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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Tragic loss leaves a very big hole at Hill & Knowlton

Of the many tributes that poured in after David Robinson's sudden death last week most mentioned his "larger than life" character.
Dave Robinson was a big man and a huge presence who built one of the Middle East's most successful PR operations. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Dave Robinson was a big man and a huge presence who built one of the Middle East's most successful PR operations. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

There were several Dave Robinsons. There was the eloquent public relations (PR) advocate and public speaker, equally assured at a media conference as at an important client pitch.

There was the lead guitarist of rock band Axes of Evil with a (sometimes) plausible homage to The Rolling Stones' Keith Richard.

There was the linguist and bon vivant who often surprised his dinner companions by breaking off to take a call in fluent Greek.

There was the petrol-head with his collection of motorcycles and dune buggies, ready at day-break to hit the sand on another dangerous trip to the Dubai deserts.

Fortunately, Dave was built big enough to accommodate those different personas. Of the many tributes that poured in after his sudden death last week, most mentioned his sheer physical size, or punned on his "larger than life" character.

He was indeed a big man. At about 6ft 4ins (1.92 metres) tall in his blue suede shoes, with a frame to match, the first impression was of a bear of a man, with a fierce handshake that would hold on just long enough to bring a twinge of pain.

The clients, who included some of the best-known names in the Middle East and beyond, apparently loved it. Here was a PR man whose physical presence would be a major advantage in pushing their cause.

But there was a sophisticated communications brain at work, too, smart enough to build the Middle East business of Hill & Knowlton (H&K) into one of the region's most successful PR operations and then to project further, from Australia to Turkey through to West Africa, all of which was Dave's fiefdom.

He would joke he needed two business cards to contain his full title: "president and chief executive of Hill & Knowlton Strategies in Australia, the Middle East, Africa, South and Central Asia (Ameasca)."

The big-name clients signed up to Dave's business style: Coca-Cola; Sabic; the Qatar Financial Centre; HSBC; Halliburton; government agencies in Dubai and Abu Dhabi; and members of the Royal Families of the UAE all wanted Dave's advice on communications, strategic positioning and message.

Even rivals in the notoriously snide world of PR concede H&K, under Dave, was the one they had to match. "It was probably the best firm in the region and its success was a credit to him," says one.

His background and education gave little hint of the high-flying career in the sometimes cut-throat world of PR that was to follow.

Born in genteel Kent, "the Garden of England", Dave went to Edinburgh University where he graduated with a Master of Arts degree in 1993, with honours in Italian.

The hub of the British PR business was and remains in London, where he got his first job with a firm called Holmes & Marchant Counsel, now swallowed up by the Huntsworth Group.

There was a stint with another firm, Ketchum, before he was asked to set up an office in Greece, then at the beginning of a decade of business expansion that was to eventually come crashing down into crisis.

Dave immediately fell in love with Greece and grew the Ketchum business there into a successful operation called Civitas. He learnt to speak Greek, well enough at first to woo Pandora, who became his wife, and then to do business in the often parochial commercial environment of boom-time Athens.

He also picked up the habit of using Greek komboloi, or worry beads. The clack, clack of the amber would later become his trademark in Dubai coffee shops.

He did well enough in Greece to come to the attention of top executives at Hill & Knowlton, part of one of the world's biggest advertising and marketing companies, WPP, then in the midst of a burst of global expansion. Dave was head-hunted to become the chief executive of the Middle East region and in 2005 he arrived in Dubai.

The UAE was in the middle of a six-year boom fuelled by a rising oil price, an explosion in property values and readily available financing. It was fertile ground for brand builders and image moulders and H&K was in the thick of it.

One of its early accounts was for Brand Dubai, a campaign that tried to crystallise what the glitzy, fast-growing emirate was all about; while another was the Federal National Council.

By all accounts, for such a big man Dave manoeuvred his way nimbly through the tricky terrain of UAE government relations and he was soon well-connected in the corridors of power in the capital and Dubai.

Other big name clients followed. Borse Dubai, Etisalat, Dewa, Twofour54, the UAE Executive Council among others, all wanted his advice.

In between serving these clients and running the Middle East office, he found time to chair the Middle East Public Relations Association, which aimed to raise standards in the profession, and to serve on the board of Injaz Al Arab, an organisation that promotes entrepreneurship and financial skills among local students.

Last year, he took up the Ameasca role, which involved a punishing schedule of visits to H&K offices around the world.

His Twitter tag @daverobDXB came to reflect the amount of time he spent at Dubai's international airport. It was a stressful routine that exacerbated an already high-pressure lifestyle but he appeared to thrive on it.

He lived his life and did his job the same way he rode his bikes and played his guitar: full-throttle and flat out. There were occasional spills and some temporary physical incapacitations but he always managed to share his surgical exploits with the detachment of a seasoned war correspondent.

His enthusiasm for life and especially food will live on in the blogs he wrote about dining, cooking and drinking, which are truly masterful, and capture his essence so well: intelligent; knowledgeable; challenging; caring and with a wicked sense of humour.

Friend and colleagues who saw him in recent weeks, after a regime ordered by his doctor and (mostly) adhered to, said he looked fitter and healthier than ever and the intellect and wit were in the usual top form.

So the sad early-morning events of last Monday, ahead of yet another gruelling round of travel and meetings, were truly shocking to all who knew him.

"Sometimes life just isn't very fair. This is one of those occasions," as one friend said.

fkane@thenational.ae

bflanagan@thenational.ae