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Back Chat: Robin Wight on why 'ideas produce more value than fracking'

This issue we catch up with the inimitable Robin Wight to discuss the value of ideas, championing industry diversity in his work with the Ideas Foundation and why he’s inspired by Volkswagen’s iconic ‘Lemon’.

How are you and what’s keeping you busy?

Part of my life I work with Engine and WCRS, and the other part of my life, which has been keeping me very busy, is the Ideas Foundation.

Diversity has suddenly become a topic in our industry. The basic fact is that it’s not just a moral issue; our industry is missing out on understanding ethnic minorities and it’s also missing out in harvesting their creativity.

What’s your biggest gripe at the moment?

We’ve got 11 per cent ethnic minorities in our industry compared to, say, 40 per cent of our population. So there’s a misfit in that we don’t represent. There’s no magic bullet, but we’ve [Ideas Foundation] got a model that works. Lots of clients and agencies say they’ll get involved, but then it’s hard to set up a meeting. The truth isn’t because of any hostility, it’s just that everyone’s so busy. It is frustrating that you have to work so hard to do something which, in theory, everyone thinks is a good idea.

What have you been enjoying at the moment?

I just spent this morning queuing for an hour and a half to get tickets for a play at Donmar Warehouse – there are only 250 tickets and they go incredibly fast. Barclays sponsors a programme to sell front row seats for £10 the Monday before – it’s the theatre bargain of London!

My wife and I were kindly invited to the premiere of the new Marigold Hotel film, and it was rather nice because Prince Charles was there and I used to work with him. He came up to me and said ‘I don’t believe it’, shaking my hand warmly, which was very flattering, that after seven years he could remember me – obviously my red shoes are unforgettable.

The thing is, the film was a disappointment, but even if something is disappointing it can still be interesting. I think sometimes we’re too demanding of our arts and culture and because we’re here so short a time we don’t want to waste time on things that aren’t perfect.

Last week I saw Guy Bourdin’s exhibition at Somerset House. It’s interesting to me that his best photographs were his advertisements for Charles Jourdan shoes – so his ads, which were done to a commercial brief, were more engaging than his photographs done to a non-commercial goal, which is perhaps not what you might expect.

I’m also very interested in the science of how ads work in the brain. I’ve been studying that for about eight or nine years – focus groups are old hat, really. There are new ways of finding out what people think.

I spend a lot of time with my family. I’ve got a large tribe, including five kids and what I call my five G-kids (because Martin Amis says the word grandfather is like a telegram from the mortuary).

Which ad do you wish you had worked on?

If I had to pick one, it would be Volkswagen ‘Lemon’ from Doyle Dane Bernbach in the 1960s, because that was the ad that inspired me to go into the industry. This was a time when car ads were big and bloated and bullshitty. Bill Bernbach and Doyle Dane Bernbach built modern advertising.

I’d love to have been, if only, a fly on the wall when that ad was being written, because that was when modern advertising was born, and we’ve been struggling to catch up ever since.

Who is your biggest hero in advertising?

The same person – Bill Bernbach. Interestingly enough, his son John Bernbach works for Engine in New York. So Bill Bernbach’s genes are in Engine – how about that?!

What would you say inspires you?

What inspires me is the magic of an idea. An idea has no weight, has no mass, has no cost, but suddenly it can transform a business or a person. It’s the most extraordinary thing, that something that doesn’t actually exist in any physical sense is the most powerful.

My first idea was when I was 17 and writing an essay about colour to try and get into Cambridge. When it was read out two weeks later, people said to me ‘how on earth did you think of that?’ That was when I had my a-ha moment, as I call it, when I realised I had ideas. An idea can transform anything. It produces more value than fracking, than oil; an idea is the most valuable commodity that exists.

That’s what inspires me to try and have another one. Most of my ideas are actually rubbish, but every now and again I might have a reasonable one.

If you had unlimited power or resources, what would you change?

My dream job would be minister for creativity. I’d like to try and get inside our schools and link to my experience with the Ideas Foundation and the ways in which young people’s creativity can be nurtured. The most valuable asset is under our noses; it’s the people who can have ideas. Ethnic minorities are not harvested, if you like – they’re gold, waiting to be discovered.

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