I was saddened to read today about the death of Peter Marsh, co-founder of Allen Brady & Marsh, one of London’s most respected/despised/admired/talked-about ad agencies of the 1970s and 1980s.
Peter was a man that was easy to like and not hard to dislike. The only thing bigger than his ego was his reputation. Or maybe I’ve got that the wrong way round. Whatever, everyone either knew Peter, or had heard something about Peter, or had something to say about Peter. Quite frequently Peter was the one talking about Peter.
His heyday was before I started in the ad business, but even when I was cutting my teeth in the industry the stories about him (some true, some doubtless not true) circulated frequently. And so, as my way of remembering him, I’ll share one of the stories I was told about him that I think sums up the kind of man he was, or at least the kind of man he wanted you to think he was. It is probably the best known of the numerous stories about him.
His agency, ABM, were pitching for the advertising account of British Rail which, at the time, had a truly terrible reputation.
The client arrived in reception at the agency at the appointed time, but Peter was nowhere to be found. Sincere apologies were offered and every effort was made to find the absent supremo. While they waited, the clients sat with increasing impatience in a noisy, crowded and rather messy lobby, full of dirty coffee cups and even dirtier ashtrays.
Eventually, when it appeared that their very existence had been forgotten, Sir Peter Parker (the senior member of the client entourage) stormed over to the receptionist and announced that no company that valued its customers so little deserved to have his business. The entire group strode towards the door.
As if by magic, Marsh appeared. He introduced himself and the client remarked acidly that he was an hour late, the reception area was a pigsty, his staff had been unhelpful, and why on earth would they consider spending any more time to hear what he had to say?
Marsh smiled and said “Now that you know what your customers think about British Rail, why don’t we go and see what we can do to fix it?”
There are few individuals for whom the terms chutzpah is truly apt, but Peter Marsh was most certainly one of them.
Oh, of course, they won the British Rail pitch.