Personal development

Unique selling proposition (USP): why a value proposition is better

The Unique Selling Proposition (USP) is an early concept in marketing from the 1950s. The USP was developed by Rosser Reeves, a leading advertising practitioner, and advocated in his book Reality in Advertising. It is often referred to as the unique selling point, although this is technically incorrect.

Unique selling point vs value proposition

The term Unique Selling Proposition is widely used colloquially in business. The upside is that it encourages people to start thinking about “what’s in it for the customer”. However, it predates modern thinking on strategy and brand positioning and has been superseded among modern marketers with terms such as the Value Proposition. What’s more, there’s no real structure for how to come to a good USP because the concept has been detached from its creator. People come unstuck by picking unimportant, but unique things, and labelling them as USPs.

Unique selling point vs differentiation

Reeves applied the concept of the USP to decisions about advertising, so in marketing theory it sits within one of the four Cs – Communication. Later, thanks to the work of strategy thinkers such as Michael Porter, we tend to think about differentiation in a more strategic way, applying it not just to what we put in an advert.

The difference between creating a USP and differentiation is that the former is just about what you say about a product, whereas differentiation is a strategy that involves investing in making your product different.

The three criteria for a true USP

Reeves was critical of the idea that everything is a USP, and in his book sets criteria, albeit basic ones. Here, in his own works, are three requirements for something to be a true USP:

1. Each advertisement must make a proposition to the consumer. Not just words, not just product puffery, not just show-window advertising. Each advertisement must say to each reader: “Buy this product, and you will get this specific benefit.”

2. The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot, or does not, offer. It must be unique – either a uniqueness of the brand or a claim not otherwise made in that particular field of advertising.

3. The proposition must be so strong that it can move the mass millions, i.e., pull over new customers to your product.

Unique selling proposition example

In the above advert, created by Rosser Reeves, the USP is strongly feature – Anacin is positioned as the only one of the four main pain relievers to have an ingredient to relax tension. It was an effective advert, and still has much to commend it despite its age.

This has an excellent USP because it’s central to the product and why people would buy it.

Limitations of USP as a concept

People get so obsessed by the colloquial notion of the USP that they contrive to be unique in irrelevant ways that don’t increase sales, or at least don’t increase them enough to pay for the uniqueness. They would be better off doing what the 1983 book Ogilvy on Advertising suggests – this, by the way, is probably the most successful book on advertising ever published. David Ogilvy suggests that you don’t need to have a USP: just tell your story better. He quotes his colleague Joel Raphaelson:

If you and your competitors all make excellent products, don’t try to imply that your product is better. Just say what’s good about your product – and do a clearer, more honest, more informative job of saying it.

Why thinking of the value proposition delivers better results

The reason thinking of a value proposition is better than thinking of a unique selling proposition is that it encourages broader thinking. People think about the value to customers, rather than uniqueness for its own sake, and I think that creates better answers.

For example, if you have patents, technology, buying power or other things that make you more efficient, the value proposition might be that you can offer lower prices or bundle in extras that competitors aren’t able to do. Simply looking at what advertising messages to create with a USP wouldn’t get you to this realisation of what the strategy should be.

In the book Value Proposition Design, Alex Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur et al, who are always great at giving some structure, introduce a Value (Proposition) Map, which “describes the features of a specific value proposition in your business model in a more structured and detailed way. It breaks your value proposition down into products and services, pain relievers, and gain creators.”

Personal development

How to choose a first job in marketing, advertising or PR

Choosing a good first employer can be a huge boost and help direct your career in the right direction. But how do you know if an employer – and specifically their marketing department – is any good?

I like to think of employers as fitting into four categories:

  1. Big and first rate. Here you learn from excellent colleagues who are ahead of you, where the culture is ambitious, and where you also learn how to navigate and successful in big organisations. There are probably some nice perks, too, like private health insurance.
  2. Small and first rate. You won’t learn how big organisations work, and there are fewer formal process, policies and departments. The upside is that you might end up doing more senior and varied work because there are fewer people around.
  3. Big and second rate. There’s still a lot you can learn from these, but the organisation has lost its way and is in decline. If it’s an agency, there may still be some good, prestigious clients to work on, but which the agency is struggling to retain.
  4. Small and second rate. Working here will teach you little about how to be successful as a marketer and it probably won’t sound prestigious on the CV. There are higher risks here to your wellbeing and careers, such as having to deal with the emotions of a manager whose business is stalling, and there’s a much higher risk of unexpected “termination”.

Someone early in his career asked me for some advice, after he’d been let go from a couple of PR agencies in quick succession. Incongruously, he was clearly bright and a good communicator. The issue, I concluded, was that his employers had been in categories 3 and 4, and he probably needed a different environment and someone to take him under their wing. I helped him get some some-short work, and he has subsequently worked for in the world of category 2 (small and first-rate) and been successful.

How to categorise a prospective employer

Of course, this is all well and good in theory, but how do you know in advance what an employer is really like behind the façade of a good-looking website? The answer is that it’s actually quite difficult to know. However, here are some ideas:

  1. Obviously, famous brands can be great options – it’s why so many people apply to work at Microsoft, Unilever and Nestle. They will normally be in category one, but a brand like BHS would have been in category 3. You can determine the category through annual reports or coverage in the business sections of newspapers. However, all big companies have stronger periods than others, and a weak period where a company grasps the nettle and puts in place a turnaround plan (like John Lewis) doesn’t stop it being in category 1.
  2. Go to industry events before you graduate and talk to people a few years ahead of you about who they recommend.
  3. Do summer internships to get an inside look. If a summer job is at an employer you like, it could be perfect for a graduate job. Internships are also a useful vantage point to learn about employers in the sector generally, and to make connections.
  4. If you’re planning to work in an agency, look up the client list. The agency may not be a prominent brand, but do its clients look like companies with significant budgets? The ability to say you worked at an agency on its Sainsbury’s account is much better than saying you handled the local hairdresser’s account.
  5. Check out employer review sites such as Glassdoor.
  6. If they have a team page on their site, think about whether there’s sufficient experience and gravitas among the team for you to learn from. An agency shouldn’t just be fresh-faced new graduates plus the boss.
  7. If not applying for an official graduate training programme, ask potential employers what their commitment to personal development and training is.

How I chose my first employer

Of course, I didn’t know all the above when I started out in my career, but it is a codified reflection of what I learned along the way.

My first proper job was in my gap year before university (and went back to the same employer afterwards). The Adam Smith Institute was (and is) a small but first-rate organisation. My boss had been described in John Major’s official biography as one of only two intellects that Major had respected. He had been a syndicated newspaper columnist in the United States and on the editorial board of a British national newspaper, a professor of logic at a US university, Secretary of the high-IQ society Mensa, and had degrees from Edinburgh, St Andrews and Cambridge.

I had a really interesting gap year as a result, helping to place stories in newspapers, develop ideas for the website and, around a month after leaving school, made my first appearance on BBC Radio 4. Unlike a large organisation, there was no formal HR-led training programme (there was no HR department, either). But there was plenty of learning how to do stuff from someone with expertise.

To take the role, I had turned down an offer to spend my gap year in the Press Office of the Conservative Party, working for someone who is now the eminent Executive Director for Government Communications. That would have been a great learning experience too. Hate to be mercenary, but the deciding factor was simply financial.

How did I know the employer I was choosing was good? I went to a range of the organisation’s events and spent a good half hour talking to someone who was part-way through a gap year job there. It was a small outfit but I understood the internal dynamics and what the job was going to entail.

The thing about first-rate organisations is that they are not afraid of change; it’s the constant iterative process in how they function that makes them first rate. Once a week, my line manager would take me for lunch and the idea was that I would pitch ideas for new activities and tweaks – actually, that might not have been the idea, but it is what I did.

Personal development

The number one attribute you need to be a top marketer

In The Matrix, the most notable movie of 1999, the lead character Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) is able to acquire new skills that would normally take years to learn – including martial arts – by being plugged into a computer and receiving a digital download that takes mere seconds. This sort of learning ability was an attribute that one of the best hires I have made seemed to have

Jack (not his real name) was working on a reception desk but kept rapidly adding new skills in all the Adobe applications and in design. He didn’t actually have Neo’s rapid downloading capability, just a hunger to learn and he spent his evenings doing online learning. During quiet spots during the day, he started volunteering his skills. With passion like that, Jack deserved to be in a marketing team and I was able to make it happen for him.

Why hunger to learn accelerates your effectiveness

Hunger to learn is the most important attribute that affects if someone is going to be a top marketer. This is the case for three reasons.

Firstly, there is a body of marketing knowledge that has been built up over the past century, in areas such as copywriting, advertising and psychology that can fast-track your marketing abilities. The best copywriters are the ones who have read the classics such as books by Joseph Sugarman and Drayton Bird, which give techniques for using words to convince and sell, and read novels and poetry, which show how to use words with style. There is a huge body of knowledge out there – such as why a photo including someone’s face works better than a pretty scene – which can be learned faster by studying than through your own work. 

Secondly, the pace of change in marketing is speeding up. While you can learn plenty from personal experience, it’s much better to also learn from other people’s experience – such as by watching online videos about Photoshop, attending seminars, listening to experts on Audible or watching Ted talks. Sometimes people think that they only need to talk strategy and don’t need technical knowledge. In fact, a good level of technical knowledge is necessary to be a senior marketer. That’s why the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s Professional Marketing Competencies framework, even for CIM Fellows, incorporates a Technical capabilities section.

Finally, hunger to learn advances your career because a proven commitment to continuing professional development tells a powerful story. People will see your skills are growing and give you more opportunities to work on bigger, and perhaps more interesting, projects. Most marketers underinvest in the time needed for learning, but for those who take their development seriously, it can be surprisingly easy to become a top performer.

Personal development

How to grow self-confidence as a marketer

Imposter syndrome – the idea that you might be found out as a fake – is a commonplace feeling among high achievers. The marketing world probably has an above average amount of it because marketing is one of those subjects that everyone has an opinion about. This can make practitioners worry about the judgment calls they are making.

So how do you build confidence as a marketer?

Firstly, recognise that you don’t need to a deity to be an outstanding marketer. Whether in working relationships or trying to deliver a great headline when tired, no one is perfect. But people who never make mistakes achieve nothing.

If you’re worried about whether you are good enough, ironically you’re probably on the right path. This puts you in an advantageous position compared poor performers who are convinced they have nothing new to learn. It’s unlikely that anyone else regards you as an imposter, especially if they have a close view of your abilities and output. The trick is to channel any negative feelings into a hunger to learn.

Secondly, work on building compassion for yourself. It’s OK to be imperfect as this doesn’t need to affect the overall picture. While it’s important to take ownership of mistakes and to learn from them, you don’t need to spend days beating yourself up.

Thirdly, talk to people who are ahead of you in their careers. Although doing this has helped me in countless ways over the past 20 years, two specific examples stand out. The first was when I was in my 20s and struggling to work out what to do next. I was in Brussels and invited to a party hosted by newspaper correspondent. I was definitely the odd one out as everyone was either a newspaper reporter or married to one, but it helped me understand what I needed to do and I soon started working at The Telegraph. The result has positively impacted my work as marketer as I experienced a large-scale digital transformation, and also became much more advanced in copywriting. The second example was when I was in my mid-30s and wanted to become a head of department. I was sitting opposite someone who was describing to me their experiences of doing an MBA, and I thought to myself: I’m going to do one of those, thank you very much – and signing up helped transform my positioning.

Fourthly, read copiously and take part in as much training as you can. Most marketers don’t study the great practitioners of the past century, such as David Ogilvy, Howard Gossage and Rosser Reeves, or recent research on marketing effectiveness, such as that by Les Binet and Peter Field. They just approach marketing by doing whatever they feel like. The truth is that, with some studying, it’s relatively easy to become a top practitioner.

At the European Academy of Direct and Interactive Marketing in 2012, I saw the legendary copywriter Drayton Bird look around the room and, knowing quite a few of delegates already, commented that it is always the already good marketers who sign up for training. They always want to improve by a few percent.

Fifthly, gain a marketing qualification or certification (e.g. from CIM). This gives you a credential showing your knowledge base and you can remind yourself about it when you’re worried about your status.

Finally, consider having a mentor or accountability partner to talk these things through. I have once had an official mentor – organised for me by the PRCA – who I would meet up with once a month or so. But there are people without formal mentoring roles whose advice I have found to be invaluable.

An accountability partner is on a more equal basis than a mentor-mentee relationship. Here both partners discuss what they want to improve or work towards, and check in for a one-to-one regularly on progress.

You might think you’re the only person around to have feelings of self-doubt, but all good marketers have to work on their confidence at times, and it’s a natural part of the road to high achievement.


Fast times at Dulwich College

Aged 10, when interest rates hit 15% and the economy tanked, my parents decided to take me away from my beloved prep school and send me to the local state school. After going on a tour of the school and discovering the computer room was full of ancient RM Nimbuses, which weren’t even proper PC compatibles and certainly weren’t up to doing graphic design, the headmaster was murdered, with a rumour that it was by ex-pupils. This freaked my parents out and somehow they found the money to keep me where I was.

Shortly afterwards, I went for an interview at Westminster, which they would do a few years before you were ready to actually go there at 13. The upshot was that they offered me a “guaranteed place”, which just meant that if you did reasonably well in the Common Entrance exam, you’d get in. Of course, I didn’t want to go to Westminster, as my brother had been there and I thought it too small. It was fine if you wanted to be a diplomat or civil servant, but Dulwich seemed a lot more creative, leafy and full of opportunities. The Dulwich entrance exam was over a couple of days in the wood-panelled Great Hall, which appears at the end of the movie Legally Blonde as the venue for graduation at Harvard Law School.

A new beginning in Year 9

Dulwich was something of a change in culture. Whereas I’d lived in walking distance of school, I now got a school coach every morning from near where I lived, and which would take 50 minutes to drive there. If I stayed late, I’d need to get a train into Victoria, then a train back out to Surrey, and by the time I’d walked, it could take a couple of hours. Moreover, the diversity was different. My prep school had been diverse in terms of skin colour, but Dulwich was diverse in social background, too, with friends living in council estates and no one finding this at all surprising. And it was also a much bigger place: 1,400 pupils instead of less than 200.

In the first term, R. came up behind me and thumped me on the back. It would have worried me had a rugby type done this, but R. had the nickname The Runt, or something that rhymed with that, and he was too small to take seriously and quite out of the mould for people at Dulwich. Hitting people has never been in my nature – I prefer deploying a thesaurus – so I did not retaliate. Later that year, a major controversy erupted when he changed the combination code to another form-member’s bag, and then to rectify this broke open the lock. He proceeded to blame half the class for this rather than himself, and he gave a long list to the head of year of all his supposed accomplices, including me. Fortunately, my witness statement was more convincing than his. He eventually got his comeuppance when he decided to dismantle a CCTV camera, with his face in front of the lens.

Among the things that makes me cringe the most about my time at school was a little disagreement I had with L.T., also in the third year, in the middle of a morning assembly in the Great Hall. He wanted to swap places, I didn’t see why I should, though frankly why I cared I don’t know. I was just being a t***. Anyway, as this whispered but heated discussion went on, on the stage Mr Sprague turned to us to in front of hundreds of people and announced we were getting a detention, and if we spoke again he’d double it. However, so far, he hasn’t got round to filling in the paperwork to make that happen.

I spent a couple of years doing rowing twice a week on the Thames, including in a school team. These days, Dulwich is really good at rowing and has its own clubhouse. Then the Dulwich College Boat Club was more of a startup, and we borrowed space at the Thames Rowing Club. In one prestigious schools race, our boat came second. However, there were only two boats competing, and part of ours fell off. It did keep me physically fit. Later, in the sixth form, I switched my games option to Voluntary Service, which involved visiting elderly people and doing their gardens, along with someone who is now, as I see it, the top academic on the works of Henry James, and with a humorous writer who wrote a famous diary as a junior doctor. Obviously, our sportier peers said we’d been sentenced to Community Service.

Getting started in journalism

In those days I was a geek, and had been reading computer magazines cover to cover since my 10th birthday. During third year (year 9 in new money), I pitched myself to one of them as a columnist. The editor replied and said that he was interested but I needed to prove that I was up to it. So I poured a week into designing a mock-up of the column, in exactly the same design as the magazine, wrote a sample column of news and opinion, and then included a plan for what future columns might contain. The editor wrote back to say that I had convinced him, and from that point on I was on sale every month in WHSmith, in a title from the world’s largest IT publisher, and within two years I had written for the biggest circulation title in the sector, Personal Computer World.

My initial pitch had included the sentence: “Although I am still at school …” I am guessing that they interpreted that as suggesting that I was a bright sixth-former, but when a few months later I met the editor and his deputy, they showed no visible surprise to find themselves talking to someone who had turned 15 just days earlier and exhibited teenage acne. Indeed, the editor, Mark, would send encouraging notes, which has probably influenced my management style.

For Dulwich pupils, all this was less out of the ordinary than you might think. The affable James W., in the upper sixth when I was a third year, had written games reviews for the same magazine, and went on to be high up at Sky News and the Telegraph. The Nurse brothers in my year wrote a computer game called (if I remember correctly) Bang, which was cover-mounted on a high-circulation PC magazine, and Al.K. in the year above ran a Bulletin Board System, basically a precursor to an internet service provider. Al.K. also had a habit of going round the IT rooms changing one teacher’s initials at the bottom of notices from PMM to PMT, but the staff could never prove it was him. And then there was J.R., in my year, a celebrated pianist, who was exempt from games – something to do with the insurance premiums on his fingers. I still go for lunch occasionally with Simon HJ, now as then an incredible violinist, and whose work is played on Radio 3.

Why I am only a part-time geek

One of the most helpful things that happened from the point of view of making me more rounded was something most definitely unfair. But first I will digress. By the start of fourth year (year 10), I was Secretary of the Computing Society, and had a key to, and was system administrator of, one of the school fileservers (not the main one). Indeed, in the suite of rooms in the IT Centre, we had what was nominally the electronics room, which trusted members of the society could use, with a few pieces of special computer kit, along with a video player and TV. One lunchtime, someone came to this room with a videotape described as being of Sharon Stone taking her kit off. This created massive interest, attracting lots of normal teenage boys from adjoining rooms. Indeed, the room consisted of everyone glued to the TV set, except me who was glued to a word processor.

Anyway, one morning, in the first term of fourth year, Adam, now a famous author of a book you’ve probably read, came up to me and informed me that PMM, whose initials were introduced a couple of paragraphs ago, had given me a detention. The reason for it involved my improving the security on a computer, with no malice, but sufficiently so that she couldn’t save anything. Anyway, I didn’t challenge it because the detention was just an unofficial one – I was made to sit in an IT room for an hour after school and told to “do nothing”. Probably I was too occupied with other things that week to bother objecting, and also I didn’t want the relationship to go sour. In possibly some confusion as to how these things work, she also filled in an official school detention slip in triplicate, which I didn’t realise until the following week when “SINGLETON, A.  4T” appeared under the headline “Dulwich College Detention” on the noticeboard list of shame of those who would be required to stay late that Friday.

This was undoubtedly good for my nerdy reputation among my peers, but I was sufficiently irritated that I quit hanging around the IT centre, handed back my fileserver key, and relocated myself to the school library, where I had the use of the librarians’ common room with its free hot chocolate, and hung out with people who read books. Around this time, I also took out a subscription to The Independent, which was then a broadsheet, intelligent and gave a hefty student discount, to read on the school coach. As you can imagine, I was the coolest kid in the school.

The library – named after P.G. Wodehouse – was an institution with a big budget, including a periodicals room with leather armchairs, and a librarian with a magnetic personality who was the spitting image of Rowan Atkinson.

Staying dry on the Year 10 history trip

At the end of fourth year, we went on a history trip to France and Belgium to see First World War battlefields, and stayed two per room in a youth hostel. A few from my year were proudly announcing plans to raid bedrooms and chuck water over people in the middle of the night, so R.C. and I repositioned the beds and furniture in our room so it was impossible to barge in. Alas, our plans were foiled when a teacher knocked on the door, and found his inability to get in to be suspicious. We explained there were rumours of night-time raids, but didn’t name any names. He told us something about fire regulations, and then the staff contingent hid at the end of the corridor to catch anyone exiting their rooms with jugs of water.

Dressing as if for a regatta

I can’t remember why they gave me Jonson house colours (a tie) at the end of fourth year (year 10) but I do remember a Herculean effort one athletics day for the house where I ran the 3,000 metres surprisingly quickly, and then got terrible cramp. Someone in the upper sixth picked me up and carried me to the school sanatorium, which was quite a distance and involved crossing a road.

More exciting than ties were the blazers during the lower and upper sixth. When you start at Dulwich, you wear either a plain black blazer or a black blazer with the letters DC on the top pocket. The really cool kids in third year (year 9) got fluffy black blazers, but obviously I was not one of them. However, in my lower sixth I was allowed to wear half colours, a blue sports jacket with an intricate crest on the pocket, which was great. For my final year I had full colours – a black blazer with blue vertical stripes, the sort of amazing thing that you see at Henley and which is very striking when you walk through Victoria station with it in rush hour.

Driven as a writer

Being the youngest journalist on a newsstand magazine probably means that you have to spend more time working on it to hit the quality level, and I poured huge amounts of time into it. After a couple of months column writing, I was given an extra £30 a month for telephone calls, and I would hit the phone most days to speak to software and hardware companies, including sometimes on the school payphone.

I would also sometimes send articles to national newspapers “on spec” and get postcards by return saying that they didn’t have space (a euphemism for “this is shit”). Aged 15 I spent £350 on a fax and answering machine to help with the admin. The late Jack Schofield of The Guardian helpfully wrote to me to rip to shreds a pitch I had sent him, taking particular offense to the opening phrase “I gather that …”. (He was right.) Around this time, I also designed some of the user interface for a large piece of software, and still occasionally see screenshots online of my windows and dialogue boxes being used even today (although quite why, I don’t know).

Emulating a 1980s teen movie in Saturday detention

The result of spending so much time working as a writer was, as you might imagine, that I did as little homework as I thought I could get away with during years 10 and 11. Lack of prep was my usual reason for getting detention and, by year 11, I had become good at getting them, both after school and increasingly on a Saturday. My exasperated maths teacher, fed up that I had not done any past papers in the run up to GCSEs, took a leaf out of the movie Breakfast Club and gave me a Saturday detention so I would at least have some focussed time to practice. (Saturday detention was seen at Dulwich, like many schools in the UK, America and Ireland, as more serious punishment than an ordinary after-school detention, but where suspension would be much too severe.) At 9am on Saturday I turned up, in school uniform, to share the morning with half a dozen others in the unlucky sounding Room 13 of the college’s imposing Grade II-listed south block.

As no one seemed interested in what work we were doing in detention, I spent the morning reading a P.G. Wodehouse novel. I then went straight to lunch at the nearby home of another Dulwich maths teacher, M.B., and his wife, who were both in their early 20s. M.B. had noticed that I was going to be in town that Saturday and had invited me over to lobby me to write favourable things about some software he’d written.

Having done a grand total of 30 minutes’ revision, I sailed through my GCSEs, and then spent the summer hols working for four magazines simultaneously. It occurred to me that I could drop out of education and earn a reasonable living as a writer – but I considered that only for a few minutes.

A refocus for A-Levels

A-Levels were so much more interesting than GCSEs, so for my final two years I hacked back my journalistic commitments, threw myself into schoolwork, and became the chairman of the Debating Society and secretary (I think) of the Political Society. I looked after a class of second formers (year eight) every Friday morning for a term for a form period, and I interpreted my role as being to entertain them, including showing an episode of Men Behaving Badly. I wangled the rest of my prefect duties to being in the school library, where I managed the pupil librarians in my final year.

Someone in my year, who I talked to most days in the library, suddenly killed himself at home by putting his neck in something noose shaped. I have no idea why, as he always seemed so happy, and we all went to the funeral. The coroner concluded it was an accidental death. In my 20s, Rob, who I had worked for and who was massively talented, went on a drinking binge and killed himself, apparently with debts and struggling to find work. It was all so pointless and solvable. Also in my sixth form years, a friend’s older brother, who had famously run the college’s Hindu Society, had died. There was an invitation to go back to his parent’s flat in Peckham after the funeral. This was difficult to get to but a churchgoer who knew the family offered to give me a lift, and in the car said: “In situations like this is, the important thing is always say yes to anything that’s offered. It makes people feel, on a distressing day, they’re doing the right things”. Not a problem, as I’ve always had an appetite, the cheese and tomato sandwiches were just what I needed, and I think the family appreciated the turn out.

For my final two years, my form tutor was Mr Burns and, for some reason, my classmates nicknamed me Smithers. Mr Burns’s straightforward pitch was that if we got the top grade in Economics “you’ll never have to get out of bed on a Saturday morning for less than £40 an hour”, which seemed like a reasonable deal, especially when you consider inflation over the past 22 years. Anyway, I worked hard to make sure I hit it. By then, despite my previous sub to The Independent, I had started to dry out, and had become a paid-up Young Conservative, or young fogey as someone suggested. This had the benefit of getting me invites to lots of events in Westminster with well-known politicians. The BBC sent a film crew to interview a handful of pupils about the current state of politics. Unfortunately, I was just too boring and they mostly used footage of John S instead. Never mind, I was soon to take a job where that was sorted out.

Longer-term interests

Mr Eveleigh, who was in charge of the Wodehouse Library and had been a wine journalist in Italy, established a wine tasting society after school for the upper sixth. Admission was subject to reputation, a consent form from parents and a promise not to get behind the wheels of a car. This was great fun and we learned about a wide range of grape varieties.

I loved debating political economy, especially with my very left-wing, Keynesian teacher, Dr K, who pushed us well beyond the requirements of the A-Level syllabus. He would regularly mention in lessons an outrageous organisation called the Adam Smith Institute: “During the 1990s, Margaret Thatcher went into the Adam Smith Institute with her handbag,” he explained. He told us that some pupils in the upper sixth had gone to the ASI and been told that “Keynes is crap and Galbraith is a shmuck”, both being economist heroes of his (though these days not taken very seriously). It was all good-humoured stuff, and since I was planning to take a gap year, I started going to the ASI’s events and sent my CV early on in the lower sixth, and was told it was too early.

I learned the virtue of persistence, as it took me many months to secure an interview, which took place in a restaurant where our table was surrounded by politicians and political journalists, and where Channel Four broadcast a political show every day. I borrowed my middle brother’s double-breasted suit, which didn’t fit me well and I was self-conscious about. Nonetheless, the institute gave me a job on the spot (doing a mix of comms and growing the online presence), somewhat to my disbelief, and I checked that they had definitely said yes. Later, a friend from my form started his gap year at an investment bank, although all he was doing was photocopying and admin. So I took him out for lunch and poached him.


The early years of a marketer: my time at prep school

I was at prep school (an independent primary school) during the period when home computers were starting to become properly graphical. The Mac had been out for a few years but was still way too expensive for home use – my contemporaries had an Acorn/BBC Micro, ZX Spectrum, Amiga (especially if they were big into games) or an Amstrad, which had launched the first affordable IBM clones in the UK. In 1990, my school installed a couple of the next-generation Acorns, which had a graphical user interface and on them was installed some desktop publishing software. Acorn DTP was terribly primitive, but I learned it quickly and started to learn about design, and I could create documents that the most people couldn’t do because they didn’t have access to the kit. My sister worked at the time as a graphic designer using Pagemaker for Windows at the civil service, so I would compare techniques.

Learning to write creatively

One teacher who was quite an influence on me taught English, Mrs Steel. She was what you might call a liberal environmentalist, and she was responsible for me getting really good at grammar. She was a passionate fan of a campaign called Elefriends, and when that campaign, the Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife ran a national poetry competition, she got the whole class to enter. It turned out that I came runner up in my age group, and I was invited to the National History Museum to be presented with a prize by the celebrated actress Virginia McKenna, followed by tea with the judges. I guess the scene was intimidating to the parents as they concluded that the tea wasn’t happening, without checking, though I got a letter with goodies afterwards saying they were sorry I couldn’t stay.

I hated games lessons and was terrible at sport. In later life I quite like watching rugby or cricket, but I had no interest at all at the time. We were put into three groups in games lessons, A, B and C, which was described to us by Mr R as thus: “A is for Ace, B is for Brilliant and C is for Crap.” I was in group C mostly, although I did get moved into group B during a couple of years, including when I became head boy, which was probably done for presentational reasons. I also discovered that, while my eye-ball coordination was terrible, I could actually understand cricket well, so became the Scorer of the 1st XI Cricket Team, a role I also held later when I moved to Dulwich.

Mr R was cut from a different cloth than the other teachers. One particularly boisterous breaktime in summer, someone in another class managed to rip my shirt collar off. Mr R urged me to take action and rip that kid’s shirt, too. I did not take the advice. When the very proper Mrs Kitcatt (wife of a top official in the House of Commons) saw my shirt and asked if I had brought it to the attention of the teacher on duty, I explained the advice I’d been given and she looked shocked. My mum sowed it back together.

As a nine-year old, for some completely unimaginable reason, I founded a fan club. My art teacher used to rhyme with people’s names – I was Singleton Singles – so that was the name of my club, though it wasn’t actually a dating agency. Mr R let me use the science lab unattended, which was a pretty bad idea because Allan set off one of the gas taps and then complained to Mr R about how unsafe the club was. Nonetheless, I was pleased to get 25 people attending, although I think the sheer randomness of the activity was probably the appeal.

Allan was always a people person. Waiting to go into our art class one day, he turned to me and said: “You’re weird, really weird. I don’t like you.” I responded with some humour.

Loyal friends who stuck up for me

Despite not being sporty and therefore never getting involved in the usual five-a-side activities that many people do at breaktimes, and which create friendships, I’ve always been lucky in getting very loyal friends. My art teacher was a very talented illustrator, but – and I think it goes with the subject – sometimes our lessons would get too noisy and he would have to shut everyone up. In one particular lesson when I was eight, he was getting more and more frustrated with the class and, for talking, gave me three minus points. The system was that if you got four in a week, you had to stay after school for a detention. The following day he took us for another subject and gave me another minus, also for talking (you may be able to spot a pattern here). At the end of the lesson, without any encouragement from me, a couple of my contemporaries lobbied the teacher to let me off one of the minuses – with success.

An evolving focus in extra-curricular activities

Similar activities to the fan club involved my friend Stuart launching a student newspaper called The Crucial Times. I can’t remember that it actually produced an issue: the main problem with it was that none of us could spell the word crucial and the computers didn’t have spell checking. Stuart, and actually a whole group of my friends, left in the 10+ exams, whereas I stayed through to the traditional prep school end at 13. I bumped into Stuart quite out of the blue when I was 38 – he is now a bigwig in the world of SEO.

The first proper publication I designed was a 20 or 30 page A4 poetry booklet with contributions from across my year. It was was sold on open day for charity and I ended up getting a reputation as the designer and producing all sort of school materials.

On Wednesday afternoons we had an extra-curricular programme. Some played in school teams and there were some options such as chess, although the main activity was in the school hall – more which I will come to in a moment. One term I opted for chess, which was a classroom of perhaps 15 pupils with an external chess tutor. I don’t think I realised quite how eminent he was at the time – an International Master who everyone who is into chess as an adult would have heard of. I did find it interesting. But whereas the 9-year-old version of me had previously assumed that success was down to luck, I now realised that I was going to have to give an enormous amount of extra time to learning chess strategy if I was to become truly great. There were just other things that interested more.

Looking back, it is obvious that I was always going to work heavily with words. The school invited a poet in to spend an afternoon with us, and whereas many contemporaries thought the prospect was a downer, I clearly enjoyed it – something the poet fed back to my parents.

For the majority who were not playing chess or sport on a Wednesday afternoon, there was either an external speaker in the school hall, or a film would be played on a big projector screen. Some were exciting – Disney’s Last Flight of Noah’s Ark or Swiss Family Robinson, for example. Occasionally they were deadly dull; I evidently found one black and white film sufficiently boring that Mr R kept me (and a couple of others) afterwards for an impromptu detention cleaning the hall.

Scrapes, avoiding piracy and deploying charm

As I approached my 11th birthday, I moved into the bit of the school where you started preparing properly for 13+ exams, and had a French teacher who was actually French, and also my form tutor for the year. It would be fair to say that it took us most of the academic year to mutually adapt to one another. On her notice board behind her desk, she had pinned an initially menacing wodge of yellow, A5 detention slips, for convenient access. They compelled recipients, like me, to stay for an hour after school on the next Wednesday.

One particular week in the first half of the autumn term, our teacher had put me and R.P. in detention. The next day she announced that, because so many people in the class were getting detentions, we and anyone else from then on earning an after-school detention from then on would also spend every breaktime for a week (morning, lunch and afternoon) in a classroom copying out a French dictionary. (By the following when, when I wasn’t in detention, the policy had been dropped.)

J.C., who had also been given a detention that week but from another teacher, was livid with me and R.P., correctly blaming us (and mostly me) for his lengthy and tedious extra punishment. Fortunately, no one liked J.C., so I think the sentiment of the class was on my side. Allan helpfully dropped in one breaktime to gloat and inform us that our French teacher expected us to complete a sizeable section of the dictionary (about twice what we had time for) and that our teacher would check it, though I suspect he made that all up.

My design skills during that academic year were helped by the school buying some new desktop publishing software, which was actually pretty good, plus a hand scanner, which wasn’t. The software was expensive (for school pupils) and copy protected. So when R.M. in the year below announced that his family were connected with the makers and could get discounted copies for £5, but without the manual or packaging, there was considerable interest and chatter. It turned out that the makers had axed copy protection and he was just trying to flog pirated versions of the school installation.

That particular individual, who ran a surreptitious tuck shop based on stock from his parents’ shop, did me a bad turn. I should explain that at lunchtime, most of us sat on benches down the sides of a table (four a side), with a monitor or prefect at the head. Ours was the head boy, Mike. I was at the bottom of one side, presumably because whoever had allocated the seating thought I was well behaved and didn’t need to be near the prefect. Then at the bottom end of the table was R.M. because he didn’t eat school lunch and brought a packed one. I thought we were friends – and I later went to his birthday party, having forgiven him – but he helpfully informed my detention-giving French teacher that I had described her (in confidence) as a *****. This landed me in hot water, but I had plenty of prep school charm and the ability to move on – and, ultimately, was able to repair the relationship. In my final two years, my French teacher became a strong advocate.

Getting ahead

The next year we were in form CE1 – CE standing for common entrance, the most popular exam for public schools, although I never actually sat it, and 1 being the upper stream. However, a group of us were actually a year ahead and so the tradition was that we would stay an extra year in order to get old enough for our next schools. This turned out to be helpful because being at the top of the school gives you lots of opportunities. It meant I could do a GCSE in Computer Studies with my friend D.C. three years early just for the hell of it, and meanwhile my reputation as a designer and IT geek had become legendary.

My maths teacher decided he wanted his group of 8 year olds to learn about computing and maths and so plucked me out of Art and PE lessons to teach his younger class in the computer room – my first teaching experience. This arrangement worked out well until the ever-helpful Allan informed me that he had been talking to our art teacher who was now very unhappy with me cutting his lessons to teach maths.

Towards the end of the CE1 year, we were in a Latin lesson when our teacher asked who in the class might want to be a prefect or head boy. He would have to vote on it in the staff room, or at least give his feedback. Allan was asked and he said that he didn’t want to be head boy. The next day, the deputy head asked me who in our form I thought wanted what jobs, and I mentioned that Allan had said he didn’t want to be head boy. Soon after, a furious Allan approached me demanding to know why I had said he didn’t want the job. I replied that I was merely repeating what he had told the whole class. I don’t think I was sophisticated enough to understand that he had been exhibiting false modesty, but it helped me understand that what people actually say is quite important because it gets broadcast. I don’t know whether my sharing helped, but I did get the role.