Navy pilot, outdoorsman, creative director, ad agency founder, copywriter, mentor, friend, and one helluva character.
Walt Roberts, 1925-2015
His favorite color, orange. His favorite gym shorts, bright red. But you only had to meet Walt once to remember him. Not for his penchant for colorful clothes, but because of his engaging personality and robust approach to life. Few live their days packed with so much passion for life, critical thought, and a love for the business of marketing and advertising.
Born and raised in Lowell, Massachusetts, as a young man Walt flew for the Navy, got his journalism degree from the University of Missouri, and after a brief stint as a radio announcer got into the ad game (as it was called in those days) with Cleveland agency Fuller Smith Ross. But it was not a game for Walt. He pursued the business with the same creativity and competitive zest he brought to everything. Walt moved to Rochester, NY, to work on Kodak and ultimately broke out on his own, opening Roberts Communications in 1971 with five people and a simple philosophy: “Commercial communications should have but one goal: the deliberate production of change.” His first account was Tobin’s First Prize Meats soon followed by others like Ithaca Gun Company, State Bank of Albany, Central Trust Bank, Kodak’s Business Products, Winchester Arms, Champion, Ryobi, a 20-year relationship with Citibank and a longer one with Xerox Corporation across his tenure as CEO before retiring in 1996.
When not solving a client’s marketing problem, Walt was outside. An avid outdoorsman and fisherman, Walt skippered racing yachts on Lakes Ontario, was a member of the Rochester Yacht Club and ski patrol at Bristol Mountain, and loved to summer at his rustic camp on Big Gull Lake in Canada.
Many of Walt’s words of wisdom and advice still reverberate inside the agency today. When urging a discouraged copywriter to dig a little deeper to get to the truth of an ad message, Walt’s simple admonishment: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” When a budget-focused client asked how much time it took Walt to write a crucial direct mail letter, he told the account exec to tell the client, “25 years.”
He had a way with words, wit, laughter, and the charms of a bygone era. Walt might have invented the now trendy concept of a “teachable moment.” He rarely missed the opportunity to teach those around him a new skill or a lesson. He loved to ask newbie sailors to take the helm of his sailboat, the Como No, and navigate the tight turns of the RYC, out the Genesee River to Lake Ontario. How else would you learn?
If you knew Walt well or worked closely with him, you experienced his demanding ways firsthand. It was as though every conversation and interaction was his opportunity to challenge your thinking and ideas. Yes, he loved the battle and give-and-take like a chess master. But beyond being cantankerous and contrary, the sense was that he was doing it more to test your mettle—the soundness of your judgment, the clarity of your thought, the passion you held for your position.
Walt’s sometimes gruff, irascible exterior belied a deeply emotional, unexpected soft side. On special occasions—a birthday gift, receiving an industry award, a dinner party in his honor—Walt could go from a raucous belly laugh into a teary-eyed heartfelt sob in a matter of minutes. That he loved bright colors like orange and red now makes perfect sense.
Walt’s body succumbed to a cancer on March 23, 2015, but his spirit remains very much alive.
Farewell, Walt from all of us at Roberts Communications Inc.