Ronnie Kirkwood has just come back from a cruising holiday and is busy plotting his next. And no, he's not simply spending the spoils of a career in the upper echelons of advertising. At the age of 73 he's researching a book on the subject of cruising, to follow up his first publication - entitled Business Class, The Travels of an Advertising Man, which came out last year - and a second that he has recently completed on famous London restaurants of the 20th century.
"I'm still working, which is nice," says Kirkwood, who, as well as writing books, still acts as an advertising consultant, writing and producing TV scripts for a part-work publisher called Eaglemoss. "I've just finished making commercials for a new magazine called The Magic of Beatrix Potter."
Kirkwood doesn't have any sort of daily routine, "but I write almost every day and go to the theatre a lot, listen to music and travel. I do lots of cooking and I love eating out and going to restaurants." One of his favourites is Locanda Locatelli, at the Churchill Hotel, which serves "very, very fine Italian food".
His career in advertising was the perfect platform for developing an in-depth knowledge of good restaurants and hotels and experiencing first-class travel to exotic locations around the world. As a flamboyant and articulate creative director at leading agencies throughout the 60s, before setting up his own agency in 1970, he commanded a good deal of respect, together with a legendary expense account. He was the epitome of what an adman was expected to be. "If Ronnie Kirkwood did not exist, the advertising world would probably invent him," Campaign declared in November of 1968.
Kirkwood moved into advertising in 1950 after training as a set designer. His first job in the business was as a junior visualiser (now referred to as art directors) with the agency SH Benson. In 1955, with the imminent arrival of commercial TV, he was given the job of starting up SH Benson's TV department. "That was when my career in advertising took off," he says. "I was lucky. I think I was born under a lucky star."
His "luck" took him from SH Benson to head the TV operation at Colman, Prentis and Varley where he made the first Marlboro ads in the UK, before returning to Benson as its joint creative director. He was one of the first of a new generation of art school graduates who infiltrated the ranks of Oxbridge men. "I was thought to be remarkable because I knew something of grammar and syntax and was able to appreciate the discipline of a sonnet," he says.
In 1966, he joined McCann-Erickson UK as its executive creative director.
Then, after four years of Interpublic, Kirkwood found a backer for his own agency and, in 1970, The Kirkwood Company was launched.
He was just 40 and at the top of his career, but he was already plotting retirement. "I had set myself the target of retiring from advertising at the age of 50. The question of what to do with the rest of my life, after I had retired, was one that exercised my mind even at the height of the agency's success."
He bought a number of newsagent shops with a view to building a national chain. "In the event I found I was being cheated by my employees and losing money rather than making it." So he sold them on. Another plan involved a failed attempt to raise a wrecked ship in the Solent.
Then he came close to launching a pair of restaurants in some disused railway buildings. Finally, in the mid-70s, he thought he would like to run a hotel, but went off the idea after realising the less attractive realities of the job.
Kirkwood decided to forget future plans and to put all of his energy into building The Kirkwood Company. And in the mid-70s he sold a flourishing business to the Lopex Group, while remaining at the helm. But then things started to go downhill.
The company's newly appointed managing director, John Horner, left, taking staff and clients with him. Worse followed as other clients left and finally Kirkwood resigned, saving the company his salary and the salaries of his secretary and chauffeur.
As a characteristic parting gesture, Kirkwood took various clients out to lunch or dinner at his regular haunt, The Connaught. "I did a calculation on the back of a drip-mat and discovered that in 28 years of eating at The Connaught, I had probably spent half-a-million pounds."
The year following his resignation Kirkwood was employed by a former client, Hedges & Butler, to redecorate a chateau in Bordeaux that the company owned. "It was great fun," Kirkwood says. "But after a chateau, I had no appetite for doing up two-bedroom flats and three-bedroom bungalows - even if they were in the South of France."
Instead, Kirkwood found that several clients were interested in using him as a consultant, writing and producing ads. "I hadn't been a doer for a long time, but I went back to what I used to do," he says.
Does he regret that his days at the heart of the ad industry are behind him? "I still have quite a lot of friends from those days and they are all so miserable, having such a rotten time. The business has been taken over by accountants and book-keepers. I had great fun."
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