Robin Wight

President of ENGINE

Ben Somerset-How

Client Director



Tom Holmes talks to Robin Wight, President of both Engine and WCRS. Robin was part of the management team that led the management buyout from Havas in 2004. 

After working as a copywriter in a number of agencies, including Collett Dickenson Pearce and Partners, Robin co–founded Wight Collins Rutherford Scott with Peter Scott in 1979. 

Although he has spent his whole career in advertising, Robin has always had a number of outside interests. From 1992 - 2002 he was Chairman of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, Charter for Business, which has since raised over £40 million. From 1997 - 2005 he was Chairman of Arts and Business which encourages British businesses to invest £140 million a year in support for the arts. 

In the 2000 Birthday Honours Robin Wight was awarded a CVO for his services to the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, Charter for Business. In 2003 he founded the Ideas Foundation, a charity which helps identify and nurture creatively gifted young people from ethnic minorities through the award of Creativity Scholarships.

For the last three years Robin has been working on a study looking at the way the brain processes communications built on the latest learning from evolutionary psychology, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience. Linked to this, in 2007 he published The Peacock's Tail and the Reputation Reflex: The Neuroscience of Art Sponsorship.


Creativebrief: What does the Robin Wight brand stand for?

Robin Wight: A brand that stands for more than one thing arguably stands for nothing. So although my brand ‘colour’ might be purple, and my brand narrative might be “interrogate the product until it confesses to its strength”, I would hope there is one central thought that unties both of these concepts. And this is the concept I invented about “conviction brands”. Back in 1994, when I was part of the team that created the Orange brand, I invented the notion that many of the most successful brands had an “inner belief” about the way they should be. So, Orange, had inner belief about the way mobile phones should be marketed, BMW believes that every car should be rear-wheel drive (even though consumers aren’t particularly fazed) and Apple believes that its products should look “good enough to lick” etc, etc. And like these successful brands, I would hope that my own approach to communication and marketing may also be something of a conviction brand.

Creativebrief: You’ve described the advertising industry as “a great place for misfits”. Do you think it is still?

Robin Wight: One of my founding partners, the late Ron Collins, used to say that, “nothing of merit is ever achieved by reasonable people”. Behind almost all of the great communication campaigns I suspect that there is a misfit. If not, it’s likely to be an idea that is simply going with the grain, that is professional but lacks that magic which creativity can provide. The most successful agencies are the ones who attract the misfits and manage them better.

Creativebrief: Your career has spanned over 40 years, which brands have you particularly enjoyed working with and why?

Robin Wight: The first thing to be said is that any client that has been kind enough to entrust us with their communication is one that I am profoundly grateful for. I am particularly grateful to those of whom – at the end of the day – we didn’t do great work for, for whatever reason. But over the long term, there are 3 brands that particularly stand out. The first is BMW, for whom we brought ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’ from America to create a campaign that’s now in its 33rd year.  However, our very first campaign, featuring Kirk Douglas, was an absolute disaster – apart from the endline – so I’m grateful to BMW for allowing us to get it wrong before we got it right. Secondly, I’m really grateful to Orange for rejecting the consumer research which said that our positioning for Orange, around a “wire free future”, was wrong. I’ll always be indebted to the then Marketing Director, Chris Moss, whose instinct said that this might be the right way to build a new sort of mobile brand. And five years later he was proved right, when the company was sold for £29billion.

And thirdly, again with Chris Moss, was the achievement of getting 118 118 into the brains of British consumers so that they couldn’t forget it, even if they wanted to. Chris’s boldness in allowing us to have two crazy moustachioed runners, and doing enough to create new British folk heroes, is an example of a brilliant client. More recently, there are three campaigns I’m particularly happy to have seen WCRS doing. The first is the Christmas movies advert for Sky, which a million people downloaded from YouTube. That’s an extraordinary achievement.  Then, for Churchill, it’s been a pleasure to work with the team there, helping develop the Martin Clunes campaign which is a classic example of how the well established campaign can be redeveloped with further creativity. And finally, for Bupa the latest campaign telling the true story of someone who’s staying in a Bupa care home, shows how real emotion can help build a brand.


Creativebrief: What successful campaigns have you done recently?

Robin Wight: Most of the work I do now is strategic rather than operating as a copywriter – which is how I first came into the industry many years ago. And quite a lot of my work is in New Business, which obviously I can’t talk about in an interview. What I do enjoy is being plugged-in to campaign development and being allowed to make some contribution, as I have with a campaign that’s being developed for Radox at the moment. I’m really optimistic this will prove to be a breakthrough campaign and I’m happy to even contribute to the slogan! 

Creativebrief: You talk about ‘creative edge’. What makes Engine different?

Robin Wight: I took four young graduate trainees, who are half way through their first year at Engine, to dinner recently. And while none of them are officially in a “creative” role, they demonstrated the creative edge that sets Engine aside from other communication businesses. Unlike any other graduate training scheme, we place each trainee with four different businesses (out of our ten) to create multi-skilled talent that other businesses don’t have. We also do this, to some extent, with our creatives looking for extra bandwidth and providing job swaps so that nobody at Engine, be they a creative planner or an account handler, feels like they are in a silo. And this is the creative edge. We can genuinely say to a client. “Don’t give us a brief, give us a problem”. And by having this broader bandwidth of creativity, because of the way we train and nurture our people, we have an edge over our competitors.

Creativebrief: What makes a good marketing director in the current economic climate?

Robin Wight: I don’t think that the economic climate is the crucial factor in being a good marketing director. The best marketing directors I’ve worked with have had, at their heart, an instinctive feeling for what is right for the brand and what communication can deliver for the brand. These are not marketing directors who rely on focus group research to make their decisions. Now, I know in tough economic times some marketing directors may be tempted to “play safe” and not take risks with their communication. In fact, when economic times are tough it’s even more important to find a way to cut through to the audiences without having to spend more money. The good marketing director is the one who takes the risks and is rewarded in the market place.

Creativebrief: Of the leading marketers you know, who are the most impressive?

Robin Wight: Well, naturally, all the marketing directors who have appointed Engine to work for them! But if I was to pick out one or two marketing directors whose work really shines out I would have to look at Unilever. Unilever, over the last decade, has transformed its communication from being average to being outstanding – with campaigns such as Dove and Lynx to name but two. The first of Unilever’s marketing directors who began this transformation was Simon Clift – incidentally now a Non-Executive Director of Engine. He was by no means a typical Unilever person but had the wit, intelligence and courage to unlock the creativity of his agencies to do some of the best work that they produced. Then when he left, Keith Weed – now Chief Marketing Officer of Unilever and, for the first time I believe, on the main board of Unilever – has taken this even further. He’s just been around the world with his Vice-President of Marketing, Marc Mathieu, with a presentation about “magic not logic”. For Unilever to be preaching this message is hugely encouraging to all the Unilever agencies – which WCRS (one of the Engine companies) became when Unilever acquired Radox. Sometimes the hardest marketing task is to raise the standard of advertising and performance in businesses that have got very rigid methodologies. Unilever – with Simon Clift and Keith Weed – has done a remarkable job in bringing a revolution to what had been one of the sleeping giants of the communication world and that deserves huge applause.

Creativebrief: What do you think of the UK’s marketing reputation globally?

Robin Wight: Well if we look at the Cannes Awards we can see clearly that the UK is not the advertising leader it once was. But if you think about it, once developing markets started developing their own advertising – rather than just having advertising produced in the US or UK- it was fairly inevitable that their national creativity would come up with brilliant work. And when you visit some of the large multi-nationals – be it Unilever, Nestlé or Coca-Cola, you will find many people from Non-European or American nations working in key marketing roles so the pressure in the UK is to ensure that its creativity – both in communication and management – outperforms that of its global rivals. And I think this is still possible. Whether you are talking about music or games or advertising, there’s something about the British gene pool that has creativity inside it. Our schools certainly need to do more to nourish the creativity of students -  which is something the Ideas Foundation, which I set up in 2004, is trying to do. And I also think that we don’t have enough diversity in the advertising industry and we therefore waste the creativity from cultures that originated outside the UK. So I think, overall, the reputation is in need of extra creative effort from all of us and particularly to recognise the need for finding young creatives in marketing or in management to help get our reputation right at the top of the global league table. 

Creativebrief: In 2003 you founded the Ideas Foundation, what did you set out to achieve?

Robin Wight: The mission of the Ideas Foundation is to help unlock the creativity of young people whose creativity has been overlooked in our exam focused school system. We focus on disadvantaged young people, particularly from ethnic minorities. It’s not just morally wrong – that ethnic diversity is so absent from the advertising industry – it’s a waste of a huge amount of talent that the nation and the industry can’t afford. Our programme is expanding every year: last year around 1000 young people were involved in our programmes and now we have 120 mentors from advertising agencies, and we’re starting to get some major brands, such as Vodafone, Aviva and The Sun, involved in our programme. Most importantly, the first group of young people who have come through our programme are now getting their start in the industry. And that’s the real goal: that within five years we’ll see a radical change in the level of diversity within the communication industry.

Creativebrief: In 2007 you published The Peacock’s Tail, why did this come about?

Robin Wight: This came about after I’d been Chairman, for seven years, of Arts & Business, a not-for-profit which was trying to encourage businesses to invest more in supporting the arts. And though we’ve done very well in terms of “instrumental” sponsorship for the arts (such as educational workshops for an opera house) we’ve done less well for “intrinsic” support for the arts – the actual sponsorship of the opera itself. So the purpose of my investigation was to see if there was a biological purpose of art that would help support intrinsic sponsorship of the arts. And that, when one studied the evolutionary psychology, the cognitive psychology and the neuroscience, was what the science revealed. One side effect from this slender volume was that it led me into the area of Brain Science and a whole range of studies which, until very recently, our industry has ignored. These range from Behavioural Economics, FMR brain scanning and numerous studies showing the limited value of focus group discussions etc, etc. While the book was intended for the world of art, it ended up being of value to me in the world of advertising, too.

Creativebrief: You are a friend of Richard Dawkins…

Robin Wight: I have always been a great admirer of Richard Dawkins and I was hugely honoured when he offered to write a foreword to ‘The Peacock’s Tail’ but I had originally met him about ten years previously to talk about ‘memes’, which he invented in ‘The Selfish Gene’. ‘Memes’ can be seen as analogies to genes – ideas that reproduce – be they ideas about religions or ideas about brands and I would argue that what we are all, essentially, ‘memes’ managers, helping to create a ‘meme-plex’ which is a bundle of ideas that spread from brain to brain to brain and – if the right marketing steps are taken – become deeply imbedded in consumer’s brains. Slogans are an obvious example of this, as are jingles. And I would argue that some of the old fashioned sloganeering and jingling techniques meant that some advertisers had instinctively understood what memes are about. Interestingly these ‘memes’ can be so powerful that they live on long after the brand has chosen to drop them. For example, The Future’s Bright, The Future’s Orange, is present in many brains even though Orange has – in my view, unwisely – decided to drop it. So if you do manage to get a ‘meme’ into a consumer’s brain, you are strongly advised to keep on supporting that campaign and that property, rather than coming up with a new idea – however much you may be tempted, just to win an advertising award.

Creativebrief: Both your Grandfathers were MPs…

Robin Wight: I have a picture of one of my Great Grandparents who was an MP in my flat in London – and I am very proud to have this in my family history. And it perhaps played some role in my decision to try to enter Parliament, in 1987, when I stood as the Conservative candidate for Bishop Auckland, Co Durham.  It was an amazing experience and I think what I mainly learnt is how determination can make a difference to a campaign. We were never going to win as it had been a safe Labour seat since the invention of the Labour Party. Derek Foster, who retained the seat for Labour, attracted 25,000 votes but I managed to attract over 19,000 votes and no Conservative candidate, before or since, has had that level of votes in any General Election. So I was very proud of the achievement. I fondly remember our campaign jingle – “Yes, it’s true, Wight can be Blue”! However, while I really enjoyed the experience of campaigning the more I looked at Parliament – though I would have been attracted to the cut and thrust of debate – I felt that my skills weren’t best suited to that environment. I’m essentially an Ideas man, not a Committee man and I therefore chose to do things where I could come up with ideas, this included helping to raise £50m for The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, helping Arts & Business grow its role in fundraising and, most recently, helping to give The Ideas Foundation a significant voice in getting ethnic minorities into creative businesses. I still work in the world of political ideas – including running an Anti-Gordon Brown campaign in the last General Election – but the House of Commons will not be disrupted by my presence!

Creativebrief: And your next big project?

Robin Wight: I’m hoping to do some television projects in 2012. Watch this space.