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Friday, 29 June 2007

How I went broke – catastrophically – and lived happily ever after

June 1970. Brown’s Hotel, Albemarle Street, Mayfair, London.

In those days June was a summer month. It was hot and muggy.

I was shaking – and dripping with sweat.

I had just finished persuading 106 furious creditors that I wasn’t a thief or crook.

And that I should leave the hotel in the same way I entered – on my legs.

One creditor had threatened to break them – and I’m a devout coward.

He came up to me.

I want to shake your hand. You’re an honest man.”

Then John Metcalf, one of the great names in British advertising, came up to me. He too shook my hand.

Congratulations,” he said. “You will undoubtedly become a millionaire.”

Eight weeks previously I felt like a millionaire. My partner Martin and I were featured in the Business Diary of The Times as two men to watch. They were right! But so was John Metcalf. I did become a millionaire – but much later, and it’s another story.

But first, let me tell you this one.

It will take more than one issue of this blog. It will include two crooked accountants, one stripper, a suicide, cufflinks, the World Cup, a pug dog, Beau Brummell, alcoholism, sleepless nights, business malpractice, effrontery, fear, pissing in the fireplace - and stupidity.

But I hope you will learn – and profit from what I did - and what I shouldn’t have done, because it’s really a story about business and the lessons failure teaches.


Five years previously I was the creative director at an ad agency in No 42, Park Street. I had written my first book, a novel, which did O.K., but not as well as I’d hoped.

The doyen of British publishing Mr. Warburg of Secker and Warburg told me to keep going.

"Write for or five more and you will have a following”, he advised.

But I was in a hurry - I had a young family, and no money.

I was a great student of advertising and had become fascinated by the mail order business. I persuaded some of my clients to conduct tests in their advertising. I learned a lot.

One thing I really liked about mail order was than in those days you could run an ad without having any stock – just buy it when the orders came in. Perfect if, like me, you didn’t have a bean.

I kept trying different things. Identity bracelets and hair pieces are two I remember. Nothing really came good.

I left the agency and went to work in a mail order firm, where I met some legendary American copywriters who taught me a lot.

I also met a retired high-class call girl – one of the set Christine Keeler belonged to. My marriage collapsed. So did the mail order firm.

I went back into advertising. Then I started a consultancy with two partners. They thought I was an idle bugger - which I was. I used to stroll into the office with my girl friend’s white poodle just before lunch, write any copy required then go to the Wine Bar round the corner.

But everything I wrote worked. So when they taxed me with my behaviour, I quit and took my share of the profits. £780.

I still had the mail order itch.

One day, I got a phone call.

“You don’t know me”, said the voice at the other end. “We’ve never met. But I know your copy. And I know you’re looking for a mail order business.”

“What copy do you think I’ve written?”

To my astonishment, he knew.

His name was Martin Topley. He was 21, working in an ad agency in Fleet Street – and making more money than the chairman. He had a client who was in trouble and needed the money to leave the country.

The product was good, though. Was I interested in financing his client’s escape?

And that was how Drayton Bird Ltd of 100, New Bond Street, and quite a few other addresses, began.

Would you like to know all the dumb things we did (and a few smart ones) in the next two and half years?

Wondering how Martin made more money than his chairman - even though he had no salary?
Want to know about the ex-call-girl? Or the stripper?

Keep reading!

I should tell you that the inspiration for this comes from a friend, Ian Denny, who has just gone broke after 5 years of misery and feels a lot better for doing so. Read his blog at http://iandenny.blogspot.com/

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