Jeremy Lee
Jeremy Lee
A view from Jeremy Lee

Don't mess with Tess, and other Alpine ad lessons

The outgoing Thinkbox chair is many things, but please don't call her 'nice' – it's a disservice.

A long time ago Campaign used to publish in its Annual a list of the nicest people in advertising. Tess Alps, chair of Thinkbox, who has announced that she is to step back from the industry after more than 42 years' service, always featured at or near the top of the list. But this attribution was very wrong – Alps isn’t nice. That word is far too bland and wet to describe her. Kittens and cushions and sunny bank holidays are nice; Alps is not.

She’s certainly wise. And determined and thoughtful and, infuriatingly, rarely wrong. But she’s not so nice that she’ll put up with idiots or bad grammar or poor behaviour or sexism or racism or charlatans or any of the other worst traits that can blight this industry. She’s also (and I know this from personal experience) extremely kind and compassionate. But she’s not entirely virtuous – she absolutely hates stupid people.

So how did this exceptional and rather theatrical person from Nottinghamshire – a scion of the Boots family – end up in a business that, back in the 1970s when she joined, was even more monochrome and riddled with bad behaviour than it is now? And, even more so, among the sharks of TV sales where she became one of the first – if not the first – female sales director at Yorkshire/Tyne Tees?

Bloody-mindedness, probably. Always a person who looked more comfortable on the production side or among the on-air talent than thrashing out spot negotiations with pumped-up TV buyers, this former drama student found herself doing a job that she probably didn’t love but was determined to get to the top of.

A more comfortable berth was PHD, always one of the smarter media agencies, where Alps was chair and acted as a foil to the partnership of Jonathan Durden and Davis Pattison. The launch of Drum, a truly pioneering content and sponsorship division, enabled her to immerse herself further into the world of TV production and would eventually lead to her final destination at Thinkbox.

Alps pointed out to me an analysis I wrote shortly after she took the job back in 2006 that argued that a dispute between two of its shareholders led to one of them pulling out of the newly created organisation. It concluded that: "Alps might be full of ideas, but until advertisers see them translated into action, it is difficult not to view Thinkbox as somewhat irrelevant." 

Well, I’m pleased to say that, not for the first time, I got that one horribly wrong – Alps made Thinkbox the blueprint of a successful trade body despite (or maybe because of) the competing shareholders whose heads needed banging together. A task she’d do with complete grace, of course.

Moreover, Alps adopted an evidence-based approach to rebutting misconceptions about the effectiveness of TV advertising and proving its worth. She still patrols the sewer of social media, righting the wrong.

So Tess Alps isn’t nice (especially if you are thick). She’s exceptional. And with advertising facing so many challenges on so many fronts we need more people like her.

Jeremy Lee is consulting editor at Campaign

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