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Leith Agency Feature Scotland

Leith reminiscences

By The Drum | Administrator

November 29, 2007 | 24 min read

Leith Agency founders take a look back to the early beginnings

Pete: Ah yes, the halcyon days. I remember it as if it were yesterday. Trouble is, I can't remember much about yesterday either.

C'mon guys, jog my memory. Did we not come up with the idea to start the agency whilst enjoying one Tom Collins too many out in Los Angeles briefing Hannah Barbera on the Royal Bank Top Cat TV job?

Here's a few other things I can remember, or think I can remember, so please put me right if you remember different:

On returning from Los Angeles, or wherever it was, having secret meetings every morning at 8.00 before work to bring the embryo Leith from conception to birth, scared shitless that anyone from Halls would spot two creatives and a suit huddling together at such a ridiculously earlier hour, work out what we were doing and spill the beans.

Failing to get funding from the Scottish Development Agency because we made the mistake of talking to 3i first and they (SDA) "didn’t want to tread on the big boys' corns."

John setting up a meeting with Vince Taylor to hand in his notice and all three of us turning up, much to Vince’s surprise. His comment, on learning that we were leaving to set up a rival agency? "No advertising business has ever succeeded with a name other than that of its founders’ over the door."

Poaching Lorna Cameron from the Picture House because she had a huge personality, copious amounts of charm, wit, bonhomie knack of pouring massive gin and tonics.

First office: St Mary's workshops, Giles Street.

First company cars: Two 1300 VW Jettas and an Audi 80 "for the suit".

First creative hiring: David "Smudger" Reid

John: Blimey - just phoned and spoke to Rodger for the first time in nearly twenty years. Told me he was in a meeting and would phone back! Hope it's before the next twenty's up!

Seriously, it will be great to catch up, hopefully tomorrow when a bit of a chat will jog the old memory about October 1984. If that digs up anything interesting I'll "post it on this thread" (not a phrase I expected to be using 23 years ago, or even just before it was suggested yesterday to be honest... Tracy have I pressed the right button?)

Rodge: Yeah, for the record, we hatched the idea of Leith while in LA working with Hanna Barbera. But the truth was a good deal grubbier?

Pete, you and I used to work in this big room right up at the top of Halls offices in Drumsheugh Gardens. Perfectly placed for doing the odd little "homer" as we were inclinded to do for a bit of beer money.

The room was ideally placed being right up at the top with its own little staircase you could hear people coming, giving us plenty time to hide the storyboards and casting tapes for the latest TV ad we were doing for a used car salesman in Glasgow, and his client....a used car salesman in Glasgow.

In the morning we'd be thinking up ads for Tennent's or the Royal Bank then in the afternoon it was "Joe Grubby's Car Emporium Glasgow."

Then we'd shoot the ads in the evening or the weekend. (In these days creatives did freelance to earn money not to try and win awards, that’s what your employer paid you to do.)

It was our client in Glasgow that wanted to set up Stanier, Mill, Denholm, Hawker (not his real name).

And while we thought it might be a good idea to set the agency up, with Mr Hawker providing money, we didn't really want his name above the door.

At the time Scottish advertising scene was dominated by one big agency, Hall Advertising where John, Pete and I worked.

Halls was a Saatchi off-shoot with an amazing client list. Just about all the main Scottish utilities, a bank, a building society, The Scottish Office, beer and the biggest Tyre and Exhaust business in Britain, you know who. The creative talent was formidable: Will Atkinson, Tony Cox, Gerry Farrell, Guy Gumm, Tim Robertson, Adrian Jeffery, Jack Wyper, Jim Downie, Jim Brown, Mike Scott Moncrieff to name a few. There were also many equally talented people working in other departments. Mark Gorman, Stuart Feather, Paul Yole.

The agency seemed unasailable, but while it was a fantastic place to work Pete and I felt we couldn't progress any further so the idea of setting up our own place seemed like a good idea. Apart from Halls we'd have little competition (excluding Marr Associates, big Colin was doing some tremendous work in his little agency).

Or so we thought. Blow me if Jim Faulds wasn't thinking exactly the same thing as we were...

Pete: It was Mill, Stanier, Denholm, as I remember it. Following the theory that people usually drop at least one of the other names off after a few years (e.g. best case Abbot Mead Vickers Davies, shortened to Abbot Mead, worst case, Collet Dickinson Pearce, aka Collets).

Rodge: I think you're right there, Pete. And now, you see, even before the agency opened its doors the factions were fighting to get top billing.

But I was never going to win that one, even my own mum and dad couldn't get my name right!

Pete: Which bit - Rodger or Stanier?

So the name Leith was a bit of a compromise - with the added bonus that Vince didn't approve?

Rodge: Many people helped define what Leith stood for, not least the inimitable Lorna Cameron, more about her later, but another one was Graeme Mearns.

Had it not been for Graeme, the managing director of a rival agency, Mearns and Gill in Aberdeen, Leith could have gone belly up in the first nine months.

Graeme thought we could do a better job for his client than his own agency!

He had the Mitchell's Self Drive account and for some reason, trusted us with all his TV advertising. If I was creative director there I'd be furious he was taking my best briefs to some little start up in Edinburgh.

Up till then we'd had to survive on mailers for a local garage, two inch doubles for a business stationery company and some scraps from Edinburgh District Council. Technically Leith was trading insolvent for almost six months and it was Mitchells and Graeme that kept us going.

We'd come up with a big TV idea that Graeme and his client loved. "Seven out of ten people come back to Mitchells" was the thought... (three of their cars break down and leave you stranded.) No, actually, it was a good company with a fleet of modern and reliable cars, and John, Pete and I had come up with a big TV campaign that needed a big budget. Well, a big budget for the time. I think it was around £120,000.

The normal procedure in this business is to bill the first 50 percent before you shoot the commercial and pay the second instalment on completion.

What happened next would surely confirm Graeme Mearns as the patron saint of the Leith Agency.

John: Yes, we owe Graeme Mearns and Charles Mitchell a lot for all the work they gave us in the first few years, and particularly for letting us spin out that second 50 percent production payment for so long - thanks Graeme, the Bank of Aberdeen!

Secondly, about that Leith name. Maybe it was a bit of a compromise, but it made sense at the time. Leith in those days was just beginning to feel a bit bohemian, not because it was creative or artistic, just dead scruffy. But it set us apart from the other Edinburgh ad agencies, who were all based in the West End and all looked like solicitors. The location just gave us that "alternative" edge that we needed to make us different.

In those days the Shore area of Leith was just a semi-derelict dockland. The first stirrings of the new Leith had come from Ian Ruthven opening Skippers Restaurant, a risky move in an area where you had to be fairly brave to enter. There was no Fishers (it was the Tower Bar in those days where the girls danced on the bar, and sailors regularly smashed the place up). There was no Malmaison - it was the Seaman's Mission, basically a doss-house where my brother stayed for a while to stretch out his student grant. One night after the TV "lounge" emptied, one old boy who’d been sitting next to him stayed put, only to be found the next morning staring at the screen stone dead.

There was no Ocean Terminal, no Royal Yacht and no trendy bars. There were no other ad or design agencies (if I've overlooked an older one I’m sure they'll tell me!). There certainly weren't any digital ones.

Our first office was a converted classroom in St Mary's Workshops, Tom Farmer's old primary school. The toilets were on the groundfloor and after clients had staggered up four flights of windswept stairs and arrived to ask for the loo, they had to be directed back down again, their mood not improving when they discovered that the developer hadn't got round to upgrading the equipment - designed for five year olds.

And we had some pretty distinguished visitors in the early days. Gerard Eadie, of CR Smith fame, came to our launch party, but took the next 20 years to give us any business. John Banks, legendary CEO of Y&R visited with an offer to buy us, and Charles and Diana popped in for a chat. By the time they’d climbed up to our draughty hideout, they showed contasting degrees of enthusiasm for meeting us. Charles, the consummate pro, made you feel he'd flown up from London specially to see our showreel, but Diana's famous smile disappeared the second she was in the building away from the cameras. Can't say I blame her, though - a tour of struggling Leith businesses was probably not top of her list of favourites.

Rodge: Our offices in St. Mary's were supposed to be for architects practices and design businesses but we ended up sharing with boiler engineers, picture frame restorers and a bean sprout factory.

One occasion saw John escorting an important client up to our offices when the poor individual slipped on a stray alfalfa bean.

Pete: Going even further back, I was rooting through my old Leith files the other day when I came across a copy of the invitation to the Leith agency launch party, way back on 6 December 1984.

For those of you who weren't even born in 1984, much less of partying age, the invitation was based on a well known advertising book of the time called "From Those Wonderful Folks who Gave you Pearl Harbour" written by a well known advertising man of the time called Jerry Della Femina. In the book, three guys leave a big successful agency to form a startup and put their early success down to their lavish launch party.

Some bright spark at Leith thought it would be a wizard wheeze to throw an equally big party, using the story from Della Femina's book as our invitation.

Everybody loved the invite, loads of people came to the party, tons of drink, lavish catering, fabulous time and lots of big-name clients. Success was assured.

Except that our meteoric rise to fame was seriously damaged over the next few weeks by a nasty rumour that went sweeping round the Scottish ad world faster than blue tongue: Leith was about to fold.

What vicious, narrow minded piece of work would start such a damaging rumour, no sooner than we’d taken our first wobbly steps in this brave new world?

Er...hello! Let's take another look at the invite. The idea behind Della Femina's party was that the startup agency's funding was running low and the three guys did a back-of-an-envelope calculation: there was money left to limp on for 2 or 3 months or they could blow the lot on a lavish party and go out in style...

It was the disastrous, but 100 percent self-inflicted outcome of the ensuing rumour mill that caused us to embark on an ambitious new business campaign.

Rodge: It's comic how naive we were at the time.

I think we all possibly underestimated how hard it was to get business through the door.

I remember the time when Pete and I got fed up asking John if he'd managed to phone Archie Tunnock about the Tunnock's Caramel Wafers account.

"Aye, no, I've no' had any time to do it." Said John.

I was getting so pissed off asking him. Both of us had been badgering John about Tunnock's for a couple of weeks and nothing seemed to be happening. So I made a cardboard rocket and left it on his desk with the Tunnock's logo on it.

He came storming in to us, really pissed off and gave us both a hard. "I've tried calling him three times this week," said John.

"Well try again for f***'s sake."

"He's impossible to get hold of, well if you think you can do any better I'll give you the number and you can call him your self."

"Right we will," said Pete and I.

John gave us the number and Pete and I retreated back to the creative department (the room next door).

"Right you call him."

"No you call him."

"No you, oh! Give it here," says Pete, "I'll call him."

Archie Tunnock was a formidable man, owner, managing director and marketing director of his successful biscuit company. Partially disabled or possibly a cunning ploy, he’d whiz around his factory in a little motorised buggy, just faster than comfortable walking pace.

Behind him, a retinue of puffing and panting executives. He would happily see any sales person as long as they were prepared to follow him round the factory.

Archie's sole advertising to date was the legend on his numerous vans claiming "another million caramel wafers sold this week". It was ripe for the picking, a peach of an account. A loved Scottish brand with a great profile and a fantastic opportunity to do visible and possibly award winning work.

Pete got through straight away "Yes I'll just transfer you to Mr Tunnock," said his P.A....


Pete: Thanks, Rodge, not a happy memory this one.

So the receptionist tells me she's transferring the call to Mr Tunnock. Remember, this is Archie Tunnock, Scottish biscuit legend.

Me: (To Rodge) "Oh, shit, she's putting me through. Er...hello?"

Archie: "Yes, can I help you?"

(Barely heard over loud clanking of machinery stamping out caramel wafery.)

Me: "We're a new advertising in agency, based in Edinburgh....blah blah, fantastic ad pedigree....Halls blah blah...."

Archie: "You'll have to speak up, I'm in the factory."


Archie: (brusk) "Advertising? Why didn't you say so? Oh no, no, no - we don't need any advertising. We have our own advertising agency thank you very much and they're doing a great job helping us sell a million Caramel Wafers a week."

Me: "But, but, er...I mean, BUT, BUT..."

Archie: "Goodbye." Click.........brrrrrrrrrrr

I sat at my desk for a while in embarrassed silence, then slunk downstairs and sheepishly returned the number to a rather smug looking John Denholm.

Rodge: I suppose the clincher for Leith was when we won the Clydesdale Bank.

Having such a prestigious account kind of marks you out as a proper business and it makes it easier to be taken seriously by new clients.

There was a great warmth towards us in the business community. I don't know why, but people really wanted us to be a success.

After winning the Clydesdale Bank we could afford to hire some more people but we owed a great debt to the ones who were with us right from the beginning.

Our profile at the start was definitely enhanced by two people in particular. The first was Lorna Cameron. Right there on day one as our receptionist, PA to the MD, creative secretary, chief cook and bottle washer. Lorna's presence made it feel like a proper agency.

You can't underestimate the importance of the friendly face of the first person you meet at the agency. Endearing herself to prospective clients with a winning smile and a heavy hand when pouring a whisky.

Lorna had the patience of Job and underneath that happy go lucky exterior lurked a wicked sense of humour and steely resolve.

Every new agency should have a Lorna Cameron in their business plan. I'm sure a large part of Leith's popularity was down to her efforts.

The other early recruit was Les Watt. An equally legendary character of the Leith Agency. He came up to me in a bar in Edinburgh, probably Clarks Bar. Introduced himself and said he'd like a job. I said I'd love to take him on but we don't have any money.

Pete: Who could forget the legendary Les Watt approach to employment?

Les (as I recall it) phoned up and asked if he could come in and see us. He told us his sob story, that he'd been made redundant (from Harrison Cowley was it?) and asked for a job. We said we would take him on then and there but there was no way a startup could afford a man of his calibre. That was when Les pitched in with his offer we couldn’t refuse: "I'll work for three months and at the end of it, I guarantee I'll have saved you enough money to take me on full time."

That was the master stroke. Offering to work free for a month was one thing, but three months was generous by anybody's standards. And confident. "When can you start?" We asked. What else could we say?

It has to be said that Rodge and I were struggling with the print production side of things. Les walked in and started making money from day one. Three months later (if it took that long) he was a fully paid up member of staff. And he's been making money, lots of money, for the agency ever since.

John: I remember Les came and worked for nothing for the first few months. I think he’s still waiting to claim it back, but he's been saving up his expense forms for 22 years - Richard Marsham look out!

On the subject of winning Clydesdale Bank, that was indeed a lifeline, but we'd missed out on Lloyds TSB about a year earlier. The pitch was a classic. We were a tiny agency just recently installed in our new offices, but without the budget to buy proper chairs. instead, with typical creative practicality, you guys ordered a stack of fancy canvas directors chairs.

All the TSB directors, mostly a fairly humourless bunch, were sitting stony faced listening to me ploughing through an intensely boring slide presentation (we all knew by then we weren't winning this one!), when suddenly there was an enormous crack and Bob Sims of The Media Shop, who was pitching with us, and by then day dreaming about getting back on that Shuttle, instantly disappeared (actually disappeared) under the table, his cut price director's chair having collapsed under him. In that moment my spirits actually lifted, thinking that surely this would break the ice and rescue me from my hopeless presentation. Far from it – not a flicker from the impassive audience. Just an embarrassed interval while Bob scrambled to his feet, and hovered (all six feet of him, an extra chair beyond our budget) for the rest of the doomed pitch.

Rodge: It seemed to take an age to land the first big account, sadly the TSB was not to be it. Somehow I don't think it was the chair that let us down. We still had a long way to go.

We've been asked if there was ever a time when we thought, let's just give it all up?

I suppose we were fortunate in that we never had any really big losses in the first few years. Except for taking a hefty knock from a time-share company in The Algarve.

We hadn't managed to get media insurance on the company (maybe that should have told us something) but we took the risk and bought full pages, on his behalf, in all the major papers. Nice ads too.

The client did a runner, literally, to Portugal with his PA and left us to pick up the bill for the ads: £45,000.

It was like taking a bundle of cash and dropping it down the drain. The figure stuck in my mind as John, Pete and I had notionally put aside £15,000 each for one of the new 180 Mercs that had just come out.

After that, we were much more careful. And continuously reminded of our mistake every time we climbed in to our Volkswagen Jettas.

Pete: There's one name nobody's mentioned yet, which on the one hand is surprising. On the other hand, I suppose, this topic is called Leith reminiscences, not Faulds.

However, the 'F' word, as we later nicknamed him, or more accurately, his empire, was hugely impactful on the development - and I believe the success - of Leith. After all, how could the Old Firm exist with just Celtic or only Rangers?

I first came across Jim Faulds when I was a barely wet behind the ears young copywriter recently headhunted back to my home town Edinburgh from the "big smoke" by Jimbo Downie, then CD of Halls. I had rented a flat in Young Street - the principle attraction being that I could drive to work in Chester Street (a mere 5 minutes away) and park my car outside the office all day without having to put so much as a single 20p coin in the meter; Chester Street being in the same residents’ parking zone as Young Street. One floor above in the same tenement block lived Bill Blackwood, an art director at Harrison Cowley. Having bought 100 percent into the lavish advertising lifestyle, Bill would help me live beyond my means with a regular supply of freelance copywriting for his nightclub client, Buster Browns, run by Edinburgh raconteur Dennis Chester – but that’s another story. One weekend, Bill invited me to a dinner party at his house, at which one of his other guests would be his managing director, Jim Faulds.

Bill Blackwood was a lavish host with an even shakier pouring hand than Lorna Cameron, but I remember two things from that evening. That Jim Faulds didn't look old enough to be wearing long trousers, let alone chief exec of an ad agency. And that he had scant regard for creativity. I distinctly remember him looking down his young nose at me when I was introduced as a copywriter. Not only that, but I'm sure that he referred to my art director neighbour on several occasions in the course of the evening as a "visualiser."

Rodge: I always remember Mr Faulds being a real thorn in our flesh. His ambivilance towards 'creatives' at dinner parties was matched during business hours too.

As Pete mentioned, Jim was MD of Harrison Cowley advertising at the time, some kind of affiliation of Saatchis but far too grubby for the likes of any of us in Hall's creative department to deal with. (Aye, we could play that game too Mr Faulds.)

Harrison Cowley's accounts consisted mainly of local car dealers, retail outfits, plumbers, etc. Anyway, he was looking for some creative resource to borrow for a couple of days and I heard him say to Tony Cox, C.D. of Halls: "Right then Tony, I need some creatives and dinnae go geei'n me ony of yer lucky bags".

Faulds Advertising opened its doors about a month after Leith. By some lucky timing we had inadvertantly stolen his thunder. We heard that he was pretty pissed off, we'd pulled the rug from under his feet. Also we were getting some fantastic press coverage. We even made the front page of The Scotsman, along with other glowing pieces in the trade journals.

"We'll piss on him," we thought, with our pedigree and awards. But they count for nothing with the people who run the small pieces of business we both ended up pitching for. We were no match for the street fighting ex MD. He was a canny business man and he was off the blocks like a wippet.

We laughed at his modern office up in town. No character, faceless, compared to our artisan workshops. Trouble is the quirkiness of our premises just made Jim's outfit look all the more professional. He may have only had a tiny suite in a non descript office block, but to the outside world it looked big.

His canny abilities didn’t stop there. His funding was so well thought out, that even though his budget was similar to ours, within five years he'd own 95 percent of Faulds advertising. 3i had insisted on a major chunk of our equity.

We really struggled against Jim in the early days. (Although we'd never like to admit we had any real competition in Scotland. No, we worked on a broader canvas, comparing ourselves with the likes of DDB or AMV in London.) Scrapping around after car dealerships and carpet warehouses was alien to us, consequently progress was slow.

Jim was in his element. But, eventually as we began to pick up bigger pieces of business, we started operating in more familiar territory. Things began to look very good for The Leith Agency.

We got about a years grace. Then Jim, ever the astute business man, shed his retail creative department and brought in The Talented Mr Lindsay as creative director. Jim had "got creative" and with one deft blow had upped the anti.

But quality strategic thinking and the highest possible creative standards were the core of our business at Leith. Whether it was going to make us big money was not the issue, we just wanted to do great ads. Faulds was all about making the money and he would do what ever was required to make it. If he had to make his agency more like Leith in order to do that, he’d make it more like Leith. Or at least try.

And, no doubt, he hired some smart people and they did some tremendous work. But we all knew deep down that creativity was not at the heart of his belief.

Is that why Leith is still around after all these years?

Leith Agency Feature Scotland

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