A tale of my brief encounter with Celtic’s Fergus McCann with passing mention of Dion Dublin. First appeared in Issue 4 of Nutmeg Magazine.
A quiet Friday afternoon in April. The square, grey BT-issue phone on the corner of my desk suddenly chirped into life. I was manning – or rather womanning – the fort in our little rented office on the top floor of an elegant Edinburgh townhouse. My boss and his wife had taken the afternoon off. The two creatives were still in the pub – this was 1994, so what else would you expect from a marketing agency? We were a fledgling business, carrying out direct mail and insert campaigns for a couple of large financial organisations. Part of a UK network, we relied on sister agencies in London for media buying and Leeds for production services. I was diligently checking over the media schedule for my main client, ruler sat on top of paper, pencil comments scribbled in the margin.
Dropping the pencil on the second chirp, I grabbed the chunky phone receiver and clutched it to my ear. “Thank you for calling WWAV Scotland. Heather speaking. How may I help?” My polite introduction was met with a brusque response: “You’re a direct marketing agency, aren’t you?” I confirmed that indeed we were, as my mind whirred, struggling to identify the vaguely familiar transatlantic twang.
“This is Fergus McCann. I’ve bought Celtic Football Club. We need some direct marketing. Can you come in and see me next week?”
I replied somewhat hesitantly that of course we could, I’d just need to check with my Managing Director as he would always attend a new business meeting. “What was your name again? Are you an Account Director?” I barely had a moment to confirm before the demanding Scots-born Canadian continued: “We’ll say 2pm Tuesday at Celtic Park. You just come along on your own if necessary.”
With that he hung up.
Nothing could stop my boss, Chris, from attending such a meeting. An energetic and enthusiastic businessman, his football allegiance was split between his home club of Aberdeen and Manchester United, where he had taken his degree – at Manchester University rather than Old Trafford, of course. He was a bit of an armchair fan, basking in United’s Fergie-inspired success. I already doubted that his knowledge extended much beyond the Match-of-the Day regulars of Schmeichel, Giggs, Keane, Cantona and co. My suspicions would soon be confirmed.
We rehearsed our agency pitch as Chris drove us along the M8 in his red Ford Orion – a cast-off company car from the London agency. My MD was always nervous that clients would question our ability to deliver a full service from our little Edinburgh office. “We might need to reassure them about our production capabilities. I’ve spoken with the MD at WWAV North in Leeds and he’s promised that Dionne would work on this account. She’s a very experienced print buyer so we should be fine on that. We don’t need to mention it unless they do but at least we can be prepared.”
We reported to the main reception at Celtic Park then waited nervously, perched on the edge of the black leather sofa, Chris’ foot drumming on the shiny tiled floor. I nudged Chris as Tommy Boyd passed by, giving a polite nod in our direction. It reminded me of the friendly greeting I’d received on my first visit to this stadium, a couple of years’ previously. To provide a diversion, I began to tell Chris the tale. I’d received an invitation to hospitality at the European match versus FC Cologne courtesy of my husband’s work . But I’d ended up arriving very late, having been held up in an earlier meeting. As my taxi nudged its way up to the glass-frontage kick-off was but half an hour away. Hordes of fans were streaming towards the turnstiles with an air of determination on a chilly late September evening.
I’d never been to Celtic Park before, let alone as a hospitality guest. Of course, this being 1992, I had no mobile phone and had only warned my husband that there was a chance I’d be a bit late. He was an invited guest himself, so hadn’t been at all sure of the arrangements. How would I find him among tens of thousands of football fans? Still in my neat work suit, I jiggled my high-heeled way through the green and white polyester-and-wool-clad throng up the steps to the main entrance. As my hand tentatively reached out to grab the shiny metal handle, a uniformed commissionaire whisked the door wide open.
To my astonishment, his first words were, “Heather McKinlay? We’ve been expecting you. Just follow me.”
Suddenly feeling six feet tall, I trotted smartly along the corridor behind him and into the plush, carpeted suite where my husband and his colleagues were cheerily scoffing and imbibing. A cold pint of Tennent’s lager and plate of dessert awaited. This was a very different experience from my formative football years on the massive East Terrace at Charlton in South East London. There I was exposed to all elements, with only little paper bags of monkey nuts and surreptitious sips from Dad’s smuggled hip-flask for sustenance.
Before I had the chance to recount the details of the match to Chris – Celtic winning 3-0 and thus overturning a 0-2 away leg deficit – the dapper figure of Fergus McCann appeared in front of us in the reception area. After perfunctory handshakes and introductions, he led us guardedly round the edge of the thick pile of the revered centenary rug and up the stairs. As we entered his office, the balding entrepreneur stopped and turned to face us. “What do you think of Dion Dublin?” he abruptly asked. I was even more taken aback than I had been by the commissionaire’s personal greeting on my previous visit to Celtic Park. Chris, however, glanced knowingly at me and gave me a brief ‘I told you so’ nod. Then he launched into his pre-prepared eulogy. “Oh, Dionne’s an excellent print buyer. We’ve worked with her on several projects. It doesn’t make any difference that she’s based in Leeds.” I would like to say that mine and Fergus McCann’s eyes met at this point. But as we both have squints, that would be about as wide of the mark as Chris Iwelumo’s shot on his Scotland debut. We certainly raised our eyebrows in unison. “I think Mr McCann means the centre forward, Chris, you know the one that Manchester United signed from Cambridge, after he’d scored loads of goals for them. He broke his leg last season, didn’t he? I don’t think he’s had much chance to prove himself since then.”
While Chris tried to regain some semblance of self-confidence, I elicited a thin smile from McCann, approving of my football knowledge.
History reveals that my endorsement was not ringing enough for him to follow-up Celtic’s tentative interest in the striker at that time, though Dion the footballer would indeed pull on the hooped shirt eventually. The fate of Dionne the production manager hung in the balance as Chris continued to do his best to make matters worse.
After we had given a brief overview of our agency set-up and services, the rather impatient McCann pulled a glossy A4 publication out of his desk drawer and dropped it in front of us. “What do you think of this for direct marketing, then?” he asked in a confrontational tone. Channelling Paul Ince or another of his rugged heroes, Chris again leapt in with both feet. Before I could utter a considered comment, he began a no-holds-barred critique of the golf holiday brochure, pointing out that the pricing and offers could be better presented, that it could probably be produced more cost-effectively in a different format (especially with Dionne’s help) and that some of the photography was rather weak. “That’s the brochure for the company I sold,” McCann butted in. “Brochures like that made me millions of dollars so that I could buy Celtic Football Club.”
An unusually subdued Chris sat quietly for the rest of the meeting. Most of the words came from the lips of the millionaire as McCann explained his vision: he intended to develop Celtic Park into a modern all-seater stadium, banishing forever the spectre of moving away. He wanted to make season tickets the norm, creating a stronger bond with regular fans while providing more predictable upfront finance so he could improve the squad. At the time, Celtic had a little over 7k diehard season book-holders. The stadium held 60k, but the average attendance was less than half that. There was little incentive for fans to commit in advance. Even Old Firm match tickets were easy to come by, the Bhoys’ enthusiasm waning as Rangers usually won. The team was in the doldrums and had not won a trophy of any sort since 1989.
While major work went on at Celtic’s East End home, McCann would secure agreement to rent Hampden for the following season. The national stadium was itself undergoing redevelopment, so its capacity was only 32k, which made the occasional sell-out more likely. The challenge thrown down by the entrepreneur was to create a direct marketing campaign to sell 15k season tickets, more than doubling the existing number. Given the atmosphere of general confusion and disillusion among supporters after recent power struggles and persistent uncertainty over the future of the club and stadium, this would be no easy task. But our agency prided itself on delivering results. We picked up the gauntlet. It was the least Chris could do for Dionne, after all, though he swore me to secrecy on the details of his gaffe. (I can trust readers not to break that confidence, can’t I?)
After his chastening encounter, Chris bowed out of contact, and let me lead the account. We had no time to waste. We would print hundreds of thousands of leaflets, mail them to Celtic’s existing database with a letter from the manager, plus distribute them as door-drops and inserts in targeted publications, across a three week blitz period. We’d place small ads in the newspapers and back it all up with some ads on Radio Clyde. We would present Celtic fans with a hard-to-ignore positive message to commit their support and get onside with the McCann project. Although prices were slightly reduced, fewer games due to a league restructure meant we could not shout about value for money. Instead we called upon the fans to guarantee their seat for every match. We used the necessity of playing at the national stadium, scene of previous Celtic cup victories, to hint at on-field success.
The headline proclaimed: “It’s Celtic’s Hampden year, be part of it.”
Dionne in Leeds, oblivious to her erroneous fame, produced cost-effective print quotes and pulled in favours to secure rapid turnaround times. The imagination of the media team in our London office barely extended beyond the Daily Record and the Evening Times so I took the initiative in adding in the Celtic View and a few other niche publications, which may have included the Catholic Herald. I struck up a squinty-eyed rapport with McCann, so much so that he even took a passing interest in Charlton Athletic. He liked the creative approach and approved the production and media spend totalling £80k. After one of our meetings, he donned his famous bunnet and took me on a tour of the crumbling ground, proudly explaining his planned redevelopment. He kept hinting that he would help give the marketing campaign a bit of extra momentum. I found out what he meant as I was driving back across the M8 one day, having just received approval on the final print proofs, including the letterhead for the mailing which listed Lou Macari as manager. Radio Scotland reported the breaking news that Macari had been summarily sacked. By the time I reached the agency office, McCann had already been on the phone to one of my colleagues, informing us to insert the name of Tommy Burns instead.
Whether it was due to the creative, the media targeting, Dionne’s excellent print-buying or the appointment of a returning hero as manager, the campaign created a wave of pre-season optimism and exceeded the already substantial target. By the start of the 94/95 season, Celtic boasted season book sales of over 17k, bringing in revenue of around £4M, a 50:1 return on marketing spend.
And Fergus McCann turned out to be a man of his word: Celtic went on to win the Scottish Cup – their first trophy for six years – in their Hampden Year.