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"They don't have fritz in Sydney..."

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Tom Richardson discovers how smallgoods, soft-drink and “Mr South Australia” helped sell the doomed State Bank.

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This is a very Adelaide tale.

After all, where else would you find a government-owned bank being spruiked by a popular news presenter who went to school with the Premier?

But that’s the thing about Adelaide; it’s the idiosyncrasies that forge that fateful attraction.

After all, they don’t have fritz in Sydney.

“They don’t have fritz in Sydney,
They’ve never tried a ‘Woodies’ lemonade.
What’s Christmas without the Pageant?
And a funny kind of football’s played…”

The fuzzy recesses of memory always dictate some confluence of major events with the popular culture of their era.

We have built strength back into our corporate sector through the State Bank…

And just as there is a generation of Victorians who will never remember the fall of their own State Bank without recalling a leather-clad Joan Kirner belting out “I Love Rock’n’Roll” on The Late Show, for their South Australian peers the hazy reminiscences of the bust that ended the ‘80s boom will instead likely evoke a few stanzas of hokey, half-sung verse:

“In Melbourne they don’t have a Pie Cart
And no-one makes our famous Ale
At the Show, there’s no honey ice-cream,
And no Popeye ever sails…”

The advertising campaign that preceded the State Bank’s fall was a roll-call of South Australiana, highlighting business success stories and the city’s eccentricities. It was twee, and deliberately so. Because this was a very different era. It was a time of pride and optimism, the bubbles of which were about to be rudely pricked.

John Bannon, Premier (speaking at the 1989 ALP State Convention):

“The next decade, the last decade of the 20th century, will be a new era for SA. We have overcome the decline of the late ’70s and early ’80s…the 1990s can be SA’s decade of fulfilment.

“We responded to the massive changes which saw employment fall away in our manufacturing industries. We devised new strategies. We developed new industries.

“We have overcome the financial problems of government in the 1980s. We have done the hard work to get the state’s finances on an even keel.

“We have built strength back into our corporate sector through the State Bank…”

statebank

A collection of headlines tell the tale of the bank’s fall.

Ron Dent, State Bank general manager, group marketing:

“We’d done a very good campaign with Young & Rubicam, featuring overhead helicopter footage – it might have been $1 million worth of value – with the timbre of ‘I love a sunburnt country’, and it ended with the line that became the slogan for the new State Bank, and that was ‘The only bank with its heart in South Australia’.

“That was the key idea…we’re the only one here that’s really investing back into the state.

…it would be interesting to know if other people thought: ‘Yeah, you’re the bastard that sang the jingle’!

“Now, some of the rest of the history ain’t so good, as you know, but at that time that line was what we used to position all of our marketing, and it was incredibly successful – probably the most impressive bank advertising of the time by any bank in Australia.

“We were really sticking it to the banking opposition, with zero per cent fees and all sorts of things. The major [banks] here all started whinging that we were advertising like a commercial bank, and the other banks got really shitty…

“With our merger [with the Savings Bank of South Australia] it was pretty exciting stuff. ANZ had taken over the Bank of Adelaide [and] there was great dissatisfaction in SA with the old Bank of Adelaide customers, who kind of had nowhere to go. We had a stream of customers coming out of the old Bank of Adelaide right next door and coming straight to us; the old Adelaide Bank lost shitloads of money to us, to the new State Bank.

“All the managers in SA were complaining to ANZ headquarters, where the managing director was this red-headed fella with a temper to match, called Will Bailey.

“Our advertising agency, Young & Rubicam, was one of the agencies ANZ used, and he stepped on them and told them they could either have us, or they could have ANZ…but they couldn’t have both.”

Adelaide had sort of rediscovered its mojo a bit

What the State Bank directors did next was symbolic of their status as young upstarts of a burgeoning 1980s financial sector with no shortage of young upstarts.

“We knew that whatever he was doing in Australia, [Bailey] always made it home for lunch on Sundays…so we served a summons to Will Bailey over his Sunday Roast,” Dent recalls fondly.

“We had the prior claim and were going to exercise our legal rights to buy them off.”

In the end, though, a high-priced QC convinced the bank against pursuing its vanity pissing contest with the nation’s third-largest financial institution.

“He said, ‘Let’s not waste a lot of time and money…why don’t you just chew your cud and think about going somewhere else?’” says Dent.

In the end, that somewhere else was Young & Rubicam’s fierce rival, Clemenger BBDO.

Ron Dent:

“I admired Clemenger…I knew Andrew [Killey, creative director]; we’d worked together, particularly with [now-defunct radio station] 5KA, and he was a very creative bloke.

“In the old days, Clemenger had the logos of their big clients in their foyer, so I organised to get one made…I walked in there and put that on [managing director] David Fuller’s desk, and said: ‘If you want it, you got it – we’re coming over, lock, stock and barrel!’

“I briefed them on the ‘Heart in South Australia’ positioning, and said, ‘Whatever we do, I want to maintain that…but we want a new approach.’”

…the absurdity, really, of doing a whole commercial around ‘They don’t have fritz in Sydney’!

Kim Boehm, account service director, Clemenger BBDO:

“State Bank had launched with the proposition that they were the only bank with its heart in SA; the local bank, I guess…and that was kind of like the sun around which everything orbited, the thing that had the gravity that pulled us towards it.

“But we got to a point where we felt we needed to refresh that, we wanted to do it in a way that had a bit more, kind of, joy and spirit about it, as distinct from the more rational, pragmatic kind of proposition [banks traditionally promoted].

“Before the Grand Prix was lost, it was a time when Adelaide had sort of rediscovered its mojo a bit…it happened very much through the Grand Prix, and this sense we were on the international stage.

“People had a bit more spring in their step, and a bit more pride about the place. You were proud to live here, to kind of embrace the quirks of who we are and what we’ve got.

“So it came out of how good it was to live in SA.

“We wanted to have a bit more fun with that…I mean, the absurdity, really, of doing a whole commercial around ‘They don’t have fritz in Sydney’!

“We went through and talked about, what are all the things that are unique to SA, like Woody’s [Woodroofe] Lemonade, Coopers beer, Golden North’s honey ice cream…picking off some of those things which were authentically South Australian.”

Peter Withy, creative director, Clemenger BBDO:

“I came up with [the lyrics], probably because I was away in Melbourne for about 12 years. It was actually easier to write when you’d been away from the state, because you realise all the strange idiosyncrasies that are present here, that they don’t have; things a bank headquarters in Martin Place or Collins Street would never know about.

“It came out at a time when most of the [advertising] stuff in the bank was about keeping the pride in the state going, without actually saying ‘SA Great’. But saying, ‘We’re different, we’re interesting…we’re us!’.”

And, to recite the roll-call of all these “things which were authentically South Australian”, the company opted for another authentic South Australian.

Everyone knew it was Keith! They knew his voice…

Keith Conlon, voiceover:

“By then I was reading the news [on ABC], but I’d previously done three and a half years on a current affairs magazine program called State Affair on Channel 7, so I was kind of a known South Aussie by then; my now fully-forged persona of telling our stories was well on its way…

“In a previous life as a young student, I’d sung in a group called the Wesley Three, which was a comedy/harmony trio in the golden tradition of folk like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary…so somebody had decided ‘this guy could do [the commercial]’.

“It was half-spoken, very much in the half-spoken, bush-ballady thing, which I was also a great enthusiast for…you think, ‘yeah that sounds like a funny idea really!’

“It was meant to be anonymous, but a lot of people picked my voice…but to many others it was just a bloke singing.”

Andrew Killey, creative director, Clemenger BBDO:

“Everyone knew it was Keith! They knew his voice and they knew it was him…I think it worked pretty well.

“Keith was sort of ‘Mr South Australia’ in the media. He had a very, very strong connection with the city and the state…and he had the right sort of voice, he was the right sort of age.

“With him singing, ‘They don’t have fritz in Sydney’, he was sort of as much of the idea as the words were!”

Peter Withy:

“He was kind of the voice of the state…and was, I think, for many, many years. He was just the natural choice to pick.

“It was written less as a musical thing, and more as a Leonard Teale poem-set-to-music kind of thing.

“The brief was really just to come up with something that reinforced the position that this was the premier financial institution, owned and run by South Australians.

“The first line was the hardest, because it had a rhythm in itself…it always struck me as funny how that strange processed meat had a different name wherever you went in the country!

“But it kind of flowed after that…and then it became a list.

“It didn’t quite write itself, but close to it.”

Ron Dent:

“We wanted to get a campaign going with a real SA flavour, something a bit different, a bit of fun.

“[When Peter proposed the jingle] we all fell about laughing. We thought it was a great concept…we went with it, and the rest is history!

“It had a lot of legs, it ran for a long time. ‘They don’t have fritz in Sydney’ became kind of code for ‘Croweaters’. It became part of the language; it was used every day, and still is from time to time.”

Kim Boehm:

“In Peter’s mind Keith was always the right guy to do it – Keith does have a smile in his voice – [but] when you look at the commercial itself, it’s a reasonably emotional tone…it’s not as light as I thought it might be when I first saw the concept.

“It’s funny, because it was a great time in advertising and a good time in Adelaide…[The bank] was popular, people did like the fact it was the local bank, [so] we could be a bit more relaxed, a bit more familiar with the audience.

The Bank in those days – you’ve got to remember, it was before it lost all the money and everything – it was really the fabric brand for SA. Probably more than any other brand, it was the brand that showed leadership.”

State Bank, your bank
The bank we call our own
State Bank, your bank
It’s yours, and yours alone

Withy says he was “probably not really” surprised by how quickly – and for how long – the commercial resonated.

“It got a lot of airplay, which is often the secret,” he says now.

“It was good old-fashioned feel-good advertising – that always seems to resonate!”

151104__Keith-Conlon-4

Conlon reflects on the re-badged bank.

The track was recorded at Grapevine Studios in North Adelaide, a stone’s throw from the now-vacated digs of Channel Nine Adelaide, where Conlon went on to further forge his “Mr SA” persona as the longtime host of Postcards.

It’s the State Bank! It can’t happen, couldn’t happen…

Keith Conlon:

“It was a bit like singing the song for Haigh’s or a Frogcake…it was like, ‘heads up, we own the place, we’ve got these good things and they don’t understand what we’re on about’.

“It had that light-hearted thing that’s been maintained more recently with brewery commercials [such as West End]…that notion of claiming a bit of SA back, that sort of notion that we’ve got a secret here but we don’t care if they don’t know about it.

“At that point, there was not even the hint of there being any danger attached to that, so to speak. Personally, I’ve always been very cautious about engaging with commercial entities, especially long-term…I’ve done it a few times in my lifetime.

“You wouldn’t want [the bank] to fall over, would you? Or you wouldn’t want them to shonk anybody. And you just wouldn’t think that would have happened to your State Bank, and that’s really one of the things that still weighs on the psyche of SA.

“Certainly in the psyche of the State Government at the time, it was ‘Don’t rock the boat, don’t make these silly noises – it’s the State Bank; it can’t happen, couldn’t happen…’.”

As if to emphasise the two degrees of separation that existed, and still exist, in Adelaide circles, Conlon had even played at Dent’s late-80s wedding at the Prospect Town Hall. In Adelaide, everyone knew everyone.

Keith Conlon:

“I was really good mates with [John Bannon]… I was one year behind him at school and uni, so it was almost like he was a contemporary. We ended up sitting in lectures together…he was a brilliant orator, actor, writer [and] we were good mates. We worked quite closely acting in comedy sketches together…we might well have headed off into the comedy and drama field.

“John became a very disciplined, very successful Premier for a decade; if he’d got knocked off at the [1989] election before [the bank collapsed] he would have gone down as one of the great Labor Premiers.

“But he wore it when it fell.”

And Conlon, by then a co-host on ABC891’s morning shift, helped ensure the Premier wore it.

 I AM the bastard…and I AM wearing it!

Keith Conlon:

“There was always terrible news, and it just kept getting worse…we thought it was a billion bucks, then it was two, then three…

“We knew that this meant there’d be a hard decade ahead, and there was.

“Reading the news, you’re just fronting the news for an organisation [but on radio] we were trying to eke out what was going wrong, and how it was going wrong.

“In those days the breakfast program was bright, and then we got serious [but] it was a really tough grind to bring that bad news [every day]. You’re trying to light these people’s lives but at the same time, you’re companion radio – you’re a part of their lives – and it felt like ‘this is getting too relentless’. It was difficult, savage, bringing real economic gloom on an almost daily basis, for months or years.

“On one key occasion Bannon, as Premier before he resigned, was in the studio…I said to him, ‘Some bastard’s got to wear this’, and he said: ‘I am the bastard…and I am wearing it!’

“It wasn’t a happy moment for me personally, but as a broadcaster, as a journalist, it was a pretty major moment.

“The opportunities we missed in the ’90s, it took well into the Rann decade to get us out of debt [because] we didn’t do a Kennett – hurt ’em and hurt ’em hard.”

Ron Dent:

“That was another story, and a bloody shame what happened to the Bank.

“I think it has forgotten what made it famous; they’re not owned by South Australia or South Australians now.

“But I do believe we made a terrific team, producing much memorable advertising over quite some years, including rather famously ‘They don’t have fritz in Sydney’, ‘You bought a house and made it a home’ and my personal favourite: a Christmas Pageant commercial featuring true delight on the small children’s faces…achieved by us having them open a gift box in which there were – unseen by the TV viewer – tiny, fluffy ducklings!

“Killey was a brave bugger. I recall rejecting a television concept about a dad teaching his son the value of saving, and Andrew came in himself to defend the creative concept, calling me a dickhead, or similar…of course, it became one of our most popular ever advertisements! Mainly, I think, because it touched a community response button in a way banks had forgotten how.

“We had a lot of fun over a long time, and I ended up doing a couple of years at Clemengers after I left the bank.

“We’re all still mates.”

Kim Boehm:

“Denty was a terrific client. The bank, in those days, had plenty of money, they were visible…but in hindsight, obviously, they didn’t have plenty of money!

“There was that dreadful week when we got the call to say, ‘Come in, we need to have a chat, there’s a problem’…and the problems just escalated and escalated.

“From an advertising standpoint, we were suddenly faced with the reality that the bank was on the nose. We didn’t do any more brand advertising, but did product advertising instead, moving the bank (logo) down to the bottom right hand corner, as it were.

“Instead of promoting the brand, we moved the whole attention back to focussing on products.

“You did imagine at that time that may be the end of the bank.

“But it was quite amazing, really…apart from a few anxious moments, they kind of got through all that.

“In a sense, there was a fair bit of goodwill [still invested] in the bank..the customers sort of felt their relationship was with their branch, and didn’t seem to react as negatively towards the bank, at least not as much as you’d think they would have. And although it’s changed its logo and name, it’s still survived.

“It’s incredible, really, that a brand like that, that was the cause of so much heartache and so many problems, that it got through it all.

“Other brands that’s happened to, you kind of imagine they wouldn’t survive it, but the bank did.”

Keith Conlon:

“I somehow managed to make the disconnect personally [about voicing the commercial]…it would be interesting to know if other people thought: ‘Yeah, you’re the bastard that sang the jingle’!

“Every now and then it comes out of the cupboard…if you’re in a bar late at night with baby boomers like me and you start [singing] that, they all know it…

“But the thing is, we don’t have Woody’s lemonade – it doesn’t exist anymore. And yet it was the lemonade, it was the major lemonade company for decades and decades, and we were proud of the fact it wasn’t that stuff Coca Cola sold.”

[Conlon breaks into another iconic jingle: ‘We think Woody, Woody, Woodroofe’s…’]

“But in its way, [the State Bank promotion] had a place, and probably still has a place…it’s very Adelaidean isn’t it?

“If the State Bank hadn’t collapsed, this wouldn’t have been such a fascinating story…but there’s advertising and there’s advertising…and a good jingle still works.

“I don’t know whether it sells anything, but it gets into your head!

“Maybe they were more innocent times, in terms of ads, but if you run out of anything else to do at a party, you can always fire up old jingles, and people will know the words.”

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