Robyn Putter (1997)

Robyn Putter was polite but in a rush. He could spare a few minutes but then he was off to Cannes. Thereafter he would be in Turkey for a break, in New York for some serious head-butting in Madison Avenue, in Scandinavia for an appointment before returning to Johannesburg where he chairs O&M Rightford Searle-Tripp and Makin.

The agency itself stands as a brilliant monument to the original Cape Town partners whose names tag those of 0gilvy & Mather, but it is also a tribute to Putter whose contribution (which he downplays) may be unsurpassed.

Putter is variously described by people who know him as a personality shading to dark or to light. He is earnest and businesslike rather than flamboyant – yet he has been known to ride a bicycle into the studio when excited by a great idea. It is precisely his sober and thoughtful attributes in combination with a sharp creative flair which have made him a dominant presence in the industry.

He is a “great driver and believer in brands and building brands. He’s a visionary in that respect,” said Mark Fisher, award-winning creative director at O&M in Cape Town.

Former Putter partner Brian Searle-Tripp unhesitatingly calls him a “genius.” He goes further: “A giant. Probably the most all-round talented ad man I have ever worked with. He is brilliant – great copywriting skills, great artwork and his ideas are always insightful.”

In 1997 Putter became the third person elected to that exclusive fraternity, the Hall of Fame.

The criteria are worth noting. The honour is bestowed “only in the most exceptional cases” in recognition of the person who, in the opinion of the members of the Creative Directors Forum, has “most consistently contributed towards advancing and elevating the standards of advertising in South Africa.”

So what did Putter, primarily a copywriter, do to advance and elevate industry standards?

Prior to taking over as CEO on Bob Rightford’s retirement in 1994 Putter had become a driver of O&M’s business development. He did it virtually from a zero base. At his own suggestion he had moved to Johannesburg in I979 to open an office with Mike Welsford (a client) as managing partner. It grew rapidly, piggybacking on the outstanding cape operation and on RSTM’s acquisition in 1984 of Van Zijl & Schultze, Lund & Tredoux in which O&M had a majority stake. The deal brought a number of big brands into the fold and Putter, by now running the bigger office, was made creative boss of a brilliant combined effort. Within three years O&M was the country’s largest agency, a position it held for 13 years until 2001 when FCB SA (the metamorphosed Lindsay Smithers) tipped it off the top. Just.

It remains a very formidable outfit indeed, a heavy hitter. In 1996 it was adjudged International Agency of the Year by Advertising Age and two years later it was the first to achieve annual billings of a billion rand.

But size has little to do with “advancing and elevating” standards of excellence. Although, of course, it may reflect the presence within the agency of consistent excellence.

Referring to work which gave him greatest brand ad satisfaction, “stuff I was involved in and of which l am most proud,” he names Sales House, Radio 702, Castle Lager, M-Net, Jet Stores, ENO and South African Tourism, an account which O&M recently lost on government tender.

All were big campaigns. Sales House involved perhaps 30 television ads over a period, Jet Stores maybe less, Castle Lager maybe more. Putter’s direct contribution varied from guidance to creative direction to doing the ad himself. There are a clutch of major awards to show for it, including Cannes Gold for having persuaded Adrian Steed, urbane TV anchorman of yore, to drink hydrochloric acid into which he mixed a teaspoon of ENO. He lived to read the news.

Importantly these campaigns came close to what he believes advertising can and should be doing – understanding and reinforcing that fragile thing, the relationship a consumer has with a brand.

Take the Radio 702 campaign. In its pomp, 702 had a tough, in-your-face attitude to news, views and interviews. Listeners were a supermarket mix of Houghton and Bez Valley boykies. Gauteng motorists had 702’s uncompromising brand thrust into their faces via pithy, starkly witty billboards glimpsed in peak hour traffic. There was even one on the death penalty posted outside Pretoria Central Prison. It worked: the right medium, right message delivered at the right time, It’s as good an example as any of “brand stewardship” in advertising, an angled approach which Putter pioneered and which is now a cornerstone of the way O&M conducts its business worldwide.

“It’s about managing brands,” he says. “Quite often market research identifies product differences, etc, and doesn’t investigate the relationship the consumer has with the brand in tangible and emotional attachment. That is where agencies can add lots of value, particularly in parity situations. What we try and do is understand the relationship the consumer has with the brand. If it’s healthy we build on it; if not we develop it. As with any relationship there’s more to it than simply a person you see or what that person does for you. It’s about the intangible stuff. That’s kind of the way it works.”

Brand stewardship led to a new tool in the O&M arsenal, the brand audit, essentially consumer research which carefully examines the relationship a consumer has with a brand. It’s in sync with David Ogilvy’s adage that the advertising that sells is the advertising that builds brands.

Brand stewardship is credited with being the foundation for O&M landing the entire $500 million worldwide account of IBM in 1994, at the time the largest account switch in history.

Putter was made Advertising Achiever of the Year in South Africa as a result of developing thinking on brand stewardship. Recently he was asked to chair O&M’s international creative council. He is on the board of O&M Worldwide and on the exco as well.

Putter had a tough upbringing in Johannesburg, attending St Mary’s orphanage and shifting at the age of eight or nine to St George’s Home for Boys, but he doesn’t dwell on it. “It was great,” he says. “I enjoyed it very much but, ja. I grew up in a boy’s home.”

He tinkered with the idea of becoming an architect and landed up in advertising via a circuitous route which included a spell as apprentice stereo engraver at a packaging firm. His break came from Hands Advertising (MD one Reg Lascaris) who were looking for an artist and copywriter at R50 a month. “I think Reg was looking for two skills for the price of one,” Putter says.

He worked at BBDO for a while before being phoned by Roger Makin of RSTM and decamping to Cape Town.

The rest may be history. But Putter has never looked back.

By Bill Krige