The TV commercial that never was (part one)
What follows is an unashamed and indulgent trip down memory lane, but for those of you remotely interested in advertising, it might make for an enjoyable read. It’s my recollection of the events of some 28 years ago, so it may not be 100% accurate, but nonetheless I hope you like it, despite the very poor video quality…
I was rummaging around my old work filing cabinets recently looking for something relevant to a project and stumbled upon an old videotape that I had completely forgotten about. It took me back to the early part of my career and a particularly eventful new product launch.
My first few jobs were in advertising, first at a Foote Cone & Belding offshoot, then McCormick Publicis (now simply Publicis) and finally SSC&B Lintas, which was Lever Brothers’ in-house advertising agency, founded in 1899. Lintas was an acronym for Lever International Advertising Services, but the name remained even though, in 1930, Lever merged with Margarine Union to create Unilever.
As a result, at the time I was working there, the bulk of clients were the likes of Walls ice cream (“Just One Cornetto” anyone?), Sure deodorant, Surf washing powder and Flora margarine. But the agency was also on a mission to win non-Unilever clients of which Toyota and Japan Airlines (one of my accounts) were just two.
One day, the agency got a new business call from Barclays Bank, which threw everyone into a frenzy. This was a big one, the opportunity to pitch for the launch of a top-secret, major new banking product. At the time, Barclays’ lead agency was Yellowhammer – probably the first significant integrated communications agency – and the marketing department was looking for other agencies that were happy to take on the challenge of all its above and below-the-line communications (with the exception of direct marketing) under one roof.
The launch was for Barclays Connect (its code name was Project Decimal and part of the project was to create the name and card design for the product), which was to be the first ever debit card linked directly (through Barclaycard’s Visa payment system) to a current account.
At the time, this was a big deal because for day-to-day shopping people still used cash or paper cheques (remember those?). Credit cards generally were only ever used for big-ticket items.
I was part of the successful pitch team and then was the day-to-day Account Manager up to and beyond launch. One important question we had, which was consistently echoed by our planning director, was whether retailers would be happy to accept a new payment system that charged a percentage of the transaction price rather than a flat fee per cheque processed? (I seem to remember the figure of 10 pence per cheque, but I could be mistaken.) His argument was that many retailers would lose out financially, so why would they accept it?
As it happened, in the run-up to launch it became clear that the Retail Consortium were going to play hardball and mounted a campaign on behalf of its members, with a threat to boycott the product. Unfortunately, when this really gathered momentum, Barclays had already gone live with teaser advertising promising to let the cat out of the bag on 3rd June 1987 about another Barclays innovation. What’s more, a ton of TV slots had been bought and the advertisement was in post-production.
This TV ad dramatised the downsides of writing out cheques and, specifically, portrayed retailers and other shoppers as finding customers who want to pay this way rather irritating. (It’s worth pointing out that this ad had been written and signed off long before the Retail Consortium started throwing its weight around and we had been consistently reassured that there would be no problems among shopkeepers in accepting the new product.)
When the sh*t really hit the proverbial fan and Barclays realised that it probably was not a good idea to run the commercial we had all sweated over for many months (too much of a red rag to a bull!), Lintas was charged with the task of coming up with a completely new TV ad and get it produced and on-air in less than three weeks.
In our modern digital age when things seem to be able to happen instantly, it’s difficult to imagine just what a challenge this really was – for Barclays and for the agency. Everyone worked round-the-clock nearly every day up to launch to get the new commercial shot. Inevitably, it had to be based on a simple idea that would be easy and (relatively) inexpensive to produce. By the skin of our teeth we got there and on 3rd of June 1987 Barclays Connect was launched with a new TV ad that – let’s face it – didn’t really say much about the product for fear of upsetting retailers.
Ironically, the dispute with the Retail Consortium was resolved at the eleventh hour, which meant the original TV campaign probably could have gone on air. Instead, the master tape was consigned to a bookshelf behind the desk of the Head of TV Production, only to gather dust. There was some talk, I seem to remember, about Lintas buying a single ad slot within an obscure, late night show on the smallest local TV station, just so “the ad that never ran” could be entered into advertising awards schemes, but I cannot remember whether this ever happened.
Looking at the commercial now, it really shows how far things have moved on in the intervening period. At the time, this was a major production, involving green screens, duplicated and merged shots and all sorts of post-shoot trickery. A huge amount of money was spent on it, I guess not dissimilar to what the likes of John Lewis or Sainsbury’s have spent this Christmas.
As for Barclays Connect – despite the eventful build up to launch – it went on to be a huge success. It seems almost impossible now to imagine banking (and shopping) without having a debit card. It’s just something we take for granted. It does also beg the question whether the original TV advertisement would have worked more effectively than the one that did actually go on air!
Less than a year after the launch, I left Lintas and became a client at NatWest Bank. One of my first projects was to help the consortium of NatWest, Midland (remember them?) and RBS develop and launch their own debit card payment system through Mastercard. It was called Switch, later to be renamed Maestro some 14 years later.
So I guess that means I am probably unique in being the only person (or at least one of the very few) in the UK to have been involved, in my own small way, in introducing this way of paying and laying the foundations for it to become the normal way of shopping! OK, bragging now over…