Friday 23 March 2012

Madmen they were. The greatest pitch of them all. True story.

Allen Brady Marsh was an Agency which started in London in 1965.

(My Dad was in Saatchis at the time and this story did the rounds. I have to say too, it wasn't unusual to see my Dad walking through the Agency after lunch with a glass of red wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The real era of Advertising.)

ABM was fronted largely by Peter Marsh, who sometimes welcomed visitors from a throne, they were song+ dance men. You might get a sense of that from them above celebrating winning Guinness and the "Guinnessless" campaign.

Top hats, tails and playing the jingle on a piano was not unheard of from Peter Marsh. In fact, you expected it. He had started as a writer and producer for The BBC. In 1991, the Agency was sold to Lowe Howard Spink.

The great story, which I'm often asked to tell to lonely advertising people, normally in pubs, is the infamous pitch to Sir Peter Parker and his marketing crew at British Rail. 

ABM at the time, were very much the underdogs on the list and unlikely to get it as it was a huge account. 

So ABM decided they may as well throw everything at it to get noticed because the reality was, they'd nothing to lose. And they did.

On day of the pitch, at 11am as agreed, the "serious" suited team from British Rail turned up at ABM, walked into reception to find it deserted. The stood at the desk and waited and the chairman, Sir Peter Parker, checked his watch. Yes, they were on time. He looked around, no one - just a very scruffy reception area. Crumpled newspapers, litter, cigarette ends on the floor, cushions with holes burned in them. This was the worst agency they’d been in. 

A young giddy woman appeared, brushed past them and sat behind the desk as if the receptionist. "Sorry", she said, "I'll be with you in a minute, have a seat" and proceeded to take up the phone and continue a chat with a friend about where they'd been last night. 

Phone cradled between shoulder and neck, she went on to explain to her friend, whom she eventually "went home with", as she filed her nails with a nile file found by rummaging in a drawer. 

Sir Peter politely coughed, she ignored him. He coughed again, she looked up.

"Yes?" she said,

He said “Excuse me, we’re here to see….” but our ace receptionist interrupted, “Be with you in a minute love” and continued the conversation about last night but brought it to an end quickly.

"Yes, sorry" she said, almost apologetic, "you're from the rail people, aren't you...Mr. Perker isn't it? I'll tell Mr. Marsh you're here" and proceeded to phone 'downstairs' to let them know. 

"Coffee?" she then asked, which was greeted reluctantly by a positive nod.

Up comes a girl "from downstairs" with formica tray, 5 plastic cups, sachets of sugar (now wet from spilt coffee), plastic spoons and a small cardboard milk carton with the top roughly torn off. "Help yourselves" and she was off.

It was all becoming enough for Sir Peter Parker and his team.

Whatever Agency they'd seen, clearly this was not the Agency for them.
Parker turns to the team and they nod in agreement, that's it we're off.

So Sir Peter turns to the receptionist and explains;

"Please tell Mr. Marsh, we were here on time, we have waited 20 minutes and thank him for his interest in our business but that this is not the agency for us". And proceeded to leave.

At that moment a door burst open and out stepped Peter Marsh, as head of the agency. 

He’d been watching everything. He shook the chairman’s hand warmly. 

He said “Gentlemen, you've just experienced the problems at British Rail, now come down and see the solutions". And he took the British Rail management into their boardroom and went through an all-singing, all-dancing presentation of how bright the future could be, if ABM was their agency. Which, of course, it became. 

Madmen Series 5, starts Tuesday 9pm Sky Atlantic.
Those were the days.


  1. Yep, worked for the agency as a courier in the 70/80s. Rod Allen drove a Bristol while Marsh was chauffer driven in a Silver Wraith. Always wandered what happened to Brady.

  2. I also worked for ABM, a little later than this story, the British Rail campaign was then fronted by Jimmy Savile (!) - I was assured this story was basically true. What happened to Brady? I once asked PM, as we were told to call him. He smiled richly and said: He left to write a book! A board director later took me to one side and said: don't ever ask that question again!

  3. I worked at ABM through Mike Brady's departure (early 1976 if memory serves). He was pleasant and bright, but there were issues. His book was a cold war thriller called American Surrender. I only read it because of its author, but it's quite readable. Two clues as to its author's background: (i) sex scenes occur with clockwork regularity, the frequency presumably dictated by market research and (ii) there is an advertising agency in the book called Michael Brennan Associates (subtle!) which is pretty much a clone of ABM at the time of Brady's departure. I wasn't there at the time, but I've always understood the British Rail story was an post hoc urban legend created by the agency. I have never seen any reference to it by a British Rail executive.

  4. An urban myth. I was there... it never happened.

  5. I worked at ABM in the late 70s... it was fun. If anyone knows the whereabouts of Jeanne Myers who also worked there at that time, please contact me via twitter Francesca Fourwinds @fourwinds44 thanks ! Francesca