Close-Up: Profile - Robin Gray

As Tesco's "perfect client" bows out after 32 years at the retailer, Claire Billings looks back on a career that has spanned 2,000 ads and locations as diverse as Los Angeles and Bracknell.

The fact that Tesco's head of advertising, Robin Gray, has lasted 32 years in the same job is remarkable in itself. But add to that a 16-year relationship with the same agency, Lowe, that has seen Tesco become the only three-times winner of Campaign's Advertiser of the Year accolade, and his retirement becomes even more poignant.

Gray has lived through a lot of changes at the retailer, the biggest of which was the appointment of Lowe in 1989. During its pre-Lowe career, Tesco's advertising was traditional and formulaic and frequently just involved scenes of families sat round the dining table for a roast dinner with an array of Tesco products on show. Lowe's subsequent work changed all that.

Gray remembers the Tesco pitch well. One of the agencies turned up on a coach with Tesco shopping bags filled with props. "I never understood what they were banging on about," he says. More popular was Lowe's approach.

Gray says Frank Lowe had nothing much to show them but illustrated his vision for where the brand would be in five years. He triumphed.

The campaign was, Gray says, a transitional time for Tesco. Lowe's first work showed Dudley Moore travelling around the world on a three-year search for free-range chickens during which time he discovered all manner of products. The advertising strategy, aimed at ditching the company's "pile it high, sell it cheap" image originally espoused by its founder, Sir Jack Cohen, helped Tesco gain ground on the more quality-focused Sainsbury's.

Eventually, Tesco eclipsed its arch-rival in 1995, with the introduction of the "Every little helps" strapline.

Gray recalls that during the filming of the Moore ads, he stayed at Moore's home in Los Angeles and how, halfway through the campaign, Moore began to struggle with his lines. Gray concedes that this was probably due to the brain disease that eventually killed Moore rather than excessive alcohol as everyone originally thought.

More recently the shoots moved to the less-glamorous surroundings of Bracknell for the long-running "Dotty" campaign starring Prunella Scales and Jane Horrocks. The ads were shot at 6am on a Sunday morning, because Bracknell was the only suitable store that was closed for long enough. "It was hell," Gray says.

Gray is the first to admit that he has played a small part in Tesco's advertising success, but he undoubtedly provided a consistency of quality and tone of voice in the 2,000 ads he has overseen in his role as a bridge between agency and client. "He's the dream client," Charles Inge, a partner at Clemmow Hornby Inge and a former creative director at Lowe, says. "He had the confidence to relax - that was his strength."

The Lowe chairman, Paul Weinberger, who has worked with Gray on the Tesco account since the first day, says he would ingratiate himself with everyone on a shoot, which encouraged them to do their best work. Gray's commitment to quality combined with his length of service has ensured consistency of quality and character across all Tesco's advertising. More importantly, a standard has been set that will have to be adhered to in years to come.

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