It was the year Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader, heralding a promising new era of “glasnost”, and a 73-year-old Ronald Reagan took the oath for a second term as the 40th US president.
We Are the World rang out over the airwaves after that summer’s iconic Live Aid concert and, in the world of film, Out of Africa and The Color Purple showed in cinemas nationwide.
The pace of technology was moving fast: Microsoft’s first Windows 1.0 operating system went onto the market; cellphones were introduced into cars.
On TVs across the UK, model Nick Kamen stripped down to his white boxer shorts in the famous Levi’s jeans launderette ad.
Channel 4 had been up and running for three years and ITV was the only other commercial TV channel. Commercial radio – after the launch of LBC and Capital Radio in 1973 – was only 12 years old.
The year was 1985 and the UK’s media landscape was a simple, almost unrecognisable place.
For those still employed in the industry, much has also changed in the 20 years since.
But was the mid-1980s media climate a very different place? What was it really like to work in media at that time? This era was the peak of yuppiness, characterised by Margaret Thatcher’s “you can have it all” individualism, remembers Mike Sell, now chief executive of Total Media.
“In 1985, media industries were more of a lifestyle than a business. It was much more fun: there was more after-work socialising and the atmosphere was of a media village, centred in Soho,” he says.
“Those were the days of reader jollies, vintage port and liqueurs after lunch. It was a much more sociable, much more commercial world and the industry was made of individuals and characters – Associated Newspapers’ Guy Zitter and TVam’s Tony Vickers, to name but two.
“Today, media is much more serious and more commercial. Heads are down and agencies are like factories. And, because of the move toward larger corporations, media owners have tended to equalise costs, so anyone buying media to any degree will end up paying pretty much the same price. For this reason, there’s not as much scope for individual buying performance.”
Mark Dickinson, communications and marketing director for OMD UK Group, joined the creative agency Lowe Howard-Spink in 1983.
Dickinson also conforms to the view that working in media in the mid-1980s meant you were signing up to the media village lifestyle that came with it. Nevertheless, he says, people worked as hard as they played.
“We may have got paid disproportionately and drove around in expensive cars, enjoying long lunches, but we also worked hard. It wasn’t totally excessive! One very different factor back then was the opportunities for moving around the industry. You met a lot of people – I remember going to about three leaving ‘dos’ a week.”
The dress code was far more formal, says Dickinson – “now I don’t have to spend £60 on a poncey tie with a label” – and the ingrained “barrow boy” sentiment reflected the fact that there were far fewer degree educated people in the business.
“The fact that you were working in a full service ad environment was great”, he adds.
“Don’t forget we were all-round planner buyers in those days – you had to be account manager and a full buyer of all media, as well as a strategic planner.”
The close relationship between creative and media in the mid-’80s also meant the working environment was very different, says Dickinson.
“The best thing about it was the proximity to creativity; to actually be able to have an influence on the creatives. Opportunities are easier to miss today because the market is so much more fragmented.”
The social whirl of mid-’80s media was perhaps made easy by the non-existence of e-mail. As Dickinson puts it: “The best thing was, you got off your arse and talked to people instead of firing off e-mails.”
Philip Reddaway, communications planning director for Carat, also remembers life before today’s technology, and the difference it made to the working day. The year 1985 saw Reddaway move from full-service agency Benton and Bowles to media independent Yershon Media.
“It was the pre-e-mail age and that was the biggest single difference to office life. We were only just converting to purchasing media online and invoicing online – and PowerPoint didn’t even exist. I remember our research director bringing in his own Sinclair PC, one of the pioneers of the PC world, in order to start playing around with media models. It was all terribly amateur! “Of course, this meant you had to know your stuff. The basic, but important, skills were in people’s heads. There were no strategists around at the time; no one pretended to have a voice about communications strategy.
There were also some very good media planners around and I think some of those skills have got lost along the way.”
Although Reddaway falls in with the majority view that media in the mid-’80s was a much more “fun” environment – referring wistfully to “lost afternoons” – he also describes it as less professional, less interesting and lacking in self-confidence.
“Now we’ve spread our wings and have more influence on the ad process. I remember in the early ’80s being in a meeting and I’d read somewhere that, for effective communication, the maximum number of words on a poster should be seven.
“I remember repeating this to the creative director of the agency and she looked at me as though I was something she’d accidentally stepped in. These days – rightly so – we’re much more confident about having a say.”
Shem Law, assistant editor of the Radio Times – the circulation of which in 1985 was almost three times its current level, at just over 3.1 million – is even quicker to point out the positives about working in media now.
“Everyone thinks their generation – and everything that goes with it – is ‘the best’,” he says. “It’s very easy to do that grumpy-old man thing.
“People talk about the golden age of newspapers and TV, but I’m not convinced. TV was fairly bland – if you look at TV scheduling now, there are many more quality programmes because there are many more channels.
In 1985 you had BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel 4, and everything finished at midnight.
There was so little choice – and hours and hours of interminable darts.” Hamish Dawson, publishing director at IPC Media, also highlights the proliferation of magazines in the years since 1985. “At the time, we all thought print media would be eclipsed by the popularity of TV,” he says. “We wouldn’t have predicted the huge growth of the magazine sector and the sheer variety of magazines on the news-stands now.”
The radio industry was also relatively unformed, LBC and Capital Radio having launched as the first commercial stations only 12 years previously. It wasn’t until 1992 that Classic FM hit the airways as the UK’s first national commercial radio station, the same year that Rajar came into being.
In 1985, Simon Cooper, now public affairs director of GWR, worked as breakfast broadcaster for Wiltshire Radio – which, in the same year, merged with Radio West to form GWR.
This was the UK’s first merger of two radio licences, he says. “I was on the air between 6 and 9am, and it meant arriving at a dark radio station, opening it all up. Because it was the first programme of the day, it was the most paranoid-inducing thing; I lived in fear of oversleeping and missing the slot!” Cooper remembers the proliferation of manual typewriters in the office (“They would take a lot of punishment from journalists stabbing away”) and the fact that doing a live link took weeks of planning, involving huge Range Rovers.
Gary Digby, head of ITV sales, is adamant that today’s business climate, media included, is far harsher. “Undoubtedly, it’s tougher for agencies now – there are so many audit, client, procurement pressures now and in the 1980s there just wasn’t today’s business drive.
These days, the industry is far more professional but also more analysed.”
Digby, who worked as a broadcast director for McCann-Erickson in 1985, adds that the client/agency relationship was considerably more relaxed and rooted in trust.
But above all, he says, being immersed in mid-1980s media was great fun – a sentiment echoed time and again by his contemporaries.
Why I couldn’t have worked in media in1985
“I’ve been working in media for two years and cannot imagine how business would operate without e-mail. Everything’s recordable, instant and allows you to operate from a paper-free desk.
Proposals, contracts, rates and copy can be the other side of the world in a few seconds.
As media schedules become more complex, planning roles are increasingly time consuming.
How long would it take to plan a campaign without the essential tools of Brad, TGI or Mediatel? Some may claim that the art of conversation is lost.
But I hardly know anyone without a mobile phone and it’s a tool that allows people to talk to anyone, anywhere at any time.”
Tamsin Caisley is a media buying assistant at Total Media
Top newspapers by circulation, June1985
News of the World 4,803,966
The Sun 4,025,011
Daily Mirror 3,145,629
Sunday Mirror 3,072,542
The People 3,035,649
Sunday Express 2,373,126
Daily Express 1,856,225
Daily Mail 1,810,178
The Mail on Sunday 1,501,289
Top newspapers by circulation, December 2004
News of the World 3,684,161
The Sun 3,180,141
The Mail on Sunday 2,335,266
Daily Mail 2,318,824
Daily Mirror 1,700,902
Sunday Mirror 1,537,006
The Sunday Times 1,304,919
The People 932,015
Popular TV programmes
3 2 1
Last of the Summer Wine
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
The Vicar of Dibley
My media life in 1985
In 1985, I worked as account director in the Grey Media Department, now Media Com.
The 1985 media world was very different from today’s hi-tech strategic media environment.
Media people were mostly still based in full-service agencies, rarely exposed to clients and allowed the “five minutes before lunch” slot in annual presentations.
The working day was also unrecognisable. We arrived late to avoid the rush hour – 10 o’clock seemed a bit early for a meeting.
Lunch would start at 12.30 at the latest and normally last to 3.30pm, although, in fairness, a great deal of negotiation was carried out over lunch. Lunch rarely included solids; beer was the main diet.”
Neil Ivey is a director at MediaCom