An 80-year-old secret reminded me life marches to a slow, steady beat

Good things really do come to those who wait.

About 25 years ago, I used to work with a lovely senior strategist called Jeremy Thorpe-Woods. Well, I say “lovely”, but most of our interaction seemed to consist of him taking the piss out of me for being Scottish. In fact, even after I moved on, his patter didn’t; his gentle teasing continued on social media every time my nation suffered a sporting disaster (which is to say “quite often”). So given the ridicule I’ve taken over the decades, it’s just as well that he helped create one of my favourite campaigns ever – and also (inadvertently) one of my few personal highlights of 2020.

I’ll deal with the campaign first. There are so many things I love about Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO’s masterpiece for Guinness: “Good things come to those who wait.”

For starters, the strategy was inspired. It took an apparent product weakness (delay) and turned it into a strength (anticipation). As repositionings go, it was pretty audacious, and yet the logic never felt like a stretch.

On top of that, the idea was impeccably well-branded. The line was so rooted in the product that it could only have come from Guinness. In fact, the campaign’s whole look and feel was so semiotically on point that you could have taken off the logo and there would still have been no mistaking the brand. 

Finally, the executions themselves were flawless, from the stirring storytelling of "Swimblack" and "Surfer" to the more conceptual genius of "Noitulove".

So, to be honest, I didn’t think I could love this campaign any more. But then last year something happened to me that took my affection for the idea to a whole new level. Something utterly freakish.

Like a lot of people these days, I had been doing a bit of research into my family tree.

Despite Jeremy’s insults, I already knew that most of my ancestors were actually Irish (maybe that’s another reason I like my Guinness). But, beyond that, I was coming up against a brick wall. My dad had recently passed away and he’d been an only child, of a single mother, so there weren’t many clues there. To make things even messier, his own father had been brought up in Glasgow’s care system and had lived a very difficult and often chaotic life. As a last resort, I did a DNA test, but didn’t really expect to find out much more.

Then, one day, a very nice lady from Chiswick connected with me out of the blue. Susie explained that she had been searching for her own grandfather for many decades. And judging by our shared DNA (off the scale, compared with the usual matches on these sites), we must be extremely closely related. First cousins, to be exact. After a bit more digging, we established that my grandfather had also been her grandfather – and that my dad had had two half-sisters he never knew about (one of whom was Susie’s mum).

Now here’s the important bit. The freakish bit. The bit that gives me the slenderest excuse to tell this story in Campaign. Susie had once worked in advertising too. And she turned out to be Jeremy’s wife.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why I’m telling you this. Maybe it’s such a bizarre and personal coincidence that it’s of no interest to anybody else – in which case, apologies for the oversharing.

But, as you can imagine, this blew my mind. And Susie’s. And Jeremy’s. The discovery of an 80-year-old secret was pretty extraordinary in the first place. But the fact it involved someone I already knew and who had no obvious link with my part of the world (let alone the derelict flat in the Gorbals where our grandfather grew up) was just incredible. 

Now, I won’t bore you with the convoluted details of how all this unfolded over the decades and 500 miles apart. But maybe the broader lesson is that, despite our understandable focus on short-term changes, life really marches to a slower, steadier beat. Driven by deep motivators like love, desperation, hope and aspiration that can rip families apart and bring them back together again. The kind of enduring human traits that Bill Bernbach advised us to think about, instead of this year’s latest trend.

Alternatively, it might just be a welcome reminder that life can still bring pleasant surprises, even in dark times.

Either way, I’m glad that I finally got the last laugh on Jeremy. Because, after 25 years of piss-taking, he now has to be nice to his newest family member.

“Good things come to those who wait," as I said to him smugly. I hope they come to you, too, this year.

Andy Nairn is founding partner of Lucky Generals

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