Still from a Chesdale TV advertisement by Dormer-Beck in 1966
It was generally agreed there were three main firms who ruled NZ advertising in the earlier part of the 20th century ; J. Ilott , Charles Haines, and J. Inglis Wright. (Carlton Carruthers Du Chateau also deserves inclusion in the top agencies, and by the early 1970s CC du C was out and Dobbs-Wiggins-McCann-Erickson was considered one of the “big five”).
However by the late 1950s, Dormer-Beck (who had been around nearly as long, but was perhaps considered the runt of the quintuplets), had become strong enough to be not just a rival – but a real threat to all, eventually with offices in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin. Author Maurice Duggan, who worked as a copywriter at D-B in the early Sixties remembers “The agency had a solid reputation; its presence in the city was considerable”.
Dormer-Beck created some of the most memorable Australasian media campaigns of all time.
courtesy of the Auckland Council heritage images collection 34-D270P-12
I was able to obtain a history of Dormer-Beck from the daughter of a former managing director Alec G. Robson, who started in 1936 as an office junior and by 1964 was chairman and managing director of the company. Jill Rowdon was kind enough to send me a copy of his notes for my research. It is a bio history as opposed to a memoir, and as such is focused on structural and financial business matters rather than the creative grind or the amusing bon mots you would expect of those crazy ad types; and unfortunately barely skips over important accounts and iconic brands with no more than a passing mention.
The New Zealand operations of International John Wyeth NZ Ltd, that produced health and cosmetic products like Anacin, were a client in the 1940s.
Dormer-Beck was borne of T. L. Hathaway Ltd., An Auckland agency with a number of retail advert writing contracts. L. M. (Case) Beck had worked as a “writer-visualiser” there for two years. An account they held with the Auckland Star newspaper, where R.C. Dormer was building a reputation as a sales representative, is how the two met. Hathaway commenced operations for a new business venture in Australia, after a radical product/coupon scheme was scuttled by introduced government laws, (The Coupon Trading Act took effect in 1932, making it illegal to redeem coupons for anything but cash or discount), leaving a bankrupt company in the charge of Beck – because he was the largest preferential creditor in terms of owed wages. The two scraped up sum capital of £50.00 each, and well into The Depression, the business had literally nowhere to go but up. Ray Trenchard Smith, who had both newspaper and advertising agency experience, became the third shareholder, and Dormer- Beck Advertising Ltd., was “officially” formed in May 1932.
I stumbled upon the Dormer-Beck story whilst researching “Pam’s” which was launched by Four Square Stores in 1937 to offer lower price, quality goods to the New Zealand public under a strong brand image. Yes – it really does go back that far. Although there were several “self” brands from chain stores at the time, “Pam’s” has lasted into the present day as a stand-alone brand, probably the only surviving one – and has a pretty nifty website to boot.
courtesy of the Auckland Council heritage images collection A2338
Four Square was an early client of Dormer-Beck’s along with Aircell (baby blankets) , Milne & Choyce (clothing and milinery), Silknit/Slimtex and Iris (lingerie), Berger’s (paint), Dresswell (clothing), Pyradent (toothpaste, mouthwash), Du Maurier (cigarettes), Defiance (men’s clothing and shoes), May and Belle/Slicks (underwear), and N.Z. Wallboards Ltd (Gibraltar Board).
courtesy of the Auckland Libraries Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 34-D270L
In the 1940s there was Kolynos (toothpaste),Neopol (polish), and John Wyeth NZ Ltd, that marketed products like the pain medication Anacin; and in the 1950s Chelsea Sugar (CSR) were an important account. There were of course legions more.
Many of these products are recorded in digital archives as photographed by Clifton Firth, who had a longstanding contract with Dormer-Beck from the early 1930s into the early 1960s. As such he subsequently made an inadvertent record of accounts and the accompanying products they were dealing with on a bread-and-butter basis. The sheer volume of images that survive really denotes that Firth deserves his own stand-alone post covering his career and work.
Dormer-Beck advertising including Pam’s and Pyradent , photographed by Clifton Firth between 1930-1939, courtesy of the Auckland Council heritage images collection 34-D270S
From a photograph of products that Dormer-Beck were handling in the late 1930s I was able to find an early Pam’s baking powder poster (this product launched the brand) and along with a rough newspaper advertisement,
as well as a piece from a A4 square promotional jigsaw puzzle showing packaging and accompanying point-of-sale material,
A clipping from Four Square Stores promotional jigsaw puzzle cover showing Pam’s baking powder and point-of-sale display material – Likely designed by Dormer-Beck. Dated as 1950s, but I believe it is from a little earlier; the late 1940s. Courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library collection.
I now had all the pieces in place which enabled me to finally reconstruct the paper label for the product – something I’ve been wanting to do for ages.
Recreation of a poster (also used for the can label for many years) for Four Square’s “Pam’s” baking powder, designed by Dormer-Beck in 1937 as a campaign to launch the brand’s first product.
After the labour government came to power in 1935 it immediately introduced commercial radio to New Zealand, and as in later years with the advent of television, Dormer-Beck was amongst the first agencies to develop this new medium. Amongst the earliest TV ads they created were for a major client – Griffin’s biscuits and confectionery- Mallowpuffs, Krispies, and Snax amongst other classic and fondly remembered treats.
According to a company report of the time, 12 months before Channel 2 was due to begin transmission in 1960 – “Dormer-Beck was engaged on the production of the first television commercial to be made in New Zealand”. Further to that, Robson recalled in 1970 “there were in fact quite a number “in the can” and ready for scheduling when Channel 2 opened in June 1960″, but it’s not clearly conveyed whether they were all D-B productions or there were other companies making ads too, which he was referring to in general. Certainly in the first decade, D-B produced more television commercials than any other agency in the country. Apart from legions of ads for Griffin’s – Reckitt and Colman was another major client and Dormer-Beck created ads for everything from hamburger seasoning (French’s), to perfume (Goya, Cedarwood), and Cleaning products (Janola).
Dormer-Beck’s Mini-Magic Hosiery Campaign, 1970
By 1936 D-B were already successful enough to move from Horne’s buildings in Vulcan Lane, Auckland to bigger digs in the National Insurance building in O’Connell street. One contributor to success was a long-term business relationship with the J. Walter Thompson Agency of which Graeme Martin, who worked in the art department in the late 1960s recalls “…the highlight for me was the Creative Director from J. W T, Sydney, a man called Bryce Courtenay (yes the famous author!) came to give us a talk and general jolly up. He praised a little advert that I designed which I thought at the time was awful. Little did I know in those days!”.
It’s highly likely that this 1963 packaging was redesigned for Griffin’s in the Wellington art department several times over the years.
Strong direction and forward planning meant that by the early 1960s Dormer-Beck was a serious force to be reckoned with in the country, and by 1970 owned all the properties and buildings between 52 and 60 Ponsonby Road, however although D-B did construct new offices (as well as requisitioning older buildings on site), it wasn’t all glamorous “cringing under the smell of vinegar from the factory behind, and Creamota from the undertaker next door “ as David Burke-Kennedy, of Communique Publicity, who worked on the creative side at D-B as a teenager around 1964, remembers. Far from bustling with uber-cool hipsters in that time, Graeme Martin says “I actually found working in Ponsonby Road a little too far from the hub of Auckland in those days. It was a short time for me, and I didn’t really enjoy it”.
Possibly the most famous campaign that Dormer-Beck was responsible for, was the Chesdale Cheese clips of the mid-late 1960s, the ” boys down on the farm ” advertisements featuring “Ches” and “Dale”.
One famous name that was involved in the design and illustration of the two characters for the campaign was of course now famous pop artist Dick Frizzell who was working off site at the time for Sam Harvey Animations, but later did work for Dormer-Beck in their art department. Wayne Senior, one of New Zealand’s top jingle writers- producers throughout the late 60s through to the early eighties (he wrote the “Hip H Panty Hose” introductory jingle that was a big hit) remembers he was “… included in the Art studio staff. I still have the going away card he designed – my personal Dick Frizzell. It must be worth quite a lot now, hailing from Dick’s early period.”
Wayne Senior’s farewell card from Dick Frizzell, late 1960s , photo courtesy W. Senior
Other clients of the 1960s besides Chesdale and Griffin’s and also names well known to Kiwis were Gregg’s, Coca-Cola, Fisher & Paykel, Reidrubber, Kelloggs, Fibremakers, Wrigleys, Hanimex, and IGA Supermarkets.
Dormer-Beck Company Newsletter ON THE CLIPBOARD, 1968, showing recent campaigns.
Dormer-Beck campaign for the Waikato Ales account, 1964
In the 1970s, the account roster included behemoths Choysa Tea, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, and Pan American airlines.
The Harvey Cameron Agency merged with D-B in 1972, not very long after the last original founding member of the trio had retired for good. In 1980 it merged again, and both the “Dormer” and “Beck” bits were dropped into the propwash of history to become simply “Campaign Advertising”. Saatchi and Saatchi bought the agency in 1985 and so on, in a series of complicated mergers and buy-outs which I always find fascinating – when nobody else does. Something quite unrecognisable today from the pioneering Antipodean agency of media with many iconic, well-remembered campaigns that won’t be forgotten too quickly – even if people don’t know where they came from.
This was the most complex story research-wise I have worked on to date – yet just about everyone I contacted returned my messages and was willing to talk to me. I have to thank Wayne Kitching, David Burke-Kennedy and Graeme Martin for being patient whilst bombarded with questions, Jill Rowdon from The Nielsen Company for documents and images, Wayne Senior for being interviewed and lending his image of the Dick Frizell artwork. Keith Giles, Photograph Librarian, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Central City Library, Auckland, and Sue de Lange at The Royal Philatelic Society of New Zealand Inc. Without everyone’s participation and contribution I wouldn’t be able to dredge these stories back up.