It is 1969 and in Australia a marketing phenomenon was taking place. K-Tel was marketing compilation albums by using TV advertising and was having success. The marketing costs were high but they were selling volume. As then Marketing Manager at Philips Records this method of selling records got me really excited, so I sat down one evening at home with a calculator (no spreadsheets in those days) and worked out a budget. I calculated that we would need a TV budget of $30,000 over three weeks to cover the TV programmes I thought our target audience would be watching. $30,000 was, in those days, a very large advertising spend and TV had never been used in New Zealand to market a record album.
As I completed my graph excitement spread through my veins: break even at 30,000 sales was high but once sales went over that number the profit margin grew rapidly. If we could sell 50,000 a really healthy profit would be ours. This was a high number but I was convinced it could be achieved.
I took my project to my boss Willie Morton but he was not convinced the rewards were worth the risk and I was given a NO. I kept at him continually over the next few months but he was not willing to take the punt. Although disappointed I understood.
However, Willie was promoted to be Manager of the Philips Consumer Products Division and I was promoted to Manager of Philips Records. My time had come.
I enjoyed Willie as a boss as he was always supportive and more than anyone at that time he was responsible for my growth. But the time had arrived for me to put my own stamp on the company; I wanted to sign more New Zealand artists and I wanted to get into the marketing of compilation albums by TV advertising before any other company got a hold on that market.
K-Tel had set up in New Zealand and was now approaching us and other companies for hit tracks to be licensed for their compilation albums. It was time to take the plunge and put out our own compilation LP. Once more I did the numbers and then took them to my immediate boss at Philips, Bruce Garden, the company’s Commercial Director. Bruce listened to my pitch and then said, “I'm not prepared to take this risk, but if you want to you should go ahead. If you fail no one, including me will be supporting you. If you are a success though, be assured, I will be alongside you in the photo. So John, are you going to have a go?” I thought Bruce was great to let me take responsibility for my own decisions and immediately replied “YES”.
I had been in discussions with HMV’s recording boss Graeme Feasey (“Graeme’s the name records is my game”) to license HMV hits for our album. Graeme was not convinced about giving us, his biggest rivals, HMV tracks for my proposed venture. Graeme was leaning towards supplying K-Tel. I learnt that he would be at a Directors meeting and having forecast HMV’s earnings if we reached that magical 50,000 sales number I had finance write HMV a cheque for that amount and had it delivered to Graeme at his board meeting, along with a note giving a deadline for acceptance of our offer. After the meeting Graeme phoned to say “OK the tracks are licensed to you; once my board saw the size of the advance royalty cheque I was advised to go ahead”.
Next step was to get the marketing plan and record production underway. I set up a meeting with our Marketing Manager Brian Pitts and Dale Wrightson (who now had his own advertising agency January Productions) to discuss the name of the LP, the sleeve art and the TV campaign, we decided on calling the album 20 Gold Hits. But I was not happy with that and further discussion took place. I said to Brian and Dale that whilst it was just OK, the name was not solid enough for me. Dale said, “OK, what about 20 Solid Gold Hits?” And that’s what we called it. Dale went off to get the cover art designed and to produce the TV commercial. Dale also had to book the TV time. Brian went off to organise production and to enthuse the sales team.
Dale came back quickly and informed me that TV time was totally booked for months ahead. Shit! I had a friend Warwick Woodward, who besides being a jazz buff with one of New Zealand’s largest collections of Jazz LP’s, had his own advertising agency. Warwick had been at me for month’s to get our advertising account so I phoned him and gave him details of the sort of TV time we were after. I told him (and Dale) that if he got us the TV time he and Dale’s agency would share the commission. In a few days and after a couple of long lunches with TV executives, Warwick phoned to say he had the TV time and it was booked.
We advised the retail shops of our forthcoming campaign and sought advance orders. Retailers were not keen and did not see our venture being a success; in fact they were totally negative. As I had ordered the pressing of an initial 30,000 albums I was getting very nervous. I told Brian it was important we had good stock in shops when the TV advertising started and made the decision to put the stock in shops on a sale or return basis. Now if this failed I was really toast.
On the Thursday of the 20 Solid Gold Hits first advertising spots airing I was at a reception in an Oriental Bay pub for Chuck Berry’s band (Chuck would not come). The band included the legendary trumpet player Blue Mitchell and both Warwick Woodward and I were keen to say hello to him. I hadn't much to drink but on arriving back at the Philips' car park I was so wound up and nervous I drove my company car straight into the wall. The next evening (late night shopping) I toured the main record outlets to see how (or if) 20 Solid Gold Hits was selling. My first stop was at James Smith in Cuba Street and on arriving there I witnessed crowds fighting to get served at the record counter. They were all buying 20 Solid Gold Hits.
20 Solid Gold Hits Vol 1 went on to sell 90,000 copies and subsequent volumes even more. We had created a monster hit series that almost single handily turned what was then the smallest division at Philips into its most profitable.