Shaking up the Norfolk legal world in the 1980s

Hills & Perks advert

Publicity Plus created the first ever adverts formally allowed for lawyers - a cliff-top drama cartoon at that! - Credit: Local Recall

Norfolk was seeing different life in the 80s. A Norwich publicity firm, promoting new ideas, was about to launch the legal profession into never-before advertising. And its founder Paul Thomas tells how he met a special lady – thanks to a boat!

Into the 80s and business was booming. Publicity Plus Ltd was busy, getting much bigger, Norwich, London – world clients too. Plus my great love of Norfolk – boats – introduced me to Mary as a crew member for my yacht the Bessie Bell. We fell for each other, married and soon, two daughters would join us.

Remarkable new business scenes were about to arise too – one very different from our hospitality and tourism clients so far – helping lawyers, perceived until then as posh and unapproachable – to advertise and popularise, change their image and promote themselves!

Even more important, a meeting was approaching with someone else in PR who was to shape the future direction of our business thinking – for better or worse. And locked in with all this now global work was my increasing love of Norfolk.

On the Broads, out of the blue arrived Mary Southgate to crew a vintage yacht I owned, the Bessie Bell. Not only was she a good sailor… soon we decided to marry, as was the course in those very different days. It was March 12, 1981 when we signed up – and honeymooned in the British Virgin Islands– sailing of course.

Back home we raced the Bell a lot. We bought a house by the river at Hoveton – and along came daughter Marina, followed soon by Louise. 

Mary cared for them and I was away working much of the time. In years to come we got into motor cruisers too - Brooms of Brundall, the greatest Broads yard there has ever been.

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The Norfolk business was now about 18 years old. And earning well. 

For the first five to eight years I had paid myself a small fraction of my old Fleet Street salary. But now, at last, we were winning. And both Norwich and London offices were contributing halves of our turnover – and profitability.

Wroxham boats

A classic painting of old Broads river cruisers racing at Wroxham, probably in the 19th century. Paul's Bessie Bell was built in 1898 - Credit: Submitted

Norwich was booming, particularly thanks to Air Anglia which with other airlines had become Air UK, Colman's, staff and customer newspapers, a travel agency chain, and other tourist attractions, Watneys and their growing national scene – plus boating life not only our Hoseasons Holidays business and the Norfolk Broads.

In London, where I spent at least half of my life too – then tiny Marriott Hotels, Monaco and SeaWorld plus Holsten lager were flourishing. 

And our teams were growing too – super people working with talent, creativity – and enthusiasm over often long hours. 

When we recruited, applicants would ask what working hours were – and be surprised when we told them not just 9-5 but evenings and weekends too if necessary.

Though there were compensations – including time off, fun working and occasional treats!

That turned some applicants off and it dawned on me, most of we PPL-ers, that our lives were not just about working to live and pay the bills – but rather living to work and enjoy it. And to this day still, that has enthused and kept me going, even to 80!

Notably, however, we also helped achieve what many, even today, think was one of the most radical changes in the way business life ran. 

That comprised helping lawyers and accountants legally to start advertising and promotion of their services for the first time in history.

 This changed public and business understanding of what these two professions had been, somewhat removed from the commercial realism, ability and competitiveness the public needed to be able to assess.

Legal marketing had not been permitted in England and Wales before 1984, when the Law Society of England and Wales first permitted lawyers to advertise. It had been considered professionally improper to market your law firm.

This had led to an unapproachable, unclear image of law firms – almost a snobby and certainly pricey impression.

Law firms began to challenge this prohibition and its impact on their profession. 

Hills & Perks advert

Rules changed in the 1980s to allow legal firms to advertise - Credit: Local Recall

We really shook this up, not only with newspaper advertising but using cartoons - circumstances calling for a lawyer – eg property on a cliff edge, crumbling into the sea; prime minister Neville Chamberlain in 1939 waving his piece of paper from Hitler declaring there was no war, etc.

We headed them all: Don’t you wish you’d used a solicitor? These were controversial - adverts for solicitors using cartoons were a radical new way of looking at the law! Several are shown here – thanks to Archant’s Local Recall Project –

On the same date accountancy firms also took up the same change. We had been approached by two significant Norfolk firms to announce – and “advertise” them… Peat Marwick, then one of the nation’s biggest accountancy firms, and Hill and Perks, a growing partnership of solicitors. We got them both “first day” national media coverage.

Meanwhile as Publicity Plus travel business moved on, European, American, world products, a question arose – what about publicising Norfolk, itself or as part of East Anglia? It arose from several markets, including the Broads holiday operators, coastal resorts – the marine industry and Norfolk county and Norwich city councils, both of whom had become clients of ours.

As a great supporter of Norfolk, yet a mere immigrant, I responded to specific client efforts to awaken the world further to our attractions… including via a press exercise getting national newspapers to Norfolk – and taking a then evolving local star Stephen Fry to London to lobby them!

Yet quite a few influential “county” people thought it was not necessarily a good idea – Norfolk did not wish to be invaded, spoiled, commercially available to one and all.

About this time, despite instincts to get bigger, go worldwide, my allegiance to Norfolk, and Norwich, marriage and family, was growing still further

. And I was introduced to the Strangers Club, a distinguished collection of gentlemen comprising a club founded in Elm Hill, Norwich in 1927 – and partly prompted by strangers, indeed some then and subsequently from London.

Members included the professions I was now PR-ing for – and accountant John Turner proposed me… others backed me, and I became a member. 

That was 20 years after I had formed PPL… and 33 years on I have enjoyed the Strangers, ever since, very much. I have socialized there, helped with some events, told a little of my life… and am still proud to be a member. Back then, even now – we still discuss Norfolk – and its unique role.

I so wanted Norfolk AND expansion elsewhere in the UK, not only in London. And perhaps the world?

Strangely, certainly significantly I met a similar enthusiastic PR man, then Peter Gummer but one day to become a Lord. He respected us – and Norfolk! We got on well, talked about merging, even becoming a PLC. This started perhaps the most controversial time in my life. More on that – and good and question mark issues – in the next feature.

Paul’s biography, My Life My Way telling much of Norfolk business growth over two thirds of a century, is available from £10.75 including post and packing from:

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