Robert Campbell in 5
Issue 44 | September 2017
'In 5' is an occasional series in which Directory interviews top creatives and asks them to define their careers to date through five examples of their work.
In the chair today is Robert Campbell, once upon a time the C in RKCR Y&R, now an impresario, property developer, entrepreneur and full-time Dad.
Personally, I've always thought Rudyard Kipling's "If" was, well, iffy. But Robert has met those two impostors, triumph and disaster, with exactly the same mocking laugh.
In our interview he jokes about his accomplishments as flippantly as he talks about his less successful ventures.
"I'd been at a place called Davis Williams & Ketchum, spending my holidays doing placements at better agencies including WCRS.
Andrew Cracknell, the creative director there, rang us up and offered us a job. When we turned up, he said: oh no, there's been a mistake, I didn't mean you."
Still, he and his art director Mark Roalfe, managed to burrow in and do a lot of award-winning work on BMW.
But in 1987, the time came to move on.
Campbell and Roalfe were offered two jobs on the same day. The first phone call was from David Abbott. The second was from John Hegarty, by which time the pair had said yes to Abbott Mead Vickers.
"I think, looking back, if we'd waited a couple of hours we would have gone to BBH."
Not that the next three years at Abbott Mead were anything other than a stately ascendancy to fame and reward.
1.RSPCA – Fresh horsemeat
The one piece of work that sums up that period?
"Well, 'Cages Save Lives' was probably the most famous thing we did but I'd rather go for an RSPCA ad we did. The brief was about raising awareness of the live transportation of animals but I re-articulated it as being, how could we get the client on Breakfast TV?
We were working on it in David's Abbot's office and I said: I know what we'll do, we'll put a horse on a hook and give it a headline like, the continentals love fresh horsemeat when we can supply it.
I wrote swathes of copy. It ran as a double-page spread in the Guardian. But where the picture was supposed to go, there was a little label saying: The management of The Guardian deem this picture too horrific to publish.
We couldn't have planned it better. But I did then become the most complained-about copywriter in Britain.
That year David and I won the Campaign Gold for Best Campaign of the Year and on stage, David kissed me in front of the entire advertising community.
I mean, that was it. I felt we were rather done at AMV."
There was a bit of a false start before Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe.
"We did an agency called The Banks Partnership for two years, which was okay. Fell out with them when we started talking to Abbott's about setting up a conflict agency. It got on the front page of Campaign so we had to resign."
Now jobless, Campbell and Roalfe came across MT Rainey, former MD and planning icon of Chiat Day, and Jim Kelly, MD of GGT, and doing a startup seemed to be a good idea.
"We had a big argument about which order the names should go. Which I lost. MT won.
We positioned ourselves around payment for ideas. And we asked for payment upfront. That really differentiated us. Of course, when we launched people said we were bonkers, but it worked."
Only clients who valued creativity and/or needed a big idea invited the agency to pitch.
"We all had some pretty good contacts and that's how we got started.
2. BA – Don't Give a Shiatsu
We got big pretty quickly. Two years, I suppose. First Virgin then News International came on board. Then Miller. I'm still very proud of that work."
(RKCR had been founded on a promise of "ideas before advertising and ideas beyond advertising" and created a series of 'talk shows' rather than ads for American beer brand Miller, which took over the entire ad break on Channel 4 at 10pm on Friday nights. It became cult viewing.)
"It was branded content before anyone invented it. We shot them in front of a live audience out in Teddington. The first one was with Alice Cooper. But if I have to pick one piece of work, I suppose it has to be Virgin and the 'BA Don't Give A Shiatsu" poster."
Robert didn't write it. He suspects Martha Riley did. Not that she was credited for it.
"It summed up the David & Goliath approach to advertising. Using advertising to start a conversation or a battle rather than close it down."
The four partners had written a business plan when they opened the doors of RKCR and had always planned to sell to a holding company.
Seven years after opening their doors, they did a deal with Y&R.
"Omnicom and WPP wanted to buy us as well but I think we chose the group that would give us least trouble. We did four years earn-out. And I guess I wonder why we felt we had to sell. If we'd hung on to it and grown it, who knows?"
Campbell resigned on the day he got his earn-out cheque and moved to McCann as Chief Creative Officer.
"I liked the fact McCann was a global network. I found it peculiar that network agencies in London always said how much they wanted to grow their local business.
Why? The money's in the global stuff. It's where the glory is, in truth."
It was the lure of globalism that got Campbell to leave McCann to re-unite with Jim Kelly and go into United.
"I got a quarter of my salary in return for a quarter of the agency. But it was 25% of something that was completely un-saveable.
I broke my leg that year in a motorbike crash. Had Hendrix my second child. And limped away from the advertising business."
While on gardening leave, Campbell began wondering what to do next.
"I could see where the advertising business was going and that's pretty much where it's gone.
And being a creative director in his fifties, bitter and twisted in a big agency, managing decline in a declining industry, that wasn't a good look.
So, since I was coming up to 50, I started TGI50, a partnership organisation where brands and services could talk to the well-heeled over-50s"
After objections to the name from WPP (they own a company called TGI) the name was changed to High50.
Toby Constantine, former marketing director of News International, came on board as a partner.
"Amazingly, really, since I'd been living with his wife.
We worked on it for a year but just couldn't get it funded.
So, it was about 2009 and there I was, learning about venture capitalists and raising money. And tech, of course.
What we were trying to do was build Facebook for the over-50s."
4. The Elders for a global village
At about the same time that High50 was happening, as if Campbell didn't have enough to do, he helped launch The Elders for Virgin.
It was an idea that Peter Gabriel had originally shared with Richard Branson, 'Elders for a global village' and Campbell was tasked with making the communications happen.
He hung out with Branson and Archbishop Tutu, with Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan. On Necker Island, he had lunch with Jimmy Carter, who wanted to meet 'terrorists' from the PLO and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
"Can you help me talk to them?" asked Carter. "You've got the wrong guy." said Campbell.
It falls to some of the great and the good in adland to advise the greater and gooder on how to communicate better.
Tim Bell was probably as much a friend to Margaret Thatcher as a trusted advisor.
Trevor Beattie wandered in and out of Downing Street when Tony Blair was PM.
In France, Jacques Seguela was able to get the President to lend him an aircraft carrier for a Citroen commercial.
But can you think of anyone from our side of the tracks, who has been taken as seriously as Campbell has been by so many eminent world leaders?
I met the Mayor of London once.
As he says himself, what an amazing experience. To be able to work with these people, whose mission was, and is, to try to help resolve some of the world's most intractable conflicts.
"But I bumped into Gary Lace one-day and we decided to set up an incubator."
The way you do.
"The idea was to grow High50 and other startups out of it, which is why we called it Beta. We started DaddyBeGood, took a stake in the Barmy Army. A couple of other things.
We won a silver at Cannes.
We built a business for JackpotJoy with Barbara Windsor that was sold for a billion dollars.
"But (Beta) ended up costing me an awful lot of money. An expensive experiment."
(Beta) was closed. High50 was handed over to new owners. Campbell got divorced. "I had to give all my money to my ex-wife."
It's safe to say that late 2015 was a difficult time.
But, ever ebullient, Campbell says, "Job one then was to look after my two young boys, create a home for them. And I thought, well, I'm going to have to make it all up again. From the beginning."
5. Hammer House of Horror Live
He reckoned he was too old to get a job. Didn't want to start another agency. Started investing in bits and pieces.
He shows me a piece of paper on which he has scribbled details of the dozen or so little pies he has a finger in.
And Hammer House of Horror.
It was a brand that had rather faded but which clearly had equity. Campbell was part of a buy-out with a couple of others. Now he's heavily involved in turning this famous movie brand into a theatrical experience.
'The Night of the Soulless One' is coming to Hoxton Hall in London from 27th September to 31st October.
Dressed in black cloaks, the audience will move around and through the theatre, from the vaults to the rafters, before facing the unimaginable in the main hall.
"It's a punt but what's great is I'm working with mates. And it's fun."
Ah, that little word again. Fun. It's the dope the creative soul craves. The laughter at a sudden, crazy idea. The excitement of maybe, just maybe.
It's doing something new, something untested, something risky.
If it works, great. Refine it, improve it, build it. It it doesn't, well. No matter. Back to the drawing board.
I don't know Robert Campbell very well but our paths have crossed periodically over the last couple of decades. He has been ahead of the curve most of the time. Always happy to talk. Always interesting.
Particularly so right now. This is a guy aged 57. But he's only just beginning to get going. Who knows where his career will take him next?
But when you have a career in creativity, then that's what happens. You have ideas and if you latch onto them, they can take you to places you could never have imagined.
I left Campbell with his sons and headed out into a sunny London afternoon. Feeling rather inspired.
You see, I've had this idea about a knockout croquet tournament...