Digital Killed the Despatch Rider

A dying species

Yes. It’s true.

Digital killed the despatch bike rider in London, and in many other places.

And, in the few places where digital failed to slaughter all before it, such as Ulan Bator, the bikers hastened their own demise by riding around with a telegraph pole on their backs.

In the 1980s, a member of the Soviet Foreign Ministry visited London for the first time. When asked what the most memorable aspect was of London, he replied, “The bike riders. They’re everywhere, weaving in and out of traffic like alien cosmonauts.”

That was twenty-five years ago.

In 1986, I was at Gold Greenlees Trott in London. GGT was a rather combative advertising agency, which meant that its clients had to be masochists to be clients. I was surprised by how many of them we had. We probably cornered the market in masochistic clients, pushing up the price as we did so. This was a great time to be in advertising, with mad, multi-million commercials being shot by BA and many others.

Sadly, I think this breed of masochistic clients is now extinct since the boot is distinctly on the other foot.

Anyway, we decided to make a TV commercial for Honeywell, and, being clever chaps, thought we’d do the whole thing on computers up to the point when it was transferred to beta tape for transmission. In other words, no cameras were used.

Dave Cooke who is now, I think, at JWT in London, and Chris Bardsley wrote the script, cheerfully lifting some of the art direction from Dire Strait’s great video for Money For Nothing. Martin Lambie-Nairne, who had worked on the Money video, and who still provides BBC1’s idents, was roped in to art direct and produce it. Tom Baker, an iconic Dr Who, provided the voice-over. This version of the TV commercial refers to the company as Honeywell-Bull, which dates from Honeywell’s sale of its computing division to France’s Bull.

This ad was the world’s first digital TV commercial.

We thought it was wonderful, but I’m not so sure now because things have moved on more than a little. However, we were very cheerful at the time.

Sadly, we didn’t use Honeywell’s computers to make the ad, but no-one cared and no-one asked.  I think the hardware came from Fujitsu. The ad talked about the paperless office, which still has yet to arrive, but we all knew that things were going to change, and they have.

If you work in advertising, or any communications agency, like it or not, the future is digital.You have to know about how digital marketing works in order to continue drawing a pay cheque.

Motorcycle couriers have no hope of going digital, especially not in Soho, so most of them no longer are in the business. The business has gone. Everything is now sent via the web.

If the Russian diplomat were to return, he wouldn’t recognise the place.

1986 was special for one other digital reason.

The world’s first digital virus was spawned. And it was called Brain. Anyone remember Doc Solomon’s?