In many ways Levy McCallum has remained unchanged since it was founded a quarter of a century ago. The founding partners, Alan Levy and Roy McCallum, still run the ship; the agency is still full service (one of only a small handful of full service agencies left); and it is still based in St Vincent Street, Glasgow (although now, literally, across the road from its launch premises).
However, in many ways the agency has changed a great deal too. As well as the Glasgow HQ, it now boasts offices in Edinburgh and Belfast. It now also employs 37 staff and, despite retaining some of the beliefs of a more traditional era, it has adapted to operate in an a increasingly fragmented and evolving modern market.
While many agencies have fallen by the wayside, Levy McCallum continues to go from strength to strength.
Not surprising then to find out that, celebrating 25 years in business this year, Roy McCallum is still as passionate about the industry as he was when he first started out.
Levy McCallum has been based at its current premises for over 22 years. Fifteen years ago an Edinburgh office was opened, and six years later the Belfast office was launched.
The agency was, and still is, branded Thomson Lowe in Edinburgh, as, at the time, McCallum Advertising was a well-established practice in Edinburgh. There was no connection between the two agencies, but there was confusion between the names, “We even got statements from The Glasgow Herald, which were intended for McCallum Advertising in Edinburgh,” said McCallum.
So, when the Edinburgh office opened it was called Thomson Lowe after Andrew Lowe, who was in charge of the Edinburgh office, and the, then, group managing director, Oliver Thomson, to avoid confusion.
McCallum started out as a journalist at a small Glasgow-based newspaper. One of the things he had to do, as a reporter, was write ads. The progression was obvious.
Meanwhile, Alan Levy had always been an account executive. He left school and went to Rex Stewart as an account executive. “In my opinion, he is the most active and energetic account executive in Britain. He can cram more account meetings in a day than any two people. He’s quite remarkable,” said McCallum.
McCallum’s first foray into the advertising world, proper, was with Glasgow-based Somerville and Milne (which was in the throws of becoming MCS), which had been running since the 20s. He then moved to Robertson Scott in Edinburgh – the “second oldest advertising agency in the world,” having been founded in 1819.
“Scotland had a mass of very established advertising agencies – they were as much a fixture of the City as the legal firms. But over the last 20 years that has changed,” said McCallum. “When we started up in business you couldn’t just become an advertising agency. You had to apply for recognition. You had to jump through hoops. The criteria was very, very stringent indeed, technically and financially. They would not recognise you unless they knew for absolutely certain that you could pay your bills.
“Over the last 25 years we have seen the introduction of media brokers, which have allowed advertising agencies to spring open with far fewer limits imposed on them. There is less need, on the half of the agencies, to fulfil the recognition and satisfy the criteria of old, and people are able to start up an agency with no money behind them whatsoever.
“But the simple fact of life is, if you can start up that easily, then you can go bust that easily too.
“That is why we have this current high casualty rate. 25 years ago you just couldn’t do it. Alan Levy and I had to go before the Scottish Daily Newspaper Society to be approved. We then had to pre-pay Scottish Television for the first few months. Then, after satisfying STV, we applied to Tyne Tees where we had to do the same. After about three years we were able to get national recognition through the ITCA [Independent Television Companies Association]. We had to go through all these steps with the press too – the Newspaper Publishing Association in London was every bit as tough. And then, of course, there was the PPA.
“25 years ago that’s just what you had to do to start up a business. Nowadays people can get around that by starting up as an advertising agent, with someone else buying space.
“Competition is healthy, but the constant start-up and shut-down nature of the advertising industry is damaging.”
Another major change that McCallum notices, from when the agency launched, was that the bank rate was then a massive 17 per cent. “If you were borrowing from the bank, then you were paying two or three per cent over that. That is one way to teach financial discipline from the off. Times were tough for us, and this also meant that clients and potential clients were closing. You learnt to be very careful, very quickly, watching who you were working with. These habits run deep. It wasn’t until the mid 80s that things stabilised.”
Following the years of hardship came a few of gluttony. Yet Roy McCallum was never one for the excesses of the era that ensued. “We never did the long lunch thing. I don’t remember the last time I had a lunch out.
“If we need to meet with a supplier, for example, we will always suggest a breakfast meeting. That doesn’t eat into the day. No pun intended. We can meet them in their hotel, have breakfast, and the meeting can be over by 8:30.”
Levy McCallum has always been a full service advertising agency. And Roy McCallum has no intention of changing that. He has always taken the view that a full service is just part of an advertising agency’s job: “Maybe it is just a question of age? Myself and Alan Levy are both middle-aged men, we came into this industry when agencies were as we are – full service. We’ve known nothing else.
“Of course, some of our clients use media buyers, and we will supply a creative solution for them, that is their choice, though, and they are perfectly entitled to that choice.”
But perhaps the biggest change that the industry has had to adapt to in 25 years is the speed of turnaround.
“The introduction of computers has totally transformed this industry,” said McCallum. “Not necessarily for the better, either. Before, everyone that worked in a studio had to be artistic. Now, you don’t just have to be artistic, you have to computer literate.
“I think that we are the most responsive agencies around. Yet, I would like to see us make something of a statement about standards – push them even higher still.”
Raising the profession’s standards is something that McCallum remains passionate about. As part of the agency’s 25 years’ celebrations it is hosting an exhibition, in Glasgow, celebrating worldwide advertising excellence over the last quarter of a decade.
McCallum has an obvious love for advertising. It is clear he enjoys the industry. He even says so himself. However, there are still a few things that rile him: “I enjoy what we do here. But there are some things that annoy me. Bad debt is one. It doesn’t matter how careful you are, you do get folk that go bust on you. That’s a real sickener. We’ve had some big ones over the years, but fortunately, we’ve been in a position where we lend the bank money rather than them lending us money. We’ve taken a few hits that would poleaxe some agencies. We, as an industry, are very vulnerable to that.”
But Levy McCallum has now made it to the 25-year mark. Here’s to 25 years more.