In the unlikely event that Kate Robertson needed a lesson on the
credibility chasm that German creativity has yet to leap, her trip to
the Cannes festival last week surely provided it.
While Bates Dorland, her current employer, was giving the Brits a boost
with a gold award, the Germans, soon to be her new paymasters, were
conspicuous by their absence from the prizewinners’ podium.
Not even Scholz and Friends, the Bates-owned network run out of Hamburg,
whose launch into the UK Robertson is to front (Campaign, last week) and
whose reel is a good deal better than most of its compatriots, could cut
the mustard with the Cannes judges.
None of this comes as a surprise to her. A lot of German advertising is
prosaic at best, total crap at worst, she says. But that’s not the only
reason she confesses to waking in the small hours and asking herself why
she ever agreed to establish the first bridgehead by a German agency in
Others who know her find the question easier to answer. Hugely
self-confident, energetic and with a capacity for hard work, she has
proved a tenacious salesperson as head of new business both for Dorlands
and Bates Europe.
She has little respect for rank when arguing for what she knows to be
right - ’You feel like you’ve been hit by a whirlwind,’ a former
colleague observes - and is evangelical about her beliefs. And she
believes passionately in Scholz, an agency whose ambitions fit well with
her own cosmopolitanism.
So much so that Scholz’s success in the UK will become her personal
Having found routes to the upper echelons of both J. Walter Thompson and
Bates closed to her in the past and determined never to be branded an
agency ’lifer’, she has to prove that, at 42, she can hack the big
Her targets are ambitious. An agency that belies its German ownership by
competing with the best at awards ceremonies; top 20 status within two
years. Difficult? ’Sure, but no more so than for anybody else.’
Her confidence about what Scholz is capable of achieving in the UK is
based largely on her close working relationship with Peter Schoning, the
agency’s managing partner. Some colleagues attribute their synergy to a
common cultural heritage, the German Schoning with the South African
Robertson, and it’s true that Schoning has become a mentor-like figure
This is mainly a result of their involvement in Bates’s 1994 pitch for
the pounds 33 million Compaq computer pan-European account, a defining
moment in her career. Bounced into leading the team without any previous
involvement in new business, Robertson - ’I’d never even been in a pitch
before, let alone touched a computer’ - was scared witless.
But, with Schoning’s support, she found the five-week lead-up to the
contest the most elating of her professional life. And when Bates took
the business it was clear she had found her true forte.
Tough and testing times for Bates sharpened Robertson’s combative
instincts and honed her skills. Stripped of pounds 270 million worth of
global business by a vengeful Mars after the sacking of Maurice Saatchi
by its Saatchi and Saatchi group parent, the network faced near
catastrophe. Management turmoil at Dorlands made it even worse. ’Clients
were wondering what the hell was going on and we had to convince them
that we were still worth considering even though Mars had walked out.
Pitches were scary but we proved we were a fighting agency.’
Her special talent, though, remains an enigma to her. She even suspects
her accent makes some new-business prospects uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, the clipped Afrikaans tones are counterbalanced by an
enormous effervescence and sense of fun.
’I would describe her as the perfect hostess,’ Martin Jones, a former
JWT colleague, now managing director of the Advertising Agency Register,
says. What’s more, she has a reputation for holding her own in the most
macho company, uninhibited about peppering her conversation with some
colourful expletives. ’She can really handle the boys,’ another JWT
senior staffer confides.
Robertson wasn’t always so worldly. She grew up within the privileged
white society of Johannesburg, the daughter of parents who were both
accountants, and was largely unaware until her mid-teens of the racial
turmoil and repression surrounding her.
Studying for a law degree at the University of Cape Town, something of a
breeding ground for Marxist activism, completed her political
She took part in demos, helped black youngsters win legal aid and taught
evening classes in the townships. Once she was hauled in by the South
African police, notorious at the time for allowing suspects to fall out
of high windows, and warned to ’keep out of things that don’t concern
She never practised law, preferring instead to start work as a secretary
on a commercial radio station in the Transkei, a job that later evolved
into selling ad spots. ’I thought advertising was the most fantastic fun
and it seemed to have such a good social scene.’
Six months spent hunting an agency job - ’I was told I was
over-qualified, but people always say that when they don’t want you’ -
ended with an appointment at Lintas to work on the Van den Bergh
business. It was followed by a four-year stint at JWT in Johannesburg,
latterly as head of client services.
With South Africa increasingly resembling a powder keg about to explode,
Robertson opted to study for an MBA at the London Business School. ’I
suppose you could say I joined the ’chicken run’,’ she says. ’I just
felt I couldn’t contribute any more and that the struggle was something
I could not be part of.’
Instead of studying, she accepted a job at JWT Europe, spending much of
her time on the Herculean task of persuading the French to change their
breakfast habits from croissants to Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. The
experience matured her but increased her feelings of alienation,
particularly at a bastion of Britishness like the JWT headquarters in
’Kate had grown up and needed to get out,’ a former colleague
’It’s understandable because there’s been a tendency for people joining
JWT at a relatively junior level to be deemed incapable of doing a top
Four years on, she finds her career advancement halted again by the
heavyweight senior management team at Dorlands and it’s clear that, had
she failed to persuade Schoning to launch in London, she would have
sought a change.
This desire sprang not least from her need to spend more time with her
five-year-old daughter and less in airport lounges.
Whether or not Schoning and Robertson can conquer London remains to be
seen. Neil Kennedy, the former executive vice-president of Bates Europe,
says: ’Schoning enjoys a maverick reputation within Bates but is also
acknowledged as the head of an agency that’s good at winning business
and managing it profitably.’
As for Robertson, the question is whether she can make the transition
from new business to a broader management role. ’She may not have the
experience,’ Tim Davis, JWT’s global director on Unilever, says, ’but
she certainly has the drive and energy.’
Undoubtedly, she will need all her selling power to overcome client
prejudice against a German-owned UK shop whose novelty value may be
short-lived and whose UK profile comes nowhere near matching that of
other mainland European players like Amsterdam’s Wieden and Kennedy.
The AAR’s Jones, however, believes that Scholz, with Robertson as its UK
catalyst, may be right for the times. ’It’s going to be tricky, but not
impossible,’ he says. ’The success of reinvented agencies like St Luke’s
and operations such as Mother prove there are clients willing to try new
things. And with start-up costs so high, it could be that Scholz has
come up with the 90s alternative.’