Hugh Robertson, Founding Partner and CEO of RPM: «We sell passion to our clients. Passion for what we do»

Our today’s interviewee is Hugh Robertson, Founding Partner and CEO of the London-based marketing agency RPM , Board Director at the MAA, successful businessmen, and simply a very bright and optimistic person. Hugh told Popsop about what a young person needed to start a business, how the role of ATL vs BTL marketing had changed over years, and what had kept him busy and inspired through his entire 19-year career in marketing.


Popsop: In an interview on The YCC you say that you didn’t go to university. Is that true?

Hugh Robertson: Yes, that’s true and I sadly was ejected early from school.

Popsop: Do you think that a marketing degree and university experience are a must for starting a successful business these days?

Hugh Robertson: I would say it helps, but not just because of the degree itself. I think the strict processes of learning that you have to apply to get a degree can help you develop better research and analytical skills.

As we all know, we’ve recently been in the middle of the deepest recession ever which has opened up incredible opportunities for entrepreneurs and startups.

What comes first in entrepreneurship is the idea, application and the aptitude of the individual, coupled with some serendipity and good luck. Accessibility to funds is also important.

In my capacity as a board director at the MAA, we’re working with Start-Up Britain. That’s a national initiative focused on encouraging more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses throughout the UK. So, degree or no degree, I believe anyone can work in marketing if they’ve got the drive and the passion to do it. I think we need to do more to make the industry accessible for everybody.


Popsop: Do you hire people without formal education?

Hugh Robertson: Yes, we have a number of initiatives at RPM to help people from all backgrounds gain work experience and hopefully employment with the agency.

Popsop: How would you define ‘experiential marketing’ in a short simple phrase?

Hugh Robertson: ‘Experiential’ is a strange word, isn’t it?  Nowadays everybody is talking about it as a marketing discipline. In fact, it’s not a discipline; we believe it’s an approach – a way of thinking. The actual element of experiential is about a point of engagement between the consumer and brand, product or service. This point of interaction and engagement is really what experience is all about. Experiential marketing is how you leverage that point of engagement to a wider audience or through the media.


Popsop: You recently launched Five Rules of Engagement. Is this what makes RPM’s approach to ‘experiential marketing’ unique?

Hugh Robertson: Yes, as we’re a full-service experiential agency we can look after the whole gamut of services (strategy, creative, planning, execution etc), or tend to a specialist request such as strategy or production. Our planning is based on a really good insight around understanding the consumer and how we create a Big Idea, and goes as far and wide as our clients need it to go.

It is the thinking and communications around the event that make it more compelling. At RPM we think taking a more integrated approach rather than simply putting on an event or experience helps truly tackle the marketing issue of our client.

Popsop: You have been in this industry for over 19 years now. How has the role of ATL vs BTL marketing changed over the years?

Hugh Robertson: It has changed hugely. And I think there are a number of things that have happened. Traditional media is absolutely critical, but what has changed is the role it plays. As for experiential, our universe is fairly limited and we need media to talk about the event we create. On the other hand, digital and social media have an unlimited universe but they are content-hungry. What we do is produce great content to feed the proliferation of media channels. That’s why the biggest shifts in experiential have been the growth and the acceleration of digital and social media, because they make what we do much more compelling and engaging.

Regarding ATL vs BTL, there is still a land grab. In today’s marketing world all communications are becoming more human. That’s exactly what experiential is. It genuinely engages with you as an individual or collectively. It gives us an opportunity to prove the truth behind the brand message.

There is always going to be an argument between the ATL vs BTL.  However, over those 19 years I’ve been involved in the industry, the focus and recognition of what BTL can deliver has improved.


Popsop: How do you convince clients to buy your services and invest in events?

Hugh Robertson: It’s not always enough to be just a “good agency” to win the client. Agencies should always aim to manage things quickly, answer the brief and make sure that they’re giving a client the best possible solution. It’s more down to chemistry and trust. If you look at the new kind of ‘world order’ it is based on transparency, trust and authenticity.  As an agency, we must earn our client’s trust, ensure they get good quality work, and, as importantly, make sure you develop an enjoyable and productive working relationship.

The potency of a good agency/good client combination can be incredible. So, again, our approach to client relationships is not just to convince them that we have experience in some sectors, and we have portfolio with suitable case studies, but also to show them that we are a type of business that suits them and that we share the same culture and values. It’s down to finding the areas of common ground and beliefs. It’s about selling your passion to a client.

Popsop: In one of your latest interviews you say that the RPM business has grown significantly over the last few years. So, what’s the turnover now?

Hugh Robertson: I am proud to say that 19 years later RPM is still an independent agency and in the 11/12 financial year we have an audited turnover of £25.6m, significant growth from the previous year of £16m. I think in the current climate it is not simply about chasing turnover but instead make sure we are improving our financial stability and profitability. It is important to gain profit ethically in partnership with your client who understands how you make money and sees the transparency of your financial operations.

Popsop: I suppose that most of your clients are the long-standing ones?

Hugh Robertson: When we first started the agency, our clients’ needs were more tactical, so the briefs were much more project-based.  Now experiential is more integral to our clients’ businesses. Strongbow is our longest serving client, working together for over 14 years. We’ve seen three owners and countless brand managers who value our relationship because we understand the journey the brand has been on. I think that most of our clients see us as part of their core strategic agency team rather than just a tactical ‘turn-on’/ ‘turn-off’ solution. So, once we start working with clients, we rarely loose them due to our approach combined with flawless execution.

Popsop: Do you have a new business department? Does RPM have a dedicated advertising/marketing/PR budget?

Hugh Robertson: Yes, we do PR and marketing, in this crowded and competitive marketplace, it is important to maintain awareness, as I believe one of the most effective sources of new business is through our existing clients’ word-of-mouth and their referrals.

Popsop: Do you use social media to advertise your services?

Hugh Robertson: Yes, as an agency we use all the platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Flickr. As I said, we produce a significant amount of great content and have lots of great stories to share.  Social media is very important for us, both as practitioners of experiential, but also in terms of marketing and promoting ourselves. It also helps us distribute the content that people have an interest in, want to participate in, or wish to pass onto friends etc. what we do and in the process create has social currency.

Popsop: Do you do any personal PR?

Hugh Robertson: Frankly, personal PR doesn’t interest me.  What we have at RPM is not my personal achievement – it’s the work of a great team, and of the stakeholders who are connected with the business. My job is simple – to provide a stable and motivating environment and let people do their best and hopefully, enjoy being part of what RPM is all about.

Popsop: Who are your main competitors/ peers? Do you follow their activities, client relationships etc?

Hugh Robertson: Yes, as the old saying goes we try to ‘keep our friends close, but our enemies closer’ but generally we need to be aware of the wider industry and use that intelligence to make the right decisions. It’s important to keep looking forward, whilst maintaining a watchful eye on your competitors, but it is both dangerous to be consumed by looking over your shoulder at what your competitors are doing.


Popsop: You seem to be really engaged despite that you’ve been in this area over 19 years? Aren’t you bored?

Hugh Robertson: When we started, I could not have painted a picture of where we would get to in the last 19 years. We’ve achieved an enormous amount along the way, overcome some interesting challenges, but have always strived to stay true to our founding principles.

We are told companies should have a 3-5 year strategy, but whilst having a longer-term vision is important, you need to make adjustments to reflect the ever changing environment. I’m never bored because we are always looking to the future, improving or adjusting and seeking new opportunities for where we can take the business next. I take a huge amount of enjoyment having people around me who love what they do and as a result we continue to produce great work! I’m happy to wake up every morning with the thought that we are helping shape change and create great campaigns.

Popsop: What’s the wisest thing you’ve realised throughout your career?

Hugh Robertson: For me, it’s utterly being true to yourself and valuing the people you meet along the way. I think network implies something you actively engage in. These days LinkedIn and Twitter have made networks so much larger. But the real connections are the many great people I have worked with over the years. I really enjoy the people at RPM, seeing them grow, develop and in the process produce some of their best work.

Popsop: So, you are a happy man? What makes you happy besides your company?

Hugh Robertson: Yes I am, happy but still restless. What makes me happy? Well, aside from sunshine, chocolate, festivals and my veg patch, it would of course be the laughter with and support of my wife and 5-year-old son.