Uncle Billy was my dad’s youngest brother.

When he came home after the war, he inherited my granddad’s window cleaning business.

This consisted of a bike, a ladder, and a little book of addresses of the people who wanted their windows cleaned.

Gradually. Uncle Billy built it up.

He expanded it from just window cleaning into an office cleaning business.

He had several offices around the Elephant and Castle.

He had a logo, corporate stationary, secretaries answering the phones.

He had a fleet of matching vans, and all the cleaning staff had matching uniforms.

The business was growing very nicely.

Then a recession hit.

I was young, but I remember it as my first lesson in marketing.

One day, I asked Uncle Billy how he was doing.

He said things were looking bad.

Clients were saying they couldn’t afford to pay his prices.

That they might have to find someone cheaper.

I remember Uncle Billy looking worried.

But a few weeks later, I saw him and he’d cheered right up.

I asked him again how things were going.

He said things were much better.

He said he’d got rid of the corporate stationary and the secretaries answering phones.

He’d taken the logo off all the vans, and painted them different colours so they didn’t match.

He made all the cleaners wear jeans and whatever dungarees they could find.

And he’d put his prices up.

Not only were his existing customers staying with him, but he was picking up new ones too.

That was my first lesson in marketing.

When he had everything smart and matching, his company looked expensive.

In a recession it looked profligate, an expense that could be cut.

It looked like they were making lots of money out of their clients.

As soon as he made everything scruffy, they looked like they were operating on wafer thin margins.

That prices were cut to the bone.

When he raised his prices it looked like he was forced to.

He couldn’t survive otherwise.

You could see he wasn’t wasting money on niceties.

He was only spending on the essentials.

I learned from Uncle Billy, it’s not about reality, it’s all about perception.

Nowadays we’d call what he did marketing.

But to Uncle Billy, it was just street-smarts.

Using your loaf.

Thinking creatively.

Years later, I had a similar conversation with Mike Greenlees.

He was telling me that the CEO of a competitive agency had invited all his clients along to watch him play polo.

Mike was shaking his head.

Mike said, what sort of message does that send out to your clients?

You think you’re impressing them.

But what actually happens is the clients look around at all the opulence, the magnificent spread, and think, hang on I’m paying for this.

How much money are they making out of us?

Mike said, when you’ve got to renegotiate the agency fee you don’t land on the client’s lawn in a helicopter.

You tip up in a battered old minicab.

You want them to get the feeling that they’re getting a bargain.

You don’t want to be constantly rubbing their noses in how much money you’re making out of them.


Marketing is street-smarts.