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It was 11am on a March day in 1964. I was a 28-year-old on a commuter train travelling from Petone to Wellington. In my hand I had a letter addressed to the manager of Unilever’s Birds Eye division. I hoped it contained a request from Unilever’s head office accounts department to give me a job as a van driver/salesman.
Since my arrival as an immigrant from the UK in 1959, I’d had a succession of jobs, the most significant being nearly four years as a traffic clerk with National Airways Corporation (NAC) at Wellington Airport. I might have spent all my working life there but for the overloading of a DC3 freight aircraft. I didn’t do the loading but signed the documents to the effect that the payload was within the allowable limits. It wasn’t. The pilots were lucky to make it to Christchurch.
Thus began a series of short-term jobs, first with NAC’s reservations department, then with a paint company, and then the Unilever stint, joining 40 imprisoned souls sitting in front of adding machines. With a wife and child to support, I was on the edge of another disaster, a square peg lacking initiative yet ignoring the obvious. I was a free-spirited type trying to fit in a round hole.
At the paint company, I’d met an 18-year-old from Havelock North who’d had some journalism experience. But his real goal was to work as a copywriter for an advertising agency. His name was Len Potts and he would later become a high-profile creative director in the New Zealand advertising industry. He told me that a good place to start as a copywriter was in radio.
We became friendly as he went for interviews with various agencies in Wellington. He even got me one. Co-incidentally, my careers officer at the London grammar school I attended had suggested advertising might be a suitable career for me. Indeed, I actually obtained a job as office boy with an Oxford St agency but my much older sister persuaded me to join Unilever instead, citing goodness knows what "evils" awaiting in the advertising world.
Twelve years later I’m holding the Birds Eye letter in my hand as the train clunk-clunks towards Wellington. I open it expecting positive news, after all, I’d obtained the accounts job I’d just vacated citing my early ties and "love" for Unilever and all it stood for. But the letter advised, "Do not employ this man". I initially felt numb with shock. What was left for me? Selling encyclopaedias door to door?
When the train reached Wellington, I remembered what Len Potts had said: "If you want to get into an advertising agency, start in radio". I half-stumbled towards Broadcasting House, fearful yet hopeful.
"No," I was told, after I took a copy test and was approved as a potential radio station copywriter, "we don’t have a station job right now in Wellington, but we can fix you up with a temp job here in head office until one comes up."
Three months later I’m writing copy for radio station 2YD and 2ZB clients. Nine months later in August ’65 I take a copy test with an agency named Dormer-Beck and I’m offered a job writing copy for Griffin’s biscuits, Coca-Cola, ICI farm chemicals and the National Water Safety Council, among others.
Four years later, I’m living in Auckland writing "Taste for Food" TV commercials for Sanitarium. By 1974 I’m sitting in Air New Zealand’s boardroom being briefed on its new services to North America. Two years on and I’m working for SSC&B: Lintas, Unilever’s worldwide advertising agency. And 17 years after sitting on that train I’m having lunch with New Zealand’s prime minister.
My decision to open that letter and do something out of character — show some "get off your butt" initiative — was the best decision I ever made.
- Ian Williams is a Dunedin writer.
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