Season 1, Episode 25

Graham Thomas and the pitch for British Rail

by | Aug 7, 2023 | 0 comments

The pitch to become British Rail’s advertising agency in 1979 is one of the greatest of all time. It involved an immersive theatrical experience that showed an audience a problem in a completely new light. The story has been told to me many times by many people, but always with a different spin. I decided to find out the truth for myself and tracked down Graham Thomas, who was – in 1979 – an Account Manager for Allen, Brady & Marsh, and played a vital role in this now-legendary pitch. 

Graham Thomas and the pitch for British Rail

The year was 1979, and British Rail faced a public backlash. They were funded by the taxpayer but hugely under-delivering: their trains were late, their facilities were neglected, and their staff were rude. Their newly appointed chairman, Sir Peter Parker (no relation to Spider-Man) was determined to change the public perception and went out to market for a new advertising firm. The more cynical amongst us might say that the problem was far bigger than an exercise in PR, however, the truth of the matter is that Peter Parker knew this too – but he did need help getting people back on to trains. 

The incumbent agency was the hugely successful Saatchi and Saatchi. Still, there was a challenger; a much smaller firm called Allen Brady and Marsh, led by the flamboyant and theatrical Peter Marsh. Saatchi & Saatchi were a Goliath in the industry, and ABM was well aware that they were David. To stand a chance at winning this work, Peter Marsh would have to do something utterly disruptive.

And so the day of the pitch dawned. The British rail team arrived at the ABM offices in London and were directed to wait in a small reception area. As they looked around they saw dirty coffee cups on tables, old magazines strewn around the place, and ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts.

After some time waiting, the British Rail team approached the receptionist and asked, “How long do we have to wait?”

“Dunno,” came the reply as the receptionist continued filling her nails.

Some more time went by until eventually the furious British Rail team got up to leave – and at that moment Peter Marsh flung open the doors. He looked the British Rail team in the eye, and said

“You’ve just seen what the public think of British Rail, now let’s see what we can do to put it right.”

What a story. The thing is, every time I hear that story, it’s always slightly different, in fact, 3 of my guests have already told me 3 different versions, and there is a frustrating lack of documentation online. And, as it’s probably the most influential and inspiring pitch of all time, I decided to investigate, and eventually, I found an ABM Facebook group who were able to put me in touch with Graham Thomas.

As it turns out, Graham is the former Vice Chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi, but in 1979, he was an Account Manager for Allen Brady and Marsh, and was a vital part of the pitch for British Rail.

This is episode 25 of pitch masters, and it’s the season 1 finale. I find out the truth versus the myth of this pitch as well as going behind the scenes of the preparation and execution  – plus, Graham has some absolutely incredible insights and anecdotes from the world of Peter Marsh and ABM. Thank you to everyone who has listened to Pitch Masters – I’ll be back again with season 2, but for now, please grab a drink, sit back, and get ready to take notes.

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