FEATURE INTERVIEW WITH:

Nigel Rowlson

Reading Time: 8 minutes
From a stall on Arnold Market to starting his own business and surviving the recession, all via the hedonistic world of 1980s London advertising, Nigel Rowlson, MD of The Dairy Creative Agency has seen a lot in his 38-year career. We sat down to talk about his story and his advice for new creatives entering the industry.
Full disclosure: Notts Made is run by team members of The Dairy Creative Agency
Words by Mitch Proctor

Hi Nigel, let’s start with your childhood. Where did you grow up, and where did you go from there?

I’m a Nottingham lad, born in Arnold and brought up in Woodthorpe, which is the smart end of Arnold, in the 70’s. I went to college in Nottingham, but I didn’t do uni as wasn’t bright enough, so I got a job at 18 in an ad agency in 1980 at a place called Tibbenham Advertising Midlands Limited which was great fun. It was in black and white it was so long ago!

What happened then?

Well, Tibbenham was a little offshoot of a Norwich based agency, steeped in tradition because it was one of the oldest ad agencies in England. I thought I was destined for a career in sales, as I’m good with people, but I saw an ad in The Nottingham Evening Post which simply said “Do you want to start a career in Advertising?” and I thought what a great idea. Yes I do. So I did.

I didn’t know much about it before I got the job. I started as a production lad and I enjoyed it from day one. I mean here we are 38 years later and I still enjoy every single day. It’s been great.

The journey then from all those years ago to now I suppose is a fairly classic one. I started as a production junior. I went on photoshoots, got involved, and ran around talking to printers and typesetters. Back then, before the digital revolution, I would have to drive up to Midland Typesetters in Basford to get hot metal plates for printing as well as actual type to be produced into artwork at Coopers, in the Lace Market, the typesetting house in Nottingham.

After being made redundant, I looked at other agencies but ended up at a huge security printer in Derby as a junior administrator. Even though it was good money I quickly realised that it just wasn’t for me. After six months I said I was going.

Once I left, I thought I got my dream job. GBA were the biggest agency in Nottingham with about £16 million turnover, which was huge for 1983. It was always my dream to work there and I got a job as the production group head, still getting to work on artwork and print. I had a great time for two or three years and that’s where I met all the people that have really been the founding fathers of our profession in this town.

After a couple of years I realised I was working all the hours and the account executives went out for lunch a lot and got to go home at 5:30. So I headed to London, saw an ad for an agency and became an account exec in Soho in early ‘85.

 

“I saw an ad in The Nottingham Evening Post  which simply said ‘Do you want to start a career in Advertising?’ and I thought what a great idea. Yes I do. So I did.”

 

That must have been wild.

More wild than you can imagine with a little bit more on top. I remember I was working on their Ford account on the launch of the new Transit van. The production bill for the tv commercial was over £300,000, and that was 30 years ago!

After 3 years I got offered a higher position back here with Sellers and Rogers who I had worked for previously. I went from account manager up to board director after a number of years in the late 80s, early 90’s, but I’d always wanted to have a go on my own. I looked at it when I was thirty and I thought I had everything in place. I’d done my marketing exams, I had a pal of mine with property who would let me have a little office for free for six months, I had put a business plan together, so everything was coming together. But at that point I was a director of Sellers and Rogers and with a good salary, a nice company car, so at the last minute I bottled it.

I was approached by a Leicester agency called HTA and took a job there on an even better package before going on to be made a director there too. I worked for some nice brands and did very well. There were some tough times there that made me think about being my own boss again, so I thought maybe my time is now. I’d done London and I’d been made directors of different companies so I thought — well, I hoped — I knew what I was doing. Even though it probably wasn’t the right time with a big house, a big mortgage, and two little girls who had just arrived, I finally had the courage to do it.

In 2002 The Dairy was born.

I’ve read that some of the most successful small businesses are started by people over 40 because they’ve already done it, they have the experience.

Definitely. I think if I started at 30, where would we be now? I didn’t know so much as I did when I was 40. Not only is it another 10 years experience, but more contacts and people. I mean some of the people we use now at The Dairy are contacts that go back years and years, and you know you can’t buy experience. It does count for a lot.

What would you say is the biggest risk you’ve taken so far in your career?

There is one risk that ended up paying off at the very start of The Dairy…

In 2002, the new marketing manager at Bravissimo had previously been the marketing manager of the Space Centre in Leicester where we, at HTA, had pitched for but didn’t get. We kept in contact and she me saying she had moved and needed an agency and would you come and pitch? I said yes, obviously, but I was about to set up on my own, so can I come and pitch as The Dairy? We thought there’s no way we are going to get this account, going up against London, Manchester and Newcastle agencies.

We had good marketing, good creative content and we were presenting it to the owner of the company and her team and she knows what she is doing. So I walked in and said “You need to pick us and I think I know more about bras than you do”. Which was a brave move and could have got us kicked out! But I then explained that my father was in business making underwear in the Lace Market so I grew up going to the factory and when I was in college I had a stall on the market selling them. I still say to this day that I learnt more about sales and marketing selling bras and knickers to Arnold housewives than anything ever since. That night I got a phone call and we got the business only 3 weeks into the company.

Do you think the way businesses market themselves has changed since you’ve started your career?

Yes, absolutely. In those good old days it was all about brand awareness, but there is more to it. With a lot of the brands I worked with, it was their biggest accomplishment when they had a full page ad in the Sunday Times or Cosmo. People were striving to get to that kind of thing. I suspect because it wasn’t very accountable. I think actually we were all a bit deluded back then.

I’ve loved recent years with all the accountability on the digital side of our work. I think it’s amazing. You can prove and show measurable success to clients with things like followers, clicks, shares and links. We were working in the dark for many years, we didn’t know it, but we were.

It’s changed hugely and the digital revolution is more of a level playing field for smaller brands. You don’t have to be Ford or Heinz to be heard or seen anymore. Small brands like a company around the corner in West Bridgford who make sportswear now have the ability to be exposed to different audiences.

 

Competition is fierce and you’ve got to stand so tall above everybody else to get a look in.”

 

Could you tell me about a particularly challenging brief and how you overcame it?

In my London days I was working on bringing out cable tv, digital and internet to as many homes as possible with a very demanding client who I had to work all hours for, but he wasn’t willing to give in, I didn’t get on with that client.

Another one in my Leicester days. I picked up the O’Neills Irish bars account and it was great. It was around the time Chris Evans was on Radio 1 and he loved O’Neills, the one near the BBC, and they would go after the show and drink Guinness. The client was an extremely demanding lady. When we asked “so what should we present?”, she replied, “you should know what I want or what I’m thinking”.

What advice would you give to somebody starting their career now?

Every young person has a degree these days, which wasn’t the case when I was starting out and doing all those extra-curricular activities. Competition is fierce and you’ve got to stand so tall above everybody else to get a look in.

When you get into the world of work I think working your knackers off for a good twenty years will set you up and the next twenty years gets a bit easier. In our general profession that is what you have to expect, if you want an easier calmer life then go and work for the County Council over there because you’ll go home at two o’clock on a Friday.

Finally, what kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

From a business perspective, I’d like to hope the Dairy would carry on long after I’m gone. I think we’re at the stage now where we are well known and well liked by the people that know us. I think if you work hard and tell the truth then you’ll be ok. Always open, always honest.

You can find out more about The Dairy Creative Agency here, call on 0115 977 0221 or visit the offices in West Bridgford.

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