A little ocean wave

A little ocean wave

In 1966 I persuaded the advertising agency for which I worked that they needed an American Partner business. S.H.Benson, of which I was by then Assistant Managing Director, had been through the doldrums in the 1950s. When I joined them in 1960 I put together a team that did a marvellous job of pulling them back up to the No 2 advertising agency in London. But they were still behind the rest in one respect. All the other major agencies were either of US origin, like J. Walter Thompson, or connected with an American partner. Mather & Crowther had Ogilvy who they had partly financed into USA. S.H.Benson had also funded David Ogilvy but had not taken the opportunity to ally themselves with his success on Madison Avenue.

Seeking to remedy this oversight I had negotiated with a Chicago agency, Needham, Harper & Steers. Their work was exceptional, their client list compatible with that of Bensons and their growth rate, mainly due to the skillful work of Paul Harper, their CEO, dramatic. They agreed to be our US partners and asked if I plus one of my two Creative Directors and an Account Director would do a ‘round America’ trip to present to their clients. I chose to take the older of our two Creative Directors, Harmer Brown, on this excursion. I thought his quirky nature and quintessential Englishness would appeal to the largely Midwestern Needham clients. 

A few weeks before our departure my Chairman called me in and said that he thought Harmer and I had been working too hard and needed a rest. He suggested that instead of flying to New York we took the RMS Queen Mary, the Cunard liner. First Class fares were much the same as for flying and the Queen Mary was shortly going to be retired. She had made her maiden voyage in 1936, had served as a troop ship during WWII and was now a weary old lady. She was due to finish her last Atlantic crossing in December 1967. We would be on the penultimate crossing.

I had some rather distant connections with Cunard. My step-mother’s uncle, Sidney Lister, had been Cunard’s Managing Director during WWII. At his invitation I had visited several of the liners in port but had not sailed in one and my Chairman’s offer appealed to me. It appealed to Harmer, too. Unfortunately Desmond Horton, our fellow Account Director who was to accompany us, couldn’t join us due to some client need. He had to fly.

Before we boarded the ship I bought two copies of Arthur Koestler’s book “The Act of Creation”. It had only been published in 1964, had received much attention as a breakthrough in defining creativity and was therefore of obvious interest to anyone in advertising. I had been searching for a definition of creativity ever since I joined the industry at the beginning of the 1950s. I gave one copy of Koestler to Harmer and asked him, as Creative Director, to read this 1,000 page tome during the voyage, as I promised to do. I challenged him to provide a single sentence definition of creativity before we disembarked in New York.

We were actually making our way to the ship’s exit when he turned to me and said “I think I have it. Creativity is the ability to perceive relationships”.  It is an outstanding definition and I have used it many times. I always credit Harmer with it.

The transatlantic crossing itself was a journey to remember. I cannot possibly get it all into one story but if you look at the next few stories you, too, can share an adventure that was among the most memorable I have experienced. 

Suffice it to say that as Commodore John Treasure Jones, the Captain of the Queen Mary, shook me warmly by the hand before I stepped onto American soil he looked me in the eye, smiled his winsome smile and muttered into my ear “Last of the big spenders, I think”. 

Yes, the chapters about the Queen Mary’s penultimate crossing are worth reading.

05 April 2023