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Paton, Hugh (1871–1951)

by Peter Ryan

This article was published:

Hugh Paton (1871-1951), advertising entrepreneur, was born on 15 May 1871 at Paisley, Scotland, son of George Fisher Paton, journeyman dyer and later factory manager, and his wife Margaret Kerr, née McKay. Educated at the John Neilson Educational Institution, Paisley, he served an apprenticeship with a local newspaper. He migrated to Queensland about 1892 and when he married Ellen Lottie Davis in Brisbane on 28 September 1898 he described himself as a master builder. He soon joined Alex Cowan & Sons Ltd, Melbourne, as salesman for their printers' type and machinery.

The Paton Advertising Service Pty Ltd was set up in 1904. It was a single-handed venture housed in one small room in the Equitable Building, Melbourne. The conception of such an agency was unknown in Australia; until then, businessmen wrote their own advertisements for newspapers. They were usually repetitious and dull, and lacked illustration. The service agent offered better-designed advertisements (sometimes based on primitive but enterprising market research) and 'placed' them on behalf of the client, being rewarded by a fee from the advertiser and by a commission from the newspaper. The system had been operating overseas, and Paton adapted it to Australia with flair and energy.

Paton had to contend with strong early prejudice from advertisers reluctant to accept that 'outsiders' could prepare better advertisements, and from newspapers content with the same unillustrated block of type which might remain undisturbed for weeks. As they both also resisted the idea of paying a commission (usually 10 per cent of the space cost), it required qualities of tenacity, logic and diplomacy on Paton's part to surmount such hurdles. Paton's earliest advertisements were illustrated with wood-blocks. As soon as developments in process engraving made the use of photographs possible, they were introduced without delay.

Before long Paton's agency occupied a whole floor in the Equitable Building. Competitors and imitators soon appeared. Their way was smoothed by Paton's immense exertions to secure acceptability for this new branch of commerce. He was founder or leading light of many trade bodies which sought to enforce professional standards and ethical concepts of dealing, including the Victorian Institute of Advertising, the Accredited Advertising Agents' Association, and the Advertising Service Agents' Association of Victoria of which he was first president. He was a committee-member of the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which monitored the circulation claims of newspapers. He was also active in the Rotary movement. In 1921-23 he was general president of the Advertising Association of Australia and New Zealand.

In World War I the Commonwealth government entrusted Paton with the promotion of the 'Freedom' and 'Liberty' loans. Many—perhaps most—of Australia's largest businesses used Paton's services at one time or another.

He retired in 1946, his son Noel succeeding him, but he remained governing director. Survived by three sons and four daughters, he died after a short illness at home at Point Lonsdale on 23 January 1951, and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at £37,556.

Paton was beyond doubt founder and for forty years doyen of the modern Australian advertising industry. In 1948, at a social gathering of Australia's most senior advertising executives, it was agreed that 'there's hardly one of us here who didn't work for Hugh at some stage of our career'.

Select Bibliography

  • Newspaper News, 2 July 1928, 2 Sept, 2 Dec 1929, 1 Feb 1951
  • Punch (Melbourne), 15 Sept 1921
  • Herald (Melbourne), 24, 27, 29 Jan 1951
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Ryan, 'Paton, Hugh (1871–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/paton-hugh-7977/text13893, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 25 October 2021.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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