'We won't advertise in your commie rag'

Ad agencies gave us no advertising in the first two years, but they did give us advice.

‘Come and have a cup of tea and let’s see how we can help,” was what Mike Wells, owner of Bates Wells, and Dick Read, media director at J Walter Thompson, would say.

Read told me that we needed to research our reader profile. But he thought our ideas about unbanning the African National Congress were too subversive for his clients.

Wells’s family read The Weekly Mail. He told me that the paper’s most valuable selling point was the emotional bond between the reader and the paper. ‘Find a way to measure it,” he said. ‘That bond is like gold.” But no ads came from Bates.

Knowledgeable and sensible people predicted that The Weekly Mail would not last more than a few months. If we had been knowledgeable or sensible, they would probably have been right. But, because we knew no better, it didn’t occur to us that The Weekly Mail might fail.

I was sent off to visit the ad agencies with an Audit Bureau of Circulation certificate that boasted of a weekly sale of 8 000 copies. ‘But as you can see,” I said enthusiastically, ‘we sold 10 000 copies in December; so our circulation is growing dramatically.” And I suggested how advertising would benefit their clients. They all said: ‘No.”

When the ad agencies refused to place their clients’ adverts in what most of them called a ‘subversive” newspaper, we simply looked elsewhere for advertising.

NGOs and publishers did not use agencies. From the NGOs we got recruitment ads. They needed to reach the concerned professionals who filled our letters pages.

Most book publishers in those days did not advertise. We had to convince them to advertise, and to use The Weekly Mail. Anton Harber and Irwin Manoim gave far more space to book reviews, particularly of South African books, than other newspapers. So, we were able to persuade the South African publishers to advertise, often for the first time. Their book sales soared and The Weekly Mail became a significant literary newspaper. The Weekly Mail Book Week and then The Weekly Mail Bookfair helped us corner the book advertising market.

Both Anton and Irwin had an unerring sense of where the political true north lay, amid a sea of propaganda and official secrecy. When media planners said The Weekly Mail was too subversive for their clients I could tell them that in most major cities, the great newspapers would have similar values to ours: ‘Our editors believe in the rule of law, human rights and government by consent of the people; in other words, a normal society.”

We heard that a sociologist from Wits University, Mark Orkin, was starting a research agency. Luckily he needed publicity and we suggested a 50% barter. Market Research Africa quoted R30 000 to do the research. We paid Mark’s company, Case, the grand sum of R1 500.

So we got the country’s top social researcher to do our reader research, and we were able to give the ad agencies the information they needed. Even then they would not place their clients’ money in The Weekly Mail.

We had to get beyond them. But not even the marketing managers at the client companies would make such a drastic decision — we had to get to the managing directors.

So I would phone Tony Bloom at Premier Milling, Zach de Beer at Southern Life and Chris Ball at Barclays Bank and tell them that Anton Harber would like to take them to lunch. Then I would tell the editor who he would be taking to lunch. I would just happen to be there and I was able to suggest that they ask their marketing managers if they had thought of using The Weekly Mail. Perhaps they hadn’t, but now they knew they could, and soon some ads were booked by blue chip companies.

Perhaps the ad agencies had a point. When PW Botha hounded Ball out of the country, one of the accusations he flung at him was that he had advertised Barclays Bank in The Weekly Mail.

The media director at Lindsay Smithers had been the most hostile about our political views. ‘No client of ours will ever advertise in your commie rag,” he had said. He must have choked when his client, SA Railways, directed him to book a full page to put its point of view at the time of a strike.

Our journalists also choked. But the editors were clear: The Weekly Mail did not believe in censorship, and we needed the money. So I offered the railway workers’ trade union a discount on a full page, we wrote the advert for the union and placed it opposite the management advert. Our tradition of debate was upheld and the journalists’ disquiet was reduced to a murmur.

It was academic recruitment advertising that grew The Weekly Mail. But that did not come from the agencies or even from the universities’ recruitment departments. I paid visits to all the major varsities around the country and met professors who, of course, read the paper and knew that their colleagues did too.

The adverts flowed in, booked by recruitment agencies who were happy to place ads in the Sunday Times and The Weekly Mail and receive commission on both.

But this changed and so did the glee of the recruitment agencies. I got a call from one who said: ‘Marilyn, your rates are too low. You must put them up.”

‘How can we?” I answered. ‘Our rates are the same as Business Day‘s and our circulation is slightly lower.”

‘If your advertising works, put up the rates,” he insisted.

Then we heard that Wits’s recruitment department was no longer using the Sunday Times, ‘We get the best responses from The Weekly Mail, so we now use only The Weekly Mail,” Wits said.

The recruitment agencies, who were accustomed to getting their commission on R50 000 adverts in the Sunday Times, now had to make do with commission on R4 000 for the same ad in The Weekly Mail.

This was the beginning of a war. We would go to a large corporation or local governments to suggest they use us for professional recruitment and the ad agencies would follow and dissuade them.

Until recruiters realise that the system is open to abuse, and all insist on paying the recruitment ad agency a fee and not commission, their ads will be placed in the most expensive media and not the most effective. The Mail & Guardian is still fighting this war.

Gordon Muller, from what is now Saatchis, was the first agency media director to suggest The Weekly Mail to his clients, and soon after that others followed. Muller also tracked down useful statistics about our readers that had been thrown up by the All Media Product Survey, Weekly Mail readers, we discovered, were wealthy innovators.

A young man named Shaun de Waal arrived on our doorstep wanting to do the arts listings. The editors employed him and soon afterwards we discovered that most of the young ad agency planners were using his listings as the indispensable gig guide.

We were becoming respectable.

The media director at Lindsay Smithers left and his colleague, Gwen Bezuidenhout, set up a meeting for us with Brand Pretorius at Toyota. He liked what he heard and once Toyota ads were in, others followed, and The Weekly Mail was no longer a terrifying, subversive rag.

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