David Gluckman has probably spent more time in the ideas business than anyone else. He started in 1958 and, at 83 years old, he’s still in play. His most successful engagement was with drinks company, Diageo, where he was employed as a consultant from 1969 – 2005. His brand list includes Baileys Irish Cream, Le Piat d’Or, Sheridan’s, The Singleton, Gilbey’s Green Label, Aqua Libra, Purdey’s, Ciron and Tanqueray Ten.
-So, how do you explain your success with so many brands, David?
-I think I was fortunate because I worked for a very large company for 36 years but never worked inside it. I was an outsider and wasn’t engaged with the company's politics. The company became Diageo, now the world's biggest branded drinks company. They tolerated me for 36 years, and I learned a huge amount.
-You seem to be a strong supporter of solutions with a single answer?
If you are trying to solve a problem or come up with an idea, you have to look for a single answer. As one client once said to me “if you have more than one answer you don’t have any!” I hated designers who came to me with 12 beautifully rendered designs and asked, "What do you think?” If you are being paid to answer a question, you abdicate responsibility for the recommendation once you produce alternatives. You're passing it onto other people to make the decision, which is crazy. So the more I was engaged with the creative process, the more I was sure you had to look for a single answer. And that was very important.
This is why market research can't give us all the answers and can't predict success or forecast the likelihood of failure. Consumers like what they know. But they don't know what they may like. Trying to change ideas to make them more familiar never works.
If we producers aren't smarter than our consumers, we’re dead.
-Please, tell us more about your childhood in South Africa.
-I was brought up in South Africa. I lived in a comfortable, not particularly well-off environment. I read a huge amount as a child because we didn't have television or other media. I read books. I inherited a set of Children’s Encyclopedias which I read from cover-to-cover.
I loved reading everything. Children's comics in my day were based on text rather than cartoons. The only presents I ever asked for were comics and books. These were the 1940s and the 1950s. They were often adventure stories about English public schools. And there I was, living in faraway South Africa and reading about England and America. It all seemed so exotic.
South Africa also had strong American influences and much of our culture came from there. There were milk bars and drive-in cinemas and we had American comic books which were more cartoony than English ones. And American cars. I had my first driving test in a green 1947 Dodge Fluid Drive. It was enormous.
We would take piles of 20 comics to the movies on a Saturday morning and exchange them for new ones. It was the high point of the week.
-And what about your parents?
My father was a businessman but really a professional failure. He tried a number of ventures without ever succeeding. He was a very good writer and should probably have been a journalist.
My mother went to a smart girl’s school. Her father was a lawyer and a judge. She was quite creative, and good at working with her hands.
Given that the central part of everything I did was about communicating with words, I may have inherited that skill from my father.
-What about university?
My academic achievements were very ordinary. I went to University in Johannesburg when I was 16. In those days, in 1955, we were much less mature than young people are now. I did a variety of subjects at University; three years of English, three years of Psychology. I also did Constitutional Law, Philosophy and Latin. My course also included Art History and Music, not because I was an enthusiastic pursuer of culture - but because I thought I might be able to bullshit my way in the examinations! And I did.
University life was very political in those times. When I started, our university was open to people of all races. By the end of 1958, Apartheid had kicked in and universities would become segregated.
I left University in November 1958 with no clear idea of what I would do with my life.
-Where did the interest in advertising came from?
My father was a great reader. He didn't believe in buying books because he read six books a week borrowed from the library. He once said he couldn't build a house big enough for all the books he wanted to read.
I came across a book in the house called Madison Avenue, USA, by Martin Mayer. And it was about advertising in New York in the 1950s. My father said it was very interesting and that I might like to read it. I finished it in a day and was hooked. Why not give advertising a try? I liked the thought of becoming an ‘ideas man’.
So I went to an advertising agency in Johannesburg and applied for a job. And because I'd been to University and owned a suit, they employed me. Well, perhaps I also interviewed well!
They decided I would become an account executive, which is not where I had seen my career path. But from 1959 to 1969 - first in Johannesburg and then in London for ten years I was a middle-man between the agency’s clients and the creative people. I also did some market research with Unilever in Durban in the middle before coming to England. When I arrived, my only credential was an account executive. So that was the job I was to do till 1969.
-When did you make the boat trip to London?
-I made the trip at the end of 1961. It took about two weeks, with 1000 girls, 500 guys, and very cheap beer and cigarettes, and it was great fun. I left Cape Town on a lovely, sunny November afternoon and arrived in cold, dark miserable London on the 17th of November 1961.
-Quite a drastic change. Why did you do it?
Three main reasons for it.
I spent nine months working in market research, and I saw that this was not a career I wanted for myself.
Secondly, there is this colonial boy's pull towards the Mother Country. Many Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans made this pilgrimage to London at some stage in their early life.
I think at that time I paid £35 pounds for my boat trip. Which is peanuts now, but at that time was half a month’s salary.
They give you a trip with all meals and a week's accommodation in Earl's Court when you arrive. Finding people to interview for jobs in early December was very tough. The ad business was in ‘celebration mode’. But I managed to find a job in January 1962, when my money was down to almost nothing.
It was a huge adventure.
-How did your colleagues look at you in the agency?
Many of my younger colleagues were Oxbridge types, which could be quite intimidating to a young ‘colonial’ like me. And there were older executives who had served in World War 2. I soon found a group of like-minded young executive friends.
The agency was an outpost of a US company called Benton & Bowles. It was dominated by huge US clients like Procter & Gamble, S C Johnson and General Foods and because of this was quite staid and conservative.
This was the beginning of the 60s creative revolution, but it hadn’t quite reached Benton & Bowles! But a number of our people left and achieved considerable success when setting up their own agencies. Amongst this group were Frank Lowe (Lowe group), Charles Saatchi, Geers & Gross and Richard French.
I worked first on Procter & Gamble which was a frightening account. Because they were incredibly structured and disciplined, it taught me a huge amount. It also taught me the reality of the business. It's not some kind of romantic adventure. It was about selling product. Usually soap. I never forgot that, and I think P&G kept me honest and they kept me realistic throughout my career.
Then came the best period in my advertising life. There was this charismatic Irishman, called Tony O'Reilly. He was a famous rugby player. He was about 28. I was 24, and he was General Manager of the Irish Dairy Board. He had an interesting challenge : Irish butter at the time had no identity. It was anonymous, and it was used as a commodity for blending into bulk butter. As a result, it couldn't command a premium price.
The agency helped him transform Irish butter into Kerrygold, which is now a multi-billion dollar international brand. I joined the team after most of the major decisions had been taken, so I can’t claim to be a founder. But I think I made a few useful contributions.
My P&G experience kicked in on one occasion when, during a visit to a creamery in Ireland, I asked the manager how much cream went into every half pound packet. “A pint” he responded and that gave birth to the headline A PINT OF CREAM IN EVERY PACKET which was a key advertising line for a few years.
P&G taught me to look for a benefit. A product advantage. And that directive has been with me throughout my career.
Take Smirnoff in the US in 1990. It had become a cheap supermarket vodka but was now suffering from the incursion of premium imported brands Absolut and Stolichnaya.
My brief was to develop a premium Smirnoff to compete. I thought it was a bit like trying to get a Michelin star for a KFC Chicken shop!
My view was that the only way Smirnoff could compete was by offering a better product. I came up with the idea of a smoother vodka and the vodka the R&D team produced had to beat Absolut & Stolichnaya 9 times out of 10 in blind taste comparison. And we did. The variant was called Smirnoff Black.
-So, let's get back to London. What was the next step for you?
I was always a frustrated creative and when I turned 30, I thought, "I can't go on doing this job." It's not creative enough for me. You need to be in a place where you produce ideas. I don't want to be an administrator. Or a middleman.
I was now in a different agency called Lintas, which was owned by Unilever. So I went to my boss- I and said: "How about setting up a department to help companies develop new products?” By this time, towards the end of the 60s, agencies were beginning to diversify into PR, market research and design, so a move into brand development was on trend.
It was now too late for me to become, say, a copywriter. I had no track record. I had to create a new kind of career. And brand development was a lot like the Kerrygold operation, an adventure that had been a high point for me.
The MD agreed to my proposal and put me together with a copywriter from the agency. And this is how we started life as brand developers. My colleague, Hugh Seymour-Davies and I were to stay together for 15 years.
I had a very lucky start. About a month after opening, I went to a seminar in Stresa on Lake Maggiore. There I met a man from a drinks company called IDV. We went to dinner together and he and I clicked immediately. We both loved talking about ideas. His name was Tom Jago and over the 15 years we worked together he became more than a client. He was a friend.
I called him a few days after we met and said that we were setting up this new brand development company. I asked whether he might consider giving us his business. He agreed. IDV (International Distillers & Vintners) was our first client.
They were international but mid-sized. They had distribution rights for Smirnoff world-wide outside America, J&B, which was America’s No. 1 Scotch whisky, Croft Port and Sherry and a large wine portfolio.
They had companies in Ireland, Australia, Kenya, Canada and South Africa. They were pretty big and up and coming.
I was lucky enough to work for them for 36 years. From 1969-2005.
-Going back to your arrival in London, tell me more about living there in the 60s.
My first apartment (shared) right on Oxford Street opposite Selfridges. At the time, I had no real idea about the geography of London. I had a week to find a place, made a few calls and suddenly I’m sharing a flat right in the middle of London.
Later I lived in Chalk Farm, on Belsize Park, South Kensington and Chelsea, always sharing flats with other friends.
Benton & Bowles was in Knightsbridge, very close to Harrods..
-How much was your salary and how much was your rent back then?
My first rent was £3 pounds a week, and my first salary £900 pounds a year / £75pounds a month. I bought a tailor-made suit (respectable but not Savile Row) for £12 pounds. An Indian supper for one was £2 pounds. A pack of cigarettes was 20p. A pint of beer was 7p.
And people back then used to meet at work—lots of well-educated people and lots of good-looking secretaries and like-minded people. You work every day, and you are at the pub every night.
We talked about our work all the time. We talked about our clients, as many were awful people - excessively demanding. But, unfortunately, some people can be like that.
I remember a guy from another agency once told us - "You guys talk like you're the greatest agency in the world." And we certainly believed it.
-What were the most significant changes you have seen through the years?
One of them was the creative revolution in the 60s. I worked for a P&G brand called Mr. Clean. And the advertising was all built around a phrase "Mr. Clean cleans faster and easier than any other soap detergent powder or scourer you’ve ever used.” It's hard-wired into my brain. And we had to say it twice in every ad.
And people began to realize that if you bore people to death with your advertising, they weren't going to pay any attention to it. So grabbing attention became just as important as having a good message.
We were dominated by big international clients like P&G, Johnson's Wax, and they were all run from Wisconsin or Cincinnati, US. They all had a methodology, which they imposed on us.
But now we were getting to a stage where we creatives were breaking away from that stranglehold and starting to produce more intrusive, more exciting advertising. It was great, but they never sat comfortably in our agency. While I learned a lot from P&G, their systems were too rigid. The world was changing.
-And how did this change all for you?
From 1969 I was no longer involved with advertising. Instead, I was involved with product development.
And in 1973, either I said to my partner, or he said it to me - why don't we set up on our own. I will talk to Tom and see if we can get the IDV business. And we will use that as a basis. We were both at that time earning about £5,500 a year. And in the early 70s, this was a very respectable amount of money. The flat I bought in 1977, in the Centre of London, cost me £25,000 pounds to give you an idea.
-And where did you set up your business?
We rented a one-roomed penthouse flat with a small balcony in Dean Street, Soho. It was opposite a ‘The Groucho club’, famous for its media and advertising celebrities. Soho was a fascinating place back then. You keep seeing interesting personalities there - famous artists, film stars. And I've described this period in my book. ‘The Establishment Club’ was a venue for satire on Greek Street. and another meeting-place was Ronnie Scott’s Jazz club on Frith Street. We used to drink at the York Minster, known as ‘the French Pub’, as it was run by a Frenchman called Gaston Berlemont. We usually drank beer at the pub, but if we were feeling good on a Friday, they would give us champagne by the glass. Soho then epitomised 1960s London..
-You had a partner, right?
Hugh my business partner and I were very different. He went to Eton and Oxford and was a typical establishment Englishman. He went trout fishing and shooting and stuff like that. And I was very different. Very much a colonial boy.
-What were your lives back then?
By this time, I had a lady and a baby daughter, and we lived in Cockfosters, which was quite a long way out of town, about 14 miles away from the city. Hugh lived in Stockwell, south of the river. So I was often in the office at eight in the morning and he would arrive at 9:40. So we were pretty different, but I loved him dearly, but sadly he has passed away.
I think my relationship with Hugh was a good one because we were so different. Often, when I worked with similar people, we would compete. And that was rarely productive. Hugh was mature enough and intelligent enough to realise that our differences were a strength.
-Tell me about ‘Baileys Day’, April 1973.
We’d been in business for about a month and beginning to feel the pressure of having to build a business. Hugh was very good at forgetting what we were working on when he closed the door to the office on a Friday evening. I took the work home with me and never let it go.
It was Monday morning and Hugh had to be ‘re-booted’. “What are we doing today?” he asked.
We had, what I later called ‘The Brief from Hell’. IDV’s Irish company were looking for an idea for a brand to export.
The ‘hellish’ part was that we would never meet the client till the day of the eventual presentation; we had no idea what sort of person we were dealing with ; we had no clue about the strengths and weaknesses of the company ; or what raw materials they wanted to use. We didn’t even have a written brief.
I discussed it with Hugh. The only starter I could think of was my experience with Kerrygold. Was there anything from my Kerrygold experience we could use? "What happens if we mix Irish whiskey and cream?" Hugh asked. He just trotted it out; he didn't mean it with any conviction. And I said, there is the only way to find out, and I dragged him out of the office to the nearest supermarket.
We bought some Irish whiskey and some cream. Then back to the office where we mixed it up, tasted it, and the result was….. pretty disgusting!!!
But I still felt there was something there, so we returned to the store and found some powdered drinking chocolate. We went back to the office, added the chocolate powder, added some sugar, played around with proportions, never measuring anything and we would never be able to replicate our mixture if we did it again.
The new mix tasted OK and I decided to give Tom a ring and go and see him. We wore jeans in the office but kept suits for such occasions. "Do you want to come?" I asked Hugh, but he declined. I don't think he wanted to be associated with this rather peculiar product. I was meeting Tom half an hour later. He tried the drink and said - "Well, this seems rather interesting." So we've decided to go to the technical guys next week and see if we can make it. And this is that was the story of how Baileys began.
-And what about the name?
Tom was keen to start on the branding. He felt we had the idea for the product. Now we needed a brand name.
I remembered my time working with Tony O'Reilly on Kerrygold back in the '60s. He once said to me - "If you ever develop an Irish brand that needs a family name, don't use one like mine - they all sound a bit whimsical." That stuck in my mind.
We were in the process of looking for new premises for our office in nearby Greek Street. And as we approached it, we saw a restaurant at street level below the office. It was called ‘Baileys Bistro.’ The rest, I think, was history.
And that sums up one of my theories about ideas and brands. You need to carry briefs in your head 24/7 and think about them every hour you’re awake. So everything you see and hear needs to have some impact on the work you're trying to do.
-From what I gather from you, relationships matter in the business with ideas.
Baileys was a result of several different kinds of relationship. Hugh and I operated in complementary fashion. We respected each other’s differences. With Tom, we were creating something for a friend. We had been working together for a while and were on a similar wavelength. There were important later relationships, with R&D people and designers.
Mac Macpherson, who formulated the final Baileys product, said he hated our original prototype. But he knew what we were trying to do. And he could do it better. Which he did.
I briefed Bob Wagner, the designer, to steep himself in Kerrygold material. And then turn it into a premium alcoholic beverage. His ‘rustic’ design became the template for many later cream liqueur presentations.
-Did you do any testing before showing Baileys to the Irish?
We did a few focus groups. They were a new thing then. Men said that Baileys was a “woman’s drink”. Women said it reminded them of Kaolin & Morphine, a diarrhoea remedy.
-How did the Irish company react to the findings?
They didn’t. I kept the report in my briefcase. I thought it was complete nonsense, and they were wrong. So I gave it as a present to the CEO at the 10th-anniversary company party.
--So you trust yourself more than the consumer?
Absolutely. I think too many business people use research as a crutch. If you don’t understand your business well enough to take a decision on an idea, you shouldn’t be there.
-How come you have so much trust in yourself?
Experience. When you work with ideas for that long, you get an instinct. And remember, no answer is perfect. And it’s not rocket science.
I think the business of ideas is currently becoming too pretentious. For example, I saw an article about pomegranate vodka the other day. It was described as ‘innovation’. Pomegranate vodka is not an innovation. It isn't. It’s just another flavour.
An innovation is something that changes your behaviour. Like a mobile phone. Not Pomegranate vodka.
Time to get real and lose the pretentious jargon.