THE PIONEERS OF MEDIA PLANNING: Winston Fletcher recalls the good old days ... before TV was invented. Creatives had to live up to their names and briefs called for giant cheeses, thin men - and elephants

I was surfing history the other day - as one does when one isn’t doing something more important (such as missing copy dates or forgetting to go to meetings) - when I wandered into an arcade full of Great Old Ideas. Being a generous bloke, I’m offering them as Christmas stocking fillers.

I was surfing history the other day - as one does when one isn’t

doing something more important (such as missing copy dates or forgetting

to go to meetings) - when I wandered into an arcade full of Great Old

Ideas. Being a generous bloke, I’m offering them as Christmas stocking


As you’ll see, with a bit of polishing these Old Ideas could easily be

recycled as trendy New Ideas. Just like Tony and Peter polished up Old

Labour and recycled it as trendy New Labour. (The way they’re going on,

you’d think Tony and Peter invented the idea of polishing Old into New.

Cobblers. Aladdin started it and creatives have been doing it for


Clients, stop reading now. Some, or all, of the following are sure to be

presented to you as agency recommendations over the next few weeks.

And it would be most unkind of you to say they’re just old ideas


Save that for when the agency shows you new ads. Why change the habit of

a lifetime?

OK agency guys, they’ve gone. Get browsing. Once upon a time, back in

1911, a media man who was tired of shooting himself in both feet decided

to put his lower limbs to better use. He cut stencils into the soles of

his boots, supplied them with ink via a tube running down the insides of

his trousers and walked around London stamping ads on the pavements.

Presumably, the target market was dogs. At the time, his brilliant new

medium proved to have no legs. But today it might be a great little

runner on the information superhighway. What do you think?

Some 50 years earlier, Edward Lloyd, the owner of Lloyd’s Weekly

Newspaper, gave meaning to the phrase ’cost per thousand’ when he

stamped coins of the realm with the name of his weekly organ. He then

used the coins to pay his employees’ wages, so they quickly passed into

widespread distribution.

The Government, sadly, condemned Lloyd’s splendid promotion. It bought

up and melted down the mutilated coinage. But, in my view, the idea’s

well worth another spin in the cybermalls with those silly little 5p


Hard to melt down, virtual coinage.

Following in Lloyd’s footsteps, though not shod in stencilled boots (as

far as is known), came Thomas J. Barrett. Barrett was one of the great

geniuses of advertising history, as celebrated in his day as both the

Saatchi brothers put together. Ingeniously recycling Lloyd’s idea - and

thus proving admen discovered recycling long before Tony and Peter -

Barrett imported a quarter of a million French centimes at the end of

the last century and stamped ’Pears Soap’ on them. In those days - long

before the mere mention of a European currency caused politicians to

mangle their knickers - French coins were legal tender in England. But,

once again, an unimaginative Government failed to appreciate the

transparent loveliness of the Pears promotion.

It banned the centimes and foreign currency was never again legally

acceptable in the UK. How different recent history would have been had

Thomas J. Barrett not pushed his luck. Norman Lamont would still be

Chancellor, and the economy would still be up the ERM without a


Branded centimes weren’t Barrett’s only money-making idea. No sooner had

postage become a mass medium than he badgered the Government into

letting him print Pears ads on the back of the penny lilac in 1881 and

the halfpenny vermilion in 1887. An early fan of sponsorship, he offered

to print all the 1891 census forms for free, provided they were branded

’Pears Soap’. But, yet again - almost unbelievably - the dumb Government

rejected the idea. (It’s a pity Lady Thatcher wasn’t around. She’d have

privatised census forms quicker than you can say windfall tax.) Barrett,

incidentally, was the first of the big spenders. Terrifying members of

the Pears family, who resigned from the company board in protest, he

increased the brand’s advertising budget from pounds 80 to pounds

130,000 in the 1890s. Big moolah a century ago (and a perfectly

acceptable budget now, as far as I’m concerned, if any naughty clients

are still reading). Despite the Pears’ family’s faint-hearted fears, the

brand’s sales responded enthusiastically to Barrett’s largesse.

The most off-the-wall of all Victorian advertising men was the Glasgow

retailer, Thomas Lipton. He sent parades of skinny men through the

streets carrying posters saying, ’Going to Liptons’, followed by parades

of fat men labelled, ’Coming from Liptons’. He drove chubby pigs through

Glasgow bearing banners emblazoned, ’Liptons’ Orphans’. He imported

gigantic cheeses, which were drawn by elephants to Liptons shops, where

coins were stuffed into them like sixpences into a Christmas pudding.

Pieces of the cheese were then sold, like edible lottery instants, to

milling crowds hoping to get lucky. Lipton also offered one of his

cheeses ’weighing not less than five tons and made from one day’s milk

of 8,500 cows’ to Queen Victoria - who was not amused. She could not,

she replied, accept gifts from people to whom she had not been


Even the ingenious Lipton, however, didn’t think of this one. In 1896,

the Royal Academician, W. B. Richmond, reported the following explosive

new medium: ’I was in my garden and I heard sudden reports of


Presently, from the sky fell masses of green and red paper advertising a

tooth powder. These fell all over my garden and I am not exaggerating

when I tell you that they were spread over two acres at least. ’

Though manifestly providing saturation coverage - of gardens - artillery

shelling failed to become the medium agencies hoped it would. But then,

they failed to maximise its potential. Big ideas call for big


The cost of the space programme, for example, could be subsidised if the

astronauts showered ads on the world. Never mind a few Royal

Academicians’ gardens, they could cover whole continents. A truly global

media opportunity.

And they could drop some on Mars, to await the first tourists: Mars ads

on Mars. Is that a big idea, or what?

Eschewing artillery, the impresario, William Smith, promoted one of his

plays by affixing suitably worded sticky labels to everything in sight,

including ’omnibuses, cabs, Windsor Castle, the Old Bailey courthouse,

steamboats, and measures in public houses both in London and the

country.’ Smith claimed his new medium was a huge success, although

there is no evidence of a full econometric analysis having been carried

out. Whether or not it would have won an Institute of Practitioners in

Advertising Effectiveness award is, at this moment, uncertain.

Anyway, Smith’s stickers had to compete for clients’ budgets with


In 1861, annual handbill distribution was estimated at 1,150,000,000 in

London alone. Smith, a keen market researcher, established that during a

long walk through London the average pedestrian - whether or not wearing

stencilled boots - would have 250 handbills stuffed into his fist.

Cutting through the clutter to reach the target market was, however, a

headache even then. A media guru of the time said: ’Any man can stick up

a bill upon a wall, but to insinuate one gracefully and irresistibly

into the hands of a lady or a gentleman is only for one who, to natural

genius, adds long experience.’

The reluctance of ladies and gentlemen to accept such handbills was

heightened by their suspicion that many of them promoted ’cures’ for

disreputable diseases. Regrettably, as the Internet has reminded us, sex

and new media frequently go hand-in-hand.

Or whatever. Nonetheless, virtual handbills are making a comeback in


They’re called Websites.

Sex and advertising have always gone together too. (In this season of

peace, goodwill and agency Christmas parties, who could doubt it?) The

suitably titled prix d’honneur for having run the first known

advertisements in history goes to the call girls of Pompeii, for their

below-the-belt classifieds. These can still be clearly deciphered,

carved in the stone of the once-naughty city. This precisely targeted

direct response medium, which is still to be found, hard at work, in BT

phone boxes, is another example of the longevity of truly great

advertising ideas.

Some 2,000 years later, telegrams were invented and were immediately

embraced by avant-garde agencies everywhere. (Nothing new there.

Agencies have always been dedicated followers of fashion.) In 1875, a

large furnishing company despatched 5,000 telegrams all timed to arrive

’at the fashionable dinner hour, when most of the best families would be

assembled’. This was described by the furnishing company (as campaigns

usually are by those who run them) as ’one of the boldest advertisements

carried out in modern times’. Telegrams continued to be a booming medium

for about 50 years, advertisers often sending out up to 40,000 at a time

- despite a hiccup in 1906 when a ’nervous old lady’ wrote to the Times

complaining that she had been awoken by her doorbell ringing in the

middle of the night.

She answered the door to receive a telegram which, on tremulous opening,

read: ’Peter Robinson’s Sale Now Proceeding.’ Telegrams, when you think

about it, are simply e-mails in little buff envelopes. Except e-mails

are friendlier. They don’t ring doorbells in the the night.

If you fancy nicking - sorry, recycling - any of these Great Old Ideas,

feel free. I doubt anyone else will read this silly article, so nobody

will know. Happy Christmas.

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