SpecialPress: Nigel Roberts

Nigel Roberts is one of London’s most highly-awarded copywriters. Starting life as a junior copywriter at Saatchi & Saatchi in the late ’80s, Nigel worked his way up through some of the best agencies in London with his art director Paul Belford. For many years, their potent combination of brilliant copy and conceptual art direction earned them a reputation as the best print team in the world. Creative directorships at Ogilvy London, AMV BBDO and CHI & Partners were followed by a return to Leagas Delaney London to run the creative department. Over the years he has won nine D&AD Silver Pencils, six Cannes golds and four One Show Golds (the full list is too long to publish). Nigel spared us a few moments to answer our questions and share his thoughts on the industry. We hope you find it as inspiring as we did.

Part of life in New Zealand advertising is trying to make a big impact with small budgets, which puts more emphasis on the idea and underlying strategy. How has the economic climate in the UK affected advertising? Are smaller budgets sharpening creative skills or stunting them?

Why should a small budget make any difference to the emphasis on the idea and strategy? Obviously, it shouldn’t. The problem is that the couldn’t-be-arsed-to-do-the-job-properly perpetuation of the supposed merits of affordable brand saliency has been keeping the wrong side of our industry in business for years. Whether an inadequate strategy and idea waste a lot of money, or a little bit of money, it’s still a waste of money. And opportunity. Sure, a lot of the New Zealand accounts come with modest budgets. But I’m guessing that there’s as much low budget crap produced as there is bigger budget crap.

In the UK, as usual, there are all kinds of excuses for sub-optimal work, whatever the budgets. And as long as there are too many agencies, there always will be. Budgets have been cut here, same as everywhere. But a shortage of production and media money isn’t an agency’s limiting factor. A shortage of effort, talent and integrity are. By rights, the fact that everyone’s a bit skint at the moment should motivate everyone, client and agency side, to make sure their advertising works as hard as it bloody can. But if it has, then I’m not really seeing it in the work.

Are the copywriting skills prevalent in the ’80s and ’90s still evident today? (Personally it feels that we’re drowning in a sea of functional retail that makes no effort to charm or entertain…)

Shit no. But you only ask the question because you knew the answer all along. If I trawled the last year’s awards annuals in search of genuinely good headlines, I’d be lucky if I found a dozen. Most press ads in the awards books are just mini posters. Because we’re told we live in a time-precious, visual age. People don’t want to read ads. Horseshit. They do if the ads are worth reading. The matching-luggage mentality of 360 degree integration has meant that the copywriting skills that can make all the difference to individual executions are rarely appreciated. But give me 90 degree brilliance over 360 degree wallpaper any day.

Is a well written, clever headline still something that gets you excited?

Because they’re so rare, they’ve become more satisfying to see than they used to be. But very few examples from recent years can compare to the greats of the past, like the Economist’s ‘Would you want to sit next to you at dinner?’

What gets your goat about the current state of the marketing industry?

That too many people don’t realise that the meeting is not the product. That the craft skills of copywriters and art directors aren’t appreciated any more. That the awards schemes have made themselves irrelevant to most people. That it became fashionable to dismiss the merits of traditional media. That hardly anyone knows how to interpret research. That I could keep going for hours. Which is depressing me now. So I’ll stop.

What advice would you give to young creatives embarking on their career?

Make sure that it’s what you really want to do. And whatever anyone tells you, be sceptical, not cynical.

In the ’90s Leagas Delaney forged a reputation for potent, clever copy combined with distinctive, beautifully crafted art direction. Are these skills something that was easy to transpose to the digital space? What have you kept, what have you lost, what have you added?

There is obviously a value in intelligence and aesthetics in any media. So now we try to avoid stupid and ugly in digital as well.

Which agencies are doing the work you admire most?

The smaller ones. The ones that make the most of their independence. It’s very difficult to retain any intuition and integrity when you’re forced to dance to someone else’s tune.

Do you still get time to look at award-winning work from other agencies around the world?

Barely. I’m at Leagas Delaney, and we’re kinda busy.

Are you optimistic about the future of the advertising industry?

I’m optimistic about the gradual realisation that the vast majority of digital activity is rubbish. The sooner more people are prepared to criticise ineffective digital campaigns the way they do posters, press and particularly TV, the sooner we can all calm down and start using digital properly and appropriately. A lot of clients are expressing dissatisfaction with their agencies (the agencies they chose because they showed due subservience and their fees were the lowest). Which can only be a good thing. Because the industry needs to work a lot harder.

What are the core values that you have stuck by over the last three decades?

‘You’ll never get anywhere if you think you’re already there’. (Eleanor Roosevelt.)

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