Bring me the poisoned chalice

It seems that Robin Wight's agency WCRS is about to be awarded the Tories' advertising account. But, says John Crace, at such a low point in the party's fortunes he must be mad to want the job.
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In Margaret Thatcher's heyday the Conservative Party advertising account was the jewel in the Saatchi & Saatchi crown. Marketing Maggie brought prestige and opened countless doors for the brothers at some of the biggest blue chip companies in Britain and abroad. But these days the only doors you'd expect to find swinging open in adland are those of agency chairmen trying to run a mile from the Tories.

Political accounts are notoriously time- consuming and comparatively unprofitable. Toss in the fact that the Tories are still warring over Europe, and as unelectable now as they were back on 1 May, and you start to see why they are not the most sought-after clients in the land. In short, it looks like the account from hell. Or so you would think ...

But, with the business in limbo after a series of rows between M&C Saatchi and Tory Central Office over the failure of the "Demon Eyes" campaign during the last election, there is one ad agency that seems to be more than keen to fill the breach.

There is a simple reason for this: the guiding force behind WCRS is its chairman, Robin Wight.

Wight has been high Tory all his life - the style guru Peter York describes it as his only aberration - and even went so far as to contest the Bishop Auckland seat at the 1987 general election. He relinquished those aspirations when he realised that he was probably better placed to hob-nob with the great and the good in the Cabinet as an adman than as an MP. And now, what he sees as the greatest prize of all - the Conservatives' advertising account - is tantalisingly within reach.

Wight has already briefed William Hague and the Shadow Cabinet at two strategy sessions on lessons to be learnt from American political advertising, and he also attended last month's party conference in Blackpool.

Clearly, the Conservatives will not appoint anyone without inviting several agencies to pitch for the account, but, as one senior Tory said recently, "WCRS is now the clear frontrunner, and my money would be on it."

In many ways Wight would be a natural to head up the Tories' advertising - and not just because of his political leanings. He is ambitious, enjoys being associated with power and is a brilliant strategist. Dave Trott, creative director of Walsh Trott Chick Smith, describes him as "a master of propaganda, who would thrive in the political arena".

It might prove more difficult for him to get everyone at the agency on his side - especially as not everyone is so enamoured of Tory policies. But Wight is a man who is used to getting what he wants, and it is likely that sheer willpower would prevail, as much as any other knock-on benefit of winning the account.

So how badly does he want the business? The answer seems to be: very. He has already pitched for it once before, in 1991/2, and he is known always to have been greedy to get his hands on it. But he may now be regretting his greed.

Wight is not known for being slow in coming forward, but the current speculation about the Tories advertising account is potentially highly embarrassing. He cannot be seen to be positioning himself as Hague's favourite at a time when the Opposition is campaigning on the back of open government - which may explain why he is now keeping a low profile. Countless requests to his office for an interview go unreturned, until eventually his PA says rather sourly: "You'll just have to assume he isn't interested in talking to you."

What was that? Robin Wight is unavailable? Now, we're not talking Howard Hughes here. Wight is renowned throughout adland as a shameless self-publicist. Sure, he has a hectic working schedule, but it is unheard-of for him not to be able to squeeze in an interview, or even a telephone call, to help spread his gospel.

If Wight did not exist, then the industry would have to invent him. With his trademark bow tie and array of lurid suits, he is everyone's caricature of a typical adman. But though he may be a dead ringer for Russ Abbott, you write him off as a prat at your peril. In 1995 Wight became the highest earner in the business, with a salary of pounds 733,000 - a figure that would make most fat cats turn green; make no mistake, he is one of the shrewdest operators around.

However, even the shrewdest can miscalculate, and even if if WCRS does win the account, things may not turn out as Wight expects. His eagerness to court the Conservatives may have temporarily blinded him to the fact that many agencies look on the Tory account as something of a hospital pass at the moment. William Hague's position is looking increasingly tenuous, and it is by no means certain that he will remain leader of the party up to the next election. And anyone who owes their job to him will be vulnerable - not to say discredited. Perhaps, then, it might be better for Wight to remain an adviser, and to hold fire on pitching for the account until Hague's successor is in place.

Such long-term planning should not be beyond Wight. He has stalked the Rover account assiduously over the years, and was recently rewarded with the pounds 6.5m Land Rover business - albeit to murmurs of foul play from within the industry. In recognition of his contribution to BMW's advertising - WCRS have held the account since 1982 - Wight has a position on the car manufacturer's board as a marketing consultant. And when BMW took over Rover, he became their special adviser, too.

In that capacity he had access to all the strategic planning behind rival agencies' pitches for the business. To no one's great surprise, he was able to improve on their efforts and to get the account. Publicly, Bates Dorland, the agency that lost the Land Rover business, is only saying that there may have been a conflict of interest. In private, they are extremely pissed off.

"He's extremely calculating in all he does, and I'm fairly certain that he created his unusual dress code on the day he started his own agency in 1979," says Andrew Robertson, who was chief executive at WCRS for many years before taking up his current post as MD at Abbott, Mead Vickers. "He doesn't dress like that at home, so it's not a matter of vanity. It's all about making sure he gets noticed."

And that seems to be the way it is: you either love Wight for his energy and chutzpah, or you hate him for his single-mindedness and pretension. There are no half measures. But then Wight himself has a childlike, black- and-white view of the world. If he's interested in something - be it wines, horse-riding, or even which oats make the best porridge - then he immerses himself in the subject; and if he's not interested, then forget it.

Wight is much given to describing himself as a "brand archaeologist". Although this carries his usual hallmark of self-importance, there is also some substance to it, for it characterises his approach to advertising and explains his success. Wight is not a naturally creative person, in the traditional adland luvvie sense; Trott depicts him as a "a wholly left-brain man." But what he does do very well is to analyse products in depth to come up with their strengths, and it is this that has given some of his clients, such as BMW and Carling, a status they just do not enjoy anywhere else in the world. As Robertson says, "Only Robin would bother to find out that a Martini glass vibrated less on the engine block of a BMW than on a Mercedes. And once you've worked that out, the copy writing comes easily."

The up side of working with Wight is that when he's on your side he'll support you 100 per cent. Nigel Long, chief executive of partners BDDH, who was formerly client services director at WCRS, has never forgotten the way Wight steam-rollered through his team's suggestion that Microtel should change their name to Orange prior to their launch.

But the down side is that he can be fairly ruthless; he doesn't appear to mind whom he upsets, so long as he gets what he wants. One trade journalist remembers being astonished at the way Wight treated his managing director, Amanda Walsh, when she interviewed him a few years ago. "He acted as if she was his secretary. He sent her down to fetch me from reception and then either ignored or interrupted her while the three of us were talking. It was completely unnecessary, and she must have felt humiliated."

Given his obsessional nature, there is little chance of any wavering in Wight's desire for the Tory account. The real question is whether he wants it now, or at some time in the future. The only person who knows the answer for sure is Wight himself. And right now he's saying nothing.