Press Cadets, Task One: Time Out sandwich board holder

IF ANY OF the 10 Press Cadets felt daunted by the task that Time Out editor Gordon Thomson set them, they hid it well. From the comfort of the top floor of the Time Out's Tottenham Court Road offices, the magazine's editor had explained he wanted them to get down and dirty on the streets seven floors below — specifically to get jobs as board holders, pointing the capital's thronging punters in the direction of various back-street retail outlets.

Most, understandably enough, had not dressed with a day on the pavement in mind. But within half an hour of being sent on their way, it became clear they weren't going to let their deficiencies in street couture hamper their quest for work — one by one the calls to our photographer began to come in saying they'd bagged a job.

"It takes a little bit of balls to go out there on Oxford Street, especially since some of them were wearing suits," says Thomson. "A few of them ran into difficulties — the people who have got those jobs are protective of them, but nine actually went and got the jobs, which showed the right kind of drive and energy that you want. They also made sure they got pictures, which showed they are willing to put themselves in embarrassing situations for their craft."

Thomson had given the cadets the choice of how to present their piece — either in diary form or written through. In fact, only Patrick Smith chose the diary format, which Gordon felt was the most appropriate.

"What I liked about his was that it wasn't overwritten, wasn't verbose, there was no attempt to try and impress with prose," says Thomson. "It was good reporting with good details."

It was a lack of details, though, that let some of the cadets down. In many cases, there wasn't enough rigour in finding out full names, ages, the details of council legislation and the economics of employing board holders for store owners. Having succeeded so well in getting the job, too many forgot to do the basic journalism.

"At Time Out we lift the lid on London and all its idiosyncracies and quirks," says Thomson. "What the good ones did is get to the crux of why those people are out on the street, about the legislation that says these boards can't be tied to anything."

Rory Kinsella's piece won praise for its tone and comic touches, and Sophia Cottier's intro was nicely written. Overall, though, I felt that not enough risks had been taken with trying to introduce a bit of flair to the writing.

Our final decision, however, was made easy by the fact that two of the candidates failed to fulfil the brief. Mark Murphy was the only one of the 10 who didn't manage to get a job holding a board. Even though the piece he produced was well written, this wasn't enough to save him. Debika Ray, meanwhile, produced a good piece, but failed to deliver her pictures on time — an offence worthy of a straight red card.

However, after the decision was made, we were faced with the unfortunate news that Pamela Caulfield was having to withdraw from the competition because of family illness — so Debika won a lucky, late reprieve.

So, any last words?

Mark: I was obviously disappointed, but not surprised. It was a very well-set task, examining all aspects of the journalistic/feature-writing process. It was just frustrating to fall almost BEFORE the first hurdle. One day, I will be able to look back on my experiences and laugh. But not for a bit.

Pamela: I had fun, so the piece almost wrote itself. The hardest part of the task was finding the job, as nobody could understand why someone dressed in a black suit would want to hold a billboard. It was brilliant to get out there and put my skills to use, and it's also a great anecdote to use down the pub: "Did I tell you about the time I was a human billboard?"

The Extracts

Sophia Cottier

"Something about this image doesn't fit," a male youth in a hooded top tells me. And he's right.

I'm
standing on Oxford Street in my high heels, wearing a smart black
dress, clutching my Gucci handbag. I'm the most inappropriately dressed
signpost holder working today. On a chilly, overcast Thursday, I have
agreed to work a shift for free as a signpost holder at Money Express
to get the inside story on what it's like to have one of the most
visible jobs in London."

Rory Kinsella (pictured)

At the end of
my four-hour shift, I'm shattered. My left arm feels like it should
look like one of Popeye's and the £20 in my pocket will be going
straight to the landlord of the Masons Arms where I'll regroup and
reflect on the end of an era. With the new legislation, the "board guy"
— an undeniable cultural icon — will become history, possibly taking
the shops that rely on his services with him. So if you want to stock
up on discount plus fours and Argyll sweaters for Christmas, you'd
better act now before it's too late.

Craig Birch

One
thing that did occur to me, was why they didn't just tie the bloody
thing to a post! "According to the council they are an obstruction,"
said Chris. "So Marcelo does have to move around occasionally. He can
also play sudoku one handed, which impressed me!" And how did I get on
as a board holder? Well, these boards are heavier than you think. After
an hour and a half, I'd had enough. That will do for a gym session this
week!

Rachael Gallagher

These ever increasing
placards are spawn of the infamous "Golf Sale" signs that blemish
Regent Street, brought about when the owner of the discount golf store
realised that while attaching advertising to a building is prohibited,
there was a loop-hole that meant Westminster council has no power to
stop the use of mobile signs. This is soon to change, however, as this
autumn, in a bid to smarten up the West End, Westminster council will
be taking advantage of the forthcoming London Local Authorities Bill
allowing councils to designate specified areas where mobile signs will
be prohibited.

Patrick Smith

12.30pm. I am getting
strange looks from people who may never have seen a man in a pin-stripe
suit and tie holding a billboard. One old man tells me: "I think you
might be a tad overdressed, old boy."

1.05pm. My boss, Clive,
comes over for a motivational chat. He uses sign-holders because of the
stiff competition. "You've got to let people know we're here," he says.
"We were using the boards before anyone." I feel proud — I'm working
for an advertising pioneer.

Mark Murphy

It briefly
looked as if there was a vacancy for one of the iconic "massive golf
sale" placards. But it was soon made clear that "Terry would be angry"
if his spot was taken. And brief personal interaction with Terry
confirmed this. A polite enquiry as to whether he needed any help over
the weekend was met with a look conveying an uneasy mix of threatened
and threatening, while he cradled his placard as if protecting his
little sister from a biting wind.

Tony Wright

Having
turned in my sign and received cash in hand, I reflected that sandwich
boards bring only positives. They create extra jobs for those in need
of work, help out independent shops suffering in the shadows of
superstores down side roads, and like pigeons in Trafalgar Square or
curry houses on Brick Lane, contribute a small part to London's huge
identity.

Louise Cooper

Arms aching and feet
throbbing, I caved in and, defeated, handed my sign over to another
worker. I had managed a mere two hours. One Londoner I asked said the
billboards were unsightly and lowered the tone of the area. Another
passer-by said they were distinctive and instantly distinguished Oxford
Street from other cities or boroughs.

Pamela Caulfield

One
employer asked me for a CV, which made me wonder what sort of
credentials I would need to hold a sign. A strong bicep and a meaty
grip? Having been turned down by two internet cafes, a beauty salon and
a tanning parlour I was pleased to spot an abandoned sign leaning
against the wall outside Subway. After meeting the manager and
negotiating a wage of a free sandwich, cappuccino and unlimited
cookies, here I was.

Debika Ray

On a drizzly
Thursday afternoon, Time Out has secured a job holding up a temporary
advertising board on Oxford Street. For those out of the loop, London's
shopping streets are dotted with people holding up boards designed to
lure wandering shoppers down side-streets to restaurants, health spas,
internet cafes, as well as the more mysterious "Golf Sale".

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