AdMan: Lessons from the tea lady


Our advertising guru Steve Henry proves that inspiration can often come from the most unlikely place

A few years ago I stepped into a new job as Executive Creative Director at TBWA London.The job was offered to me in a coffee shop in Marylebone and sealed over lunch in Paris. 

They wanted me to come in, because the agency was reeling after two huge breakaways – firstly, Johnny Hornby, the most charismatic account man in London had left to set up his own agency, CHI. (It was said of Tim Bell, Lady Thatcher’s favourite adman, that he was so charming that dogs would cross the road to be stroked by him. Johnny is equally blessed and sometimes he doesn’t get home at all because of the sheer number of household pets demanding a nuzzle).

Then Trevor Beattie, the most charismatic creative director in London, left to start his agency. (Again, trailed across London by a long queue of domesticated animals trying to get their snouts under his arm).

Over the next two years, I did a reasonable job at making the work more contemporary than it had been (I thought) and building a very strong department, before leaving in a state of temporary exhaustion.

But one of the strongest memories of my time there was the tea lady. She was over 90 years old, she came from Sri Lanka, and she was called Mary.

“The subtleties of the Marmite ad campaign were completely lost on Mary”

Trevor had hired her, in one of those flashes of genius a great CD has. At one stroke he had a USP, a memorable and emotional point of difference from all the other creative departments in London. Nobody else had a “Mary”.

And she was amazing. It didn’t matter what you liked for your morning refreshment, my preference being for venti soya latte and wheat-free granola bar, because my body became a temple after twenty years of treating it like a rubbish bin in a war zone.

But that was irrelevant to Mary because she gave everybody tea, toast and Marmite. The subtleties of the Marmite ad campaign were completely lost on Mary because she just assumed that everybody loved it.

Nobody dared contradict Mary, because she was as old as the hills, she had a smile as broad as the Welsh hills, and everybody loved her. Even more than they loved hills.

She had various vagaries; once she’d decided what your name was for instance, she stuck with that, irrespective of your parents’ wishes or the views of the Passport office. She believed that one creative team (consisting of a tall thin writer and a more robustly built art director) were brothers although the differences between them were more pronounced than in the film “Twins”.

But she knew how many kids everybody had, and she always asked after them.

You see, Mary was real, in a way which ad agencies often aren’t. She hadn’t been hired for her out-of-the-box thinking, quite the opposite, we wanted her reliability and consistency. She hadn’t been hired because anybody wanted to sleep with her, either  – because even in as perverse an industry as advertising, you won’t find many people who want to sleep with a 90-year-old tea-lady.

But she was real, like your Mum or your Auntie Sue, and she wanted people to be happy. She had no desire to make people insecure about their looks or jealous of someone else’s horsepower. (Unlike most of the briefs then going into the creative department).

“That approach, that obduracy, has produced some of the finest work ever seen in adland.”

And above all else, she was constant. Whatever you wanted, you got tea, toast and Marmite.

It reminded me of a conversation I had once with Ian Armstrong, the marketing director of Honda; I’d asked him what it was like working with Wieden and Kennedy – in my view, one of the few great agencies in the world. “A nightmare”, Ian had replied (half-jokingly). He explained that once they’d presented an idea they liked to him, every time he asked them to try something else, they’d just turn up again with the original idea.

That approach, that obduracy, has produced some of the finest work ever seen in adland. And that’s how Mary was about tea.

Right in the middle of re-organisations and re-pitches and re-evaluation, she was showing us a trick the whole industry has forgotten. Which is, if it’s a good idea, stick with it. She retired on my watch, I’m sad to say, because her health was deteriorating and her family didn’t want her to get up so early every day.

But maybe I should have insisted she kept on working, maybe she would have lasted longer. As it was, she died a week ago, aged 101, and provoked a Facebook thread that just went on and on and on, and showed how many people in this industry she’d touched and whose lives she’d enriched.

I think she probably knew more about connecting with people than all the highly-paid copywriters I’ve ever met.

Steve Henry was founder/creative director of Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, the agency voted Campaign’s Agency of the Year three times and Campaign’s Agency of the Decade in 2000. He has won most of the major creative awards, including the D&AD Gold Pencil, the Grand Prix at Cannes, the Grand Prix at the British Television Awards, and the President’s Award at Creative Circle (twice).

In 2008 he was included in CampaignMagazine’s inaugural Hall of Fame, a collection of the 40 most influential people in British advertising overthe past 50 years. He now works as a creative consultant.

Steve has just launched Decoded, a ground-breaking programme that promises to teach anybody code in one day.