Most posts online are all positive, about how brilliant people are, how well a company ins performing, and a lot of guff. So I thought you all might be interested in when, why and how I was fired. In 1990. From McCann Erickson Belfast. By a certain David Lyle.
If you have watched Mad Men, you will have a snapshot in your mind of the advertising world in New York. Let me tell you, that it was calm compared to McCann in Belfast in the late 1980s.
My Dad, Rex McKane, had been in the hot seat for around 20 years, running BPA (Belfast Progressive Advertising), part of the Royds Advertising Group, which consisted of agencies in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Dublin and Bristol, as well as Belfast. The competition was fierce, Armstrong Long, RMB, AV Brown and McConnells were all established. New kids on the block included Andersons and Ardmore.
Dad had reached 65, and so was retiring after an illustrious career. He was a superb copywriter, won business writing ads in the Welly Park on the back of fag packets (Peugeot Talbot was moved from AVB overnight after Dad met Phillip Beggs and they had a few sherries, Dad wrote an ad for the new Peugeot estate car set around Brideshead Revisited which was the big TV show of the moment, in the bar, and the account was won). He had written the first order for radio advertising, introduced Free Chips with Crazy Prices and Jim Megaw, and was most famous for getting George Best to eat Cookstown Sausages.
But time was up, and McCann, who had by now bought the Royds Group, had found his replacement, David Lyle.
Now here was a man of passion. He had been involved in Unionist politics while at Queen’s University, Belfast, then switched allegiance to the Church, handing out tracts to people at Christmas parties on the evil of drink (this was advertising lol). He left Armstrong Long to become a preacher, but after two years he was tempted back by the top job in BPA McCann. David’s big claim to fame, his Cookstown Sausages, was a campaign for Northern Ireland Electricity, “So Clean- So Nice”, which ended with an attractive young lady in a headband saying those words.
The first two years were exciting. Exciting and incredibly fast-paced. We did fifteen pitches in 1988. Many of the clients that Dad looked after had never heard of David Lyle and so they saw it as a time to revisit their agency of choice. We won them all. We won Stewarts and Crazy Prices, both owned by Associated British Foods, but they had never been in the one agency before. (I wrote the campaign lines for both, David Lyle developed them). We won Winemark back. We won NIE corporate and Economy Seven through David’s connections in NIE. Our first win was Avondale Foods for Nature’s Best Coleslaw, not a big budget, but it set the momentum, we won, in competition. The agency was growing fast. And I was learning all the time.
David Lyle had brought in the new advertising approach, with media buying now a core part of a pitch. Ratings, cost per thousands, station average prices, hard negotiation and all demonstrating to the client that they were getting great advertising, but also great value. As we grew, we brought in more people. Our big transfer was Tony Axon, in from UTV at a high price, to be Media Director. I had proven my worth and was appointed Board Account Director, with a huge jump in salary, which my old man would never have dreamt of, and a new car, of my own! Dave Johnstone was Creative Director, and wore trainers, to black-tie events.
We were a team, a winning team. We moved to a new stadium, a cool, top floor warehouse, like a real London ad agency. I had an office, and a drinks cabinet. And my own PA. I was 30.
The parties started, the lunches were long.
Roscoff had been opened by a friend of mine, Paul Rankin. I suggested to David that he take the Stewarts people there, as Paul was talking a good story. They came back raving about it, Paul was changing what Belfast thought about food. Fridays become Roscoff followed by the Bot, followed by the Welly Park. You knew the admen in the Welly, they were the ones still in suits from being out for lunch. Johnny and Tony from Armstrong Long would be there, buying champagne all round on expenses. We had a taxi account with Fonacab, so we always got picked up, which in Belfast in 1988 was good.
UTV would be there, buying us drinks because we bought a lot of airtime. The Belfast Telegraph would be there, we bought a lot of space. The Downtown people were there, we bought a lot of radio spots. We were bought a lot of drinks.
We were the first local agency to spend £1million on UTV in a year. Des Smyth, the MD, had the idea of a party for the whole agency in their BoardRoom, which had seen some parties. They never did it again.
We held the McCann-Can party at Malone House, no expense spared, all the media, all the clients, all the taxis booked. A night to remember, if you could.
And we worked, hard. Making ads, pitching, thinking, innovating. Managing clients, doing contact reports, booking production companies, writing scripts, booking media, getting the best deals, writing briefs, researching markets, drinking to keep clients company. I made over 50 TV ads for Crazy Prices in one year, three at a time, every three weeks or so. Radio as well, writing the scripts, being on the set to oversee the direction, giving Jim Megaw support and developing his trust so when I advised him to say things a certain way he would.
We used music. We were pitching for the new campaign for Belfast, which had been Belfast is Buzzing, I suggested: “Let’s Go To the Buzz” using Danny and the Junior’s Let’s go to the Hop as the tune. Stewarts Have It was a jingle written by David and produced in London by musicians from the LSO. We had a Winemark voice over done by Ray Brooks, the King of Voice Overs in UK advertising. We flew with Paul Hunt, owner of Winemark, to attend the session in a Soho studio. Ray gave us six reads, all brilliant, in about 15 minutes, and so we were done, in London, and had to find a restaurant that opened at 10 am.
It was mad.
It got madder.
It is a strange thing to get overtaken by your ego. To become a pain in the ass without realising it, and a person that you would hate if you met, but it happened, to all of us.
I have one of those memories that makes you shudder when I think of how I spoke to a friend working at UTV at a drinks party. Thankfully I apologised the next day. But I had become a bit of an arse.
The intensity of the agency grew as well. Drinking had become a daily event. Clients knew if they called in at around 4 pm they would be there until 8, over the limit, but in Troubled Belfast, no-one cared about limits. Tony Axon’s lunchtime menu consisted of two bottles of Pils followed by four large vodkas. No fruit, no ice. I would go for lunch with him once a month, come back and have Jo, my PA, pour me a Bushmills and Ice in a teacup.
It was one of those Axon lunches that started the road to ruin.
“What would happen if David got taken over to London?” he asked me one lunchtime.
“Sure I would take over” was my prompt response.
I didn’t think about it again until.
A few weeks later…
“I hear you’re going around town saying that you’re going to take my job?’ Lyle had called me into a meeting about something trivial, but now we were getting to the nitty-gritty. His attitude towards me had changed, something had happened, and now I knew what. I explained the conversation and thought it was over. Little did I know. About much. About Tony Axon and his office politics. About David Lyle's low self-confidence. I was about to find out.
I was invited to play golf by UTV at Baltray. We arrived on Wednesday at the hotel. Then I was told there was a message for me to call the office. Caroline, Lyle’s PA wanted to know if I would be back on Friday, David wanted a meeting at 9.15. Mmm, unusual I thought, why would they be getting in touch now. But, the golf course called.
Then it started raining and didn’t stop. Golf was cancelled, and off we went back to Belfast. It was Thursday lunchtime, so I headed into work. Now that was a surprise, not for me, but for them. A presentation was about to start. To Crazy Prices, my main client, without me being there. I walked into Lyle’s office
“What’s going on? Am I supposed to be at this meeting? Why has it been arranged without me?”
He flustered and blustered.
The pitch was to shift from using video to film for the Crazies ads. Mad. About three times the cost, and totally unnecessary. Jim Megaw sat opposite me and looked with a raised eyebrow. I raised mine to show that I had no idea whose idea this was. This was a client that spent over £500k per year. We made a lot of money out of the account, now Lyle wanted to make more, as our production mark up was 25%.
The meeting ended. I went to my office and finished a few things.
The next morning I arrived for the meeting.
There was a lawyer there. Not good. Not good at all.
“We’ve reached the end of the road,” he said.
He produced a list of things that had been compiled to show that I was now surplus to requirements.
“You signed off Paddy McCormick’s expenses in Saints and Scholars, against my express instructions on a memo sent on such and such a date”.
It was over a year earlier. Lyle had sent the memo because he had booked a table for 8 pm, turned up at 9.30 and then ranted at Sid John about how important he and the client were to his restaurant, and Sid had given the table away!
“You sent a contact report with a spelling error to so and so on such and such a date!”
Yes, but I also wrote the ads that won the effing business! And I had written the new...ahhh ...wait...I had written the new Stewarts stuff, and he hadn’t liked it. I had got a lot of credit from the head of marketing. I saw a noose descending. This was nothing to do with facts and everything to do with ego.
“You were late with a prop to a Winemark shoot on Sunday, the whatever.”
Sunday. What happened to the religious man who had been handing out tracts against drink? He was now shooting ads for off-licences on a Sunday. And I had only been 15 minutes late. With a serious hangover, I thought that was pretty good.
Lyle's litany went on, but within a few minutes, I knew my time was up. I was given three months salary, the use of the car for the same period, and 15 minutes to clear my personal belongings from my, no, their, office.
The McKane connection with BPA/McCann Erickson was over. Dad had retired as Chairman a few weeks earlier, and was on holiday. Oh yes, that suited Lyle too, as he wouldn't have to deal with Rex, who scared the shit out of him.
I walked into the open plan area of the office. People were looking, there must have been whispers. I walked into my office, Jo was sitting there.
“Out, gone, history.”
I started to pack my things into a cardboard box, just like on TV.
“No, Tim, he can’t, you…”
“It’s done Jo.” I lifted the box. The word had spread. Shocked faces looked at me, shocked for me, but also thinking, if he can be sacked, anyone can.
I didn’t wait around. I headed to the lift, had a last look at the Coke poster I had brought back from the US that hung in reception, Coke being McCann’s biggest, most famous worldwide account. I thought about stopping and taking it, but, fuck it, I had more class.
The repercussions lasted a long time. I got lots of calls at home, this was all pre-mobile, with people wishing me well, but no job offers. I pitched for Craigavon Shopping Centre on my own, with artwork by John Cooney, on the hush-hush, he still worked in McCann. I won it with Larry the Lough Neagh Monster.
I met people and then was introduced to Lester Manley, who ran a small design and print company, but had huge ambitions. We set up Manley McKane Advertising. And I worked in the long grass. The other three directors, Axon, Dave Johnston and Sharon Platt were gone within a year.
Over the following years, we pitched against McCann for NITB and Ulster Bank and won both. Lyle wrote to them complaining about their decision. I smiled.
We won the Stewarts and Crazy Prices print and design, worth over £500k per year to the agency. And then kept it when Tesco bought them over. I smiled.
We won the PANI Gold Series TV Award for dekko, ads that cost £25k, and Lyle’s road safety campaign, that cost £400k was second.
The last time I saw him was shortly after Lyle Bailie, which had bought out McCann in Belfast, had closed. He was walking out of the Digital DNA conference. I was always civil, I said hello.
“There’s something in this digital,” he said. That was in 2018.
A few months after the events described I was with a friend from a media company.
"It's good to have you back?"
"What?" I asked.
"You, not that guy of a few months ago, You really had become a bit of dick. But you're back, nice Tim".
I've had my moments since, but that was good to hear.