It’s a great story for anyone who’s obsessed by the showmanship of selling: Arch West, the great Frito-Lay marketing exec and inventor of Doritos, has been covered with his beloved chips in his final resting place. West came from a long line of great retail mavericks who had the fire and the guts to tap into the popular consciousness and then harness it instantly and recklessly, with scarcely a thought for the opinions of shareholders and other boring considerations. I know my banging on about the golden age of showmanship is something you see a lot on this blog, but I’m increasingly worried that we’re not going to see his like again.
What is it with snack moguls? First Fredrich Baur, retail genius and inventor of the iconic ‘Pringles’ can, had his ashes buried in one of his beloved crisp receptacles back in 2008, and now this fantastic news item from West, presumably a sight that roughly resembled Doritos’ stoner student target customer after a big night in. The real genius of the retail surpremo is represented by these almost mythic funerals: these were guys who truly lived the brand, who integrated their lives and their behaviour into what they were communicating. There is something unimaginably inspirational about these two men, who know who to grab column inches even from beyond the grave.
Their heritage is rich. When Gordon Selfridge came to London, he made a fortune out of the women’s lib movement by promoting luxury shopping as a lifestyle choice, a statement of freedom: he was unafraid to be a huge character and to consciously attract huge characters. He encouraged women to look at his freedom, to look at that of his wife, and to demand this for themselves via the medium of their wallets.
Throughout his career, he ran his store less as a business than a story factory. He invented the clapometer, he maintained extraordinary contacts throughout the national media, he orchestrated fabulous window displays with top celebrities. Selfridge, like West and Baur after him, understood that being a true brand ambassador means treating each day as a news item, investing each step you take with narrative flair. He was Selfridges, and he lived by one of his most powerful maxims: “People will sit up and take notice of you if you will sit up and take notice of what makes them sit up and take notice.”
Even going back as far as my idol P.T. Barnum, we find the tradition of the showman retailer. Before the FeeJee Mermaid, Tom Thumb and his great travelling roadshow, Barnum was a store clerk, and apparently an excellent salesman. This stuff isn’t coincidence: the retail world represents the beating heart of what all communications and sales industries do. On the shop floor, it’s sale or nothing, and it’s a cradle that has taught some of the best the art of haggling, cajoling, dazzling, even deceiving. What’s more, whole retail brands have been built on those personalities that rise to the top of such a world.
There is nothing more inspiring than having a marketing mind at the top of the tree: when a showman is running an outfit, their communications strategy isn’t something pasted on top of a rigid corporate interior. Their very essence, all of their activity, is informed by the spirit of the big risk and the hard sell.
The question is, where are the inheritors of this tradition? In these days of corporate retail groups, where shareholders reign supreme and ideas often have to pass through so many hands that they’re killed off before delivery, is there room for another Arch West? I see a lot of truly ambitious kids in the course of my work, I only hope some of them resist the pressure, keep the fire, and remember even at the age of 97 that a funeral is just another stage to be mastered. As Ken Campbell, another recently departed showman, once said: “the anagram of funeral is real fun”. Let’s hope that we in the commercial world don’t all now take ourselves too seriously to remember this.