Ron Collins: Unreasonably Creative

Ron Collins was behind some of the most famous, and much loved, ads of the 1970s and 1980s, though remained a controversial figure

Ron Collins, who died earlier this year at the age of 72, was a significant player in an era often viewed as a golden age of British advertising, the 1970s and 1980s. He worked at all the key agencies of the time – DDB, CDP and Saatchi & Saatchi – before co-founding WCRS in 1979, the first time his name appeared on the door. Collins created memorable works for brands including Cinzano, Zanussi, Qualcast lawn mowers and Bergasol sun lotion, and was admired and feared in equal measure for his creative rigour and uncompromising stance.

Born in Leeds in 1939, Collins entered the ad industry by way of art college, first attending the Leeds College of Art and later the Royal College of Art in London. Among his peer group at both was the artist David Hockney. His first design job was a short-lived stint within the in-house design studio at the Ford car plant in Dagenham, before he joined adland. Known primarily as an art director, Collins was also a skilled copywriter, as remembered by his son Damon, who followed him into the industry and is now executive creative director at RKCR/Y&R in London. “My dad was quite an interesting character because he was an art director by nomenclature but he was actually a writer as well,” he says. “He loved words, he loved writing radio, he loved writing TV. He was very quick-witted and sharp.”

Jeremy Sinclair, who worked with Collins at the newly formed Saatchi & Saatchi in 1970, remembers his love of wordplay. “He had a weakness for puns, which he just about had under control,” he says. This passion for a witty quip is evident in one of Collins’ most famous ad slogans, from 1983, ‘It’s a lot less bovver than a hover’, for Qualcast lawnmowers. The tag aggravated Flymo, the brand behind the hover, with workers at a Flymo factory even petitioning the government to ban the ads, a reaction that is likely to have caused glee among the creatives at WCRS.

Much of Collins’ most famous work was created during his two stints at CDP, an agency renowned for its creative output and its nurturing of talent, with its alumni reading like a roll-call of some of the most significant players in advertising and beyond: Frank Lowe, Charles Saatchi, John Hegarty, Robin Wight, Alan Parker, David Puttnam and Ridley Scott all passed through its doors. “At CDP they were good at catching the zeitgeist, really affecting popular culture,” says Damon Collins. “The stuff they did was very talked about – for high-end production values but also celebrities. I think he was interested in working with celebrities before he went there but that fitted him well because that’s what they did.”

These were the early days of celebrities appearing in ads, and huge names would be seen in TV spots. In 1978, Collins scored two such entertainment figures for an ad for drinks brand Cinzano, another commercial that has now entered the advertising canon. Starring Joan Collins and Leonard Rossiter, Collins was on the creative team for the first ad in what became a long-running series, all centred on Rossiter spilling his drink over Joan Collins in various slapstick scenarios. The spots were directed by Alan Parker, who at a recent D&AD talk about the CDP era revealed that the central joke had in fact come from Rossiter himself, and was quickly embraced by the creative team and client.

Creative firebrand
As well as his creative brilliance, Collins was also renowned for his fearsome manner, particularly towards junior creatives. His tough demeanor led to the birth of one of adland’s favourite stories: that Collins had once critiqued a student’s work via use of a Sooty puppet, who whispered in his ear that the student’s book was “shit”. Dave Trott recently debunked the tale on his blog, though Collins’ exacting reputation was certainly based in truth.

“He was a radical man,” remembers Robin Wight, who set up WCRS alongside him. “I mean, he wasn’t an easy man. I remember Ron saying to me at one stage that nothing of any value is ever created by reasonable people. He was unreasonable on himself, and he was pretty challenging to others. But the thing is you don’t get results without pushing hard and Ron pushed everybody hard.”

“He was incredibly tough on himself,” agrees Damon Collins. “He was a perfectionist, so he had incredibly high standards for himself and he couldn’t help projecting those standards onto other people. And he was a Yorkshireman at heart, and even though he became a sophisticated ad man, there was still a tough northerner in him really. There was a combination of that kind of perfectionism with an arrogance that came with being really at the top of your game in the best agencies in the world.
“Probably after he left advertising he realised how you have to be more empathetic and gracious to people,” he continues. “However, he was blind to that when he was in the business. He knew exactly what he wanted but [lacked] the tools to be able to get that out of the people in his agency, or from directors or photographers … he was almost too impatient and unforgiving. Once he was a partner at WCRS they had two or three different creative directors come in to manage the department because people just didn’t want to work for him, he was too brutal.”

His reputation as a creative firebrand perhaps overshadows other contributions to the industry, such as those recalled by Jeremy Sinclair from the early days at Saatchi & Saatchi. As well as being a “very funny raconteur”, Sinclair remembers him as “a stickler for organisation”. “He tried valiantly to instil some discipline into our creative process. He wanted Contact Reports from client meetings. He wanted written Creative Briefs and Start Work Orders. He wanted all work signed off before going to publication. It was years later that we came around to his pedantic but more professional view.”

Formation of WCRS
It was Collins’ creative skills that led Wight to approach him to form WCRS. “Ron was a guy with a very detailed eye for what was right and what was wrong,” he says. “So when I wanted to set up an agency, the person who I knew best in the ‘creative superstars’ was Ron. He was the first person I spoke to.” Wight brought in Peter Scott, but it was Collins who suggested copywriter Andrew Rutherford, who had recently created the iconic Labour Isn’t Working poster for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party. “So really Ron played a major role in creating the cast for WCRS,” says Wight now.

During his time at WCRS, Collins contributed to the Ultimate Driving Machine ads for BMW, as well as the hugely popular ‘I’ll bet he drinks Carling Black Label’ campaign, alongside the aforementioned work for Bergasol and Qualcast. In the late 80s though, he decided to leave the agency, and in turn left high-profile advertising for good.

“He left after about eight years because I think he felt that we’d gone public, and that created a whole new agenda, which he didn’t particularly want,” says Wight. “So again, he was true to his principles. He very pleasantly said, ‘I don’t really want to build a network around the world, I just want to do ads’. I can understand that, and with hindsight maybe he was right.”

While Collins left the industry before the digital era took hold, Damon Collins feels the skills he had would still have been relevant for today’s advertising landscape. “What he loved was craft, in image and in words,” he says. “It would have been very interesting to see where he would have applied that trade [now]. Where he’d have been really good is going ‘I’ve got a big idea and you can leverage it in lots of different channels’. The ideas he had, the reason they were so good was because they used to lift the public’s imagination. Whether it was Bergasol or Cinzano … they’re things that would have probably gone viral. The only difference, I believe, between digital natives and those that aren’t, is an innate understanding of technology and behaviours. He knew the technology of film and photography and the behaviours of humans at that time.”

As to Collins’ advertising legacy, Robin Wight sees it as a “contribution of creative unreasonableness”. “He wasn’t a compromiser,” he says. “It was a great adventure, those years with Ron.”

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