mark roalfe

Lessons From A Creative Survivor: Aways Be Curious

Mark Roalfe, founder of RKCR and chairman of VML, on how he lasted 44 years in advertising, and what he plans next

By jeremy lee

In the beechwoods and the villages of the Chiltern Hills surrounding High Wycombe where Mark Roalfe, a founder of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe and chairman at VML, now lives, an industry based around chairmaking developed. It evolved from solitary “bodgers” turning out individual chairs in the 17th Century to a globally renowned industry producing the famous Windsor chair, and also charted the industrial revolution itself.

Roalfe, who is also a keen woodworker, announced his retirement this week ahead of his 65th birthday and plans to continue this tradition of chairmaking from the outhouse in his garden. After 44 years in advertising his career path similarly tracks that of the evolution of the Buckinghamshire chairmaking industry – from small boutique cottage-style agency at RKCR, to becoming part of global network Young & Rubicam and finally being subsumed into the technology powerhouse VML alongside Wunderman Thompson.

While the RKCR name disappeared in 2017, some 18 years after it had been acquired by Y&R and 24 years after it was founded as a spin-off out of AMV, Roalfe has been a constant fixture. Avuncular, kind and gentle – his demeanour belies a creative (and business) brain. The outpouring of love and respect on LinkedIn when his departure was announced was widespread and heartfelt.

From a start-up of four people (“And a photocopier, which was the most expensive thing we had”) Roalfe has grown some of the UK’s biggest challenger brands to greatness – most famously the Virgin Group. Speaking of the Virgin business he says: “I think it defined the sort of work we wanted to do. And also I think it helped define our culture a bit because we wanted to be a challenger agency and Virgin was the ultimate challenge brand.” He has also worked at agencies that have mirrored changes in media consumption.

The creative output from the original RKCR was very much of its time – TV and print-based – but rooted in strategy and the mantra ‘ideas before advertising ideas’, which it hoped that it could charge for. It remains a frustration to Roalfe that some 31 years later this is something that the ad industry has yet to crack. “One of the reasons the industry is in such trouble at the moment is because we don't charge for the bit where we add the most value,” he says.

Nonetheless its ‘ideas beyond advertising ideas’ positioning struck a chord and further wins followed, but it was a place on the Vauxhall roster for the European launch of the Astra that brought the agency to the attention of Y&R (which was in need of bolstering its flagging UK outpost). The sale to Y&R meant that the agency more than doubled in size, with RKCR holding the whip hand and thereby able to maintain the culture that the founders had been so keen to engender. As well as scale, the merger also gave RKCR/Y&R access to clients that might otherwise have been cautious about a UK independent agency – such as M&S and Lloyds. The agency managed to have relationships for over two decades with these clients.

Here's a reel of some of the work Roalfe’s most proud of:

RKCR/Y&R also became a magnet for talent – many of whom left to launch their own start-ups (most famously James Murphy, David Golding and Ben Priest at Adam&Eve). “I suppose my proudest moment is how well our alumni have done - Murphy, Golding, Priest, Damon Collins, Richard Exon.”

RKCR/Y&R already had links with sister WPP agency VML (they were based upstairs to its Greater London House headquarters), but following changing fortunes – which to some extent were linked to the start-ups it had spawned – it again had to pivot when it merged with VML and became (briefly) VMLY&R

“I think what makes VML so interesting is that Jon [Cook – VML's CEO] and Debbie [Vandeven – VML CCO], and others don't feel like corporate players. They were always doing really, really interesting work from a very, very early stage. And I think they were always ahead of the curve in the way in which they were working digitally and also CX as well,” he says of VML.

Nonetheless the suite of services that VML offers is still based on the fundamentals of advertising that have always been true, Roalfe adds. “I can't pretend I'm an expert in CX. But I think to be good at those, you still need the basic skills - we've still got to be able to write an idea or able to tell a story and make people feel something. And it comes back to having a clear business case. When you boil it down, it's all about very, very simplistic communication, making brands relevant, making brands feel as though they're for you. They understand you. They talk to you. And they're there for your needs.”

The 'big idea' is as true today as it's ever been he says and for that reason, Roalfe is a firm believer that advertising will always need art directors and copywriters, even if they are no longer described as such. “I still think you need somebody that has vision for a brand. And you need somebody who can give them a brand tone and tone of voice. Sometimes they exist in the same person, sometimes they exist in two people and sometimes they exist in a group. But I think brands have to have a brand world. And they have to have a brand voice,” he says.

Roalfe says that his innate curiosity helps explain his long and illustrious career. “I've always been curious, I suppose. And that's why I've always been blessed. I've always felt that I've got to work every day and learned something new,” he says. And now that advertising will no longer have the attention of his curiosity (although he’s tempted by some non-exec positions) it’s back to the workshop and the chair-making, his garden and some world travel. “I'm not very good at sitting still. So I have to have something I've got to achieve every day,” he says.

Those chairs aren't going to get a lot of use then.


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