Do you seriously want to be serious?

Written by
George Smith
April 15, 2013

A light-hearted look at the more ‘serious’ side of things from George Smith’s collection of articles, Up Smith Creek. Of course, as always, George did have something sensible to say as well.

If you’re not sure who Mike Atherton and Graham Taylor are, then please leave your contact details in the comments and we’ll get back to you. Same goes for Terry, Chris and Kate and, of course, the Dead Kennedys.

Some of George’s clients nervously looked for ways to escape his fantasies.

In the early days of Smith Bundy I always wanted to have a checkout in reception. Clients would bring their copy, layouts and finished artwork (oh dear dead phrase) there in a basket or a trolley, a junior member of staff would rack up the cost of their purchases on a big till and the clients would pay on the spot. We would accept credit cards. I even invented some dialogue for said staff, ‘A mailing, two revised adverts, three media schedules and a concept… Brenda, aren’t we doing a special offer on concepts this month?’

I tried to share this and other fantasies with clients. They used to chuckle nervously, look for the exits and sometimes moved their business to other agencies where the proprietor could be guaranteed to be of sound mind. Mind you, eccentricity occasionally had its due reward – I once won a sizeable piece of mail order business when the client team from Manchester arrived early while I was washing my hair in the sink. ‘Are you really George Smith?’ asked the marketing director. ‘I could be,’ I said. ‘Would you mind passing that towel?’ We worked with Marshall Ward for the next seven years on the implacably professional basis that we were more fun than the other herberts.

Executives attempting to zap each other with blob guns were monitored by chaps in glasses with clipboards.

It wouldn’t do these days. Agency pitches are solemn hard work, preceded by large briefing documents from the client and ending with spiral-bound submissions from the agency, the whole event choreographed to the minute.

There is much frowning and note taking. Regiments of people are involved. Both sides regroup after the presentation to de-brief each other. Another meeting will always be arranged.

Similarly with the interviewing process. Apply for a job more senior than a car-park attendant and you will be sent a small feuilleton of paper relevant to the post concerned. Get shortlisted and you will be subjected to a beady-eyed interview aimed at plumbing the heart of your soul. Get seriously shortlisted and you will suffer a barrage of tests and procedures to determine your intellect, your role-playing capacity, your ego, your id, your bonding skills and your command of Excel and water pistols. There’s a forest around here that is regularly given over to recruitment weekends where earnest executives zap each other with blob guns, the game monitored by chaps in glasses with clipboards. They all want to be computer salesmen.

The sound of whiskey being poured was a sure sign that the interview was going well.

My hiring process was always a little more relaxed. I hired Terry Hunt because he read interesting books. I hired Chris Barraclough because he was good on old pop records. I hired Kate Mazur because she was a good bloke who could handle a cricket scorebook. Colleagues could always tell when an interview was going well – they heard the scotch being opened and conversation turning to the virtues of the Dead Kennedys, the superiority of Lorenz Hart over Cole Porter and why Andrew Lloyd Webber should be hanged just after Norman Tebbit. No one queried the relationship of such banter to the stern disciplines of direct marketing. Nor should they have, with salary levels quaking around the hundred-quid-a-week level. Plus luncheon vouchers I might add.

I am not impressed by the New Seriousness.

Luncheon vouchers are worth a tad more nowadays than back in 1997.

The replacement of human conversation by earnest verbal ceremony can make for mediocre choice, whether of the individual or the company. Tick boxes are ticked, points awarded, verdicts reached through an accumulation of collective judgments geared for propriety and not for flair. You hear the phrase, ‘He interviewed very well’ and it usually means that the applicant has said the correct things with apparent conviction. The occasional applicant with attitude, the one who might want to challenge the brio – will be seen as a loose cannon – mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Don’t be alarmed if your software supplier turns up dressed as a moose – it might just be a small victory for the human race.

Which was, of course, the contemporary description of Lord Byron. Would he have got a job as a poet-in residence? Would John Prescott have made it via role-playing tests? Blair probably would. Would Spielberg have passed an interview? Actually he dropped out of film school and just parked his backside at Columbia Studios without asking; by the time the guvnors found out he’d written the screenplay for Duel. Talent rarely emerges via the newly formal techniques of selection. You end up with Mike Atherton or Graham Taylor.

I think I’ll pop down to our neighbourhood forest and behave badly. I’ll dress up as a moose and confuse both job applicants and chaps with clipboards. They’ll probably offer me a job after a psychometric test or two. If your software house turns up for a presentation with the OHPs being carried by a moose, know that we will have scored a small victory for the human race.

About the author: George Smith

George Smith

A legendary marketing/fundraising guru and curmudgeon.

Related case studies or articles

Words count: Why fundraisers have to change what they say and how they say it

Over the last decade, the direct marketing industry has been smitten by data base gurus who have touted the segmentation of donor files as a process akin to the magical mystery tour.

Read more

What’s next in fundraising?

Recently SOFII and The Agitator joined forces with Revolutionise to identify, foster and develop new journalistic talent in fundraising. We offered five free places for the 2014 Annual Lectures at the Royal Institution in London to aspiring fundraising writers, who each had to submit a short piece on the theme of ‘what’s next in fundraising?’ The standard of writing and range of approaches to tackling the topic were very impressive and made the task of choosing the best five articles very difficult. Here’s one of the winning entries from Emily Henry.

Read more

In search of baubles

Now, as part of SOFII’s continued commitment to fine writing we further celebrate the brilliance, wit and wisdom of George Smith with a series of articles taken from his last book, Up Smith Creek. We start with a seasonal article that first appeared in Professional Fundraising magazine in February, 1997 – and it’s just as relevant today.

Read more

Copywriting and design strategies for better donor newsletters: a before and after success story

Fundraising copywriter Lisa Sargent and designer Sandie Collette, of S.Collette Design, discuss how copywriting and design go hand-in-hand to make a Dublin-based charity's newsletter overhaul a success. Discover the strategies that helped make it happen in this case study of a nonprofit newsletter.

Read more

Also in Categories