WS Crawford Ltd (UK)

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WS Crawford Ltd, generally known as Crawfords, was one of the most important British advertising agencies of the first half of the 20th century. It was responsible for introducing a visual graphical style more influenced by European artistic movements such as modernism and futurism than by traditional American marketing techniques. The agency owed its success largely to two men, its founder Sir William Crawford and the legendary art director Ashley Havinden. Between them they exerted an enormous influence on British advertising for almost 40 years from the early 1920s until the end of the 1950s.

William Smith Crawford was one of the first giants of the British advertising industry. The son of a reasonably prosperous Glasgow merchant, he arrived in London in 1906 to work for one of the city's many advertising sales agencies. A quick learner, Crawford absorbed everything he could about the ins and outs of the business, and then set up his own agency in 1914. WS Crawford Ltd managed to stay in business over the course of the First World War, and began to prosper in the early 1920s, not least because of its owner's considerable personal charisma which won him the enduring loyalty of a number of significant clients. "He rarely came into a crowded room unnoticed," said his head copywriter GH Saxon Mills, and "quickly became the centre of any party or social event in which he found himself." Crawford's social skills were reinforced by sharp intelligence and rigorous discipline. An imposing bull-like figure, he worked long hours, involving himself in every aspect of the agency, and he demanded equal commitment from his employees. Yet despite being a hard taskmaster, he was adored by his staff, not least for encouraging an informal and lively working environment which was quite unusual for the time. (Crawford was always known as "Bill" to all but the most junior employees, rather than the more traditional "Sir").

Generous with salaries, he was also quick to reward talent, and able young employees soon found themselves promoted to positions of considerable responsibility. One of the most significant beneficiaries was a young man named Ashley Havinden, who had joined the agency in 1922 as a trainee after studying as an artist under Henry Moore and other notable figures. Because of his background, Havinden was influenced less by hard sell advertising originating in America, than by avant garde European art, especially the modernist and futurist movements, and by graphic design from Germany and Switzerland. Quite quickly, Crawford gave Havinden the freedom to employ what were then almost revolutionary visual ideas, resulting in press advertisements and posters which featured large areas of asymmetrical white space, striking typography and often impressionistic illustrations. Equally unusual was the agency's tendency to dispense with the large blocks of explanatory copy typical of most American advertisements in favour of simple, short, sharp slogans. "The three most important techniques in advertising," advised Crawford, "are domination, concentration, repetition. And the greatest of these is repetition." Within seven years of joining the agency as a trainee Havinden was appointed by Crawford as overall creative director, at the age of just 27.

Meanwhile Crawford's social skills had earned him a place on numerous boards and committees. He was especially keen to raise the status of advertising in public life, and to reclaim the profession from people whom he described as "quacks and charlatans". In 1923 he led a delegation to New York to persuade the general council of the US-based body which represented the international interests of the big American agencies to hold their first international convention in London the following year. The resulting convention, attended by members of the Royal Family, was a huge success and confirmed Crawford as one of the leading figures in the British advertising industry. As a result he was invited to advise the government on its major new drive to promote goods from Britain's colonial empire. For his services to the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), plain Bill Crawford was knighted in 1927, becoming Sir William Crawford.

As the economy withered at the end of the decade under the pressure of a worldwide depression, the EMB turned its attention to home-produced goods as well, and it was Crawford who in 1931 oversaw the creation of the first advertising campaign to persuade consumers to "Buy British". Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, no other advertising agency in Britain was so closely linked with government-backed public service campaigns: 'Eat More Fruit', 'Beer Is Best for an A1 Nation', 'Lend A Hand On The Land', 'Make Do And Mend', 'Keep Death Off The Road', 'Don't Waste Bread' and so on. Crawford also played a key role in the creation of the Milk Marketing Board to promote milk-drinking. Between 1936 and 1937 he conducted an extensive survey of the country's eating habits, examining all social strata from the working poor to the wealthy, and published a well-received book about his findings and the need for more a nutritious national diet, under the title The People's Food. It was Crawford also who persuaded the General Post Office to boost its popularity with the introduction of greetings telegrams. Among Crawfords' most important commercial clients were Chrysler Motors, Eno's Fruit Salt, the Simpson's of Piccadilly department store, DAKS apparel and later KLM airlines, Gillette and Martini.

Because of clients such as Chrysler, Crawfords also established a presence in Europe during the 1920s. It opened an office in Berlin in 1927 to handle Chrysler's advertising in Germany, and a Paris outpost followed in 1928. The two subsidiaries came to represent Crawfords' clients in more than 20 countries across Europe over the next few years, although their importance receded in the later 1930s. The German office closed in 1935 following the rise of the new Hitler government. At around the same time, the French office became a joint venture with another London agency, Dorland.

Ashley Havinden remained the presiding creative influence within Crawfords throughout this period, becoming a key figure in the modern design movement in Britain immediately after the Second World War. He was appointed as a Royal Designer for Industry in 1947. He remains to this day the only advertising man to have had his influence celebrated in two typefaces, Ashley Crawford (introduced in 1930) and Ashley Script (1955), both still widely used. In 1957, the trade publication Art & Industry said Havinden had done "more than any other artist to bring new visual conceptions to the layout of press advertisements". Almost as influential was his wife, the former Florence Sangster, one of the first women to have a position of power in British advertising. Having originally joined Crawfords as a bookkeeper, she rose to become vice chairman and creative director for all advertising aimed at women.

By the 1960s, however, Crawfords' influence was on the wane. Sir William had died in 1950, and his son preferred diplomacy to advertising. He was replaced as chairman by Sir Hubert Oughton, formerly managing director. The agency continued to be regarded as one of the country's most creative throughout the 1950s, but its portfolio of clients dwindled. The 1960s brought a new social revolution with which the agency seemed unable to keep step. Ashley Havinden's once-futuristic illustration-led designs now looked old-fashioned alongside other agencies' photographic images. A key rival was Colman Prentis & Varley, itself a breakaway from Crawfords in the 1930s, which overtook it in size towards the end of the 1950s. More serious still was Havinden's refusal to have anything to do with the emerging medium of television. As a result, Crawfords was one of the last British agencies to set up a television department when it was finally forced to accept the new medium in the early 1960s.

The agency's fortunes declined dramatically during that decade, and in 1965 it agreed to merge with Dorland Advertising, already its partner in Europe, and by now Britain's biggest publicly owned advertising group. Both business were eventually swallowed up into the Saatchi empire in the early 1980s. The Crawfords name lingered on until 1985, latterly as the Crawford Hall Partnership.

Last full revision 26th October 2017


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