Feature

Welcome to the club

Elitist and secretive, advertising's private members clubs are renowned for offering fine food, robust client entertainment and good networking opportunities.

While some are grand and a little stuffy, others are more lively and entertaining. So which ones are the best? Francesca Fisher investigates.

Ajob in adland is not for the faint-hearted. The pressure can be excruciating, the competition fierce and the hours are long. So why is it that so many adlanders feel compelled to add to their busy diaries by joining the various social clubs affiliated to the business?

As Mark Lund, the chief executive of Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners, puts it: "It's a consuming enough job without it being a social life too." But Lund, a passive member of the Solus Club, is in the minority among his senior adland peers.

Indeed, many executives are members of three clubs, some four (only a hermaphrodite could join all of them as Wacl is all women and Solus is all men). Being a member of three clubs means at least three extra nights a month out on the tiles.

A cynical explanation is that the strict entry policies of all the clubs trigger some kind of burning desire to make the grade. For the ambitious, the more clubs the better. They act as some kind of confirmation of status. Indeed, the fact that all of the clubs have rigorous entry processes seems to add to the excitement of entry. Every time someone is rejected from the Thirty Club membership, for instance, its existing members can feel a little thrill of importance, and its non-members become even more determined to make the grade.

Advertising is also a fiercely competitive business. People want to gather club memberships simply because their peers have them. As one high-profile member of no fewer than three clubs reveals, it's not for the pleasure of the evenings: "Off the record, I fucking hate clubs."

But is it all down to vanity? Of course not. The best use for many of the clubs is the opportunity they offer to entertain clients in an effort-free manner. After all, the speakers are usually of a high calibre and include newspaper editors, business leaders and politicians. Not only that, the food and drink is good and the opportunities to mingle and network are plentiful.

"Clients very much enjoy going to them," Jeremy Miles, the chairman of Miles Calcraft Bringshaw Duffy, and a committed member of three advertising clubs says. "It's an opportunity to hear outstanding speakers, always in very pleasant surroundings."

And where there are clients there are bound to be some agency new-busi ness hounds on the prowl. In fact, CHI & Partners' Johnny Hornby describes the Marketing Group of Great Britain as: "The place where all the fish swim if you're an advertising shark."

But for all of its competitive ambition, adland is also a very friendly industry. For many club members, the biggest benefit of membership is the opportunity it offers to socialise with peers and former clients and colleagues. As Miles puts it: "It's a good way to keep in touch with your friends in the industry."

Still, isn't it surprising that industries as creative and forward-thinking as advertising and media devote so much time and energy to events that, if you squinted, could be taking place in the 40s? With the exception of Blake's 7, they all have a gentlemen's club take on the proceedings. Process is highly regarded; there's normally a master of ceremonies bedecked in tails and equipped with a wooden hammer and the Queen is toasted religiously. So keen are the clubs to be veiled in secrecy, they shun websites (apart from Wacl) and love shouting about Chatham House Rules.

Perhaps this is why you'd be hard-pushed to see a creative, or even a planner, at any of the events. And, worryingly, there's a dearth of anyone from a digital background. Mark Collier, the founder of Dare and a seemingly perfect candidate for any of the clubs, says he's never been invited to join.

This, if anything, represents the only criticism that can be levelled at the clubs. By their nature they are elitist, and with displays of pomposity they risk making themselves irrelevant; a throwback to the past, rather than a stepping stone to the future.

- "I used to go because they offer a good source of client entertaining and networking, but I use them now as an efficient social catch up." Stevie Spring, Blake's 7, Wacl, MGGB

- "Sometimes we need to step back and realise how privileged we are. There are top-flight speakers, and dinners are held at Claridge's and The Dorchester where the food is fantastic and the rooms are beautiful. Sometimes we get a bit complacent." - Jeremy Miles, Thirty Club, MGGB, Solus

- "Wacl uses its influence in a positive way. It's not just meeting each other and having fun. What's the point of a club that's just about networking; we do that all day." - Tess Alps, Wacl, Blake's 7, MGGB

- "They have good speakers and are impressive things to take clients to. I feel sorry for the various presidents who have to get the speakers; it's an awful lot of work." - Paul Hammersley, MGGB, Blake's 7

WACL

The all-women club was founded 80 years ago as a respectable way for women to invite male guests out for dinner. Today the 120-strong group holds monthly dinners, traditionally at The Savoy, with a wide range of speakers. The current president is MindShare's managing director, Ita Murphy.

Over the past five years, it has managed to undo its Mafiosi reputation for being a stuck-up, closed-door club. While it used to be famous for the women who weren't allowed to be its members, it now has brought in younger, less stuffy people like CHI & Partners' Sarah Gold and M&C Saatchi's Tiger Savage.

The club, however, is nevertheless vociferous about the seniority of its members. Murphy is emphatic: "It's for THE most senior women in their organisation." Something she admits "does piss people off". You have to be invited to join Wacl, and you're not supposed to know when the organisation's board is considering you for membership.

Beyond the dinners, Wacl's Forum is a well-attended event that best represents the raison d'etre of the club. It's where successful women stand up and give each other advice. Subjects include juggling a successful career with motherhood and dealing with sexist clients. The discussion is very open and there's a true sense of female solidarity that pervades the membership for the rest of the year.

Few women in advertising would not want to join Wacl.

BLAKE'S 7

This is the youngest and smallest of all the clubs and is very different to its counterparts. It was set up ten years ago, specifically in protest of the all-male and all-female status of Solus and Wacl respectively. Blake's 7, instead, would have equal numbers of male and female members.

Led by the likes of Pitch's Martin Bowley, M&C Saatchi's David Kershaw and The Guardian's Carolyn McCall, it first congregated at Blakes Hotel in Kensington, where seven female and seven male members were decided on - hence the name.

Something of a rogues' gallery, it is everything the other clubs aren't. It moves around restaurants, and networking is shunned in favour of having fun. Perhaps the most important distinction, however, is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. As Bowley says: "We're all in the business but it's not about networking. Normally we end up with people crying with laughter." It is kept deliberately small (it now has 20 members) and is very informal (one of its founding principles is no black tie).

The honourable secretary is Jim Hytner, and other members include Jonathan Durden, Helen Calcraft and Stevie Spring (although, according to one source, her lack of attendance of late is a subject of much discussion).

Speeches from guest speakers are very off the cuff in tone. Jimmy Page has done the honours, as has Alastair Campbell and Michael Portillo. Kirsty Allsopp is the next speaker at a dinner being held at Shoreditch House. She'll advise the assembled guests on how to play the property market.

THIRTY CLUB

Of all the clubs, the Thirty Club is definitely the most elite. It meets monthly at Claridge's, and has been known to attract royalty as guest speakers (Princess Diana and the Duke of Edinburgh have both spoken).

It was founded with 30 members, ten from each estate; advertisers, media owners and agencies. Today it has 30 full members, plus some associate members.

Being a member of the Thirty Club means you have made it big in advertising. Bartle Bogle Hegarty's Nigel Bogle is the man with the keys to entry. Beyond adland's finest (Cilla Snowball, Robin Wight and Johnny Hornby are members), it also attracts big media players including Michael Grade, Lord Puttnam and Stephen Carter.

Its elitism, however, is both a strength and weakness. Some refer to Thirty Club members as "peacocks" - ad people showing each other how well they've done. A lot of meaning is written into the table plan, for instance. If you sit on the top table, you're being smiled upon. The further away you are, the less influential you are considered.

For now, this is a draw, but long-term it needs to make sure that new members are welcome, or risk becoming outdated as its current membership retires.

Nevertheless, some important chat still takes place over the dinner tables. Hornby is said to have received his first approach from Sir Martin Sorrell about WPP acquiring Clemmow Hornby Inge at a Thirty Club event, for instance.

SOLUS CLUB

Solus was launched 78 years ago, and, with about 170 members, is the biggest of the clubs. There's a stronger media flavour than in other clubs, particularly media owners. The members gather monthly at dinners held at The Dorchester, to network and hear a guest speaker.

Although Solus' scale shows it's still a popular club, it has lost some of its shine over the past few years. In 2003, Campaign broke the news that Solus had convened to vote on whether women should be allowed to join. The club's old guard vetoed the motion, something that tarnished Solus' image in the wider advertising community. Its riposte - that nobody minded that Wacl had an all-female membership - did little to quiet the critics.

However, Associated News' Steven Miron worked hard over his presidency two years ago to update the club's image, something being continued by the current president, Waitrose's Mark Price. Indeed, as Tess Alps puts it: "A lot of people I really like belong to Solus."

Nevertheless, of the established clubs, it still remains the one that people are the least positive about. Its members wear special striped bow-ties when they congregate, and famously sing Christmas carols together at the annual yuletide lunch. As one former member puts it: "they wear terrible gear and sing stupid songs."

THE MARKETING GROUP OF GREAT BRITAIN

Despite its clunky moniker, The Marketing Group of Great Britain is probably adland's most well-regarded club at the moment. It has 150 members and each dinner is full to Claridge's Ballroom's capacity of 240.

Although it's events are smart (the black-tie dress code is rarely ignored), it manages to avoid being overly stuffy, perhaps because the club is not interested in the gender of its members.

The speakers are generally worth hearing (Gordon Brown spoke during MT Rainey's presidency and the Marks & Spencer chief executive Stuart Rose took the podium at its most recent gathering), and it's a big event. The club's dinners are always well-attended by a healthy cross section of marketers, media, PR, market research and advertising folk. Andrew Harrison, the chief executive of the Radio Centre, is the club's chairman.

If networking is what you're after, MGGB is the club for you. Its dinners are full of potential clients, partly because many of them are themselves members, but also because the format offers agencies a hassle-free, yet robust means of entertaining them.

MGGB member Tess Alps says: "I joined it fairly recently because I felt I should. It's the only grown-up club I'm a member of. You have to talk serious marketing chat. It's perfectly enjoyable, but it does feel like work."

However, others say its greatest pull is still the socialising among peers it offers, especially if you hang around after dinner and speeches. As Johnny Hornby puts it: "I go there to meet new clients, but somehow always end up in the Blue Bar with Paul Hammersley."