NO need for Alan Brown to lose sleep when the going gets tough. He can always count the sheep sitting at his back door. There are some 200 there after all. By day, however, while his wife Judith runs their farm at Simonburn near Hadrian’s Wall, Alan is in Medialand, butterfly-netting customers regional, national and international.
Robson Brown, which he and his only fellow shareholder and business partner Stuart Robson set up 25 years ago, is not only the largest creative agency in the North East, but also the largest independent agency and fifth largest media buyer outside London; altogether 38th among UK agencies. While they hold the most industry awards in the region, some sleepless nights ahead would be understandable. Data shows the colder financial climate biting the sector already and business, even for a fully integrated marketing firm marking its first quarter century with a best-yet turnover of some £30 million, could get tougher.
Marketing, advertising and media generally chill in circumstances like these. Robson Brown, however, is being warmed presently by a major contract placed by one of Europe’s biggest gardening, forestry machine and tool manufacturers. Robson Brown stands up to pressures because, Alan says: “We have many clients that now fundamentally recognise the quantifiable effect that proper marketing has on their business performance.
Like any other aspect of your business, if you turn the lights out, it goes dark. If you turn off your advertising, your customers will tend to deteriorate.” Alan’s frequent use of words like ‘integration’, ‘strategy’ and ‘marketing’ during a 50-minute conversation is telling.
To explain: “Our success is based on not classing ourselves as an advertising industry, a design, film, media or PR company, though we do all those things, I think – modestly - at the highest level.” The people running the group’s individual companies focused on each of the disciplines would be top of the tree in central London, he suggests.
“Our philosophy here is that to succeed we must be more business partners than, say, designers or PR people. There must be a payback for everything, and our clients now see advertising and all the other aspects of marketing as a tool to develop their business.
Most of these things are measurable now, and they can see the impact of a very good strategic marketing campaign.” This is implicit in a reflection by John Thompson, head of marketing at the international group Husqvarna which, with a centre in Newton Aycliffe, chose Robson Brown to handle a full-service creative support contract covering a wide range of gardening equipment and tools, including Flymo and Gardena.
John Thompson says: “We are highly impressed by Robson Brown’s full-service approach to raise awareness of our products. As well as offering exciting, creative solutions, we need to enhance our pointof- sale presence and give us edge in a very competitive market.
We feel their team has a good grasp of the brands.” He mentions that Robson Brown produced award-winning work previously for Husqvarna, working successfully on Flymo accounts some eight years ago. An international realignment inside the client organisation resulted in the account moving to another agency, but another realignment has now brought Flymo back to Robson Brown, which will also be out to make Gardena – claimed to be Europe’s lead brand of gardening tools and watering systems - a household name in Britain. Good work, then, is not forgotten, even in the ephemera of advertising and marketing, and Robson Brown’s work takes it into interests as varied as retail, consumer durables, leisure, business-to-business, education, media, automotives, house building, financial and public services.
The evaluation, measurement and objectives set in marketing campaigns, as the firm envisaged, will continue to be rigorously fulfilled.
“Or else,” Alan observes, “irrespective of how creative and wonderful the solutions, if they didn’t do their bit for results regularly and sustainably, Robson Brown won’t be where it is now.” Alan, who is chief executive and specialist in strategy, was born in Darlington, studied art at colleges in Middlesbrough and London, became an art director in two or three big agencies, and eventually returned to the North East to join the creative side at Thomson Regional Newspapers, now ncjMedia, home of the Chronicle and Journal and still a hothouse for talent.
“But I wanted a creative business of my own, giving a reasonable living, giving my children a good education and which would still leave me some money to enjoy country sports,” he says. With his son now a land agent and his daughter in advertising, those aims are realised.
“I thought that the North East at that time was poorly served by advertising agencies and marketing consultants. There was little integrated marketing, and that became our premise – doing not just advertising, but offering a far wider service.” When he met Stuart, a Tynesider who is today group creative director, he was at Redheads Advertising in Newcastle.
“Stuart and I met through a newspaper advert I placed asking for a visualiser. We soon found we had a rapport. Our philosophies about business were similar. He is a talented writer, painter, illustrator, a good strategist and all-round manager and a top-class businessman.
“We set off to set the world alight fairly naively. Yet our success curved upward incredibly. Profit in year one was £80,000. I took our family off on a celebratory treat – a weekend at a bed and breakfast in Helmsley!” By year four or five, Robson Brown considered itself the best and biggest in North East advertising.
“However, in this neck of the woods you had to be a bit of a jack of all trades. Advertising was never going to solve a client’s business problems totally, but a bit of advertising with some proper research and proper strategy, integrated with PR and design, offered a far more effective collection of marketing tools.” Robson Brown also recruited – “stringently and robustly” - people with outstanding specialisms.
“Some are now at the top of our tree. Others have also moved up. They are well rewarded, enjoy lots of autonomy and have fun and enjoyment. Their reputations are greatly enhanced, and we have a fairly small turnover of staff.” Now, as the firm recruits six more to its 120 staff, Alan questions whether all the turnovers of local competitors together would equal Robson Brown’s annual performance.
Its one poor year came three or four years ago, when Northern Electric’s retail arm, which had become an independent company, went bust owing a large amount.
Alan Brown, despite the reputations for spin that people in his line sometimes have, speaks plainly and frankly, and only hesitates when he has to calculate whether he owns or part owns five racehorses or six.
He immediately defines the company’s office openings in Manchester and London as a ‘dreadful’ experiment - not a problem, but a drain and now no more.
What went wrong? “It is difficult to get Robson Brown-type people running a Robson Brown satellite elsewhere in the country. Clients want to deal with head office, and with technology what it is, we can cover other parts of the country competently from here anyway. London, Manchester and Newcastle are all very competitive market places.
“For example, not one satellite of a Manchester, London, Edinburgh or Birmingham agency has succeeded in Newcastle. Maybe we were naive to assume we could do it the other way round. We didn’t suddenly announce the closures. We gradually moved accounts and people back.” What then of prospects for creative agencies in Britain’s bracing new economy? “There will be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. Historically, 80-90 per cent of our business came through traditional routes of advertising – radio, television, press and so on. Next year I expect 50 per cent of our revenue from other markets; predominantly digital.
“There is much more to digital than just marketing a good website effectively. You need specialist people. You must monitor regularly, find new ways to work it in tandem. It needs significant investment. If you can integrate your digital strategy with your advertising, media, design and PR strategy, you can have truly effective marketing transcending all those disciplines.” Robson Brown’s offices in Newcastle’s splendid Georgian Clavering House present a clean, clinical, no-nonsense appearance inside, everything in its place for reason rather than effect. Even the paintings on the wall are not the arty-clarty associated with, say, the Saatchis.
The abstract Alan chooses to describe is an allegory of squares representing the parts of Robson Brown that go into making the greater sum of the whole. Amid high overheads there is no hint of extravagance, suggesting, all in all, that Robson Brown will come through the industry’s current challenges. Alan himself, with barely a furrow even after two and a half decades of minting daily a currency of what the website calls big ideas, simple ideas – “ideas that help you zig when the rest zag” – keeps his tall frame trim, unlike the beer and pasties caricature of many veterans of media. Maybe his passion for country sports and his pride in becoming a grandfather keep him trim. Either way, the Robson Brown company itself clearly does ‘lean’.