Remembering Charlie Robertson (1954-2018)
As planners of a certain age, Charlie Robertson and I used to run into each other at social functions for the ad business, so I must have chatted with him five or six times. I did not know him well, but it was enough to form a vivid impression of him. With flowing grey locks, great personal warmth, intelligence and a broad Glaswegian accent, he had that rare thing – charisma. You certainly remembered meeting him.
This, surely apart from intelligence and great instincts for creative work, must help explain his success in inspiring the creative people he worked with and engendering the confidence of his clients. After all, it is not enough to have an idea, a client has to believe it is right in order to give the green light. His track record in achieving this was outstanding, as the Financial Times attested in their obituary. He was also blessed to have worked with some of the most talented creative people our industry, including at BBH (Bartle Bogle Hegarty).
He is credited (along with great work for Levi’s) for having persuaded Audi that they could turn their (every-so-slightly) bland brand into ‘cool’ by getting in touch with its German roots. The resulting campaign, with the end line “Vorsprung Durch Technik” still runs today and is a great example of how the power of an idea can add meaning, sales and profitability to a brand. The shareholders of VW/Audi surely have cause to be grateful that Charlie Robertson walked this earth.
Charlie was a pioneer in setting up the first virtual ad planning agency called Red Spider in 1994 (with George Shepherd). They never had an office, working instead from homes in Glasgow and London. It was at least 10 years before the idea of ‘the virtual business’ became commonplace and enabled by technology. Planners like me have reason to be grateful to Charlie because he showed us that we could go out our own and have a better life by working for ourselves.
He also represented something else – the promise of success in an industry genuinely open to talent wherever you came from. Charlie was one of those working class lads, along with Dave Trott and David Bailey, who ‘made it’ and along the way helped make UK creative work (for a period of time) the best in the world. UK advertising was (and still is to some extent) an industry where ‘the posh boys’ (and they were mostly men in the seventies and eighties) and the working class lads rubbed shoulders to good effect. In class ridden Britain, advertising was one of the few areas of work where you could come from nowhere and get to the top. It was an early lesson in how diversity genuinely makes for better ideas and a stronger and more dynamic industry.
Charlie was a pioneer in setting up the first virtual ad planning agency called Red Spider in 1994 (with George Shepherd). They never had an office, working instead from homes in Glasgow and London. It was at least 10 years before the idea of ‘the virtual business’ became commonplace, enabled by technology. Planners like me have reason to be grateful to Charlie because he showed us that we could go out on our own and have a better life by working for ourselves.
‘Inspirational’ is a word that is bandied around willy-nilly these days, but Charlie was the real deal – inspirational in spades.
Julian Saunders was Strategy Director, Ogilvy and Head of Strategy, McCann Erickson. He has worked on behaviour change campaigns for the UK Government and on innovation in The Zoo at Google. He blogs at www.joinedupthink.com