Robert Johnstone

By The Drum, Administrator

March 30, 2004 | 9 min read

Words like ‘genuine’, ‘kind’, ‘giving’ and ‘honest’ are not terms always associated with successful businesspeople. But Robert Johnstone, as anyone that knew him will testify, was not your ordinary businessman.

One of the most well-known and well-liked figures in the northern media and marketing scene, Robert was a man that touched many lives during his time in the industry. He was always keen to help and support anybody who came to him, and was always good company, whether in a boardroom or in the pub on a Friday night.

This was all in addition to his prowess as a businessman, which saw the founding of two successful companies and the attraction of millions of pounds worth of business to the North of England.

The feeling towards Robert is well encapsulated by Michael Barrington of Barrington Johnson Lorains, who says: \"Robert was part of a rather exclusive group of people who enjoyed double success. He succeeded in business and he succeeded in giving something back to the industry. I hope they still make them like him.\"

Ian Tinker, formerly of Purely Media and now retired, adds: \"He put a lot into everything he did, not just his own business, but the business as a whole. He was dedicated to making the industry a better place for the people that worked in it.\"

Robert began his media career in Scotland, working as a sales rep on Scottish Field magazine. Ernie Nicholls, now of Ernie Nicholls media, dealt with Robert regularly in those days and the two became friends. He comments: \"Obviously Robert was a larger than life character, always positive, and great to deal with. Robert was an all-round good guy, very professional but he always had a lot of fun in him as well.\"

Already an experienced media man, Robert moved to Manchester in 1979, setting up Media Sales Network shortly after. Over the next two decades Johnstone built the company into a leading independent sales house, finally selling the company to Unique Communications Group in 2001.

John Bremend, managing director of Media Sales Network, says: \"He was MSN, his personality runs through the company. When we were hiring people we would be looking through all the potential candidates and Robert would say ‘yeah, they’re good, but are they one of us?’ He built a tremendously close and loyal team here.

\"When I took over as managing director of MSN one of my biggest concerns was how to fill this man’s shoes, because he was Mr Manchester. The best advice I got from colleagues in the industry was ‘don’t try, just be yourself. Robert’s a one-off.’ If I’d tried I would have failed.\"

The feeling of family at MSN was something Mike Davis, chairman of Unique Communications Group, noticed right from his first dealings with Robert. He remembers: \"I went along to Robert’s leaving do from MSN and two things struck me: One was that he had a present for every member of his staff, which was incredible, and something I’d never seen before. And two, the atmosphere was like a family Christmas party, people feeling completely at ease with each other and opening their presents. A lot of that was down to Robert, he created that feeling of family.\"

As well as building up a solid business, Robert’s achievements included playing a key role in both the Manchester Publicity Association and the First Friday Club.

Mike Williams, chairman of Universal McCann Manchester and former First Friday chairman, remembers his time working with Robert: \"He was just really easy to get on with. When I was the chairman of the First Friday club Robert was the secretary, and he was just great. He was a professional with a real sense of humour.

\"He made an outstanding contribution to the industry. Fortunately he was recognised for this while he was alive, and I’m delighted about that because he was so well known and respected, and really helped move the industry forward in such a positive way.\"

In 2002 Robert was presented with the MPA-sponsored Lifetime Achievement Award at the Cream Awards. Sandra Tinker, EMAP sales director and former MPA chairman, says: \"I was very pleased to be able to give Robert his Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of the MPA, and I got to say some very nice things about him then. Robert was always willing to help everybody and anybody if he could. He was a big guy with a big personality and was involved in a lot of different things.\"

Current MPA chairman Ken Buckley was another long-time friend of Robert. Through the MPA committee the two worked together for years. Ken remarks: \"I can say to you that the MPA has lost an absolute stalwart member. As ex-president and chairman he was liked and loved by everybody on the council. He actually introduced me to the MPA. He had this wonderful term of calling me the ‘social convenor’.\"

\"His service to the MPA was outstanding. Whatever he did he did with enthusiasm and vigour, and whatever he did was always a tremendous success. The industry has lost a character who was liked by everybody that met him. On behalf of the MPA, we are all very saddened.\"

Robert’s contribution to the northern industry was a great one. He encouraged a lot of people, and his success at both Media Sales Network and, later, Unique and Unique Media Sales, as well as a massive amount of work for both MPA and First Friday organisations, are all testament to that. But it is in a more social context (or perhaps it was Robert’s ability to make every context seem social) that many will remember him. Ian Tinker provides a strong example: \"The things I remember most are the Burns nights he would always have at this house. Every year he would have the great and the good, and the not so good, of the advertising scene round to his house, and he was the perfect Scotsman, with the kilt and the dressed haggis.\"

But this story from John Bremend is perhaps one of the best examples of Robert’s perfect balance between fun and professionalism. Bremend says: \"He would really irritate me, because I like a drink but the next day I always feel tired and awful. Robert could drink longer and more than me, and the next morning he’d be in the office, sitting at his desk looking completely fresh.

\"Robert would often come back to the office after the First Friday, being a little the worse for wear. I’ll never forget one day when he came back in and took a call from one of our clients. He was speaking very knowledgably on the phone, and when he hung up he came through and said ‘what the hell did you put him through to me for?! I can hardly speak!’ He could hardly speak to me but on the phone to the client he’d been knowledgeable and completely professional. That was just Robert.\"

When Robert died in the car accident on Friday 19 March his partner Nancy Stonier was also in the car. She is currently recovering at home. Robert is survived by sons Alan and Laurie, and wife Ann. He was 56 years old.

There is an online condolence book for Robert at

Just some of the many messages posted on the book of condolences at

\"A very kind, considerate and genuine man, who will be sadly missed by everyone. A great personality who truly loved his job, family and lived life to the full. Greatest sympathies to his family and friends.\"

Sandra Knowles, Brilliant Media

\"A tragic loss of a lovely man. Thank you, Robert, for this world I call \"work\"

Angela Wilkinson, Media Sales Network

\"Despite being larger than life and a well known, respected figure Robert treated people as he found them and gave great encouragement. I found, as a very junior member of the MPA entertainment committee a good few years ago, Robert was a supportive and entertaining Chair. He\'ll be hugely missed. Sincere condolences to Alan and the rest of the family.\"

Rob Brown, McCann Erickson

\"Robert was one of the nicest and most genuine people I have ever met, his passing will leave a huge void in the media scene. I know it doesn\'t help much initially, but my thoughts are with Robert\'s family and friends at this terrible time x\"

Becky Gagan, Feather Brooksbank

\"I still find it hard to believe that I will never see this special person ever again, expect in my heart and mind where there will always be a place for him. He was a good and generous friend to me and I will miss him

very much. He has a fine family of whom he was very proud and my prayers are with them at this sad time.\"

Ken Gosling, Radford Advertising

\"Terrible loss. One of the great things about working on the MPA Council was Robert\'s cheeky asides when meetings were dragging on. Wonderful man, great sense of humour and will be sorely missed.\"

Jeff Lawrenson, Amra

\"Robert was a kind and warm man - a true gentleman in every sense. He was a friend to everyone and will be greatly missed by all who knew him. My thoughts are with his family and friends.\"

Alison Hodkinson, Thinkmedia

\"I have known him since I began working in the media industry some 25 years ago and my dealings with him were always characterised by his professionalism, warmth and good humour...he will be greatly missed\"

David Moutrie, Brilliant

\"I was privileged to work with Robert for nearly 17 years - I missed him when he moved over to UCG and will miss him even more now. Everything people have said about him is true and then some!! My heartfelt condolences to Ann, Laurie and Alan and also Nancy.\"

Lynnett Bickerton, Media Sales Network


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