My mate, Robyn Putter (1950-2010)

posted in: Life | 5

I got back to my room in the Holiday Inn in Durban knackered. It was 1996, my first ever trip to South Africa and I’d just finished my second all day session with Unilever’s brightest and best who were on a training course I was running. Reception rang – there was a Mr. Derek Carstens in the lobby who wanted to come up and see me. I vaguely remember my mate Gavin Neath, chairman of Unilever in SA at the time, saying something about giving my name to some agency guy. Derek was MD and Robyn Putter was chairman of Ogilvy SA. The agency had a much longer name involving several other surnames none of which I recognized and none of which was Putter. Robyn should have had his name there since under his leadership – I soon discovered – Ogilvy dominated SA. They were more than double the size of their nearest rival and had pretty much run out of new clients they could target. So they were planning on broadening their ‘service offering’ and Derek was there to see if I wanted to open up an office of Added Value, the brand marketing consultancy I had co-founded.

Derek was a whirlwind – he wasn’t actually there to ask me, he was there to tell me we were going to set up Added Value together in the Rainbow Nation. Like I say, I was knackered and it was my first ever trip to a country I knew very little about (my student bar at Bristol was called the Mandela Bar, some guy called Pienaar had captained the Springboks to Rugby World Cup victory, Mandela had worn his shirt, Wilbur Smith, cheap wine – that was about it). But Derek was very persuasive and Ogilvy SA sounded like a force to be reckoned with. I thought to myself, if this is the MD, I can’t wait to meet this Robyn Putter guy, but I did not commit myself. Maybe, let me think about it. I finished the course and ended the trip with a couple of days in Cape Town, which blew me away. I flew back to the UK and thought little more about Derek and the mysterious Robyn Putter.

A couple of months later my secretary informed me that Messers Putter and Carstens were in London and keen to pursue our discussion. Would I like to meet them at their hotel in the West End? No I would not – I was up to my eyes in client work, we had a new office in Paris and were just about to open in Sydney. It was a good time at Added Value but I was taking strain. “Tell them if they are prepared to come down to Hampton (20 miles outside London) I’ll have a beer in the pub with them and maybe a curry afterwards”. They were, so we met in a truly grotty pub near my house. Derek was again very impressive but the two of them together were unplayable. They were keen to progress things and had found exactly the right person to run AVG in South Africa – Charles Broome. We drank a lot of beer, we went to the curry house next door, we laughed and we schemed. By the end of the evening we shook hands – AVG Cape Town was born and I had met two people who were to become much more than business partners, they were to become lifelong friends.

Sadly Robyn’s life was not as long as it should have been and he lost his fight with cancer on 1st March 2010. For posterity, this is my experience of one of the most impressive men I have known.

Launching AVG gave me the excuse to visit South Africa often. I soon realized that in Robyn’s backyard he was something of a legend. Not just his backyard – at the time the majority of the ads on Ogilvy Worldwide’s showreel were from Ogilvy SA, created either by or under the watchful eye of Robyn. He had taken an agency with good foundations and turned it into the only game in town.

By the nature of my client work I got to know the senior people in companies like SAB and Old Mutual. I quickly learned that Robyn was one of their most trusted advisers. He had much more than a creative advertising brain, he had business insight and CEO’s and Marketing Directors valued this rare quality.

We always got together for a beer or three on my many trips to Cape Town and Jo’burg. He was very warm, very sharp and very naughty. We were in a fair few client meetings together as well and I learned the hard way that if you took him on in an argument you better have your shit together. He made his points with conviction, with passion and always with sincerity. He was saying what he truly believed, not what was expedient or what the client wanted to hear – were you? He had a very big presence in meetings. He spoke quietly and everyone listened. He was passionate but he was also very, very cool. He had this Apache Indian look going – dark hair slicked back in a ponytail. Cool and a bit intimidating at times.

There was an occasion when I called to tip him off that SAB were less than impressed with Ogilvy in India. I thought he should know since he clearly had the clout in Ogilvy to sort this out (he was on the worldwide board and would go on to become their longest serving director). His response was not friendly. I can’t remember whether he actually said “Mind your own fucking business” but he might as well have done. I was a bit miffed, I was only trying to be helpful. I misconstrued his reaction. I thought it was typical agency hubris on his part and was a bit cool with him on my next visit to Cape Town. It did not last long. At a client conference we hooked up and got drunker than is sensible for someone – me – who was due to speak at the conference the following day. (The client was SAB). My head hurt but it was ok – I muddled through and our friendship became stronger. We had had a small run in and everything was sorted out over several Castles (several being a number with two digits).

But why had he reacted so sharply to my well-intended criticism of his precious Ogilvy? It was because Ogilvy was very precious to him. The agency, its founder, David Ogilvy, its CEO Shelly Lazerus, Mike Walsh, his team in South Africa – they all really mattered to him. They commanded his loyalty, his respect – and if Robyn respected you he was fiercely loyal. It’s a family kind of loyalty, “I can criticize them but I will defend them robustly against anyone else who does”. Robyn’s loyalty and his generosity to those he loved and respected was something I would learn more about – something I would experience even more personally a few years later.

Time moved on and we saw each other fairly often. Sometimes mutual clients would bring us together, sometimes just a casual beer when he was in London or I was in South Africa, sometimes both. Ally Hewitt at SAB would use any excuse to organize a get together at some bar or rugby game. Derek Carstens had moved on from Ogilvy to be CMO at RMB/FNB bank. Robyn loved Derek and missed him as a business partner when he left but their friendship went much deeper than business. So when I took Derek to the 1999 Rugby World Cup final it was inevitable that the 3 of us would meet up after the game in a bar in Cardiff. As Derek and I limped back to London the following day I had to remind him that neither of our teams had actually been in the final even though we’d partied as if they’d won!

The common strands of rugby, beer and SAB brought Robyn and me together more and more. When SAB provided the tickets to the autumn international between England and South Africa, I was with Robyn to see his team get a good thrashing. Graham Fuel, his best pal was with him on one of those game days and we all ended up back at my favourite pub in Twickenham.  Everything else about that evening is a haze too.

In business we crossed paths in some big meetings to discuss Castle beer. Robyn had a lifelong passion for both the brew and the brand. I was a more recent convert but was no less passionate about either. What neither of us could agree on was the solution needed to arrest its alarming decline in sales in South Africa. I thought it was a brand strategy and positioning issue. Robyn thought the positioning was just fine, what was needed was some magic in terms of an idea to rally round. He also believed the brand should be allowed to decline in order to get back to a smaller but more solid base of true loyal users (people like him). I was convinced he was wrong, he was convinced he was right. We never agreed. On this, as on so many other issues we ‘debated’ over the years, I came to realize much later that he was in fact right and I was in fact wrong.

In late 2001 my business (now merged with Tempus Plc) was acquired by WPP (the owners of Ogilvy). In 2002 I took my opportunity to leave Added Value and its new owners, WPP, when Graham Mackay offered me the job of Global Marketing Director of SABMiller Plc. Graham Mackay is the most impressive CEO I have ever met and I jumped at the chance to work for him. He was also a very old friend and big admirer of Robyn. So much so that when I took up my new job he told me that he had had a chat with Robyn and decided it would be a good idea to have him provide a second opinion on the quality of the marketing leadership I gave. This is not what you want to hear in your first week in a new job, even if your new mentor is as smart as Robyn – especially if your new mentor is as smart as Robyn. I told Graham I thought this was a great idea but, in a neat side step, suggested we set up a kind of non-executive marketing board including not just Robyn but a few others (that I chose). Graham and I could then jointly use them to get a second opinion on not just what I was doing but what all the operating company marketing directors were doing. As I say, a neat side step. Make sure Robyn is just one of several advisors and position it so that it was Graham and I taking the advice, not just me. I did choose some really good people including Shelly Lazerus, Worldwide head of Ogilvy, the two best people I knew in Unilever, Ralph Kugler and Keith Weed, my mate Chris Satterthwaite from Chime and my other mate, Professor Kevin Keller.  We did indeed get great advice from this hugely talented and experienced group of marketing gurus. But my next move was even smarter. I made sure that I personally got time alone with Robyn so I could take his advice off the record – advice I knew I needed and advice I came to rely on. As always we sometimes disagreed on brand issues but the debate sharpened my thinking, helped me rehearse my arguments and allowed me discreetly to change tack on occasions.

Some time towards the end of my tenure at SABMiller Robyn took on a similar role for WPP. They had lost their ‘Worldwide Creative Head’ Neil French in somewhat controversial circumstances. Martin Sorrell had to act quickly – there was only one choice of successor, only one guy who could restore their credibility – Robyn Putter. The problem was that Robyn lived in Cape Town and was a key member of the Ogilvy Worldwide Board. Sorrell did a deal with Shelly whereby Robyn remained 50% Ogilvy and a deal with Robyn whereby he could do the job from his beloved Cape Town.

Looking back it has a feeling of inevitability about it. From a meeting with Derek Carstens in Durban in 1996, a few beers in the pub with Robyn and Derek a few months later to agree the JV with AVG and Ogilvy in South Africa, (whose big client was SAB) to Robyn ending up as Worldwide Creative Head of WPP and me ending up Group Marketing Director for SABMiller.

Our one-on-one sessions took on a new dimension. Me asking his advice on SAB brands but both of us now trying to make sense of a couple of really tough staff jobs we had ended up in. How do you go about running a central marketing team in a highly decentralized organization like SAB? How do you go about providing creative leadership in a financially driven business like WPP, and to creative heads in disparate – often competing –  agencies around the world? Robyn and I had slowly but surely bonded over the years – now we were brothers in arms.

But there were some big differences between him and me, between brand marketing and creativity, and between SABMiller and WPP. In reverse order – in brand marketing much of my job was to provide process and systems that brought out the best in our front-line marketers. With creativity you are dealing with ‘magic’ (I will explain this later in the words of Robyn) that cannot be systemized, it can only be recognized, encouraged and inspired. In SABMiller I had a boss who understood what I needed to do, respected it and was generous with his time and support to help me achieve it. In WPP Robyn had a boss (so he felt) who was the polar opposite. Finally, Robyn was a lot smarter than me. He also had more humility and patience – important qualities in a “Group” director if they are also clever (the less gifted need to be arrogant in order to compensate). Whether this is fair or not, I feel I got more praise for doing less and Robyn got less praise for doing much more.

Life – and my friendship with Robyn – was to take one more twist. I had always intended to leave SABMiller after a few years – I wasn’t so dumb as to think it was a job I could do forever. As my leaving date approached my wife, Liz, and I decided we would move as a family to Cape Town. We had a few friends there, Robyn and Margarita among them, and we had UK friends who had friends and family there. It would be a glorious adventure and a great place to raise our two young sons. I recall telling Graham Mackay of our plans. He thoroughly endorsed our view of Cape Town as a great place to live as a family but warned me that it could be a bit cliquey socially.

We arrived in Cape Town in October 2006 to a rented house while we built our dream home round the corner. The rented house proved to be a nightmare – we spent weeks trying to get everything to work – not easy when you have the landlord from hell and you are new in town.  Most of the friends and contacts were busy or out of town. It was a difficult time and one that could have been very lonely but for one or two people. Robyn was one of those people. From the first week we arrived, and every week thereafter, he called – how are things, fancy a beer or round of golf, Margarita and I are having a party for you so you can meet some people. The fierce loyalty and support I had encountered early on in our relationship was now firmly pointed in our direction. He was the best friend you could possibly hope for.

It now became a 4 way friendship. I had never really got to know “My Sweetheart” as Robyn always referred to Margarita until we moved to Cape Town and neither Robyn nor Margarita knew Lizzie very well. That changed very fast and several top restaurants in Cape Town benefitted from our nights out as a foursome. Robyn and I especially spent a lot of time together. There were the longstanding bonds of beer, rugby, rude jokes, marketing and mutual business friends but now we had something new to cement us as blood brothers. We both loved golf and were both pretty terrible at it (me rather more so). At every available opportunity we were on the golf course – any golf course, every golf course. When we got bored of the Cape Town golf courses we took road trips to play golf courses up the coast. We seized on and shared every new revelation about the latest techniques that would change our swing and get us below 90. They rarely did. We shared these times with other mutual friends and old friends of Robyn’s. We laughed, we lost sack full’s of golf balls and between us I reckon we revived Castle’s sales figures in the Western Cape.

Initially I had more time on my hands than Robyn to indulge our shared pursuits but Martin Sorrell changed that. Some of the facts of Robyn’s departure from WPP are indisputable – Robyn found out that WPP had appointed another ‘Creative head’ when friends rang him to say they had read about it in an article in Campaign Magazine. But I confess most of what I know is based on what Robyn told me. I know that Robyn had been frustrated that he could not get any clear direction from Sorrell on what he expected from his role and little time with him to discuss it. I know that Robyn was given no warning that Sorrell planned either to replace him or put someone else alongside him. I know that he was deeply, deeply hurt by what happened. I am old enough to know there are always two sides to a story and I have never heard the WPP version directly. Until I do I will regard this episode as a despicable way to treat someone of Robyn’s talent, loyalty and integrity – an act totally without class.

Robyn on the other hand acted with great class and dignity. His position being untenable, he agreed the arrangements for his retirement from WPP, respected their contract and busied himself with new projects that ranged from ideas for TV shows to a new internet based music maker. He was in fact more energized and alive with ideas than I had ever seen him – and that’s saying something.

There is one thing I have made little mention of until now. It was always there even if my awareness of it grew only gradually. It is something I have seen very clearly over the last few years when I had the privilege of spending lots of quality time with Robyn.

Robyn had the most amazing human spirit. More than just his raw intelligence, which was formidable, more than his creative instinct, his ability to look at what everyone else looked at but see what they did not see, more than his intellectual integrity – Robyn had a very strong, positive spirit. I saw it in our many debates and arguments. I am quick to criticize, even those close to me. Robyn always looked for positive intent, he empathized, he searched for a deeper insight on what was really going on. He did once criticize me because I was laying in to a group of people we both knew and who I had crossed swords with. “But look at the good they have done, it’s incredible. You are being mean spirited”. Because he was right – as usual – and because this came from one of the most generous spirits I know, the words really hurt. Robyn could be tough, especially I gather in his younger years. People who tell you it straight will sometimes offend – the truth can hurt. But throughout – I’d say increasingly – there was always his evident love of life, people and ideas, especially ideas. Robyn was an ideas man – a true believer in the power of ideas to change the world (and certainly to change the fortunes of a company or brand).

Where did this come from? I had learned various things about Robyn’s life and career from our many chats. I knew, because he often spoke of it, that as a young child he had been sent to a Boys Home. I won’t go into details but it was clear that early family life had been tough and the path to the top of Ogilvy had not been smooth either. He spoke about these things in a matter of fact way. There was no hint of recrimination or self-pity. Quite the opposite. He appreciated what these life events had taught him. A creative mind has to be fed by a wide range of experiences.

On the way back to Cape Town from one of our ‘golf safaris’ with 5 hours driving ahead of us I asked him to tell me his whole life story from the beginning. I had heard various bits on various occasions but I wanted to hear the full story in sequence. It was quite a story. Lots of people have had it tough, that was not the amazing thing. What was special was that Robyn had taken so many positives out it. To give one example, he had gone to the Boys Home out of circumstance not choice but when he was older he had the opportunity to leave and return to a more normal family life. He chose to stay because he had by then made the boys home his family, with friendships that would last a lifetime. Rather than feel sorry for himself for what he had lost out on he had thrown himself in to what he could uniquely get out of his situation. So by the time he had the opportunity to escape he had learned to enjoy it so much he wanted to stay.

Listening to his life story I could see where his fierce loyalty to people came from, how he had come to be so mentally tough and why he was so positive. He had learned the hard way that all these things are better than their opposites. Being positive is the best choice – it allows you to get the most out of life whatever comes your way. Combine this sense of possibility with a fine mind and you get a creative business genius.

It was only when I moved to Cape Town that I got the chance to meet all Robyn’s ‘old mates’ at the many parties he and Margarita threw. They come from all walks of life but they have one thing in common – they loved Robyn and they have done for many years. They went way back. I realized that having been his mate for a mere 14 years I was just a Johnny-come-lately. If you know nothing else about a person other than they have strong friendships with interesting people that have lasted many years, then you know that person is special.

I have referred to the fact that Robyn and I debated a lot and very rarely agreed on things. I must stress this was all very good natured. We both like robust argument where you take up extreme positions in order to test the other person and challenge your own thinking. As Oscar Wilde once said “I don’t know what I think until I hear myself say it” (this probably applies more to me than it did to Robyn).

At the heart of many of our debates was some disagreement about magic and logic. I always felt he over-emphasized the magic and he felt I did the same with logic. Here’s an example. I spent a career perfecting the art of the well-crafted brand positioning statement. I remember explaining to him the value of this in reviving an ailing brand (yes, it was Castle). With one question he destroyed my argument. “Give me just one reason you love your wife”. He knew I couldn’t. He knew that like him there are many reasons I love my wife, they are complex, subtle, even contradictory. It’s the same with brands and if you try to bottle all this up with a well-turned phrase, worse still if you try to portion it all out in some ‘brand wheel’, you lose the magic and with it the chance of an idea. On the other hand he appreciated the power of a clear idea. He invented the notion of a brand ideal – the big but simple ideal that a brand could live by (but would not summarize it). He explained that this could be something like “sharing’ for a brand such as KFC. Smart thinking with no real logic but lots of magic to inspire innovation and communications.

He once came to see me in London to discuss a project he was doing for Shelly to see how Ogilvy could reinvent itself. My view was that agencies needed more logic. In no other profession are clients allowed to think they can get what they want precisely how they want. You can’t do that with doctors, lawyers, accountants or even the more arty architects. There is method, protocol, systems that may not guarantee success but they can significantly improve its chances and at the very least they stop you making a complete stuff up. Too many ad agencies (Ogilvy excepted) just roll over to clients because they have no principles that they defend as ‘their way of doing things’. He didn’t buy this but on that occasion I have to say he did not convince me he was right – in fact I still think he was wrong to dismiss what I was saying. But I came to understand what he was so worried about every time I made a case for more logic. In fact I have it captured in a film I made a few years back – Robyn sitting on a chair in the garden of Ogilvy’s beautiful offices in Johannesburg and talking about where great ideas come from.

In Robyn’s words – life is magic and logic. But while logic can come from magic, magic never comes from logic.
You can rationalize afterwards why ‘sharing’ might be a great idea/ideal for KFC but logic would not have got you there in the first place.

I was right in the sense that business and clients do not always need or even want magic. Consistently pretty good is good enough to build a profitable and sustainable business. That’s why big corporates are so logical and systematized.

Pretty good was never good enough for Robyn. That was part of his magic.

We all lose people and I suppose I should take a lead from Robyn’s outlook on life and focus on the positives I gained from my friendship with him. I am a lot wiser about the magic of marketing, I love living in his Cape Town, I count his family and many of his friends as my friends now and my handicap is down to 17 (for now at least, I may not play quite as often without my most loyal golfing buddy). On the other hand my liver has taken a beating. I was debating the relative merits of beer brands with Robyn once and he smiled and said “I’ve never met a cold beer I didn’t like”. Good point – so no regrets about all the beers either.

The fact is that some people leave a big hole in your life when they go. At just short of 60 years old I feel we have all been cheated out of a few more years with this most dear friend. What would Robyn say to this? I think he might point out that while he may have died a bit too young at least he died having never got old. Despite a very brave fight his body gave out right at the end but the mind was still magically fresh.
Give me one reason why we all loved Robyn Putter – no, I can’t do it. These are just some.

Post Script

Any of his other friends would be surprised that I have made no mention of the other BIG love of Robyn’s life – West Ham Football Club. An interest in soccer is one thing we did not share. However, I do know that “I’m forever blowing bubbles” is the ‘ammers theme song. It is a song about thwarted ambition reflecting the clubs great potential but lack of much silverware over recent years (so I am told). I looked it up and was interested to see that there are some verses to go with the more familiar chorus that is sung on the terraces.

For a man that achieved so much, “I’m forever blowing bubbles” is wholly inappropriate. But the verses struck a chord with me. I wonder if he knew them?

I’m forever blowing bubbles
I’m dreaming dreams,
I’m scheming schemes,
I’m building castles high,
They’re born anew,
Their days are few,
Just like a sweet butterfly,
And as daylight is dawning,
They come again in the morning.

When cattle creep,
When I’m asleep,
To lands of hope I stray,
Than at daybreak,
When I awake,
My bluebird flutters away.
Happiness new seemed so near me,
Happiness come forth and heal me

I’m forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air,
They fly so high,
Nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams they fade and die,
Fortune’s always hiding,
I’ve looked everywhere,
I’m forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air

5 Responses

  1. Greg Burke

    Mark, your tribute is inspired and inspiring. I will read it again and again. Thank you. Greg

  2. David Michel

    I am shattered to hear this sad news. Robyn and all the people at RSTM in the ’70s – ’90s were integral in shaping my professional and, in many respects, my personal life. Gone much too soon, much too young. David

  3. Andy Dippenaar

    How lucky we are to have had Robyn. How very, very lucky.

    Thanks for sharing your journey, Mark.

    Andy Dippenaar

  4. Elaina Ally

    Hello,I love reading through your blog, I wanted to leave a little comment to support you and wish you a good continuation. Wishing you the best of luck for all your blogging efforts.

  5. Kiliman

    You have really great taste on catch article titles, even when you are not interested in this topic you push to read it

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