The wit and wis­dom of George Smith — Où est le chat?

In this amus­ing mus­ing from 1985, George Smith pulls back the cur­tain on what direct mar­keters real­ly talk about when unleashed in a room together.

Written by
George Smith
November 25, 2021

The things direct marketers really talk about.

I was in the North yesterday, talking with two agreeable coves, one tall, the other not, both nicely chatty. You may hang me by my toenails, but I will reveal neither my location, nor the names of their companies nor the incumbent agencies. It was a nice chat and that’s all. 

In fact, it was so nice that I came to muse on the Inter City home about the role of chat in direct marketing. As one who has always sworn by the value of personal articulateness and remained ever free to make with the verbals to the point of drowning the available world in deeply felt gibberish, I have never had any problem in communicating with the spoken word. It probably stems from being an only child and having worse spots than anyone else when it came to developing relationships with the opposite sex. A godlike demeanour I never boasted. So, it had to be long words, always deeply felt, even if the objective was merely to get Shirley Delaney into the back row of the Peckham Odeon under the guise of seeing the latest Audie Murphy. 

As one passed through adolescence, the spots came and went and came back again, the Tony Curtis failed, and the emphasis remained on the words. By age seventeen I was able to look Janice Palmer straight in the eye, give a slight chuckle and say, ‘This is incredible, but I think I’m falling in love with you’. I was what was known at the time as a chatty bleeder. 

Direct marketing is full of chatty bleeders (for the sake of overall propriety and at the risk of getting this whole edition impounded by the police, I will refer to the species from here on in as CBs). Yesterday in the North, we had three simultaneous CBs. Most of the people I work with are CBs. Very few clients are CBs. Roger Millington is a CB superstar. Glenmore Trenear-Harvey’s is a very superior CB, a sort of Horace Walpole of the art (ed: Roger and Glenmore were two of George’s great contemporaries). CB-manship is very much a characteristic of the service side of the business. Which, if you think about it, is merely logical. 

Go round a direct marketing gathering and you will be exposed to chat of every kind. It is believed, quite wrongly, that when the eminent are chatting together – say, the platform speakers at a conference – that they must be comparing notes at a very serious level. In fact, it is likely that they are asking for the latest Test score (ed: that’s a cricket reference for our readers who aren’t in the know about said weird sport) or complaining about the quality of the hotel plonk. 

Serious chat is more likely from the rank-and-file delegates. Creep around the huddled groups with your fruit juice in your hand and you will hear things like: 

‘No way can I see PIN overtaking ACORN. The data claims verge on the spurious.’ 

Or, ‘Tim’s really electrifying when it comes to matching profiles.’

Or, ‘The proposition simply fell to pieces when we applied unitised costing.’ 

This is CB-manship at the swotty end of the market. When a swot meets a hearty in this business, the hearty nods vigorously and tells a funny story or offers a piece of gossip. In the case of Millington, he will regale you with stories about the jazz band he played with in 1961. In Glenmore case he will mention what Rosser Reeves told him in Kuala Lumpur. In my case, I will ask the poor group to nominate five football league teams with an ‘x’ in their names. Failing that, I reserve the right to look into anyone’s eyes and tell them that I love them. We all have our fallback chat and sometimes it goes back a long way.  

But chat obviously makes the world go round. Sometimes it is mere gossip (can it really be true that Brian has sold to Jane?) and sometimes not. But it is the cement that binds relationships. In direct marketing it is often the prelude to the shameless foisting of a business card. Always it enables one individual to get a reading on another… 

Chatty bleeders run the risk of being brazen, otiose, opinionated, vulgar, indiscreet, pompous and downright boring. In coming forth with their verbal raiment, they run the risk of offending the chattee at so many points that one wonders why they bother making with the verbals. The answer is, as so often, vanity, sheer silly old vanity. 

And, as always, the clients and the chattees have the last word. You know what Janice Palmer said, don’t you? 

‘Don’t be so bloody silly.’ 

Editor: Is it just me or does George’s story evoke this song in anyone else?

About the author: George Smith

George Smith

The late George Smith (he/him) wrote his first fundraising ad for Oxfam in 1962. In his twenties he was appointed European coordinator for a major-league American advertising agency and, in contrast, was elected as a local councillor in an inner-London borough. He formed the Smith Bundy direct marketing agency in 1973 and served as chief executive for 20 years. During those two decades his copywriting skills were applied to many diverse commercial direct marketing clients, yet fundraising was always a specialism. In 1990 he was awarded the UK’s DMA Gold Award for work on Greenpeace.

Between 1987 and 1993 George was chief executive of the International Fund Raising Group, responsible for the celebrated Noordwijkerhout conference and a growing number of events around the world. He was also a director of Burnett Associates Limited. His monthly articles in Britain’s Direct Response magazine were published in 1987 as a collection called By George. He became chairman of the UK’s Institute of Direct Marketing (IDM) in 1997 and is an honorary fellow both of the IDM and the Chartered Institute of Fundraising.

George Smith also wrote Asking ProperlyTiny Essentials of Writing for Fundraising and Up Smith Creek.

Related case studies or articles

The wit and wisdom of George Smith - Infantile musings

In a piece from 1997, George Smith reflects on how the joy of becoming a grandparent made him more altruistic, and why charities should tap into that well of happiness. 

Read more

The wit and wisdom of George Smith - Never sneer at an Oscar

Back in 1993, George Smith extolled the virtues of the now ubiquitous fundraising awards. 

Read more

The wit and wisdom of George Smith - Let’s be conventional

How should one go about navigating the perilous world of conventions, symposia and workshops? Here's the answer, brought to you by fundraising legend George Smith.

Read more

The wit and wisdom of George Smith - Do you seriously want to be serious?

Can being too serious undermine a good working environment? George Smith certainly thought so, as this hilarious column confirms.

Read more