I had my first slim pamphlet of poems published in 1972 by Aqulia. A couple of dozen more followed over the next two decades, all from small presses. In 1995 I had my first book from a major press when Macmillan Childrens’ Books published Dragons. They went on to publish many more of my books.
In early May 2002, Macmillan forwarded a letter they’d been sent which was addressed to me. It was from a literary organization called Forward who, working on behalf of an unnamed advertising agency, wrote to 250 poets asking us to submit poems for possible use in an advertising campaign.
The letter arrived just as I was leaving the house to work in a school. I put it on the passenger seat of my car and then opened it while waiting at the traffic lights near my home. The first line of the second paragraph informed me that ‘All poets who submit poems will be paid a commission of £200’. That sounded good to me.
Ten minutes later, waiting at another set of lights, I read more. Their client was going to pick twenty-four poems for inclusion in advertisements for use in radio and TV advertisements, for which additional fees of up to £3,000 would be paid. Wow! With two children – one fifteen, the other eleven - Gaynor and I needed that sort of windfall. I resolved there and then to give this one a go.
The rest of the letter described the kind of poem they wanted and the target audience to which it should appeal. The remit was a broad one so they’d attached five sample poems (by Simon Armitage, Roger McGough, Penelope Shuttle, W B Sheridan and Owen Sheers) for further guidance.
I’d got till the end of May to get in my submission. In the end I sent three short poems and duly received a cheque for £200 from the advertising agency, WCRS. During the summer I was told that one of my poems, Responsibilities, one that I’d specially written for them, had made it onto their short-list and, after a tantalising wait, that they’d selected it for radio. Shortly after this, I was told it was also among the dozen or so lined up for use on TV. It transpired that the company using our work was The Prudential Insurance Company (a.k.a. The Pru).
Interestingly, when I asked why they’d gone for poetry, one of the guys at WCRS told me this story. There had recently been some adverse publicity for The Pru and they’d held a high-power meeting to discuss how to rectify the situation and improve their image. At one point someone suggested they look for the antithesis of what they were seen to represent. And what did they decide was the opposite of finance? Why, poetry of course!
Ironically, that decision only served to prove that the two – poetry and finance – were in fact complementary. That’s why, in October, I received a cheque for £3,000.
Here’s the poem which, though it seems simple, took some writing because each line contains three rhymes (-own, -own and -est):
Our kids, who’ve grown and flown the nest,
Now only phone us to request
More cash on loan, their tone depressed.
We’re shown their debts. We’ve known. We’ve guessed.
They own mere pence. They’ve blown the rest.
“We’re stony-broke!” they drone, distressed.
They moan. We groan, but re-invest
In those who’ve grown and flown the nest –
Our blood-and-bone, our own, our best.
Meanwhile, WCRS began commissioning me to write more. I was paid for writing a number of poems for The Parkinson Show (the chat-show hosted by Michael Parkinson and sponsored by The Pru), earning £200 a time even though none were actually used.
There were other commissions over the next couple of years including more for The Pru and some well-paid work for Orange with several of my prose pieces and poems subsequently used in staff training programmes.
By autumn 2002 my poem began to be included in the Pru adverts. I heard the radio version first and then, a few weeks later, was delighted by the TV advert. It was all I could have hoped it would be. For a start, the poem stood alone in its own right at the start of the advert, followed . AfterBefore and after it were plugs for The Pru with the text read by the poet Roger McGough. My poem was read faultlessly by the actor Bernard Hill (famous then for playing the iconic character Yosser Hughes in Alan Bleasdale’s hugely popular TV drama Boys From The Blackstuff and later to play King Theoden in the three The Lord Of The Rings films). The specially-made film to go with my poem was very effective and, to top it all, my name appeared on-screen at the start of the poem. I lost count of the number of friends, some of whom I’d lost touch with for years, who got in touch as a result of seeing the advert and spotting my name.
Over the next few months, it was aired frequently on all of the key commercial TV channels (ITV, Channel 4 and all the Sky channels). It went out thousands of times, making it one of the most broadcast poems in the history of television. During this period, the advert also won a major advertising industry award, as a result of which The Pru decided to re-jig it for a second run of broadcasts. Here’s how I found out about that.
Our phone rang one evening, just as Gaynor and I were about to go out. It was one of the team at WCRS. She told me that The Pru wanted to re-run my advert in a slightly shortened form. She was therefore phoning to ask my permission for them to drop two lines from of my poem. As I’d written each line separately, I’d no problem with that and said ‘Yeah”. She then pointed out that this seven-line version (minus lines four and five) would be a different poem. Again, I said ‘Yeah’. So she said ‘In that case, would it be okay if we payed you another £3,000?’ I said ‘Yeah’ and put the phone down. Turning to Gaynor, I suggested that we went straight to a nearby pub and got drunk. When Gaynor asked why, I asked ‘What did you hear me say during that phone call?’ She replied that I’d just said the word yeah three times. I said ‘What if I told you that each of those three yeahs just earned me a thousand quid?’
All told, between 2002 and 2004, WCRS paid me between seven and ten thousand pounds. I don’t ever gamble, but lucky breaks like this feel like lottery wins. And, for a struggling writer, they are lifelines.
Despite WCRS promising several times to send me a video of the advert, they never did. Not having a video machine, I’d been unable to make my own copy. A few years ago I spent a day on the phone trying locate a copy. However, I discovered that WCRS had ceased trading and, after much trouble finding someone at The Pru who knew about it, was informed that they’d not got a copy on file. Eventually, I gave up. However, in January 2019 I found that someone specialising in the history of advertising had posted it on YouTube under the heading Prudential Responsibilities. It was great to see it again after more than a decade of believing it was lost. That find prompted me to dig out the file of my correspondence with WCRS and write this piece.
Nick Toczek, January 2019