LEADING North East agency Robson Brown was sold last month to Californian firm Round2, ending Alan Brown and Stuart Robson's 26-year association with the business they founded.
JUST off the road between Chollerford and Bellingham in Northumberland is a farmhouse, perched amid 70acres of farmland. It's been the home of Alan Brown for more than 30 years.
By his own admission it’s an unusual dwelling for a man who, until recently, controlled the North East’s biggest advertising and marketing agency.
Brown set up Robson Brown with Stuart Robson in 1984, turning it into a huge agency that boasted revenues of more than £37m last year. After work, he’d drive 30 miles home into the countryside to the farm run by his wife Judith.
He said: “She told me I wouldn’t make a good prospective husband because she wanted to marry a farmer. So obviously I had to buy a farm.
“Most people thought we were nuts. When clients would become friends, we would invite them up here and they would get lost.
“I was working for a dynamic, creative, extrovert and brash industry, but as soon as I got in the car and got into rural Northumberland, I felt better.
“I would have a stressful week at the office and then I’d be on one of my horses following a pack of hounds. You never have the opportunity to think about work at that stage, and afterwards you’re too tired.”
On the morning of this interview, Brown sported a broken arm caused by a fall from a young horse. That accident came just a few days after he and Robson earned millions from the sale of the successful agency to Los Angeles agency Round2. But Brown denies he will now be devoting himself to leisurely pursuits.
He said: “Do you remember when Alex Ferguson was going to retire from Man United? It seemed like a good decision. He had achieved everything. He was 60. He had fantastic racehorses. But he couldn’t give it up.
“There’s a word that’s banned in the house and in interviews, and that’s ‘retirement’. I haven’t retired. The thought of it ...”
Alan Brown was born in Darlington and went to art college in Middlesbrough, where he came up with a cunning ruse that unwittingly helped him stumble on his calling.
He said: “I’d always liked London and realised if I applied for jobs in the trade mags regularly enough, I’d get interviews there.
“I went down one Friday, and instead of a traditional interview they gave me a project to work on, writing and designing these ads. They said mine were pretty good.
“I really wasn’t interested in the job, and my girlfriend was waiting outside to spend the weekend in London like we usually did in these situations.
“I went to college the next week and a letter popped through the letterbox at home. I opened it up and there was the most amazing job offer. The salary was twice as much as my father was earning.
“I told a couple of pals about it and they mentioned it to a lecturer. Later that afternoon, the lecturer said the principal wanted a word. I told the principal that I was going to carry on with my studies. He said, ‘I’m afraid not. You’re expelled’. He told me that the chances of getting through all the lessons and getting an offer of this quality again were pretty unlikely.
“Two weeks later, my mum was cooking Sunday lunch and I came down with a packed lunch and told her I was heading to a job in London.
“I had nowhere to stay. I saw a sign saying YMCA and slept in there. I was about 200 yards from the agency, but I got stuck in the one-way system and was two hours late for my first day.”
Brown started working for Austin Knight as a graphic designer in 1965 and transferred to Napper, Stinton and Woolley two years later.
It was during his time in London that he married Judith, his wife of 42 years. He remembers London as an exciting time for advertising , but headed north again at the end of the 60s. He said: “I was doing some good work and getting paid a fortune.
“It was the time when flower power was going and it was the place to be, but there was always a desire to come back and my wife wanted to bring up a family in the North East.
“I joined the Chronicle, Journal and Sunday Sun as a creative and marketing manager. It was a wonderful job, with wonderful opportunities and training, but there was always this desire to do something on my own.”
During his time with the newspaper group, he hired a man called Stuart Robson.
He said: “Although we were a partnership in legal terms, we were also a duo through almost all of our working careers.
“He was a brilliant writer, a fantastic artist and a good businessman.”
Robson Brown was formed in the mid-80s, sharing space with the Design Group in Haddricks Mill Road in Gosforth.
The company was to attract customers such as Prontaprint, Nike and Sealy Beds in its early days before landing a major contract with British Gas. But it was the phone call that arrived on the company’s first day that sticks in Brown’s mind.
He said: “We got a call from Ian Gregg’s secretary who said he would like to see us at 2.30pm.
“I went to see him and he told me he had a new project for the launch of a new bread range. I took down all the details. It was right up our street.
“The next day, Greggs called again, asking if I could see Mr Gregg at 2.30pm again. I went down and I was told he’d needed to go out, but he’d left a note saying something like, ‘It’s good to see entrepreneurship developing in the North East. By the way, I think the job I just gave you will cost about £4,500 so I’ve given you a cheque’.
“We wouldn’t have charged anything like that. It was wonderful to think that there was a man running a successful business who had the time and kindness to do something so mindblowingly big and wonderful for us.”
Brown said Robson Brown’s ensuing success arrived because it adopted a more results-oriented approach to its regional competitors.
He said: “Stuart and I were brought up with the philosophy that whatever we did had to affect the balance sheet. That sort of philosophy was fairly new in Newcastle.
“People like that don’t come to you when you’re a couple of upstarts if you can’t demonstrate that you’re pretty good at your job. We did it by handling projects for them, demonstrating sound marketing, getting creative value for money and providing a return on their investment.
“We always had the strong view that we should do whatever was most suitable for a business, whether that was TV, radio or an elephant walking down Grey Street with a sticker on its behind.”
The company expanded into Clavering House, the four-storey Georgian building it currently calls home. Brown admits that finding staff to meet the ambitions of a major North East agency was tricky.
He said: “Top people do unfortunately tend to gravitate towards London, and tempting them up here was difficult.
“You could never attract someone to come and work in Newcastle if there wasn’t some link, if they’d been to university here, lived here in the past or had a partner here.
“The pool of very talented people in the area was quite small. If you had someone really good, they were soon pinched by someone else to work with a competitor. You constantly needed to make sure you were treating your staff well and developing their career.”
Robson Brown had been operating for more than 25 years when its founders decided to look at two bids it had received out of the blue, although Brown says they had never considered actively marketing the business.
He said: “Within two or three weeks of each other, we had two separate unsolicited inquiries about the business. One was the purchaser and the other was a very wealthy private individual.
“We thought that for the benefit of staff at Robson Brown we wanted to sell it to someone involved in the business rather than a conglomerate.
“Robson Brown had grown so rapidly that it had reached a bit of a plateau. Stuart and I didn’t have the ambition to move into national and international markets and the team behind Robson Brown deserved more than that.
“The last day was the most emotional day of my life, coupled with quite a lot of excitement. Can you equate getting a lot of cash with the satisfaction of running a business for 26 years? It wasn’t just a business, it was far more than that.”
He hopes the move will guarantee the future of the company’s 95 staff, and is enjoying the opportunity to spend more time with his grandchildren Hugh, three, and Finn, one.
While the deal with Round2 contains a restrictive covenant prohibiting Brown and Robson from returning to the sector for a couple of years, Brown will be working with his son James in his rural land and property management business when it launches in June. He will also manage his property portfolio, and is keeping his options open.
He said: “I haven’t cleared my diary and it’s unlikely that I will.
“Stuart is a brilliant artist, and that’s how he intends to spend much more of his time. I can see him having a gallery.
“There are some people you love and he falls into that category, but we’ve really got nothing in common.”
What car do you drive?
What’s your favourite restaurant?
The Battlesteads, Wark.
Who or what makes you laugh?
My two grandchildren and Laura, my goddaughter.
What’s your favourite book?
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.
What was the last album you bought?
Eric Clapton – Me and Mrs Johnson.
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
Cheryl Cole’s been on the phone again.
What’s your greatest fear?
That my children and grandchildren have been involved in a car accident.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Always work with people that will challenge you.
And the worst?
Those new-fangled computers will never catch on.
What’s your poison?
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
The Hexham Courant.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
Ten shillings for delivering groceries on a push bike.
How do you keep fit?
Hunting, shooting and fishing.
What’s your most irritating habit?
Being a control freak.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
My second home in Scotland overlooking the Irish Sea.
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Captain Cook (especially after is brother Thomas did so well in the travel industry!)
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Princess Diana, Jack Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Ricky Gervais.
How would you like to be remembered?
As the oldest man in Britain.
Page 4: CV
1965-67: Austin Knight, London, graphic designer
1967-70: Napper, Stinton and Woolley, London, graphic designer
1970-79: Thompson Regional Newspapers, Newcastle, creative and marketing manager
1979-80: Redheads Advertising, Newcastle, account director
1980 -84: KC&RB, Newcastle, director
1984-2010: Robson Brown, Newcastle, chief executive