Mention Balham to most people – especially those old enough to remember Peter Sellers’s radio work – and they’ll gleefully respond with the phrase “Gateway to the South!” For the longest time there was little else to recommend the place. Bombed out of all recognition in the London Blitz, it’s now just a row of fairly unattractive low rent shops. All right it’s got a Waitrose. And it’s not far from Clapham. And it’s handy for the Northern Line. But having an easy means of escape is hardly the highest praise that can be heaped on a place.
However, for those in the know there is now a very good reason to visit Balham. Tucked away on a side street, and very often ignored by those crawling between the pubs on the high street is the Balham Bowls Club. It was until a few years ago a functioning bowls club, frequented by distinguished gentlemen who no doubt muttered over their G&Ts about the raucous goings-on in the Be@One next door. And quite right too. Terrible place. Full of loud youngsters drinking brightly coloured cocktails. But then – as is often the way with places frequented by muttering old men – the tide of time overtook them and they found themselves having to sell their clubhouse. It was bought by someone who had the bright idea of turning it into a bar, and then the even brighter idea of not doing the usual strip-it-out-and-give-it-a-retro-refit but just leaving it as it is. So, all the old armchairs are there, the snooker room, the board listing past club presidents, the glasses that you remember from the 70s and wonder where they went to, the dusty portrait of the Queen, and best of all that oak-panelled sense of calm that you only ever get in places like that.
So, it’s a superb place for a couple of drinks of a Wednesday evening. And I was lucky enough to be there doing exactly that last night. I was even luckier to be doing it with one of the most charming and interesting PR executives I know. Which brings me away from ruminations on my local area and bars, and onto something closer to the alleged subject of this blog…..
We were discussing the many differences between working in-house and at an agency. She works in-house and has a great job that she loves. She had many good things to say about the agencies she worked at before going clientside. She even had some good things to say about the agencies who now work for her and pitch to her. But one thing neither she nor I could work out is why agencies insist on putting their most junior staff through the ordeal of calling up journalists and pitching stories to them. Very often this involves giving them fairly weak angles on unexciting stories, sitting them at a desk with a phone and telling them to get on with it. It rarely results in them placing a story, and more often results in them alienating the journalist, damaging the client brand and making the poor PR executive wish he or she was working somewhere else.
So, last night as we watched a large fluffy dog pad into the room and jump the queue at the bar to be served a bowl of fresh water, we agreed that the practice is rife and counter-productive in the long run (agencies making their junior staff do these ring-rounds, not dogs jumping queues in bars). She’d had to do it many times at the start of her career and had found it a largely embarassing and pointless exercise – she now builds long-term relationships with key journalists and phones them up when she’s got something genuinely interesting to discuss with them. I get a couple of calls a week from people who clearly don’t really understand what they’re pitching to me, and don’t really want to be doing it – I find it largely embarassing and pointless and would much prefer it if PR executives took the time to build a long-term relationship with me and called me when they have something interesting to say. I know that every other journalist would prefer that. I know that anyone who’s ever worked in a PR agency would prefer that. I know that clients would get more coverage and so would prefer it.
So, the question is this: why do agencies insist on putting their junior staff through this ordeal?