Visionary advertising executive known for his work with Irn-Bru

Born: June 11, 1954;

Died: October 1, 2018

CHARLIE Robertson, who has died after a heart attack aged 64, was a globally-known advertising executive perhaps best-known in Scotland for helping turn Irn-Bru into “our other national drink” and something of a cult beverage far beyond Scotland. Those of us of a certain age knew Irn-Bru when we were kids but Mr Robertson helped upgrade the drink’s image to a new level.

He was the epitome of the 20th century adman best-known to many of us through the US TV series Mad Men. Flamboyant, fond of champagne, a lover of bright shirts and scarves, an ideas man, one who won over some of the world’s biggest brands and made their products great or greater. In the ad business, he was known as a “strategic planner,” once described by the ad-trade magazine Campaign as “the world’s greatest ad planner.” He helped produce such famous ads as Audi’s Vorsprung durch Technik and the memorable Levi’s 501 stonewashed jeans ad in which a handsome young man (the model Nick Kamen) walks into a launderette, strips down to his boxers and socks and throws his jeans into a washing machine. Women swooned. Men bought not only Levi’s but white boxer shorts.

His straight-talking, with a smoothened Glasgow accent, won over clients from Glasgow and Edinburgh to New York and California. During his career, much of it based at his homes in Orleans Avenue, Jordanhill and ultimately Gardner Street, Partick, he helped produce ads for Unilever, Volkswagen, Diageo, LEGO, Volkswagen, RBS, Tennents lager and Heineken. He was also an accomplished drawer and artist, often using the shipyard cranes of his beloved Clydeside as his subjects.

After a successful career in London, he returned to Scotland to work with the Edinburgh-based Leith (advertising) Agency. It was there that he won the coveted Irn-Bru account. “I think it was 1991. We all walked into the Barrs office in Glasgow to make our pitch for the account,” according to the current chairman of the Leith Agency John Rowley. “Charlie pulls us aside and says ‘no-one’s allowed to use the word Scottish.’ We got the account.”

In 1994, Mr Robertson and his friend George Shepherd co-founded Red Spider, possibly the world’s first “virtual ad-planning agency.” They worked from home but built a global network of “spiders” to win contracts from some of the world’s most famous brands. Nowadays, many start-up ad agencies are “virtual.” No office rent bills.

Charles Iain Robertson was born on June 11, 1954 in Airdrie, living on Kippen Street and attending Rochsolloch primary school until his family moved to Govan, where his father Jack, a furniture maker, became a Clydeside ship’s carpenter, living first in Crossloan Road, Govan, and later a bit further south in Queensberry Avenue, Clarkston. His mother was Georgina (née Mudie), a bookkeeper.

Charlie had started off as a Heart of Midlothian fan but later had a lifelong passion for Glasgow Rangers FC. He first went to Greenfield primary school in Govan, and later Carolside primary and Eastwood High before graduating BSc, Hons in Civil Engineering from the University of Glasgow. In the Uni’s historically-rowdy Students’ Union, building, he became known as Pony Tail Charlie for his long, tied-up red hair. He met the love of his life, Teresa McNeill of Dumbarton – “a witty fellow Bohemian,” according to friends - while on holiday in Tarbert, Loch Fyne. They went on to have three children and were inseparable until her death in 2011.

They moved south in the 1970s where Mr Robertson opted against engineering and decided to have a go at advertising. He first worked for the Boase Massimi Pollitt (BMP) agency and later Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) in London’s vibrant Soho. Robertson and Soho were a marriage made in heaven. In its paparazzi-magnet hotspots, he was often mistaken for the Simply Red singer Mick Hucknall.

When he returned to Scotland in the early 1990s, he and one of his best friends Croy Thomson, an advertising copywriter and graduate of the Glasgow School of Art, created their own “square mile” for eating, drinking and socializing, centred around the Café Gandolfi, the “Partick Duck Club,” 16 Byres Road, local curry houses, Esca, the Tenement Bar, Oran Mor and his gym on Dumbarton Road. Donning lycra, he became a Bradley Wiggins lookalike doing his own “Tour de Glasgow” with regular stopover to “take on liquids.”

“Charlie liked good food and wine anywhere, from Glasgow to Greece or Japan,” his friend Croy Thomson told The Herald. “Although he was a Rangers fan, one of his best pals is a rampant Celtic supporter. Charlie gleefully bombarded him with endless gifts of anything green, such as crayons, pencil sharpeners, a spectacle case, papers clips and boiled sweets.

“Charlie and I travelled for a month on Inter-Rail tickets as students, to Greece and back, one summer in the 70s,” Mr Thomson recalled. “ We played backgammon constantly, every day, on trains, platforms, beaches, ferries, cafes, everywhere. Going into the last day, heading home on the West Coast Line, I was leading on points, far ahead and smugly destined for the precious bragging rights over such a fierce competitor. Then Charlie insisted, "One final game, double or quits," and of course, as we rattled over the River Clyde and into Glasgow Central Station, he won. He never, ever, gave in.

“He often used a quote from All's Well That Ends Well by Shakespeare (Teresa's favourite playwright) - "Love all, trust few, do harm to none." Charlie was a giver, a warm-hearted, caring, life-loving man. He set tremendous standards in his power of hard work, always seeking fresh ideas and solutions and of course in having fun. But his foremost love was his family, and he put an enormous effort into keeping in touch with them all. The next glass at Cafe Gandolfi will be raised to Charlie, and no doubt we'll raise a smile too. Slainte, Charlie.

Charlie Robertson is survived by his children Chloé, Croy (named after his friend) and Leo , his daughter Nancy and her children David and Iain.