This excerpt from Peter Mayle’s book Up The Agency talks about the London ad scene in the 80s. Most sentiments expressed here still apply to this day…
Not every hotel in London is prepared to give over its ballroom to the highlight of the creative year, the Art Directors’ Ball (D&AD), due to the volatile and often boisterous nature of the guests.
But over the years one hotel, the Hilton, has shown considerable bravery, and it is only right it should be mentioned. The Hilton management long ago realised where the interests of its artistic clients lie, and it has catered accordingly; drink is copious and food is an also-ran.
Each year there is chicken or duck in a mystery sauce (the foul rumour that it is the same chicken or duck, untouched on the night and preserved in the bowels of the hotel kitchen for next year, cannot possibly be true).
The evening begins with a table-hopping marathon. Everyone is here, and some of them haven’t seen one another since lunchtime.
And as they hop from table to table, they provide a fashion show of dazzling variety. There are dinner jackets and dress shirts with winged collars, bomber jackets and ripped T-shirts, six-inch heels and Azzedine Alaia skintight (no chicken for me) dresses, business suits, cowboy boots, Levi’s, silk bustiers, sequins, three-day stubble, blue suede crepes, ponytails and earrings for the gentlemen and purple crew cuts for the ladies, Day-Glo glasses and matching socks, shapeless Japanese designer outfits in the shades of crushed money, webbing bras, leather trousers, plastic sandals, Lurex ties….
No wonder there are some fragile souls, still recovering from lunch, who have kept their sunglasses on. The whole spectacle is extremely creative.
There is a sense of expectation in the air.
Tonight’s the night when 15 or 20 winners will be anointed as the best in the business.
Waiter! Another bucket of Soava Bolla!
… Now that the art directors are businessmen, often with a seat on the board, it seems to have affected their capacity for enjoyment…
Wine is consumed at a furious rate as several hundred people try to break the world record for high-speed intoxication. The speeches will begin soon, and it would be a mistake to be sober when they do.
Experience has taught the speechmakers to be brief. Ever since one tycoon was howled down in the middle of his remarks, the rule has been three or four minutes at the most.
The audience is not here to listen to platitudes about the changing face of advertising. It wants awards, and if the preliminaries drag on for too long, there are likely to be a few bread rolls and catcalls flying around.
As the great moment approaches and the waiters perform their final sprint around the tables with arms of Remy Martin bottles, it is possible to pick out of the crowd the people who think they might be called up to the dais and presented with a golden pencil…
They are relatively sober, and you can see them measuring the distance from table to stage, checking out the route to make sure they can get up there in the shortest possible time – just in case, as has been known to happen, two people go up for the same award.
… Once this has been done, the evening moves into its dangerous period…
The main lights dim and the spotlight beams down on the rows of pencils and the piles of certificates. The president of D&AD (a position held for one year) and the chairman (a permanent and thankless post) make their way up to the dais to the strains of some appropriately thrilling music, and the ceremony begins.
In each category, the work being honored is shown in slide or on film and the winner is summoned from the murk for those magical few seconds under the spotlight.
Fortunately, the winners are not expected to make speeches, and fortunately the audience is generally good-natured and generous with applause. There is always disappointment, but there is always the bottle of Remy Martin at hand and the imminent prospect of some harmless diversion as soon as the pencils and certificates have been handed out.
Once this has been done, the evening moves into its dangerous period.
The combination of drink, excitement, music, and some spectacularly revealing outfits plays havoc with restraint. The dance floor and the surrounding tables seethe with the joy of orgy; lurching figures, furtive embraces, bottom pinching, thigh squeezing, torn and wine-sodden garments, overturned chairs, prostrate bodies (still clutching their golden pencils), heads slumped among the bottles and decorum nowhere to be seen.
At least, that is how it used to be.
Recently, due to the increased respectability of the business, the event has shown disturbing signs of sensible behaviour. Now that the art directors are businessmen, often with a seat on the board, it seems to have affected their capacity for enjoyment.
Perhaps their chairmen have told them that it is not a good idea for the officers of public companies to be seen crawling around under tables and biting young women on the leg.
A great shame, and another small indication that advertising is now taking itself very, very seriously.