A creative buzz about the place

A creative buzz about the place

Ian McAteer, the founder and chairman of The Union, talks to Jenny Hjul about his personal journey which led to the creation of one of Scotland’s most admired advertising agencies

Lunch with an advertising executive sounds glamorous, maybe even a little dangerous. Perhaps I should leave the car at home and clear my diary for the day. The profession has a reputation – you don’t have to watch Don Draper and Mad Men to know that.

But when Ian McAteer, founder and group chairman of The Union, one of Scotland’s leading agencies, sits down and orders a slimline tonic, I realise that this headiest of worlds has moved with the times and is more sober, subdued and sensible than it was in its flamboyant heyday.

This could have been disappointing but Ian was there, in London, during the crazy Eighties, right at the heart of ad land, and he is forthcoming with vicarious thrills.

He worked for Saatchi & Saatchi, and you can’t really get closer to the action than that. He joined when they were just taking off and was associated with some of the most memorable campaigns, including BA’s (with the haunting Delibes soundtrack).

“Saatchi & Saatchi was the most energising place,” he says. It was 1984, the year after the Tories’ general election landslide, and the Saatchi brothers – Charles (the more ‘secretive’ one) and Maurice, who had helped put Margaret Thatcher in power in 1979 with their ‘Labour isn’t working’ posters – were already advertising gods.

Ian had come to London from the then very left-wing Leeds University a few years earlier to embark on a law career; the winter of discontent was history and punk rock just exploding – “what a fantastic time that was!” he says, eyes twinkling behind pretty cool specs. Law had sounded exciting and studying in England offered a means of escape from Scotland, “the driechest, greyest, most miserable place in the Seventies”. He had dreams of going to Australia or Canada and when he left his boarding school in Dollar he told his friends, “I’m never coming back”.

He joined a respectable chambers and began to practise at the bar, specialising in criminal and family law. But he found it a solitary occupation, and the cases he dealt with –“husbands beating up wives, horrible stories about heroin addicts” – exposed him to society at its worst. It was a ‘class thing’ as well, says Ian, whose father was originally from “a very rough part of Glasgow”, and he felt like a bit of an outsider alongside the Oxbridge graduates.

Visiting the office of a copywriter friend, who worked for J Walter Thompson, he discovered a more natural habitat for his abilities. “I thought, goodness me, they’ve got a bar downstairs, everyone’s running around in jeans and T-shirts, there are lovely looking girls and everyone’s having fun and it’s artistic and creative.”

He wrote to the top 20 agencies and they all turned him down, apart from Saatchi’s, which eventually agreed to take him on as a trainee account executive. His pay dropped from about £18,000 to £8,000 but he was happy.

“When I hear today someone saying I want to change careers but I don’t want to take a step back I say, ‘hang on, why not?’ If you’re starting again you should be prepared to take a step back and have belief in yourself.”

His gamble paid off and within months he was doing film shoots in New York and deals in Casablanca.

“Every Friday, someone seemed to win a pitch and there was champagne in reception,” Ian says. “If I walked out of the office at 7.30pm my boss would say, ‘are you having a half day Ian?’ I’d work until 8.30pm and often there was an all-nighter for pitches…people who were going to the pitch would leave at 11pm so they’d be a bit fresher!”

They’d end up in the Carpenter’s Arms, the pub just around the corner – now Saatchi’s have an in-house pub in the Charlotte Street HQ, called the Pregnant Man (after the famous Family Planning Association ad) – and stay there until closing time.

“We went to lunch every day and drank at lunch, all the time! I’m not saying I don’t drink at lunch now, but in those days it was all the time. Once, we were at an agency away weekend in a hotel in Swindon. Saatchi’s had just become the number one agency in the world. There were 150 people on the dance floor, all completely smashed, and we were all singing ‘We are the Champions of the World’. It was completely manic!”

He acknowledges that it was the ‘best education’ he could have had – “I feel very privileged to have been there” – and is proud of the agency’s stellar projects, not just for BA but the iconic Silk Cut ads and some of the big privatisation campaigns of the Thatcher era.

As a ‘suit’ or ‘bagman’ he was responsible for selling his colleagues’ ideas, the link between the highly-paid ‘creatives’ and the clients. He recalls his shredded nerves as he went through the signing off protocol with the creative director, another god, only slightly below the brothers on the top floor.

“You’d have a taxi waiting, the client waiting and you’d be ready to go. You’d show him
the ad on a board and he’d look at it and go, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no’, screaming, get the ad and break it over his knee and stuff it in the bin. You were like a minion in the organisation. You’d go ‘ahhhh, what am I going to do’. Maurice would then get involved.”

These days, says Ian, the process is much more reasoned and collaborative, but some lessons have stayed with him.

“I learned very early on that the people who were successful were the people who the clients trusted. And the other thing I learned was that nothing is impossible.”
This mantra was taken to extremes at times – one script for a British Telecom ad featured Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev (they almost got the men but Thatcher refused). But it’s a philosophy that has been a key to Ian’s success post-Saatchi.

By the time he decided to leave London he was running about £35m worth of advertising – “not a huge big shot but I did have my own parking space!” He was married, with the first of his three children, and when he was headhunted by Jim Faulds’ agency in Edinburgh he grabbed the opportunity, as much for lifestyle as professional reasons. He had been back to Scotland to see old school friends and thought the capital would be a great place to bring up a family.

He joined Jim as his number two, with the expectation that he would eventually take over. But it didn’t quite work out like that. Although the business was, according to Ian, “firing on all cylinders”, he was to be tempted down a far riskier route.

“It was the summer of 1995 and the creative guys, Simon Scott and Andrew Lindsay, said we want to start an agency and want you to be the account man. I said, ‘No, I’m about to take over from Jim!’ It was very scary, everything was going brilliantly…and I never saw myself as an entrepreneur.”

He agonised for a couple of months, at last confessed to Jim Faulds [“If he’d offered me something I couldn’t turn down, I’d have stayed,” he says; Faulds hasn’t spoken to him since.] and The Union was born. Ian was 38 and confident that the business would roll in.
It didn’t. Within ten months they were half a million pounds in debt and facing ruin.

“People are risk averse and you represent a big load of risk as a new company,” he says. ‘That fear, when you’re a failure and you’re going to lose your house…at one stage I was so scared, I would go to bed at 8pm because I couldn’t really face it.”

The experience was ‘life changing’ but they pulled back from the brink. “We started to win,” he says, “mainly Scottish brands such as Baxter’s and Scottish & Newcastle. We’ve had ups and downs since but that’s the last time we thought of closing.”

He says he is fortunate because he is resilient, thanks to his childhood rather than his initiation at Saatchi’s. Born in Nairobi while his journalist father was editing a string of newspapers in Africa, he discovered self-sufficiency from an early age. He was eight when he and his younger, asthmatic sister were sent off to boarding school in the Kenyan Highlands, and admits he felt a sense of “total, total abandonment”.

He gazes out of the window a lot at this point. The train journey from home lasted three days and they were truly in the middle of nowhere. But he got through it, has been back to his school [“It hasn’t changed much”] and found himself cheering the Kenyans in the Olympics.

The survival instinct helped him three years ago when his marriage broke up, something he says was not his choice; though ‘very, very difficult’. It taught him a lot. He is now in a new relationship and agrees that life, though not ‘jetset’, is good. One day he would like to have a base in the Seychelles, birthplace of his late mother and home for his father, and catch marlin and tuna. But he is only 55, his youngest child is 14 and retirement is not yet on the horizon.

The Union has bucked what he calls the ‘pretty catastrophic’ trend of the last five years in the advertising market, which has seen most of the traditional agencies in Scotland close down. The premier league companies, such as RBS, Standard Life and Scottish Power, invest their advertising budgets in London, a global creative centre which, Ian says, is like a “super force, a dark star that sucks things in”, including our brightest young talent.

“If they were to spend even a small proportion of their total marketing spend in Scotland, which they don’t, it would transform the creative industry.” He measures his words carefully, aware of the village he lives in, but his agency has an impressive line-up of clients, including familiar Scottish names and big public sector contracts. One of these is the Scottish Government, which explains his caution talking politics.

What he does say is that the referendum debate – though ‘hugely positive’ – didn’t address the issue of making money. “I felt that there was a lot of discussion about how we’d redistribute and spend money…but less talk (and no real depth of talk) about how we’d create wealth which, if you think about it, is a harder thing to do.”

Ian has diversified to make his business thrive and has embraced new technology. He shows me a brochure and then laughs at himself – Saatchi’s would have been horrified by a brochure. He remains hands-on, relishes the variety of his job and never switches off. But social media presentations and ‘data segmentation’ – it’s all far removed from the hedonism of the Eighties, isn’t it?

He mentions a summer party for the staff on an uncharacteristically warm Edinburgh evening, when around midnight half the agency ended up swimming in next door’s fish pond. Advertising people might not put in expenses claims for casinos these days or drink cocktails for breakfast, but it sounds like they still know how to have fun.