"I nearly fell into the marina. It came completely out of the blue," recalls Kemp-Robertson, who adds wryly that he was probably asked because he has a few things in common with Gunn -- "we're both tall, British and mumble a lot."
He worried that he was too young to be a worldwide director of creative resources for an ad giant. Besides, as a writer and magazine editor, he'd never created an ad in his life. But he also told himself that the Burnett job consists of keeping creatives and planners informed of trends and innovations -- not so different from his work at Shots, the Soho-based tape-and-ad-magazine combination. And maybe his journalism background would help, not hurt. "I'm neutral. I don't bring any emotional baggage to the role," Kemp-Robertson says. "I know how to read an ad, but I try to react like a detached consumer."
Last year, he took the job, moved to Chicago, and lived to tell the tale. "Someone in London warned me that going to Burnett would be like joining the Mormons, but I love it here. There's a passion for the craft of advertising, and for the human insights and connections that make concepts come alive."
Still, he acknowledges that Burnett was in dire need of a creative make-over. By 1997, especially the agency's print work had lapsed into mediocrity; and its commercials, while often excelling in warmth and a sort of folksy humanity, were a few blade-widths removed from the cutting edge. "We were reeling" for a while, Kemp-Robertson admits, adding that the agency is now in much better shape, thanks very much. Of course, not everyone might agree with his classification of the new Burnett as "nimble and aggressive," but it's undeniable that the agency has churned out a lot more edgy, admirable work in 1998 than it did the year before. The Altoids print is as strong as ever; the Noxzema 'mirror' ads that appeared in women's bathrooms in New York had the guerrilla quality you would expect from a younger and hipper shop; and there's much to like about recent Burnett work for Nintendo and Dewars.
Being given stewardship of Burnett's famous Great Commercials Library (GCL) was a joyous occasion for Kemp-Robertson, a self-described "fully paid-up ad junkie." Started by Gunn in 1978, the GCL contains more than 6,000 award-winning spots from the '60s onwards. Each commercial has been coded and entered into a database to which Burnetters worldwide have access. Teams can build lists of commercials they'd like to check out before writing and shooting their own. "It's a truly unique resource," Kemp-Robertson gushes.
Another part of his job is to "be a creative spy, so I can watch TV, read magazines and surf the Net, all in the interest of research!" What's not to like? Only the things that other Europeans, too, find hard to stomach. "Political correctness [in the U.S.] is every bit as tiresome as I feared it would be," sighs Kemp-Robertson. "And it's easier to buy a gun than a six-pack of beer." His biggest pet peeve, though, is the pervasiveness of advertising. "It's like carpet bombing. Ads appear like angry wasps out of nowhere, with no respect for the audience. What makes it worse is that so many of them suck!"