Stewart Robertson profile
McPherson & Robertson – the new wave and the old guard at Marketing Advantage DDB.There may have been articles in The Drum over the last 18 years that have made people question the very sanity of those who penned them, but surely the news story headlined “Robertson plans to call it a day in the summer” in the last issue was written by a complete moron.
The very thought that 53-year old Stewart Robertson, the founder of Edinburgh-based consultancies Robertson Advertising in the late 70s and Marketing Advantage in the 90s, was considering retirement defied belief.
However, after meeting up with the self-confessed workaholic Robertson at his plush Melville Crescent offices, it seems that it is true.
After 35 years in the business Robertson is calling it a day and already he is making plans to spend his days relaxing on golden sandy California beaches, playing tennis on sun-kissed tennis courts and fishing in the clear waters off the coast of the Golden State.
After more than three decades spent building up two separate agencies it is perhaps the least he deserves.
“I am excited and nervous at the same time because I don’t know what it is going to be like not to go to work every day. There is a gentleman who retired from the company a few doors down the road – he is in the office four days a week. He just can’t switch off. So, to make sure I switch off when I finish, what we have done is to book a two-month break in California.
“Last year DDB very kindly let me have a three week holiday, which gave me the chance to do some travelling. In the past I have really only been able to grab a week here and a week there and then it has really been recovery, not educational. I found visiting China very stimulating so I suppose I caught the travel bug.”
It has indeed been an interesting journey for Robertson since he got a toehold in the Scottish media game in his early twenties when, in 1968, he took on a job as a trainee sales rep at the Scotsman. Two years later he moved down to Newcastle to work on the Journal, but moved back to Scotland when his wife became pregnant a couple of years later.
On his return he spotted an ad in the paper, which allowed him to buy into a small marketing services agency, inspired to do so after seeing the cars and the girls on the agency side during his time in newspapers.
Then in 1978 he bit the bullet and launched Robertson Advertising. All was going well until six years later, in 1984, Robertson Advertising was hit by a bad debt of £120,000, which almost sent the agency out of business. However, with the help of the Scottish newspaper industry, which agreed to wait for payments, he battled through and in 1989 Robertson Advertising was joined with Brann, the direct marketing firm, which was desperate to get hold of some of Robertson’s Standard Life business.
In the summer of 1990 Robertson left Brann (which was later subject to an MBO and became Forth Marketing Services) and took a year out and in 1991 he launched Marketing Advantage from his dining room table, and the rest is history, as they say.
“This is the vision I had for Robertson Advertising, which I never got to, almost down to the shape and size of the building. Having a small agency with fantastic clients was always the dream. In one year we represented eight out of ten of Scotland’s top companies. Now we have Proctor & Gamble, ScottishPower, Lloyds TSB, and Tesco, and to have clients like that was the goal for me.
“I’d like to think that the guys will give me a call from time to time. Contractually, I have got to take into account DDB’s interests so there is no way I could start up a rival company, and I would not want to. But I would like to think, if they had something interesting coming up they would get the old boy to come and have a look at things.”
I’m sure they will.
So, what of high points? In a 35-year career there must be many, perhaps too many to recall.
“There was one Friday afternoon during a time when it had been really hard going when I got three phone calls, one from Scottish Widows, one from the Royal Bank and one from Mozolowski and Murray, and it was revenue from each of them. That really changed things for us.
“Winning the Standard Life business was a big turning point for us in 1994 and the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Columbus appointment in our very early days was an ongoing revenue stream; it was not a project, it was the re-shaping of the Royal Bank Group and we were the communications agency. I didn’t realise what we had when we first got it as it started out as just a newsletter. But that allowed me to bring in more people because I had money coming in.”
And inevitably there will be some low points: “The bad debt of 84 was a shock because it hit the front page of the Scotsman,” says Robertson. “There was a quote from me, saying it had made a dent in our year’s profits, but it actually almost wiped us out. In those days we bought the media, so the Record, Sunday Mail, the Scotsman, the Herald were expecting large cheques from us every month. The system was that they used to send people to pick them up so that agencies never got behind. I had to make a presentation to the Scottish Daily Newspaper Society about what had happened and I had to show them a plan that I could get through it if they gave me a bit more time, which they did.
“One of the high points to come out of this, though, was that I had just finished a major campaign for one of my largest clients at the time and, after a meeting with him, I was on my way down to my car when he asked if everything was going to be OK. I said, yes. Then, I got in my car to drive off and he knocked on the window. I rolled it down and he gave me an envelope. I drove round the corner and opened it and it was a cheque for £130,000, so that was fantastic because I could take that to the bank and that brought the whole borrowing situation down and I could reassure everybody.”
Robertson has become pretty much of a legend in the Scottish direct marketing sector, much like Jim Faulds did in the advertising arena, praised for his standards of client service and always going that extra mile.
Stories of Robertson repainting the woodwork in his boardroom from green to blue because they were pitching for the Bellway Homes account, the boss of which was a big Rangers fan, will no doubt live on for ever. However, stories of Robertson turning off the air conditioning after his team had pitched for the ScottishPower business on a roasting summer day will not go down in the annals of fair play.
Perhaps Sandy McPherson, who has already taken the reins of managing director at MA DDB as Robertson prepares to stand down, will employ such dirty tricks in the battle for business.
But then again, maybe he already is doing! Beware.