The advertising power couple behind Quiet Storm, Trevor and Rania Robinson, explain why they have put values and purpose before growth
Trevor and Rania Robinson run Quiet Storm, the UK’s first combined advertising and production company, responsible for many iconic ad campaigns. Here they talk to Lysanne Currie about the creative power of authenticity, moving their business to employee ownership and managing SME stresses and successes as a couple
Trevor Robinson OBE tells a story from early in his career. “My creative partner Al Young and I had been on the dole for a long time, but we really wanted to make it in advertising,” he says. “We went to see this guy called Graham Fink. We walked into his massive, glorious, old-fashioned office. He was sitting there in this darkly lit room and a long coat. He looked at our portfolio and said, ‘This is really good but I can’t see any of you in your work.’ He told us to draw on our own experiences, our sense of humour, our own personas.” The young duo listened. “That intellectual diversity – a Scot from Edinburgh, me from Clapham – made us a potent team.”
It was a team that went on to make one of the most iconic adverts of all time – the 1992 Tango Orange Man, with its “you know when you’ve been Tango-ed” catchline. A Channel 4/Sunday Times poll in 2000 saw it named the third best advertisement ever, and in 2013 the Guardian referred to it as the “original gangster of viral marketing”.
The ad was a poke at advertising in general and a manifestation of Trevor’s sense that the sector needed a shake-up. This frustration led him to found Quiet Storm in 1995 – the UK’s first joint creative agency and production company. “I wanted to break the mould,” he says, citing a siloed culture in previous jobs, which could lead to low productivity. “The account guys didn’t like the planners, and the creatives just moaned and groaned about the clients not buying their work.” He knew anyone – clients included – could come up with a good idea, and he wanted to write and direct his own work, which, at that time, was out of the question: “You were either a creative or a director. I wanted to change all that.”
Work for good
Almost three decades on, Trevor is still disruptive, still creating work that reflects himself. He cites two projects as his proudest: Create Not Hate and the famous Haribo ads in which adults talk in children’s voices. Of the latter, he says: “It’s such an optimistic, long-running campaign and it puts a smile on so many faces. It’s transcended market culture. We localised by just going in there and getting local kids to sit around chatting about Haribo. It is unscripted so it’s not only funny but very colloquial, very real. and each country can recognise their own kids in themselves.”
Create Not Hate, on the other hand, is a passion project for both Trevor and his wife, Rania Robinson. Trevor set it up in 2007 to give under-represented young people the opportunity to experience the advertising industry and unlock their creative potential, while tackling social issues they live with every day, specifically gun and knife crime.
Rania, an active diversity champion and President of Women in Advertising and Communications Leadership, relaunched the initiative in 2020 (she had joined Quiet Storm in 2012), following the murder of George Floyd and resurgence of Black Lives Matter. “It reignited us and the Create Not Hate campaign with fresh purpose,” she says. The 2020 campaign was two-pronged – opening doors at creative companies (where people from ethnic minorities account for just 11% in the UK) and tackling systemic racism. Through workshops, they put the creative in the hands of young people to shine “fresh light on the issues”.
The results shock, surprise, inform and, of course, entertain. “The kids just jumped into the work,” says Trevor. “It’s interesting to take people from outside the industry who are obviously very creative and very intelligent – the results are very powerful. It reinforces the importance of a diverse workforce. If you’re going to do work or sell products and services that excite the outside world, you need to have people who reflect that outside world.”
“People hire people like themselves,” says Rania. “So businesses just end up perpetuating sameness. At Quiet Storm we talk more about values than people being ‘the right fit’. We have shared values – but we embrace our differences.”
As the recession bites, however, and businesses look to cut costs, diversity and inclusion (D&I) investment could be the first to go. “It’s not seen as business critical,” says Rania. “And that is so frustrating because you think we’ve made all this progress. But what are principles and values if they aren’t sustained during hard times? You can’t say you believe in the benefit of D&I, then pull the investment. It’s frustrating and says people still don’t really understand the business value if they can’t see some immediate return. But it’s like brand building – it takes time. We know diverse boards deliver better results. The data is there, even if it’s not immediately apparent. But people become short-sighted during hard times. They shouldn’t need the data anyway – you wouldn’t stop R&D or the innovation pipeline. Investing in D&I is investing in your business’s future.”
Bowing to a big agency’s number crunchers isn’t a problem the Robinsons have to face. Running an indie-turned-employee-owned firm comes with its own challenges, though, not least during the pandemic. “We were lucky,” says Trevor. “Getting through downturns can be about luck and what your position is at that time. We won a lot of business at the beginning of 2020, thanks to our talented people, and we had the right portfolio of clients [for a pandemic] – a disinfectant brand, a frozen food brand – and we do a lot of TV.”
While Trevor admits the market is tough now and the wider landscape rocky – “these political events can be paralysis for business; business doesn’t like uncertainty” – he remains optimistic about Quiet Storm’s prospects. “When you have a small business it always feels like something’s just around the corner. But we’re robust. When Rania joined us, we were going through a bad time. We’re a small agency, and never had aspirations to be big and lumbering. I enjoy the whole process. I love coming up with ideas and making companies famous. I’ve always shunned the old-fashioned idea of making a lot of money and buying an art gallery.”
Rania agrees there are advantages to being small – agility and independence for two. “We can be lean and we’ve got that production company mentality – we can develop quickly and scale down quickly. A lot of businesses have had to learn that in the last 10 years but it’s always come naturally to us. And when you’re small, you don’t need to win much for it to make a big difference.”
The big downside is cashflow: “We are more vulnerable. We don’t have a big parent company to bankroll us through difficult times.”
And these are undeniably difficult times – one in which four in five small business owners are struggling with mental health issues, according to a poll for Mental Health UK. How do they cope?
“It can be stressful,” admits Trevor, “but we’ve learned a lot through the years. There used to be a lot more arguments: before we worked together we both said we should never work together! But when you do go through hard times, you can share it – you can’t just hide away upstairs. Rania knows exactly what we’re going through. And on the flipside, it’s great to share our success: every time we win some work or awards, it feels even more powerful.”
“I’ve never had a year where I haven’t felt stressed,” adds Rania. “There is always anxiety around winning or retaining work. But we recently became an employee-owned trust and that has made a big difference. Before, we were so involved with the business – our personal finances were intertwined. That’s not the case now, but it doesn’t stop you stressing – we’re both massively emotionally invested in the business. Quiet Storm has always been a family and we feel a strong sense of responsibility.”
This is the first recession for those in Gen Z. “When you’re seasoned – we’ve done a few recessions – you come out of it,” says Rania. “It doesn’t make it any easier, but there’s a level of resilience there. But we’re seeing the effect on the younger generation – many of them have friends in other agencies who are losing their jobs. As an employee-owned company, there is a level of trust. We are completely transparent, so they see the numbers and know the business position far more than they would in a big firm.
“They’re entrepreneurial – they understand they’re invested. Obviously that level of responsibility is normally reserved for senior people, but they’re living it like business owners. It does give people a real sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ – and a bit of an ‘us against the world’ thing.”
“We’re a very tight-knit agency, we still socialise weekly,” says Trevor. “It’s important for the team to see we can have a laugh. Rania and I wear our hearts on our sleeves and if we’re running around like headless chickens, it’s not good for the team. But, when there’s a problem, if they can see we’re doing everything we can, and the only way is to remain positive and trust things will turn a corner, that’s a good lesson for everyone.”
As the curtain falls on a tumultuous year, what are they looking forward to in 2023, with its forecast of long recession and renewed austerity? “You have to be inventive in challenging times,” says Trevor. “A lot of good stuff came out of Covid, in terms of new ways of working, new ways of seeing things. There was a rebalancing of values. I think the same will come with 2023. I remember thinking in 2008, you need challenging times to appreciate the good times. So it will force us to work in a different way, which could ultimately be better. You’ve got to survive it – then you come out stronger.”
“It’s about identifying what is unique to you as a business and doubling down on that,” says Rania. “We have the luxury of doing that because we don’t have ambitions to be huge. We’re meaningful to the right people. And that’s fine.”
But being true to yourself, she says, is way more important: “It took me a long time to learn that as an individual, and that’s now translated to the agency.” She recalls an old review that reported the agency wasn’t growing as fast as it should: “I became fixated on growth. We’ve gone full circle now, and people are realising that purpose and substance and integrity are more important than growth at all costs. I now wish I’d not become hung up on how other people define success.”
“What is your benefit to society and the industry? That’s what all business leaders should be asking themselves,” adds Trevor.
“We now know who we are as an agency,” says Rania. “We want to be a profitable, sustainable business that does work we’re proud of and leaves the world better off for it. And we know we’re bloody good at doing just that.”
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