Post boy to boss

Post boy to boss

Like a scene from US period TV drama Mad Men, Brian Barrett left school aged 15 and went straight into advertising. 50 years later, and now chairman of Wyatt International, he reflects on his career

1963: that was the year that was. No doubt we all remember some of the momentous events that occurred that year, from the assassination of President John F Kennedy to the first ever episode of Doctor Who.

It was also a comparably insignificant but nevertheless important milestone for me personally. It was the year that I reached 15 at Bierton Secondary Modern School in South Yardley, Birmingham, and had to decide between going on to further education or leaving to find a job.

I decided on the latter and so, helped by the youth employment office, I obtained my one and only job interview with BBP Advertising – a company that was, at the time, one of the top agencies in Birmingham, needing someone to start work at the very bottom of the ladder as post boy.

Advertising had been my first career choice, even since primary school so, with great enthusiasm, I attended the interview and landed my very first job in the advertising industry.

The pay was awful, and the hours turned out to be long and hard, starting at 9am often through to 8pm and later. And in those days the working week included a half day on Saturday. But what a great training ground.

The job meant I became head ‘go-for’ and packer for all of the agency’s functions, connecting me to all departments from photographic to the art studio, and from the production department to media buyers, a fledgling PR unit and all the account handlers.

It also enabled me to meet and talk to printers, publishing houses, newspaper composition rooms, television studios, film producers, block makers and, occasionally, even clients.

The list was very diverse – retailers to holiday companies, industrial giants to global multi-nationals. The job may have been the most basic, but the learning curve was tremendous.
However, like most young people, I needed more money and greater opportunity. I was, after all, heading for sixteen at this time.

And although (believe it or not) fetching the Letraset, the designer’s Gouache and packing the printing blocks was quite interesting, life had to move on. So, I had to think of a way to make myself more useful and get promoted.

The agency’s biggest account was Black and Decker – an international consumer and industrial brand that was the envy of the West Midland’s advertising scene. Getting into the account’s handling team wasn’t going to be easy, but it might help if you knew the product portfolio and codes which went across everything from handyman’s power drills to industrial grinders.

And that’s what I did. By ‘memorising’ the industrial catalogue and familiarising myself with the product applications I became more ‘useful’ to the account team and, after just six months in the post room, they put me in charge of looking after the all-important product samples, getting them ready for photography and filming, and ordering the printing block requests from the client’s main dealers.

I might not have been CEO at this time, but what a great job it turned out to be. It encompassed everything from playing a part in catalogue production, to national newspaper campaigns, even the occasional TV ad.

That was the first stepping stone to getting real hands-on experience in the advertising business, which was one of the most sought-after professions of the era. Before long, in 1967, I joined Wyatt – then known as Wyatt Hooke and Partners – as production manager, becoming a board director in 1971 and eventually a majority shareholder and chief executive.

And now, as chairman, fifty years after I started in advertising, I’m still enjoying the demands of what undoubtedly is one of the toughest businesses to be in, and one of the most satisfying. It’s been a long journey from post boy to chairman, but looking back I don’t think I would have done anything differently.

Today, of course, the business has undergone huge changes. We don’t refer to it much as the ‘advertising industry’ anymore, but more the ‘marketing communications profession’.

It’s difficult to believe that in those early years there was no internet, no mobile phones, no Apple Macs (not even computers).

So what am I rambling on about? Times move on and so must we. Strategic planning, creative development, digital marketing, social networking – all are integrated and vital elements of today’s marketing landscape.

And no doubt in another 50 years, the whole thing will have changed beyond recognition again. What won’t change is people’s ability to learn, think creatively, come up with new ideas and innovative techniques that help to shape the marketing business of the future.

It’s nice to look back, but essential to plan for the future. So here’s to 2014, and ‘this is the year that is‘.

Wyatt International Ltd is based at 72 Francis Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B16 8SP. Tel: 0121 454 8181.