From Yellow Pages to Yell: a brief history

4 September 2023 – 5 Minute Read

image showing a Yellow Pages book alongside Yell on a smartphone

Yell and Selfridges are teaming up to bring the ‘Yellow Pages, Directory of Now’ to Selfridges stores across the UK. To celebrate the launch of this collaboration, we’re exploring the rich history of the Yellow Pages, as well as the exciting new direction Yell is heading in.

As far as British brands are concerned, the Yellow Pages is among the most well-known. With a story spanning more than 50 years, the ubiquitous business directory has firmly secured its place in British history.

Since the 1990s, the Yellow Pages has gone through a digital overhaul and evolved into Yell. But how did we get to this point? Let’s travel back through time and explore Yell’s origin and heritage.

From humble beginnings

Years before it became a cultural icon, the Yellow Pages started as part of the telephone directory in Brighton. Produced by the General Post Office (GPO) in 1966, the modest classified section (printed on yellow paper) gave a small taste of what was to come.

Its impact was immediate. The first of its kind to list businesses by category, the Yellow Pages soon became an essential resource for customers and small businesses. It was the easiest way to find what you needed – and quickly.

Becoming a British powerhouse

As years passed by, the Yellow Pages only became more popular. Growing from strength to strength, the publication eventually became part of British Telecom (BT) in 1984. By then, there were more than 70 local editions being sent out across the UK.

Around this time, one of the UK’s most memorable adverts was released.

still from JR Hartley advert

The ad depicted an elderly man going from shop to shop, searching for a copy of Fly Fishing by JR Hartley. Unable to find it anywhere, his daughter hands him the Yellow Pages, and he discovers a bookshop with a copy. At the close of the advert, we learn that the man is none other than JR Hartley – the book’s author!

Powerfully heartwarming, it immediately captured the British public’s attention. And the message was clear – the Yellow Pages isn’t only for home repairs and emergencies, it’s for everything.

Such was the success of the advert that, eight years after its release, author Michael Russell ghostwrote Fly Fishing: Memories of Angling Days under the name JR Hartley. The book had two follow-ups, while the original became one of the most sought-after out-of-print books in the world.

When Norman Lumsden (who portrayed JR Hartley) sadly passed away in 2001, the advert was rebroadcast again in his honour. Following the advert’s massive success, his legacy still lives on today. He's enshrined as one of the giants in the history of the Yellow Pages.

Straight through the 80s and 90s, these big, yellow books were found by every phone, in every home. Known (and used) nearly universally, the directory had become a household staple.

People were using the Yellow Pages to find plumbers, hairdressers and even psychics – basically anything you could ever want or need – but that didn’t mean we weren’t innovating.

The internet changes everything

The first iteration of launched in 1996. A precursor to the current website, it was the first nod to the sweeping changes that would follow the rise of the internet.

People were more and more interested in finding what they needed online, and Yell’s digital business directory helped them do exactly that. There, you could search for tradespeople, entertainers, and other local experts with only a few clicks.

Alongside this, we introduced our range of digital marketing services. Businesses could get help with social media advertising, website building, and many other digital marketing needs.

Then, in 2017, Yell announced that the Yellow Pages would be winding down. It was a difficult decision for us to make, but one that reflected the changing landscape of consumer behaviour.

In January 2019, we sent 23 million copies of the last edition to UK households. Actor James Nesbitt, who starred in several memorable Yellow Pages adverts, even delivered a few copies himself .

Here are a few mindboggling statistics from its 53-year run:

  • At its peak, over 28 million copies were distributed across the UK
  • From start to finish, almost 1 billion copies were produced
  • Just short of 1 trillion pages were used (enough to get to Mars and back three times!)

It was the end of an era, and closing the page on this British icon became national news. It stirred feelings of nostalgia in both younger and older people, who all recognised the directory’s value over the years.

The Yellow Pages’ best hits

The Yellow Pages held a steadfast presence in the UK, not just in homes, but in pop culture too.

It featured in well-known British TV shows – including major hits like Black Mirror and Gavin and Stacey – while it was also an unwitting participant in viral trends. Remember when ripping phonebooks in half was the done thing?

yellow pages book open

The public also enjoyed several iconic television adverts alongside these appearances, making sure the Yellow Pages would always be one of Britain’s most loved brands. Even now, years after the final edition, people remember the old yellow book fondly.

Looking to the future

While the Yellow Pages has been relegated to the history books, Yell is still going strong. The transformation from a digitised directory to a complete online marketplace is moving ahead at speed.

Looking forward, Yell is delivering a website where customers can find, contact, and even buy from some local businesses. Quick, simple, and with everything all in one place. You can already do most of this, and more improvements are still on the way.

Suddenly, thumbing through a physical business directory seems very outdated.

The shape of Yell, today

Right now, the experience is better than ever. Whether on your laptop, phone or tablet, you can search through local businesses for experts – everything, from plumbers to children’s entertainers, is available – before choosing how you want to contact them.

Everything you used to find in your copy of the Yellow Pages is here, plus a lot more. Search results show services offered, contact details, opening hours, and customer reviews. That’s basically anything you might need to make an informed purchasing decision.

If you don’t have time to browse options, you can post an enquiry instead. Here, you tell everyone exactly what you’re looking for, and interested local businesses come to you. When you’re juggling work, social plans, family time, and so much else, this comes in especially handy.

In both cases, you can find what you’re looking for quickly, wherever you are (and you don’t need to lug a phone directory around with you!).

The best is yet to come

You can expect more change from Yell going forward. Things will continue to evolve, with the goal of making everyday life easier for customers and businesses alike.

And now? If you need an electrician, driving instructor, or anything else, browse your local options or post an enquiry today.