The advertising industry was one of 20th-century London’s boom industries. It brought new jobs for commercial artists, printers, copywriters and – later in the century – film directors. By the end of the century, London firms dominated the national industry with over 80% of all British jobs in advertising located in London.
At the beginning of the century, London’s fledging advertising industry was in the hands of three main firms: Mathers and Crowder, founded in 1850; T B Browne’s, founded in 1872; and S H Bensons, founded in 1893. The industry expanded and changed in the 1920s with the arrival of new, large-scale American agencies such as J Walter Thompson, which opened its London office in 1926. The Americans brought a new hardnosed approach to advertising, employing such ‘scientific’ processes as market research.
By the 1920s, London’s advertising district was Aldwych and Kingsway. The district was convenient to Fleet Street, then the centre of the newspaper industry that made up the agencies’ major clients. J Walter Thomson had offices in Bush House. Benson’s offices were in Kingsway. By the 1960s, the industry had moved eastwards to Soho.
Throughout the 20th century, the artistic merit of advertising was much debated thanks to the increasing presence of posters and signs in London’s public spaces. Frank Pick, the managing director of London Transport, did much to raise the standard of poster design in London in the first half of the century. Under his regime, London’s Transport posters were invariably artistically interesting, clever and striking. The Central School of Art and Design was one of many London art schools that treated poster design as an important part of the training they provided. Posters by Central students were exhibited at the Royal Academy in the 1920s and the British Pavilion of the International Exhibition of Decorative art in Paris in 1926.
One of the sites that excited most controversy in relation to public advertising was Piccadilly Circus. Electrically lit advertisements had arrived by 1910 and, to some, seemed tawdry and gimmicky. The London County Council (L.C.C) tried unsuccessfully to exert some control over the quality of the flashing adverts, but eventually gave up. For the first half of the century the dominant adverts in Piccadilly Circus were for Bovril and Schweppes, both British firms; by the second half, Coca-Cola and other multinational firms had taken over.
The L.C.C. also failed to prevent adverts intruding into London’s landscape at the Oxo tower on the south bank. Designed in 1929, the tower worked around the prohibition on large-scale electric adverts by incorporating the advert into the fabric of the building. Its topmost windows formed the letters OXO, spelling the name of the meat-extract product made by the firm that owned the wharf beneath.