The Interview: Bookbag Talks To David Croydon

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To David Croydon


Summary: Introduction: Back in the eighties David Croydon was one of the founders of a sales promotion agency and The Unprincipled tells the story of the twelve years from the agency's founding through to its sale. We've thought long and hard about finding just one word to describe the book but we really can't do better than 'scurrilous'. You're best not suggesting that we can have more than one word! When David popped into Bookbag to chat to us we had quite a few questions which we felt needed an answer.
Date: 14 September 2012
Interviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee

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Introduction: Back in the eighties David Croydon was one of the founders of a sales promotion agency and 'The Unprincipled' tells the story of the twelve years from the agency's founding through to its sale. We've thought long and hard about finding just one word to describe the book but we really can't do better than 'scurrilous'. You're best not suggesting that we can have more than one word! When David popped into Bookbag to chat to us we had quite a few questions which we felt needed an answer.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

David Croydon: Owner/managers of small businesses (and the long-suffering souls who work for them), trying to make their baby grow into something with real value, but often with their heads in their hands at all the other stuff they have to deal with, that they never took into account when they started up.

And all the people who worked for us over the years, who have lapped it up - they barely knew a half of what was really going on.

  • BB: As the owner of a small business I can tell you that I found a lot of what you had to say very thought provoking.

In the twelve years of the life of Marketing Principles you encountered just about every problem which a small business meets. Knowing what you know now, would you do it again?

DC: Definitely. We may have encountered lots of problems, but we also had more fun than most along the way, we built a business turning over more than £5M a year (with three-quarters of a million cash in the bank) and sold it for several millions to a big American conglomerate. So don't shed too many tears. We did actually achieve all the objectives we set ourselves when we started out, even if we did take twice as long as anticipated to get there.

  • BB: Given the chance, what would you go back and do differently?

DC: There are many things that I would not change at all. We did have a very good business model, and more systems and processes than nearly every other small business I go to advise (my current day job, until the writing hits pay-dirt - so I'm not holding my breath.)

Most of the things that happened were to do with the frailties and failings of other people. Could we have recruited better? Probably, but as anyone in business will tell you, it doesn't matter how much process you put in place to try to weed out the wheat from the chaff, it remains a hit-and-miss affair.

And as Harold Macmillan famously put it, when asked about what he found most difficult to deal with as Prime Minister: Events, dear boy, events. And looking back, not that many of the 'events' that shook the business were really self-inflicted.

I would certainly have changed the way we started, with four equal shareholders: a recipe for trouble, if ever there were one. And there were many points along the way when we got distracted by some new 'opportunity' - most of which didn't make the book - instead of sticking to our knitting. If I had known then what I know now, we could probably have got to where we wanted in half the time, but we wouldn't have had half as much fun along the way.

  • BB: What did you learn from running the business and how have you applied this to your current life?

DC: I have learned that most of the difficulties you encounter in life are caused by people, and that your relationships with the people around you define not only your success or failure, but perhaps more importantly, your happiness quotient.

But the most important learning is that none of it is all that important in the grand scheme of things.

I'm not sure I have applied any of it to my current life: I've always tried to keep business and private life separate. I've never understood the attraction of having business associates/clients to dinner or whatever. I have a sneaking suspicion that those who do mix business and pleasure are a bit short on the social skills front. Or spend so much time on business that they don't have time (or inclination) to make any friends outside.

  • BB: It's quite some time since the business was sold. What made you decide to go into print at this stage?

DC: It took me a couple of years to get started; then I couldn't find the right structure or tone of voice; I started and abandoned it a couple of times; and finally, when I did eventually 'find my voice', I couldn't find the time to devote to it on a regular basis. Eventually I found that getting up an hour earlier in the morning and doing an hour a day, before everything else kicks off, got me across the line. A year to re-write/transpose; another year to edit and try to get a publishing deal; and then the best part of a year doing the self-publishing thing. Where does the time go?

  • BB: Back in the eighties your attitudes (and the attitudes of your fellow directors) to women, to indulgence in food and drink as well as to driving whilst over the limit were not uncommon. Do you have any regrets about this - and how have your attitudes changed?

DC: No, I don't have any regrets at all. The marketing services business as a whole was full of excess - advertising agencies were far far worse, but not many have documented their little peccadilloes with quite as much honesty and transparency as I have here. Ask any of the women who worked for us if they felt we were a bunch of sexists and I doubt you'll get much in the way of complaint. I found that the women in our office were more than able to hold their own in any banter, and enjoyed it as much as the men. They were also much better at the client services work, in terms of being able to pour oil on troubled waters when there were problems. As for the food and drink, we had a ball. It's a bit like being asked if you regret being a student in London in the 60's because of all the drugs and mini-skirts (no). Life's not a dress rehearsal: make as much of it while you can; we're only here for a short time, and the second half is never going to be as much fun as the first half.

  • BB: You've described writing 'The Unprincipled' as cathartic and I felt that you got a lot off your chest. I did wonder if m'learned friends might be rubbing their hands in glee at the thought that some of it could be actionable. To what extent did you have this in mind as you wrote and does the possibility worry you at all?

DC: It has always crossed my mind that a couple of the characters that I get even with might well think about legal action (though I've used pseudonyms as part of the protection). But nothing that is described in the book is fictional, and I could call on plenty of witnesses to stand up and swear that things happened as described. And in a country of free speech, if I think someone behaves like an arse, am I not allowed to say so? Anyway, I decided that trouble will only start if the book gets successful enough to hit their radar, and in that event, there will be enough money in the bank to pay for a fancy-dan lawyer (here they come again) to protect me..

  • BB: You write well. How did you acquire this skill? Does reading play a big part in your life?

DC: I've always enjoyed writing, and I guess any skill I have has come from the copywriting that I did in the business (and since: I still work for one or two agencies on an ad hoc basis). In sales promotion, you were able to combine creative activity with account handling, which has never been the case in advertising - which is probably why I ended up in that particular discipline. So on-the-job training and trial and error: what works, what doesn't? I did a French degree in London and Paris, so have always been interested in the arts - I prefer fiction to non-fiction, which is possibly why I eventually opted for the book to read more like a comic novel than the average memoir or business hand-book.

  • BB: You've got one wish. What's it to be?

DC: That the book is successful enough for me to be able to earn a comfortable living from writing for the rest of my life.

  • BB: That's one that we'd like to see come true! What's next for David Croydon?

DC: I have three other ideas for books swimming around my brain: one is an expose of the world of business advisors (The Even More Unprincipled!) in which I have been operating for the last decade; another is a record of the 13 months my wife spent dying of lung cancer (so, informative in terms of all the alternative therapies she tried, but hardly a bundle of laughs); and finally a work of pure fiction based on the petty politics of small village life (guess where I live) and the corrosive impact it can have on people's lives.

In the meantime, however, there is a pile of proof-reading required by that London agency by lunch-time to get in the way of the creative effort.

  • BB: Good luck with all that, David - we're looking forward to seeing the results.

You can find out more about David Croydon here.

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