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Once one of the world's biggest advertising agencies, London-based SH Benson created some of the most famous ads of the early 20th century, including the long-running "Guinness Is Good For You" campaign. However, it is best known today for its role in funding the New York launch of what later became Ogilvy & Mather. It was itself swallowed up by Ogilvy in the early 1970s.
Samuel Herbert Benson set up in business as an advertising agent in 1893 at the suggestion of John Lawson Johnston, the inventor of Bovril meat extract. Following a distinguished career in the navy and a number of other senior management roles, Benson had spent the previous three years managing Johnston's newly established Bovril factory in London. Keen to enlist the power of advertising to boost sales of his product, Johnston charged Benson with supervising this task.
With Bovril as its first client, Benson's agency got off to a flying start, and he quickly attracted numerous other clients, not least Rowntree's cocoa for whom he mounted an enormously complicated marketing campaign that involved decorating London omnibuses with cocoa pods and recruiting more than 1,000 grocers to give away free samples in exchange for a copy of the Daily Telegraph newspaper. Bneson's was also the first agency ever to purchase an advertisement across two columns in a London daily newspaper; and later across two full pages as well. By the early 1900s, SH Benson was the biggest advertising agency in London, if not the world, and in 1906 became the first British advertising agency to register as a limited liability company. Benson also published two short books about advertising, Wisdom In advertising (1901) and Force In advertising (1904).
Upon its founder's death in 1914 (see obituary), control of the business was assumed by his son Philip Benson, who introduced a slightly more sophisticated approach to advertising, similar to that he had witnessed on visits to the United States. One such was the creation of the literary department, where copywriters were encouraged to work together to come up with ideas. One of the figures who passed through the department was Dorothy L Sayers, later to become one of the country's most successful crime novelists. She was only the second female copywriter at Benson's and spent nine years there, juggling advertising deadlines during the day and working at night on her first novels featuring the aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey. She left shortly after the considerable financial success of her fifth book, Strong Poison. A later novel, Murder Must Advertise, was partly set in Pym's Publicity, a thinly disguised version of the Benson agency.
During the 1920s Benson's was widely regarded as the most creative of the growing number of British advertising agencies, handling many of the country's best known brands, including Rowntree's confectionery, Lipton tea, Andrews' Liver Salts and Colman's Mustard, for whom it created the celebrated "Mustard Club" campaign. This club featured a set of oddball characters - Baron de Beef, Lord Bacon and Miss Di Gester - whose supposed job was to inspect public sandwiches to ascertain whether they contained sufficient quantities of mustard. Sayers wrote the copy for several of the ads in this campaign, and the fictional club characters bore striking resemblances to characters who later turned up in her novels. (Murder Must Advertise even makes a cheeky reference to her own ads, with one of its characters commenting "It'll be the biggest advertising stunt since the Mustard Club"). Members of the public could write in to join up and get a Mustard Club badge, and by the mid 1920s, Colman's was forced to set up a separate inhouse department to process as many as 2,000 applications a day. The agency also devised card games, fake cinema newsreels and a club newsletter, constituting what was arguably one of the first examples of a fully integrated marketing campaign. By the time the club finally closed in 1933, it had issued Mustard Club badges to more than 500,000 members.
However the account for which Bensons became best known was Guinness, which it handled for more than 40 years from 1928, and which was widely celebrated for the striking and humourous posters illustrated by the agency's inhouse artist John Gilroy. Using a similar concept to the one already tried and test for Bovril ("Bovril puts the BEEF into you"), Bensons' first approach was to show demonstrate that "Guinness Is Good For You". (That slogan was reportedly the creation of copywriter Robert "Bobby" Bevan, later chairman of Bensons). Two of Gilroy's most celebrated early images showed a workman carrying an iron girder on his head and a farmer pulling his own cart, with the horse inside it, under the slogan "Guinness For Strength".
An even more famous ad series featured a zookeeper accompanied by a variety of different animals performing unusual feats with his glass of beer, under the tagline "My Goodness! My Guinness!". The first of these ads originally featured a pelican balancing a glass of beer on his beak. However, Dorothy Sayers, in what is thought to be one of the last pieces of work before she departed the agency in 1931, changed the pelican to a toucan and added a second glass of beer under the slogan "If he can say as you can/ Guinness is Good for You/ How grand to be a Toucan/ just think what Toucan do". The toucan was indelibly associated with Guinness for the next 50 years, until the account moved to J Walter Thompson in 1969. Another key client of the 1930s was Stanley Baldwin's Conservative Party, whose election campaigns were first managed by Benson from 1929. Bensons' ads contributed significantly to Baldwin's landslide victory in 1931.
By the 1950s, Benson was past its prime, but still occasionally capable of creating memorable advertising. However one of the most creative campaigns of its later years was also a notable flop with consumers. For the launch of its new Strand cigarette, tobacco company Wills challenged Benson to come up with a campaign that was particularly bold and daring. After all its other drafts had been rejected for being too dull, Benson's creative chief John May came up with the slogan "You're never alone with a Strand", and a campaign depicting a smartly dressed but mysterious loner, wandering the streets at night, lighting up his cigarette under a solitary street light. The ad campaign itself was enormously popular, attracting considerable attention and striking a chord with the mood of the time, epitomised by social upheaval and the rise of the "angry young man". The only problem was that it failed completely to sell any cigarettes. People loved the ad campaign, but they didn't want to smoke a cigarette that made them look like they had no friends. At around the same time, May produced a separate campaign for Shell-Mex & BP to promote oil-fired central heating. This proved spectacularly successful, yet that "Mrs 1970" campaign is almost entirely forgotten today, while the "Strand man" campaign, despite its dismal failure, is regarded as a classic of the period.
By this time, Benson was still the biggest agency in Britain and had also established a presence in Asia through the creation of Bensons Overseas advertising & Marketing Services (or BOMAS) in India and a few other countries. As yet, though, it had no direct presence in the United States. In 1948, Benson and its smaller London rival Mather & Crowther both agreed to fund the launch of a New York office to represent their respective clients in the US. This plan was the brainchild of David Ogilvy, the younger brother of Mather & Crowther's chairman Francis Ogilvy, who was also well acquainted with Bensons' then-chairman "Bobby" Bevan, with whom he had served in Washington during the war. Both agencies put in $40,000 in return for a 40% shareholding, and the new business was baptised Ogilvy, Benson & Mather and became a notable success during the 1950s, benefiting both its British-based shareholders.
However, Benson became increasingly marginalised when, in 1964, David Ogilvy merged his US agency with Mather & Crowther to form Ogilvy & Mather International, and went public two years later. Following a growing trend among British agencies, SH Benson also went public at the end of the decade, but it too was acquired by Ogilvy & Mather in 1971, and the Benson name was consigned to history. Ironically, the Benson purchase was not David Ogilvy's own idea, but that of his fellow directors. Despite Ogilvy's personal objection, the acquisition went ahead, and the assimilation of Benson made the enlarged Ogilvy group the largest agency in Europe, as well as a major force in Asia. Ogilvy himself retired from day-to-day involvement with his agency a couple of years later and spent most of his remaining years living in France.
Last full revision 28th March 2018
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