Sir John Ilott: Active ad-man

BY WILLIAM MACE
Last updated 05:00 21/07/2010
COMMUNITY SERVICE: Sir John Ilott, chief executive of Ilott Advertising for 35 years, proudly displays his Rotary Club chain.
S.P. Andrew Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, F-18367-1/1
COMMUNITY SERVICE: Sir John Ilott, chief executive of Ilott Advertising for 35 years, proudly displays his Rotary Club chain.

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Flicking through the history of Ilott Advertising is like watching black and white footage of New Zealand's unfolding nationhood.

The book, Creating Customers – The Story of Ilott Advertising, not only outlines the business fortunes of the country's second ever ad agency, but pays special attention to the social, political and economic factors that shaped both consumer and commercial behaviour.

With a client list naming Edmonds, Creamoata, Bovril, Dulux, Todd Motors and Watties among many others, it is clear Ilott Advertising took part in forming myriad cultural icons. The agency was established by John Ilott senior in 1892 and passed down to his son and grandson. The last Ilott involved in the company, Jack, finally retired in 1982 and the agency was then bought by Ted Bates International.

Jack Ilott passed away in 1999, but not before compiling a history of the agency, and of the Ilott family. Large parts of both books are devoted to his father Sir John Ilott who was a mainstay for 70 of the company's 90 years, and will soon be a Business Hall of Fame laureate.

Sir John was born John Moody Albert Ilott in the small Hauraki town of Te Aroha in 1884. Jack writes in his family history – The Ilott Story – that Sir John remembered being lifted up by his father to see the bright red glowing sky in the wake of the Tarawera eruption in 1886.

John Ilott senior's name is littered through early clippings of the Te Aroha News, both as an advertising co-ordinator and as justice of the peace and arbiter of local disputes. But in 1891 he moved his family south to Wellington where he worked at the New Zealand Times. A year later he became the managing agent in Wellington for the Auckland Star group, and several daily and weekly papers in the South Island, including the Otago Daily Times.

His ad-placing agency soon became a business in its own right, following an industry trend which was spawning advertising agencies worldwide.

The boy who was to become Sir John attended the Terrace School and then Wellington College before going to work with his father in 1902. It wasn't long before he accompanied John senior on journeys to his lower North Island outposts – "by horse and trap, along metalled and unmetalled roads" – for weeks at a time.

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When in Wellington father and son worked long hours: from 6am most days and regularly until 10pm and also on Saturdays.

It is no surprise then that Sir John was nicknamed "The Dynamo" for the relentless attitude to work which had been drilled into him from an early age. But he also maintained a wide range of interests: from music, art, literature and philosophy to trout fishing, tennis and stamp collecting.

His love of music led to the love of his life. When the Musgrove German Opera Company brought their Wagner repertoire to New Zealand in 1909, the 27-year-old was struck by Australian singer Hazel Hall. They eventually married in Melbourne in 1912 and returned to New Zealand, where Jack was born a year later.

Jack later writes that one of his mother's greatest achievements was being accepted by John Jr's parents who "had strict ideas and to them the stage was an anathema, and all performers were the lowest of the low. [Hazel's] mother-in-law said, at the end of her life, that she couldn't have found a better wife for her son if she had searched the whole world."

The couple's second child, Mary Elizabeth, had spina bifida and died after three months.

Suzanne Ilott was born in 1926, eventually married Ian McKellar and moved to England in 1953. Suzanne's daughter Shona McKellar says she knows "The Dynamo" nickname suited her grandfather down to the ground.

"He was a man of tremendous energy and interested in many different things ranging from business, art and music to supporting many charities.

"He was also extremely sociable and made friends all over the world. I think one of the things that I remember most was how international my grandfather was in his outlook, probably far more so than most of his contemporaries in New Zealand."

Having taken over as chief executive in 1917, and with his father's death in 1919, Sir John was eager to extend the Ilott network and persuade British corporates to trust him with their New Zealand bookings.

In 1922 he spent six months on a reconnaissance visit to the United States, Canada, Britain and Europe. But it was another five years before he opened a London contact office, which helped maintain working relationships in an age when letters took a month to travel the high seas.

"He set up offices in London and Australia and wasn't daunted by challenging established British advertising agencies," says Shona McKellar.

In 1928 Ilott started a separate Australian company which then took a 50 per cent share of major agency Griffin Shave, but bad debts and client shifts made the outlook "gloomy", writes Jack.

After setting up Catts-Patterson in opposition to Ilott Advertising in New Zealand, legendary Australian ad-man George Patterson left to link up with Sir John in a new 50-50 partnership – George Patterson Pty – in Sydney in 1934.

Advertising suffered through the depression and war years: paper shortages meant newspapers were whittled down to six pages. Jack Ilott records that income in 1934 was only half of what it was in 1929, but by 1936 some smart investments had the company back into the black to the tune of 618.

Sir John also experienced close calls with death – there were at least four occasions where The Dynamo's life could have been cut tragically short, writes Jack. Sir John was "desperately ill" during the influenza epidemic before a doctor's whisky bottle breathed life into him.

Then in 1933 he developed botulism and paralysis from eating infected food while in the United States. The other three who had eaten from the same can died but "John Ilott was a tougher bird", writes Jack.

During the early 1950s Sir John picked up a life-threatening infection after a minor operation but pulled through.

But in 1952 the company's 60th anniversary was a time of celebration rather more than it had been 10 years earlier. It was also the year Sir John decided finally to hand over the chief executive post after 35 years. He stayed on as chairman, but had more time for his directorships of outside companies and involvement with charitable and philanthropic organisations.

Sir John was a founding member of the Rotary Club of Wellington in 1921, and as district governor of Rotary New Zealand helped form the New Zealand Crippled Children Society [now CCS Disability Action]. He also served as a director of Rotary International and later as second vice-president of the international movement.

He also chaired the Nuffield Trust until 1971 and the McKenzie Charitable Trust, and he was a trustee of the National Library, the National Art Gallery and the Dominion Museum. He donated his collection of etchings and engravings to the National Art Gallery, now part of Te Papa.

Sir John was knighted in 1954 by the Queen in Wellington for his services to the community.

From 1950 on he served on eight commercial boards, including National Mutual Life Association, McKenzies Department Stores and Golden Bay Cement.

In 1960 he established The John Ilott Charitable Trust which still provides assistance to organisations for the purposes of improving literacy, parenting, sexual education, women re-entering the workforce and advanced training for highly skilled people in the arts and for women's and young children's educational and research projects.

Jack Ilott notes that Sir John was also the first to establish a comprehensive superannuation plan, arrange for long Christmas holidays and initiate optional flexible hours of work.

He remembers his father as "an all-rounder with a great zest for life".

"He was a far-sighted man with natural enthusiasm, energy and drive and worked well with people of all ranks. He was a great innovator, motivator and expansionist and was the key man in the success of the business and its long-term reputation for good service.

Sir John Ilott passed away in 1973 aged 89.

The Business Hall of Fame Gala Dinner takes place on Wednesday, July 28, at 7pm at the Hyatt Regency Auckland. Tickets can be bought by emailing caroline.steele@yetrust.co.nz.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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