George Stratford tells Lee Jordan of SAGA MAGAZINE how he swapped life on the dole for a role at the most famous advertising agency in the world.
This article originally appeared in the July 2000 edition of Saga Magazine. Saga is the largest subscription based magazine in the UK, with over half a million subscribers.
The sun is smiling down on this leafy suburb of London and the greenery of beautifully kept front lawns make it hard to imagine that the heart of the capital is just a couple of miles away. It’s that pre-meeting moment when one wonders what the interviewee is going to be like. My finger prepares to buzz the door number of the subject’s residence. A voice talks back: “Hello mate, sorry but I’m on the top floor. Just bear right.”
Meeting George Stratford is like bumping into an old pal, the type you feel you have known for years. “Fancy a cup of tea and toast?” His Ghanaian wife of two years, Gifty – a radio journalist whom he first met in a brief encounter at Paddington railway station while helping her with train times – places the goodies on the table. The interview begins.
He looks back on the last ten years and shakes his head in disbelief; the smile is one of satisfaction. Not only is he penning major advertisements for well known companies such as Toyota and Powergen, he has also written a novel – In the Long Run – a thriller about four men who are fighting their personal battles for survival. It is set against the backdrop of South Africa’s Comrades Marathon, one of the world’s most demanding races. It is a work that has been tipped as a best seller.
If anyone were to write a book about George, it would have to be titled The Stratford Way because it is his self-belief, dogged determination and love for his old mum that has turned him into a key copywriter at the famous Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency. What’s more, he was 52 when he was offered the job, and the circumstances that preceded the offer of employment are incredible, sending out a clear message to our ageist society: If you’re capable then you are eligible. But it wasn’t an easy ascension to work in what is known as a young man’s game. There was a wilderness of experience before he reached his oasis. And as he sits in his immaculately kept apartment, dressed in a trendy T-shirt, tan jeans and designer trainers, he leans forward and tells me with great purpose: “Never forget your roots.” You almost feel as if you’re in the presence of a mafia Don, thankfully a non-violent one, but with an appropriately tough exterior – The Adfather.
But in 1989 George’s life was turned upside down when he lost his mum. “It affected me more than I imagined it would, though not because I was a mummy’s boy, far from it,” he says. “But I always imagined I was an only child. It wasn’t until ten years later that I discovered I had a long-lost half-brother, David.” It transpired that his mother had tried in vain to trace her first, adopted son, and tragically died broken hearted over the matter. She had previously been engaged to a man who was killed in action soon after she became pregnant.
My own dad, a Canadian pilot with RAF Bomber Command, was killed in action during July 1944 when I was just six weeks old.” George points proudly to a display on the wall where a glass frame covers his father’s pilot wings and Canada shoulder flash.
For ten years George had been employed by a shopfitting company as a French polisher. But this soon lost its shine when he found himself out of work. In his late forties, the prospects were bleak. He had just returned from a four month spell in South Africa where he had been researching material for a prospective novel.
“I had left with the full backing of my employer, and was told that my job would be safe and there for me when I returned. But a new company took over while I was away, and I went from earning £300 pound a week to the dole.”
It was then that George really began to worry about the future; only his resoluteness to complete the novel offered a flicker of light. He shrugs his shoulders as we move out on to the balcony so George can have a smoke.
He was fired by the fact that he had something in his book, but he still needed to earn money. In the end he went for anything, even applying for a job that was basically a toilet cleaner. “I didn’t even get that! Then I slipped into a well of self-pity, anger and a mixture of other emotions.” Eighteen months later George woke up one morning with a vision of his mum in his head. “I thought, what for crying out loud would she think of me? I’d become a no-hoper – a bum. I had to do something.” And by George, didn’t he just.
He completed an English A-level course at Bournemouth College, then applied to Falmouth College of Arts for a Higher National Diploma in Advertising Copywriting. George was so broke that he had to sell his father’s war medals to finance the journey down to Cornwall for his interview. “I justified that by the fact I had plenty more of his memorabilia, and that this was probably my very last chance in life. It wasn’t as if I was using the money frivolously or anything.” He gained the place he was after, but the discovered that, having just reached 50, he was now too old to receive a mature student grant. On top of that, the tutor who interviewed him offered George these words of advice: “Be realistic. Remember that no matter how well you may do on this course, big time advertising is a young man’s business. It’s highly unlikely that any major London agency will ever employ you.”
As a last-ditch effort to raise the necessary finance after all other avenues had been explored, George applied to the Royal British Legion for a grant. As a young man he had served with the Royal Signals, and was therefore qualified to do so. The Legion was in his words were “so helpful”, and, much relieved, he was able to hand in his official acceptance of the course just three days before the final deadline.
By the second year of study, a radio campaign of his had been entered for the coveted D&AD award and George was asked to consider a work experience placement at a choice of leading London agencies. “I didn’t bother much with these placements because I was convinced that none of them would ever employ me. So unless my dream location of Saatchi & Saatchi came up – and so far there had been absolutely nothing on offer from them up – I wasn’t really interested. Amazingly, well into George’s final term of study, a placement opportunity at Saatchi did eventually come up. He was on his way to London and the world’s most famous advertising agency.
At that time Saatchi & Saatchi were offering student placements £85 per week, plus their rail fare, but unfortunately none of this was paid until the beginning of the second week. George went from rags to riches for two nights, then homeless for three. The first two he stayed with a friend – a millionaire whom he knew through playing cricket. “ I was too proud to explain that I had nowhere to stay for the next few days. You see, he was going away on holiday. But it was May, not too cold, so I spent most of the following three nights wandering around the West End, catnapping, or chatting with some of the homeless. I had some pretty strange conversations with a few of them. My suitcase was under my desk, so I’d sneak into the Saatchi building very early in the morning, complete my ablutions in the company toilets, and be ready for work by the time everyone else arrived.”
All went to plan until the third morning when a senior account director also came in early and discovered what George was up to. “I owe so much to that man, John Wright. I told him the whole story and he put me up at his own house until my placement money came through. I’ll never forget what he did for me.” Deep gratitude lights up George’s face.
“After that I decided to really put myself about. Saatchi might not want me permanently, but they sure as heck weren’t going to forget me easily.” George kept his head down and literally went for it. “ I wrote nineteen radio ads for the Imodium product. They were pouring out of me. None of the ads were used, but it showed my enthusiasm.” It hadn’t gone unnoticed: the departmental Creative Director, Martyn Walsh, asked him to stay on an extra week. At the same time he was contacted by his course leader in Falmouth and told that his radio campaign had been nominated for the D&AD award. Whatever the final result, this meant that he was now one of the top advertising students in the country.
“I was stunned. And even more so when the Creative Director approached me with his congratulations and said: ‘I suppose I had better take you out to lunch to celebrate.’ So there we were, enjoying a good meal and Martyn asking me lots of questions such as what was I planning to do when my course ended? I thought, he can’t be sounding me out for a job – surely not? After lunch he didn’t say anything more for the rest of the day, but on the Thursday, my penultimate day, he came by my desk and said: ‘You’re leaving us tomorrow, aren’t you George.’ I nodded, and then he asked me what date I graduated.
“June 27th, I replied. ‘Okay, you can start work here on the first of July if you’d like to,’ Martyn told me. You could have knocked me down with a feather, and only a few days after starting work I actually won the D&AD award for Radio Advertising. So tell your readers, if you believe in yourself you can succeed – regardless of age.”
A poignant moment was during the launch party of his novel, when he had the opportunity to invite and thank the many people who had played a part in his regeneration and achievement.
And that is George Stratford’s story so far. Everything has worked out just fine – in the long run.
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