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The peacock’s tale: Robin Wight shows his colours

By The Drum, Administrator

April 24, 2008 | 15 min read

Robin Wight, the ‘W’ in WCRS, is as well known for his dress sense as his advertising. But it is his advertising that has seen him work for the likes of BMW, Orange and Vodaphone, not his snappy suits. We asked leading players in the Scottish advertis

So, before we set the Scottish advertising industry loose on one of the UK’s best known ad men, a little bit about the character that TV intellecto Steven Fry described as a man “We should all listen to”.

After working as a copywriter in a number of agencies including Collett Dickinson Pearce and Partners, he co-founded Wight Collins Rutherford Scott with Peter Scott in 1979. He remains chairman of the agency to this day, now under the auspices of the Engine Group, which he also helped found – and chair – and was part of the management team that led the MBO from Havas in 2004.

In 1994 he was part of the team that helped to originate and develop the Orange brand. In 2000 he then led the team that was appointed by Vodafone as its UK agency and by Vizzavi as its European agency, while other clients of WCRS include Camelot, BMW, Mini, First Direct, Debenhams and Prudential.

Known as a notoriously natty dresser, Wight was featured on The Sartorialist – one of the web’s premier fashion sitesHis new book, The “Peacock’s Tail and the Reputation Reflex” combines neurological and other scientific insights from various branches of science, to produce a telling case for the financial support of art, not just art for art’s sake, but arts sponsorship as sound commercial strategy. Wight was in Glasgow last week to discuss The Art of Sponsorship at an event held by The Hub with Arts and Business.

Graeme Atha, Frame: Are marketers in the UK able to help divert us from the serious recessions being forecast. Essentially are we up to the challenge?

I have always believed that marketing, and advertising in particular, is the last bargain left in business. However, we all know that one of the first budgets to be cut in a recession is the advertising budget.

We have to show our clients that we can find a way to reduce our costs yet still increase our performance. That sounds like a crazy ambition but the difference between the worst ad (measured by Millward Brown) and the best ad in the same category is about a factor of ten. What it needs is the power of creativity to increase performance.

What can you do if you take away 20 percent of your budget without ruining your brand? Inside our industry we have always believed that will ruin the brand. But if you have a good brand equity, then you can take something out. You can’t do it forever and you have to do it intelligently, but you can leverage from what has been created in the good years.

There is another strategy, though. It was adopted by BMW in the last big recession at the end of the ‘80’s. We were moving away from an old print strategy into television. They deliberately increased the budget and that led to the brand’s big leap forward in the UK. If you have something tucked away for a rainy day, spend it now and gain the advantage over your competitors.

Pete Martin, creative director, The Gate

Worldwide: You wrote a book in the early 80s about new directions in advertising – which I read as a very young adman – called ‘The Day The Pigs Refused to Be Driven to Market’. My question for you is: Did the future of advertising turn out like you imagined?

I’m flattered that anyone remembers my distant book. I was re-reading bits of it the other day, though and many of the things that I wrote about turned out to be exactly as I forecast.

Unless British advertising mended its ways and stopped insulting people and distorting the truth, it would follow the challenges that were being faced in America at the time.

But British communication did respond. Collett Dickinson Pierce began modern British advertising with a style that was humorous, respectful and engaging. American advertising is still largely reliant on the hard sell. We created this genre using humour and wit.

Although I didn’t write about the birth of the internet – I didn’t even dream about it then – we talk about engagement rather than interruption advertising. The fact of the matter is, the best advertising always has been engagement communication. The very best ads never burst into your living room and shout at you; they knock gentle on the door and charm you. Whether you are talking about the Hamlet cigar adverts of the 1960’s or Cadbury’s Gorilla, the same principles apply.

You have to respect consumers. If you take them seriously and engage with them on their terms, you will succeed. That was as true in 1972 when I wrote that book, as it is in 2008.

Ian McAteer, MD, The Union: Do you feel advertising agencies have lost influence

with clients since the 1980’s? How do you see the role of agencies in the next ten years?

Agencies have lost influence with clients for a number of reasons. The worst thing that happened to our industry was the split when media agencies went separate, taking media planning with them. At that point some of the credibility went out the advertising industry. The clients trusted the media agency with their media planning more than the creative agency.

The econometric modelling which judged the campaigns was often in the hands of the media agency and their business model was such they could afford to throw in planning for free. That started to push creative agencies further down the chain.

At the same time, high-end consultancies consulted, while brand agencies created brands. The advertising agency was pushed further down the chain of influence.

On top of that, quite a few agencies went public, their earnings became public and clients thought ‘they are making an awful lot of money out of me’ forgetting how much money they had made for the client.

In the case of Orange, which we created in 1994, it was sold for £29 billion just five years after it launched. A big chunk of that was for the value of the communication programme, The Future’s Bright, The Future’s Orange. We got no share in that.

The business model of agencies is wrong. We don’t operate a model where, if you do really well, you get an upside and if we do poorly we get a downside

But clients know that what we offer is the one thing that can make a big difference. We can find a way to get further up the food chain, not just to sell adverts, but sell the creative magic behind what we do.

Richard Marsham, managing partner, The Leith

Agency: If you were to start up a new agency tomorrow, what model of agency would you go for? Specialist or integrated? And how would you look to differentiate that agency from all the competition?

‘Integrated’ is one of these dead words. We have all heard it, but none of us really believe it.

In June we [Engine Group] are moving into a 60,000 square foot building in Great Portland Street – a big investment – where we will have over 500 people working in ten different disciplines.

We need to discover how we can help the client. That should be the driver. So, the first question behind the agency model should be, ‘what will suit the clients better?’

But at the Engine Group we will not all just be under one roof, we will be under one ownership too. In Engine, one person in six in the business is a shareholder. The equity has been far too narrowly held.

The best thing about being under the one roof is that you bump into people. Meetings are the great enemy of everything. Even if it is all under a common ownership – take WPP, for example – they are not one culture, one energy space… they are not offering their savings in structure to clients.

Where we have more than one relationship with a client – for example in both advertising and digital – our ‘right first time’ scores are far higher as we have a shared understanding of the brand that we can coordinate behind the scenes. For me, sitting here as a senior citizen, this is the most exciting time to be in communication.

Jonathan Shinton, MD, Newhaven: What’s your favourite bow tie?

The tie’s gone. Maurice Saatchi had ruined the reputation of the bowtie, so I can’t wear them any more.

Alan Kittle, creative director, Team Spirit: I believe you’re studying the way the brain processes communications... What do you believe the perfect example of advertising was from the last year? And why?

The really interesting thing for me about the last 40 years isn’t just the explosion of different media, it is what we have learnt about how the brain processes communication.

Now, I’m not a scientist, I’m a copywriter by trade, but I’ve been staggered by all this learning that our industry has not been paying attention to.

Data suggests that before we make a conscious decision, we make an unconscious one to do that. Where is free will?

This is just one of many bits of evidence that proves that our unconscious mind runs us.

So much advertising research is talking to our conscious mind. Even when we know increasingly that it is our unconscious mind that rules us. How do we measure that unconscious mind? There are new techniques but most agencies aren’t interested in them.

We are also learning about the way the brain picks up certain ‘peacocks tail signalling’. This form of conspicuous communication is when you communicate in a way in which the audience sees as wasteful – very ‘epic’ communication, not selling or just using humour. The brain will interpret that as ‘if they can afford to waste all this resource they must have very high quality genes.’ On an unconscious level it is a signal of genetic fitness. An advert like the Cadbury’s Gorilla is perhaps one such example.

We are now getting evidence of why production costs, why soft sell, things that don’t appear to sell actually build reputations more than the old-fashioned hard sell.

Gregor Mina, marketing director,

Belhaven Brewery: If you were to compare a marketing professional with peer professionals, you would find that many marketers display equal creative and commercial attributes on a par with specialists in those fields. Do you ever feel a sense of guilt when your not inconsiderable intellect and nous is utilised for something as base as ‘selling’?

Firstly, taking BMW from selling 13,000 cars 28 years ago to selling 130,000 this year is extraordinarily satisfying. I don’t feel wasted there.

Secondly, one of the most exciting things in business is building a brand. We created the Orange brand and made it so valuable. It was bought by France Telecom and they messed it up entirely. Sacking us along the way. That is a frustration.

Where I think there is some merit in that criticism, though, is in the many other things I have done that haven’t been a success.

But I think I have an opportunity – a responsibility – to use the skills that I have learnt in marketing in other areas.

My career has helped me do three things I have been particularly proud of. For 12 years I was chairman of a programme that raised money for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and managed, in that period, to raise nearly £50m.

For nine years I was chairman of Arts and Business.

In 2003 I set up a small charity called The Ideas Foundation. It operates in Manchester and London, giving creatively gifted young people from challenged backgrounds a scholarship, which gives them experience at a creative business. We did 153 placements last year.

There are some good things that you can do. Yes you are going to have some failures, but you can apply your energies into other things. I do work for the NSPCC and I’m also starting a book on my 40 years in advertising, The Most Fun You Can Have With Your Clothes On. Every day that I go to work I enjoy myself and I get paid for it. And you really can’t complain about that.

Gerry Farrell, creative director, The Leith

Agency: What is the best thing that you have ever done in your career. And what is

the worst? It need not be creating an ad or launching an agency.

The Ideas Foundation is certainly one of the best things that I have done.

The creative gift that people have, when it expresses itself, is a very fragile epiphany moment. For lots of kids in the wrong environment it gets snuffed out.

It is a small charity – it raises about £200,000 a year and with that we do around 150 scholarships.

We have a meeting with the IPA in London to try and secure funding from the industry and I will hopefully be back up again in Scotland to roll out the foundation further.

Increasingly we are giving the kids briefs to work on issues they have some expertise in – bullying, sex, drugs, obesity. And it really transforms these kids. That, I would say, is the best thing I have done.

The worst? God, it would be such a long list. Such a long list. One of the worst might be one of the adverts we did for BMW back in 1980. It had Kirk Douglas in it. BMW had appointed us to the account without a pitch… the agency had just started. How lucky could we be? It was a dreadful advert. Why we used Kirk Douglas, God only knows? I have a slight suspicion that Ron Collins’ son, who collects autographs, might have had something to do with it. I owe a lot to our client for that. But I hope we have paid him back since.

Mark Gorman, Director, Think Hard:

Is Ron Collins still friendly with Sooty?

Ron, one of my founding partners, a very original man, left WCRS after about ten years, so I haven’t seen him for a little while. But that story relates to when we had young creatives in to see us. Ron was quite cruel to them. He had this little Sooty glove puppet that he would consult with. The poor creative would be showing their work. Ron would ask Sooty what he thought and Sooty, more often than not, would say [in a squeaky voice] ‘I think it’s shit’.

He wasn’t always the kindest of people. I think Sooty may have gone to the old dog’s home. Probably the best place for him.

Daniel Clare, MD, Open Glasgow: Too many Scottish clients are still taking their business down south to London agencies despite Scotland having quality agencies producing highly effective and creative work across all media. What can Scottish

agencies do to address this situation?

There are a lot of clients UK-wide that come from Scotland. Marketing directors and managers. If I was a Scottish agency, I would simply track down every Scottish client in a major UK or global company and create a Scottish marketing network.

The fact of the matter is, as BBH has proven by handling Unilever around the world, you really don’t need a specific geographical location.

Secondly, why not persuade them to have more fun? The quality of life in Scotland is so much better.

It’s not important to have a London office. If BBH was located in Glasgow, would they be any less successful now? It might have been harder to get going, but if you have that skill set… If you [as someone looking to launch or build an agency] could get four or five really top people to say ‘I’m leaving London for Scotland’, then that would really make people notice. Could the industry in Scotland work closer together to attract these four or five people?

Furthermore, Scotland could really capitalise on the digital push. Why can’t Scotland invent itself as the European leader in digital communication?

There is already far more money being invested by the Scottish Government in the arts than by the Arts Council in England. The Scottish Government is clearly making a number of Scottish initiatives and digital should be one of those.

Robin Wight was in Glasgow last week to deliver a lecture on the Science of Sponsorship at an event hosted by Glasgow-based Hub agency with Arts and Business Scotland.


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