Author TERRY WALKER | read time 13 MINS | AS210112
1972: BOOM as millions flash their new plastic. 1974: BUST Inflation and bailed out by IMF.
When your work worries government ministers and MPs and generates the highest amount of correspondence The Times business section had ever received, it pays to have some strong backing to justify the meticulousverbalism.
Especially when an attack dog MP claims some of the words relating to your client’s new service “have been disingenuous in the extreme and lay themselves open to the charge of displaying considerable arrogance,” – accusations made within parliamentary privilege – a quick rebuttal is often the best way to control the debate.
The “backing” to my carefully researched texts was £300M in readies from UK banks and the fightback was spearheaded by a cartoon in The Sun newspaper.
By 1972 I had been headhunted for a position at Lexington Public Relations, part of the world’s biggest (and poshest) advertising agency, J Walter Thompson. They had landed a hush-hush new account that was going to need some strong editorial support in national and many other media sectors. Persuasive writing tailored for broadsheets, red tops and trade publications was the requirement and the task landed on my new desk within days of taking up the position in their Mayfair offices.
Although Lexington PR was based just around the corner in Hill Street, I spent long hours at the Berkeley Square, head office of JWT Europe. I became part of the large creative team that had been put together for the new account that did not seem to have a name as yet. It was in the banking sector and the account had been introduced to JWT through NatWest Bank, one of the agency’s biggest established clients.
I read the background docs swirling around the account group and gleaned all the UK banks were to launch a joint credit card to cash in on the dreadful state of Britain’s economy. It seemed the Government had no money, the general public likewise, trade unions were demanding more money and inflation was becoming a big problem.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Anthony Barber, was struggling against a tsunami of poor economic figures, tax reforms, oil price inflation, decimalisation, trade union demands and strike threats. In the 1972 budget, the chancellor made a dash for growth – with large tax cuts against a backdrop of high economic growth. Quite a workload for a politician who didn’t want the job in the first place.
To counter the nation’s fiscal woes the Government had expanded the money supply and floated the pound. The banks saw they could make some extra profits by giving the citizens more spending power. NatWest was joined by Midland and Lloyds banks as the lead organisations in a new consortium that included 16 regional subsidiaries that would form the Joint Credit Card Company Ltd (JCCC) and operate a new credit card to be issued by the company.
The editorial task was to prepare the media, the retail sector and the potential card customers for the upcoming “cashless revolution”. All consumer spending could be put on the new card and repaid monthly with minimum payments and revolving credit.
“The function of the editorial cartoon is to convince the public that they are taking themselves and the world at large far too seriously.”
Paul Rigby, a top cartoonist for Murdoch newspapers in Australia, UK and USA.
I got to work researching the banking industry and progress of credit cards in America where they had been launched successfully many years previously. I prepared feature material for Britain’s newspapers and relevant consumer and trade magazines and built up a media mailing list for press releases.
A series of articles and press releases in the financial media started the debate: “Towards the cashless society.”
As the campaign progressed, editorial coverage was extensive and the cuttings poured in from trade and professional media. These were copied, bound and circulated to the participating banks. They formed an ongoing record of the media and public’s perception of, and attitude towards, credit cards.
It was a major educational programme with a generous budget within the £10M JCCC had allocated for launch marketing. Retailers might object to paying transaction charges levied on each card sale. I used research showing the average cash sale in some retail sectors was £2; cheque sales were 300 percent higher at £6. Then, based on US figures, we had to show retailers how a credit card would generate more sales at a level substantially higher than the average cheque sale.
JCCC banks were planning to inject £300M into the UK economy and only retailers signing up would stand a chance of getting their share of the booty. The message also alluded to a potential three million UK citizens flooding onto the High Streets waving cards carrying revolving credit issued by their personal bank…
Subsequently, the JCCC sales force found a higher percentage of well-briefed and willing retailer signees than they might otherwise have expected when they rolled up in their new company cars to pitch the service. Many retailers were even aware of how the back office system worked: A card sale would be credited to their bank account as cash when they paid in sale voucher slips at their normal bank branch.
The editorial to help soften up the public for the cashless society accelerated away into national and regional dailies. At times, I became something of a “writing factory”, churning out features for specific retail sectors, alerting them to the golden eggs laid by the fat goose that was heading their way. Whilst the banks and High Street traders stood to make £millions, we had also to convince potential cardholders they could maximise the benefits from the card.
Millions of pounds had been committed to cover the new technology, a huge service centre in Southend had been opened and staffed and offices in Trafalgar Square replaced those in Broad Street, City of London. I shuttled between the offices and the partner banks to source images and potential storylines for the hundreds of publications we were targeting.
The creative team at JWT had isolated the name, consumer-tested it and persuaded the JCCC to register the copyright and distinctive logo. It was to be called Access and a supporting advertising campaign ramming home the concept and benefits of card purchasing was prepared and approved.
JCCC lawyers registered the name and logo as a trademark and quietly bought out – or constrained – companies across the UK and Europe with Access in their title.
I flew with the top JCCC officials to the Channel Islands for a soft launch of Access to retailers, hoteliers and service companies, most of whom banked with local banks owned by JCCC partners. A conference and presentation on Access and the cashless society at the Hotel de France, Jersey went down very well – particularly with retailers in the Islands’ duty-free sector.
Access - Words that split the nation
Access was welcomed by hard-pressed families
Access had 60,000 retail outlets at launch
Access becaame Visa and its Southend card centre finished up as piles of rubble,,
All the participating banks had provided staff from their head offices and branches to be trained as sales reps to visit the most likely retailers and sign them up on agreements that gave the JCCC a cut of between 2% and 5% of each card transaction.
Field force gets on the road…
When the new sales force was trained-up and ready to start work, I came up with a spectacular PR stunt to launch the new distinctive Access logo that would cover one side of the credit card and be displayed on decals in the windows and on sales counters of participating outlets.
Around 100 of the Access sales people were to be given company cars supplied via Bristol Street Motors in Bristol. I arranged for the cars to be transported to a field outside the city and parked into the shape of the Access logo. A helicopter and photographer were called up to shoot the car version of the logo from the air.
When we were happy with the set-up and positioning of the cars, the shots were taken and the over-excited salesmen allocated their new vehicles – few bank clerks had been given company cars in the history of banking – before driving off to all the corners of the UK. I did wonder how many might be involved in prangs on that first journey?
I was able to use the aerial logo photo editorially and coupled this with the launch of the slogan dreamed-up by the brilliant team of JWT creatives “Access takes the waiting out of wanting”.
But there were bumps along the way
The media coverage was by now extensive and, whilst mainly positive, it quickly sparked a wave of protest from politicians, the clergy, social campaigners and “activists”. They saw the card and its slogan as an encouragement to poor people to borrow money and go out and spend on stuff they, otherwise, were not able to afford.
The marketing was a bit blatant and no one could mistake the message: “With this card you can buy the things you want, when you want them. And you can spread the cost over a period of time that you choose. So you can enjoy your new (hi-fi/holiday/sports equipment) right away.”
This high-risk strategy had JCCC CEO Hugh Cameron and me back manning the parapets as some Government ministers and left-wing MPs thought the slogan “irresponsible”. There was a debate in the House of Commons in which the JCCC marketing, card distribution and interest rates all came under fire.
One MP, Dr John Gilbert (Dudley) was scathing about Access marketing and its attitude to “unsolicited credit”. He claimed: “Some of the excuses put forward by spokesmen for the Access card have been disingenuous in the extreme and lay themselves open to the charge of displaying considerable arrogance.”
Disingenuous, Moi? Never. Arrogant? Not in the least. Dr Gilbert, who was on his feet for an hour in the House of Commons, was critical of the marketing and wording in the terms and conditions of the Access card.
He said: “There are, however, certain aspects of the introduction of the Access credit card system which have given rise to a considerable degree of public concern. I understand that so great is the public concern that The Times business section has received a greater volume of correspondence on this issue than it has on any other that it can remember.”
Bizarrely, the MP told Parliament: “I have more than one credit card myself and I find them extremely useful. I think that everybody must welcome any advance towards a society where the use of cash becomes less necessary and less frequent.
Protesters wanted the marketing and the ads pulled because they claimed they were encouraging people to get into debt. The protesters had to be faced down and Access CEO, Hugh Cameron, became the “face” of the new card as he batted away the criticisms.
The Sun’s clever cartoonist Paul Rigby, dived into the debate with a four-column cartoon on page six depicting Chancellor Barber with a blown-up access card on the wall behind him. Agitated CBI and TUC fat cats, union chiefs, including miner’s leftie leader Arthur Scargill, ranged around a boardroom table in a crisis meeting…The speech caption for Barber read:
That was just the job – very helpful at a crucial time in our campaign. While many were outraged at “This millstone around the necks of families,” millions laughed at the cartoon and took advantage of the Access card.
It was the Sun that swung it! I rang the newsdesk and they kindly biked over the original cartoon, which I then had framed and presented to Hugh Cameron. He loved it. It has hung on his office wall thereafter. Subsequently, he progressed rapidly through the upper echelons of NatWest Bank to become its Southeast Area Director – and a useful referee for me in landing one of the biggest marketing opportunities on the planet a few years later.
By launch day, 23 October 1972, there were 60,000 places in the UK where three million Access cardholders could take the waiting out of wanting. Just in time for Christmas shopping and record spending boosted by Access.
Subsequently, there were a few technical hitches to be explained away via press statements, but steadily the nation morphed into the (almost) cashless society we have become today – despite the boom and bust 1970s, the divisive Thatcher years and the bizarre decade-long run of the Blair & Brown Show
In February 1973 I treated a group of JCCC marketing execs to a celebratory night of “happy music” at the Royal Albert Hall. It was provided by the James Last Orchestra, a firm favourite of Midland Bank staffers, making its debut at the venue. I used my Access card to pay for the tickets and welcome drinks. Its successor, Visa Debit card, currently makes 99% of all my purchases – thanks to Covid-19 – and my prediction of a cashless society has been realised after 50 years…
Six years earlier Barclays Bank, about to launch Barclaycard, had invited the other banks to share the set-up costs and technology for their own cards. No other banks took up the offer. They believed credit cards would not be a great success.
A monetary policy known as “Competition and Credit Control”, which was intended to increase competition amongst financial organisations by allowing then to define their own interest rates, came to an end in 1973. New Government legislation raised minimum repayments from the greater of £2 or 5% of the outstanding balance to the greater of £6 or 15% of the outstanding balance. Suddenly, the economic outlook for Access (and Barclaycard) became much more difficult.
The UK joined the EC in January 1973 and enjoyed record GDP growth of 7.4% that year, the first of the world recession and civil and political strife in Britain, which ended only in 1974.
In 1973, JCCC bought a 15% share in Eurocard. In 1974 JCCC joined “Master Charge” (now MasterCard), which gave access to the extensive worldwide network that company had already built up.
From 1972 until 1977, advertising for Access was mainly in the print media; many adverts could be found in the TV Times and Radio Times. 1977 was the start of the hugely successful “Access – Your Flexible Friend” advertising campaign.
Paul Rigby, a top cartoonist for Rupert Murdoch newspapers in Australia, UK and USA, said: “The function of the editorial cartoon is to convince the public that they are taking themselves and the world at large far too seriously.”
The James Last Orchestra subsequently appeared 90 times at the Royal Albert Hall between 1973 and 2015, making them the most frequent non–British performers to have played the venue. James Last always attracted a loyal and enthusiastic audience, with conga lines, dancing and even whirling duck umbrellas being a familiar sight in the crowd, whilst he led his orchestra in upbeat renditions of classical and popular favourites on stage.