Close-Up: Ron Collins - the utter git who became an industry legend

Damon Collins pays tribute to his dad, Ron Collins, who died last week, and recalls what it was like growing up with an advertising creative genius.

When people discover I'm my father's son, the first question they ask is whether he encouraged me to go into the same business as him. I always answer no. Because he didn't.

However, while it is true that at no point did he ever sit me down and say "You know son, you'd like this advertising malarkey. It's great fun. You should try it", looking back on it, I'm not really sure I had much of a choice as to what profession to enter at all. As far as the nature/nurture debate goes, I reckon I got right-royally nurtured.

As soon as I was old enough, I was dragged along to TV shoots with him. Inexpensive childcare. I remember being rather nonplussed by these on the whole. I'd have rather been gluing an Airfix model.

The first one I visited, I realised years later, was momentous. It was for Texaco. Together on the same sound stage were Morecambe and Wise, the biggest comedians of the day, James Hunt, the Formula One world champion at the time, and Alan Parker, the creator of Bugsy Malone, then every child's favourite film.

I saw other ads being made through childhood. Like the one for ITT televisions, starring Spike Milligan, who had to, rather excitingly, crash through a massive sheet of sugar glass. Repeatedly.

And the one for Rawlings Tonic Water with Arthur Lowe (Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army!) that featured one of my favourite endlines of all time. Rawlings was invented before Schweppes, hence the line: "We knew how before you know who."

Holidays had him lying by the pool, scribbling on sheets and sheets of paper. And on weekends, when Chelsea weren't playing at home, he'd hide away in the front room rewriting that week's scripts.

He regularly used us, his family, as a sounding board. He'd read out scripts and if we laughed, he took it as a good sign. My mother was a hard taskmaster. My brother, sister and I were pushovers. We found everything he said funny.

I remember him spending months writing scripts for Cinzano. He wanted a cool James Bond-style character together with a glamorous "Joan Collins type" woman. The clearance body of the time kept turning his suggestions for the male lead, Sean Connery etc, down, sighting them as being "heroes of the young". He changed tack, deciding to try the anti-hero approach. He started writing for someone slimy and deliberately uncool. Someone like Woody Allen, who I thought was hilarious. One Sunday, he read us his latest idea, for the guy to look at his watch and spill the drink on the gorgeous girl as if to accentuate his idiocy. Mum chuckled. (He always loved Marx Brothers-style sight gags and she'd heard him use that joke - probably too many times - at parties.) That was good enough for him and thus began one of the most famous campaigns in history.

He loved radio and once read us out a radio script that had me wetting myself with laughter. It was for Bergasol fast-acting sun lotion and had a white presenter applying the stuff and, while doing so, his voice changed gradually to African. He was a great mimic and could have done the voices himself but had it recorded by the Idi Amin impressionist John Bird. It ran. Sold tons of bottles. And had loads of complaints. All from white people.

Throughout my childhood, I'd have relatives squeeze my cheek and ask: "So, young man, you going to follow in you father's footsteps then? Go into the family business?" This left me determined not to. My parents divorced when I was 16, leaving me resentful and more determined than ever not to "follow in my father's footsteps".

So I decided to rebel. To be my own man. No, not as far as to go into medicine. I decided to become a writer, as opposed to an art director like him. As though that would make all the difference.

The realisation of the extent of my father's reputation came on my first day on the Hounslow copywriting course. A lecturer told us what we could expect from the cut-throat and uncaring industry we were entering. In hushed tones, he relayed the story of a horrific adman who brutally critted a student's book with a Sooty puppet. I didn't tell my classmates that the Sooty puppet was mine for fear of being ritually kicked to shit on behalf of students everywhere.

Every now and then, Ron would call up and ask what I was up to. One time, I made the mistake of actually telling him. I had just finished an entry for the D&AD student awards. I'd photographed it, done the type, got it all looking beautiful. He gently suggested a tweak that might make the headline better. I said I liked it the way it was. After all, I'd bloody finished it off! It was about to get sent off. So I didn't change it. I came nowhere in that competition. He was right. That experience taught me a lesson: never worry about how late you are in the process or how finished up stuff is, there's always a chance to improve on something.

When my partner Mary Wear and I were looking for our first job out of college, I was determined to keep my lineage a secret. I was paranoid about accusations of nepotism and didn't want to run the risk of people giving me special treatment because they might be friends of Ron's. I needn't have worried.

The week after we were offered a job at FCB, Campaign ran an article headlined: "Another Collins joins dynasty." I was rumbled. We suddenly had a steady stream of visitors to our office, each with their own unique description of him. "I worked with your dad once. He was a complete f*****g b*****d. A total c**t." Then, as I was reaching for my coat, they would finish by saying: "But, by Christ, did I learn a lot from him." There's no denying that while Ron was undoubtedly an utter git to many people, he was also undoubtedly a huge talent. And I was proud of him whatever people's opinion.

He left advertising a year after I joined it, which I always felt was a shame. However, there was an upside. I never had to experience the ignominy of the two of us being nominated for the same award and watching him walk to collect it. Small mercies.

I'm sure if becoming an estate agent would have made me happy, my father would have been too. While I ended up in the same racket as my old man, his lasting advice to me is applicable to any profession: "Just do your best. No-one can ever ask for anything more." To this day, that's all I've ever asked of myself. Or anyone else.

Damon Collins is the executive creative director at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R.


Tony Brignull, former copywriter and creative director, CDP

"Ron was one of the few English creatives who could have made it on Madison Avenue. He always had these big, flashy brilliant ideas. He was very literate and verbal, which was unusual for an art director, and very funny. As a copywriter, it was great to work with someone like that. Not many could have worked at the speed and frenzy he did. I enjoyed working with him and I owe him a lot."

Sir Alan Parker, film director and former creative director, CDP

"I knew Ron at CDP. He and I had kids who went to the same school in Roehampton, so we used to go home on the Tube together. We did a bit of freelance work and needed a letterhead to write the invoice on - we wanted it to sound like DDB or PKL, so he got out the Jewish cookbook and we named ourselves Kartoffel, Krupnik and Schnitzel. To our surprise, the poster we did for the Sheen kids' clinic got into the D&AD Annual. Kartoffel Krupnik's only success."

John Salmon, former chairman and creative director, CDP

"What made Ron Collins such a great art director was that he was meticulous, full of ideas and almost maniacally eager to do the job to the best of his ability."

Peter Scott, founding partner, WCRS; chairman, Engine

"Ron was an exceptionally clever art director both in the way he created ideas and in the way he executed them. He always came up with something unexpected with which to 'ambush' you. Of course, he wasn't the easiest person to manage - but if he did reduce kids to tears, they certainly got the message."

Robin Wight, founding partner, WCRS; president, Engine

"I got to know Ron well when he sat in the next office to me at CDP and when I left to set up WCRS, I was determined to have the best art director in London alongside me. That person was Ron. It's true he had a reputation for being very tough on people but only because he wanted them to do their very best by pushing them to the limits. But he was equally demanding of himself."

Mike Everett, former creative group head, CDP

"I remember Ron's quick-wittedness. He was once two hours late for work. 'You should have been here at 9 o'clock,' John Pearce told him. 'Why, what happened?' Ron asked. If he was abrasive, it was because he had talent, was dogged in his pursuit of perfection and only ever wanted to work with the cleverest people."

Terry Lovelock, former copywriter, CDP

"My nickname for him was Hadron, after the collider. Why? Because he always used to bombard you with ideas - and he collided with quite a lot of people. Some people thought him cruel. I think he was just wickedly humorous rather than unpleasant."