An ode to Greater London House

As VMLY&R leaves its premises at Camden's Greater London House, Paul Burke remembers the historic advertising building in its glory days.

Not for the first time, I was inspired by Mark Roalfe. 

As chairman of VMLY&R (formerly Y&R), he marked the departure of the agency from Greater London House with a letter to his staff. In it, he alludes to the thousands of people who’ll have fond memories of working for one of London’s most famous agencies in one of its most majestic buildings.  

And I’m definitely one of them. 

In the mid 1980s, practically all agencies were in Soho or Covent Garden, so it was truly bizarre for this one to be housed on the fifth and sixth floors of a gargantuan former cigarette factory at the wrong end of Camden High Street. But that’s where I was offered my first job as a copywriter and I was overjoyed to be clocking in. Y&R produced some of the UK’s best-known and best-loved commercials for brands such as Cadbury, Colgate and Smirnoff. And, of course, it was Y&R that first told us that "Beanz meanz Heinz".

Even so, Camden was a very odd location. It was a poor, working-class and largely Irish area and, since I was all of those things, I knew I’d fit in immediately. Inside, the building was still very much like a factory. There was a staff canteen serving the same food as I remember from school, paid for with luncheon vouchers.

The fifth and sixth floors comprised long, long corridors with offices on either side. So long, in fact, that the creative department could hold bicycle jousting tournaments on a Friday afternoon. That department would now be lauded as a beacon of diversity – young teams, old teams, female teams, male/female teams, people from – to use an acronym unknown at the time – BAME backgrounds. We didn’t call it diverse, we called it… well, we didn’t call it anything.

Chris Wilkins presided over the creative department with the wit and wisdom for which he’s still renowned. Wilkins was responsible for the selection and nurturing of creative people and for the work they produced. But the day-to-day running of the department fell to Alan Taylor, the creative manager. He was a burly, avuncular Scotsman – already about 60 – who’d been at Y&R for almost as long as Young and Rubicam. He allocated the briefs, agreed salaries, conducted appraisals and, if you’d done anything noteworthy, would often give you a wink and a brown envelope.

I was paired with an art director called Ray Knox and I still remember the slight panic of getting my first real brief to write my first real ad. It was a trade ad for Croft Original sherry. In most of the country, Croft was number two behind Harveys Bristol Cream, but in the West Country for some reason it was number one. The headline, "Bristol’s favourite cream", almost wrote itself. Wilkins gave it a smile, a nod and – boom – we were off.

After a while, I was paired with David Bell and we got a TV brief for Cadbury’s Wispa. On the shoot, we discovered that comic national treasure Victoria Wood and legendary comedy director Bob Brooks were two of the most miserable human beings we’d ever encountered.

Across the road from the agency was the Camden Palace (now known as Koko). It was one of the hottest clubs in London and, in what I believe is now termed a "side hustle", I DJ'd there most Tuesday nights. This was apparently when the fearsome Lenny "The Guv’nor" McLean ran the door. I say "apparently", because I never actually saw him. He'd sit inside, but just the knowledge that Len was there – or even the rumour that he might be – was enough to keep the rowdiest clubbers, quite literally, in line. I’d emerge with my crates of vinyl around 2am, cross the road and go back into the agency to crash out on any one of a selection of sofas.

In the morning, I’d shower and put the vinyl back in the boot of my Cortina, which was parked in the car park downstairs. Back then, far more people drove and, if you arrived before 8:45, Derek, the profane and irascible car park attendant, would let you box someone in if you left him "the fucking keys".  

But it wasn’t just the scale and art-deco grandeur of Greater London House or its handy car park that I loved; it was its insalubrious locale. There were cavernous Irish pubs and cheap Greek restaurants aplenty, for the many days when we couldn’t face another school dinner. The favourite was a tiny taverna called Roulla’s, which really was just a Cypriot family’s front room.

All human life found its way to Camden. In Fine Fare on Camden High Street, I sometimes saw Alan Bennett and The Lady in the Van. She behaved exactly as Maggie Smith did in the film, with the saintly Bennett trying to mollify her as though she were an unruly child.

Further up, towards the Camden Lock, the bohemians wandered around accompanied by the waft of patchouli oil and naughty smoke. Add the indigenous old residents, the Jewish kids from JFS on Camden Road and the ever-present Irish and Greeks, and you had something special. In Camden Town, you could walk among the very people your advertising needed to reach. You simply couldn’t do that in Soho or Covent Garden. 

But nothing stays the same forever. Another agency offered me slightly more than the combined generosity of the Camden Palace and Alan Taylor. It was a wrench to leave, but I wanted to swap the Cortina for an Escort XR3i. Since then, I’ve returned to Greater London House many times, especially when Rainey, Kelly, Campbell and Roalfe got the agency and building buzzing again. I was always delighted when the phone rang and somebody said: "Mark/Ben/Damon wondered if you could pop in." Mark was the last to leave, but now there’s a new tenant.   

Mr J Walter Thompson – formerly of Mayfair and Knightsbridge – has changed his first name to Wunderman and moved in. Wunderman, of course, has been in Greater London House for years. In fact, Lester Wunderman, the founder, once paid a visit to his agency’s London office. He arrived at the car park, to be told by Derek that there was no space for him. He pointed to the Wunderman sign and said: "But I’m Wunderman." "I don’t care if you’re fucking Superman," our hero replied. "You can’t park here."

So if you’re one of the lucky new residents, remember – it’s a magical building in a wonderful place. Everything’s going to be fine.

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