Industry heroes: Tommy Dewar – ‘a man who was constantly living the brand’

Tommy Dewar’s rules of marketing - being bold, disruptive and innovative - still hold good a century later making him an industry hero for El Films’ Michael Ahmadzadeh

Tommy Dewar

“Keep advertising and advertising will keep you.”

Tommy Dewar said this in the early 1900’s, and it’s a statement still valid today. Tommy was a true advertising pioneer.

Long before the likes of social media, telephones or commercial airlines, he transformed a Scottish whisky into one of the first global brands. His charm, natural entrepreneurial spirit, drive and pioneering marketing initiatives makes him my industry hero.

Tommy began his journey with a lot of challenges, in what was a competitive market. He left Scotland at the age of 21 and headed to London to drive sales, with the names of two potential contacts.

Unfortunately, he discovered one was dead, and the other was bankrupt. Instead of heading home, he remained in London for two years working on building a network, winning contracts and spreading the word of Dewar’s whisky.

This display of resilience and drive is often a catalyst for any successful brand.  

Some of his techniques really portrayed the audacious nature of his character. At key establishments that didn’t sell Dewar’s, he would go in and continuously ask for Dewar’s, then pay people to do the same.

Two days later, he would send a sales person in and the orders came flooding in.

The brand’s success came from Tommy’s desire to build Dewar’s on a global scale. In 1892, he embarked on a two-year world tour, visiting every continent. When he returned he had Dewar’s in 26 different countries, and most significantly an office in New York.

As an avid writer, his travel journals were published in a book, ‘A Ramble Round the Globe. I think it’s a good example of how exploring the marketplace beyond your home turf is a must. It really inspired me to look beyond my comfort zone, and network globally.

After a lot of hard work, by 1890 they were the market leaders in London. He cemented this dominance  in 1911 by commissioning a bold advertisement on the old Shot Tower near Waterloo Bridge.

Using 1,400 coloured light bulbs, six miles of electric cable and a programmed circuit, it featured an image of a Scotsman in a kilt, who continuously poured and consumed a glass of Dewars, while his kilt appeared to sway in the breeze. The advert was 68 feet high and was said to be the largest mechanical sign in Europe.

Tommy was a disruptive marketer, always thinking outside the box. He worked closely with illustrator Geoffrey Squire on mainly aspirational lifestyle scenes for print campaigns.

However it was the ‘Whisky of his Forefathers’ campaign that was the most influential for Dewar’s. Initially a print advert; the illustration showed a man drinking a whisky and the ghosts of his forefathers jumping out paintings from the wall, trying to grab a glass. He went the extra mile, and wanted to transform this into a moving image and In 1898 he commissioned the Edison company in New York to project what is the first motion picture advert ever, arguably Tommy’s greatest achievement.

One of my favourites was a tyre (for the delivery carts), that imprinted ‘Dewars’ onto the ground as it passed. Another was, as he travelled, he made up messages in a bottle, gifting to anyone who found them, a free case of Dewar’s whisky.

Tommy Dewar was a man who was constantly living the brand, exploiting any opportunity to build awareness. He had drive and resilience, was a global networker, and a pioneer in advertising – always thinking of new ideas.

For me, Tommy’s journey with the brand is a reminder that although the environment has evolved, some of the rules remain the same today; network, be disruptive, be bold and be innovative.

Michael Ahmadzadeh is executive producer at El Films. He is based in Singapore


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