As I started writing about the first 20 years of WCRS - or Wight
Collins Rutherford Scott, the longer mouthful we unfurled upon an
unsuspecting world on 22 March 1979 - my eyes alighted on a copy of The
Sun from 20 March 1999.
Almost 20 years to the day of our birth, I find Britain’s greatest
populist newspaper listing the best ten TV commercials ever. Number one?
None other than the Carling Black Label ’dambusters’ ad produced in 1990
Could there be a better birthday present than this citation? Like other
royalty, WCRS is having its official birthday next week when about a
thousand of us will gather to swap memories rather like Montgomery’s
Desert Rat veterans.
In that much-loved Carling commercial, you have a microcosm of a
warts-and-all picture of WCRS, the brief to which WCRS’s fearsome
marketing director, Amy Smith, has instructed me to respond.
First, like WCRS, our Carling performance has been a rollercoaster in
itself. We may have produced our most famous ad on this account but we
also created some of the worst advertising we ever produced as well.
Can you stretch your memory back to 1984 when a man in a bowler hat
walked unfunnily through a glass revolving door that had refused
admittance to others? ’I bet he drinks Carling Black Label’, said a
wooden-faced commissionaire explaining this stilted event.
The original version of the line was penned by Andrew Rutherford as ’I
bet he drinks a lot of milk’, which he dreamed up for our first creative
pitch a few months previously for the milk account. We were unsuccessful
as a jury of 18 dairymen fell instead for Peter Marsh’s bottle.
At that stage in our history, we used to have a theatrical device to
provide a climax to every presentation which reflected the main parts of
our argument. In this case we’d built a mock-up of a doorstep complete
with an empty milk bottle. I enthused ’and if you appoint Wight Collins
Rutherford Scott, this is what will happen to your sales of milk’. At
which point Ron Collins pressed a hidden button and milk began
effortlessly to rise within the milk bottle from a concealed reservoir.
Alas, the reservoir had been over-filled, and soon the subject of our
enthusiasm was erupting like lava from the mouth of the bottle, flooding
into the laps of the luckless dairymen.
It wasn’t the original plan to foist this second-hand thought upon
Carling when it appointed us a few months later. It was a great
breakthrough for WCRS to get into the beerage. My kind partners gave me
a case of Chateau Beychevelle 1980 to thank me for my efforts on the
pitch. With Collins’ pedigree in doing Heineken ads and Rutherford’s
equal skills in populist advertising for Schweppes and the Conservative
Party (’Labour isn’t working’ came from his fertile brain) it was
surprising we hadn’t won a major beer account earlier in our history. Of
course, we asked Ron to take on the task of out-Heinekening Heineken.
But he suffered, on this occasion, from art director’s block, and two
days before our scheduled presentation date we only had a number of
vignettes with expensive celebrities to offer a client brave enough to
entrust us with Britain’s biggest beer brand.
At which point, Rutherford timidly suggested we might adapt that milk
slogan. And so was born one of Britain’s most famous slogans, which only
reached early retirement last year.
But the first ads, like most of the first campaigns in WCRS’s early
years, were duds. ’The curse of the first born,’ as I used to call it.
The first BMW commercial featuring Kirk Douglas, the first Brutus jeans
commercial where people pulled down their zips in public, the first
Portland Holidays commercial where Hughie Green went green - literally.
Alas, the first Carling film - a campaign that didn’t really get into
its stride until Andrew Cracknell and Terry Lovelock created the
commercial where a snooker referee crushed the white ball into dust in
It was no wonder then that on our first birthday Campaign headlines
read: ’Ad men disappointed after a year of Wight Collins.’ Happily, we
had a few early successes, otherwise we wouldn’t have soared only to
burn our wings, Icarus-like, on the stock market in the mid-80s.
Qualcast’s ’a lot less bovver than a hover’ and Bergasol’s ’brown girl,
white girl’ campaign (where Collins definitely didn’t have art
director’s block and came back with stunning photographs taken by the
late Terence Donovan) showed what we could do at our best.
And this has been our history, really - the good WCRS that hits problems
with the velocity of the SAS, ambushing the competition with advertising
that breaks the mould even if it doesn’t win all the awards we’d
One reason for that is the bad WCRS - arrogant, selfish and happy to
score points rather than win friends.
I know both those WCRS’s as I suspect they have some echo in my own
divided personality. But, in truth, none of the founding partners were
really caring, sharing types - as we discovered when we psychologically
We were in a hurry to sink the Marie Celestes of advertising and beat up
the advertising cripples with their own sticks, as I used to chortle
unkindly as we pulled in another client from the old guard of
In all this we overlooked the skills in old-fashioned client handling
that had kept business in traditional agencies for years longer than ad
In our case, our relationships were more thinly rooted. Based on the
hope of something that lived up to our hype, we depended on doing
consistently brilliant ads. Knowing our own shortcomings (at least
subconsciously) we’d continue to lure new prospects to replace those who
we suspected deep-down would desert us.
And so was born the WCRS leaking bucket syndrome that Andrew Robertson
first started to staunch in 1992 and Stephen Woodford has staunched even
more ferociously in recent years. In one year, indeed, we had fewer
client losses than any other top 20 agency.
Now it’s not just the new-business league table we look to find
ourselves in but our own client retention league table.
We have evolved into a steadier, more balanced WCRS. Orange arrived in
1994 and didn’t have to suffer the curse of the first born. First
Direct, who’d come fresh from Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury and St
Luke’s, discovered we were fresher. Camelot who get ’maybe just maybe’
as the first attempt with good advertising right from the start.
Does a balanced, more thoughtful WCRS mean a duller one? In some ways,
perhaps. But too much of our early frenetic energy was dissipated. Now
it’s more focused. People actually like working with us, instead of just
surviving on the assault course we used to be (staff turnover was once
56 per cent a year, now it’s less than 20 per cent).
The early years of WCRS were years of remarkable fun but I fear too many
clients didn’t get the work they deserved (which is why we have had more
than 100 clients in 20 short years of life). And plenty of people didn’t
get the nourishment they needed.
Looking back over our best and worst work it is apparent that the
further upstream we have gone, becoming brand architects instead of mere
painters and decorators, the more our relationships have prospered. And
both we and our clients gain most.
In our early years, IPA Effectiveness awards were rare (Qualcast being
our first success). In the past three series of awards, no agency has
done better than WCRS, with top prizes for BMW, Orange and First
It is the new leadership within the agency that has driven much of this
change. After several conspicuous failures in importing leadership from
outside, WCRS now has the inner confidence and, most importantly, the
home-grown talent, to promote from within. The last two managing
directors, the last two planning directors, and two of the last three
creative directors were all internal promotions.
And the third creative director, Leon Jaume, was a ’returnee’ - one of a
significant number of people who left WCRS and then were drawn back to
our bubbling cauldron of talent, a raging intellectual democracy where
even - and especially - a founding chairman carries no more weight than
It would be wrong to claim that WCRS in 1999 is perfect. However, it
does have the energy of a start-up with the thoughtfulness of a
Strangely, in reinventing ourselves again we are deliberately going back
to some of the ideas that gave us a radical edge in the 80s. Why did we
ever give them up? In fact, in our best work, we never did. Within the
WCRS gene pool there’s always been this quality that’s made other
agencies nervous about pitching against us, and our clients’ competitors
anxious about what we might come up with.
I probably will never be satisfied that WCRS is as good as it could
On one hand, I feel proud of what we have already achieved. On the
other, I feel thwarted that we never really achieved our full
Maybe the first 20 years were just getting ready for now.
Robin Wight is the founding chairman of WCRS
1979 Birth of Wight Collins Rutherford Scott.
1980 Win BMW: The ultimate driving machine emerges.
Win Qualcast: ’A lot less bovver than a hover’ upsets Flymo.
1982 WCRS is the first agency to go public on the Unlisted Securities
Market. ’Our biggest mistake,’ Robin Wight says today.
1983 Win Carling Black Label: ’I bet he drinks Carling Black Label’
1986 Win Prudential:
’I want to be’ tugs at the heartstrings of Britain.
Launch Eddie Shah’s newspaper, Today (’Are you ready Eddie’), which
proves to be a resounding flop.
1987 Ron Collins leaves to write film scripts.
Birth of WCRS Mathews Marcantonio.
Wight is restricted to a group role.
1988 Andrew Rutherford moves to FCO, now owned by WCRS.
1989 WCRS plc is re-branded as Aegis.
WCRS London becomes owned by Eurocom.
Wight returns as chairman of the London agency.
Andrew Robertson becomes WCRS chief executive.
Win Electricity privatisation (Frank’n’Stein) - the first of four
1990 Launch Enterprise Initiative for Lord Young at the Department of
Trade and Industry (’the blue whoosh’).
1991 Win Sega (and start to trounce Nintendo).
1993 Win Hutchison Microtel, which emerges as Orange in 1994.
1995 Stephen Woodford becomes WCRS managing director.
1997 Win Land Rover and revive ’The best 4X4 xFar.’
1998 Win Camelot, the UK’s largest brand.
1999 Charles Vallance becomes WCRS managing director with Woodford as
chief executive. Sega reappoints WCRS to combat PlayStation.
Agency celebrates 20th birthday.