My life in the premium-rate industry, part 1

Here I was, fresh from college (having done a degree in “New Media”). I had seen a job advertised on the college noticeboards, “Wanted: designer for mobile phone logos”. Now I don’t know if you remember but back in the late 90s the state of the art in mobile phones were handsets that allowed custom ringtones and “operator logos”. The ringtones were simple things, no chords or anything, just one note at a time, and the logos were 72-by-14 pixel black-and-white bitmaps, and the media were being sold via premium-rate phone line.

Now, having been a ZX Spectrum owner in my younger days, I knew what could be accomplished in 72×14 pixels with a little imagination, so I applied, stuck in a CV, a few illustrative designs, and crossed my fingers, thinking “I hope I get it; it’s a job that will tide me over the summer, at least.”

A couple of days later, my phone rang. “Hi, this is James, it’s about the logos job, would you like to come in for interview tomorrow?” So roll on the next day and I arrived at the offices to meet Tim, the owner and CEO of the company.

The entire interview: “Hi Mark, it says here on your CV that you’re interested in Bigfoot and UFOs?” (Well, you have to put something in the “personal interests” section don’t you? just to look like a “rounded human being”.) “Erm, yes, I read Fortean Times and they come at things from quite a sceptical angle…” “That’s great, when can you start?” “Oh… Er… well I guess I can start next week, once I finish college.” “Great. How does (generous salary) sound?” “Wow! Er… I mean…” “Great, see you Monday!” and with that, Tim breezed out, leaving James (his PA) to tell me the working hours, introduce me to the other staff and so on.

The logos I was asked to do were basically 72x14px rip-offs of the logos for designer sportswear, performance cars, Ibiza nightclubs, basically things that would appeal to the young aspirational market that Tim saw as the ideal mobile phone user. Also, a large proportion of the existing catalog of logos wasn’t working properly and needed to be converted to the correct bitmap file-format.

While I was slogging away at this not exactly taxing task, I was allowed to design a few of my own ideas as well, just to keep the catalogue a bit varied. One I was most proud of was of the Timmy character from South Park, with TIMMY! in big bold text next to him.

Once I’d been there three or four weeks, as well as designing the logos I started getting some training in how to draw up and submit the copy for the company’s print ads. After I proved capable, I was allowed to submit a couple unsupervised, I started slipping in a few of my own logos, including the Timmy logo.

Once the ads hit the news-stands, we looked through the sales stats. “Hmmm,” said Tim, “this logo number 2752 is selling well, what’s that one?” Of course, it was Timmy.

Fortunately despite (or perhaps because of) the coincidence of names, Tim thought it was absolutely hilarious. Eventually, over the next couple of years, the Timmy logo went on to sell about 40,000 copies at £4.50 a pop. This worked out to about £150k after the telecoms and middle-men got their share, and naturally South Park Studios got not a penny of royalties. (And incidentally, nor did any of the musicians whose songs were mercilessly turned into tinny little bleeps by our ringtone composer.) I just wish I’d been on commission not just salary!

To be continued…

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