In memory of Charlie Robertson

Last night (9th October) the IPA remembered Charlie Robertson at the IPA Effectiveness Awards as a stalwart of the of the planning community.

Charlie was well known to the IPA for his expertise on creative brand strategy. A topic he was passionate about, both writing about it and running training courses around the world. 

He was the author and winner of the Audi Vorsprung durch technik 1988 Effectiveness Awards paper and a tutor and on IPA courses. Most notably Stage 2 (Campaign Planning) where he started the tradition of the Bathroom Party at Elvetham Hall.

Charlie trained as a civil engineer but became an adman who was passionate about planning. He worked at BMP, GGT, BBH and the Leith Agency in Scotland. In 1994, he founded Red Spider, a strategic planning consultancy, basing himself in New York where he also forged links with the 4As.

He was a member of D&AD, an Executive in Residence at the University of Oregon School of Advertising and Journalism, a certified member of the MRS, an honorary member of the Account Planning Group. He is also listed in the Plannersphere Hall of Fame.

In remembering him Nick Kendall said: “Charlie was an intellectual firework. A cross between Mick Hucknell and Albert Einstein:- a rockstar thinker lighting up your mind with ideas. He was the man who hired me at BBH and a man who inspired me about what planning ( and many many many others) could be at its very best. Simply Charlie made planning exciting. Thinking was an adventure. A problem a chance to explore new worlds. Charlie made every day an exercise in curiosity. I never left a call, a meeting, a lunch, a drink, a walk home at night after a few too many with Charlie without my mind buzzing. I thank you Charlie. I salute you. I love you as a man, and as a glorious mind.”

Jan Gooding, chair of Pamco remembers co-chairing Stage 2 with him: ““Charlie was a warm, clever and funny man and looking back on it a more thoughtful feminist and sponsor of women than anyone else I met in advertising at the time. When we co-chaired IPA Stage 2 together he was so astonished by the size of his bathroom he held a champagne drinks party in it for all the tutors. He fuelled creativity and lateral thinking through his deft humanity, rigorous thinking and light touch.”

Here is his more fulsome Times obituary (9th October 2018)

Charlie Robertson was a larger-than-life advertising man. Described by one colleague as “a storyteller, a provocateur, a walking brainstorm”, he worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, including Frank Lowe who developed the slogan “refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach” for Heineken. But Robertson built his own reputation, joining the famous advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) in the mid-1980s. Towards the end of the decade he was named “world’s greatest ad planner” by Campaign magazine.

While with BBH he was pivotal in creating stunning and memorable campaigns for Volkswagen, Audi (Vorsprung durch Technik), Levi’s 501s (launderette) and other global brands. He also worked on RBS when it took its advertising account out of Scotland for the first time, although the first meetings were somewhat fraught with Robertson walking out after telling the client that they did not know enough about their customers and their needs.

Charles Ian Robertson was born in Kinning Park, Glasgow, in 1954, the son of Jack Robertson, a ship’s carpenter who became a cabinetmaker, and Ina (née Mudie), a bookkeeper. He also had a sister, Nancy, to whom he remained close.

He was educated at Carolside Primary School and Williamwood and Eastwood high schools, where he was remembered for his sharp mathematical and analytical mind, before studying civil engineering at the University of Glasgow. He went into that industry but soon found that he was not cut out for a life of building bridges.

Robertson moved south in the 1970s, attracted by the allure of the emerging advertising scene, and eventually became head of planning at BBH in 1983. He loved life in London, whether lunching at the Groucho or enjoying a night out in Soho, where he was often mistaken for Mick Hucknall of Simply Red. As a student he met Teresa McNeill through a mutual friend and they bonded over University Challenge, competing fiercely against each other when it was on TV. They were inseparable and one Christmas, without realising, bought each other the same pair of expensive slippers from Liberty.

They were married in the 1980s and decided to raise their family in Scotland, moving back to Glasgow in the early 1990s, where he helped Teresa to pursue her passion for Shakespeare with regular theatre trips. On one occasion he arranged for a one-off, beautifully printed four-page insert entirely devoted to her to be slipped into her programme for A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream at the Citizens Theatre. On another he placed an ad in a newspaper on February 13 saying: “I love you so much I cannot wait for tomorrow.”

Robertson joined the Leith Agency in its embryonic years, helping to develop campaigns for Irn-Bru and the Tennent’s portfolio. Mark Gorman, a former colleague recalled: “Charlie would fire out ideas by the shedload, you just had to be in the room at the right time to say ‘Stop, that’s it, Charlie’.”

His talent was to turn complex language and requirements into plain English, using his skills as a showman to pitch for new business. When the Leith Agency lost a bid for the Irn-Bru account he phoned up the client, took him for lunch and told him: “You’ve just made a huge mistake”. The business came his way a few months later.

He left in 1994 to set up his own virtual planning agency, Red Spider, building a network of “spiders” across the world that gave him access to every type of expertise to work on an ad campaign. He also developed his passion for education, travelling the world to run training courses for advertisers.

Robertson was pivotal in creating the Levi’s ad set in a launderette.

Although Robertson loved his work, he probably loved football even more. He was a season ticket holder at Rangers and burst into tears when a friend took him into the exclusive Blue Room at Ibrox. There was nothing he loved better than talking to young fans about the history of the club and the greats who had played for them.

In London he had played for a team drawn from the media industry called the Guardian Strollers that included the football journalists Henry Winter and Jim White, the author Sebastian Faulks, the sports photographer Michael Steele and the art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon. Those who played with him and against him recall a man who was tough, unflinching, brave beyond his size and very funny. He continued into his fifties, travelling from Glasgow to Edinburgh to play five-a-side for an hour on Monday evenings.

He was an avid autograph hunter, securing Sir Alex Ferguson’s signature after a Rangers’ game in Munich while also getting the referee to sign his book. However, his greatest autograph moment was when he heard that Muhammad Ali was staying in the Macdonald Hotel at Eastwood Toll in the early 1960s. Robertson took his dog for a walk nearby and joined in a game of football, but they were told to stop because people eating breakfast in the hotel were annoyed by the noise. Suddenly the boxer emerged wearing his white dressing gown, kicked the ball and said: “Leave the boys alone.” Young Charlie seized the opportunity to ask for an autograph and as he was signing it Ali told him: “I love your Scottie dog.”

As a student Robertson’s days had been enlivened by showings of Tom and Jerrycartoons.

The anarchic, fast-witted humour was much to his taste, as were Marx Brothers movies, which led to one of his many nicknames: Chico. He was also known as Chas Robo and Red Leader (a reference to his red hair). To many of his friends’ children he was known as Ponytail Charlie thanks to his habit for a time of taming his flowing locks with a black velvet hair tie.

Above all he enjoyed life and was decisive. It was perhaps no surprise that he suffered a fatal heart attack while enjoying dinner with former colleagues from BBH. On one occasion the bathroom in his hotel was so big that he used it to host a champagne party. On another, when working for Diageo on one of its drink brands, he set out the options to the client, explaining the merits of each. “Thank you,” said the client. “Not yet, make a decision,” replied Robertson. “Er, which one?” the client asked. “Doesn’t matter,” he replied. “Just make a bloody decision!”

Charlie Robertson died on 1st October 2018. His beloved Teresa died in 2011. He is survived by their children, Chloé, a teacher; Croy, who works in Japan; and Leo, an engineer based in Norway.