Sector: Media (Advertising)
Anne Meerloo was only 37 years old when she died but she achieved a lot in her short life, probably the first woman in Britain to establish her own advertising business which at one stage employed around 50 people and put her on the front pages. Her story is not complete but perhaps this post will make its way to someone who can fill in some of the gaps.
Anne’s family was living on Mile End Road when she was born in September 1889. She was three-quarters Dutch and both her parents were involved in the garment trade. Her father, Solomon, was one of ten children born in London to a Dutch-Jewish cigar-maker and ran a dressing-gown business in Aldgate. Her mother, Amelia (Millie), was born in the Netherlands and sold silks and satins in a high-end drapery business at 172 Whitechapel Road. Other family members also lived in the Whitechapel area running various enterprises and involved in local charitable organisations.
Like her older sister, Sarah, Anne (or Annie as she was known when she was younger) attended Stepney Jewish Primary School. She became interested in advertising while she was at secondary school and did the publicity for school concerts and sports days.
When she left she took a job as a secretary to an advertising agent and then used her contacts in the drapery business to move into a role managing the advertising department of a leading firm of shop fitters, possibly Frederick Sage and Co, who fitted out Harrods, Selfridges and DH Evans. She studied advertising, gaining an M.I.S.A.C. Lond.: she was very proud of this qualification but so far I have been unable to find out what exactly it was and where she got it. If you know, please get in touch.
In 1913, when she was till in her early 20s, she decided that, since most advertisements were designed to attract the attention of women, there must be an opportunity for women to play a bigger role in their creation. She set herself up as the self-described ‘first lady advertising consultant’, founding Meerloo Publicity Services, the business she ran until her death. Initially it was based on Theobalds Road near Holborn, where many other agencies were basing themselves. She consulted to Pollard’s, and Glaxo before leaving Britain to travel to Australia, where she became the advertisement director of the Daily Mirror in Sydney.
She was back in Britain by the end of 1918 and in June 1919 she gave an interview to the Daily Mirror where she extolled the virtues of a career in advertising, with the possibility of a four or five figure salary. “Now is the time for the woman advertiser to come into her own, when many women are relinquishing temporary war employments.”
Raising her profile
Anne took a stand at the International Advertising Exhibition in White City in late 1920 and attracted plenty of attention. By now Meerloo Publicity Services had a number of clients and she created models of their products and surrounded them with the advertisements her firm had created. Each stage of the process was laid out: how designs are created, how they could be turned into different materials such as advertisements, posters and postcards, the values of various positions in newspapers and journals and the role of information booklets and trade catalogues. She used her gender to differentiate and it worked: ‘The Meerloo Publicity Service is particularly valuable to those advertisers who desire to make a special appeal to ladies’
Perhaps this was how she gained an interesting and surprising business partner in 1921. She struck a deal with Lord Lathom, turning her private business into a limited company, selling him 40% of the shares and instating him as Chairman.
Born in 1895, Edward William Bootle-Wilbraham became the 3rd Earl when he was still a schoolboy. Eton-educated, his university studies at Christchurch College, Oxford were interrupted by the war. He was an aspiring playwright, writing under the name of Edward Wilbraham, and was keen on interior design, spending thousands on the dower house of his estate, Blythe Hall.
During the early 1920s, Ivor Novello, Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward were guests and put on performances in a large hut on the estate but in 1923 Lathom ran out of money and was forced to sell up.
While he carried on writing, he also set up a small interior business, Fearnley Ltd, on Davies Street in Mayfair.
How did Lord Lathom come to know Anne? What made him invest in her advertising business? How actively was he involved? These are all questions that so far remain unanswered but based on his own financial track record he does not seem to have been the ideal business partner.
Anne worked hard to raise the profile of her business. She kept a close eye on the quality of the firm’s work and spoke at national industry conferences about the ingredients of an effective window display and what forms of advertising investment delivered the best return on investment. The company continued to grow and by 1923 she had taken over two floors of 96 New Bond Street, with 28 employees there and a further 30 based in a printing works: the company was now able to field its own cricket team.
Her firm provided all the core advertising services: design and layout, copy-writing, space-buying and production. One of her challenges was finding good copy-writers, which she saw as a great opportunity for women, with the possibility of salaries of up to £15 a week. At around this time, a secretary would be earning £2-3 a week and over at Nash’s magazine, Alice Head was on £12 a week as an assistant editor with 15 years of experience.
Running a large team of people with diverse skills brought its challenges, particularly hiring artists who waited for days for inspiration to strike. She updated her job advertisements for these roles to say that ‘no one with artistic temperament need apply’. Clients included the Royal Opera House, Holophone, Duckhams and the Chappell Piano Company, which was also based on New Bond Street, as well as many brands all lost in the mists of time – Pera Cigarettes, the Rollo-Foam Safety Razor, an aerial filming company imaginatively named Aerofilms, and early car manufacturers including Unic Motors.
Working for women
Anne was one of the founder members of the Women’s Advertising Club of London (WACL) and an original committee member along with Marion Jean Lyon, Ethel Wilson and Florence Sangster but her attendance at the regular dinners and meetings quickly dropped off. As the only woman among the original members running her own business, her company came first.
The question of whether a woman makes a good boss was much discussed a hundred years ago, although at that point there were few women in leadership positions at any level in many organisations, let alone at the top. As well as putting in place marriage bars, which forced women out of the workplace altogether, organisations created policies and practices that prevented women’s progression. In 1926 the Schoolmasters’ Association decided that no assistant-masters should serve under head-mistresses. This sparked a wider debate about women bosses. Lloyds Bank was one company prepared to confirm publicly that they were not open to women in the higher grades of banking, mainly because it would involve their being in authority over men and of course, that was not tenable. In retail, the rise of women in buying meant they often found themselves negotiating with the men running the departments that sold the products they were purchasing. ‘Tact’ was frequently referenced as a core skill for any woman like Anne who ended up in charge of men.
When women did make it into positions of influence, journalists were interested in whether she employed any women herself. Decades before Madeleine Albright’s remark that ‘there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women’, Caroline Haslett made the same point though in a rather less pithy way:
‘While it is interesting to hear of individual women making headway, it is more hopeful when a successful woman can open up new avenues of employment to the young girls who are leaving school’
she commented in her annual round-up of women in commerce for the Woman’s Leader in December 1927. Despite her own success, her membership of WACL and her public statements that advertising was an industry offering great career opportunities for women, Anne went to no special lengths to bring women into her business, only employing two women in 1923, both in secretarial roles. When the company closed in 1927 there were still only four and at least two were secretaries.
In 1925, the company moved to new offices at 14 New Cavendish Street. By now business was starting to get tough. In 1926 Lord Lathom resigned as a director and his replacements were short-lived. On 14th February, Anne took out a £5,000 loan and then three weeks later, on 7th March 1927, she died, apparently after a long illness.
Reports of the death of the ‘pioneer woman advertiser’, ‘known to thousands of London business men and women’ were carried in many newspapers. Anne was buried at Willesden Jewish Cemetery and the winding-up process started almost immediately. Her creditors, mainly newspapers and magazines waiting to be paid for running advertisements, received a third of what was outstanding.
Research into female entrepreneurship in Victorian and Edwardian Britain using bankruptcy records as a proxy for failure suggests that women were no more likely than men to suffer a business failure. In Anne’s case, it feels like she had good instincts and had a decent run for a while, but ultimately needed a stronger set of directors to advise her. Perhaps she might have been able to turn things around but her death meant she never had the chance.
Archives of the Women’s Advertising Club of London – History of Advertising Trust
East London Advertiser 5/9/1903; East London Observer 9/11/1907; 23/3/1912; 18/1/1913; London Evening News 7/4/1913; Truth 25/6/1913; Daily Mirror 12/6/1919; Pall Mall Gazette 1/12/1920; 1/3/1923; Advertisers’ Weekly 1/2/1924; Daily News 31/7/1925; Westminster Gazette 9/4/1926; Nottingham Evening Post 24/4/1926; Westminster Gazette 11/3/1927; Woman’s Leader 30/12/1927
‘Risk, success, and failure: female entrepreneurship in late Victorian and Edwardian England’ by Jennifer Aston and Paolo di Martino, The Economic History Review 70,3 (2017) P.837-858