Adland's heyday well recalled but too few credits given

Ireland’s Mad Men, RTE One, 10.15, Tuesday, September 7th 2009. Reviewed by Michael Cullen

Anyone with an inkling to follow a career in advertising must have been impressed. What with all the talk of long lunches, pints in Smyths, sex in Sachs, cannabis in boardrooms and Garda raids on a top agency for cocaine in broad daylight, adland in the Seventies sold its soul. Or, so it seemed from some of the contributions made in Ireland’s Mad Men, a profile of adland in the Seventies and Eighties, screened on RTE last night.
Amidst all the self-indulgence and debauchery at the time, there was some work done. In the minds of those who refrained from the excesses and survived to tell the yarns, there were great ads made and for those who played serious roles in the excitement of achievement, it wasn’t all about substance abuse and living it up.
Contributors to ‘Ireland’s Mad Men’ – adland in the Seventies and Eighties, were among the chosen in Irish advertising at the time. John Fanning, who was managing director McConnells for aeons; Breandan O Broin, whose agency zenith was as creative director of CDP Associates and Martin Wright, ex-Bell, a man so polished at art direction for clients he’d make Mr Sheen appear dull.
Fanning opened proceedings by saying the Seventies saw a changed Ireland, characterised by a young, educated population who wanted to unlock the shackles imposed by conservative leadership, both in terms of politics and religion. The changes in attitude opened the door to advertising.
No profile on Irish advertising in recent days could be aired without the industry doyenne, Catherine Donnelly. From avoiding the client’s order not to refer to breakfasts on Ryanair flight service, to the tidy wee Ballygowan ‘Table for Two’ ads in The Irish Times, this lady, who became a proper writer, a novelist, is revered. In the words of Wright, Donnelly is “a great advertising copywriter”.
She may say “save us from focus groups” but she knows her prose as her subsequent work for Barry’s Tea at IIBBDO testified. Show starter, take one: Young trendy, happy-dappy folk puffing Major to their hearts’ content on Dun Laoghaire Pier.
Ah, those were the days when fags were fags and Gaybo was introducing sex to Oliver J Flanagan’s constituents on The Late Late. The days when cigarette companies like PJ Carroll were paranoid about new product launches and everyone in agencies was sworn to secrecy. But then new laws meant tobacco had to find new ground which came in the form of colour print ads.
As contributor Peter Brady of Windmill Lane said, it was a time when deals were done on the back of beer mats in the Dockers; or over lunch with Harry Ellis and the crew from Arrow in O’Dwyers on Mount Street; Ken Flynn’s latest red convertible parked outside.
O Broin and Fanning highlighted how ads for Bank of Ireland and IDA Ireland, created by CDP and McConnells respectively, reflected a new nation, populated by young and intelligent folk. But these same people had to emigrate to find jobs.
So said Barry Devlin who turned out copy for Peter Owens by day and played with Horslips by night. He admitted some of the campaigns haven’t stood the test of time too well but they are still typically Irish.
Peter Owens, the maddest man on Dublin’s Madison Avenue was called ‘The Gnome’, but as the agency’s MD Niall Bracken at the time emphasised, not to his face. Silver-haired and silver-tongued, Owens was the quintessential adman, a bon viveur but a highly astute businessman and networker.
Owens was to adland, what Hugh Hefner was to publishing. Just substitute Playboy Bunnies with big accounts, particularly semi-state business, much of which jumped on to his lap and snuggled up cosily. Aer Lingus, you’re home. Maastrict, questions may have been asked but as Albert Reynolds assured the Dail at the time, Owens won the account fairly and squarely. Motion carried.
As Hugh Oram, freelance writer and author of The Advertising Book, said Owens and CJ Haughey were both from Mayo, from rural roots. CJ had his Charvet shirts and sojourns in Le Coq Hardi. Owens preferred The Lobster Pot down the road in Ballsbridge. Agencies presenting for Aer Lingus and Gilbeys soon learned that pitching against Owens was for losers.
Casting director Ros Hubbard spoke about why Arks used British actress, Vicky Michelle, to play Sally O’Brien in the Harp ad. The way Hubbard looked at it was that the only suitable actors here were busy with more serious thespian matters at the Abbey and the Gate. The people at Bill O’Herlihy’s Public Relations of Ireland (PRI) agency decided to create a ‘scandal’ around Michelle.
We saw a press cutting of a PR shot of Michelle with Dermot Morgan and publican Frank Gleeson (his daughter Eileen worked in PRI at the time). More importantly, it got Michelle and the London actor, who played the sweat-soaked lead longing for a cool pint of Harp and his Sally squeeze, on to the Late Late Show. Now, that was some coup, as it was the only show in town at the time.
No one in Irish advertising from the Seventies, before, or after, has shown such a grasp of brand building like Fanning. He defined branding as developing a story of why buy me rather than someone else. He told of how McConnells created Kilmeaden and its highly-regarded ‘The fillet of cheddar’ tagline. Wright put his spoke in by saying the message needed the sound of a bodhran and Mick Lally’s voice and the image of a block of cheddar being sliced.

“For ideas, you need to allow people some freedom” – John Fanning, then McConnells MD

Brian Cronin & Associates was rightly applauded. Cronin, a gifted writer, ran one of the most sought-after agencies in town. As Oram pointed out, he was the brains behind Barney and Beany for Batchelors Beans. His client and trusted friend, Tim Mahony, made sure the Toyota account was parked in Clyde Road for years. The programme makers managed to track down footage from the archives showing agency execs Ian Fox, Ronan Callan and John Holland at work.
On the growing role of research in advertising, O Broin too had some strong views. From the Seventies reliance on the primacy of the creative idea, qualitative studies took on a new emphasis and the dreaded need for insight became too important.

‘No one gets famous between the hours of nine to five – advertising is tough and demanding’ – Martin Wright, Gospel TM

Of course, Guinness ads showed up. The ‘Island’ was created by Frank Sheerin at Arks in 1977, with the help of a fleet of choppers and an Ardmore Studios set in place of a Connemara pub and a cast complete with black labrador, all of which made this ad special.
As narrator Dave Fanning (yes, he declared his fraternal ties from the start of the programme) said it earned Guinness the accolade of Ireland’s Ad of the Century, but sadly failed to say that it was due to Marketing magazine and the result of its reader poll in 1999.
Another beer from the Guinness & Co stable, Smithwick’s, took over the ale market and made it their own. Not even the hiring of Dubliner Ronnie Drew exclaiming “Ah, that’s Bass” could lure them. Nowadays, Diageo largely relies on rugby and yacht club members to keep Smithwick’s taps flowing.
Contributors like Fanning and Wright were simply referred to in captions as ‘creative director’ and ‘agency MD’. In fact, credits were in remarkably short supply, which, in paying tribute to a part of Irish business which survives on campaign notoriety and the winning of industry awards for oxygen, is odd, at best.
The closing credits were remarkably terse. How come the programme’s makers failed to recognise the agencies responsible for some of the high-quality work featured in the programme? Research efforts aside, it showed a pronounced lack of gratitude.
While Donnelly’s book writing was highlighted – her novel ‘The State of Grace’, based on a woman’s experiences in adland – it was done so in a cliched, cringe-inducing manner. We heard too how Bracken got involved in writing novels, namely ‘The Dalkey Persuaders’, which also relied on adland for storylines.
It would also have been useful to give viewers a brief run-down on what the likes of Fanning, O Broin and Wright have been up to in recent years. For the record, Wright has his own creative service, Gospel TM. We were told that Donnelly and Sheerin married after a lengthy engagement.
Fanning wrote ‘The Importance of Being Branded – An Irish Perspective’ (Liffey Press), has lectured in TCD and is the current chairman of Bord Bia’s Brand Forum. O Broin has a degree in TV production from IADT and runs a creative service called Company of Words.
O Broin said that some of the people from the Seventies got drunk and others have since died. Adland lost Peter Owens after he collapsed in Roly’s restaurant (next to his beloved Lobster Pot), while at a lunch hosted in his honour to celebrate his agency’s press spend.
O Broin’s parting lines were telling. He spoke about what advertising must do to convince people to consume. It needs to cheer people up again. People got tired of buying things. The world is full of shoes but while there’s no need to be an Imelda Marcos and line every wardrobe with footwear, the economy still needs people to buy.
Of course, lest we forget, both O Broin and Fanning are regular writers for and highly valued contributors they are too.
Everyone – even the most hardened cynics in adland, the home of awards – like to be acknowledged. TV producers and researchers, it’s something worth remembering.

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