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Lifetime achievement award

By The Drum | Administrator

November 4, 2004 | 8 min read

Marr relaxes with a cuppa.

There are always people who say that award-winners don’t deserve their trophies. From trophies at school through to professional sporting titles or even the Oscars, there is always somebody, waiting in the wings, ready to criticise.

The Scottish Awards, we can assure you, are no different. It’s rare that the ad industry as a whole will look at a winner and agree, without reservation, that they earned their accolade fair and square. But it sometimes happens.

At this year’s Scottish Advertising Awards when Colin Marr was announced as the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award there wasn’t a soul in the building that would argue that he didn’t fully deserve it.

For longer than many people in the industry have even been alive, Marr has been making waves with award-winning advertising campaigns, helping not only to build business for his clients, but also to show that it is in fact possible for a small agency in Scotland to make an impact.

Shortly after recovering from his shock of winning the Lifetime Achievement award, Marr sat down with The Drum to talk about a career that has spanned more than 30 years in the Scottish advertising industry.

Now based in a four-acre country house in Perthshire, Marr kicks-off the interview by revealing that advertising, in fact, was not always his ambition.

“When I was 11, I was either going to be an architect, a commercial artist or a vet,” he explains. “When you get to secondary school and there’s the decision to pursue science or art, I actually decided ‘I think I’ll be a vet.’ I said I was going to take science and the teachers, who knew my abilities, said, ‘what?!’ Luckily I worked that out my system.”

In 1967, after putting himself firmly back on the advertising track, Marr completed his O-Grade art and began the un-enviable and familiar to many tortuous task of job hunting. After a number of failed applications, an opportunity arose at Edinburgh company Forth Studios. Marr was one of 25 applicants. He says: “Basically, they whittled it down to three of us and they set a project where we had to come up with some work. I was offered the position, but I was offered the position with another person. They said, ‘We’ve decided to take on two, and after three months only one of you will be kept on.’ So it was competitive from day one.”

After three months Marr was chosen to continue at Forth and, along with studying part-time at Edinburgh College of Art, began to learn about the marketing world.

Stints at both the Scotsman and R&W Advertising followed before, in 1970, Marr joined what over the years became the legendary Hall Advertising.

He remarks: “People said to me, ‘Why are you going there?’ And I said, ‘Wait and see.’ Halls had been going since about 1960 but it was still quite small, not really considered. I was at Halls for seven years and, basically, I became a very good art director.

“We did a lot. We were pioneering in those days. We were trying to compete with the best in the world. And the agency did compete very well.”

After seven years at probably Scotland’s most famous agency, Marr decided it was time to move on, and became creative director of an agency named ADS.

“I reached a point at Halls where it probably was the right time to move on,” explains Marr. “It was time to step up to be a creative director. I went along with an open mind to talk to ADS and I thought I could do something there so I decided to go. I was offered a blank cheque not to go by Halls, literally, but any move I’ve done hasn’t been about the money, it’s always been about the opportunity.”

ADS’ ambition outreached its means, sadly, and the agency folded in 1980, a year that was to become very eventful indeed for Marr’s career.

Of the closure he says: “That was a learning curve for me in terms of controlling one’s destiny. It meant that I needed to be able to control what was happening on that side of the business, the financial side.”

With backers on board, Marr set up his own agency, named Marr Dickens Fiddler. However, only three months rolled by before an unexpected knock came at the door. It was global leading agency CDP with a major proposition for Marr. “I got a phone call from CDP asking if I’d be interested in pitching for the Whitbread Scotland business. I was delighted!”

The pitch was no walk in the park, however. The agencies Marr would be pitching against included Ogilvy & Mather Glasgow and his previous employer Hall Advertising. Despite the competition, Marr won the account for CDP, who then proceeded to buy his fledgling agency. CDP Marr was born in 1980 with the Whitbread Scotland account, which included Scottish advertising for Stella Artois, on the client list.

Two years later, things were complicated by the departure from CDP of managing director Frank Lowe, who proceeded to start his own agency in London (Lowe Howard Spink) and take some of CDP’s clients, among them Whitbread.

Marr continued to handle Whitbread Scotland but in the meantime CDP was itching to bring on board another major brewery. It eventually succeeded in landing Scottish & Newcastle, who then promptly demanded that it be the only brewer on CDP’s books.

“I wanted to keep Whitbread,” states Marr. “So basically we agreed to do a buyout so that I could own the whole business and Marr Associates was born in 1982.”

Marr Associates continued to work with Whitbread Scotland for another eight years, after which a consolidation within the client company effectively destroyed a separate marketing account for Scotland. The long-term relationship was one of several that the agency has enjoyed in its lifetime. Other long-standing clients have included Allied Distilleries, Motorola and Linn, who, after a brief hiatus, rejoined the agency last year.

Looking at the last ten years in the advertising industry, the cut in ad-spend and slowing of the economy as a whole have been major factors. Companies all around the country have felt the effects, and Marr Associates is no different.

Marr says: “If you look at the economy, it works in cycles. There was a recession in the early 80s, one in the early 90s, and one in 2000. Last time it was recognised that we were in deep recession, this time it was sort of ‘we’re not really in deep recession.’ In actual fact, it was probably the worst.

“Even the biggest agencies were affected. But these things are like anything else. If you can get through them then you can carry on doing what you do the way you’ve always done it. If you don’t make it through then it’s another learning experience. My reading was that it was going to get worse before it got better so we decided to downsize. The industry as a whole was bleeding, so I thought that it was the right time to take stock.”

Hence the move from Leith to the aforementioned Perthshire house, in which Marr continues to create award-winning advertising alongside wife Wilma and son Richard. He says: “It seems to make sense. You’re not dependent on carrying lots of people. It’s a case of handling a few clients, giving them the benefit of my experience, enjoying what I do and trying to make a difference.”

Though relocation is something the agency has experienced before (it moved from George Street to its Leith premises in 1992), Marr has always remained in Scotland. In his thirty seven-odd years in the business, Marr has never been based south of the border, something almost unheard of in the Scottish marketplace.

“I think you can do good work from anywhere. Geography shouldn’t matter. I do acknowledge that the right environment, the right centre, can help speed up the process. It’s probably not easier to stay in Scotland, but it’s do-able. The main reason people go to London is that there are far more opportunities, and that is fully understandable. I happen to have had opportunities here that have allowed me to fulfil certain ambitions.”

Ambition is clearly not something that Marr, even with long career under his belt, is lacking, but what advice would he give to young people starting out in the ad industry?

“Talent’s not enough, you’ve got to be prepared to work hard. I think to do anything well you’ve got to develop your talent. I think in any walk of life that’s true. You’ve got to make it happen, it won’t happen for you. I think advertising is one of the industries that allows the cream to rise to the top. The opportunities are there. And I think it’s important to enjoy it. Anything you enjoy you will do well.”

Of which Colin Marr is living proof.

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