequent years have also given us amazing new technology that has made our lives so much easier. Hasn’t it?
Well, to an extent – we might not be cycling around on Choppers any more but we’ve got technologically advanced German cars (for now) and Netflix and email. Oh, yes – email. That’s a bit of technology that we could do without. "It’s like a blackhole for productivity," Simeon Adams bemoans. Bridget Angear agrees: "It distracts you from what you are doing and makes you prioritise recent over important."
Our A Listers would much prefer to go back to the days of human contact – people actually speaking to one another – although the reality of being called into endless pointless meetings might dull these rose-tinted glasses. Those of you with older memories might like to remember the experience of CJ at Sunshine Desserts and what it did to Reggie Perrin.
The only other popular choice of technology you’d like to see consigned to the rubbish tip: wires – although, particularly intriguingly, Red Brick Road’s Richard Megson would rather delete "the takeaway food app" from history. Whatever can he mean by that?
It matters not. Albert Einstein famously once said: "It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity." We think he was talking about the atom bomb but it seems applicable to another controversial piece of technology that rose to the fore (and that quickly slunk back again) in 2016.
Neatly, it also appertains to the earlier point (yes, Brexit-related) about asking questions to which you don’t necessarily like the answer. Campaign, too, is fallible – after all, who would have thought that asking a gentle question about which Pokémon character you most liked in the brief window it was exciting news (only to be published a couple of months hence) would prove what a flash in the pan this phenomenon was? Well, Andy Nairn did, in fairness.
Other responses included "Honestly, I really don’t give a fuck" (Martin Brooks); "I don’t understand your question" (Jeremy Bullmore et al); a pretty decent gag from Nick Baughan – "Nick Farnhill"; and "Ron Jeremy", the legendary porn star whose career began in 1979 (Mark Denton).
But the best answer of all came from Ben Bilboul: "Any that doesn’t involve following my nine-year-old into dark corners of strange parks to protect him from paedos."
On a serious note, you can’t have failed to miss that diversity debate that has led to the enforced retirement of several (but not all) ghastly old dinosaurs, as the advertising industry attempts to make itself representative of wider society. Not in a terrible Mind Your Language way, but in a genuinely committed and wholehearted approach for which all the participants deserve genuine credit.
The debate is far from over, as our A Listers revealed (Paul Silburn says it will only be over "when my wife tells me it is"), so let’s hope that further progress is made in the coming year.
Because then and in the future, as Britain finds its way in the post-Brexit world (and although it’s difficult to be optimistic right now, we may have to make the best of a bad job so that we don’t end up in some awful 70s dystopia – remember Happy Days was of that decade too), it can ask itself other important existential questions.
And on that note of tentative positivity, maybe we’ll learn the answer to some other big questions the industry needs to ask itself and reflect on. "Am I a twat?" is one that Victoria Fox thinks her peers need to be aware of; "Why isn’t Dean Friedman following ME," Nicky Bullard counters.
But the final word goes to Tim Delaney: "Does Martin Sorrell wear build-up shoes?" That can only be answered by someone working in somewhere similar to the first floor of Grace Brothers, nestled among the telephones, gents’ ready-made suits, shirts, ties and underwear.