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Member Spotlight: Robert Kay

One of our D&AD Membership perks is our Members’ Spotlight feature that takes a moment to celebrate the work of different industry professionals. Each interview gives creatives a virtual soapbox, asking what they’re currently working on, what are they most proud of, and if there were one piece of work they wish they’d been responsible for, what would it be?

Meet Robert Kay...

Introduce your agency.
Leo Burnett has been here in Kuala Lumpur for a few decades, and is probably still best known for the work of the late, great Yasmin Ahmad, especially her Petronas work. Simple human insights, beautiful stories, well crafted and cleverly told. She understood people and their behaviour. And that philosophy, HumanKind, to give it its proper Sunday name, continues to guide the work we do.

We’ve grown a lot over the past couple of years, and while there’s a renewed optimism in the country - as Malaysia joins its neighbours on the economic fast track – there’s still that laid back, always time for a chat vibe that permeates the city as well as the rural areas, and makes this country so different from many others. The real sense of extended family and the colloquial approach of calling every stranger you meet by a family name be it brother, uncle, or aunty, was highlighted during the recent Merdeka Day (independence) festivals. It’s part of the casual bond that unites all Malaysians and is rightly celebrated, especially as the nation collectively recovers from the devastating impact of the recent air tragedies.

It’s a pretty eclectic bunch of people at LBKL, as you’d expect a good blend of Malays, Chinese, Indian, and the odd ‘Mat Salleh’ (Caucasian, like myself, the Malay term likely derived from drunken sailor). The work hard, play hard attitude in the agency is frankly no different to that you’d find in any creative company, anywhere in the world. Only here eating trumps drinking every night of the week.

Leo Burnett / Members Spotlight Robert Kay

What are you currently working on?
Losing weight.

A pitch for a well-known German car brand.

A brand campaign for Taylors University. There’s something about promoting education, and working with great educators that really gets the heart pumping and the juices flowing. (And kudos to you guys at D&AD who’ve been doing just that for many years.)

And securing creative talent for our large telco client, Maxis.

Much like every other day in my career, today’s different to yesterday, and tomorrow will be different again. I’m happy so long as I’ve got a decent and worthwhile answer when I get home and my son asks ‘what did you do today dad’? That’s the real leveler, and as my old chum Rick Scott-Blackhall in Singapore used to say, make sure you try to do something significant. Try to avoid too much of the trivial. Life’s too short, so make a difference with the skills you were given.

Croc Poster / Castlemaine XXXX Lager / Saatchi / 1991 / Members Spotlight Robert Kay
Saatchi & Saatchi's poster for Castlemaine XXXX picked up two Nominations at the D&AD Awards in 1992.

What work are you most proud of?
I’ve been very lucky in my career. To have worked alongside, or for, some great talents, and frankly just to be in the room with people like Paul Arden, James Lowther, Pete Watkins, Sergio Zyman, Ian Batey, Andy Blood, Martin Lever - to name a handful - has been my absolute pleasure. But when it comes to work that I’m really proud of, the benchmark was set early on, in Charlotte Street, London quite a few years ago, with some inspiring clients and pretty smart creative talents that put together the XXXX croc posters and the Le Creuset film.

The XXXX croc poster was a selling challenge. Did it/didn’t it go beyond the acceptable norms of good taste (the taste bar wasn’t set particularly high in those standard lager days). The client, who was uncharacteristically cautious at the time, needed persuasion.  A bet was made, on top of the old Saatchi adage of ‘don’t come back til it’s sold’. We invested some of our own funds on researching the good people of Virginia Water, from memory it was the first and only time we resorted to pre-testing copy. The Surrey conservatives ultimately chuckled their approval and so out the posters went. I do recall the same, very gracious client, happy in defeat at our table at the Campaign Poster Awards that year with more silverware than one man should reasonably be expected to carry.

The Le Creuset film was an altogether different challenge. An idea to take an already award winning print campaign into the film medium, a maverick genius director in Tony Kaye, an enthusiastic agency crew of Adam Keane, Ant Easton & Arnold Pearce but one big drawback. No money.

Not little money, none.

The client, Stephen Marfleet, was hugely supportive but Le Creuset was still very small in those days, and all the production investment had gone into Sebastio Salgado’s wonderful print work. Mike Beaston, our media master planner, had re-crafted a cunning plan of cinema and tv in that hotbed of culinary delights, a small region known back then as TVS. All we needed to do was make a film, for free.

I do recall the smallest crew ever assembled (basically the agency team of four, the director and maybe two others) driving to the Le Creuset factory in Fresnoy-Le Grand, northern France. Before leaving London, we stopped in Soho to “borrow” some film stock and some equipment and stuffed it all into the back of our totally unsuitable agency cars. Off we set like the Secret Seven on an adventure to shoot a film, or more accurately mostly sit and watch Tony Kaye shoot a film. If we were unlucky we’d get to endlessly push the director & camera on a dolly up and down for hours on end in a steaming hot furnace of a factory. The main attraction was the food, we stayed at a villa on the factory’s grounds and the client had made sure our little army would march on a stomach full of delicious French fare by putting a great cook into residence while we were there.

Many months later the film was finally edited, on the back of other jobs no doubt, as was the custom of the time, but edited to 60 seconds it was. Off we went to the client’s home in Twickenham to present our ‘gift’. No darkened studio for us, rather our labour of love was presented on a small 14-inch tv in the client’s kitchen. Stephen loved it, the owner of Le Creuset, Paul Van Zuydam loved it and to this day I keep the hand written note of thanks sent to the agency for its contribution in building the Le Creuset brand.

In total I think we racked up about £8,000 in bills, French speeding fines and the odd lunch to keep everyone and the project on track. That amount, and a little interest for our effort, was of course re-paid by the client, but we did it for love. It was our quest to try something new. Something different. Not really sure if it’d work but willing to try to find a way to make it happen.

That was the spirit instilled in many of us at the time. Nothing was impossible.

Le Creuset 'Great Cooks'

'Great Cooks' earned Saatchi & Saatchi a Nomination for Film & Advertising Crafts at the 1991 D&AD Awards.

What work from our Archive makes you think ‘I wish I’d done that’ and why?
‘Perfect Day’ for BBC. Because it is what it says on the can. Perfect.

It made me gasp, and then think about a brand in a way I hadn’t thought of before. And viewed from afar, as I did, it made me proud to be British, which isn’t always easy to admit for a Scotsman.

The BBC's 'Perfect Day' picked up a Yellow Pencil & a Nomination at the 1998 D&AD Awards.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received during your career?
Probably the piece that stuck most was “you’re only as good as your last ad” which was instilled in me by Pete Watkins & Paul Hammersley. It stopped whippersnappers (like me) from getting complacent, kept us hungry and focused on what’s to come, not what’s been done. For me it also pointed to the inevitable incessant change in our industry. Keep ahead or at least keep up, or get out. Today’s ad is tomorrows fish n chip wrapping, as my old grandmother used to say looking up from her iPad.

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