The endDid you see the news that the Argos catalogue is never to be seen again? It makes me a bit sad. But production, print and postage are expensive, so I understand why. And they will continue to sell online.

As you may know, I started my copywriting career at one of the other ‘big book’ catalogues – Freemans. The Argos news brought back lots of memories which seem like ancient history now.

Here are a few of them…

When I joined the company in 1983, it was still a family business.

  • Oil paintings of the founders were displayed in the oak-panelled boardroom.
  • If we met the grandson of one of the founders in a corridor, we had to call him “Mr Tony”.
  • If you were promoted to a certain level, you were allowed to eat in a separate section of the canteen. It cost an extra 3p per meal for the privilege of a paper tablecloth, water jug, and vase of plastic flowers. But the status it conferred was priceless.

One of the things I had to do at Freemans was write the company history. Here’s what Wikipedia says. I think they’ve missed a few stories. Here are some of the fascinating facts I discovered (from memory):

  • During WW2, the Head Office building was bombed and several staff members were killed. Not only that, but all the paper records were destroyed. Despite the company not knowing what was owed by whom, agents continued to pay, and profits were unaffected
  • The staff in the Thornton Heath call centre saved up to buy a Spitfire – although there’s no record of them actually buying it so perhaps they couldn’t quite afford a whole one
  • A bag of post was stolen from Nine Elms sorting office and thrown into the Thames. Staff brought their hairdryers into the office to dry off the paperwork so they could process it

Catalogues grew out of the traditional ‘shilling club’. People who couldn’t get credit any other way would gather into groups of 20 and each member would contribute a shilling a week. Each week, there would be enough money for one person to buy something. One unfortunate person would have to wait until the final week until it was their turn.

The big book catalogues were developed to provide such people with credit, and thrived for around a century. They’ve been fading ever since credit became widely available. Freemans was founded in 1905 in London (all the other catalogue companies were ‘up North’, such as Kays, Littlewoods, GUS, Grattan and Empire Stores).

After training as a journalist, it was my first paid writing job. I started as a copywriter. writing things like: “Black skirt with two patch pockets. Available in sizes 10, 12, 14, 16. Material: 50% polyester, 50% cotton. All garments washable. Please see size guides at the back of the catalogue.”

But I didn’t just write product descriptions and promotional material that reached an audience of millions. It was the days of paper forms and it was my handwriting on the examples to show how to fill them in. I was once asked to be the hand model for a water jug, so I also appeared in the catalogue itself, at least, my hand did.

By the time I left (nearly 20 years ago), I was a senior manager with a team of copywriters and designers reporting to me, a £3m stationery budget, and a convertible roadster as my company car. As well as writing copy, I also ran projects in the creative department. These included:

  • Saving £13m in the catalogue production process
  • Saving £500K pa by redesigning the statement stationery to use smaller paper and fewer inks
  • Brainstorming a new brand name in the 4th-floor kitchen (there was a self-contained flat there), using a carrier bag packed with surprise items as inspiration to unleash creativity

It was a fun time and a quirky building, but I remember the place (and the people) with much fondness.

Freemans is now owned by the Otto Group, the same organisation that owns Grattan. Any of my former Freemans colleagues who survived redundancy and chose to stay on are based in Bradford. Although 2020 might be an exception for obvious reasons, over 100 of us usually meet for a Christmas reunion in Croydon each year.

What this means to you

Being a catalogue copywriter is where I learned to sell off the page (or screen).

A few years ago, I was at an event when Drayton Bird (famous direct marketing copywriter) said: “catalogue copywriters are the best”. It made me very proud. Obviously, I agree with him.

1,000-page catalogues are expensive to produce. Every inch is selling space. There’s not much room for product descriptions, so every word has to count.

Because print, paper and postage are costly, almost everyone else has switched to online communications. If you want your selling message to stand out, why not post something instead?

We’ve moved from ‘junk mail’ to ‘lumpy mail’ where you include something in the package. Here are some ideas I’ve generated for clients:

  • Florist who sent a pack of sunflower seeds to receptionists at venues she wanted to target (she could then mention the gift in her follow-up phone call which helped them remember her letter)
  • Investor who sent a teabag to hotels he wanted to buy, with a covering message ‘Please enjoy a relaxing cuppa while you consider the options’ (this was enough to win him a deal)
  • Financial planner who sent clients a Cadbury’s Caramel one August to give them a relaxing break from his usual email newsletter (this would have worked better if it hadn’t been such a hot day so the chocolate arrived melted)

If you’d like creative ideas about how to get noticed by your target audience, let me know.

1 Comment

Ashley Blackmore · September 26, 2020 at 9:18 am

Love this piece Jackie, it’s written with real warmth and love!

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